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Oct. 1, 2022

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Tater Tot Hot Dish isn’t just for Minnesotans

Versatile dish beloved in Midwest; don’t call it casserole

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MINNEAPOLIS — There are many things Minnesotans take personally: pop vs. soda, an allegiance to the original Jucy Lucy and the correct way to prepare Tater Tot Hot Dish (not casserole).

To those thinking there is no correct way to prepare Tater Tot Hot Dish, look no further than a recent tweet by Gov. Tim Walz, who came under fire not only for the appearance of his hot dish, but for his choice of vegetables. (The inclusion of peas was the culprit.) People had very strong opinions, and they weren’t all Minnesota Nice.

“Hot dish is a dangerous thing to play with,” chef Gavin Kaysen, owner of Minneapolis restaurants Spoon and Stable and Demi, told Food & Wine magazine in 2016. “There will always be someone with a grandma who makes it better.”

A concept that began as farm wives’ solution to an economical meal, the first hot dish recipe recorded was in 1930 in, not surprisingly, Minnesota. The “Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid Cookbook” from Mankato (the governor’s home turf) included a recipe that called for 2 pounds of hamburger, tomato soup, Creamette brand elbow macaroni and canned peas to be combined and baked.

The doors to hot dish possibilities swung wide open in 1934, when Campbell’s introduced its line of creamed condensed soups. Cream of mushroom soup became a staple in many Midwestern pantries, and a key ingredient in potluck offerings.

But the culinary game changer came in 1953, when brothers F. Nephi Grigg and Golden Grigg, the two farmers behind Ore-Ida, were looking for a way to use leftover potato slivers. They decided to slice them up, add some flour and seasoning, and push the mixture through holes to create a shredded potato mixture. The Tater Tot was born, to nearly immediate success.

The popularity of tots hasn’t waned, with many restaurants offering their own versions — seasoned, loaded, crispy, giant, mini — and the occasional Tater Tot Hot Dish-inspired menu items, from burgers to pizza.

The popularity of Tater Tot Hot Dish hasn’t waned, either. The culinary resource website What’s Cooking America quipped that there are as many different ways of making Tater Tot Hot Dish as there are Minnesotans who make it. A Google search for recipes turned up nearly 170,000 hits, with everyone from home cooks and bloggers to chefs offering their variations.

The blueprint is simple enough: brown a pound or two of ground beef, add vegetables (we’re a corn-and-green-bean household), salt and pepper and chopped onion, if you’re feeling fancy, and mix it all up with a can of cream of mushroom soup before heaping it into a 9- by 13-inch pan. Top with Tater Tots, stick it in the oven until the tots are nice and crispy and dig in. (We’re also a no-cheese household.)

Although the basic formula has remained the same — protein, vegetables, sauce and a topping of tots — recipes have diverged to show cooks’ creativity and the changing demographics and palates of Minnesotans.

While ground beef is still the go-to protein, recipes now include ground turkey, pork and even seafood. Vegetables have gone from strictly canned to frozen or fresh and include not just the staples of beans, peas and corn, but also carrots, cabbage and peppers. Cream of mushroom soup remains the sauce of choice, but cooks frequently make their own, preferring to have the upper hand on ingredients.

The progression of the once-humble dish is evident in author Patrice Johnson’s “Land of 10,000 Plates,” which includes four recipes for Tater Tot Hot Dish, from the standard (sans canned soup) to winning recipes from the annual Minnesota Congressional Hotdish Competition, which she judged in 2019. Among them: Rep. Betty McCollum’s recipe for Hot Dish A-Hmong Friends and Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Little Moga-Hot-Disu, both turning the notion that Tater Tot Hot Dish is a simplistic Midwestern dish on its head. Yes, Tater Tot Hot Dish has gone global.

“You learn a lot about a person when you eat their hot dish,” Johnson writes in the 2020 book, which is equal parts cookbook, memoir and history lesson. “To sit down together at the table always symbolized an understanding and even a certain intimacy. The food we serve represents our culture and values, our likes and dislikes and our history. The heart of hot dish is its humble wisdom. Hot dish is not grandiose.”

But it can be grandiose, which is part of its charm. For a quick weeknight dinner, simple may be best. When time and creativity converge, that’s when it’s time to think outside the box and incorporate new flavors, textures and, yes, vegetables.

“Minnesota is not a melting pot,” Johnson writes. “We are a hot dish.” Albeit one topped with Tater Tots.

Seafood Tater Tot Hot Dish

Serves 8.

Note: I’ve had this recipe bookmarked for months. It’s adapted from a Food & Wine recipe by Liz Mervosh, who created the recipe to channel the flavor and fun of a crab boil. I used a mix of crab and shrimp, but an all-crab hot dish or a lobster-crab-shrimp trio would make an equally indulgent meal. Frozen potato tots add crunch to the creaminess, making it a hearty and filling dinner.

