I used to be a sucker for interesting cookbooks. When my kids were young (and I was always looking for fun things to make that might somehow appeal to them), I bought a collection of recipes bound in a half book, half loose-leaf from a church, featuring members’ faves.
One day, I decided, based on the name and ingredients, that one of those recipes looked safe to try for the kids. It was called “crunchy cheesy beefaroni,” and basically was a home version of hamburger helper. As I recall, the recipe included ground beef, a can of tomato soup, a can of cream of mushroom soup, elbow macaroni, and lots and lots of cheese. In fact, the recipe called for two full 8-ounce blocks of cheddar, one sharp and one medium sharp. The casserole was topped by French-fried onion rings. Hence, the crunchy.
Now my kids loved this concoction, but it had an unfortunate side effect on some in the household. And the kids, who do speak their truth, did some intentional mangling of the name when they asked for it again. They asked for “crunchy cheesy fartaroni.” It was a big laugh at the time.
Time marches on. My son now lives in Budapest. My daughter is a vegan and wouldn’t touch this stuff with a ten-foot pole.
I hadn’t made it in many years, but from the time I shared the story of this legendary dish with Terrie, she wanted me to go for it. This even though Terrie typically recoils at the mention of Campbell’s condensed soups, and any of the other ingredients with decidedly “GMO” and other non-organic leanings. However, in our household, I have learned that everything has a substitute, and this dish can, indeed, be made in a “clean” fashion. More than a year ago, I made it for Terrie for the first time, using some leftover shaved steak meat from another dish, as well as incorporating previously made mac and cheese. I threw in some organic mushroom soup and some organic diced tomatoes, and the 2020s version tasted great and met Terrie’s environmental and food-quality standards.
With the kitchen renovation still rendering our kitchen in a largely “not-ready-for prime time” state, we’ve been looking for some filler meals. On a recent weekend while Terrie was under the weather, I decided to take on the cooking duties and try the beefaroni again, this time with a southwest spin.
I’m pleased to say that southwest crunchy cheesy “fartaroni” worked out great. A bowl of protein, veggies and carbs with flavor, kick and comfort.
1 pound ground beef, 85% lean* (see notes)
1 12-ounce box of Barilla veggie pasta rotini*
Half a medium yellow onion, diced
Half a red and half a green bell pepper, diced
1 small can of chopped green chilis
1 can of Rotel diced tomatoes*
1 6-ounce can of tomato paste
½ packet Frontera skillet sauce with chipotle and lime*
8 ounces colby-jack cheese, cubed or shredded
2 ounces habanero cheddar*
Ingredients for Cheese Sauce
Terrie suggested the cheese sauce, with a thin bechamel base, as a topping for the casserole because it seemed dry after its 45 minutes in the oven. This version had no soup! And who am I to argue against more cheese? Or against anything Terrie suggests in the kitchen (OK, Terrie, I can see the look on your face already).
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 cup of milk*
8 ounces of sharp cheddar, cubed or shredded*
1 ounce habanero cheddar*
3 ounces cream cheese*
3 to 4 Tbsp. salsa*
- One of Terrie’s standards is that in our household, we eat only grass-fed beef, and that’s what I used for this. Any ground meat with similar fat content would work.
- We like the veggie pasta for a healthier option, so I used rotini, as I couldn’t find a veggie version of elbow macaroni, which was part of the original recipe. Rotini worked great and offered plenty of texture.
- I used Rotel’s Mexican-style version with lime juice and cilantro. If you want to seriously kick up the heat in the dish, try the hot diced tomatoes or the diced tomatoes with serrano peppers.
- The Frontera skillet sauce was the same thing I used to flavor the ground meat in my thick and hearty chili recipe. Look for it in the grocery section where you’d find packets of seasonings.
- The habanero cheddar is a Trader Joe’s product, and it packs some major heat. You can use other cheeses to add variety to the cheese sauce; notice I only used 10 ounces total cheese, well below what the original recipe called for. The dish is plenty cheesy, even before the cheese sauce.
- You might use a little more or a little less milk depending on your preferred thickness of cheese sauce.
- Terrie also noted that, especially for queso-style sauces, American cheese provides a smooth base, but I had no American on hand for this meal, so I settled for what was left in the fridge, plus a little cream cheese (another Terrie suggestion). And I supplemented with another small dose of the habanero cheddar for heat.
- Any salsa will do, but pick what you like for your heat preference, keeping in mind everything else you’ve put in the dish.
I used our multi-function slow cooker for the heavy lifting in putting together this casserole. I browned the ground beef in it, seasoning with salt and pepper and then mixing in the Frontera skillet sauce. I removed the ground beef and sauteed the onions and peppers, then returned the beef to the slow cooker, which I set to slow cook. I then added the diced tomatoes and chopped green chiles, as well as the tomato paste, using a little less than 2 chile cans of water (10 ounces) to thin the mixture.
I’d already had salted water boiling and added the rotini, draining it when it reached al dente state. I also used this period to cube up the cheese. I added the drained rotini to the slow cooker and mixed it all up.
I pre-heated our oven (which we could finally access, though the kitchen was not completely ready) to 350° F and sprayed a 9-by-13 casserole dish. Then, I doled out about half of the pasta/beef/vegetable mixture into the casserole and topped it with about half the cheese. Repeat with the rest of the mixture and cheese. Then crush up some tortilla chips until they are small and sprinkle over the entire casserole and place into the oven for 40 to 45 minutes, depending on how your oven heats.
While the casserole is baking, prepare the cheese sauce. I did this using our induction burner by creating a roux with the butter and flour. Once the roux is yellow or golden, add the milk and keep stirring. Once it thickens and appears creamier, begin blending in the cheese, stirring until smooth and adding the onion powder to offer a little seasoning. Finally, add the salsa, which should give the mixture a more orange-reddish look.
The casserole is ready when you can see the cheese bubbling; you may need to cover the casserole with foil about halfway through cooking if it appears to be dry on top. Serve in a bowl and spoon the cheese sauce over the top.