Beef Rigatoni with Caramelized Onions
or “‘Amburger Assistant”
I love cooking weeknight kitchen-sink meals. You know what I mean – you feel like you don’t have anything to cook with, but a quick glance at the fridge reveals a disparate collection of odds and ends begging to be turned into… something. So you roll up your sleeves and try to figure out what the heck you can make. It’s pretty rewarding in the end – you get to clear out the fridge and avoid wasting food, experiment with flavours you might not otherwise have thought of. It’s kind of like a far-less-tense version of one of those basket challenges from a cooking competition show. But the very best part is that you end up with some tasty, hearty eats (fingers crossed). There is one little problem though – as much as I love making these meals… I hate writing about them. A Kitchen sink meal (and family-friendly weeknight fare in general) isn’t exactly the most evocative stuff on earth. It’s easy to wax poetic about some carefully considered and elegantly crafted entrée, but a big ol’ bowl of weeknight-whatchamacallit doesn’t exactly scream James Beard award. But food blogs and magazines are doing themselves and their readers a disservice when they fail to champion the simple scratch-based cooking that can (and should) get us all through our busy lives. This deepens the divide between the food we look at and the food we cook (something I’ve touched on before). Even worse, the desire to present only glamorous food can intimidate novice cooks who might be afraid to step foot in the kitchen. These thoughts were the culmination of a hectic and harried few weeks, and they convinced me that now was the best time to unleash this bad boy on the world and to make my case for food that is simple and scratch-made – unglamorous but delicious.
Honestly, I’ve wanted to publish this recipe for ages but it just didn’t fit anywhere. It was just sitting there as a long-neglected draft… bugging me. I’ve been using the last month or so to really clean house behind the scenes here at Diversivore, which has been wonderful (check out my collected Citrus and Japanese Pantry themes for an example of some of the stuff I’ve been up to), but that’s meant that I haven’t had the time to post any new recipes, and frankly that was kind of driving me crazy. I get a little twitchy when I realize how long it’s been since I put up something new and it becomes hard to focus on much else. Cleaning house and twitchy brain aside, there was a bigger reason that I wanted to post THIS particular recipe now. I wanted to post it because life is NUTS, but you’ve still got to eat.
Life gets crazy, and mine is no exception. Our family life has been addled by a teething, sleep disruptions, and absurdly nasty viruses for the last two months (ugh, I just did the math, and it really has been nearly two whole months), and it’s left us a little ragged around the edges. Honestly if I could find a combination plague/surrender flag, I’d run it up the pole. Oh sure, we tried to be ready for this kind of thing – we made hay while the sun shone and put aside freezer meals designed to get us through those train-wreck days. But we ran out. I mean, it’s been two months people. I’ve got my limits. So naturally we’ve caved in and ordered takeout on more than one occasion in recent weeks, but no matter how welcome a pizza might be, it’s not home cooking (unless you make it at home, of course). So while I might love embarking on varied and unusual culinary experiments, sometimes you need to just make something that fills your belly, soothes your soul, and keeps the pizza guy at bay for another day.
This particular recipe was borne of my desire to cobble together a painfully simple meal coupled with my outright refusal to use any of those pre-packaged (and heavily processed) meal helpers. If you paid attention to my secondary title for this dish, you might have already picked up on that; for many months, the only name I could come up with for this dish was a ‘Amburger Assistant – a jokey riff on Hamburger Helper. I didn’t grow up with Hamburger Helper – that kind of thing was entirely unwelcome in my Mom’s kitchen, and I can safely say that the same rules apply in mine. But the idea of a flavourful blend of spices added to a bit of beef and pasta is a good one. Sadly (and unsurprisingly) the ingredients used to make the packaged stuff don’t exactly evoke visions of home-cooked delight. It’s more-or-less an amalgamation of highly processed starches, sugars, salt, and flavourings. It’s easier, tastier, and better in every conceivable way to build flavour yourself with some basic spices and pantry staples. As I’ll explain in the Recipe Notes below, it’s also entirely achievable by even the greenest of home cooks.
Domestic madness is inevitable, and it happens to be the bread-and-butter of companies that sell packaged/processed foods designed to help you cobble together a meal from a few basic ingredients. The pitch is always the same: You’re busy, life’s busy, and cooking is HARD – but thanks to our (taco kit)(powdered sauce)(bag of stuff) you too can cook a meal in 10 minutes and not be a terrible parent! It’s easy to relate to this kind of message, but it’s one that reinforces culinary learned helplessness. My education roots might be showing here, so let me clarify what I mean: learned helplessness is a psychology term that explains how repeated failures (or other painful stimuli that can’t be escaped) create a feeling of gloomy inevitability and helplessness. This in turn causes us to accept or embrace the status quo. Worst of all, the ‘helpless’ component of the situation means that we genuinely believe that any effort to escape the status quo is either pointless or doomed to failure, meaning that sufferers may avoid or ignore even obvious solutions when presented with them. In essence, we become so convinced of the inevitability of the situation that we brace ourselves and aim right for disaster instead of trying to change course. I dealt with this a lot as a math teacher – “I suck at math” was a pretty common mantra to repeat before even attempting to solve a math problem. In fact, I myself subscribed to the whole “I suck at math” thing for many years. Bringing it back to the kitchen, packaged meal-assistance products are really appealing to people who have tried to cook and had limited success. They say “You’re right, cooking is hard and the stakes are too high – you’ll screw it up without us here.” But here’s the thing – you don’t need that kind of help. Those packages aren’t magic. They don’t turn bad food into good food. If you can use a teaspoon and buy some spices, you can do everything that the packages can and SO much more.
