Hot Dish, as Minnesotans call it, has never been a big part of my culinary repertoire. That’s not a snobbish choice; it’s because I don’t use many convenience foods (I’m still trying to puzzle out the alternative universe a former friend of mine lived in when she said she had to stop on the way home from work and “pick up a side dish,” as if there was an aisle in the grocery store labeled “Side Dishes” that I’ve missed all this time). Traditional Hot Dish, as developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, often has an excess of salt and fat, mainly from the inclusion of some sort of cream-of-you-don’t-want-to-know soup and other packaged products. Although I may fondly recall particular Hot Dishes from my growing up years, when I unearth the recipes now and read them I’m surprised at what we were eating. The sodium’s off the scale. Nevertheless, there are times when only comfort food — a certain type of old-school comfort food — will do. This was one of those weeks. Bring on the Hot Dish!
What better place to look for comfort food than in what I call a “church cookbook”? By that I mean any self-published cookbook composed of favorite recipes from many contributors, whether or not a church is involved. I positively adore church cookbooks, and pick them up whenever I find them. (I’m not alone. My friend Ann loves them, too. Check out her recipe from last week.)
The Jackson Cookbook, put together by the Symphony League of Jackson, Mississippi, is one of the prizes of my collection. Not simply for my fond memories of a trip to Jackson and my affection for that part of the country. Better. The foreward was written by one of our country’s best writers, Eudora Welty. Miss Welty, as she was always called, lived in Jackson until the day she died. She was dearly loved by the people there, and had a deep affection for food and hospitality. When I was in Jackson years ago, I was driven past her house. It was quiet and charming, and was thrilling for me to see — she was still alive back then, and probably right inside working on some brilliant story while I was riding past her house.
Now I suppose, having a book with such a pedigree in my hands, I should have selected a typically Southern recipe to try. Perhaps even Squash Eudora, a recipe devised as a tribute to Miss Welty. But it was not a week for something containing chicken livers; that just wasn’t my mood. Besides, I’m contrary.
In the chapter entitled, “Men,” which would lead one to think that men are being cooked, given that other chapters are entitled “Cakes,” “Meat,” “Vegetable,” and those things are being cooked, one Howard Althus offers a recipe for Johnny Marzetti. (I suppose this does fit with the “Men” theme, even though–well, never mind.) He claims that it’s the original, given to his father by a member of the Marzetti family, who owned a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. Not very Southern. But intriguing. I remember my mom making a version of Johnny Marzetti when I was a child. This one looked a bit different.
Wikipedia confirms that there indeed was a Marzetti Restaurant in Columbus which originated the recipe. It also notes that Johnny Marzetti became popular not only in the U.S., but in the Panama Canal Zone around the time of WWII. Who knew? The Panamanians added green olives and celery to the American standby of pasta, tomato sauce, ground beef and cheese.
I had to try it. I had to mess with it, too, as is my manner. So whether or not this qualifies as the original version anymore (if we can believe Mr. Althus that it ever was) is questionable. But it’s good.
Johnny Marzetti, adapted from The Jackson Cookbook (serves at least 4)
1 big onion, chopped
1 lb. ground beef
salt & pepper
1/2 pound pasta shells
2 Tbsp. butter
2 c. grated sharp cheddar cheese
8 oz. can tomato sauce
6 oz. mushrooms, sliced
red wine (Burgundy or Cabernet, whatever you’re drinking with dinner)
Brown ground beef, remove from skillet and drain on paper towels if necessary. In same skillet, saute onion in 1 Tbsp. butter and a bit of olive oil. Return beef to pan, add seasonings to taste, and cook until onion is beginning to brown. (You can go light on the salt–there’s plenty of cheese coming up.)
Cook pasta in boiling water. Drain and put in 2-quart casserole dish. Toss with 1 Tbsp. butter.
Add mushrooms to meat mixture, saute until softened but not fully cooked.
Add 2/3 of cheese to meat mixture, stir until melted. Add half of the tomato sauce. Pour meat mixture over pasta in casserole. Top with remaining tomato sauce and cheese.
Bake at 350 until cheese is melted and bubbly. To serve, splash a little red wine on each portion.
If you’re having one of those weeks, as we were, take a deep breath, give in to the siren song of the Hot Dish and curl up with one of Miss Welty’s short stories. You won’t regret it.
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