The easy and the hard; how much effort is worth it?

Every now and then, you might want to make a meal that, as Tina Turner said, is nice … and easy.

If you come home from work worn out and bedraggled, the last thing you want to do is spend hours in front of the stove creating some sort of culinary masterpiece. You want to open a jar of spaghetti sauce and, if you’re feeling ambitious, simmer some sort of meat in it. If you’re not, you just want to dump it on spaghetti.

But on the weekend, that’s when you may feel more inclined to spend some time cooking. That’s when you might want to aspire to something with a little more pizzazz. A few more ingredients. A few more steps.

So I decided to take three popular dishes and make each one in an easy way and then in a more complicated way that requires more time and ingredients.

Same dish. Two different recipes.

I started with American Goulash, and let me state right here that “goulash” is not the right word for it. Goulash is a real thing; it’s practically the national dish of Hungary. It is a soupy stew (or a stewy soup) of beef with plenty of paprika, along with tomatoes, green pepper and other spices and starches.

What millions of Americans call “goulash” is ground beef in a tomato sauce, usually mixed with elbow macaroni and sometimes cheese. That isn’t goulash, it’s Beefaroni.

First I made it the easy way, and easy it certainly is. It has just five ingredients, simmered together for an hour or so (or in a slow cooker for somewhat longer). This version doesn’t even use elbow macaroni, so it isn’t really Beefaroni. Instead, it uses frozen potatoes O’Brien, which are diced, hash-browned potatoes with onion and red and green peppers. Call it Beefobrien.

The result isn’t bad, though to be honest it kind of tastes like a spaghetti sauce with meat served, oddly, with potatoes instead of pasta.

I adapted a Paula Deen recipe for the more intricate version, and let me tell you, the difference is remarkable. It does have 18 ingredients (including water and salt, which shouldn’t really count), and it requires more effort and care. But despite its humble origins — you don’t get much more humble than Beefaroni — this is a dish to serve to company. You could even serve it to company you’re trying to impress.

I next made easy and harder versions of an all-time favorite: Chicken Parmesan. And once again, the easy version was ridiculously easy, come-home-and-slap-it-together easy.

It requires all of four ingredients: chicken breasts, a jar of pasta sauce, Parmesan cheese and mozzarella cheese. And I’m not entirely certain the Parmesan cheese is necessary (you can taste it, if just a little), but the recipe was developed by Kraft which, of course, sells a lot of Parmesan cheese.

It hurts me to say this, but it was good. The effort-to-flavor ratio was off the charts.

The harder version was better, in my mind, but the amount of work involved in making it was also much greater. The biggest differences were that the chicken breasts were pan-fried in bread crumbs, giving them a nutty flavor and a satisfying crunch, and that the tomato sauce was homemade, which I always prefer.

But it takes 14 ingredients, and a whole bunch of steps.

Finally, I made two side dishes of sauteed mushrooms, and this time I made the more involved version first. I got a mixture of wild mushrooms and sauteed them in a combination of olive oil and butter, a Northern Italian trick for bringing more flavor to a saute. I added garlic, salt, flat-leaf parsley and a spritz of lemon juice. They were meaty and awfully good.

Then I made the easy version. Four ingredients were all it took — sliced button mushrooms, butter, sherry and half a package of onion soup mix, all cooked together.

This is something I should never admit in print, but that easy version? It may even be better than the more difficult one.


Yield: 4 servings

1 lb. lean ground beef

14 oz. (half of a 28-oz. bag) frozen potatoes O’Brien

2 cups spaghetti sauce from a jar

1 (14 1/2-oz.) can diced tomatoes with basil, garlic and oregano, undrained

1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

In a large skillet or pot, cook ground beef over medium-high heat until brown. Drain off fat.

Add potatoes, sauce and undrained tomatoes. Cover and cook at a low simmer until potatoes are tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours, or place the meat, sauce and undrained tomatoes in a slow cooker and cook at low heat for 6 to 8 hours or high heat for 3 to 4 hours.

Sprinkle with cheddar cheese and serve.

Per serving: 480 calories; 20 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 115 mg cholesterol; 40 g protein; 33 g carbohydrate; 10 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 1,005 g sodium; 185 mg calcium.

Recipe adapted from


Yield: 12 servings

2 lbs. lean ground beef

2 large yellow onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 cups water

2 (15-oz.) cans tomato sauce

2 (15-oz.) cans diced tomatoes

1 tsp. dried basil

1 tsp. dried marjoram

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. dried rosemary

1 tsp. dried sage

1 tsp. dried thyme

2 bay leaves

3 Tbsp. soy sauce

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

2 cups elbow macaroni, uncooked

In a large Dutch oven, saute the ground beef over medium-high heat until no pink remains. Break up the meat while sauteing. Add onions and garlic and saute until tender, about 5 minutes.