Now if you or someone you know currently feels that they simply ‘can’t cook’ it’s not terribly likely that I’ve radically altered your perception in the space of a paragrahp. After all, if it was that easy to ditch learned helplessness, it wouldn’t even be a thing. But recipes like this (coupled with the detail I try to put into my directions and notes) are designed to help people escape the processed food rut and to experience some success in the kitchen. The only thing that might SEEM difficult here is making the caramelized onions, and even that’s much easier than it sounds. You leave onions in a pan for a long time over very low heat. Ta-da. Even if you botched it and ended up with cooked-but-not-quite-caramelized onions, this would still taste wonderful because it’s full of easy and honest flavours. Peas, spices, cheese, wine – these things are nearly foolproof. Afraid of broiling? Then don’t do it. Bake the dish for 10 minutes instead. Or just let the cheese melt on the hot pasta. This is a meal meant for adaptation and flexibility. It’s a meal meant for cooking.
CARAMELIZED ONION HOW-TO
If you’ve never made caramelized onions before, don’t worry. The biggest key to success is not to rush. I’m going to say that again: DO NOT RUSH. If you make your pan too hot you’ll simply burn the onions instead of caramelizing their natural sugars. I like to expedite the process slightly by sauteing the onions over a moderate heat to cook the raw-ness out of the them, but even there it’s better to err on the side of caution and to reduce the pan to a very low heat early on. The worst thing that can happen is that it will take a little longer. But given that you can’t un-burn an onion, the cautious approach is best for first-timers.
Don’t be afraid to use a LOT of onion here – I’ve given measurements below, but it’s worth noting that the volume of caramelized onion you’ll end up with is a tiny fraction of the starting raw quantity. It’s better to make too much and to put some in the fridge (they’re awesome on burgers, hot dogs, pastas, etc.).
If you’ve got some time on your hands, you can make a big batch of caramelized onions earlier in the day so that this meal comes together in under 15 minutes. If you do that however, don’t be tempted to clean the pan after you make the onions. The little brown bits left behind are going to be deglazed by the white wine to form the foundation for a seriously killer sauce. If you’re working ahead, just cover the pan and set it aside to cool, then reheat it later on before adding the white wine.
The closest thing to a processed ingredient in this recipe is tomato sauce. In fact, as I pointed out in another wonderfully simple weeknight pasta dish, tomato sauce can actually be pretty heavily processed. I make and use homemade tomato sauce – it’s fairly simple, delicious, and wonderful thing to learn how to put up for future use. That being said, this is hardly the place to start, so I’m going to assume that you’re buying something from a store to make this recipe. Avoid any of the ‘complicated’ sauces with lots of added veggies, spices, cheeses, etc. Many of these have a lot of added salt, sugar, and/or oil. You’re looking for the flavour of good tomatoes, maybe a few herbs, and very little else. Small amounts of salt, sugar, and citric acid are normal, but beyond that you’re just gilding the lily. Check the ingredients and the nutritional information on a few different sauces and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. If you can’t find a store-bought tomato sauce that’s to your liking, simply use a jar of good quality crushed tomatoes or passata. You might have to perk it up a little with some salt, sugar, and a few more spices (consider adding a bit of garlic too), and you may have to cook it down a bit longer, but it will work brilliantly.
Given that this is a kitchen-sink meal, it would be a little silly to pretend that it was somehow immutable. You can tweak or adapt this in all kinds of ways depending on what you have around and/or dietary restrictions.
First, and perhaps most obviously – you don’t need to use rigatoni. Any smallish, bite-sized pasta will work. The peas are amazing here, but you could add or substitute corn kernels too. Fresh corn in particular would be delicious (just make sure that it’s either pre-cooked or that you add it to the pan far enough in advance to let it cook through). Don’t have white wine? Use red wine. Or beer. Or chicken/beef/veggie stock. Even water will do if you have no other options. Don’t have the cheeses I used? Try something else with a nice sharp flavour. I bet that blue cheese would be good here too, if you were so inclined. Very different obviously – but good. Want the meal to be a little leaner? Swap ground chicken or turkey for the beef. Vegetarian? Use cooked puy or green lentils instead of beef. Gluten-free vegan? Well, thanks for making it this far. Use a non-wheat based pasta, lentils in place of the beef, and top the whole thing off with a good hit of nutritional yeast plus a bit of extra salt instead of cheese.
Think of this as a template, rather than a detailed instructional guide. You can certainly follow the instructions to the letter, and that’s a great way to start out when you’re unsure of yourself in the kitchen, but it’s not required. Anyone can cook this. Scratch that – anyone can cook.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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