3 cups frozen potato tots (about 60 tots)

13/4 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning, divided

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup finely chopped shallots, about 2 medium

1/3 cup finely chopped celery, 1 large stalk

2 tablespoons dry white wine or vermouth

6 ounces cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh chives, plus extra for garnish

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Sriracha

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (from 1 lemon)

1/2 pound lump crabmeat, drained and picked over

1/2 pound cooked shrimp, chopped

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Arrange tots in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven until crisp, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl; toss with 1/2 teaspoon of the Old Bay. Do not turn oven off.

While tots bake, melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and celery; cook, stirring often, until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. Add wine and cook, stirring constantly, until mostly evaporated, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat.

In a large bowl, stir together cream cheese, chives, mayonnaise, sour cream, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, lemon zest, and remaining 11/4 teaspoons Old Bay. Fold in seafood and shallot mixture. Spread mixture in a 1-quart gratin baking dish (an 8-by-8-inch pan also works). Top evenly with tots. Bake until seafood mixture bubbles around the edges, about 15 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes. Sprinkle with chives before serving.

Hot Dish A-Hmong Friends

Serves 14 to 16.

Note: Adapted from the recipe Rep. Betty McCollum entered — and won with — in the 2019 Minnesota Congressional Delegation Hot Dish Competition. It’s easily halved. The original recipe calls for ground beef, which works equally well. Don’t be tempted to skip the egg roll wrappers; it provides crucial crunch. Find umami seasoning at most major supermarkets, as well as Target and Trader Joe’s. The recipe also was published in Patrice Johnson’s “Land of 10,000 Plates” (Minnesota Historical Society, 2020).

1/2 (32-ounce) bag of Tater Tots

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 cloves of garlic, minced

1 large onion, diced

2 cups grated carrots

1 small cabbage, quartered and sliced

2 pounds ground pork (see Note)

1/3 cup umami seasoning (see Note)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

5 Thai chiles, optional

1 (10.75-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup

1/2 cup milk

4 egg roll wraps, quartered

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat the bottom and sides of a 9- by 13-inch baking dish with cooking spray. Spread tots on bottom of dish to cover.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add onion and cook until translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add carrots and cabbage and cook until vegetables soften, about 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer vegetable mixture to a plate and set aside.

In the same skillet, cook ground pork over medium heat until browned, about 10 minutes, breaking the meat apart as it cooks. Transfer the vegetables back to the pan. Add the umami seasoning, salt, pepper and chiles, if using. Continue stirring until well combined. Spread mixture over the Tater Tots.

In a large bowl, whisk together the milk and cream of mushroom soup. Evenly pour over the vegetable mix. Place in oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbling.

While the hot dish is baking, heat remaining oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. Fry egg roll wrappers until browned, and place them on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet to cool. Crumble wraps and sprinkle over hot dish for the last 5 minutes of baking. Remove from oven and serve.

Turkey Trot Tater Tot Hot Dish

Serves 4 to 6.

Note: Proving that Gov. Tim Walz knows his way around a hot dish, this recipe garnered him top prize in the 2014 Minnesota Congressional Delegation Hotdish Off. He’s won the competition three times, and is the reigning champion.

1 pound ground turkey

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon dried sage

1 egg

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more as needed

2 teaspoons salt, divided

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound fresh green beans, stems removed and chopped into bite-sized pieces

4 slices bacon

6 tablespoons butter, divided

11/2 cups chopped baby bella mushrooms

5 to 6 tablespoons flour

21/2 cups whole milk

1/2 cup half and half

1/4 cup chopped onions

3 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided

1 (32-ounce) package Tater Tots

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine turkey, garlic, sage, green onions, egg, pepper and 1 teaspoon salt. In a skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil and then brown the turkey mixture. Remove from stove and transfer mixture to a large bowl.

In a pot of boiling water, blanch green beans for 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove beans and plunge them into ice water. Once cool, drain completely and add to turkey mix.

In a skillet over medium heat, fry bacon until crisp. Remove from pan, and cool bacon on paper towels. Chop bacon into 1/4-inch pieces and add to turkey mix. Gently combine turkey mix, beans and bacon and spread in an even layer in a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons butter. As soon as foam begins to subside, add mushrooms and cook, stirring continuously, until mushrooms are browned, about 4 to 6 minutes.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter. Slowly and evenly sprinkle flour into the butter. Cook for 2 minutes, then slowly whisk in the milk and half and half. Cook for 2 more minutes, then add diced onions, remaining 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste. After 1 minute, stir in 21/2 cups cheese and cook, stirring, until melted. Pour cheese mixture evenly over casserole. Scatter Tater Tots over the top, then scatter remaining shredded cheese. Bake until golden brown, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven and serve.

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