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

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  • 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. 😉

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