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Tuna Noodle Casserole

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Until this week I had never had tuna noodle casserole. Much to my chagrin at the time, I did not grow up eating that kind of food. I begged my mom for Hamburger Helper and SpaghettiO's, but she was more into grilled chicken and steamed vegetables. (Turns out that was not such a bad thing.) When put to the task this week of creating a tuna noodle casserole recipe to put on our website, I had to do a little research. The common factors among all the recipes I saw were canned tuna, egg noodles and canned condensed soup. Canned condensed soup was out!

I wanted to make a thick, creamy sauce as my casserole base, but didn't want to make a béchamel sauce, which would require a few more steps. Instead of a béchamel or a can of cream of mushroom, I settled on a cream-cheese-based sauce. By melting cream cheese into warm milk, you end up with a thick, creamy sauce just perfect for the job of binding the noodles with the tuna and vegetables (in my case, mushrooms and peas). Still very much in the style of tuna noodle casserole, but elevated a step above the can.

Tuna Noodle Casserole with Cheddar-Panko Crumbs
6-8 servings

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 celery stalk, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 pound white button mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon coarsely chopped thyme
1 3/4 cups whole milk
1/2 pound cream cheese, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Two 7.5 ounce cans tuna packed in olive oil, drained
1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 pound wide egg noodles
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (1 3/4 cups)
3/4 cup panko

1.    Preheat the oven to 375. In a large deep skillet, melt the butter in 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the onion and celery and cook over moderate heat until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the thyme and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the milk and cream cheese and cook over moderate heat until the cream cheese melts, creating a thick sauce, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the Worcestershire sauce and season with salt and pepper. Fold in the tuna and the peas.
2.    Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water cook the egg noodles until al dente. Drain and rinse under cool water. Add the noodles and 1 cup of the cheddar cheese to the sauce and gently toss until the noodles are well coated. Scrape into a 2 1/2 quart baking dish.
3.    In a small bowl, toss the panko with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add the remaining 3/4 cup  of cheddar cheese and toss to combine. Sprinkle the panko topping over the casserole and bake for about 45 minutes, until the casserole is hot and the topping is golden. Serve.

Make ahead The unbaked assembled casserole can be refrigerated for up to 1 day. Bring to room temperature before baking.

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Congratulations to Nicholas Elmi, winner of Top Chef: New Orleans, the 11th season of Bravo's Emmy-Award winning, hit reality series.

Run with chefs and wine experts in the Celebrity Chef 5K and dance all night at Gail Simmons’ Last Bite Dessert Party during the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen, June 20-22.