Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tater-Tot Hot Dish!

Hot Dish on a stick at the State Fair
massdistraction / / CC BY-NC-ND
[Thanks to Matt W for helping me solve some technical problems with this post!]  

Hot Dish is enough of an Upper Midwestern phenomenon to have its own Wikipedia entry and to give rise to high-end restaurants like Haute Dish in Minneapolis. Hot Dish can even bridge the seemingly immense chasm between political rivals, who come together yearly to trade recipes in a friendly contest. The very name "Hot Dish" carries such power that, as Mr Chernov says, it doesn't even seem to matter what's in it--we'll eat it! At the State Fair, you can eat Hot Dish on a stick:  ask Mr Lockhart--he's tried it! I like to think of Duluth in particular as a hot-bed of Hot Dish aficionados, perhaps because Bea Ojakangas, Duluth's most famous cookbook author, wrote The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever

As Mrs Ojakangas points out, you don't really need recipes or a cookbook to make Hot Dish. All you need is the basic formula of protein + carbohydrate + veggies + sauce + topping:  bake until brown and bubbly. Hot Dish is one of the joys of living in Minnesota, and no winter-time comfort food can surpass the Big Daddy of all Hot Dishes, in which the carb is the topping:  the Tater-Tot Hot Dish! (As Mr Risdon says, it contains all three food groups: meat, potatoes, and vegetables!)    

But let us pause for a moment to consider our terminology... Should "Hot Dish" be written as one word or two? (Spell-checker, as Mr Chernov points out, says two.) Truthfully, I'm not sure I care:  go with your preference, but then be consistent. Should "Hot Dish" be capitalized? Well, I think of Hot Dish as a proper noun, just like Snow Day! Are the words "Hot Dish" and "casserole" interchangeable? Of course not! Ms Ball says that a Hot Dish has noodles and tomato sauce, while a Casserole contains a Cream Soup, but I think what you call a one-dish meal baked in a glass, ceramic, or metal pan depends entirely on the poetic principles of alliteration, assonance, and consonance! So, for instance:  
          Mattson:  I think I see some Tater-Tot Casserole over there! 
          Nygaard:  No, you must be mistaken--that's Tater-Tot Hot Dish.  
The lovely combination of assonance and consonance in "tot" and "hot," which work together to create a simple internal rhyme, is just as appetizing as an orderly arrangement of perfectly-browned potato nuggets resting atop a layer of gooey goodness...  Similarly:
          Mattson:  Is that Kidney Bean Hot Dish on the table?  
          Nygaard:  No, it's Kidney Bean Casserole, thank you very much! 
The "k" in "kidney bean" combines so nicely with the hard "c" of "casserole," that Kidney Bean Casserole just rolls right off your tongue, which is why you should never speak with your mouth full! However, I reluctantly present the exception to the rule:
          Mattson:  Are you bringing Tuna Hot Dish to the potluck? 
          Nygaard:  No!  Nor am I bringing Tuna Casserole, because they're both disgusting! 
          Mattson:  But I like the crushed potato chips on top...
These are conversations that only Minnesota English teachers can have. If you go off to college somewhere far away, no one will know what you're talking about when you reminisce about Hot Dish. You'll have to school them on the subject. (In the meantime, you can practice by educating Madame Young about Hot Dish, as she has no idea what it is! She might find this video helpful, in all sorts of ways!) 

Morel, the State mushroom.
No, I won't tell you where I
found it!
So, back to Tater-Tot Hot Dish (and just for the record, Mr Mattson hates it!). The typical TTHD consists of a fairly bland, gray mushy mix of browned hamburger and some canned vegetable (green beans seem to be the most common), bound together with a cream soup of some kind, Cream of Mushroom being the reigning favorite. This mixture is topped with a random scattering of frozen tater-tots and then baked. (Let's see who's paying attention: What is another, rather amusing, name for Cream of Mushroom Soup's important function in a Hot Dish? Answer in a comment!) In other words, TTHD is really just a variation of Green Bean Casserole, with hamburger and in which the tater-tots replace the French's Fried Onions.
They were delicious!

Variations which are highly seasoned, include a greater variety of vegetables, eschew the ubiquitous Cream of Mushroom, or showcase carefully-arranged tots (lined up "like soldiers," according to Madame Greenan's mother), are often considered, by the church-basement potluck crowd, to be unusual, heretical, perhaps even un-Minnesotan. Some families, like Mrs Fishel's, argue about whether or not to add cheese. Ms Powell outlaws green beans, and Mr Anderson includes lima beans! My TTDH is probably pretty un-Minnesotan.

