Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


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Skillet Lasagna

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 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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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4. Sprinkle with your shredded cheeses and then pop the skillet under a hot broiler until it looks all golden and crusty on top.

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5. Voila: A lasagna experience in about 30 minutes.


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Individual Berry Pies

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It’s early December. Why in the world am I baking berry pies? Why am I baking pies at all, when I’m not far enough from Thanksgiving to miss the pumpkin pie and close enough to Christmas to smell the snickerdoodles? If I were wise, I know, I’d declare a moratorium on desserts, an inter-holiday sugar fast, during which I could grow wistful and lean, chastely fantasizing about the rounded mouthfeel of eggnog and the creamy cool of peppermint cheesecake, longing for chocolate and for snow in equal measure.

But, frankly, I’m just not that into deprivation.

Plus, my hunky husband loves berries…and pies…and I love him. So, even if I were a fan of deprivation, I’d just have to take one for the team here. When faced with a choice between caloric restriction and romance, well…You see the (hypothetical) dilemma.

In any case, these are little bitty pies. Teeny tiny pies. They disappear in a day or two without leaving you completely glutted in their wake. These are pies–deep-dish pies, for Pete’s sake–that don’t ask for a commitment.

Enough apologia. If you want to bake the pies, I won’t judge you. And if you don’t, well, you’re not my kind of person, but I’m sure someone else out there probably likes you fine. We’ll just agree to go our separate ways.

Pie people, here’s the recipe. It makes four ramekin pies or two ramekins and one small casserole dish (my husband’s man-sized ramekin. Click here if you’d like to know the precise dimensions.):

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1 9-inch pie crust for a single-crust pie (You can buy it–the Pillsbury refrigerated crusts are pretty good!–or you can make your own lightning-fast, unfussy crust, like this.):

1/4 cup ice water (with the ice removed)

1 heaping tablespoon sour cream

1 1/4 cup flour

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 stick butter, cut into little pieces and then frozen for 10 minutes or so

1. Cut up your butter and pop it into the freezer.

2. Fill a glass with ice water (so it can get super-cold)

3. Combine all the dry ingredients in your food processor fitted with the regular, sharp blade. Whizz it all together.

4. Remove your butter from the freezer and dump it into the food processor. Pulse the butter into the flour just until it is broken up–about 15 pulses.

5. Pour 1/4 cup of your ice water into a glass measuring cup, straining out the ice. Use a fork to mix in the heaping tablespoon of sour cream.

6. Pour almost all of the liquid into your food processor, pulsing gently until incorporated. Keep adding the liquid and pulsing until the dough is willing to hold together. (You may have to check it with your fingers to see whether it’s wet enough to cohere.)

7. When it’s ready, dump it out onto a floured surface and use your hands quickly to push it together into a ball. Don’t touch it any more than you need to because your hands will warm the dough. Cold pie dough behaves best. Then use a rolling pin to roll it out into a big enough stretch to accommodate your ramekins. Use a knife to cut around the outsides, leaving a generous space around them so that the dough will fit up the sides of your pans. (If you cut them too small, you can always roll the dough out a bit thinner to stretch it.) Then fit the dough into each of your pans.

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Filling:

3 cups of berries (fresh or frozen and then thawed)

1/3 cup white sugar

1/3 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or allspice (to give it a warm, slightly “seasonal” flavor)

1 tablespoon or so butter

1. Drain any extra liquid from your thawed berries. Then combine all ingredients, except the butter, in a medium bowl.

2. Distribute the filling between your pans, now lined with pie dough. Dab the butter on top.

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3. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven until they look ready–probably around 25 or 30 minutes. The filling shouldn’t be runny when you take them out.

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(Just to be a show-off, I cut heart shapes out of my extra pie dough and baked them on a cookie sheet to decorate the pies for my sweetie. That flourish is optional.)

Serve it with a big scoop of ice cream or a small one.