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Back to the grind
Feeling blah about winter cooking? Beef up your menu with these ground meat dinner ideas.
Wednesday, January 9, 2013
If the most miserable stretch of summer is known as the dog days, then what is this dreary lull between New Year's Day and the first whisper of spring?
It seems appropriate to call these the cat days of winter, because all I want to do is stay curled up in bed, bask in any little patch of sunshine I can find, and have someone respond to my whining by serving me a bowl of food.
So far, this dream has not come true, but my hopes remain high.
Meanwhile, I survey the contents of my refrigerator and freezer every weekend trying to decide what I will put in my own food dish. The other day, while my head was stuck in the chest freezer, it occurred to me that although ground beef has lately gotten a bad rap, few ingredients are easier to fashion into a respectable supper.
Name a popular dish made with ground beef - now there's a great "Family Feud" survey question. Spaghetti would score high, as would meatloaf, chili, tacos and sloppy Joes (and hamburgers, of course). When I was a kid, my mother and grandmother always seemed to be dishing up steaming plates of goulash, lasagna and other beefy favorites.
Those were the blissfully ignorant days, before terms such as pink slime,
E. coli, grass-fed and sustainable were part of our culinary lexicon.
I'm not suggesting we should ignore those issues, but they shouldn't preclude us from turning to pinch-hitters such as meatball subs and stuffed peppers when we need an easy supper idea that's sure to be a winner.
Meat the alternatives
If you have no qualms about throwing a tube of ground beef in your grocery cart, I won't be offended if you skip straight to the recipes.
Unfortunately, the public has recently been given good reasons to have qualms, including foodborne illness outbreaks, the controversial inclusion of "lean finely textured ground beef" in many products, and the sad existence of feed lots packed with cows destined to become hamburger.
In addition, some folks with health problems have probably been warned to limit their consumption of beef, opting instead for leaner choices such as chicken or fish.
It is not a good idea to eat beef every day, but in moderation, lean cuts and blends are a healthy source of protein. In addition, lots of families have gotten used to substituting ground chicken or ground turkey in their favorite recipes - the beauty of many ground beef recipes is that they are heavily sauced or spiced, which masks the flavor of ground poultry for those who don't like it as much.
Ground venison is also a healthier alternative. Deer meat is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef, so those who have access to it and like it are lucky. In fact, that's what I ended up pulling out of the chest freezer that day, and it made for a hearty and delicious cabbage soup.
If it's beef you want, try buying some ground grass-fed beef from a local producer . It will cost more than grocery-store hamburger, but it's still less expensive than almost every other cut of local beef, and the flavor can't be beat.
I've already snuck 10 ground meat dinner ideas into this column, and they are mostly down-home, comfort-food dishes. But don't think you can't go international with this popular protein.
Ground meats factor into lots of Italian dishes, including pizza. It's great with Hispanic flavors, too - think burritos, taco salad, quesadillas, tortilla soup and Mexican casseroles.
If those all sound old hat, maybe it's time to take your ground meat down another road. Swing through the British Isles with shepherd's pie, take the family on a pretend trip to Hungary with cabbage rolls, go Asian with dumplings or lettuce wraps, or try pastitsio, a layered Greek dish.
Ground meat can also be used in place of whole cuts for an affordable twist on some recipes, such as beef Wellington, kebabs, steak and gravy or beef stroganoff.
I'll share a few less typical recipes, which can be prepared using any ground meat you like. Some of these are more time consuming than others, but none are expert-level and all are much better than fast food or Hamburger Helper.
Will they earn you a master chef award? No. Will they help you get through the cat days of winter? Survey says: Absolutely.
Gyro Burgers with Tahini Sauce
If you don't have Greek seasoning, use one dash each of dried oregano, thyme, basil, marjoram, onion and garlic. Look for tahini paste in the ethnic aisle at the grocery store. From Myrecipes.com
For the sauce:
1⁄ 4 cup tahini paste
1⁄ 4 cup water
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1⁄ 8 tsp. garlic powder
1⁄ 4 tsp. salt
For the burgers
1 lb. extra-lean ground meat
1 tsp. Greek seasoning
4 pita rounds
4 lettuce leaves
8 large tomato slices
4 thin red onion slices
1⁄ 4 cup feta cheese
1. Whisk together all sauce ingredients. Set aside.
2. Combine beef and Greek seasoning; shape into four patties.
3. Grill patties, covered, over medium-high heat for 5 to 6 minutes, or until no longer pink.
4. Cut two inches of bread from the side of each pita round to form a pocket. Line each with one lettuce leaf, two tomato slices, and one onion slice. Add burger. Drizzle each with two tablespoons tahini sauce. Sprinkle with one tablespoon of cheese.
Chinese Ground Beef with Noodles
If you can't find black bean sauce, substitute hoisin sauce or oyster sauce and omit the sugar. Adapted from Steamykitchen.com.
2 tsp. cooking oil
1 tsp. finely minced garlic
1⁄ 4 cup minced onions
4 dried chili peppers, cut in half, seeds discarded
1 lb. lean ground beef (or another ground meat)
1⁄ 2 cup frozen carrots and peas
1⁄ 2 cup chopped baby corn
1 tsp. cornstarch
Cooked rice or noodles
For the sauce:
1⁄4 cup chicken, beef or vegetable stock
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. black bean sauce
1⁄2 Tbsp. cooking wine
1⁄2 Tbsp. sugar
1. Mix the sauce ingredients together; set aside.
2. In a wok or large saute pan over high heat, add cooking oil. When the oil is just getting hot, add garlic, onions and chili peppers and fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add ground meat and stir fry for one minute, or until browned.
3. Add frozen vegetables and baby corn; stir well. Pour in sauce and turn heat to medium. Bring sauce to a boil.
4. In a small bowl, combine cornstarch with one tablespoon of cold water and stir until smooth. Pour into boiling sauce and simmer another 30 seconds, stirring, until sauce has thickened. Taste and add more soy sauce if needed. Serve over noodles or rice.
Pakistani Beef Curry
It is important to cut the potatoes in a small dice for this recipe so they are sure to be tender. Adapted from wholenewmom.com.
2 to 3 Tbsp. coconut or vegetable oil
1⁄ 4 cup minced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb. ground beef (or another ground meat)
1 1⁄ 2 Tbsp. curry powder
2 1⁄ 4 tsp. salt
1⁄ 8 tsp. pepper
1⁄ 8 tsp. cinnamon
1⁄ 8 tsp. ginger
1⁄ 8 tsp. turmeric
2 1⁄ 2 to 3 cups canned or fresh chopped tomatoes
3 potatoes, peeled and diced small
2 1⁄ 2 to 3 cups frozen peas
1. Heat oil in a large pan. Add onion and garlic and cook until onion softens and garlic begins to brown. Do not burn the garlic.
2. Add meat and cook until thoroughly browned. Add curry, salt and spices; stir well.
3. Add tomatoes, potatoes and peas to the pan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 25 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. Serve with basmati rice or brown rice.
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