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Hamburger helpings: Two pounds, three meals

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As part of "The Shape We're In," the Sunday Gazette-Mail's series exploring the chronic but preventable health problems of many West Virginians, we present the second in a series of articles that feature healthy cooking on a budget. Charleston cooking instructor and chef April Hamilton, a passionate advocate of healthy dining and food preparation, presents techniques and recipes for wholesome dining on a budget. South Charleston Pediatrics sponsors the series.

Shawn Wheeler knows how to cook; he just doesn't do it very often. As director of athletics at George Washington High School, he spends most of his afternoons and evenings on various fields, tracks, courses and courts. The dash from school to sporting events doesn't leave much time to fix a healthy meal.

Cooking instructor April Hamilton came to his rescue. During a recent cooking session of just over an hour, Hamilton walked Wheeler through the preparation of three flavorful entrees for four people based on two pounds of ground beef.

They made Inside Out Tacos in romaine lettuce leaves, an Asian Noodle Bowl and Sloppy Taco Dogs -- without hot dogs, of course. Hamilton once banned sodas and hot dogs from a concession stand she ran for the cross-country team. Wheeler coached the team at the time, and he asked Hamilton about cooking classes.

"I probably cook three to four times a week now," he said. "I used to eat out every night. I'm a little more health-conscious now."

As the spring sports season amps up, Wheeler thinks he might revert to his old fast-food habits.

"No, I'm going to show him how to make picnic stuff then," Hamilton said.

The three recipes are a good start on Wheeler's goal to make and to prepare a week's worth of dinner in one day. The ingredient list includes two pounds of lean ground beef, cabbage, onions, carrots, sweet potatoes, green onions, avocado, frozen edamame, canned diced tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, sour cream, grated cheese, whole-wheat pasta and hot dog buns.

Hamilton estimated that she spent about $30 on ingredients for the meals. "That's about $2.50 per portion," she said.

The healthy meal plan for three meals Hamilton devised for her session with Wheeler works well for a family of four. Hamilton's a big believer that involving children in cooking when they're young will lead to healthy habits when they're adults.

"Getting kids in the kitchen is really the secret to success," she said. For this menu, young children could grate cheese, carrots and cabbage, press garlic and juice limes. Older children can chop and peel vegetables and crumble the ground meat as it cooks.

Two pounds of ground beef might sound skimpy as a basis for three meals for four people, but Hamilton's philosophy is to flavor meals with meat, rather than overwhelming other ingredients with it. They used about a third of the ground beef and onion mixture for the Asian Noodle Bowl, and flavored it with ginger and soy sauce. They seasoned the remaining ground beef with Southwestern spices such as ancho chili powder and cumin to split between the Inside Out Tacos and Sloppy Taco Dogs.

"These recipes stretch meat. They're big on flavor and satisfying to make," she said.

For healthy side dishes, they made baked sweet potato "fries" instead of french fries and replaced mayonnaise-based coleslaw with a colorful vinegar and Dijon mustard-dressed red and green cabbage slaw. Wheeler was a little skeptical about the taste of suspiciously healthy meals he was making under Hamilton's tutelage.

He changed his tune when he sampled the first meal they made: Sloppy Taco Dogs, coleslaw and sweet potato fries.

"That was good. I'll make that," he said of the taco dogs and coleslaw. He demurred on the sweet potato fries, saying he wasn't a fan of sweet potatoes, but appreciated the flavor and texture of the Rainbow Coleslaw.

They cut two corn tortillas into tiny squares and baked them and smashed avocados and mixed them with lime juice and salt to make a simple guacamole to top the Inside Out Tacos while the whole-wheat pasta cooked for the Asian bowl.

Wheeler said he learned many of his kitchen skills from his father, "a country cook," who favored hearty dishes such as chicken and dumplings, country steak and gravy and chili.

At the end of the session, Wheeler packaged leftovers to take with him.

"I think my dad would even like this," Wheeler said.

Email April Hamilton at aprilskitchen@suddenlink.net.

Ground Beef Starter

Use this lightly seasoned ground beef mixture as a basis for the three recipes below. After cooking, the meat can be divided and cooled, then packaged and frozen, if desired. It will keep for several days in the refrigerator.

     1     tablespoon olive oil

     2     onions, chopped

     2     cloves garlic, minced

     2     pounds lean ground beef

     1     teaspoon salt

     1/4     teaspoon pepper

HEAT olive oil in a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat.

ADD the onion and sauté until it softens, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and stir 1 minute. Crumble in the raw beef and break up with a large spoon. Add salt and pepper and stir occasionally until the meat is no longer pink.

