Eric Akis: Tuna casserole goes gourmet

Eric Akis

Although hearty and comforting, tuna casserole is not exactly “gourmet.” But it can get there that if you dress it up, Italian-style.

I know, because that’s what I did when recently making a batch of it. And, not surprisingly, it did not contain the canned mushroom soup and egg noodles featured in many older recipes for tuna casserole.

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Instead, for the casserole’s sauce, you make provolone cheese sauce. Provolone is an appealing Italian cheese that comes in two forms. Provolone dolce, which is aged two to three months, has a sweet, mild, buttery flavour and is sometimes simply labelled provolone. The other type is provolone piccante, which is aged for more than four months, has a sharper, richer taste and is sometimes simply labelled aged provolone.

You can use either type in the casserole, but if you opt to use provolone piccante, don’t choose one aged so long it is too firm to evenly grate, what you’ll need to do with the cheese in the recipe.

With regard to the tuna, I used B.C. canned albacore tuna prepared at St. Jean’s Cannery (stjeans.com) in Nanaimo. It’s a premium, no-water-added product sold at some grocery stores and seafood stores under the St. Jean’s Cannery brand and other ones, such as Raincoast Trading. If you can’t find it, you could use another type of sustainably caught, canned tuna in the recipe. It just won’t be quite as good.

To assemble the casserole, I cooked some penne, a short, diagonally cut, tubular type of pasta. It was then drained and mixed into the provolone cheese sauce. Half the penne was then spooned into a casserole dish, and then topped with some of the tuna, quartered cherry tomatoes, sliced artichokes, blanched bits of broccoli and small spoons of pesto. The rest of penne was spooned into the dish, and then topped with more tuna, tomatoes, artichokes, broccoli and pesto. The last step was to top the casserole with some grated provolone and Parmesan cheeses.

The casserole was then baked until piping hot, bubbly, light golden on top and delicious, some might say “gourmet.”

Italian-style Tuna, Pasta and Vegetable Casserole

Here’s a colourful, rich, full-flavoured version of tuna casserole. For a quicker assembly of the casserole, have the tuna, artichokes, tomatoes, broccoli and cheeses, respectively, flaked, cut, blanched and grated before cooking the pasta and making the cheese sauce.

Preparation time: 45 minutes

Cooking time: about 40 minutes

Makes: six servings

3 cups penne

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

3 1/2 cups warm 2% or whole milk (divided; see Note)

175 grams provolone cheese, grated (divided)

• salt and ground white pepper, to taste

1 (150 gram) can B.C. albacore tuna, or 1 (170 gram) chunk tuna, drained well and coarsely flaked (divided)

1 (14 oz./398 mL) can artichoke hearts, drained well, each artichoke cut into 8 thin wedges

1 (about 150 gram) broccoli crown, cut into small thumbnail-sized florets and pieces, and blanched (divided; see Note 2)

16 grape or other small cherry tomatoes, each quartered (divided)

1/3 cup homemade or store-bought pesto (divided)

3 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over medium, medium-high heat. Add the penne and cook until just tender (check package for suggest cooking time).

While penne cooks, melt the 1/4 cup butter in a medium to large pot set over medium heat. Mix in the flour and cook and stir two minutes. Whisk in one cup of the milk. Cook until the mixture becomes quite thick, and then slowly whisk in remaining milk.

Bring sauce to a simmer, stirring frequently so it does not scorch on the bottom. Cook one minute to thicken, and then remove from the heat. Mix in half the grated provolone cheese, stirring until it’s melted. Season the sauce with salt and pepper.

When the penne is cooked, drain well, and then mix into the sauce.

Set out a 13- x 9-inch baking dish. Preheat oven to 375 F. Spoon half the penne and sauce into the dish. Top the penne with half the tuna, artichokes, broccoli and tomatoes, setting them at various points on it. Spoon half the pesto on the penne, setting 1/2 tsp amounts at various points on top it.

Spoon the remaining penne and sauce into the dish, ensuring it sits in an even layer. Top that penne with the remaining tuna, artichokes, broccoli, tomatoes and pesto, setting them on at various points on it. Now top the penne with the remaining grated provolone and the Parmesan cheese. Bake the casserole 25 minutes, or until light golden on top, bubbly and delicious.

Note 1: You can warm the milk to just below a simmer in the microwave.

Note 2: Broccoli crowns are the trimmed, top part of the broccoli plant sold that way at supermarkets. To blanch the broccoli, plunge into boiling water one to two minutes. Drain well, cool with ice-cold water, and then drain well again.

eakis@timescolonist.com

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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