The first idea for a retro inspired dish were those casseroles I remember from childhood. I really liked most of the dishes, but I can’t really remember what they were exactly. I remember vegetables, rice, pasta, a lot of gooey, cheesy sauce, and bread crumbs on top. The whole shebang was baked in the oven until the bread crumbs were brown, and the sauce was bubbling up wherever it could. In discussing the attraction of the 1950s casserole, my mom explained that it was the convenience: Quick cooking pasta or rice, a canned soup for the sauce, some frozen veggies, cheese, and it all comes together quickly. A little bit of prep work, then you could do other things for an hour while it baked. You could prep it ahead of time, then bake it at meal time. It froze well. It made for great leftovers you could reheat in oven. The 50s saw a lot of convenience technology and habits develop during the post-war prosperity in order to maximize leisure time. The blending of convenience foods with a convenient cooking technique created the time saving casserole. I suppose after two decades of hardships during the Depression and World War II, it was only fair that people have the chance to enjoy a little of that war developed technology in a more peaceful, practical way to enjoy life.
So I chose the first 1950s era casserole that came to mind, Tuna Noodle Casserole. A quick google search shows that is a road well traveled by vegan cooks. This recipe is complicated by the previously mentioned fact that I am allergic to fish. I have not, to the best of my knowledge, ever eaten a real Tuna Noodle Casserole. I see this as an advantage; I can judge the dish based on its own merits since I’m not comparing it to anything. The real difficulties come not from veganizing the dish, because the interwebs revealed several examples, but in making it healthy. I see lots of vegan blogs that assume their cooking is healthy because it is vegan and has some vegetables. But then it’s drenched in oil, fake cheese, (read: more oil,) fake sour cream, and perhaps soy isolate meat analogs. No thanks. I follow the disease reversal protocols of Drs McDougall, Esselstyn, Barnard et al. While vegan sources for those traditional fats are easily available these days, they are NO HEALTHIER than the original ingredients, and should be strictly avoided for health reasons.
Is it possible?
Can a retro inspired casserole be made safe?
Could it even become (gasp!) HEALTHY?
I was a bit skeptical at first, but in the spirit of Vegan Mofo, I soldiered on, not sure what I would get. I won’t claim this one as “healthy” yet, but it is definitely safe. The only unhealthy mistake I made was overdoing the salt. And I used white pasta elbows left over from Monday’s Mac ’n’ Cheeze instead of whole wheat.
Retro Designed Safe Tuna Casserole:
In researching these casseroles, it seems they generally consist of a layer of pasta (or other starch), a layer of meat, some vegetable, then smothered in a cream-of-something soup. Or, it might include cheese, milk, cream, or sour cream in place of or in addition to the soup, and topped with bread crumbs. My version uses small pasta, chickpeas for the tuna, broccoli instead of peas, and a homemade cream soup. Not particularly nutrient dense, but nothing too dangerous either.
1 C pasta, small shape, cooked
1 can drained chickpeas, lightly mashed
1-2 C cooked broccoli, chopped small
cream of “something” soup (recipe follows)
1 C bread crumbs
salt, pepper, paprika to taste
Cook the pasta.
While pasta cooks, steam broccoli, chop, and add to a large mixing bowl.
Add mashed chickpeas.
When pasta is done, drain, rinse, and add to mixing bowl.
Make the soup/sauce:
2 C of plain, unsweetened soy milk
2 T cornstarch
2 t veggie bouillon powder
1/2 t sweetener
1 C finely chopped veggie of choice
Bring all ingredients to a slow boil and cook gently, stirring constantly to avoid scorching. When thickened enough for your taste, remove from heat and season with salt/pepper.
Assembly and Baking:
In a casserole dish, layer mixture and spread evenly. Pour the soup/sauce evenly over the top and allow to soak through. Season with paprika. Spread a layer of bread crumbs over the top and bake at 375 degrees until top browns and sauce is bubbly, about 20-30 minutes.
I made two batches to use up the ingredients on hand, one batch used “cream of celery” and the other “cream of mushroom.” Both worked well, but did taste different. The mushroom version was a little richer due to the earthy mushroom taste, while the celery version was a little brighter.
I used soy milk because of preference, but other neutral tasting non-dairy milks would work.
You could split the milk with broth or stock.
Peas would be more traditional for this dish, but broccoli was all I had.
Wide noodles are more traditional, but a small shape is easier to manage.
It worked! I was absolutely stunned at how good it tasted. It was a lot like the casseroles I remember growing up. But I liked it even better because I knew it was on plan for health. It would be a great dish for family gatherings, retro enthusiasts, and potlucks. Omnivores would like it because it is familiar, and you wouldn’t have to explain what it is and is not, unless you wanted to. The only drag was making the soup/sauce as a separate step. It runs counter to the convenience theme, but for health reasons I had to. But fortunately, the soup step was much easier and faster that I feared.