I needed a dinner that was easy and delicious, would please everyone, one that also reheated well in case my daughter’s track meet ran late, and I had to be able to make it long before serving so it would be just a matter of reheating come dinnertime. There are of course a thousand options that fit these criteria, but last week, I was in a nostalgic mood and thought back to school lunches, one of my favorites, macaroni and beef. We were always famished by lunchtime and this dish was dependable and impossible to screw up by a 1970’s school kitchen. For a midweek meal I went as simple as could be. The only way I’d change it, I decided would be to pile a monstrous amount of cheddar and mozzarella on top at the end and flash it beneath the broiler.
I know why we call dishes comfort food, because that’s their undeniable effect—this one was sooo good—but what is it about them that causes the comfort? Pasta and cheese, chief among comfort foods.
Simple Macaroni and Beef with Cheese
1 large onion, diced
1 tablespoon canola oil
salt to taste
optional seasonings: black pepper, oregano, cumin, coriander, chopped garlic, hot smoked paprika, chilli powder—whatever you’re in the mood for (I just used black pepper, garlic and a tablespoon of fish sauce, which gives it depth)
one 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, pureed in the can with a hand blender or in a blender blender
2 pounds lean ground beef
1 box macaroni
1 cup each grated cheddar and mozzarella cheeses
Sweat the onions in the oil with a three-fingered pinch of salt. Add the beef and cook it, breaking it up as you do. (Because my beef was very fatty, I cooked it separately and added it to the pot along with the tomatoes. Also an option, but uses an extra pan.) Add another three-fingered pinch of salt or two, along with any dry seasonings you want. Add the tomatoes and any fresh seasonings you may be using, bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and cook for an hour.
Cook the macaroni in boiling water till it’s half done. Drain it and add it to the tomatoes. (I wanted this to stretch into two meals, so I used the whole box, but if you want your dish to be very tomatoey and beefy, you might want to add only half the macaroni). Stir it into the sauce. Taste it. Add more salt and other seasonings as needed, and cover. When it’s cooled and the pasta has absorbed the tomato juices, transfer it to a large baking dish and cover it with foil. It can sit out for several hours like this, be refrigerated for up to two days, or frozen a few weeks.
Bake it in a 400 degree oven till it’s piping hot (about 45 minutes if it’s cold to room temperature). Just before you’re ready to eat, remove the foil, cover macaroni with the cheese and broil till it looks beautiful.
Having used all the pasta, I put the second batch into the cleaned baking dish and covered it with foil, wrote “Mac and Beef, bake, cover with cheese and broil” on the foil with a sharpie—so that next time I’m gone, Donna has a mid-week meal ready to go.
Now that we have this frozen version, it begs the question, “What is the difference between pulling this homemade version and baking it, and cooking the ubiquitous store-bought kind?” Besides the fact that it’s more satisfying to serve from glass than from foil or plastic? Besides the good ingredients and lack of bad ones? Besides all that extra, gooey, delicious melted cheese? Besides that it was fun to make? Besides that it tastes better?
Love. It makes a difference.