Saturday, October 15, 2011

Joey's Italian Goulash

My mother's name was Joanne Dunleavy Gruggen. To her friends and family, she was simply known as Joey. This dish is named after her, but it is not the first dish that can make that claim to fame. Family friend Fred Nash, of Nash Finch fame,  first named a sandwich after her...The Joey Balboa. The Joey Balboa was but a simple sandwich that was comprised of bread, bananas and peanut butter. This "three ingredient" recipe structure would become the foundation of her greatest culinary moments.

The "Joey's Italian Goulash" you are going to find on this page is not the Joey's Italian Goulash of my youth. For those of you that have read my grogs4blogs profile, you will note that cooking was not my mother's forte. She was a fantastic mother, gorgeous fashion model, clothes hound extraordinaire, a great wife, a good golfer and one of the most down-to-earth, nicest individuals you could ever hope to meet. Cooking was simply an unloved chore required to keep her family alive.

TV dinners with their delicious aluminum aftertaste were popular a menu entree for her. Kraft macaroni and cheese in a box was a real favorite with her, for she reveled in it's strict, one-pot discipline. And I can't begin to count the sheer number of Mrs. Paul's fish sticks that I wadded into my napkin and threw away (because even our beloved poodle would refuse to eat those compressed crap carp sticks).

She did, however, find a recipe on the side of a jar of Ragu that she actually embraced. And, be still my heart, it required three separate ingredients and two pots! Ain't no mountain high enough.

It was called "Italian Goulash" and bears no resemblance to that exotic epicurean delight, "Hungarian Goulash". It consisted of just three items: a box of cooked macaroni, one pound of browned hamburger and one jar of Ragu. Combine these three magical ingredients, stir and slip it into a 350º oven for 45 minutes and your family is instantly transported to a gastronomic Sicily. Every time she made this meal we applauded her. First, because it did take some effort on her part and, secondly, we were thrilled with anything that did not taste like aluminum.

Once I left home, I continued to make "Joey's Italian Goulash". But as my skills as a cook grew, so did my desire for using top-quality ingredients and I began to modify the recipe. What you will see here is my rendition of it some 50+ years after it's inception. The picture you see above is the dish in it's naked form. I actually top the dish with a very generous helping of mozzarella cheese which browns and gives the meal a little bit of decadence. Okay, a lot of decadence. This recipe serves 8 (okay, only 6 if you have two, really hungry teenage sons that consume an amount of food in a single sitting that appears to be completely disproportionate to the size of the human digestive system). Thanks, Mom.

3 tablespoons salt
2 pounds hot Italian sausage (bulk or sausages with casings removed)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped medium
6 cloves garlic, minced
16 ounces elbow macaroni
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried Turkish oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
64 ounces tomato sauce (or your favorite prepared red sauce)
24 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese


  1. Fill a large pot with water, add 3 tablespoons of salt and bring water to a boil.
  2. Preheat oven to 350º. 
  3. In a large Dutch oven, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and heat on high until shimmering. Add Italian sausage and brown thoroughly. Break up/crumble while cooking. When no pink remains, drain and add to a large, oven-proof casserole (must have a top).
  4. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to Dutch oven and add onion and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently until softened, about 8 minutes. Add to meat in large casserole.
  5. When water in large pot is boiling, add elbow macaroni and cook for 1 minute less than package instructions. When cooked, drain and add macaroni to meat/onion mixture in large casserole.
  6. Add the following to the casserole: fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, oregano, thyme, basil, salt, pepper and 64 ounces of tomato sauce.
  7. Sir thoroughly to combine all ingredients. Press down to compress meat/macaroni mixture, then spread 24 ounces of mozzarella cheese on top.
  8. Cover casserole and put in oven. Cook for 60 minutes.
  9. Open oven, remove casserole cover to let cheese brown and cook for 15 more minutes.
  10. Remove from oven, divide among plates and serve.
Wine pairing: Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah

Joey Gruggen

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