One of our friends recently had surgery, which was supposed to keep her off of her feet for a few weeks and doing minimal activities. So, a week into her recovery I decided to make a meal for her family, which I had done once before for non-medical reasons. I knew they liked this dish, and even though it is better for colder weather, I figured her boys would jump right in and enjoy. It is an adaptation of a recipe from my favorite cookbook: “Dinosaur Bar B Que, An American Roadhouse Cookbook“. As is my usual style with virtually any recipe, I modified it to fit some of the ingredients I had on hand along with some other additions that I thought would enhance the dish.
There are three main preparation components to this dish: pasta shells, a very tasty meat layer, and a cheesy vegetable roue, which ultimately gets combined with the pasta shells. I have made this dish seven times over the past four years, so I really do swear by its flavor. But an advance warning, it is not a low calorie dish. But maybe that is what makes it so good!!!
serves 6-8, …or two adults and two teenagers!
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 pound small pasta shells (I used wheat pasta for a nuttier taste and holds up better in the cheesy roue)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped onions (sweet Vidalia or Mayan onions work best)
1 cup chopped red pepper
1 diced jalapeno pepper
5 large garlic cloves chopped, or 3 tablespoons chopped garlic from a jar
1 1/4 pounds lean ground beef (90-95% lean works best)
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 cup barbecue sauce (I used half cup Dinosaur BBQ slathering sauce and half cup KC style BBQ sauce)
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 1/2 cups half-and-half
3-4 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese (one large package shredded cheddar works great)
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 teaspoons smooth Dijon mustard
Dash of Tabasco sauce
(Note to the reader: In the ingredients picture it looks like a whole lot more food than listed, and it was! I made a larger batch because I wanted to have some for ourselves as well.)
Using my newly learned knife skills from the class we attended at the Finger Lakes Culinary & Wine Institute (who knew I was using a kitchen knife the wrong way all of those years!), chop up the onion. Put into a large bowl.
Remove the seeds from the jalapeno pepper, and…
dice the jalapeno pepper. Also remove the seeds from the red pepper and chop it up as well. Add to the large bowl with the previously chopped onions.
I put everything into separate bowls, just to keep them off the cutting board while I was preparing the next item. Remember too that I was making a larger batch, so I did not have a large enough bowl for all of the items. Well, I might have, but this makes for a nice picture. How is that for rationalization!
Time to saute the vegetables.
Add the olive oil to a large skillet, and over medium heat add half of the onions and peppers. Saute the vegetables until they are soft. That will take about 8-9 minutes. Then add the garlic and saute for another minute.
Now add the lean ground beef to the onion, pepper and garlic mixture. Cook with the veggies until the meat loses its pink color. Be sure to stir the mixture quite frequently and keep breaking up the meat while stirring. Season with 1 1/2 teaspoons of the kosher salt.
Once the meat has lost its color, stir in the barbecue sauce. Turn the heat off and let the mixture sit while you prepare the next steps. (By the way, I think this mixture could be the basis for a great Sloppy Joe recipe. I may stop at this point another time, and try it.)
Next, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta shells per the recipe on the box. Be sure to cook them to an al dente state, as they will later cook some more in the casserole. Once the pasta is cooked, drain it in a colander and spray with cold water to stop the cooking process.
The next steps create the cheesy vegetable roue.
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. For those of you who are very observant, you may have noticed that the pot I am using is exactly the same pot I used to cook the pasta shells in. Very good! Just rinse it our before starting this step.
After the butter is melted, add the rest of the onions and peppers and cook these until they are soft.
With a whisk in hand, add the flour and whisk the softened vegetables like crazy until they are well coated with the flour.
Now slowly, and I mean slowly, drizzle the half-and-half into the vegetable mixture. Keep whisking throughout the pouring process. Let the mixture return to a gentle boiling bubble and remove from the heat when the mixture has thickened slightly.
Now add 2 1/2 – 3 cups of the cheddar cheese into the warm mixture. Also add all of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, the Dijon mustard and the remaining salt and pepper. Stir this all up until the cheeses have melted. Now is the time to add a dash of the Tabasco sauce to your taste. Next fold in the cooled pasta shells and get them well coated with the cheese and vegetable mixture.
Grease the bottom and sides of a baking dish. I used two disposable 8″x8″ baking pans, but generally this will all fit in a single 9″x13″ utility baking dish. (For you old Corning Consumer Products folks out there, a 233 utility dish!) Add the meat mixture to the bottom of the baking dish.
Cover the meat with the pasta mixture, and sprinkle any remaining cheddar cheese on top. I also had some excess Monterrey Jack cheese in the refrigerator from another recipe, so I added that as well.
By this time you should have preheated your oven to 375 degrees. What, you have not done that already? Well, of course not, because I am now just telling you to do that. But in any case, once your oven reaches that temperature, pop the baking dish into the oven loosely covered with aluminum foil. After 20 minutes or so, remove the aluminum foil and bake for another 20 – 25 minutes. The dish is done when the cheese sauce bubbles around the edges of the baking dish.
Remove from the oven and let it rest for at least 15 minutes. This allows the dish to set up a bit and will make it much easier to spoon out.
Since mine was going to our friend, I covered it tightly in aluminum foil and the plastic cover that came with the disposable baking dish along with the heating instructions. Ours I put into the refrigerator and we cooked it later that day. As I remembered, it was pretty darn good!