Iraqi-style “Hamburger Helper” (sorry, babe)

Being a Midwestern girl, I’ve always loved a casserole.  I still have many a tattered and stained recipe card sporting one of my mother’s one dish wonders (designed for the babysitter to make while my folks were out).

As a foodie I’m a bit conflicted about these kinds of dishes.  My mom made mac and cheese from scratch, so I was raised to be dubious of anything that comes from a box or includes a can of soup concentrate as one of the key recipe ingredients.  Yet I confess a deep affection for a few grade school cafeteria staples, especially on high stress days.  Plus, let’s face it, when you don’t do food for a living and it’s 6:30 on a Wednesday evening and you just got home and everybody is hungry and you have to get dinner on the table pronto (deep breath…sigh) those one-pot wonders beckon seductively.

My husband, who shudders at the mere thought of the frozen dinner, taught me a very satisfying and healthy one dish wonder called biryani.  It is quick, makes liberal use of what you already have on hand, and uses only one special ingredient, a biryani spice mix, which you can get now at pretty much any spice vendor or ethnic grocery story.  (I’m personally fond of Penzey’s Tandoori Seasoning or the Moroccan mix from The Spice House.)  Alternately you can make on your own.  It was my mission in life for about 2 years to replicate my mother-in-law’s biryani mix while we hoarded the very last few tablespoons we had of it a year after her passing.

This recipe feeds a pretty sizeable crew and takes about 30 minutes to make from start to finish.  Add a dollop of greek yogurt mixed with salt and crushed garlic and it’s heaven in a bowl.  Have seconds.  You know you want to.


2 cups basmati rice, prepared as directed in Rajaa’s Rice recipe

1 large spanish onion diced

1 small. bag of frozen peas and carrots

1 to 2 lbs. ground beef (turkey is OK too)

6-8 tablespoons of spice mix (adjust this to your taste)

1 cup raisins

1 cup toasted slivered almonds

olive oil, salt and pepper

Start by making the rice.  While it simmers, saute the onions and ground beef in a large pot with a few tablespoons of olive oil.  When the meat is about half browned, add salt and pepper to taste and at least 4 tablespoons of your spice mix. This will perfume the meat and oil and will taste overly strong.  It should because the rice will temper it later.

When the meat is browned and the onions are translucent, stir in the frozen peas and carrots and another tablespoon of the spice mix until everything is well mixed.  Then stir in the raisins until they are warmed and coated with the spices and oil.  Salt and pepper to taste and add the last of the spices remembering that the mixture should taste a bit over-seasoned and almost  grainy from the spices. (The more you make this, the more you’ll learn the amount of spice your family likes.)

Once the rice is done, pour the cooked rice into the meat and veggie mixture and toss until everything is well incorporated.  Now when you taste it, the rice will have picked up the rest of the flavors, any grainy texture will be gone and the entire dish will taste right.  At this point, toss in the toasted almonds. Mix well and serve with a dollop of yogurt on top.  This sits well on warm heat on the stove if you’re accommodating a variety of eating schedules.  It reheats well too.


Biryani makes a good side dish for grilled poultry or fish as well as a fantastic Thanksgiving turkey stuffing.  My husband and I have a divergence of opinion on these uses.  I think you need less meat when this is a stuffing or a side dish but he does not.  If you want to make this extra fancy, you can use a variety of different mixed nuts (adding pistachios makes it especially festive) and/or dried fruits (apricots, yum).  When I first had this, my husband hard-boiled a half-dozen eggs, peeled and fried them, cut them in half, and placed them around the serving platter. Some of my in-laws fry their nuts in oil instead of toasting them.  Whatever floats your boat is fine.

This recipe works well with a good Ras Al-Hanout or Garam Masala if you prefer those flavor profiles.


About aecsarah

I've been working in marketing for architects, interior designers, engineers and contractors since 1997. Before that I did stints as a university professor and a radio documentary producer. In my spare time I'm a foodie and craft-ie.
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