Cowboy comfort food

A trip down a mountain trail revealed a tasty dish.

Shauna stephenson/wyoming tribune eagle/AP
HOME ON THE RANGE: Bob King tends to his horses at his cowboy school in Arvada, Wyo.

Horseshoe prints dented the dusty surface of the Granite Mountain Trail near Prescott, Ariz. My husband, Ralph, and I had followed them for 30 minutes, so we weren't too surprised when a horse, on its return trip, walked slowly toward us. The man on the horse was a little surprising, however. He was dressed in a vest, chaps, cowboy boots, and a red bandanna. It looked as if he'd cantered out of an old Western movie. A rifle slung across his saddle completed the image.

We nodded and stepped aside, following Western trail etiquette, to give horses and mules the right of way. The old cowboy tipped his hat and reined his horse to a stop to chat with us.

"Beautiful horse," I said.

"Do you know what kind it is?" he asked.

The horse was dappled brown and white, so I took my best guess. "An Appaloosa?"

"That's right," he said.

We all talked about the glorious spring day, the water running in normally dry stream beds, and the beauty of the pinyon-juniper forest. While the Appaloosa waited patiently, I noticed something hanging down under its belly – an odd contraption made of wire with a horsehair tassel. I asked what it was.

"I made it myself," the cowboy said. "It bobs around and keeps flies off the horse. Do you know what it's called?"

For the second time I took a guess. "A shoo-fly?"

"Right again!" His weathered face cracked into a grin, and I felt proud. We were buddies now and our conversation turned to other subjects. He offered up a bit of personal history and told me that he used to work on the railroad.

Now it was my turn to ask him a question. "Whatever happened to cabooses? I haven't seen one in years."

I inadvertently hit on a favorite topic. "Oh, they haven't been used since the '70s," he said.

But he had fond memories of cabooses from earlier decades.

"In those days, a train's crew had five members instead of two. There was an engineer, conductor, brakeman, flagman, and fireman. I was a flagman. The caboose was our living room, dining room, and bedroom," he said. "It had an icebox, a writing table or desk, and a couple of benches covered with hide and stuffed with horsehair. Then there were kerosene lanterns and a coal stove. No matter how hot it was outside you had to have a fire in the stove for coffee."

"What did the crew eat?" I asked.

"There was always beef stew simmering on the stove," he said. "Either that or a big pot of Johnny Marzetti."

His eyes glazed over. Perhaps all this reminiscing was making him hungry. He touched the brim of his hat, wished us a good hike, and moseyed on down the trail.

Ralph and I stood watching the cowboy and his horse disappear behind a screen of manzanita and alligator juniper. Then we turned, looked at each other, and said in unison, "Johnny Marzetti?"

Neither of us had ever heard of it. When I got home I switched on the computer and typed the name of the dish into a search engine. Within seconds, I was instantly rewarded with hundreds of results.

I soon learned that Johnny Marzetti is a casserole. The original recipe came from Marzetti's restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, which was founded by Teresa Marzetti after she immigrated to the US from Italy in 1896. She began serving the casserole in the 1920s and named it after her brother-in-law.

The basic ingredients are elbow macaroni, tomato sauce, and ground beef, but there are many variations. Some recipes call for spaghetti instead of macaroni. Some include cheddar, mushrooms, or canned mushroom soup.

We knew what we were having for dinner that night.

Not one to follow a recipe, Ralph read several of the online versions and then improvised. He decided to use mozzarella and Romano instead of cheddar. The dish sounded bland, so he dashed in some oregano, rosemary, and other herbs to pay respect to the Italian-sounding name. But canned mushroom soup? No way.

Since that day it has become one of our favorite comfort food dinners. It's easy to make and fills the house with an herbal fragrance as it's baking in the oven.

Whenever one of us suggests it for dinner, the name "Johnny Marzetti," never fails to elicit a grin from the other. But when we make the dish, we don't think of a restaurateur's brother-in-law, we think of a flagman-turned-cowboy, riding a brown and white Appaloosa on the rugged flank of Granite Mountain.

Ralph's version of Johnny Marzetti

1 pound ground beef

1 small onion, chopped

1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced

1 can (14.5 ounces) stewed tomatoes

1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon basil

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon rosemary

1 bay leaf

1-1/2 teaspoons fennel seed (optional)

Salt, pepper to taste

2 cups elbow macaroni

1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded

1/2 cup Romano or Parmesan cheese, grated

In a skillet over medium heat, brown ground beef. Add onions, pepper, garlic, and mushrooms. Cook for 4 minutes. Add stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce, herbs, and salt and pepper. Simmer 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf.

In another pan, boil macaroni according to package directions until al dente. Drain.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large casserole, combine macaroni and meat sauce. Spread cheeses over top, covering completely. Bake, covered, for about 30 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.

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