~ Walking Dead: It's Chili & Mac 'n Cheese. Together. ~
On Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, while scouting around in search of food and guns, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira), fall through a rooftop into a room filled with just that, guns and miscellaneous canned foods and military RTE (ready-to-eat) meals. Rick goes full-blown romantic on Michonne. After the obligatory sex, they eat a candlelit feeding-frenzy dinner and Rick presents her with a surprise, and it's not jewelry -- it's one last type of RTE meal. "I've been waiting to show you this one," Rick says, "It's chili. And mac 'n cheese. Together." The scene wasn't over a moment when I told Joe I was going to write a blog post about chili mac.
Hamburger Helper entered the marketplace in 1970, and Chili Macaroni Hamburger Helper entered the marketplace in 1971. Packaged by General Mills and sold as a part of the Betty Crocker brand line of products, the mascot is a "helping hand" named "Lefty" -- a four-fingered, left-handed, white glove with a face. In its basic form, each box contains dried pasta and packets of powdered sauce and seasonings. The contents get combined with browned ground beef and water or milk to create a meal. Over the course of a short few years other flavors (Lasagna, Bacon Cheeseburger, Philly Cheesesteak, Beef Stroganoff etc.) were added, along with variations like Tuna Helper and Chicken Helper, and, Asian Helper (which contains rice in place of pasta). Others, like Fruit Helper (a dessert product made with canned or fresh fruit) and Pork Helper (pork fried rice and pork chops w/stuffing), were discontinued shortly after their introduction.
Hamburger Helper wasn't an option for me as a little kid. It wasn't invented until I was 15. Hamburger Helper, although invented, wasn't an option for our three boys either. I wouldn't allow it. Mean, mean, me? Mean, mean them. My kids would brag to me about every one of the great Hamburger Helper-flavored dinners they ate at their friends' houses after school. They begged me to buy it. That infuriated me, mostly because I made a one-skillet hamburger and pasta dinner for them, mostly from scratch, just like my mom made it for them -- using her quick and easy ground beef chili recipe, canned beans and pantry staples, spices, cooked macaroni and grated cheese. I served it to their friends after school in my kitchen too -- often. I can only hope those kids went home and bragged to their mothers that I made my own Hamburger Helper from scratch. Mean, mean me. Sad but true.
Today's recipe hasn't been 'out-of-the box' in at least 25 years.
Even though Hormel has been selling its canned chili since 1935 and Kraft has been selling their boxed macaroni and cheese since 1937, to this day I have never tasted either one. During the 1960's my mom made her own version of macaroni and cheese on the stovetop for my brother and I who were entering our teen years. For her mac 'n cheese she used one of two '60's era products: Cheez-Whiz or Velveeta. She didn't start making chili until the 70's, when she was a grandmother. She made it for my sons when they came to visit. The recipe she used was one she clipped out of a Women's Day magazine -- it was supposed to be a copycat of Wendy's chili (the fast-food chain founded by Dave Williams in 1969) -- she and my dad both love Wendy's chili. Because it is both simple and tasty, hers is the recipe I use to make my chili mac with one addition. When Tostitos introduced their restaurant-style salsa in 1995, my sons couldn't get enough of it. At the behest of our middle son, I began adding a jar of Tostitos salsa to the chili.
2 - 2 1/2 pounds lean ground beef (90/10)
1 cup medium-diced yellow or sweet onion
1 cup medium-diced green or red bell pepper, or a combination of both
2 teaspoons garlic powder
3/4 teaspoon each: sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper
1 14 1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
1 15 1/2-ounce jar Tostitos salsa, medium or hot, your choice
1 40-ounce can red kidney beans, well-drained
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
For Mel's Mom's Wendy's-Style Chili Mac:
1 pound elbow macaroni, cellentani, penne or other tubular pasta
4 tablespoon salted butter, cut into pieces and softened
1 15-ounce jar Kraft Cheez Whiz, softened in the microwave, or, Velveeta, cut into cubes
1 quart chili, from above recipe (4 cups)
~ Step 1. In a 4-quart wide-bottomed stockpot, place ground beef, onion, bell pepper and garlic powder, salt and pepper. Adjust heat to medium-high and sauté, using a spatula to break the meat up into bits and pieces, until meat is cooked through and almost no liquid remains in bottom of pot, 15-20 minutes.
~ Step 2. Add the undrained diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, drained kidney beans, chili powder, ground cumin, Mexican oregano, salsa and black pepper. Adjust heat to a steady, gentle simmer, partially cover the pot and continue to cook, 30-45 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside, to steep, 30-45 minutes.
Note: If you have the time to make the chili a day ahead and reheat it, it tastes even better. Yum.
~Step 3. While the chili is steeping, in an 8-quart stockpot, bring 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil, add 1 tablespoon salt to the water and add the pasta. Cook, as the package directs, until al dente. Drain the pasta into a colander and immediately add it to the the still hot stockpot and return the stockpot to the still warm stovetop. Add the butter pieces and Cheez-Whiz or Velveeta cubes and stir or toss until cheese is melted. Ladle 1-quart/4cups of the chili into the pasta, stir, and serve.
Winner, Winner Chili Mac Dinner:
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; 4-quart wide-bottomed stockpot; spatula; ladle; 8-quart stockpot; colander; large spoon
Cook's Note: Please don't confuse chili mac with ~ Cincinnati Chili: My Holiday Bowl Game Tradition ~. In 1922, two Northern Greek immigrant brothers, Tom and John Kiradjieff, opened a small Greek restaurant in Cincinnati called "The Empress". The restaurant struggled until they began serving chili made with spices common to their culture, which was ladled over a mound of spaghetti, and called: "spaghetti chili". They soon began serving it with a variety of toppings, or, "five ways". When ordering Cincinnati chili, here is the protocol:
~ chili only ("one-way")
~ a mound of spaghetti topped with chili ("two-way")
~ spaghetti topped with chili and lots of shredded yellow cheese ("three-way")
~ spaghetti, chili, cheese and diced onions ("four-way")
~ spaghetti, chili, cheese, diced onions and separately cooked kidney beans ("five way").
Another popular way to serve it is called the "cheese Coney". This consists of chili ladled onto a hot dog (in a steamed bun) and topped with cheese (topped with diced onion and/or mustard)!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2017)