August 13, 2011

Food Nostalgia: Spaghetti Rice

The most recent potluck lunch at my workplace had a theme very appropriate to August:  State Fair and Back to School Food.  I figured (correctly) that several of my colleagues would go with state fair favorites such as corn dogs and chili dogs, so I decided to go with some sort of school food, and while thinking about some possibilities, I remembered something I hadn't thought about in a long time:  Spaghetti Rice.

The name is something of a misnomer, as there isn't any spaghetti in the dish at all.   It's sort of like spaghetti with meat sauce, but with it all mixed together and topped with a bit of cheese, and using rice in place of the spaghetti.   The story was that one of the lunch ladies came up with the idea, and it became a hit.   From an adult POV, I'm sure it was a hit with the lunch ladies because it would be quicker and easier to serve up scoops of sauced rice than it would be to serve up spaghetti and then top it with sauce, but it was also a hit with the kids.   It's one of the few things they served in the school cafeteria while I was growing up that I remember with fondness.

So, with those fond memories in mind, I decided to try to recreate that school-time favorite.  In doing so, I decided to go real simple.   When you're trying to feed hundreds of kids, you don't make fancy sauces.   I'm pretty certain they just cooked up big pots of rice, browned some hamburger, stirred the hamburger into big pots full of spaghetti sauce from the big, institutional-sized cans and mixed it all together.  So, that's the way I approached this recipe.   I started with cheap, plain store-bought pasta sauce (Hy-Vee's store brand), long grain white rice and some browned hamburger, plus some fine-shredded supermarket-brand cheese (mild cheddar, since that's what the lunch ladies topped the spaghetti rice with back in the day).  To decided I'd have to spruce that up a bit to make it tolerable to my more mature and experienced palate, though, so I tossed in some garlic, freshly-ground black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes.  Still, it was very fast and easy to prepare.

I am very pleased with the results.   My creation tastes just like what I remembered from my school lunch days.   It's nothing complex or sophisticated, but the simplicity has a charm of its own.   I did find it a tiny bit too sweet for my tastes (the store sauces use a fair bit of sugar), but Juli really liked that, and the sweetness wasn't enough to put me off.   It turned out to be popular with my colleagues, and several commented positively.

Spaghetti Rice

yield = 10-12 servings

2                pounds ground beef (90% lean)
2                tablespoons minced garlic
2 1/2          jars (24 ounces) pasta sauce
1                teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/2             teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
14              cups cooked white rice (still warm)
2                cups finely-shredded mild cheddar cheese

Add the beef to a large Dutch oven over medium heat.   Cook the meat until it is evenly browned, stirring often and using the side of a wooden spoon to break up large chunks of meat.   Clear a spot in the middle of the pan, add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant (about 45 seconds).  Stir the garlic into the meat, then add and stir in the pasta sauce, black pepper and red pepper flakes.  Heat until bubbling, then reduce heat, cover and let simmer for about 5 minutes.   Add the cooked rice to the Dutch oven and stir evenly combine the rice and meat sauce.   Serve, topping individual servings with a generous sprinkle of cheese.

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