Bissli-topped tuna casserole

By | June 12, 2012

This recipe (and the story that goes along with it) first appeared in the June 4, 2012 edition of “From Tali’s Kitchen,” my biweekly cooking column in Binah magazine.

There’s something funny about living in a country other than the one in which you were raised.

When I’m home in Israel, I’m one of “the Americans.” But when I visit the States, I’m “the one who moved to Israel,” the one who forgets that, in the U.S., you get charged for both incoming and outgoing cell phone calls, the one who forgets that Sunday isn’t the same as Monday or Tuesday.

Although I’m fiercely proud to live in Israel, I can’t deny my American upbringing. There wouldn’t even be a point — some things are just ingrained in me.

I still carry a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer (with moisture beads!) in my bag. I still can’t haggle over prices in the shuk. And I still eat my main meal of the day in the evening.

In Israel, it’s considered completely normal to serve the main meal for lunch. Think of the foods you’d eat for dinner: Roasted chicken and potatoes, creamy pasta and salad, grilled fish with vegetables and rice. Well, Israelis eat that stuff at noon instead of 6:30.

I was first initiated to the Israeli meal schedule when I arrived in Yerushalayim for a year of seminary.

Lunch, which was naturally the main meal of the day, was included in tuition. Dinner, which seemed to be almost an afterthought, was available for a bit extra. At age 18, the thought of grocery shopping, meal planning, and cooking was overwhelming, and I happily signed up for dinner plan. The school hired a local older woman as the cook, and we good-naturedly nicknamed her “Bubbe.”

The humble beginnings of a bechamel sauce…

Bubbe Dinner Plan was a sweet lady who tried earnestly to make foods that we’d like. How could she have guessed that egg noodles in a creamy chocolate sauce would seem bizarre to us? Another night, she meticulously held up to the light dozens upon dozens of raisins, checking each one for bugs. (Unfortunately, no one really liked the sweet casserole that had called for all those raisins. We felt terrible about it.)

One afternoon, I left an anonymous note in the kitchen, telling her that we enjoyed her cooking but wondered whether she could try making lasagna for us. She did, several times — and I have to say, it was pretty good.

The thickened sauce, ready to go. See how it coats the spoon?

Shabbos might have been the one day of the week that Israelis and Americans had the same meal style. There’s no denying that the daytime seuda is the main meal on Shabbos day, and that we all serve it for lunch. But it turns out that Israelis and Americans have a very different idea of what qualifies as Shabbos lunchtime.

In the States, my family usually got home from shul at noon and sat down to eat by 12:30 or 1:00. Pretty standard.

Here in Israel, though, everything is earlier. Davening starts earlier, it ends earlier, and lunch is served earlier. Eleven in the morning is an absolutely normal time to whip out the cholent and roasted potatoes. Quarter to eleven, even.

But to me, this is crazy. And that’s why my cooperative husband and I start Shabbos lunch no earlier than noon — when it’s just the two of us. If we’re having guests, I compromise with the cultural norms and push it up to 11:30. One of these days, I’m going to serve pancakes instead of kugel.

It’s with things like these that I feel as American as apple pie. Or…tuna casserole.

Tuna noodle casserole is an American classic that home cooks all over the country have been making for years, but I sometimes feel like it only belongs in my grandpa’s kitchen. It’s one of the dishes he’s known for in the family, along with his famous lasagna and homemade pickles.

Grandpa first learned to make tuna casserole in 1951, when he was a third-year law student at Harvard. He was renting an apartment in Cambridge and picked up the recipe from a subtenant, a guy from California pursuing his Ph.D. The casserole became part of Grandpa’s meal rotation — usually with a lettuce and tomato salad on the side.

When Grandpa married Grandma, he taught her how to make tuna casserole, too, and the two of them often had it for dinner. That must have lasted for years, because my mother and her siblings all remember having it on Thursday nights. Yep, Grandma menu-planned!

Grandpa’s casserole uses canned cream of mushroom soup, but without that available in Israel for even a test run, I opted to dress the dish up with a rich béchamel sauce and fresh sautéed mushrooms. I also replace the traditional toppings of crushed potato chips or buttery breadcrumbs with lightly crushed Bissli.

Which is to say that this dish kinda represents my cooking style: Lots of American influences with a bit of an Israeli twist.


6 Comments

Melinda Strauss on June 12, 2012 at 10:11 pm.

I LOVE the addition of the Bissli. My kids are gonna go nuts for this!!!

Reply

Faigie on December 23, 2013 at 3:55 pm.

Do you think I can skip the mushrooms?

Reply

Tali Simon on December 23, 2013 at 5:11 pm.

Sure.

Reply

Faigie on December 23, 2013 at 7:59 pm.

thanks! i dont think my kids will eat it with mushrooms, but pasta, cheese and tuna, what could be better ;)??

Reply

Dena on December 23, 2013 at 8:03 pm.

Hi. You can get canned cream of mushroom soup in J-lm Efrat BS. BTW I live up north and stock up on it when I get to the big city. My mother in law use to put crushed potato chips on her tuna noodle casserole.

Reply

Tali Simon on December 24, 2013 at 7:16 pm.

Do you know which stores specifically?

Reply

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