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Feb 5, 2008
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Wine With Tuna Casserole

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas    


A quick Google search indicates that good old retro tuna casserole is one of the most popular American dishes, right up there with mac n' cheese in the pantheon of favorite comfort foods.  There is little variation in ingredients in the literally thousands of recipes for tuna casserole posted on the Web, most of them calling for pasta, canned tuna, canned soup (especially cream of mushroom or cream of celery), grated cheese, and a topping of cracker crumbs or potato chips.   We thought it might be fun to take this homey dish upscale, and while we were at it, make it more wine-friendly (the original recipe is ok with most light white wines-but hey, why not go for a real 1950s experience and have a Whiskey Sour with it). 


For our variation on the theme, we scouted out some good dry pasta made with farro, an ancient species of durum wheat that is becoming increasingly popular both for its assertive flavor and nutritious benefits (we found ours at a local Whole Foods market).  We eschewed canned soup, and for extra zing threw some sundried tomatoes into the mix.  The resulting dish was everything we'd hoped for, voluptuously textured and robust, with a web of complex flavors imparting a certain elegance to this otherwise rustic dish.  As for being adaptable to different styles of wine, we couldn't have asked for more, as our ultimate lineup of two whites, two reds and a rosé indicates.  We'd originally thought white wine would be the best match with the dish, but the success of a couple of reds we'd originally included in the tasting sent us back down to the cellar for another group of red wines.  As it turned out, the California Syrah in this second grouping was just too big for the casserole, but a reasonably fleshy Merlot almost made it into the final roundup (it was ultimately outpaced by the earthiness of a Rhône competitor).  As a general rule, the red wines that we felt paired best with our tuna casserole redux were light to medium bodied, with forthright but not overly concentrated fruit flavors, and they had a touch of oak and/or earthiness.  Barrel fermented full and rich whites showed better than lean wines (the light weight and overt grassiness of an otherwise delicious Sauvignon Blanc was a disastrous match with the dish).



Serves 4


8 ounces dried pasta (preferably farro or whole wheat) such as farfalle, fusilli, orecchiette, conchiglie (medium shells), rotini or pizzichi

I medium onion, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms (shitaki, cremini, or white button, or a combination)

4 or 5 sundried tomatoes, preferably oil cured (otherwise, cover with boiling water and let sit at least 5 minutes)

2 tablespoons olive oil plus one tablespoon

1 clove garlic, minced

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

½ cup heavy cream

1 6-ounce can albacore tune (preferably packed in oil)

½ cup panko or other bread crumbs

2 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley


Preheat oven to 350.  Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until tender.  Meanwhile, sauté the onion, celery and mushrooms in 2 tablespoon oil until they are soft.  Coarsely chop the tomatoes and stir them in along with the garlic.  Add the broth and cream, and cook over medium high heat for about 5 minutes, or until sauce has begun to thicken.  Add the tuna, breaking up the lumps with a spoon (if it is water-packed, drain off the liquid before adding it to the pan). 


Simmer the mixture for a minute or two while you use the remaining tablespoon of oil to coat the bottom and sides of an 8 x 8 (or similar configuration) baking dish. Pour in the tuna mixture and distribute the bread crumbs evenly over the top.  Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.  Bake, uncovered, about 30 minutes, or until mixture is hot and bubbly and the topping is crisp and lightly browned.  Sprinkle with parsley and serve at once.





Approx. Price



Evans & Tate, Margaret: River (Western Australia Chardonnay 'The Reserve' 2004

(Imported by Scott Street Portfolio)





This full-fleshed yet balanced and harmonious Chardonnay had sufficient heft to stand up to the casserole, and its seductive peach and other summer fruit flavors added a delectable touch of class.  It's a lush and luxurious wine.




Hagafen, Lodi (California) Roussanne 'Ripken Vineyard' 2006






The oak influence in this Rhône white varietal from northern California seemed a bit off-putting when we sipped it on its own, but the wood gives the wine depth and weight, both of which proved important when we tried it with this dish.  Moreover, all the different flavors in the casserole subdued the taste of wood, allowing the ripe pear fruit flavors to come to the fore. 




Domaine Saladin, Côtes du Rhône Villages (France) 2005

(Imported by USA Wine Imports)






The earthy, peppery notes in this medium-weight southern French red added intrigue and interest to the match when we tried this wine with the casserole.  It tasted much more interesting with the dish than on its own.




Villa Maria, Marlborough (New Zealand) Pinot Noir 'Private Bin' 2006

(Imported by Vintage Brands)






Making for a simply delicious match, this soft, supple Pinot Noir gave the casserole added depth, while the dish made the wine taste more complex and compelling than it did on its own.  It's a very good wine if judged by itself, but with this particular dish, it was a truly excellent partner.




Wattle Creek, Yorkville Highlands (California) Rosé 2006





The sweet red fruit flavors in this fresh rosé provided a delightful contrast to the savory flavors in the dish, while the wine's depth allowed it to flex its muscle and in no sense be overwhelmed.