American Chop Suey: The Cheesy, Beefy, Misnamed Stovetop Casserole That Deserves a Comeback

The Food Lab

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This ain't your old-school Chinese version of chop suey. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

All week we're celebrating Italian-American classics. Check out more Italian-American recipes and taste tests this way!

Beefaroni, macaroni and beef, chili mac, call it what you will, but I find it both fascinating and insanely frustrating that there is such a vast lexicon of All-American beef-tomato-macaroni-cheese casserole-style dishes, yet there is no overarching term that covers all of them. In the Midwest you've got Johnny Marzetti, which is covered with melted broiled cheese in a hot casserole dish. Head East to Mid-Atlantic states and you'll find goulash, a macaroni and beef casserole whose only connection to the Hungarian stew of the same name is the inclusion of paprika in its recipe. If you were to add some cumin and chili powder to the mix, you end up with chili mac, which, if Google search results are any indication, is the preferred macaroni-beef-tomato incarnation of Rachael Ray, Taste of Home, and Kraft's corporate kitchens.

Having been exposed to it mostly at the summer camp table and food courts around Boston, I'd always known it by its most wildly inaccurate name: American Chop Suey. It was a staple in those all-you-can-eat Chinese-American restaurants along the side of the freeway, and a common item in the steam tables of the Italian chains at the shopping malls (and pretty much every other steam table establishment in New England, as far as I can tell), but its reach wasn't limited to the buffet line—it made regular appearances in cookbooks and dinner tables from the 1960's through the 90's (though it wasn't always loved).

If the response to my tweet about American Chop Suey is any indication, for the generations of folks who grew up on it, American Chop Suey is a deeply divisive food, inspiring nostalgia and comfort in some, and queasiness in others.

New York Times food critic Pete Wells recalls the dish from his childhood in Rhode Island:

My mother made it pretty regularly when I was growing up. I don't know why I didn't like it. I loved baked ziti and spaghetti and meatballs and lasagna and all the other Italian-American food that my mother and everybody else's mothers made. But American chop suey didn't taste like those other things. It just tasted like American chop suey, and I could never work up any enthusiasm about it.

Considering its origins, it's not surprising that it tastes so dissimilar from other Italian-American classics. Here's the truth: It's not really Italian-American at all. At least, it didn't start that way.

So where the heck does it get its name? Chinese-American chop suey—a dish consisting of a hodgepodge of mixed vegetables and meat stir-fried with soy sauce and served over rice—was known to Americans as early as the early 20th century. The Oxford Companion to Food and Drink traces American Chop Suey's etymological origins to the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks an "urtext for many institutional foods of the twentieth century. The army recipe could be made with either beef round or pork shoulder, beef stock, barbecue sauce, and salt. By 1932, the Navy's cookbook had added cabbage and green peppers. Practical Home Economics (1919) has a recipe entitled "chop suey" that adds tomatoes and parsley and omits the onions and cabbage."

But it wasn't until later—into the middle of the century—that rice was dropped and replaced with pasta, and cheese—a grating of Parmesan optionally added after cooking—was added to the dish. So while its cultural origins may be distinct, for all intents and purposes, by the mid 1960's, American Chop Suey had lost all pretenses of being Chinese and instead reflected the same Italian-American combination of pasta, tomato, and beef that created every other mac and beef variant. Even the soy sauce—an ingredient which still survives in the occasional recipe today—was eventually supplanted by Worcestershire sauce.

Unfortunately, the dish has come on hard times. I ask my friends if they know it—even the ones from New England!—and I'm met either with blank stares, or an assumption that I'm talking about the Chinese Dish.

Whatever its origins, one thing is for sure: When made right, the stuff is delicious and it's high time it made a comeback. Tender pasta with a rich tomato and beef sauce flavored with garlic and oregano, cooked together with onions and garlic and finished with cheese, this is Italian-American comfort food at its finest. Not only that, but it's a ridiculously easy dish to put together, cooked 100% on the stovetop, and requiring nothing more than a straight-sided sauté pan (even a large Dutch oven will work), a bowl, and about half an hour of your time.

