I had been staring at the recipe for Johnny Marzetti Spaghetti Pie every time I flipped through my Joy of Cooking. Spaghetti cooked with ground meat, onions, tomatoes, and baked with cheese? How could this go wrong? Knowing A.R.’s love of spaghetti – he told me that his brother confessed that he hates spaghetti because of how much A.R. used to cook it when they were young – I invited him over to be a guinea pig when I finally decided to try it.
Now, you’d think this would be the perfect easy recipe, and it wasn’t difficult to execute, but somehow it was just off. I wasn’t impressed. Some of that was due to the choices I’d made – I used A.R.’s favorite brand of whole wheat spaghetti, which behaves more like regular pasta than other whole wheat pastas I’ve used, and I ended up overcooking it. No one likes a limp noodle. My choice of ground turkey at the meat was less than fantastic. Although I love cooking up a nice pasta dinner with some ground turkey and eggplant, here its mildness added nothing to the flavor of the overall dish. Beef would have certainly been better, or some pork, or the ground turkey mixed with turkey sausage, anything except plain ground turkey.
However, some of the dish’s shortcomings had to do with the recipe itself. There was simply not enough cheese. I’m not going to lie, I fall into the category of stereotypical American here – I like my food cheesy. I could easily have added another whole cup of cheese and used a nice mix of cheddar, mozzarella, parmesan, fontina, romano, or whatever I happened to find at the store. I also found the main ingredient – the spaghetti itself – to be a problem. You can’t twirl strands of spaghetti that’s been baked together, so you end up cutting smaller pieces of the noodles and have to chase them around your plate with your fork. This would have been so much better if I had used a short, cut noodle, like a penne or a rigatoni.
But then, it would have been a regular baked pasta and I could have easily done that myself. That seemed to be the main problem with this recipe – it’s a recipe for a dish that needs no recipe. Cook some pasta, sauté the veggies that you like, brown the meat of your choice, mix it all together with tomato sauce and some cheese, dump it into a baking dish, and bake at 400° for 20 or so minutes and you’ve got a hearty, satisfying, hot pasta dish. Easy. Simple. No recipe needed. And that’s where I went wrong, believing that this was anything more than a twist on the standard baked pasta that I’d made so many times before and will go back to making from this point forward.
Of course, A.R. ate it up without hesitation. Like pizza and other indulgences in life, for him even bad spaghetti is pretty good spaghetti and he is not one to let pretty good spaghetti go to waste.
I won’t call this recipe a total failure because it’s helpful if you’ve never made baked pasta and need some guidelines. I just won’t follow these particular instructions again.
Johnny Marzetti Spaghetti Pie
1 ½ pounds ground meat of your choice
1 large onion, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic
one 28-ounce can diced tomatoes with ½ cup juice
one 15-ounce can tomato sauce
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound spaghetti, cooked and drained
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided
Brown the meat, onion, bell pepper, and garlic in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, oregano, bay leaf, and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and let simmer uncovered for 20 minutes, stirring frequently.
Preheat the oven to 350º. Stir the meat and tomato mixture into the cooked pasta and add half of the cheese. Transfer to a 13×9-inch baking together and mix together well. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top. Bake until lightly browned and bubbling, about 30 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Makes 6-8 servings.