- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2005

The tuna noodle casserole is definitely one of those meals you either love or detest. Much has to do with memories, and much has to do with how well your mother, aunt or grandmother assembled this venerable, all-American casserole.

Many tuna noodle casseroles begin with a white sauce made with butter, flour and milk. But once moms such as mine got pressed for time, they found that canned cream-of-mushroom soup was a handy substitute.

When writing the “Dinner Doctor” cookbook, I revisited my mother’s recipe, lightening the mushroom soup with fresh lemon juice and crowning the casserole with just enough crushed potato chips to add salt and crunch without being overwhelming.

Even if your memories of tuna casserole are unpleasant, this dish will make you smile. Remember one thing: If you love peas, add more to the casserole or serve more to the side.

I prefer albacore tuna, but you may add the same size can of any kind of tuna, as long as you drain it well. Because of the potato chips and the salt in the tuna, there is no need to add salt to this casserole.

Five time-shaving ways to make an elegant meal from tuna and pasta: If you think the tuna noodle casserole is the only way tuna and pasta make a statement, think again:

• Drain any small cooked pasta, such as macaroni or tiny penne, and toss with olive oil. Serve warm in bowls with flaked canned tuna, halved green or Kalamata olives, black pepper, shredded good Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil on top. Place lemon wedges to the side for squeezing over the tuna.

• For a light spring supper, toss drained tuna with mango chunks, a squeeze of lime juice, shredded fresh mint and enough mayonnaise to bind it. Serve this atop drained, cooked, angel-hair pasta.

• Heat a good marinara sauce in a saucepan and stir in tuna, then spoon this warm over cooked penne in bowls. Serve shredded Parmesan and capers on top.

• For something light on the palate, toss tuna with fresh tarragon, diced hard-cooked egg, salt, pepper and enough olive oil to bind. Spoon this over warm linguine.

• For a fun variation of the nicoise salad, flake tuna and toss with olive oil and a little lemon juice. Serve it on top of salad greens with steamed green beans, cooked spiral-shaped (fusilli) pasta, hard-cooked egg slices, anchovies, and olive oil and balsamic vinegar for drizzling over everything.

So-easy tuna noodle casserole

The preparation time is 15 minutes, and the baking time is 20 to 25 minutes.

Salt for cooking the noodles, optional

1½ cups egg noodles, macaroni, fusilli or penne

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup chopped onion (from 1 small onion)

1 10.75-ounce can cream-of-mushroom soup

1 cup milk (whole, reduced-fat or skim)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Black pepper

1 cup frozen peas

1 6-ounce can water-packed albacore tuna, drained and flaked

1 cup potato chips, crushed

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add salt, if using, and stir in the noodles.

Reduce heat to medium-high and cook noodles, uncovered, until al dente, about 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until soft, 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in mushroom soup, milk and lemon juice. Season with pepper to taste.

Stir until sauce is smooth, thickened slightly and bubbling, 4 minutes. Remove pan from heat.

Drain noodles well in a colander, shaking it a few times to remove any water that might still cling to them. Fold noodles, frozen peas and tuna into mushroom sauce. Transfer tuna mixture to a 1½- or 2-quart casserole; smooth top with a rubber spatula. Scatter crushed potato chips evenly over the top. Bake casserole in preheated 425-degree oven until it bubbles throughout and potato chips turn golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

To share favorite cooking tips, ask questions and access Anne Byrn’s free online newsletter, visit www.dinnerdoc.com.

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