Heeeere’s Johnny! The history of a pasta casserole

Have you ever heard of Johnny Mazzetti? If you’re Panamanian (or have lived in Panama) you probably do. 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 someones 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:
1lb ground beef
3/4 tsp sea salt
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp Italian Seasoning
1 large onion, diced
1/2 bell pepper (preferably red), diced
2 serrano peppers, finely chopped
1/2 cp cilantro, chopped
1 small can crushed tomatoes
1 cp broth or water
1/4 cp Cotija cheese

For the pasta:
2-1/2 cps of a combination of Mexican crema (creme fraiche), heavy cream and milk (you can use all of them or take your pick)
Sea salt
White pepper
2 cps cheese (I used Pepper Jack and Cheddar)
3 tbsps 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, serranos 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¬į. 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.

For more yummy shots, click here.

Cookingly yours,


Picadillo, a Mexican standard

Picadillo is well-known, even if slightly different, in all Latin countries. It always begins the same way, with ground beef that is increased with local vegetables and aromatics. In Panama, we add tomatoes or tomato sauce, capers, olives and sometimes raisins. Puerto Rico’s and Cuba’s version is similar to ours.

The Hubbz loves his picadillo Mexican style and I do too. I have to admit that I prefer it when he makes it, and it has nothing to do with being cooked for. I don’t exactly know why, but his tastes different than mine. My mami says it’s in the hand. At least that’s what she used to say about cake batters. Maybe we all have our own inherently unique ‘flavor’ that is somehow infused into the things we cook. Seriously. Have you ever mimicked a recipe from someone you know and not been able to get it to taste quite the same? It happens. I don’t know how, but it does.

Anyway, I made this batch following The Hubbz directions. It was very good, just not Hubbz good, maybe you’ll hit the spot.

The Hubbz’ Mexican Picadillo

2 lbs ground beef (avoid lean beef)
1-1/2 tbsp fajita seasoning
2 tsps Herbs d’Provence
1 large onion, diced
1/2 each red and yellow bell pepper, diced
1 or 2 serrano peppers, finely diced
2 cps potatoes, peeled and finely diced
Cilantro, finely chopped

Heat up a large pan, make sure it has a tight-fitting lid, over high heat and add the beef. Break it up as you drop it in the skillet. Once you’ve got it all in, season it liberally with the fajita seasoning and herbs d’Provence. Don’t be shy with the fajita seasoning; even though it has salt and you may be worried about over-salting, remember you’ll be adding potatoes and other veggies that will soak up the salt.

Crumble the beef as you work the seasoning in. Keep the temperature high, to help brown the beef a bit. The moisture in the ground beef will sweat out, once it evaporates, the beef will begin browning.

Add the onions and peppers. Make sure to stir it constantly to avoid too much from sticking to the bottom. Cook until the onions are translucent before adding the potatoes.

Once you add the potatoes, add about 1 cp of broth or water cover and reduce the temperature to medium-low. Come back and stir it every so often, check the seasoning and adjust as necessary. Allow it to simmer for 30 minutes or so, until the potatoes are tender and falling apart. As a matter of fact, the potatoes will be almost impossible to spot once this is cooked all the way.

We like to serve it with flour tortillas or rice.

Ay que rico!

Cookingly yours,