Help From Outside the Box

by Elizabeth Skipper | September 25th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

skilletI hate to admit it, but I use Hamburger Helper on a biweekly basis.  I would like to eliminate using pre-packaged meal starters, but I’m not sure how to begin.  What advice can you offer me?

Forgive me, but I’d hate to admit it, too. Good for you for wanting to get away from these packaged skillet meals! It’s easy to forgo using those “helper” products, which do nothing to create a healthful meal and a lot for the manufacturer’s bottom line.

I had to do some research because the last time I looked on that shelf, I think Hamburger Helper and Tuna Helper were the only choices. (Yes, it’s been quite a while.) In addition to Hamburger, Chicken, Tuna, and Ultimate Helper, the Betty Crocker website listed the following favorites: Cheesy, Homestyle (!), Italian, Asian, Mexican, and Whole Grain. There are also Helper complete meals and microwave singles. Whew!

The shelf at my local grocery store carried only a few of these, presumably the best sellers. The boxes boast that there are forty varieties in all. That’s about forty too many, in my mind. But, as you asked for help getting off these meal preparation crutches, I’ll move on and see if I can provide some.

First off, why do you use them – is it habit, do you like the flavors, are you lacking time or cooking skills? Habits can be changed. If you like the flavors, you can make tastier versions yourself. If time’s the problem, with just a bit more allotted to meal preparation, you can produce far superior versions of any of these dishes. If it’s a matter of cooking skills, I suggest you spend some time learning or brushing up on them. It will make any time you spend in the kitchen much more enjoyable. Or maybe you just like having minimal clean-up – there’s something to that!

The basic method to the ground beef version is to brown the meat, drain it, add the seasoning packet and the noodles along with some water, and simmer everything until the water’s absorbed and the pasta is cooked. Reminds me very much of American Chop Suey, one of my go-to dishes when time’s of the essence but something warm’s required. It’s comfort food, and everyone has their own version. Mine’s probably the very simplest out there, with ground beef, onions, canned tomatoes, macaroni, and salt and pepper the only ingredients. Others add garlic, green peppers, corn, tomato soup/sauce/paste, Italian seasoning like basil and oregano, sugar, other kinds of pasta, and who knows what else.

The technique is almost identical to the boxed version; the only difference is I boil the macaroni separately and add it after the meat, onion, and tomatoes have cooked together for about fifteen minutes. I suppose if I calculated it carefully, I could add the macaroni with sufficient water to the beef and tomatoes and cook it all in one pot, but I don’t find having two pots to wash a big deal. The pasta pot gets washed and dried while the dish finishes heating through.

All those different varieties of “helpers” aren’t so very different. The type of pasta, the flavorings, dried sour cream in some to make them “creamy”. . . in fact, the greater the variety, the longer and worse the ingredient list gets. Mexican? Try adding chili powder or taco seasoning. Asian? Soy sauce, ginger, and garlic. “Cheesy”? Is it too obvious to suggest adding some real cheese, say grated cheddar or parmesan? Stroganoff means sour cream – buy a container of the fresh stuff and add some at the end of cooking (it might curdle if you put it in too soon or overheat it.)

To eliminate the desire to use the a “helper” when you’re tempted to go that route, here’s are two recipes to fall back. They’re both from Marian Burros’s book Keep it Simple:

Help for Hamburger Chili-Style

1 pound ground beef
1 cup uncooked elbow macaroni
3 TB minced dried onion
½ tsp. minced dried garlic
1 ½ tsp. chili powder
⅓ cup tomato paste
Salt to taste

Brown the meat in a skillet; drain off the fat. Add four cups water and the remaining ingredients. Stir and bring to boil. Simmer, uncovered, about 15 minutes, or until mixture is as thick as you like.

Help for Tuna Stroganoff-style

3 ½ cups water
2 cup egg noodles
6 ½ oz. can tuna, rinsed and drained
¼ tsp. minced dried garlic
2 TB minced dried onion
3 TB sour cream
½ cup grated cheese such as Cheddar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine water, noodles, tuna, garlic, and onion in a large skillet. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, about seven minutes, until all water has evaporated. Stir; reduce heat and then stir in sour cream and cheese. Stir and mix well until cheese melts. Season.

And last, I highly recommend you search out a copy of The Best 30-Minute Recipe, put out by Cook’s Illustrated. You’ll find the chapters on Skillet Suppers and Skillet Pasta invaluable. There are close to 60 recipes which do use some convenience products like instant rice, refrigerated biscuits and pie crust, and cornbread mix, but overall are vastly superior to what you’re using now. Enjoy branching out!

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