Don't get me wrong--I love Minnesota. There's nowhere else I'd rather live, although I didn't feel that way when I was your age. (As an angsty teen, I even altered some pro-Duluth bumper stickers to express my feelings--you can see them in my classroom.) But having left Minnesota for a decade and then returned, I now love it even more and can see it from both a native's perspective and an outsider's view-point, which makes it all the more interesting and beautiful. 
Don't put Amanita muscaria in Hot
Dish--it's toxic!

Much as I love Minnesota, however, I just can't stand Cream of Mushroom soup! I do love mushrooms of all kinds, but Cream of Mushroom soup contains nothing resembling any actual mushrooms I have ever met. And in all my walks through the woods, I've met a few mushrooms. 

My taste in food runs the gamut from high-brow to low-brow, so I am not (as an anonymous colleague of mine purports to be) "too good" for tater-tots! (Perhaps she would prefer these undoubtedly healthier "grown-up" tater-tots, or the gourmet de-constructed version of TTHD from Haute Dish!) But I have far too much respect for mushrooms to encourage the purchase and consumption of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup. 

Warhol-inspired soup cans
bubbletea1 / / CC BY-NC-SA
I realize these may be fightin' words, as Cream of Mushroom has a devoted following, but I'm willing to stand behind them. Cream of Celery, on the other hand (Amy's or Health Valley), is a noble substitute, the under-appreciated cousin of Cream of Mushroom, in my opinion! In the world of Hot Dish, the otherwise-ignored celery is a vegetable of major importance; it plays a starring role in many Hot Dish recipes, and it is tough enough to withstand highly-industrialized mass-processing methods. In any case, I prefer my Campbell's soup to be of the Andy Warhol variety, hung on the wall or sold at Target as a commemorative objet d'art.

I make my version of TTHD with a yellow sauce or a red sauce; sometimes, I even make both versions in two halves of the same pan (it's a bit tricky, but it can be done)! 

Some of my ingredients
For the yellow sauce, I have sometimes used Cream of Celery mixed with Creamed Corn, either homemade or the Green Giant frozen kind, which for some inexplicable reason is no longer sold in Duluth (though it might still be available in Cloquet). I make Creamed Corn by pureeing half a bag of thawed frozen corn with some diluted sour cream (real or non-dairy) and mixing that with the remaining corn kernels.  

Lots of color!
But my favorite yellow sauce base is butternut squash soup, from a can (Amy's) or a carton (Imagine or Pacific), and then I usually add frozen corn (Ms Powell would approve) and kidney beans to the hot dish. I call this my "Three Sisters" version of TTHD. The orange soup, yellow corn kernels, and dark red beans really brighten up a dish that is often visually unappetizing. Kidney beans show up a lot in my hot dishes, perhaps because I grew up eating my mother's delicious Kidney Bean Casserole, which Ms Ball would call a Hot Dish, because it's made with pasta and tomato sauce. (Let's see who's really paying attention:  Ask Chef Korach about his favorite way to eat kidney beans and then describe it in a comment!) 

For the red sauce version, I use tomato soup, from a can (Progresso, never Campbells) or a carton (Imagine or Pacific), with the usual green beans (but always frozen, never canned--sorry, Ms Powell!), and sautéed baby portabella mushrooms. Traditionalists may think that using tomato soup as a base is rather unorthodox, but most folks like ketchup with their tater-tots, and tomato soup gives the Hot Dish that ketchup-y flavor... 

No matter which base I use, I always include sautéed onions, garlic, red pepper flakes, black pepper, and Italian herb mix. As a vegetarian, I do not, of course, include meat in my Hot Dishes. I do often include fake hamburger or fake sausage. (Go ahead, get the snide remarks about meat substitutes out of your system!) Sometimes, in other experimental versions of TTHD, I use canned chili beans or baked beans (the vegetarian kind, without pork or bacon) as the binder. If I want to be really fancy, I include asparagus. 

Ready for topping
Now, let's get serious and discuss the tots. We all know that TTHD is really just an incredibly-efficient and delicious tater-tot delivery system. We pretend we're eating a balanced meal (right, Mr Risdon?), but what we really want is lots and lots of lovely, crispy tots. Chef Korach, who once "worked for a company that brokered Ore Ida Potato Products," tells me that in the "early 80's, Minnesota led the nation in tater-tot consumption," most likely because of our collective fondness for TTHD. 

To ensure the proper texture of the precious tots, we must limit the amount of sauce (don't drown them!), and if we include cheese (real or non-dairy), it should either be mixed into the sauce or layered underneath the tots--it should never be placed on top! (I realize lots of folks pour their sauce--right from can--over the still-frozen tots, letting gravity pull it down through the Hot Dish filling as it bakes, but I just can't approve of that strategy!) I highly recommend partially pre-baking the tots:  that way, they stay crunchy (and the oven is then thoroughly pre-heated).  

