Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Comfort Food and Variations

I have taught a lot of pie making classes, mostly through our local community education program. I am always surprised, though pleasantly so, when asked to teach other cooking classes. I'm glad that my students enjoy learning to make pie and tolerate my teaching style. This request to teach cooking came again at the last pie class I taught. So I asked the ladies what exactly they would desire in a cooking class. These were all thirty-something working mothers and they replied that they wanted classes that taught quick and easy, nutritious, family-pleasing meals. But of course.

I thought I'd throw out a little practice class here. Tell me what you think.

Cooking isn't just about following a recipe. A cook needs to understand the "whys" of cooking. What methods lead to what results and why. That is what I would want to teach to equip someone with a method and not just a recipe.

Anyone who ever went to camp as a child must remember one of the staple items on the camp kitchen menu- hamburger gravy served over a mountain of mashed potatoes. It's a real comfort food and a crowd pleaser. Today this is usually made by opening a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, adding a can of milk and stirring in some cooked hamburger.

May I just say --


I grew up not liking mushrooms much. Or at all. I was the one picking out the little bits of rubber eraser out of my tuna hot dish, uh...I mean "casserole". (I was born in Minnesota, donchaknow.) But now that I am all growed up, I am trying to expand my palette and overcome my childhood prejudices. I have tried to be adventurous and I've ordered the mushroom dishes on the menus of good restaurants to find out how mushrooms are supposed to taste. I have yet to be overwhelmed but I have found that fresh mushrooms certainly are worlds better than Campbell's or anything else from a can.

So let me show you how quick and easy and family-pleasing and so much more tasty the old hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes can be when made from fresh ingredients (which are better tasting and better for your health than canned ingredients.)

Campbell's cream of mushroom soup has no less than fifteen ingredients listed on its label. This fresh sauce will simply be mushrooms, onion, beef broth, cream, salt and pepper! -And some flour to thicken.

Start by cooking a pound of ground beef in a skillet until browned. You can salt and pepper the meat as it cooks.

Chop half a large onion and a dozen or so cremini mushrooms. (You can use white button mushrooms if you prefer.)

After browning the ground beef, remove it to a bowl and put the chopped onions and mushrooms into the same skillet.

Stir and cook this thoroughly until the onion and mushrooms start to brown and the bottom of the pan has lots of browned bits, about ten to fifteen minutes. It may be necessary to add a bit of butter or oil as this cooks.

Browned bits = flavor baby!

At this point throw in two tablespoons of butter and two tablespoons of all purpose flour.

Stir to blend the butter and flour and cook the flour letting it coat the onions and mushrooms. This will only take a minute.
The butter and flour make a "roux" which is an all purpose thickener. This method is used for thickening gravies, sauces and soups. By combining the flour with fat, you avoid unattractive flour lumps in your gravy. Stay tuned for a tip to expand that understanding...

Stir in about three cups of beef broth.

Continue stirring and cooking until the sauce comes to a boil. It will thicken when it boils.
I found at this point that the sauce had not thickened as much as I expected. I wanted it a little thicker.

Here's what you do when the gravy is not quite thick enough:

Take equal amounts of butter (fat) and flour. Stir them together to make a paste. Stir this into the gravy and watch it get even thicker! With no lumps.

What do you do if the sauce is too thick? Add more broth.

To make this cremini mushroom sauce extra rich, add half a cup of heavy cream or regular cream. You can also use half and half. Milk is a possibility but you would definitely sacrifice rich flavor.

I'm not afraid of the cream. Just look at them skinny French women. They have cream and butter every day. If I keep eating the cream and butter, maybe I can be skinny like them.

Yeah, right.


Return the browned ground beef to the sauce and salt and pepper it to your taste.

Done. That took twenty five minutes.

And it's so much better than what they served at camp!


So you can serve this over a mound of mashed potatoes and the kids will love it. But let's fancy it up a little...

Take what was done here and shake it up.

If you eliminate the ground beef you have a lovely cremini mushroom sauce that can be served in several ways:

Spoon it over meat loaf.

Toss it with a nice pasta, penne would do- or fettucini- and you'll have a nice vegetarian mushroom pasta dish.

Anger the Campbell executives by stirring it into cooked green beans and topping it with fried onions - you've got the Classic Green Bean Cassarole!

Instead of ground beef, saute sliced sirloin or beef tips with garlic and add to the sauce. Stir in some tomato paste and a big spoonful of sour cream and...ouila! have beef stroganoff. Or if you are having guests and want to impress, call it "Beef tips in a garlic cremini mushroom sauce". Serve it over white rice or pasta.

Take this hamburger gravy and serve it with egg noodles. Hello!....It's Hamburger Helper. Only it tastes good.

Cook up a rice mix- brown rice, wild rice or white rice, and stir it together with the hamburger gravy and you have a nice potluck cassarole.

I'm sure you can think of more ideas.

One easy recipe, seven different meals.


  1. Yum! Good cooking lesson! I think I'll make this tonight to serve or the leftover mashed potatoes we're still working through...

    When I first decided to stop cooking with those canned cream soups 5 or 6 years ago, I didn't really know what to do instead. I just avoided any dish that used them. Then at some point the "roux" lesson (taught to me by your good friend Sarah B. because they don't have canned cream soups on that side of the world) came back to me and went "ding!" It was such a liberating realization.

  2. I just threw out the left over mashed potatoes. Damn. Well, now I know what to do with them next time. This looks delicious, warm and filling. Thanks.


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