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My mom’s culinary palate would never have been described as expensive or sophisticated.
Her preferences reflected her Depression-era, Yankee upbringing and the hardscrabble, make-do, joy-filled, post-war life she and my father built for my four brothers and I in their one income household.
Among her favorites were anything in a white cream sauce; a sandwich of mayonnaise and canned pineapple rings; and a hard-cooked egg served on a slice of toast that has been bathed in a couple of tablespoons of coffee, right out of her breakfast mug. Later in life, she was very fond of removing her false teeth so she could fully experience these subtle flavors.
Of course, many of the things she loved remain favorites of mine as well: creamed chipped beef on toast served with buttered carrots and applesauce; boiled chicken in a lightly thickened gravy made from the broth, served over thick soda crackers (yes, that’s right, crackers); and perhaps my most favorite of all, American Chop Suey.
This is not the hot lunch variety made with tomato sauce. No. This is lots of onions and celery, lots of hamburger (she would have used less), a little elbow or similar macaroni (she would have used more) all swimming in a sauce made with Campbell’s tomato soup, right out of the can.
Regular readers will remember that in a column not too long ago I railed against the horrors of Campbell’s tomato soup, and if you’re craving a steamy bowl of that comforting concoction, I stand by that opinion. Make your own tomato soup. It’s so easy and so much more delicious, particularly with those grilled cheese croutons.
However, the Campbell’s version does have its place in my cupboard, primarily as a sweet ingredient in other dishes, notably in American Chop Suey.
My mom based this recipe on something she used to order regularly at a Woonsocket, R.I., diner during World War II. Before she was married, she worked third shift at U.S. Rubber making the barrage balloons that hung over London to help defend the city against German dive-bombers. She and her mostly female colleagues, including at least one of her sisters, also made inflatable tanks that were used to deceive the Germans, rubber boats and later, as the war waned, footwear.
She blossomed during this time of her life, and her memories of that period remained among her favorites. She was proud of her work, and away from her mother’s stern eye for the first time, she reveled in her independence as a single, working woman in the city, doing her part for the war effort.
To me now, when I need a bowl of comfort, this American Chop Suey is the only thing that will do. When you make this dish, don’t be shy with the pepper and salt, which help balance the sweetness of the soup.
American Chop Suey
½ pound elbow macaroni or short cut pasta of your choice
1 large onion, cut in half then into 1/8-inch slices, at least 2 cups
3-4 stalks of celery, sliced on the diagonal into ¼- to ½-inch slices, at least 2 cups
2 tablespoon cooking oil
1-2 pounds lean hamburger or ground sirloin
2 cans Campbell’s tomato soup
About 2 soup cans full of water
Lots of black pepper and a little salt to taste
Boil a pot of salted water and cook the macaroni to just under the al dente stage, about 1 minute less than called for in the directions on the package.
In a large skillet with high sides or in a soup pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat and add the celery and onion slices. Season with salt and pepper and let the slices sweat, cooking without browning, for 5-8 minutes until the onions are nearly translucent and the celery is tender-crisp. Keep your eye on them so they don’t brown.
Push the veggies to the outside of the pan and crumble the hamburger into the center. Let it sit in the hot pan for about 5 minutes until it begins to brown, then start to flip it around and mix it in with the onions and celery. Try not to break up the hamburger too much. It’s nice to have some big chunks among the crumbles. Continue cooking until nearly all the pink has disappeared from the meat. Drain or spoon off any excess fat.
Add the tomato soup and not more than 2 cans of water and stir to combine. Bring that mixture back to a boil then add the cooked pasta. Bring the mixture back to a boil again, but keep an eye on things so the pasta doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
Now is the time to taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more pepper and perhaps more salt.
As the mixture heats, the pasta will begin to absorb some of the soup and the whole thing will thicken up. When its heated all the way through and the pasta is cooked to your liking, turn off the heat and cover the pan. Let it sit for at least 10 minutes although it certainly can sit longer. In fact, it’s much better the next day.
My mother would serve this with a slice of white sandwich bread slathered with margarine, but I prefer it straight up.
Original recipe by Virginia (Bailey) Blanchette. Share comments and recipes at email@example.com.