Have you ever heard of Johnny Mazzetti? If you’re Panamanian (or have lived in Panama) you probably have. Funny thing is, in putting this post together, I came to learn about the history behind the dish. I don’t think I believed this to be an original recipe by my mother, though I still think of it as her dish. Johnny Mazzetti, the dish, is very popular in Panama, so I Googled it. Turns out the dish originated in Columbus, Ohio at a restaurant called Marzetti. Leave it to Panamanians to change someone’s name.
Nonetheless, this was one of my Mami’s favorite party dishes because of how easy it was to prepare and how much mileage you could get from it, I mean, it goes a loooooong way. Like any other popular recipe, Johnny Mazzetti has many incarnations. My mom would make hers with olives, raisins and boiled eggs, in essence, you make picadillo and grow it with pasta.
I must confess that I made this a few months ago, I was yearning for some comfort food and the memory of it came rushing back. I also have to confess that this is not really my mom’s recipe. It has been seriously adulterated… for the better. Not that there’s anything wrong with the original recipe, I just wanted… more. So I brought together 2 comfort foods: mac ‘n cheese and Johnny Mazz and ended up with a casserole of goodness. And you get dibs.
For the beef mixture:
1 lb ground beef
¾ tsp sea salt
1 tsp black pepper
½ tsp cumin powder
1 tsp Italian Seasoning
1 large onion, diced
½ bell pepper (preferably red), diced
2 serrano peppers, finely chopped
½ cup cilantro, chopped
1 small can crushed tomatoes
1 cup broth or water
¼ cup cotija cheese
For the pasta:
2½ cups of a combination of Mexican crema (creme fraiche), heavy cream and milk (you can use all of them or take your pick)
2 cups cheese (I used Pepper Jack and Cheddar)
3 tbsp butter
Dash of nutmeg
1 lb pasta (I used mezzi tubeti, but elbow, rigatoni would do)
Heat a medium skillet over high heat and add the ground beef and the next 4 ingredients, stirring well to evenly distribute the seasonings. Allow the moisture of the beef to evaporate, before adding the onions, serrano peppers and bell pepper. Cook until the onions are translucent before adding the cilantro and tomato puree. Add the broth or water and check and adjust the seasoning as needed. Allow it to simmer for about 15 minutes over medium low heat. Stir in the cotija cheese.
Cook and drain the pasta, then add the milk, cream and crema over low temperature.
Add the cheese and butter, stirring until dissolved. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Liberally butter a baking dish and spoon half of the pasta, top with all the beef, then the rest of the pasta. Bake for about 20-30 minutes or until bubbling.