A simple ground beef and macaroni casserole infused with the flavors of the Sonoran Desert, topped with melty cheese and the crunch of breadcrumbs.
This recipe was originally created for our Series of Unfortunate Recipes, based on the book and Netflix series by Lemony Snicket.
2 Tablespoons flavorless oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced medium (about 1 cup diced)
2 pounds ground beef
3 teaspoons ground cumin
3 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
8 ounces canned diced mild green chiles (see notes to substitute fresh roasted chiles)
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chicken broth or stock, salted
1 28-ounce can peeled whole plum tomatoes
1/4 cup heavy cream
8 ounces Monterrey Jack cheese
1 pound whole-wheat elbow macaroni
1/3 cup panko bread crumbs
A handful of cilantro sprigs
1. Start heating a large pot of water to cook the pasta. While the water comes to the boil, you'll make the other ingredients.
2. In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and saute for about 5 minutes, until slightly softened. Add the ground beef, stir in 1 teaspoon coarse salt along with the cumin and oregano and cook for about 10 minutes until the beef is fully cooked and no longer pink. Stir in the chiles.
3. Stir the flour into the meat mixture and cook for about 1 minute. Add the chicken stock, stir to combine, and allow the mixture to bubble for about a minute. Crush the tomatoes over the pot with your hands, tearing them into chunks and letting all the juices fall into the pot (you can remove any stray skins or tough cores you come across as you do this). Add all the remaining tomato juices from the can and stir to combine everything.
4. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cream. Shred about 1/4 of the cheese (2 ounces) and stir it into the meat mixture. When the cheese has fully melted into the mixture, cover.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously salt the pasta water and cook the pasta to al dente (don't overcook, as it will continue to soften and cook when combined with the other ingredients). While the pasta cooks, shred the rest of the cheese. When the noodles are finished, drain and add them to the meat mixture, stirring to combine everything. Taste and add a little more salt if needed.
6. Pour the meat mixture into a large casserole dish (9 x 13 inches, 2 inches deep) and spread the cheese over the top. Sprinkle the panko evenly over the cheese and bake uncovered for 10 minutes, until the cheese has fully melted and everything is bubbly.
7. While the casserole bakes, slice the scallions thinly and roughly chop or tear the cilantro into attractive pieces. (I like smallish torn leaves for this). When the casserole is finished, sprinkle the scallions and cilantro over the top and serve.
You can substitute 1 cup diced fresh green chiles you have roasted and peeled yourself for the canned chiles called for here. Anaheim, Hatch or Poblano are all mild and would work nicely here. Bell peppers would take the flavors away from Sonoran, but could be used if that's what you have or prefer. If you do use your own chiles, you'll probably need to add about 2 Tablespoons additional chicken broth.
This recipe calls for whole-wheat macaroni, but you can of course use regular macaroni if you prefer. This is the kind of dish where your guests would be hard pressed to tell you what color the macaroni was to begin with, and there are so many other flavors going on that they probably won't taste the difference either. Whole wheat pasta works well here because the extra fiber and protein add enough substance to the dish that it leaves everyone feeling fuller and more satisfied, and it's so delicious everyone will love it.
You can make this dish ahead up to Step 4 and save the meat mixture in the fridge or freezer until you're ready to finish the dish.