RESERVE one-third of the Ground Beef Starter to make Asian Noodle Bowl (recipe below).

USE the remaining two-thirds of the Ground Beef Starter to make Taco Meat for Sloppy Taco Dogs and Inside Out Tacos.

Taco Meat

     2     heaping teaspoons chili powder

     1     teaspoon ground cumin

     1    14-ounce can diced tomatoes, preferably "fire roasted," with juice

     1    14-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained

     2/3     recipe of Ground Beef Starter

ADD ingredients to two-thirds of Ground Beef Starter and stir over medium heat until it just begins to bubble.

REDUCE heat and simmer until juices are slightly thickened.

DIVIDE Taco Meat mixture in half. Add black beans to half of the mixture for use in Inside Out Tacos (recipe below). Reserve the other half of the mixture for Sloppy Taco Dogs (recipe next).

Sloppy Taco Dogs

There's really nothing to this -- sloppy taco meat in a hot dog bun!

     1/2     recipe of Taco Meat (the half without beans)

     Whole-wheat hot dog buns, heated if desired

SPLIT the buns open without tearing the seam. Scoop the warm meat into the buns (4 to 6 depending on the crowd).

TOP with sliced jalapeño peppers for extra heat.

SERVE with sweet potato fries and coleslaw (recipes follow)

Inside Out Tacos

These can be simple or elaborate. The concept is to put the inside of the taco on the outside. The lettuce serves as the taco shell. Top with desired toppings and sprinkle crunchy corn tortilla "croutons" on top.

     1/2     recipe of Taco Meat (the half with beans)

     1    head romaine lettuce, leaves separated, rinsed and dried

     2    corn tortillas

     Cooking spray

     Salt

     Salsa

     Guacamole

     Reduced-fat sour cream

     Grated cheddar cheese

     Jalapeño pepper slices

HEAT oven to 375° to make corn tortilla croutons.

CUT corn tortillas into tiny squares and place on a cookie sheet.

LIGHTLY spray the squares with cooking spray and sprinkle with a little salt. Bake for about 10 minutes, turning once, until golden and crisp. Set aside to cool.

PLACE the romaine leaves on each of four dinner plates. Evenly divide Taco Meat among the lettuce "shells" and top each with a small spoonful of salsa and guacamole, a little dollop of sour cream, a few shreds of cheddar and a jalapeño slice.

SHOWER each plate with a little confetti of croutons and serve.

Asian Noodle Bowl

Add a bit of Asian spice to your ground beef starter to create a totally different dish.

     12     ounces dry whole-wheat pasta

     1     tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced

     2     tablespoons soy sauce

     Pinch crushed red pepper flakes

     1     large carrot, peeled and grated

     3     green onions, thinly sliced

     1    cup frozen out of shell edamame, thawed

     3     tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

     1/4  cup reserved (hot) pasta cooking water

     Lime wedges

COOK whole-wheat pasta according to package directions, drain and reserve one-fourth cup pasta cooking water.

WHILE pasta cooks, place the 1/3 reserved ground beef starter in a large skillet and heat over medium-high.

STIR in ginger, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, carrot, green onions, edamame and cilantro and heat through, about 5 minutes.

TOSS with pasta and serve with cilantro garnish and lime wedges, if desired.

Rainbow Coleslaw

This colorful coleslaw partners well with the Sloppy Taco Dogs.

     1/2  head each red and green cabbage, cored, cut in half and very thinly sliced

     3     carrots, peeled and grated

     2     green onions, thinly sliced

     2     tablespoons olive oil

     1     tablespoon white or cider vinegar

     1     tablespoon Dijon mustard

     1     clove garlic, minced

     1/2     teaspoon salt

     1/2     teaspoon pepper

COMBINE all ingredients in a large bowl, tossing well to evenly coat the salad.

SERVE or refrigerate for later use.

Sweet Potato Fries

A tasty alternative to traditional fries.

     2     large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into "shoestrings" about 1/4-inch thick.

     1     tablespoon olive oil

     1/2     teaspoon garlic salt or Cajun seasoning

     1/4     teaspoon pepper

HEAT oven to 450° and place a rimmed cookie sheet on the middle rack.

PLACE the potatoes in a large bowl and toss with the oil until coated. Sprinkle with the seasonings and toss again.

CAREFULLY remove the hot cookie sheet from the oven and pour the potatoes out onto the sheet in a single layer. Place the sheet in the oven and cook the fries until golden on the underside, 10 to 15 minutes.

TURN fries over and continue cooking 5 to 10 minutes longer until crisp and cooked through. If you have a pizza stone, place the cookie sheet on top of the stone in the oven for quicker crisping.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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