My husband watched as I placed a very hot casserole dish on the dinner table. As the aroma of melted cheese, pasta, ground meat and tomatoes drifted up to his nose, he said, "Smells just like a hotdish from the ’60’s." That’s a good thing — for him, anyway. In Minnesota and North Dakota, where we’ve spent most of our lives, a "hotdish" is an easy- and quick-to-prepare mixture of a protein, usually meat, a starch, most often noodles or potatoes and almost always some kind of canned soup that serves to hold the mixture together. More often than not, there is some kind of cheese involved, too. And seasonings? Nothing fancy. Just salt and pepper. It all gets scraped into a casserole dish and baked in the oven. Voila! It’s a meal. A meal that Dennis actually looks forward to eating. When we were young newlyweds on a tight budget, we ate lots of hotdish. Stretch a pound of ground beef with a pound of cooked noodles and that meal could be eaten for a couple of days, at least. All I had to do was bake a loaf of frozen bread dough to serve with the hotdish, and he was happy.
Because a hotdish can be prepared ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator until it’s time to bake, it becomes a convenient dish to bring to potluck dinners. Hotdish often shows up on buffet tables at funerals. When I was growing up, hotdish would occasionally show up on the dinner table. My dad wasn’t a hotdish fan, so my mom had to be a little careful about how often she placed one of these creations in front of him.
Hot John was a recipe my mom got from our next-door neighbor, Dot. I never did figure out how it got that name. Ground beef, spaghetti, onion, green pepper, a little bacon, a can of tomato soup and a handful of grated cheese. Hot John??
I recreated that old recipe, eliminating the tomato soup. I had to add some minced garlic. And, I must confess, I sprinkled the baked pasta dish with red pepper flakes at the table. One would never mix something hot or spicy into a hotdish! And one more little secret? I used ground bison rather than ground beef. Over all, I’d say this hotdish makeover produced a more healthful meal than the original recipe. It tasted pretty good, too. Just like the one from the 1960’s — family friendly, no stand-out flavors, lots of noodles.
I’d suggest using the recipe as a foundation for building your own hotdish. Add whatever vegetables you have in your refrigerator. I had pieces of green pepper, sweet red pepper and jalapeno (are you kidding me? Jalapeno in hotdish? No way!) in my refrigerator, so I chopped them all up along with grilled onion slices from another day. Bacon adds some nice flavor to the pretty bland concoction. I was tempted to add some pizza sauce that I had in the refrigerator, but I decided against it. It just wouldn’t have tasted like the Hot John of my childhood. I was already pushing it a bit by adding garlic! And noodles? The recipe calls for spaghetti. Dot and my mom would think I really stepped out of the hotdish box by using trumpet-shaped pasta, instead.
Give it a try. It can be a very economical meal. And if you remember the 1960’s, it will take you back there.
Yes, this really is Hot John — just spiffed up a little bit.
- 1 pound pasta (I used trumpets)
- 4 slices bacon
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 green pepper, chopped (I used a combination of green, red and jalapeno)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 pound ground beef (I used Bison)
- 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes (I whirled them in the blender for a few seconds)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste (It’s handy to have a tube of tomato paste in the refrigerator, to use as needed. I find the Amore brand in my local grocery store.)
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (my own addition)
- Salt and pepper to taste (and any other seasonings you dare to add)
- Grated cheese for topping the hotdish (I used Mozzarella)
Cook pasta in a large pot, following direction on package. Cook al dente, so that the pasta is just a little bit chewy.
In a large skillet, fry bacon. Transfer to paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Saute onions and peppers in hot bacon grease until tender. Add garlic and saute for another mintue or two. Add ground meat. Cook and stir until brown and cooked through. Add tomato paste and tomatoes. (And if you’ve got some pizza sauce on hand, pour it in.) Mix. Add drained pasta to meat mixture. Stir to coat the pasta. Add grated Parmesan and gently mix so that the cheese melts.
Transfer pasta mixture to a lightly oiled casserole dish. Cover and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove cover. Top with grated cheese of choice. Bake 15 to 30 minutes, until hot.
- If you refrigerate the Hot John before baking, add 10 to 15 minutes to the baking time.