Beef and cheddar pasta bake.

So, if you’re looking for recipes that will jump-start your healthy eating habits in the new year … well, this is not that recipe. There’s nothing especially virtuous about this Beef and Cheddar Pasta Bake, dietarily speaking—its virtues are purely sensuous: cheesy, comforting goodness.

If you recall that recurring menu item from your elementary school cafeteria days, you might think of this as a sort of upgraded version of Johnny Marzetti. (A dish that has local-ish roots as the house specialty of Marzetti’s Restaurant in Columbus, OH.) The original version combines sautéed onions and mushrooms with ground beef, tomato sauce and elbow macaroni underneath a broiled mantle of cheddar cheese.

For whatever reason (oh, I dunno … maybe because it’s stupid cold outside), I was craving something cheesy and starchy and gooey like this dish, and I found it in Pierre Franey’s “60 Minute Gourmet” recipe for Macaroni and Beef Casserole on the New York Times Cooking app.

As the late Dick Enberg (to bring in a totally non-contextual sports reference) would say, “Oh, my!”

This recipe, with my adaptations is, I humbly submit, the perfect thing for cold winter nights. It’s easy yet takes just enough time to prepare to make it the ideal thing for Sunday supper. It makes 6 generous servings and reheats well, so leftovers are a bonus. It’s the kind of dish you’d just as well serve to company as eat with a spoon from a bowl in front of the television, in your jammies.

Use a food processor to make the prep even easier, and enlist a kitchen helper to sautée the vegetables and meat while you whisk up the cheddar bechamel. Use very lean ground beef (like ground round) to keep the dish from tasting greasy. Bookmark this recipe for the weekend, OK?

Beef & Cheddar Pasta Bake (AKA upscale Johnny Marzetti) recipe

serves 6

6 oz. dried pasta (like elbows, small shells or 'o's)
1/2 sweet onion
1 stalk celery
1 small red or green bell pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms
1 pound extra-lean ground beef
3/4 cup canned crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons Italian herb seasoning
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
2 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (divided use)
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne
Kosher salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375°. In a food processor, pulse the onion, celery and bell pepper until finely chopped; transfer to a bowl and use the processor to chop the mushrooms in similar fashion.

Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil and add pasta; cook according to package directions, then drain and keep warm.

In an ovenproof skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers; reduce heat to medium and add chopped onion, celery and bell pepper. Season with a generous pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until they're soft, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and another pinch of salt and cook until the mushrooms are soft and release their juices, about 5 minutes more. Use your fingers to break ground beef into pieces and scatter over the vegetables; cook, stirring to break up the meat, until it is no longer pink about 7 minutes. Raise heat and bring the mixture to a boil; cook until liquid is evaporated. Stir in tomatoes and Italian herbs; season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat; whisk in flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture smells like buttered toast, about 3 minutes. Gradually add about 1/2 cup of milk, whisking constantly. Mixture will get thick and pasty; keep gradually whisking in milk a little at a time until smooth. Cook the sauce at a near-boil until it thickens, about 5 minutes. Whisk in 2 cups of cheese, the nutmeg and cayenne; season well with salt. Stir until smooth.

Add pasta to the skillet and stir to combine with the beef and vegetables. Pour the cheese sauce over all and stir gently to blend. Scatter remaining cheese over the top. Bake 20–25 minutes, until cheese is browned and casserole is bubbly.

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