Michael Symon’s Throwback American Goulash

Michael Symon's homemade version of Hamburger Helper.
Michael Symon’s homemade version of Hamburger Helper.

One taste of this one-pot dish sends me back to my elementary school days.

When my best friend and I would feel so grown-up whenever we had the rare chance to cook dinner for ourselves when our parents were out.

We’d grab wooden spoons like microphones and pretend we were stars in our own cooking show.

As we hungrily and proudly dug into the comforting dish we had put together with our own wit,

Granted, Hamburger Helper wasn’t the most ambitious dinner to make. But we didn’t care. We loved the taste and the sense of freedom it gave us.

“American Goulash” is a fresher, homemade version of that nostalgic store-bought product that is just about as fast and easy to make, too.

Only this version is by Michael Symon, the James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur, and Emmy-winning television personality known his Food Network shows and co-hosting ABC’s “The Chew.” I also had the distinct pleasure of helping judge a cookie baking contest in San Francisco with him many years ago, and he is a hoot to be around.

This recipe is featured in his latest cookbook, “Simply Symon Suppers” (Clarkson Potter, 2023), of which I received a review copy. This is his eighth cookbook.

It features more than 165 recipes, most of them two-fers (or three-fers), meaning one main with a corresponding side or two, which makes creating a complete meal a no-brainer. A few like the “American Goulash” are single recipes. And of course, as Symon notes, you can opt to make only one of the paired recipes or mix and match to your own tastes.

Rev the appetite with “Manicotti Stuffed with Ricotta and Spinach” with “Snap Pea Salad”; “Maple-Glazed Roast Chicken” with “Butternut Squash Puree” and “Endive and Apple Salad”; and “Pork Meatballs in Sauerkraut” with “Apple and Brussels Sprouts Salad” and “Apple-Pear Sauce.” Of course, desserts get their own chapter with the likes of “Berry Balsamic Crisp” and “Banana Espresso Pudding.”

For the “American Goulash,” just boil elbow macaroni, being sure to cook it a few minutes less and reserving some of the starchy cooking liquid.

In that same drained pot, saute ground beef, seasoning it with onion, garlic, and thyme, before stirring in tomato paste and canned tomatoes. Add back the pasta and the reserved cooking water, and stir until combined and thickened.

A dish that's sure to bring back memories.
A dish that’s sure to bring back memories.

At this point, you can also add some chili flakes or hot sauce, especially if like me, your favorite Hamburger Helper variety was the Chili Mac.

Finally, shower on grated Parmesan before digging into this hearty, old-school pasta dish that’s meaty and full of sweet-tangy tomato flavor.

This dish is pretty filling, so it will definitely serve 6 rather than the 4 that’s customary with a pound of pasta.

Tuck into a dish that Symon’s dad calls “cheap and cheerful.” And that my husband just longingly calls worthy of enjoyed time and again.

Feel free to spice things up by adding chili flakes, jalapenos or hot sauce.
Feel free to spice things up by adding chili flakes, jalapenos or hot sauce.

American Goulash

(Serves 4 to 6)

Kosher salt

1 pound elbow macaroni (or farfelle, fusilli or penne)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound ground beef (80 percent lean)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

3 medium garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (finely grated on a Microplane)

Fresh diced jalapeno, red pepper flakes or hot sauce (optional)

Add 2 tablespoons salt to a large pot of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick together, for 2 minutes less than the package directions. Reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta water, drain the pasta.

Set the same large pot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and heat to shimmering, then add the ground beef. Season with a pinch of salt and twist of pepper. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon to break up the meat, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens and begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer. Add the drained pasta and reserved pasta water and continue cooking until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in jalapenos, red pepper flakes or hot sauce, to taste if using.

Remove from the heat, stir in the Parmesan, and serve.

From “Simply Symon Suppers” by Michael Symon

Another Recipe to Enjoy by Michael Symon: Lightly Cured Tuna with Olives, Oranges, and Fennel

Print This Post


  • Joanne M Dupras

    My Mom made this every week. We always called it American Chop Suey. She would also add any leftover anything that was left in the refrigerator! We still love it to this day❤

  • Hi Joanne: It definitely brings back memories for me, too. And now, my husband is itching for me to make this all the time. It just shows that classic dishes don’t have to be fancy to stand the test of time.

  • Sounds and looks delicious.

  • Hi Randy: It is true comfort food. Enjoy!

  • I love goulash. It looks good and seems easy to make. Will try it out!

  • Hi David: It’s so easy to make and very comforting. Enjoy!

  • You forgot a couple of tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce! It makes the “Johnny Marzetti” (what they called it in Ohio) less Italian and more “American.”

  • Hi Kay: LOL Tell that to Chef Symon. And yes, Worcestershire sauce is always a welcome addition. 😉

  • That’s exactly like how my mother would goulash. And that’s how my goulash is made and looks.

  • Hi Christine: When it works, it works. Definitely hard to improve on something that tastes so good and satisfies so much. I’m so glad it’s been a fave in your family.

  • Drain all that fat, OMG. before adding the other ingredients.. your making a heavy greasy mess

  • Hi Michael: You could definitely do that! Especially if you are counting calories.

  • We’ve been eating this for almost 60 years. It was a weekly meal in our house growing up. It was cheap and easy as we grew/ raised the beef and tomatoes on the farm. Along with other vegetables and pasta was inexpensive.

  • Hi Darkman: Wow, your family raised the beef and grew the tomatoes for this classic dish? Now, that’s real home-cooking. I bet it was extra delicious because of that, too.

  • Tiffany Ann Haynor

    I always loved when my mom made goulash. It was definitely a go to for her. Now, over the last 20+ years, I have made it too. Definitely takes you back. Some people when they hear goulash, it’s leftovers in the fridge. I never knew that. I always made it this way. It has been well loved in my home, and super easy!

  • Jeanne Morales

    In my home it was called Slumgolian. We made it mostly the same way, except we would use shredded cheddar and a dash of that Worcestershire sauce. Always a favorite growing up, and now as adults my sisters and I will make it for delicious nostalgic meal when we get together.

  • My mom always added a can of corn. We had a lot of kids in the house so you had to add fillers.

  • Hi Kay!
    We’ve always had Johnny Marzetti in my family all my life (50 years). We put it in a casserole, add as much shredded cheddar as it can hold, and bake it until the cheese forms a crust. We always make a large batch, but it never lasts more than a day or so. Funny thing is that nobody I know has ever heard of it. I always describe it as Chilli Mac, but with the tomatoes and Italian seasonings.

  • We called it “Chuck Wagon Stew” in the BOY Scouts back in the 60’s. Infinite versions. Hot, filling and a great campfire meal.

  • Hi Ed: Ooh, eating this by a campfire would make it even more delicious. Something about eating outdoors in that kind of setting always makes food taste even better. So glad this dish brings back such fond memories.

  • Hi Rob: I like that abundance of cheese! Who doesn’t love a gooey and crispy cheese crust, right? 😉

  • Hi Tiffany: Not many dishes get passed down for so long and are still loved so much to this day. This pasta dish is definitely a classic that will never go out of style. So glad it brings back such great memories for you, too.

  • Hi Jeanne: Slumgolian!!! That is too funny. The addition of Worcestershire sauce is genius, too, for that extra umami taste.

  • Hi Mike: Your mom was smart to do that. I love how the corn probably adds a nice touch of sweetness, too.

  • My grandmother made this in a skillet. She would put 4 slices of American cheese on top. It was a real treat.

  • Hi Cindy: Your grandma knew what she was doing. The more cheese, the better. At least that’s what I always endorse. 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *