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I know this might be musical heresy, but I’m honestly not that big of a Louis Armstrong fan. I acknowledge his place in history, but, if I’m going to listen to hot jazz era artists, I prefer Slim Gaillard or Cab Calloway. I landed in this Louis Armstrong track looking for a theme song with “chop suey” in the title. Yes, the obvious choice is System Of A Down’s “Chop Suey” but I just can’t stand their particular brand of mosh pit metal. So, I went with a little light dinner music with a focus on a classic midwest high school band instrument.
Growing up in the Midwest, I remember a regular dinner of what my mother called “goulash.” It was elbow pasta, ground beef, and a lightly seasoned tomato sauce with onion and celery. Often, it was served with “garlic bread” made by broiling burger buns spread with margarine and garlic powder. It was brilliant simple comfort food.
It also had nothing to do with actual Hungarian Goulash. I would discover that a few years after leaving home when eating at a Hungarian restaurant in Detroit. Spotting goulash on the menu made me nostalgic for that childhood dish. What I received was not a bowl of lightly sauced pasta, but a rich paprika beef stew that was equally delicious but unexpected.
What I grew up being comforted by was American Goulash or American Chop Suey. The name depends on what region of the country you encounter the dish. “Chop Suey” is more New England as it once used rice instead of pasta. “Goulash” more Midwest or Southern. It’s also known as Chili Mac or Skillet Mac. Each region has a slight variation on the base of pasta, ground beef, and tomato sauce. Some add cheese. Some crank up the spice. The one defining factor is it’s a hodgepodge of ingredients in a single skillet (though I cook the pasta separately).
While there is a recipe below, it should be considered a basic outline. I omit the traditional meat as I tend to cook mostly vegetarian, but that should not stop you from going carnivore (see note below). This is a recipe that works well with whatever is in the fridge. Don’t have red peppers but have poblano – use those. No carrots – not an issue. Have an extra yellow pepper? Toss it in. I’ve made batches of this substituting Ro-Tel for the diced tomatoes to give it a spicier kick. Swap in BBQ sauce in place of the tomato sauce. Have 8 ounces of shell and 8 ounces elbow pasta? There’s your pound of pasta. It’s a recipe that makes it easy to improvise hence the jazz theme inspiration.
This will make quite a large pot of pasta. Luckily, it keeps very well in the fridge. It’s great cold and re-heats well. I like to add a bit of hot sauce, sea salt, and Aleppo pepper when eating cold. Topping with a bit of pecorino or parmesan when heated is also recommended. Make a batch of this on Sunday and you’ll have meals for several days.
AMERICAN CHOP SUEY
Pasta, onion, peppers, tomato, garlic, pecorino
Makes 8 – 10 servings
NOTE: You’ll notice this recipe leaves out the traditional ground beef. I tend to cook mostly vegetarian so that’s why. I don’t believe this loses anything without meat. However, if you want to add meat, add 1 pound of ground beef, turkey, or chicken and brown after the onions soften but before adding the rest of the vegetables.
1 Spanish onion, fine dice
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, fine dice
2 medium carrots, fine dice
2 stalks celery with leaves, fine dice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flake
1 14.5oz can stewed tomatoes
1 14.5oz can diced tomatoes
1 8oz can tomato sauce
1-pound elbow or shell pasta
1/2 cup pecorino, grated
Combine basil, oregano, salt, black pepper, and red pepper flake in a small bowl. Set aside.
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add onions and saute until soft. Add garlic and saute 1 minute. Add red pepper, carrots, and celery and cook until they are tender-crisp. Add half of the seasoning and toss with the vegetables. Cook 1-2 minutes. Add tomatoes and tomato sauce and the rest of the seasoning. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil – reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water then drain pasta. Return pasta to pot, add pasta water and sauce from skillet. Stir to combine everything thoroughly and coat pasta in the sauce. Add the pecorino and mix to combine.
Serve with a sprinkle of sea salt, Aleppo pepper, and basil.