Recipe: Chili Mac (a.k.a Macaroni-and-Beef Casserole)

recipeThey may be old-fashioned, but I really love making and eating casseroles, especially in the cooler weather. They’re filling comfort food that are often easy to make and reheat well for work lunches. Casseroles are also often relatively inexpensive, and portable for bringing to parties or potlucks.

A favorite casserole in our family is the Food & Wine Magazine Macaroni and Beef Casserole, which we affectionately call “chili mac” because that’s what it tastes like.  If you enjoy the flavors of chili, you will probably like this casserole.

Macaroni and Beef Casserole/Chili Mac

Ingredients glamour shot.
Ingredients glamour shot.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound elbow macaroni
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for tossing
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • One 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock or low-sodium broth
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 6 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (2 cups)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/3 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
  • 3 scallions, thinly sliced

Procedure

  1. Chop that onion.
    Chop that onion.

    Preheat the oven to 350°. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the macaroni until al dente. Drain well and transfer the macaroni to a bowl. Add a drizzle of olive oil and toss well.

  2. Meanwhile, in a large, deep skillet, heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion and bell pepper and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and cumin and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the meat is browned and any liquid has evaporated, about 8 minutes [Amy’s note: Yeah, right, more like 15 minutes]. Add the flour and cook until no floury taste remains. Stir in the tomatoes and stock and simmer until thickened, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, about 3 minutes.

    Sauteeing the beef and veggies.
    Sauteeing the beef and veggies.
  3. Remove from the heat and stir in the macaroni, cream, parsley and 1 cup of the cheddar cheese. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a large ceramic baking dish about 2 inches deep. Sprinkle the remaining 1 cup of cheese and panko on top. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the casserole is bubbling and the cheese is melted. Let stand for 5 minutes. Scatter the scallions on top and serve.
MAKE AHEAD The unbaked casserole can be refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before baking.

Amy’s Tips, Tricks, and Adjustments

  • Mix it up and put it in your casserole dish.
    Mix it up and put it in your casserole dish.

    The recipe says that you can refrigerate the finished casserole before baking. Strictly speaking, this is true, but I recommend against it. I’ve found the casserole either needs a really long time to come to room temperature before baking, or a really long time to bake to get hot if you put it in the oven directly from the fridge. The casserole also doesn’ reheat as evenly regardless of which method you use. It ends up not really saving time. Verdict on the make-ahead and bake-later: Don’t do it.

  • Two teaspoons cumin? What are we , afraid of flavor? I always use a lot more cumin than this. My chili mac has at least two tablespoons and often more if I’m feeling particularly spicy.

    Liberally top with panko bread crumbs.
    Liberally top with panko bread crumbs.
  • I’ve used beef broth instead of chicken. To be honest, mixing chicken and beef strikes me as a bit weird.
  • Often I will mix all of the cheese into the macaroni mixture and not reserve any for the topping. The topping is then all breadcrumbs. I like this because it means an overall creamier dish. If you prefer crunchy cheesy topping, make the recipe as written.
  • I mix everything in my biggest Dutch oven, which I also use to cook the meat. Even so, I find it takes a little back-and-forth with the casserole dish to get the ingredients thoroughly combined.
  • The finished product.
    The finished product.

    Take advantage of the resemblance to chili to experiment with flavors and ingredients:

    • Add hot peppers and make the casserole spicy
    • Add drained pinto beans before putting the mixture in the casserole dish
    • Try different chili powders to adjust the flavor. Smoky chipotle or ancho chili powder would be interesting.
    • I’m tempted to say serve with tortilla chips, but I rationally know this is not a good suggestion for a pasta-based casserole. I didn’t tell you to serve it with chips.

If you have a favorite casserole recipe, share it in the comments!