A sales pitch seems superfluous when dinner has four cheeses involved. This casserole, a misnamed relic from my childhood, fulfills on that promise in spectacular measure.
In my house we call it beefaroni, though I've come to learn it may be the offspring of another confusingly christened dish, American Chop Suey. (The latter, originating in New England, is a stove-top amalgam of pasta and meat in tomato sauce.)
My childhood beefaroni was similar, keeping the oregano, green pepper and onion base in the tomato sauce, but my mother tempered it with cottage cheese. Hers was also baked, ending up as this gorgeously squelchy casserole. I loved it fiercely. Especially when anointed with chile sauce at the table.
I knew mum's beefaroni wasn't what was in the cans advertised during cartoons (even if I was denied said cans, much to my dismay). It was without analogue. My friends' parents didn't make it, and it wasn't on restaurant menus. It existed as this distinct thing, as something reliable and heartening to take to welcome someone to the neighbourhood, to a potluck, to new parents, to celebrations and to comfort.
My beefaroni is a riff on my mother's template. I up the ante yet keep with the spirit of the original by bolstering the cottage cheese with cream cheese and béchamel. The cottage cheese doesn't melt but rather stays distinct when baked, offering a contrasting sweet blandness against the tomato-bright red sauce, which I reinforce with eggplant, zucchini and mushrooms. The cream cheese offers body, the béchamel smooths it all out while holding everything together, and a layer of parmesan and mozzarella (the firm, stringy kind) forms a bronzed blanket atop.
It does take some time, and there are a few moving parts to sort out, plus a sink full of dishes. But the reward is dinner for the night, and tomorrow and the next. In honesty, the leftovers are better than straight out of the oven, as the flavours sink into the noodles and the sauces slump into a velvety emulsion.
A casserole like this is unabashedly kitsch, and utterly without pretense. It's classic, generous cooking that deserves to be championed.
Note: Many butchers will offer a ground beef, veal and pork blend labelled meatloaf or meatball mix, and it is my preference here.
When I have my wits about me, I make the red sauce one afternoon, and stash it in the fridge for a day or the freezer for longer. Roast the eggplant, zucchini, pepper and mushrooms for more flavour, then skip browning in the pan.
Servings: 8 to 10
For the red sauce:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 lb medium ground beef (see note)
Medium-grain kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, as needed
1 large onion, diced
1 eggplant, diced
2 zucchini, diced
1 red pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut in large dice
1 cup cremini mushrooms, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp dried chile flakes
1 (28-ounce) can whole, peeled tomatoes in juice
1 (14-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
A small bunch fresh basil, about 1/2 cup packed leaves, stemmed and chopped
For the white sauce:
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups milk, warmed small parmesan rind, optional
1/2 cup cream cheese, in chunks
2 cups cottage cheese
1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg, optional
10-ounce package frozen, chopped spinach, defrosted and drained well
Olive oil, for the dish
1 lb macaroni, cooked al dente and drained
1 cup grated mozzarella, about 4 ounces
1/2 cup grated parmesan, about 1 1/2 ounces
Minced parsley, optional
Start with the meat sauce. In a 5-quart Dutch oven or similar pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Tumble in the meat and season lightly with kosher salt and black pepper. Cook, breaking the meat into pieces with the side of a spoon and turning often, until well browned and sizzling, 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in the onion, eggplant, zucchini, pepper and mushrooms, and continue to cook, turning periodically, until the vegetables are soft and have taken on some colour, about 15 minutes more. If ever the pot seems overly dry, clamp on the lid to trap some steam, but still stir regularly. Uncover toward the end of the cooking time to let any (now unneeded) liquid evaporate and the vegetables brown.
Season again with salt and pepper. Stir in the garlic and cook for about a minute, then clear some space in the bottom of the pot. Spoon the tomato paste into the cleared spot and cook, smearing and scraping it against the hot surface, until the paste darkens and smells cooked, maybe 1 minute more. Stir the paste into the vegetables, then sprinkle in the chile flakes and the liquid from the whole tomatoes. Scrape up any browned bits at the bottom of the pan, then add the whole tomatoes, crushing each with the back of the spoon. Follow with the crushed tomatoes, dried oregano and basil. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook, partially covered and stirring now and again, until the sauce is thick and the vegetables meltingly tender, about 1 hour. Check seasoning and adjust as needed.
Preheat oven to 375F.
Melt the butter in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle in the flour. Cook, stirring with a whisk, for 1 minute. Add the hot milk in a slow, steady stream, whisking all the while. Tuck in the parmesan rind. Bring to a boil then lower the heat to maintain a simmer, whisking regularly, for 5 minutes. Stir in the cream cheese, a chunk at a time, allowing to melt before adding more, then add the cottage cheese. Fish out the parmesan rind and discard. Season sauce generously with salt and pepper, add the nutmeg, then stir in the spinach. Set aside.
Lightly grease a 9x13-inch or 3-quart oven-safe casserole dish. Fold half the red sauce into the pasta, then spoon half the pasta into the prepared dish. Top with more red sauce, then cover with half the white sauce. Layer with the rest of the pasta, followed by the remaining red sauce, then dollop with the last of the white sauce. Sprinkle with grated cheeses. Place the casserole on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips, then bake until the top is deeply browned and the sauces are bubbling at the edges, 25 to 30 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes, then sprinkle with minced parsley and serve.