Hamburger Helper

When my mom returned to nursing two days a week, my sisters and I received the commission to make dinner. We loved our New Boys and Girls Cookbook from Betty Crocker. It was chock full of hints for making mealtime memorable.

Yes, the marveling female
Yes, the marveling female
Helpful tips
Helpful tips

It was also sprinkled with testimonials from other Real Life kid cooks, offering opinions or encouragement to their non-published peers.

Real life kids!
Real life kids!

The recipes were basic and worked hard to be appealing to young cooks-we did make the bunny-shaped canned pear salad with cottage cheese tails:

Bunny goodness!
Bunny goodness!

When we weren’t using a cookbook, we turned to the pantry for assistance. Mom kept a supply of Bisquick, those little blue boxes of cornbread or pizza dough mix, the brand I don’t remember, hard taco shells along with packets of seasoning, and boxes of just-add-meat convenience, Hamburger Helper.

Ground beef was the meat of economy. Finding new ways to funnel ground beef into our dinner menus was tricky. God bless the food industry for making life easier! Hamburger helper was a favorite of ours, all of those flavors scientifically engineered to please each and every sensor of the human tongue, a kind of meaty creamy pasta-y mess. An almost instant hotdish, the memory of which makes me shudder. When my dad developed colon cancer, red meat disappeared from our home. It would be years of remission later before burgers and beef tacos returned to the dinner table.

These days, Marcella Hazen’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is my hamburger helper. Better yet, it is my local, grass-fed, definitely not economic, chuck-roast-ground-as-needed helper. I love making her version of Bolognese. Beef with some vegetable simmered in milk, then wine, then tomatoes, cooked slow for over 3 hours, finishing with a little butter and hand-cut tagliatelle. Sometimes I make the sauce a day before, letting the flavors mingle and mellow, before marrying it with pasta.

My mom, growing up in a time where those in the kitchen produced everything by hand, from scratch, appreciated the time and money-savers provided to her in almost every aisle of the grocery store. A Hamburger Helper dinner would be ready in 20 minutes. This Marcella Hazen version takes significantly longer with its “just an intermittent bubble breaking through to the surface” simmer, but it doesn’t need attention during the entire cooking time. The shortlist of simple ingredients requires careful choosing for quality. The slow cooking process brings out all that the whole food, real ingredients have to offer. With the comfort of time-taken, a unrushed cook can bring a meal for savoring to the table, connecting participants to the ingredients, to the process, to the person who brought the process to light. Gracie Mille, Marcella!

Bolognese Meat Sauce

Marcella Hazen, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

Yield: 2 heaping cups


1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 tablespoons butter, plus 1 tablespoon for tossing the pasta

1/2 cup chopped onion

2/3 cup chopped celery

2/3 cup chopped carrot

3/4 pound ground beef chuck

Salt & pepper

1 cup whole milk

Whole nutmeg

1 cup dry white wine

1 1/2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta

Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese at the table


Put the oil, butter, and chopped onion in the pot, turn heat onto medium. Cook and stir the onion until it has become translucent, then add the chopped celery and carrot. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring the vegetables to coat them well.

Add the ground beef, a large pinch of salt, and a few grindings of pepper. Crumble the meat with a fork, stir well, and cook until the beef has lost its raw, red color.

Add the milk and let it simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. Add a tiny grating-about 1/8 teaspoon-of nutmeg, and stir.

Add the wine, let it simmer until it has evaporated, then add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through to the surface. Cook uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. While the sauce is cooking, you are likely to find that it begins to dry out and the fat separates from the meat. To keep it from sticking, continue the cooking, adding 1/2 cup water whenever necessary. At the end, however, no water at all must be left and the fat must separate from the sauce. Taste and correct for salt.

Toss with cooked drained pasta, adding the tablespoon of butter, and serve with freshly grated Parmesan on the side.

Note: Once done, you can refrigerate the sauce in a tightly sealed container for 3 days, or you can freeze it. Before tossing with pasta, reheat it , letting it simmer for 15 minutes, stirring it once or twice.

Taco Night

When Junior was very small he ate everything. As he aged, his tastes limited, and he began to have a pronounced issue with food texture. In my very-slow-to-dawn Maternal Wisdom, I have learned to ask him whether it’s the taste or the feel of a food that troubles him. While this helps with understanding, I still feel frustration when a dish or item once tolerated or enjoyed, now causes at-table gagging or worse. I may be able to help with texture, preparing a dish a different way, using slightly different components, but taste is taste. Since Junior’s taste buds are far newer than mine, and there is a legitimate reality that he could have more taste receptors than I do, I have learned (finally) to trust his palate. This doesn’t make dinner rejections easy. Especially when I’m tired and actually tried to make a better dinner.

