Beef Rigatoni with Caramelized Onions and Peas (aka 'Amburger Assistant) -

Beef Rigatoni with Caramelized Onions (or ‘Amburger Assistant)

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Beef Rigatoni with Caramelized Onions

or “‘Amburger Assistant”

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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.

Recipe Notes

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.

Tomato Sauce

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.


The closest thing to a typically ‘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.

Nutritional info is given for a single serving (1/6th total recipe).

Nutrition Facts
Beef Rigatoni with Caramelized Onions ('Amburger Assistant)
Amount Per Serving
Calories 448 Calories from Fat 189
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 21g 32%
Saturated Fat 8g 40%
Trans Fat 1g
Polyunsaturated Fat 1g
Monounsaturated Fat 8g
Cholesterol 64mg 21%
Sodium 668mg 28%
Potassium 579mg 17%
Total Carbohydrates 37g 12%
Dietary Fiber 4g 16%
Sugars 6g
Protein 27g 54%
Vitamin A 18%
Vitamin C 24%
Calcium 19%
Iron 20%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

Nutritional Summary

Packed with protein, nutrient dense, and fairly low in salt, this is good, healthy, delicious fare.

Using ground beef and cheese makes for a higher level of saturated fat.

Substitute ground turkey/chicken or cooked green lentils as an alternative to the beef.

Ingredient Pages

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.

Pantry Pages

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.

  • Reduced meat
  • Vegetarian option
  • Inexpensive
5 from 2 votes
Beef Rigatoni with Caramelized Onions and Peas (aka 'Amburger Assistant) -
Beef Rigatoni with Caramelized Onions ('Amburger Assistant)
Prep Time
15 mins
Cook Time
45 mins
Total Time
1 hr
A delicious kitchen-sink meal for those crazy weeknights, this made-from-scratch meal skips the boxed stuff and delivers a supremely tasty pasta dish.
Course: Main Dishes, Pasta & Noodles
Cuisine: American, Canadian, Miscellaneous, North American
Keyword: easy, ground beef, pasta, quick, weeknight friendly
Servings: 6 people
Calories: 448 kcal
  • 450 g lean ground beef
  • 450 g rigatoni or similarly sized pasta (e.g. penne, rotini, farfalle, etc.)
  • 2-3 medium yellow onions (about 425-450 g total)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup peas (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 cup tomato sauce (see note)
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary crushed
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • 1/4 cup extra old cheddar cheese shredded, loosely packed (~50 g)
  • 1/4 cup Grana Padano cheese shredded, loosely packed (substitute Parmigiano-Reggiano) (~50 g)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • pepper to taste
  1. Slice the onions very thinly and evenly. A mandoline makes short work of this, but a very sharp knife and a steady hand will work well too. Caramelize onions, cook rigatoni.
  2. Heat olive oil in a large oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté, stirring regularly, for about 3-4 minutes or until the onions are starting to become translucent and very slightly browned. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and let the onions caramelize. Stir occasionally to avoid hot spot, but make sure to spread the onions across the pan as evenly as possible. This whole process takes about 20-30 minutes, and is completed when the onions are a deep yellow-brown and very much reduced in size. If the onions begin to scorch at all, remove them from heat (you might need to use a smaller coil on your stove) and/or add a little more oil.
  3. While the onions are caramelizing, cook the rigatoni in a large pot of salted water and set it aside. Measure and set aside the remaining ingredients.
  4. Remove the cooked onions from the pan and turn the heat back up to medium-high. Add the beef and cook until well-browned,; about 3-4 minutes. Drain the excess fat and water from the pan as the beef cooks.
  5. Add the wine to the pan and let it deglaze the cooked bits from the bottom. Add the tomato sauce and spices and sauté for another 5 minutes. Return the onions to the pan and add the peas, then stir to combine.
  6. Turn on your broiler (full broil/high/500°F/260°C). Sprinkle the food in the pan with shredded cheese and broil for 3-4 minutes or until cheese is well melted and starting to brown.
Recipe Notes

For a leaner version, replace the beef with ground turkey or chicken. For a vegetarian version, substitute French or green lentils for the beef.

I make and can my own tomato sauce, and that simple but flavourful stuff is what I use when I specify 'tomato sauce.' That being said, I don't expect everyone to be in the same boat, so you can easily use a store-bought alternative. Avoid any of the 'complicated' sauces with lots of added veggies, spices, cheeses, etc. You're looking for the flavour of good tomatoes, maybe a few herbs, and nothing more. 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 use a few more spices (consider adding a bit of garlic too) and/or cook it down a bit longer, but it will work brilliantly.

