Woof! I’ve got to say, I’m pretty much crawling out of last week. The whole week felt like Winter: The Sequel. Massive ice storm? Check. Horrible flu? Check. Feelings of complete and utter despair? Quadruple check. Its been one shitty week and that’s all there is to it, but there is an upside. I learned that when you’re confronted with Winter: The Never Ending Story the only way to cope is with a casserole. And I coped hard with these Tuna Casserole Stuffed Shells. They might not be much to look at but they are the epitome of comfort food.
Tuna Casserole gets such a bad rap and yet, I don’t know a single person that straight up hates it…well, except for those poor souls that hate tuna. It’s very strange. I’m not sure where this tuna casserole animosity comes from. Why do we, tuna casserole lovers, have to declare our feelings for the dish like this: “You know what? I actually like tuna casserole.” Why is the “actually” necessary? Why can’t we just like it? What is this unseen force that hates tuna casserole and how does it so successfully convince us that its sentiments are popular opinion? Well, I think that force is 90s sitcoms.
Think back to your childhood or teenagehood or earlier adulthood and remember the 90s. It was a time of shirt dresses and stirrup leggings, skip-its, and well-meaning, ham-fisted afterschool specials. Or at least this was my experience of the early 90s. It’s pretty narrow because I spent most of my time obsessing over scented markers and Fruit by the Foot. But even in my very limited view of the decade, I remember television’s heavy-hitters like Full House, Saved By the Bell and The Nanny. And in every single one of these shows, there was some punchline about tuna casserole a.k.a. tuna surprise. It was always negative and usually, the dish was made by a hapless, cooking-inept father or it was disgusting cafeteria fare. And this is where I believe the tuna casserole hate stems from.
Well, I’m here to help right that wrong because I’ve never met a tuna casserole I didn’t like. I even have a soft spot for the versions that use goopy condensed soup as the base. Don’t worry, these Tuna Casserole Stuffed Shells don’t have a goopy condensed soup base. Ever since I learned I how ridiculously easy it is to make a simple cream sauce, I haven’t put a can of soup in anything. I feel the same way about pudding; once you make it from scratch you’ll never buy the powder again. It’s just so simple.
While I’m a huge fan of the original tuna casserole in all its unrefined glory, I did class up these Tuna Casserole Stuffed Shells a bit. I added Greek yogurt for a more figure-friendly, tangy sauce, some fresh tarragon for a little complexity, and I threw in a few luxurious items like marinated artichoke hearts and Italian tuna packed in olive oil. But don’t worry, I didn’t forget the frozen peas. How can you have tuna casserole without frozen peas?
Besides the frozen peas, I did add one more nostalgic item to my Tuna Casserole Stuffed Shells: crushed saltines. Yes, the crackers you dunk in tomato soup and eat when your stomach’s on the fritz. The cheapest, most soul-satisfying crackers on the market. Why did I add these crisp icons? Because there is nothing better than a creamy pasta bake with a saltine crust. Panko crumbs be damned! No, I didn’t mean that. I love panko crumbs but I’m sorry, they have no place here.
So, that about does it for these Tuna Casserole Stuffed Shells. Again, this may not be the prettiest dish but it’s exactly what you need as you navigate this deeply disappointing, aggravating, soul-crushing early spring. Honestly, carbs and cheese are the only way we’re going to get through this, so grab a fork.
Tuna Casserole Stuffed Shells
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 sweet onion diced
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 227 g 8oz cremini mushrooms, sliced
- 170 ml 6 fl oz jar marinaded artichokes, diced
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 200 g 7oz dried jumbo shells
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/3 cup pecorino shredded
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 cup Greek yogurt
- 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon coarsely chopped
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tin tuna packed in olive oil drained
- 1 1/2 cups fresh spinach chiffonade
- 3/4 cup mozzarella shredded
- 12-13 saltines crushed
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and sauté with a healthy pinch of salt until just translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Add the mushrooms and a little more salt and sauté until the mushrooms are tender, about 5-6 minutes. Toss in the artichoke hearts and frozen peas and sauté until the peas are thawed and warmed through, about 3 minutes. Take the vegetables off the heat and set aside.
- While you're sautéing the vegetables bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the water and cook the pasta shells until just al dente, about 2-3 minutes shy of the advised cook time on the package. Drain the shells and rinse them under cold water. Separate the shells and set aside.
- Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat until frothy. Whisk in the flour to form a roux. While whisking constantly, pour in the wine and the milk in roughly 1/4 cup increments. Wait until each addition is fully integrated before adding more liquid. Wait for bubbles to break the surface, then stir in the cheese and Dijon mustard. Stir until the cheese is completely melted. Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the yogurt, fresh tarragon and lemon juice. Taste and season with salt accordingly.
- Pour half of the sauce in a large mixing bowl. Stir the sautéed veggies, the tuna and the spinach into the sauce and set aside. Take the other half of the sauce and spoon a little into the bottom of a greased 9x7 inch casserole dish. Using the back of the spoon, smooth the sauce to form a thin even layer along the base of the dish. Take a cooked pasta shell and spoon some of the tuna mixture into the shell until it's filled to the top. Place the stuffed shell on top of the layer of sauce in the casserole dish. Repeat until all the shells are filled.
- Pour the remaining plain sauce over top of the shells and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese and crushed saltines. Cover the shells with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and turn the oven to broil. Broil the shells for 5 minutes or until the cheese is browned and bubbling. Remove the casserole from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes before serving.