Hamburger helper, sort of…

049I was looking at food blocks a couple of weeks ago and saw something from Glamour magazine.   It referenced a woman’s blog where it first appeared where she wrote about making your own grown up hamburger helper.  The Glamour link looked identical.

It sent me back to my adolescence when I was just a novice cook.

As a kid, my mom cooked a lot of lovely, delicious food, but we didn’t eat much in the way of meat and pasta since my dad was not such a fan of pasta.  Or cheese.  Or Italian food and flavorings in general except for spaghetti and pizza.  We did eat “goulash” which had hamburger and elbow macaroni and a tomato/ketchup sauce, but that was pretty much it for the “exotic” stuff I saw on boxes at the store.

My early cooking was cans of condensed soup — especially tomato — where all I had to do was add milk or water.  Somewhere as I approached adolescence, I saw an ad or something for “souped up minute rice” where my condensed soup met instant rice to make a casserole-ish, risotto-ish concoction.  To be honest, it’s terrible, but I ate TONS of it as a kid.  When I tried it as an adult, I had a hard time believing I ever thought instant rice was rice.  After 3 years in Japan and then getting in the habit of cooking grains myself, instant rice is no longer possible for me.  If I need fast rice, I have to plan ahead by cooking a lot when I do have time and then freezing it in containers.  They microwave quickly in just a few minutes and the rice tastes fresh like it was just made.

After souped up minute rice, I moved on to the boxes of XX helper (hamburger, tuna, pasta, etc.).  It was amazing to me that I could just brown some meat or open some tuna and in just a short time I could be eating a creamy or tomato-y or cheesy pasta dish.  It satisfied my childhood macaroni and cheese gene.  We made the ones with pasta.  We made the ones with dried potato slices.  Mostly I ate it with my mom since my dad had no interest.  Or I ate it on my own.

In my early adulthood (college), I was still eating these helpers once in a while.  Less frequently, but not eliminated entirely.

In Japan, convenience cooking foods took a different direction.  Instead of a box of some kind of powder and pasta to which you added water/milk and meat, the Japanese quick help was mostly about the sauce.  For example, if you intended to make a meat and vegetable stir-fry of some kind, you had to come up with all of your own veggies and meat and the packet of liquid seasonings would be your shortcut to dinner.  A lot of it leaned toward Chinese flavors.

There were some powdered flavor items but they were usually one ingredient you might use in cooking rather than a “meal in a box.”

Coming back from Japan, those boxes didn’t hold the same allure for me as they once did, but seeing the article about making your own hamburger helper did get my attention.

It made me nostalgic.  And curious.    I figured it had to be better tasting that anything from a box.

I decided to give it a try.039

Some caveats, though.  I used ground turkey instead of beef.  No biggie except I had less fat to drain off and I was careful not to overcook the turkey to dry it out.  Second, I don’t use garlic powder or onion powder.  I find it pretty fast to just peel garlic and put it through my garlic press.  For onion, if I’m worried about cooking time being too short to thoroughly cook it, I will grate it into dishes.  Looking at the recipe, I knew I’d be adding fresh garlic and onion using these technique rather than using the powders.


Grating onion with a microplane.


Fresh garlic!


Grated garlic and onion instead of powder.

Still, it’s quite easy.

  • 1 pound ground beef — I used ground turkey
  • 1 1/2 cups uncooked whole-wheat pasta — I used regular pasta since I had it
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tbsp. whole-wheat white flour — I used the flour I had in my house
  • 1/4 tsp. onion salt — I grated some fresh onion instead, maybe several tablespoons worth of grated onion
  • 1/4 tsp. garlic powder — I put 2-3 cloves of garlic through my garlic press
  • 1/4 tsp. paprika
  • 3/4 cup sharp Cheddar cubes or freshly shredded sharp Cheddar — I had grated cheese so I used grated cheese
  • Pink Himalayan salt to taste — I used Lawry’s seasoned salt to season my turkey but I think salt could be fine
  • Fresh cracked black pepper to taste
  • [Editor’s note: I add a dash of Tabasco sauce for an extra dose of flavor] — I used smoked paprika since I had it.  I was looking for something more smoky than spicy.

The other thing I really liked is this is an example of a recipe that cooks pasta in a risotto style which means you put everything in one pot — including the dry pasta — and then have enough liquid to cook the pasta and thicken into a risotto-like mixture.  I saw this years ago and use it every so often if I’m feeling lazy and don’t want to clean a pot or don’t want to have to wash a dirty pot by hand to be able to make pasta.

053After browning the meat and draining off the fat, you add in the pasta, onion, garlic, flour, cheese, milk and water.  Over a medium/medium high heat, you stir everything together and then bring it to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and keep stirring.  It could scorch quickly due to the milk and the cheese.  The recipe said to cover which I think was to help the pasta to cook both by boiling and steaming.  I found it needed to be stirred so often that it was hard to manage the covering.  Still, even with that challenge is was only 10-15 minutes or until the pasta was tender.

054It looked like hamburger helper — creamy, cheesy meat pasta.  It defiinitely tasted better than the box stuff.  I made some vegetables to go with it to try to cut through the richness, but it was an easy and satisfying lunch.  The leftovers weren’t as pretty because it “seized” as it got cold, but once reheated it was still pretty tasty though I’m not sure I’d make it regularly.

Maybe only when I get nostalgic for my early cooking memories.

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