Tots are still hot

Tater Tots inspire a culture of recipes, memories, imitators

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Classic roots

Before you dismiss Tater Tots as another example of mid-20th century food tinkering, consider where tots might come from. Asked in an email if there was a classic culinary antecedent for tots, the French-born and trained Jacques Pépin replied quickly in the affirmative.

“Certainly potato croquettes (riced cooked potato and egg yolk shaped like corks, balls or disks, breaded and fried) or potato duchesse (the same but no breading and baked) are the ancestors,” wrote Pépin. He pointed curious cooks to “The “Fannie Farmer Cookbook” and other classics for recipes.

Where is the tater nation?

Tater Tots are sold across North America, but where are those little treats most popular? The west-north-central parts of the United States, according to Max Wetzel, associate marketing director for Ore-Ida. That means Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Wetzel says this might be due to the popularity of comfort foods in the region, including Tater Tot hot dish.

The Brothers Grigg had just started a frozen food company to make, among other things, french fries. But what to do with the scraps of spud left behind? These potato pieces were too small for proper fries, but there were too many of them to be discarded. One day in 1953, F. Nephi Grigg came up with a delicious solution: He chopped up the potato scraps, shaped them into bite-size cylinders, then fried them golden and crunchy.

Thus were born Ore-Ida Tater Tots.

As the past 60 years or so have proved, Grigg's little brainstorm — a plug of shredded potato 11/2 inches long, 7/8 inch in diameter — has been an enormous success. An estimated 3.5 billion Tater Tots are eaten by Americans every year, according to Max Wetzel, associate marketing director for Ore-Ida.

Tater Tots are so golden that they have morphed from brand to cultural phenomenon. After all, what would the famed hot dish casserole of the northern Midwest be without that crowning layer of Tots?

"It's just a wonderful comfort food," said Ann L. Burckhardt, author of "Hot Dish Heaven: Classic Casseroles From Midwest Kitchens."

"It's a tremendously handy potato item that people can use to put together a meal," the resident of Edina, Minn., said. "I keep a package in the freezer at all times, because I never know when I'm going to want to do something with them."

Tater Tots and its imitators long ago jumped from supermarket freezer cases to restaurant menus across North America. Many chefs make their own; home cooks can as well, thanks to cookbooks such as Lara Ferroni's "Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats Without All the Junk" (Sasquatch, $19.95).

Ferroni, an Oregon-based food writer, said she doesn't remember much junk food in the house as she was growing up in southern Georgia, but "there was always a bag of frozen Tater Tots in the freezer." While Tater Tots bring back childhood memories for her, they also have a very adult connotation as well.

"I live in Portland now, and you'd be amazed at how many bars have Tater Tots," she said.

Tots lend themselves to more refined dining applications, too.

At HauteDish in Minneapolis, chef Landon Schoenefeld has a Tater Tot HauteDish on the menu. It's a play not just on words, but on the innards of the dish itself as well.

"Tater Tot hot dish is an iconic Minnesota dish," he said. "Typically, it's made with ground beef and green beans and canned cream of mushroom soup with Tater Tots on top."

Schoenefeld's version is both more refined and deconstructed, resulting in a dish rooted in the familiar but presented in a new way. Braised short rib subbing for the ground beef, a porcini bechamel sauce in lieu of the canned mushroom soup, French haricots verts replacing green beans.

The kicker, he said, are the three tots crowning the plate. Each tot is "essentially a croquette," Schoenefeld said, a cheesy mashed potato bite that is shaped by hand, fried to set the outer crust and then baked to melt the insides.

"Easily, it is our most popular dish (in our restaurant)," said the chef, who estimates that he's sold 20,000 plates in the two years HauteDish has been open. Today's price? $24.

"People don't blink an eye," Schoenefeld said. "It reminds them of a dish they grew up on."

Potato Tots

Prep: 45 minutes Cook: 10 minutes. Makes: About 54 tots

Lara Ferroni, author of “Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats Without All the Junk,” said she likes to grate a little sweet potato or yam into her tots. She also keeps the potato skin on to preserve more nutrients.

2 pounds russet potatoes (5-6 medium potatoes), cut into chunks

1 medium sweet potato or yam (¼ pound), cut into chunks

2 cups cold water

2½ teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons each: corn flour, ground millet flour

Pinch cayenne pepper

Freshly ground black pepper

Safflower or peanut oil, for frying

Place the potatoes in a food processor. Pulse 5 or 6 times until coarsely ground.

Combine the cold water and 2 teaspoons salt in a large bowl. Add potatoes; stir to coat. Drain well through a fine sieve, pushing out as much water as you can.

Transfer the potatoes to a microwave-safe bowl; microwave 4 minutes on high. Stir; microwave 4 minutes. Stir in the corn flour, millet flour, cayenne and remaining ½ teaspoon salt.

Line a 9-inch square pan with parchment; pour in the potato mixture. Spread it evenly; cool to room temperature. Chill in the freezer until frozen, at least 20 minutes. Cut into 1-by-1½-inch tots.

Heat at least 2 inches of oil in a deep saucepan or skillet to 370 F. Fry the tots in batches, being sure not to crowd the pan, until tots are golden brown, 1-2 minutes. Remove the tots with a slotted spoon; place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Repeat with the remaining tots. Serve immediately.

Chile Con Queso

Prep: 5 minutes. Cook: 15 minutes. Makes: 2 cups

In “The Texas Cowboy Cookbook,” Rob Walsh recommends serving this dip with tortilla chips or as a topping for tacos, chalupas or Frito pie. Why not a dunkable for potato tots, too? Walsh said the dish can be made in a double boiler or microwave, but he also recommends a slow cooker. “You can leave it there for hours, ladling small amounts into serving bowls while the rest stays warm,” he writes.

1 pound Velveeta cheese

1 (10 ounce) can of Rotel tomatoes, a brand of canned tomatoes with green chiles.

Melt 1 pound processed cheese (cut into 1-inch cubes) in a slow cooker or double boiler. Stir in 1 can (10 ounces) tomatoes with green chiles. Serve warm.

per tablespoon: 56 calories, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 13 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 186 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Chipotle Aioli

Prep: 10 minutes. Makes: About 2 cups

The original recipe calls for 1 small can chipotle chilies. We found using just 2 chilies was plenty spicy.

1 egg

2 egg yolks

2 crushed cloves garlic

1 tablespoon mustard

¼ cup lemon juice

½ cup each: extra-virgin olive oil, canola oil

½ bunch cilantro, finely chopped

2 chipotle chilies

1 red onion, finely chopped

Combine the egg, egg yolks, garlic, mustard and lemon juice in a food processor or blender. Process until smooth. With the machine still running, add the olive oil and canola oil in a slow stream; blend until the mixture emulsifies to the consistency of mayonnaise. Add the cilantro and chilies; blend until smooth. Stir in the red onion; serve.

per tablespoon: 70 calories, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 17 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 17 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Tangy Soy Dipping Sauce

Prep: 5 minutes. Makes: About ⅔ cup

From “Asian Dumplings” by Andrea Nguyen.

⅓ cup light (regular) soy sauce

2½ tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar

⅛ teaspoon sugar, optional

1 to 3 tablespoons chili oil, optional

1 piece (1-inch long) fresh ginger, peeled, finely shredded, or 2 cloves garlic, minced

Combine the soy sauce, vinegar and sugar in a bowl. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Taste and adjust the flavors for a tart-savory balance. Add chili oil as you like for heat. Right before serving, add the ginger or garlic.

per teaspoon: 2 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 217 mg sodium, 0 g fiber