Friday, February 04, 2011


I’ve never had Hamburger Helper or any other chili mac in my life, but as soon as I stumbled upon this gussied-up homemade version (after following a random assortment of blog links regarding something else entirely) at The Well-Fed Newlyweds, I suddenly had to have it. How could I resist a cheesy, beefy, spicy skillet pasta? What actually attracted me—after the cheese—was that the recipe cleverly adds corn, green chiles, and cilantro for a fresher twist on the classic, and inspired by some remarks in the comments, I snuck in a few more healthy additions: red bell pepper and zucchini. I also swapped in a jalapeno for the canned chiles and dialed back the cheese a little bit. All of these were good changes, but then I had to go ahead and make one more inadvertent adaptation: I misread the recipe and used two 15-ounce cans of tomato sauce (to be fair, that’s the only size they come in at Trader Joe’s, so the existence of a smaller size wasn’t even on my radar), nearly double the amount called for. As you might expect, my finished product was plenty delicious, but decidedly saucy. Considering I’d bulked up the solid side of things by adding more vegetables, using a bit more liquid probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea, but I’m guessing 14 extra ounces was overkill. Granted, If I hadn’t known there was supposed to be less sauce, I don’t think my first remark upon tasting it would have been, “Why, this chili mac has too much sauce!” But knowing I’d made an error, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that I’d thrown the flavor balance and texture out of whack. In other words: We enjoyed this easy, friendly, and unpretentious meal, and I’ll be making it again—but with the correct amount of sauce. Only then shall I render my final verdict.

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 pound lean ground beef
1 medium onion, minced
1 small red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 small zucchini, finely chopped
2–3 teaspoons chili powder (depending on your desired level of spiciness; I think I used 2 teaspoon regular chili powder plus ½ teaspoon chipotle chili powder)
¾ teaspoon ground coriander
¾ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon light brown sugar, lightly packed
2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce
2 cups water
8 ounces (2 cups) elbow macaroni
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels (if frozen, no need to defrost)
1 4.5-ounce can chopped green chiles (or 1 large jalapeno, minced)
1½ cups shredded cheese (I used cheddar and pepper Jack), divided
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

1. Heat the oil in a large (12-inch) skillet over medium heat. Add the ground beef, onion, red pepper, zucchini, chili powder, coriander, and cumin. (If you’re using a jalapeno instead of canned green chiles, add it now too.) Cook the beef until it is no longer pink, then drain off any accumulated grease, if necessary. (If the beef is really lean, you probably won’t need to drain it.)

2. Add the garlic and brown sugar. Stir constantly for 30 seconds. Stir in the tomato sauce, water, and macaroni. Cover the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until the macaroni is cooked through.

3. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in 1 cup of the cheese and the corn and green chiles (unless you’re using a jalapeno, in which case you already added it in Step 1). Top with the remaining cup of cheese, and cover the skillet. Let the skillet sit for a minute or two until the cheese melts, then sprinkle the cilantro over the top.

Serves: 6
Time: 45 minutes
Leftover potential: Good.

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