For whatever reasons a person could have for such a thing, I yearn on a regular basis for the kind of cafeteria food I ate as a kid. Which is pretty odd, because I have no desire to revisit Coolie orange drink (remember that?) or people who end discussions by accusing me of having cooties (I had my cootie shot, thanks).
I think it’s mostly about the uncomplicated flavors and filling nature of most such dishes, because if I could go back to my old elementary school, I’m pretty sure everything would taste like starch, sodium, and preservatives. Kids love such foods because they have nothing to compare them to, but as you get older you try better versions of what you’ve had, along with entirely new things, and it’s hard to go back.
Still, an insidious desire to do just that rears its head up every so often, for good or ill. I want something with starch that isn’t gummy or soggy, something with meat that isn’t mealy, something with tomato that isn’t aggressively acidic, something that reminds me of the simple pleasures of cafeteria food.
That’s when I pull out one of my cookbooks.
“Cover & Bake,” a large hardback volume put out by Cook’s Illustrated magazine, has enough recipes in it to keep you in casseroles until doomsday. It retails at upwards of $30, but it’s worth it. I got a copy for Christmas one year and still consider it among the best gifts I’ve ever received.
My main go-to is the chili mac casserole, which hits the spot for foods that remind me of the school cafeteria (sans flying spitballs and peas that could double as buckshot). It has the virtues of keeping well in the fridge and making an excellent lunch to take to work. I confess I’ve never been able to stop eating it long enough to freeze any, so you’ll have to try it yourself and let me know how it goes.
Chili Mac Casserole
2 cups uncooked macaroni
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 ½ pounds 85 percent lean ground beef
2 medium onions, diced
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and diced
6 medium or 4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp chili powder
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, preferably low-sodium
1 28 ounce can tomato puree
1 Tbsp brown sugar
8 ounces shredded cheese, preferably Colby Jack or cheddar
Preheat your oven to 400F and set a rack to the middle position. Meanwhile, bring four quarts of water with about 1 tablespoon of salt in it to a boil in a Dutch oven or large saucepan. (I don’t have a Dutch oven, so the pasta happens in a pot and the rest of it happens in a large heavy skillet.) Boil until it’s al dente but not mushy; it’s going to cook more later on. Reserve ¾ cup of the pasta water; drain the pasta and set aside.
Add a tablespoon of the oil to the Dutch oven (or the heavy skillet) and turn heat up to medium high. Brown the ground beef in it, crumbling and cooking until no longer pink. Drain oil and fat off and set aside.
Add the last two tablespoons of oil to the Dutch oven/heavy skillet and return to medium-high heat. Add onions, garlic, red pepper, chili powder, and cumin. Sauté until vegetables are softened and starting to brown (around 7 minutes, but trust your eyes more than the clock). Add the diced tomatoes, pureed tomatoes, brown sugar, pasta water, and drained beef. Bring to a low simmer and stir occasionally until the flavors meld, about 20 minutes.
Stir in the macaroni and season with salt and pepper to taste (I’ve learned the hard way to go easy on the salt).
Spray a 9” x 13” dish with Pam and pour in the mixture. Spread evenly and top with cheese. Pop in the oven and bake for 15 minutes or until cheese is melted to your satisfaction. Allow to cool five or 10 minutes and then serve. Your kitchen will smell like your best memories of grade school.