We talk about food all the time in our shops - almost every conversation we have is about a special meal we cooked last night, or some killer cafe that opened up in our neighborhood, or how to get the most mileage out of an Instant Pot. And often in our conversations, we focus on what’s new, what’s cool, and what’s best. Of course, food is what we do! And we’ve built an environment that envelopes us with artisan cheese, and Iberian ham, and steaks that weigh more than frying pans. But when we all sat down last week to talk about great applications for ground beef, it wasn’t about the fancy stuff: the unanimous cry was for tater tot hot dish.
Well, if we’re being honest here, it wasn’t really unanimous. One among us kept silent. Alright, it was totally me. In my defense, my family is not Minnesotan, and even after years in the upper Midwest, there are still some foods that I’ve never been exposed to, and never really felt the need to experiment with at home (much to my colleagues’ bewilderment). Tater tot hot dish is one of those meals that many Minnesotans grow up with: it’s served at family reunions, in church basements, after football games, and at Grandma’s house. And so, in an effort of self-betterment and education, and to truly embrace this place I now call home, I decided to tackle it.
As was immediately apparent, tater tot hot dish elicits some strong feelings. In a very serious and scientific polling of my coworkers and friends, one of the first pieces of advice given to me was to, “be careful!” Every family has their own version of tater tot hot dish, and since everyone’s mother is the best cook, boundless variations exist and traditions are often held to. Speaking as an outsider here, I feel I have to tread lightly, but I am also absolutely delighted by this. I love when people feel strongly about their food! And tater tot hot dish has some seriously comforting components:
- tater tots (arguably the best form potatoes can take)
- cheese (probably not stilton, but who am I to say?)
- cream of mushroom (or chicken, or celery, or whatever!) soup
- ground beef
peas, corn, carrots, and green beans are also recurring supporting stars.
In my exhaustive research, I’ve found some really neat variations, like a one senator’s bear meat(?!) hot dish, a spicy vegan version from Molly Yeh, and an intellectual’s approach at Serious Eats. I’ve heard variations from friends that include adding hash browns to the mix, to wild rice, to substituting cream soup with cream cheese (whaaat?) as well as a killer suggestion from a colleague at the St Paul Cheese Shop to add sautéed shredded cabbage to soak up all the good stuff. I’ve distilled what I believe is a basic formula that can be tinkered with to suit your hot dish needs.
Start with ground beef. We grind our own beef, from local farms and happy animals, with an 80-20 ratio and full flavor. (This is where I let you know that it’s on sale this month, for $5/lb, which is a truly excellent deal). One pound of ground beef is enough to make a casserole hot dish that will feed at least four people, and maybe six, if you’re serving salad on the side? Is that against the rules?
Also, you’ll need some tater tots. For every pound of ground beef, or a two-quart dish’s worth of finished goodness, take another pound of tots. We make our own, fried in tallow, at the shop, and I am convinced that they are actually the best tater tots you might ever put in your home oven. Another take? Sweet potato tots!
For every pound of beef and tots, use about 10 oz of cream of -something- soup. If you want to avoid the canned soup, many, many recipes abound, like the one above from Serious Eats, where you make your own using béchamel sauce.
And then? It’s totally up to you. I have a deep and abiding fondness for putting peas in just about everything, but add cabbage! Corn! Green beans! Mushrooms, taco seasoning, beets, sriracha, it’s your call to nourish whatever craving you’ve got right now. The world is your oyster - or, hot dish. Sprinkle some cheese on top for good measure or, don’t? (If I were to really push some buttons, I think crumbled sour cream-flavored potato chips would fill the gaps between the tater tots very nicely, but I’m no expert!)
The real magic happens in the oven. Give it at the very least 30 minutes around 400F, but I think for the best alchemy between creamy filling and crunchy tots, be patient, increase the heat, and give it an additional 15 minutes at 450F .
As for my own hot dish, I didn’t make it fancy, and I didn’t even make my own cream sauce. I used a can, and frozen peas, and very, very basic orange cheese. And spoiler alert: it was awesome.