Here's how I make mine.

Step 1: Soak Pasta

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Most recipes for American Chop Suey call for par-cooking macaroni in a separate pot until it's nearly cooked through, then finishing it in the pan with the sauce. But for several years now, I've been using a technique that Aki and Alex of Ideas in Food wrote about back in 2009: soaking pasta before cooking. The idea is to separate the two processes that happen when you're cooking pasta: hydration and heat.

Once your pasta has soaked in warm water for about 20 minutes, it cooks up directly in the sauce in just under half the time it takes to boil it using the traditional method, and it means one fewer pot to heat up on the stovetop.

And before someone points it out, yes, I went fancy with the macaroni, ditching the elbows and using some ridged, spiral-shaped cavatappi instead.

Step 2: Chop Vegetables

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American Chop Suey can contain ingredients as varied as celery to olives, but the vast majority of the time you get the classic Italian-American pepper and onion combo. The same stuff that's served on top of your Fenway Frank or your Chicken Scarpariello. I use a mix of green bell peppers and yellow onion, though red bell pepper wouldn't be completely out of the question here either.

Some folks like the pepper and onions cut into chunky strips. I prefer the way small dice melds into the sauce later on.

Step 3: Get Your Fat On

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We're cooking in a mixture of olive oil and butter here, for the same reason I do with my Italian-American Red Sauce: butter provides a velvety richness while olive oil gives great flavor.

Heat up the fats in a large, straight-sided sauté pan. As soon as the butter is melted, it's time to move on.

Step 4: Sauté Your Veg

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The trick here is to cook the vegetables down slowly so that they melt into the sauce without browning. Over moderate heat, it should take a full 7 minutes. And remember—NO BROWNING. There's a time and a place for sweet browned onion flavor, and it's not here.

Step 5: Crush Tomatoes

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I always keep my pantry stocked with whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes. Whole tomatoes in cans tend to be much more consistent in quality than diced or crushed tomatoes, and it's a simple task to get them to whatever texture you'd like. If you have a stick blender, you can blend the tomatoes directly in the can they come in. If not, just buzz 'em in a normal blender for a few seconds. I'm using two full 28-ounce cans.

Step 6: Mince Garlic

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Four cloves of garlic, minced however you normally mince it, whether that's on a microplane (like me), by hand (like the occasional me), or with a press (like not-me). While you're at it, now is also a good time to roughly mince some fresh parsley leaves.

Step 7: Add Aromatics

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Add the garlic along with a bit of red pepper flakes, a tablespoon of dried oregano, and a small handful of minced fresh parsley leaves. Why fresh parsley and dried oregano? Heartier herbs with more succulent leaves like oregano or rosemary retain their flavors far better when dried than tender leafy herbs like parsley. A good general rule of thumb is that if the leaves are fuzzy of pointy, they'll still be tasty when dried. Thin and green? Use them fresh only.

Step 8: Here's the Beef

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No need to get fancy here. A pound of straight up 80/20 ground chuck has a good balance of flavor and fat. To cook it, I clear a space in the center of the pan and places the meat right in the center.

Step 9: Break up the Meat

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To break up the meat, I start by using a wooden spoon to get it into rough chunks.

Step 10: Mash It

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Then I follow through with a potato masher to completely separate the meat into small bits (a sturdy whisk will also work). I like the way this helps the meat incorporate evenly into the sauce—there's nothing I dislike more than large chunks of tough meat in an otherwise smooth sauce.

Ok, I can think of a few things I hate more*, but not many.

*bananas, the Eagles, and microwaves with too many buttons come to mind.

To that end, I also don't like to brown my ground meat too deeply—the more you brown, the tougher and grittier it gets. Even without browning, there's plenty of flavor going on here, and I prefer the more velvety texture of meat that's mostly simmered.

There are exceptions to this rule, and when I do brown ground meat, I'll generally buy the meat as whole pieces, brown it first, then cut and grind it to get browned flavor without introducing toughness. But that's too much work for an easy project like this.

