While perusing the contents of my pantry, a friend came across an older box of Hamburger Helper and asked "how can you have that in your pantry when you write about such healthy foods?"
I explained that my fondness for Hamburger Helper bloomed at a time when I didn't closely read product ingredient lists and sometimes still get the taste for it.
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My friend then rattled off the ingredient list: "Enriched macaroni, cornstarch, salt ..."
Yes, salt is the third ingredient on the list. There's more added salt than there is dried cheese.
I took the box to see just how much sodium was in a prepared serving: 870 milligrams. And that prepared serving is one cup. One cup? Really?
Really. Fifth on the ingredient list? Sugar. There's less sugar than there is salt, but, there's more sugar than dried cheese.
Ninth on the list: partially hydrogenated soybean oil. Any oil that's partially hydrogenated is a trans fat, a fat that many experts now say should be zero.
Although the food facts label states zero trans fats, it says that because the USDA has determined that if there's less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, the amount of trans fat on the food facts label can be stated as zero. The magic of turning something (probably 0.49 fat grams) into nothing. Swell.
That box of cheeseburger macaroni also contained five different food colorings. Yikes!
I began to wonder if I could make my own healthy one-skillet version that actually tasted like a cheeseburger instead of the boxed version that really just tastes like macaroni and cheese with ground beef.
I decided to use high-quality macaroni pasta (DeCecco brand) and locally raised grass-fed very lean ground beef (now more widely available and reasonably priced than ever). My cheeseburger mac had to taste like a cheeseburger; I went with a canned tomato sauce, plus a dollop of ketchup to begin emulating the flavor profile of a cheeseburger.
No fancy cheddar cheese for this skillet supper. Nope. I bought sliced, deli-style white American cheese (not processed cheese food) made with milk from cows that hadn't been treated with hormones.
In order for my cheeseburger mac to echo a real cheeseburger, I sautéed the beef with onions, just like White Castle uses onions to cook their burgers. Instead of the water/milk mixture that the box calls for, I went with organic chicken broth. I knew the macaroni was going to absorb the liquid and wanted it to be as flavorful as possible, since cheese was going in last; more like a topping than a sauce and wouldn't be absorbed during the cooking.
I was a little nervous that I'd used too much or too little broth to cook the macaroni. Interestingly, the aroma coming off my new concoction smelled like a cheeseburger.
When the timer went off I took a small bite to see if the macaroni was done. It was perfectly cooked and the sauce was ... well saucy. I stirred in the cheese pieces, pickles (of course, don't you top your burgers with pickles?) and remaining onions.
Friends who sampled my new cheeseburger macaroni couldn't believe how much it tasted like a cheeseburger. The only thing missing was a bun ... and the salt and sugar and five food colorings. Mission accomplished.
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.