I was flipping through the channels one Saturday evening trying to find something to watch. I don't have cable or a satellite dish at home, so my options are somewhat limited to the networks and PBS. I wasn't having much luck so I was about to give up and pull out the book I am currently reading. But my eyes were tired from staring at a computer screen all day, so that thought pushed me to flip a few more channels.
I flipped onto KSMQ, the PBS affiliate from Austin. The scene before me was a woman putting together a Tater-tot hot dish. At first I thought I had stumbled across a cooking show, but soon I realized I had found a real treasure as the show talked about the history of our beloved Minnesota hot dishes.
The documentary, "Minnesota Hot Dish: A Love Story," was being shown as part of the PBS fund drive. KSMQ describes the show as follows.
"Biting into a forkful of good, old-fashioned Minnesota hot dish is an experience like no other! It's one that's rooted in the memories of almost every person privileged enough to call themselves a Minnesotan. But what makes this dish so special? Where does the tasty treat come from? And...gulp... just how many calories are in there? We'll endeavor to answer all of these questions - and seek out some of the craziest connections to hot dish our great state has to offer! Experience the history, heritage, and flavorsome future of this one-of-a-kind dish!"
I came into the show about halfway, but loved every part of what I did see. And, I learned a bit about the history of one of my favorite winter meals.
Apparently, hot dish is a term used mainly by Minnesotans. Those living in California or Texas or even Georgia have no idea what a hot dish could be beyond a dish that is hot. Other parts of the country simply refer to these one-pot meals as casseroles. Go figure.
The earliest reference made to a "hot dish" was in a Mankato church cookbook, published in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Because there was a shortage of meat during this time, women were looking for ways to stretch the meat they did have into a complete meal - adding vegetables, rice or potatoes and whatever else could feed their families.
And, as one may have guessed, a hot dish has four main components - a protein, a starch, a vegetable and some sort of sauce or gravy to bind it all together. The show gave some examples of combinations that were a bit outside of my comfort level, but the traditional hamburger, potato, carrot, onion and "cream-of-something" soup was a reminder of a frequent supper our family enjoyed when I was growing up.
Another concoction was made with hamburger, "Creamettes" - another Minnesota term for macaroni, onions and tomatoes, bound together with a tomato sauce. This was another staple in our home, with Mom throwing in celery or green peppers as well if they were stocked in the refrigerator.
My favorite hot dish is the traditional Tater-tot casserole - which can be made with an infinite number of protein and vegetable combinations. Some people add the Tater-tots into the meat and vegetable mixture, while others simply layer them on top of the filling. The "cream of something" soup is also added into the filling or can be spooned over the top. And the vegetable possibilities are endless.
My personal preference for Tater-tot hot dish is to brown some hamburger (or even ground turkey as I have become a bit more health conscious), add in some chopped onion and celery and cook until hamburger is no longer pink and the vegetables are softened. I like to mix in peas and carrots and maybe some corn, but green beans, broccoli and lima beans have no place in my Tater tot casserole. I also like to mix in a few Tater tots with the "filling" to make it go a bit further. I like to mix in a can of low sodium and low fat cream of celery soup to bind it all together. Then I layer more Tater tots on top and bake it in a 350-degree oven until everything is hot and the Tater tots on top are browned and crispy.
While I prefer the cream of celery soup in my hot dishes, the documentary on PBS stated the most popular kind is the cream of mushroom soup. I will use it, but it's not my favorite.
Sadly, hot dishes are not low-calorie meals. We can "skinny down" the traditional versions, like I have done with my Tater-tot dish, but it's still something I've learned to make occasionally instead of often.
As we enter the fall and winter, with the temperatures dropping lower every day, it's easy to think about warming up the house by putting something in the oven. Hot dishes are a good option because of their versatility - as long as you have the four components in the refrigerator and pantry, supper is only about an hour away.
The documentary pointed out that "Hot dish is not so much a food as a memory." I think that's pretty close to being true. Goulash and Tater-tot hot dish are two of my favorite comfort foods - because they do remind me of the mealtimes I had with my family. So, I guess it truly is a love story - and a downright entertaining one!