This is one of those go-to weeknight meals that I can throw together with my eyes closed and one hand behind my back. Chewy pasta and gooey cheese are balanced out by a big helping of veggies with a little ground meat for protein. Add in a spicy kick and everyone leaves happy. Most of the ingredients are pantry staples at our house, and there’s plenty of flexibility in the recipe to throw in whatever happens to be in-season or on-hand in your kitchen.
If you’d like to save yourself an extra step, you can actually cook the pasta right in the skillet along with the ragu. Add it in with the tomatoes, along with an extra 1/2 cup of water. The pasta will absorb the flavorful cooking liquid and release starch, making the dish extra creamy!
I love all the different names for this dish that everyone has shared over the years since I first posted this recipe! Call it goulash or call it DIY Hamburger Helper — either way, this is good stuff and I thought it was high time to bring it back into everyone’s meal rotation.
This ragu is a distinctly “fall” dish for me, and it’s been a few months since I craved its particular combination of chewy, creamy, and tender. The only changes I’ve made to the recipe are to add garlic (clearly an oversight in my original recipe!) and to clear up the cooking times so that it’s even easier to make. I thought about upping the pasta and cheese — because I am almost always in favor of upping these two compadres — but I honestly love the balance of ingredients as they are. This isn’t a pasta dish, and it’s not really a chili or a stew, either. This skillet dinner is somewhere in the middle, and I think it’s the best of all worlds.
This said, I support you however you want to make this! Up the pasta, swap out the meat for more mushrooms, stir in some leftover ricotta — no matter what, it’s going to be good. (P.S.: If you love smoky flavors, try making this with smoked cheddar. That version is insanely good.)
I hope you love this easy recipe as much as I do. Do you make something like this dish already? What do you call it in your house?
– Emma, September 2013
Southwest Skillet Ragu
1 cup elbow macaroni
1 to 1 1/2 pounds ground beef or turkey
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 medium sweet bell pepper, chopped
8 to 12 ounces (1 package) white or baby bella mushrooms, quartered
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne or red pepper flakes (optional)
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, plus extra to serve
Salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water, and cook the pasta until it is barely al dente and still a little too chewy. Scoop out a cup of the cooking liquid, then drain the pasta, reserving a cup of the cooking liquid.
While the pasta is cooking, begin cooking the ragu. Heat a teaspoon of olive oil over medium-high heat in a skillet or Dutch oven deep enough to hold everything. Add the ground beef and cook until browned all the way through, about 8 minutes. Transfer the ground beef to a plate. Pour off any grease, leaving behind just enough to film the bottom of the pan.
Cook the onions in the skillet with a half-teaspoon of salt until they are soft, translucent, and beginning to brown, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the mushrooms, and cook until they have released all their liquid and turned golden brown, another 5 to 6 minutes. Add the peppers and cook until softened, another 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic, spices, and another half-teaspoon of salt, and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Pour tomatoes with their juices into the pan and bring to a rapid simmer. Add the hamburger back to the pan, and simmer until the liquid has reduced and thickened, about 5 minutes.
Stir in the cheese and the pasta, and stir until the cheese is melted and gooey. Taste and add salt, pepper, or more spices to taste. Add some of the reserved cooking water if you’d like a thinner ragu. Spoon into individual bowls, top with an extra scattering of cheese, and serve!
This recipe was originally published March 2008.