I should probably confess, before I get into this recipe too far, that I’m pretty sure I never ate Hamburger Helper as a kid and that I never wanted to. I won’t claim that I was a burgeoning food critic. I liked all kinds of trashy things, preferring many fast foods to the homemade versions of them that my mom prepared. Maybe that was because we didn’t eat much fast food. Maybe it was just because I was a human child and fast food restaurants were, in the early 1980s, just beginning to master the diabolically effective combination of salt, sugar, and fat that seems to close up all the happiness circuits in human DNA. But my mom wouldn’t have believed in Hamburger Helper. One generation removed from life in the mountains, only twenty years after living on a subsistence farm where they milled their own flour, for heaven’s sake, Hamburger Helper would have seemed way too easy to be legit. And every time I saw the plump white glove on television commercials, the mess of meat and noodles that he so kindly “helped” to prepare reminded me of the school-cafeteria dish they called “goulash.” I packed my lunch for a good reason, thank you very much.
In any case, despite everything I’ve just said, the words “Hamburger Helper” still summon a nostalgic feeling for me–kind of like the off-the-shoulder sweaters that teenage girls are wearing with their leggings right now: Even though I didn’t participate in that particular trend, it still reminds me of being young…in a good way.
This recipe is a (mostly) whole-foods version of Hamburger Helper. It’s that quick and easy, and I assume it’s considerably tastier, though I can’t prove it based on my own experience. Since I started making this (on the advice of a Cooks Illustrated technique that condones the cooking of pasta right inside the sauce), I don’t think I’ve made traditional lasagna. This is so much easier and faster, and I’m not sure it doesn’t actually taste better. The noodles don’t get cooked to mush and the vegetables can be added in stages so that each one gets the amount of time it needs to be its best self.
Whether you happen to be suffering from a secret nostalgia for HH or just want to feed your family something simple, warm, and nurturing during these cold days when the darkness comes early (making it practically impossible to get decent photos of one’s dinner, incidentally) and the kids’ teachers are sending home elaborate holiday crafts that need to be completed for homework and once the little ones are asleep you don’t want to spend time scrubbing out pans because you have all those cardboard Amazon boxes, the contents of which need to be disinterred under cover of night to make sure Christmas will arrive on time and happily…Well, this is a time for one-pan wonders. Here’s one:
1 lb. ground beef
4 cloves garlic
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 lb. frozen spinach
6-8 ounces lasagna noodles (not “no-boil noodles”)
1 jar of good spaghetti sauce (I really like Silver Palate and San Marzano. Get the good stuff here. It makes a difference.)
3 cups water
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan
1 cup whole-milk ricotta
1. Brown your meat and then remove it from the skillet. Leave a little of the fat behind and get rid of the rest. To the hot skillet, add your chopped onion and garlic. Cook gently over medium heat until soft. Don’t brown the onion or you’ll scorch the garlic. Salt generously and return the meat to the pan.
2. Add your frozen spinach to the pan and saute it for a few minutes, along with the other ingredients. Meanwhile, break your noodles into bite-sized pieces and stir them into the pan, along with the water and spaghetti sauce. Cover and simmer vigorously for about 20 minutes, until the noodles are tender. Stir frequently while it’s cooking and keep an eye on the temperature so that you don’t lose the bubbling.
3. Taste it. Does the mixture need salt (mine always does)? Dried basil? Red pepper flakes? Make it suit your family’s tastes. Then dollop the ricotta in big spoonfuls right into the skillet.
4. Sprinkle with your shredded cheeses and then pop the skillet under a hot broiler until it looks all golden and crusty on top.
5. Voila: A lasagna experience in about 30 minutes.