          A soggy tot 
          is not a tot 
          I want to eat!      
Because I didn't have quite enough "soldiers," I only made
some of them stand up, so my tot-to-filling ratio is a tad low.

To guarantee the largest quantity of tots per serving, we must use full-size tater-tots (no mini-tots, says Ms Powell) and the proper pan. No matter what it's made of, the pan must offer a large surface area, so it should be wide and shallow.
If the pan is too tall, and the tots are too far down inside it, then the tots will not brown properly, shielded as they are from the oven's heat, and in such a deep pan, the ratio of tots to filling is likely to be terribly disappointing. Arrange the tots carefully, in rows or circles, packing in as many as possible. If you really want to improve your tot-ratio, take some advice from Madame Greenan's mother and make your "soldiers" stand at attention, rather than letting them lie down! 

You didn't know TTHD was so complicated, did you?  

Some Minnesotans might say that Hot Dish is a way of life, and they wouldn't be wrong. A good Hot Dish can absorb all the little tidbits and leftovers you have in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Perhaps if more folks made Hot Dish more often, Americans wouldn't waste so much food. When I made my TTHD today, I used up some leftover celery, half a bag of corn, half an onion, half a poblano pepper, half a bag of fake burger, and what was left of a package of sun-dried tomatoes. People think of Hot Dish as consisting solely of processed and convenience foods, and certainly the industrialization of agriculture after World War II gave rise to it, but Hot Dishes have come a long way since then, and there's no reason you can't utilize all that produce from your garden or the farmer's market by re-inventing an old favorite.  

Most people associate Hot Dish with potlucks, church suppers, and funerals, all of which are important ways of building community, even if they also often feature "bad coffee, folding chairs, and passive-aggressive family conflicts," as Ms Weaver notes, or "curious Jello salads that inevitably have bits of carrot in them," as Ms Kiero remarks. I'll bet that in every country in the world where folks experience winter, people make some kind of Hot Dish and get together with family and friends to eat it. And even long after you leave home, memories of all the terrible and wonderful Hot Dishes of your childhood will sneak up on you with a powerful nostalgia. --Just ask Ms Knudsen about her childhood memories of Fiskegrateng! So, dig in! It may not always look good, and you might think you won't like it, but as Luke P said the other day about TTHD, once you start eating it, you realize you like it!

Dig in!
I'd like to thank all the folks who chatted with me about TTHD or who sent me their thoughts via email--their contributions made this post so much better than I had planned! I hope faculty, staff, and students (past and present) will continue the conversation in the comments. Meanwhile, I wonder which Hot Dish I should make next week:  Wild Rice Hot Dish? Seven Layer Hot Dish? Thai Curry Mac & Cheese? 


  1. Susan, you're a GENIUS. I'm still laughing, and have also found a recipe for Fiskegrateng that I will make and bring to the Multicultural Festival next Friday ; ). Which connected me with a Norwegian food blogger in NYC. The power of Hot Dish!

  2. A vegetarian friend of mine said she's now inspired to try a fried tofu, coconut milk + red curry paste, and sweet potato tot version. I did not know that tots made from sweet potatoes existed--that's a game changer and will definitely be part of my next variation!

  3. Is the amusing name for Cream of Mushroom Soup's function you are referring to "Lutheran Binder"?

  4. My grandma once made a tator-tot hot dish but grabbed the wrong bag from the freezer. Let's just say fish sticks do not go well on top of a hot dish! And for the record, there are NO veggies in my TTHD!

    1. NO veggies?! Just meat, binder, and tots, eh?

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  6. For my family's tater tot hot dish we have tots, venison, bear, or beef, green beans and I think cream of mushroom soup. My dad and I would like to have sweet corn mixed with it but my mom will never let me or my dad make anything with corn.

    1. I figured there would be venison in the Risdon family's TTHD!

  7. Speaking of Lutheran meals, my church (I'm Lutheran) hosts a meal every year known as the Swedish Meatball Dinner. We feast on Swedish meatballs, gravy, rutabaga, sweet potatoes, corn and beans, and various desserts. Needless to say, I look forward to it every year.

    1. Despite being half Swedish, I have never had a single Swedish Meatball! I am, however, a big rutabaga fan (they're good raw, roasted, and in certain kinds of soup)!

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  9. My Family and I talked about TTHD for about 2 hours on Christmas Eve night. Two of the things we touched on was that my dad hates peas and if it was for him it was NFP (No "expletive" Peas!). If you were a real pro, you would put the oven on broil for the last couple minutes and get it brown and crispy. It's all about execution.

    1. I agree, Tony! Technique is important.