I don’t go in for weekly menu planning solely based on alliteration. No Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, or Weetabix Wednesdays.  My goal is to have ingredients in the cupboard and fridge (or freezer) that can be turned into dinner each night of the week. I try to keep less complicated meals for busy days, days when Junior and I might not return home until after my usual Dinner Prep Time has past. The freezer is great for these nights. Luxurious whole-days at home are good for dishes requiring long cooking times, long rising times, or time to thaw, since last night I forgot to transfer the meat from freezer to fridge.

In addition to the everyday busyness of classes, read-alouds, and grammar mastery, my solo interests of writing, collaging, gardening, recipe researching, are activities that devour extra minutes, minutes that I could have used for clearing the kitchen counters for prep, mincing, dicing, or julienne; minutes for freezer-rummaging, remembering to write what we’d used up so I could remember to buy a replacement. From this slough of Not Enough Time Meets Picky Eater, emerges a basic weekday dinner rotation of: foods that have ready-made components in the freezer, foods Junior will eat, back-up foods Junior will eat when Spouse and I have something off-list, and not-really-favorites of Junior but items he will eat if very hungry, usually when he has lunch at noon, rather than at, say, 4PM.

One item that fits all of my menu planing criteria is the humble taco: Beef or Chicken. While we might have an accidental Taco Tuesday, we more often have Taco Mondays or Wednesdays as those are consistent late-getting-home days. We alternate between the two proteins, changing it up each time with the accompaniments at hand. The proteins can be prepared ahead of time: chicken poached or roasted, ground beef cooked and seasoned, then all frozen in containers sized for our meal.

Minced garlic, dried onion, red pepper flake, salt, ancho, pasilla, & chili blend powders
Minced garlic, dried onion, red pepper flake, salt, ancho, pasilla, & chili blend powders
Ready for shred.

Junior prefers a simple addition of grated cheddar, with sour cream on the side, some hot sauce for the tortilla chips, and his fruit/veggies on a separate plate. Spouse and I use less animal protein, replacing with pinto beans, also cooked and frozen in advance, and any number of vegetable combinations. For a last-minute-dinner we might have simple shredded lettuce. But our otherwise veggie options include: garlicky greens with kale or chard; raw cabbage slaw with shredded carrot, super thin onion, and cilantro; grilled zucchini and carrot; a raw shredded sweet potato slaw. If I’m really thinking ahead, I might even marinate some onions for a day or two.

The salsa I prefer originates from Rick Bayless’ My Mexican Kitchen: Essential Roasted Tomato-Jalapeño Salsa. This recipe alone is worth the price of the entire book!


I roast the tomatoes under the broiler, peel, then add with all their juice into a food processor. Roasted chilis and garlic, both done easily in a hot, dry, cast iron pan, stemmed and peeled respectively, follow the tomatoes into the processor.

Garlic (jalapeno roasted and frozen in late summer!)
Garlic (jalapeño not pictured, roasted and frozen in late summer!)

I usually use the whole chili, seeds and all. The first batch of salsa will have serious spice, but I have noticed that the spice level decreases with each round of thaw/refreeze. For anytime after late summer/early fall, I roast and freeze the chilis, picked and processed at their height of local ripeness, so we can have consistent chili heat all winter and spring. With the tomatoes, garlic, and chilis blended, I add finely chopped and rinsed red or white onion, and, if I find any in the garden or fridge, chopped cilantro.

Adding onion & cilantro
Adding onion & cilantro

Rinsing the onion eliminates the stuff that causes tears, the stuff responsible for turning anything with raw onion rather nasty after a few hours. I make salsa and freeze most of it, so when thawed, want it to be almost as good as the day made.

For the other ingredients, I have tried my hand at flour tortilla-making, and will make on occasion but generally try to have a package of my preferred coop-bought tortillas in the freezer. Sometimes I buy some cotija or queso fresco, but we generally go with Junior’s favorite “yellow cheese”, an item always on hand.

On any given day, I can pull from my freezer: tortillas, cooked chicken or beef, long-soaked lightly salted simmered pinto beans, fabulous salsa. From the fridge I have cheese to grate, sour cream to spoon, and some kind of vegetable to grill, roast, or shred. If I’m lucky, I’ll have an avocado to slice. We could all have some variation of this meal 2 or 3 times a week and be quite happy. Cheers!

One of our standby, go-tos!
One of our standby, go-tos!