hamburger helper for a chef

I wrote the Meatloaf for a Chef post almost two years ago and it continues as the most visited recipe on my blog. I wanted to understand why a meatloaf recipe would interest over a million readers so I did some poking around. I asked people what it was about the post that they liked. There were all sorts of fun answers especially about grinding meat but the constant theme was “if it’s good enough for a chef then it’s good enough for me...” Normal weekday food jazzed up into something kind of spectacular and having somewhat of a mental image of the finished product, also ranked high as to why reader’s were interested in my meatloaf. These three reasons also took away any nervousness about trying to prepare a dish that’s chef-worthy.

After my research, I realized I’ve played this game of doctoring up food since I was a kid. Mom and Dad recognized my short attention span, at a young age, so they encouraged me to think outside the box to keep me from getting bored in the kitchen. Some of my inventions were dismal but my stubbornness to get it right kept me interested.

When I started to buy my own groceries, I’d walk by prepackaged food in the supermarket  and think about how I could make it taste better if I made it from scratch. Ordinary meals like macaroni and cheese, chicken stew, Shepard’s pie and meatloaf all got face-lifts. I think it was my way of feeling like I was having something special to eat because I couldn’t afford to dine out very often.

All these years and meals later, I understand that the greatest inspiration for cooking professionals comes from humble beginnings. Most chefs prize their family’s home cooking above all else. Simple family meals invoke memories that wrap us in confidence and courage. The courage to take a tried and true dish and have some fun turning it into something a bit more…

When I was little I’d be over the moon, if I spotted a package of Hamburger Helper in Mom’s grocery order,. Pasta was rarely served in her kitchen and any hint of spice was nonexistent. I’ve mentioned my dad’s palette!! Hamburger Helper would be a special treat for me and my brother to have for supper on a Friday night. I saw it at the grocery store the other day. No, I didn’t buy a box but I did come home and whip up my own version.

I’ve decided to do a “recipes for a chef” series. Once a month, I’ll post regular everyday food from my childhood gussied up into dishes that you could serve to a chef. If you’d like me to create a special dish for you, leave your childhood favorite in the “comment” section and I’ll get to work. I really appreciate your interest and encouragement. XO

Hamburger Helper For A Chef
Preheat oven 400*F
Serves 6

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lb lean ground beef – I grind my own
1 lb hot Italian sausage, meat removed from casings
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped coarsely
1 red onion, peeled and chopped coarsely
½ lb mini Portobello mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thick
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons sea salt
¼ cup homemade pesto – recipe to follow
1-28 oz can diced plum tomatoes in puree
1 ½ cup dry fusilli, cooked
½ lb fresh mozzarella, sliced


  • Grind fennel seeds and peppercorns in a spice grinder and set aside.
  • Place a heavy bottomed stove top to oven casserole over medium high heat and add olive oil
  • When oil is warm, add ground beef and sausage meat.
  • Cook until meat is no longer pink.
  • Add red pepper, red onion, garlic, mushrooms, ground fennel mixture and salt
  • Sauté 15 minutes
  • Stir in tomatoes and pesto.
  • Add cooked pasta and mix well.
  • Cover with sliced mozzarella.
  • Cover and bake until bubbling and cheese is melted – 25 minutes.
  • Remove cover and brown cheese – about 5 minutes.
  • Remove from oven and allow casserole to set up for 10 minutes then serve.

THE LOVE: Take the time to grind your own beef. After all, we’re doing everything we can to HELP this hamburger!

printable recipe

Makes almost 1 cup

1 large bunch basil, leaves picked
½ bunch flat parsley, leaves picked
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons pine nuts
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan


  • Place garlic, pine nuts and salt in food processor…pulse until coarse
  • Add herbs…pulse until chopped
  • Slowly drizzle oil through feed tube until a thick puree is formed
  • Transfer to bowl…
  • Stir in cheese…
  • Keep well covered

THE LOVE: Pesto freezes perfectly so whatever you have leftover can be kept until you need it.

printable recipe

Thanks for reading.

Add these dishes to today’s post and you’ll create a delicious casual dinner party menu!

  • Sandra

    ‘Toad in the Hole’ was a childhood favourite. My Mum makes great Yorkshire puddings, and I always loved seeing those sausages poking out.

    • Would you like me to have a go? I’ve never had it so I’m intrigued!

      • Sandra

        Absolutely! I’m sure it can be flavoured up a bit, with a delicious gravy… I seem to be getting a bit peckish….

  • Penny Wolfe

    I love this! Looks delicious. We have our own homemade version of hamburger helper here as well. Always a hit! I will have to try yours with the Italian sausage though. I love fennel!! I’d like to see your next “for a chef” series tackle Kraft dinner! My daughter does not like any iteration of macaroni and cheese that I make from scratch (and I make a delicious macaroni and cheese). Help me get those nasty blue boxes out of my house for good! My last attempt came close but still didn’t quite cut it. If you’d like an idea for a full meal imagine Kraft dinner, shake and bake pork chops and a can of baked beans. That is a meal from my childhood!

    • Holy Smokes! that’s a lot of food memory…lol! I’ll definitely have a go at the KD

  • I don’t think I have ever been more excited about a series of recipes in all my life! A childhood favorite was and continues to be the “sloppy joe”. If anyone can turn this comfort food into something a little more elegant, it’s you!

    • Awesome – I’m excited as well! I wrote a “sloppy joe” recipe this past summer but I’m happy to do another. Have a look at this They were tasty!!

  • Debbie

    I too am very excited about the “recipes for a chef” series. I need help with macaroni and cheese.

  • Debbie

    I had no idea you could freeze pesto. Thank you for the tip.

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  • Chand

    Michelle, Your recipes are amazing. I just made this today for thanksgiving eve. It was yummy and homey. My husband loved it. I would love to be your friend if I lived near you. You talk about your girls exactly how I feel about my boys, one of which was married this fall one magical day.

    • So pleased to hear from you! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. Looking forward to sharing stories and recipes!

  • Nina

    Haven’t seen any new “recipes for a chef”

    • Michelle

      I know… I’ll get on it!

  • Hi Vanessa, Delighted to hear that you made and enjoyed my meatloaf for a chef recipe. Like you, meatloaf’s not really my thing either. That’s how the whole ‘for a chef’ series started. Dishes that need a little help! Thanks so much for dropping me a note!