It’s cold in Minnesota—really cold. This time of year is particularly brutal, but our friends in the northernmost parts of the country have developed a tasty way to warm up: “hotdish.” Some might try to call it a casserole, but they would be wrong. Proper hotdish is an oven-baked, anything-goes, delicious mess of a meal…with tater tots on top. If winter travels have you trekking through the Land of 10,000 Lakes, carve out some time for a hotdish pit stop.
The Back Story
When scouring the Upper Midwest (and in particular, Minnesota) for the history of the hotdish, you’ll likely travel back to the Great Depression era. The first known recipes were printed in a 1930 cookbook by the Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid in Minnesota. Their version of the casserole-esque dish included ground beef, canned vegetables, canned soup, and macaroni noodles. During the Depression, home cooks were accustomed to stretching meat in creative ways, the “hotdish” casserole being one of them.
Over the decades, the hotdish became a staple of family dinner tables, church potlucks, and social gatherings. Everyone had their own take on what to add to the mix, which evolved over time (notable mention: the introduction of canned cream of mushroom or chicken soup.) Today, ask any Minnesotan about hotdish, and they’ll likely conjure a creamy, comforting picture of home in their mind’s eye.
OK, so what’s inside the casserole dish? Well, pretty much anything, as long as you stick to the basic non-negotiable components: meat, vegetables, starch, and something creamy to bind it all together. Traditional versions are usually made with ground beef, canned vegetables (green beans and corn are go-to’s), and cream of mushroom soup. Meat is browned, veggies and soup added, and then the whole thing gets a layer of tater tots before heading into the oven to get hot, bubbly, and crispy. Part of the fabric of Minnesota, it’s a simple, no-frills, easy dinner to serve crowds. And pretty much everyone loves it (with ketchup on the side).
Nowadays, chefs and home cooks are elevating the classic. Restaurants have revived the dish on menus, sometimes trading out ground beef and canned soup for short ribs and béchamel sauce. The yearning for mom’s version from childhood competes with the struggle to stay sensible and reasonably health-conscious, resulting in a sort of hotdish hybrid that often marries the two. Minnesota-based food blog Pinch of Yum demonstrates one such marriage with a Southwestern sweet potato riff. Edible proof that traditions matter, yet evolve a bit here and there.
Where To Pull Over
The best way to appreciate hotdish is probably in a Minnesota kitchen with a family that’s been perfecting it for generations. But that’s—you know—not always an option on your travels.
The next best thing is to stop into a restaurant that pours all kinds of experience and love into the casserole dish, kind of like The Mason Jar in Eagan, MN. Their Tater Tot Hot Dish sticks to the familiar basics: beef, corn, house-made cream of mushroom, tater tots, and lots of cheese. The Bulldog, with three locations sprinkled around the Twin Cities area, adds carrots and peas to their mix. Or opt for breakfast-style hotdish, like the sausage-laden one catered from The Buttered Tin in St. Paul.