Add the 3 cups water, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, basil, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, bay leaves, soy sauce, salt and pepper. Stir well. Cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Add the macaroni, stir well, cover and simmer 25 minutes.

Remove from heat, remove the bay leaves and allow the mixture to rest about 30 minutes more before serving (this resting will make the spices pronounced). Leftovers are even better the next day.

Per serving: 290 calories; 10 g fat; 3.5 g saturated fat; 65 mg cholesterol; 26 g protein; 24 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,025 g sodium; 55 mg calcium.

Recipe adapted from Paula Deen, via Food Network.


Yield: 6 servings

1 (23-oz.) jar pasta sauce

6 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese, divided

6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Pour sauce into a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Stir in 4 tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese. Place the chicken breasts in the sauce, turning them to coat well. Cover with foil and bake 30 minutes.

Remove from oven, remove foil, and sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons of Parmesan cheese and the grated mozzarella over the chicken breasts. Return to oven and bake uncovered 5 minutes more, until chicken is cooked through and cheese is melted. If desired, serve with pasta (don’t use salt to cook the pasta).

Per serving: 355 calories; 16 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 105 mg cholesterol; 40 g protein; 10 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 785 g sodium; 305 mg calcium.

Recipe from Kraft Foods.


Yield: 6 servings

1 (28-oz.) can whole peeled plum tomatoes, preferably from San Marzano

2 Tbsp. olive oil

2 Tbsp. minced onions

1 garlic clove, minced

3/4 lb. fresh mozzarella

4 large eggs

1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, divided

2 tsp. minced parsley



6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups bread crumbs

1 cup vegetable oil

Remove tomatoes from the can, reserving their juice. Use your hands to crush the tomatoes; then remove and discard the hard core from the stem end. Set aside. Put oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat, add onion and saute until translucent and just beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add tomatoes, their juice and salt to taste (you may not need salt if the canned tomatoes are salty enough). Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to a very low simmer. Cook for 45 minutes until flavors have combined and sauce is slightly thickened. Add pepper to taste and set aside.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice mozzarella into 1/4-inch thick slices, and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, 1/4 cup of the Pecorino Romano cheese, the parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.

Carefully dredge each chicken breast in flour, then in the seasoned egg batter. Allow excess batter to drip off, then dredge chicken in bread crumbs. Set aside, taking care not to let the breasts overlap.

Heat vegetable oil in a large saute pan over medium high heat. When oil is very hot but not smoking, carefully place breasts in pan (you may have to do this in batches). Brown each side, turning once, seasoning with salt and pepper when you turn. Drain on paper towels.

Spread tomato sauce across bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Place breasts on top of the sauce and bake 20 minutes.

Remove from oven, but leave the oven on. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano over the breasts, and top each breast with 2 slices of the mozzarella cheese. Return to oven and bake 5 minutes or until mozzarella is melted and just bubbling and beginning to brown. You may need to run the pan under the broiler for a minute or 2 to bubble and brown the cheese.

Serve with a spoonful of sauce on top of each breast and more sauce around the sides.

Per serving (calculated with oil, but you won’t use it all): 1,055 calories; 70 g fat; 19 g saturated fat; 260 mg cholesterol; 55 g protein; 49 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 855 g sodium; 235 mg calcium.

Recipe adapted from “Rao’s Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking” by Frank Pellegrino.


Yield: 4 servings

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

1/4 cup sherry

1/2 package onion soup mix

1/2 lb. sliced mushrooms

Melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Stir in sherry. Add soup mix and then mushrooms.

Cook to desired texture.

Per serving: 135 calories; 12 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 30 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 4 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; no fiber; 105 g sodium; 15 mg calcium.

Recipe from


Yield: 4 servings

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 lb. mixed fresh mushrooms, washed and trimmed and sliced ¼ inch thick.

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

2 Tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley

Black pepper

2 to 3 Tbsp. heavy cream, broth or lemon juice, optional

Fresh herbs, such as thyme, sage and/or chives, optional

Heat the oil and butter in a 12-inch saute pan or skillet over medium heat until the butter foams. Add mushrooms and garlic, sprinkle with salt and stir with a wooden spoon until the mushrooms start to release their moisture and begin to shrink, about 2 to 4 minutes.

Increase heat to medium high; you will hear a steady sizzle. Stir occasionally. In about 5 minutes, when the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms start to brown, give an occasional stir with the spoon, about once a minute, to allow the mushrooms to brown, cooking them for another 2 to 4 minutes. Resist the inclination to stir too often.

Remove from the heat and toss the mushrooms with the parsley and pepper to taste, adding more salt if needed. If desired, deglaze pan with cream, broth or lemon juice, and add to the mushroom mixture. Add a sprinkling of fresh herbs, if you like.

Per serving: 85 calories; 7 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 10 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 250 g sodium; 25 mg calcium.

Recipe by Lynne Sampson from Fine Cooking.

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