Friday, November 8, 2013

Not Hamburger Helper's Chicken Stroganoff

My first exposure to comfort food came about by way of a basement cafeteria. Way back when, I lived in a brutally cold dorm with a mandatory meal plan. The kicker? Outside those dorm walls was the glorious city of Montreal with it's fantastic poutine and bagels. Oh the bagels! But within the four walls of the dorm's bustling cafeteria, we were served a steady diet of ketchup covered meatloaf, sloppy lasagna, and slightly soggy chicken pot pies. In hindsight, it was such a terrible introduction to comfort food but I didn't know any better and it planted in me a life long love of slow-cooked, belly-warming food.

See, I grew up in a house where my mom made real Pakistani meals. I use the term "real" to distinguish her fantastic cooking from my quick-to-the table, Pakistani "inspired" food. I'm talking about hearty curries and fragrant pilaus and fresh naans. Don't get me wrong, my mom was a modern, global woman who mixed it up by making a chow mein every now and then but by large, we ate Pakistani food. Except Saturday afternoons. By that point, my mom must have been so exhausted from cooking for a kid who refused to eat dark meat (me) to a kid who refused any sort of flavoring (my brother), she would let us pick out a microwave or boxed meal. Gosh, how I loved Saturday afternoons where I discovered the world of frozen pot pies and toaster-oven pizza bites. And even with all the options, nine times out of ten, my cheat meal was Hamburger Helper Stroganoff.

There was something about those curly egg noodles, rattling around in the cardboard box, and that powdered flavor packet that magically transformed in to sauce. It sounds a bit nuts now but back then, surrounded by amazing, homemade, and real food, my favorite meal came from a box with a plastic bag of dried pasta and a paper sachet of sodium. So when I saw Hamburger Helper's cousin, chicken stroganoff, on the dorm's buffet line, I was sold. Pretty much every shred of homesickness vanished as soon as I spotted that steaming, gloppy pile of noodles and sauce. To this day, I attribute my Freshman Fifty (yup, not fifteen, fifty) to that darn chicken stroganoff. While others were burning their meal credits on ice cream, I was eating pasta. And I'd do it all again in a second (as soon as I accepted I'd need to buy a couple of new pairs of pants, the next few sizes up).

I recently bought a box of Hamburger Helper Stroganoff and was a bit horrified to find it didn't taste as great as I remembered. In fact, it tasted kinda terrible. And then I remembered the chicken stroganoff of my undergraduate days. The nemesis of of my favorite jeans, the fuel of frantic cramming for finals, and the best meal ever. And so, on a surprisingly cold San Francisco Saturday, from a pantry devoid of egg noodles, and a fridge housing the very last remnants of the sour cream, I recreated that nostalgically perfect chicken stroganoff for my family. I used spaghetti because that's what we happened to have, the last of the button mushrooms and sour cream, and a few forgotten, grilled chicken breasts. You should feel free to use any kind of pasta and veggies because this is definitely a meal that comes together quickly and is easily adaptable to whatever you have on hand. And as soon as I saw that sauce come together in the pan, I was transported back to that dorm cafeteria where the lunch ladies spoke in a gruff French accent and the hefty portion sizes where definitely not French.

Even though I now prefer that my stroganoff not come from a cardboard box, I will still down a giant plate of soggy, cafeteria-style, crinkle cut fries with no hesitation. For old time's sake.

Chicken Stroganoff

16 oz. spaghetti
2 tbs. butter
2 tbs. oil
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
3 grilled chicken breasts, sliced (or shredded, rotisserie chicken)
2 tbs. flour
1 cup chicken stock
3/4 cup sour cream
Salt and pepper

Boil spaghetti in a large pot of salted water.

In a separate pan, melt butter and oil. Cook onion until translucent. Add garlic and cook until fragrant. Add mushrooms and cook on low heat until mushrooms are browned. Add chicken. Sprinkle with flour and stir until flour is mixed thoroughly. At this point, I like to break up some of the chicken pieces to a more shredded chicken consistency but the hubster prefers giant chicken chunks. Either option works! Add the chicken broth, stir to mix, and cook until sauce thickens. Remove from heat. Add sour cream and mix. Season with salt and pepper.

Find a big bowl. The bigger, the better. If you do not have any clean bowls, a large measuring cup will do. Fill it with noodles. Top with the stroganoff mixture and freshly cracked pepper. Eat while wearing your favorite comfy pants.


  1. seems like you guys had half decent type meals at your cafeteria, ours was horrible. I therefore stuck to the grill for their greasy onion rings and washed it down with soft serve vanilla with lots of crushed oreos. Growing up in Nepal, I did not know American comfort food for the longest time and therefore dont care too much but I will definitely eat anything creamy with pasta :)

  2. I don't think I've ever had Hamburger Helper, but I don't think I have to try it to know that your stroganoff is much better! It looks so delicious!


  3. What?! Montreal has good bagels? I...I don't know what to say. This is just sheer crazy talk. :) Anyway, I used to *love* noodle-roni with cut up hot dogs back in college. Granted, it was after a night out, at like 3 a.m....Yes, I had high class taste buds back then. They also convinced me that sausage and peppers from a cart down a darkened alley was also a good idea. (It was soooo not a good idea)

  4. Looks Yummy, Love the Pale Blue Plate!

  5. Isn't it funny how the food of your youth/childhood can taste so much different than you remember. I had a similar experience with boxed mac and cheese. Now I make a killer homemade version (no doubt almost as good as this looks!) Thank you for sharing!

  6. You went to school in Montreal? How did I not know that? My parents met at that where you went?

    The Freshman 50? I doubt that VERY much my friend.

    Loved Hamburger Helper when I was a kid. This looks 100 X better.

  7. I've heard so many horror stories about cafeteria food, but yours sounds not bad at all.
    I completely understand when you say 'real'. This dish does look quite comforting thought, have slowly started to like stroganoff, chicken version sounds good.
    Btw, love Montreal, I think it's one of the most beautiful place I've seen. We went during summer and it was gorgeous.
    Happy Sunday.

  8. Ameena, yup, I loved Montreal! And I love the story of how your parents met :)

  9. comforting dish...loved the flavors :-)


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