One of the hardest things I've had to do as a cook is learn to make meals that please everyone in my family. My fairly picky children all have different palates, and I get tired of making the same few meals over and over.
Lately, I've found myself thinking back to dishes my mother made, because I don't remember my sister and I rejecting meals as often as my children do.
However, like most moms who cooked in the 1970s and 1980s, my mother used a lot of boxed and canned shortcuts. I ate SpaghettiOs and Hamburger Helper. Canned mushroom soup was a flavor-adding ingredient in a plethora of one-dish meals.
I prefer to cook my meals from scratch, though, so I've been seeking homemade versions of my childhood favorites. A few of these recipes were developed just for this story, but many of them have been making regular appearances in my family meal rotation.
This recipe hit the nostalgia button on the nose. My husband and I loved the way it reminded us of the real thing, but tasted so much better. My kids, who have only had the canned kind a handful of times, loved it. Recipe adapted from Saveur magazine.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use
1 small yellow onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 can (28 ounces) tomato puree
4 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more, divided use
3 teaspoons sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound ground beef
3/4 pound aneletti or large ring pasta
3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan, plus more for serving
To make sauce: In 4-quart saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. Add onion. Saute for 3 to 4 minutes or until soft. Add garlic. Saute for 1 minute or until fragrant. Add tomato paste. Cook for 2 minutes. Add 6 tablespoons butter, tomato puree, 2 teaspoons salt, sugar, pepper and 1/4 cup water. Cook for 5 minutes or until thick.
To make meatballs: In bowl, combine ground beef, 2 teaspoons salt and some pepper. Roll meat into -3/4-inch balls. Place meatballs in sauce. Reduce heat to medium. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes or until meatballs are cooked through.
To cook pasta: Bring large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 13 minutes for aneletti, 9 minutes for large rings.
To serve: Drain pasta. Add to saucepan. Add cheese. Stir to combine. Divide among bowls. Serve with more cheese on side.
Rice A Roni
This ubiquitous 1960s' side dish is so simple to prepare from scratch that it's almost laughable to consider buying it in a box. My version is significantly less salty than the boxed version. If you crave extra salt, feel free to taste it and add more at the end.
Makes 6 to 8 side-dish servings.
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup vermicelli noodles, broken into 1/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock or broth
1/2 small onion, minced
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
To prepare mixture: In saucepan with tight-fitting lid, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic and vermicelli. Cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes or until vermicelli begins to brown. Add rice. Cook, stirring, for 4 minutes or until rice is translucent and vermicelli is deep golden.
To cook rice: Reduce heat to low. Add chicken stock. Increase heat. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Cover. Simmer for 16 to 18 minutes or until rice is fully cooked. Add parsley. Fluff with fork. Serve.
Tater Tots Hotdish
OK, so this isn't a prepackaged meal, per se, but it does traditionally rely upon my most-hated convenience food: canned cream of mushroom soup. Before you get defensive, let me tell you that once you've made your own bechamel sauce and added some fresh mushrooms, you'll be a convert. It's easy, much less salty and just generally better. I also beefed up the vegetable-to-beef ratio in my version and used fresh, blanched green beans. I served this casserole to my kids, who had never eaten Tater Tots hotdish — I didn't grow up here, so it wasn't on my childhood dinner menu — and the neighbor kids of a Minnesota farm girl, who eat it fairly frequently. All the kids liked it, and all the adults went for seconds. Recipe adapted from afarmgirlsdabbles.com.
Makes 8 servings.
1 1/2 pounds fresh green beans, cleaned and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use
1 cup diced yellow onion (about 1/2 large onion)
12 ounces chopped fresh mushrooms
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Frank's RedHot Sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup low-sodium chicken stock or broth
2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon dried thyme
12 ounces frozen corn
2 pounds frozen Tater Tots
4 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded (optional)
To prepare oven, pan: Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly coat 13-by-9-by-2-inch pan with cooking spray. Set aside.
To blanch green beans: Bring large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch beans for 3 minutes. Immediately drain. Run under cold water until cool or submerge in ice bath.
To cook beef: In large skillet, cook beef over medium to medium-high heat, breaking up any large chunks, until brown. Using slotted spoon, remove to plate.
To make sauce: Discard all but 2 tablespoons beef fat left in skillet. Add 2 tablespoons butter. Heat until melted. Add onion, mushrooms and garlic. Stir to incorporate. Cook for 6 to 10 minutes or until onions are transparent and mushrooms are nicely softened. Slide everything in skillet to one side. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter to other side. Heat until melted. Whisking continually, sprinkle flour over butter. Draw in as much butter, beef fat and juices from vegetables as you can into flour. Cook until mixture is bubbling and slightly browned. Add chicken stock, soy sauce, Frank's RedHot Sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper to sauce side of pan. Cook, whisking, for 1 minute. Whisking continually, slowly add milk and scrape bottom of skillet. Whisk until smooth.
To assemble: Incorporate mushroom mixture into milk mixture. Add reserved cooked beef. Stir to incorporate. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until thickened. Stir in sour cream. Add green beans and corn. Stir to incorporate. Pour into pan. Level mixture. Top with frozen Tater Tots. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven. Sprinkle evenly with cheese and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until Tater Tots are golden brown and crisp and filling is bubbly.