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Recipes and Stories

27 January 2020: A New Leaf

Ground Beef and Macaroni Casserole: Simple comfort food whose subtleties should no be taken for granted.

It's been a bit quiet on this page for a reason—one that doesn't say anything flattering about me.

 

The electric range in my apartment kitchen, which has given me fits ever since we moved in, decided to up its battle plan and try to put me over the edge: the burner whose switch and thermostat was going bad went all the way, and instead of randomly surging to high stayed there no matter what it was set on.

 

It left me to get through Thanksgiving and Christmas with two small heating elements, a large one that could only be used to bring water to a boil in a hurry, and an oven that runs hot and doesn't heat evenly. The only way to get a slow braise or stew was in that oven on a baking stone. And once that pot or kettle of water was boiling, it had to come off the element; the heat was too intense even for cooking pasta.

 

More than two months and three maintenance men later, the thing has finally been repaired and is operating on all four burners. Meanwhile, one of the things that whole experience made me do is examine the way I've been looking at things. Instead of focusing on what I could still do in the kitchen, I limped along complaining bitterly about what I couldn't do.

 

The situation, after all, wasn't nearly so bad as that of a colleague whose range completely died just before Thanksgiving, forcing her to get through the holidays with nothing but a toaster oven. Or someone who didn't even have a home, let alone a kitchen with or without a working cooktop.

 

You may have noticed that complaining bitterly about something one can't control or change is not terribly useful. All it does is channel one's attitude into a dark place that's hard to climb back out of again. Toward the end, I figured out how to make do with things as they were, and tried to use the time to reflect.

 

Now that the range is back up and running, there are no longer limits on what I can do in the kitchen. So, it's interesting  that the first thing I chose to exercise my newly restored culinary freedom was a beef and macaroni casserole—yes, the kind many of us were raised on in the sixties and seventies—simple, even ordinary, comfort food.

 

But one of the things that the challenges of the last couple of months reminded me is that even simple, ordinary things require subtleties that we all too often take for granted—and shouldn't.

 

Ground Beef and Macaroni Casserole

 

This weeknight staple from childhood was usually made with a can of cream-of-something soup, but it's really not any more trouble to make your own sauce than it is to open a can. Well, not much more.

 

The great thing about these kinds of casseroles is that they can be changed up by adding another vegetable such as diced celery and or green peas or by changing the meat and type of cheese.

Serves 4

 

1 tablespoon canola, olive, or vegetable oil

1 pound ground beef

1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced small

1 large carrot, peeled and diced small

1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and finely chopped

2 tablespoons all-purpose or instant-blending flour

1½ cups beef broth

½ cup whole milk

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

Worcestershire sauce

8 ounces (½ of a 1 pound box) elbow macaroni

1½ cups (about 5½ ounces) shredded extra-sharp cheddar

 

1. Put 3 quarts of water on to boil in a heavy-bottomed 4-5-quart pot over high heat. Position rack in center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. Meanwhile, warm the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Raise the heat to medium-high, crumble in the beef, and lightly brown it until it has lost its raw, red color but isn't cooked through, about 2-3 minutes. Do this in batches if necessary to keep from crowding the pan. Remove the beef with a slotted spoon.

 

2. If there's a lot of fat, spoon off all but 2 tablespoons and add the onion. Sauté until it's softened and beginning to color. Add the carrot and sauté 2 minutes longer. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, about 15-20 seconds.

 

3. Sprinkle in the flour, stirring constantly, until it's bubbly and smooth, then slowly stir in the broth and milk. Cook, still stirring, until the sauce is bubbly and thick. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and Worcestershire, adjust the heat to a slow simmer, and cook 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Return the beef to the pan, mix it into the sauce, and turn off the heat.

 

4. When the water is boiling, stir in a small handful of salt and the macaroni. Cook until softened but still not done (about half of cooking time recommended on box) . Meanwhile, butter a rectangular 2-quart casserole. Drain and add the macaroni to the prepared dish.

 

5. Add the beef and sauce mixture and 1 cup of the cheese. Gently toss to mix and level the top with a spatula. Sprinkle the remaining cheese evenly over the top and bake in the center of the oven until its bubbly at the center and the topping cheese is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Let it settle 10 minutes before serving.

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