For people who grew up in the second half of the last century, meals built around ground beef are some of the most comforting of comfort foods. It’s what Americans ate back then.
Or at least what working class Americans ate. Rumor had it that rich folks ate steaks every night while the rest of us ate hamburger. And we ate a lot of it. Not just as hamburgers on buns, or hamburger steaks on a plate, or Salisbury steak on a plate with a sauce, but concocted together with all kinds of ingredients to make all kinds of food.
Ground beef, or hamburger, was relatively cheap back then, and every cook knew a bunch of ways to get a dinner out of it. Meat loaf, Swedish meatballs, sloppy Joes and every conceivable kind of casserole were only a few of the options.
Take a look at any cookbook from that period — they turn up at used book stores all the time — and you’ll find more casserole recipes for ground beef than you can shake a stick at. A lot of them are old-fashioned, but a whole lot more still sound good.
By 1971, General Mills jumped on the bandwagon and their Betty Crocker label introduced “Hamburger Helper.” Now all you needed to make dinner was a pound of ground beef, some water and maybe a little mix to add to the box of pasta and the bag of mystery powder that through the magic of chemistry turned water, and sometimes milk, into a sauce.
Cooking dinner was never so easy and by the time 30 years later when folks began to be a little concerned with what was in that bag of mystery powder, another generation of people had fallen in love with ground beef for dinner. And they wanted it quick and easy with no pre-planning required.
In honor of those nostalgic meals of yore, an assortment of recipes follow. Everything from a really old-fashioned casserole that utilizes canned biscuits to an upscale modernization requiring frozen gnocchi. Even a nod toward healthy eating is included with a dish that serves the ground beef mixture on a zucchini ‘boat.’
Tamale pie is a recipe that has stood the test of time, though it is usually neither tamale nor pie. This recipe uses a layer of cornbread as the crust instead of the usual cornbread topping. It makes for more of a pie — though the trade-off is two skillets to wash instead of one. It still in no way resembles a tamale but it is delicious and very nostalgic.
And speaking of nostalgia, how about ‘hamburger helper’ from scratch? Before those red and beige boxes filled supermarket shelves, people made those dishes homemade without the use of mystery powder. You can too. Give it a try.
And if you’ve been doing it all along, congratulations. What was old is new again.
½ cup cornmeal
⅔ cup flour
3 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
3-4 tbsp. oil
⅓ cup milk
1 small can diced green chiles (4.5 ounce can)
1 can of corn or creamed corn
1 lb. ground beef
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
1 ¼ cup enchilada sauce
2 cups shredded cheese
Preheat oven to 400°F. Whisk together cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add oil until soft crumbles form. Whisk in milk and egg. Gently fold in chiles and corn. Pour into greased baking pan (9×9, 9×13, large cast iron skillet). Bake until set (a toothpick should come out clean), about 20-25 minutes. While cornbread is baking, combine beef with spices and sauté in a skillet over medium heat until fully cooked, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside. Once cornbread is done baking, reduce oven to 350 degree F. Poke holes in cornbread with a fork and pour enchilada sauce over it. Top with ground beef and shredded cheese, and cover with aluminum foil. Bake in oven for 20 minutes. Remove foil and back until cheese begins to brown, about 5-10 minutes. Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving with desired toppings.
Ground Beef Enchilada Zucchini Boats
1 tbsp. olive oil
½ cup diced red onion
1 lb. lean ground beef
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. ground cumin
salt to taste
3 large zucchinis, sliced in half lengthwise and scooped out to create a “boat”
1½ cups of old El Paso red enchilada sauce
½ cup shredded cheddar cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
diced green onions
Heat a medium large skillet to medium high heat. Add olive oil and onions to the pan. Saute until translucent or soft, about 2-3 minutes. Add in the ground beef. Cook until there is no more pink in the meat, breaking up meat into small pieces along the way. Add in minced garlic, smoked paprika, ground cumin, and then salt to taste. Stir until combined. In a 13×9 inch baking dish, add zucchini boats flesh side facing up. Scoop the ground beef mixture into the “boat” part of the zucchini. Pour the red enchilada sauce over the filled zucchini boats. Sprinkle with shredded cheddar cheese. Cover the baking dish with tin foil. Bake for 20 minutes at 350. Remove the tin foil from the pan. Bake for another 5 minutes uncovered. Garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve. Add additional toppings, as desired.
Cheesy BBQ Beef and Biscuit Casserole
1 can flaky biscuits (8 per pack)
1 ½ pounds ground beef
1 cup sweet BBQ sauce
¼ cup yellow mustard
1 ½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
In a very well greased casserole dish, lay out biscuits. In a large pan, brown ground beef. While beef cooks, smoosh biscuits to make a layer across the bottom of the pan. Bake until very slightly browned, about 5 minutes, and set aside until beef is ready. When ground beef is cooked, drain fat well. Add BBQ sauce and mustard, stir well and add more of either to taste. Pour beef mixture into biscuit base. Sprinkle shredded cheese on top. Bake at 350°F. for 10-15 minutes, until cheese is melted.
1 tbsp. butter
1 (16 oz.) package potato gnocchi
1/2 lb. lean ground beef
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. mustard powder (optional)
2 cups diced onion (about 1 whole onion)
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 (10-oz) can diced tomatoes and green chiles
1 cup beef broth (or water)
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/3 cup thinly sliced scallions
Melt butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add gnocchi in a single layer and cook on one side for 2-3 minutes until browned and toasted. Shake the pan to toss the gnocchi and continue cooking for another 2-3 minutes, tossing occasionally, until both sides are toasted. Remove gnocchi to a plate and set aside. Turn the heat to high and return skillet to stove. When the pan is very hot and smoking, add the beef and season with salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, and mustard powder if desired. Add the onion and garlic, and cook, stirring occasionally, until beef is browned and onions are golden. Drain if necessary. Add the tomatoes, broth, and gnocchi back into the skillet. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 5 minutes until the gnocchi is tender and liquid is mostly absorbed. Off heat, then add the cream and 1/2 cup cheese and stir to combine. Top with remaining cheese and scallions. Place the skillet under the broiler in the oven until cheese is browned and bubbly, about 3 minutes.
Homemade Hamburger Helper
1 pound ground beef
1 1/2 cups uncooked penne pasta
2 cups milk
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp. whole wheat white flour
1/4 tsp. onion salt
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. paprika
3/4 cup sharp cheddar cubes
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
Brown beef in skillet and drain. Take pan off burner and add pasta, spices, flour, and cheese. Stir in milk and water, mix ingredients to combine. Return to burner over medium-high heat. Bring mixture just to a boil, then reduce heat to a light simmer. Stir frequently. Place a lid over the skillet, and allow to simmer until pasta is cooked, about 10-15 minutes stirring frequently and adjusting heat as needed.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699, on Twitter @BillColvard.