Step 11: Add the Tomatoes

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Both cans of pureed tomatoes are stirred into the sauté pan.

Step 12: Drain the Pasta

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At this point, your pasta should have been soaking in hot water for around 20 to 30 minutes. It's not 100% hydrated, but it's got a good head start. Drain it in a colander.

Step 13: Add the Pasta

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Next, add the pasta to the sauté pan. It'll finishing cooking right in the sauce.

Step 14: Add the Worcestershire

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Worcestershire sauce is an essential element in New England-style American Chop Suey. I glug it in by eye, but you can start with two tablespoons for the whole pot if you're the type that gets uncomfortable when there are no measuring spoons around.

Step 15: Add Chicken Broth

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Since we're still gonna have to partially re-hydrate those noodles, a little bit of extra liquid is necessary. I add a cup of chicken broth to the mix before seasoning it with salt and pepper.

Step 16: Stir, Simmer, and Cook

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Stir everything together, cover it with a lid, and let it sit at a hard simmer for about five minutes to get the noodles to cook nearly all the way through.

Step 17: Cut the Cheese

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While the sauce simmers, it's time to work on the cheese.

The most basic American Chop Suey recipes are made 100% cheese-free, but I don't stand for that kind of nonsense here.

I tried making this casserole topped a few different ways: grated Parmesan, grated mozzarella, cubed mozzarella—I even went to the extremes, using white American singles (not uncommon!) to real honest-to-goodness, straight-from-Italy buffalo milk mozzarella. (The American has great texture but it melts almost too easily, and fails to add much flavor to the dish. Very fresh water-packed mozzarellas tended to get rubbery when melted and release too much watery whey.)

While the standard dish is light on the cheese, every time I added more cheese it just got better and better. I decided to say screw it to tradition in favor of better flavor. The best cheese for the job was plain old low-moisture mozzarella cheese from the supermarket. Pizza cheese, if you will.

Rather than applying it in grated form, I found cubes was better, giving you nice cheesy pockets to bite into.

We're using a full pound of mozzarella cheese here.

Step 18: Grate Parmesan

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In addition to the mozzarella, I grate down a few ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Perhaps Italy's most famous cheese seems a little out of place in one of America's lowliest casseroles, but there's a reason opposites attract, and in this case, that reason is that both things are damned delicious.

Step 19: Uncover and Stir

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After simmering for five minutes, remove the cover and stir the pasta, tasting a piece to ensure that it's cooked. At this point it'll still look very soupy and moist. This is okay. It will tighten up. Just trust me on this one.

Step 20: Stir in the Cheese

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Most American Chop Suey recipes add a sprinkling of cheese to the top of the dish. To me that seems a little half-assed when comforting is what we're going for. Instead, I take half of the cheese and stir it right into the casserole, folding gently so that the cheese remains in intact pockets that build cheesy flavor and richness into every bite.

Step 21: Top with More Cheese

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Spread the remaining mozzarella over the top of the casserole along with half of the Parmesan.

Step 22: Cover and Cook

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Cover the pan again, bring it to a light simmer for three minutes, then let it rest off heat for five minutes for the cheese to melt thoroughly.

Step 23: The Reveal

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After that final rest, your pasta should have absorbed the last traces of excess liquid while becoming perfectly al dente in the process. The cheese should be fully melted, and everything should smell insanely delicious. As soon as the lid is off, I sprinkle it with a bit of extra grated Parmesan, along with some roughly chopped parsley leaves. Adding those herbs in two stages helps build up layers of flavor.

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Are your guests a little slow getting to the dinner table? Don't worry about it. This is the kind of dense, heavy stuff that will stay steaming hot and gooey for at least half an hour. Still, if you want to get that perfect cheese-tendril money shot, your best bet is to act fast.

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See how that cheese gets itself nice and comfortable between the noodles? That's how comfortable you're gonna be once you start eating. (Pass the Worcestershire and the hot sauce, please.)

If this dish doesn't inspire groans in your stomach, intense pangs of hunger, and furrowed brows deeply troubled by a sense of longing and incompleteness in you, then I'm afraid that you and I may just not get along.