A creamy sauce and macaroni will wrap you in a warm hug while crunchy cheese crackers deliver big smiles.
Casseroles get a bad wrap and I want to lead the charge to correct this. Let everybody else back a political candidate; I’m getting behind my favorite casserole, and I think this might be this one.
When you hear “casserole,” what comes to mind? Church potluck spreads with ingredients slathered in a variety of sauce. Vegetables swimming in cheese and cream, so much so that you can’t distinguish what vegetable you’re eating. (By the way, I think that may have been the point in the 1950s and ‘60s.)
But casseroles have been around for longer than you might think. Going to everybody’s favorite online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the word casserole is from the French diminutive casse that describes a large, deep pan used for oven cooking. Somewhere in the 1870s, the casserole as we know it came to be, and while you might turn your nose up at any American casserole dish, would you do the same for a French cassoulet or Greek moussaka? I thought not.
By the 1970s, casseroles seemed to have lived our their usefulness. If you want more history, check out this article.
Should you instead want a recipe that the whole family will like (what kid won’t eat macaroni for crying out loud?) while also stretching a modest amount of ground beef, as Reba McEntire once said, “have I got a deal for you.”
This casserole was a staple in my Mom’s dinner arsenal. We were a family of four and we always had leftovers from this; it tastes better the next day for lunch. It’s a bit like the Johnny Marzetti baked Italian pasta dish that’s said to have originated in Columbus, Ohio near the turn of the century, but it’s the crunch of the Cheese-It® snack crackers that make this dish pop.
And let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Canned cream soups. I looked up nutritional info on Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup (what Mom always used in this recipe).
In 1/2 cup, there are 100 calories, and each can is 2.5 servings.
The 98-percent fat-free choice of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup has 60 calories per serving and slightly lower in the sodium department, too. Should you want to make your own, that’s certainly an option, (check out this recipe) but know that it’s about the same calories as the fat-free canned soup. This casserole will not suffer if you choose to go the fat-free route on soup.
Another more healthy swap for this dish is whole wheat macaroni. For the topping, use reduced-fat cheese crackers or another option are cauliflower cheddar crackers
; these are quite tasty.
My point: Comforting casseroles are great ways to stretch meat in a dish, while vegetable casseroles make tasty choices for Meatless Monday. For a supper that’s quick, budget-friendly, and so very satisfying, bake up a casserole this week.
Ground Beef Casserole with Elbow Pasta
1½ pounds ground beef (85 percent lean)
½ cup diced celery
1 medium onion, diced
1 can (10.5-ounce) cream of mushroom soup
1 can (6 ounce) tomato paste
1 ½ cups dry elbow pasta
1 can water
1½ cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup (approximately) crushed Cheez-It® snack crackers or enough to cover top of casserole
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill a 6-quart pot about ¾ full with water. Salt well and bring to a boil. Cook pasta al dente (about 8 minutes).
2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, brown ground beef, celery and onion. In a separate medium-sized mixing bowl, add the cream of mushroom soup and tomato paste. Rinse out the soup can with water and add to bowl, stirring mixture well.
3. When beef is browned and vegetables are softened, add the mixture and stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to your taste. Drain the pasta and fold into beef mixture in skillet.
4. Transfer the beef mixture into an 8x10 baking pan (you can also use a round casserole dish). Bake for 30-35 minutes. Remove from oven and top with shredded cheese and crushed cheese crackers. Return to oven and bake another 15 minutes. You’re looking for bubbly sauce, melted cheese, and slightly golden topping.
Yield: 6 servings