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  1. Hi Sean I love cooking this way. Using intuition and only ingredients left in the fridge or pantry is a great way to develop the ability to cook on the fly. I remember being in university and my friends would say they have nothing to make for supper, and I would look and see a variety of options. Taking the opprtunity to creat then Revell in their total satisfaction and surprise. What you have created here is a delicious, beautifully crafted plate. Live the flavors especially the caramelized onion in accompaniment with the tomato sauce, beef, and those wonderful peas. I would totally have this dish it has comfort and hearty written all over it with a side of improve.Well done!
    P.S. I totally agree with you on the caramelized onions, low and slow!
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    1. Author

      I love it too Loreto. I think one of the greatest things about cooking regularly at home is that you develop the skill set necessary to improvise. Once you can improvise, there’s not much holding you back! I totally know what you mean about just going to the fridge and making do – we get too stuck in a recipe and feel like we can’t deviate, but the truth is that virtually all recipes (well, maybe not baking ones) are more like guidelines. We’re kindred spirits, my good man. But then again, I kind of knew that already. 🙂
      Thanks for the kind words. Cheers.

  2. Drooling all over my desk now, thanks Sean! Love love love this dish, simple and with a touch of wine just like I love it! I due to treat myself to a nice meat dish this week, rigatoni it is!

    1. Author

      Hah, well thanks Marie! I’ll admit that I might just like cooking with wine even more than drinking it – it just does such wonderful things to a dish! Normally I would have used red wine in a meal like this, but I had white and it actually gave the sauce a really nice bright character. I hope you have a great little pasta treat! 😀

  3. Kitchen sink recipes are my favourite to make. Mine usually involve pasta as well, and oddly some form of bacon (pancetta, regular bacon, or prosciutto). It is such a fun way to cook.

    1. Author

      I toooootally agree with you Christina. In fact, I might rely on pasta a little too often for my kitchen sink recipes (I did it yesterday as a matter of fact). But dangit, it’s just so tasty and… well, easy! I’m a big fan of a little bit of bacon too. I know that when you say bacon people don’t exactly picture healthfood, but cured meats can be so wonderful when used in moderation because a little bit goes such a long way. A bit of pancetta can completely shape the flavour and complexity of a meal without forcing you to rely on half a pound of meat per person. I love that.

  4. I can totally see my family enjoying a meal like this. Which means a lot because they are really picky. Looks so fabulous. Already pinned a copy to save it for when I’m looking for a fancy but easy recipe. Gotta love those kind of recipes. Cheers!

    1. Author

      I’m very, very pleased to hear that Diana! Trust me, I understand the trials and tribulations of cooking for the fam. I think this one is pretty kid friendly, all-in-all. My kids can be weirdly picky about onions, but even if they don’t eat the onions themselves, they’re getting all that flavour built into the sauce, and it works for them. I’m glad it struck a chord with you too. Thanks for commenting!

    1. Author

      I love that idea Terri – upscale simple. I’d never really though about it that way, but that’s exactly the idea. Simple ingredient put together to create big flavour and lots of depth. Kinda… weeknight fancy. 😀 Thanks for the love!

  5. Oh how I would devour this if I ate meat! It looks so saucy and delicious. I did eat Hamburger Helper in college a few times and the packet of flavoring always freaked me out, even before I was into cooking to know better. It always tasted all right, but this rendition is ALL the thumbs up.

    I’m still down with KD, though. I’ll never know KD. (Fun fact, if you mention KD here in the US, no one knows what you’re talking about. It’s Kraft Mac’n’Cheese, not KD and not Kraft Dinner.)

    Also, isn’t rigatoni the freakin’ best? It’s SO substantial.

    1. Author

      Thanks Dana! I want to give a vegetarian version of this a shot (pescetarian would be nice too, but I’m a little hard-pressed to think of a fish that would work well). Funny enough, I’ve never actually tried HH, but one of my mom’s go-to weeknight dinners was something we called Beef Creole. The idea was the same – beef, veggies, noodles, spices – but scratch-made of course. I think it was actually made with a can of tomato soup, come to think of it. In any case that was simple comfort food to me, but I couldn’t go near a packet of spices! Haha.

      And frankly I’m still down with the KD too. Hard to give up on that one. 😀

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