Minnesota Hotdish

Minnesota Hotdish

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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.

The Breakdown

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.

Road Trip: Joshua Tree National Park

Road Trip: Joshua Tree National Park

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California may have earned a reputation for its breathtaking beaches and coastline, but travelers who venture into the state’s vast desert will be rewarded with a different version of beauty. A wild, mystical vibe permeates the landscape where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts collide just east of the Nevada border. Joshua Tree National Park spreads out across 800,000 arrid acres and attracts campers, climbers, hikers and stargazers all year long.

So What Are Joshua Trees?

They’re yuccas that grow as trees with clusters of spiky leaves. The name is rumored to come from early settlers (not a U2 album) who saw a resemblance to the Biblical figure Joshua reaching his hands up in prayer. Massive numbers of these trees are scattered across the region, giving the national park its moniker.

 

Why Visit?

The better question is: why not? A 2.5 hour drive from Los Angeles, it’s a picturesque road trip into an ancient desert unlike any other. It’s the epitome of “getting away from it all,” as you’ll discover there’s no lodging or electricity or lights or cell reception. This is the California High Desert; unplug from society and embrace the adventure! The varied terrain is a giant playground waiting to be explored.

 

What To Do?

Hiking

There are several entrances to the park, but the main one is in the town of Joshua Tree (a music and artist’s community that’s a cool destination unto itself). Buy a day pass or an annual pass at the entrance, grab a map, make sure you have water, and hit the trails. There are several areas to park near major trailheads, and the scenic hikes are some of the most beloved in the country. Some notable points of interest: Intersection Rock, Arch Rock, Skull Rock, Hidden Valley, and Keys View, which provides sweeping views of the Coachella Valley.

Stargazing

Don’t forget to look up. Throngs of visitors come to Joshua Tree to marvel at the night sky—a miraculous, glittering canvas above the desert landscape. The East side of the park is best for stargazing, as it’s the furthest from any city light pollution that might dim the spectacle.

Camping

More than 300 campsites are scattered throughout the park and run $15/day, and remember: there’s no electricity or running water here. If you aren’t into tent camping, check out lodging or AirBnB’s in the town of Joshua Tree.

Climbing

There are literally thousands of climbing and bouldering routes, plus plenty of experienced guides to help you scale the huge rock formations and take in the desert sights.

Wildflowers

Portions of the park explode with wildflowers in February, March and April, so bring your camera to capture the blooms. These months see a higher volume of visitors to Joshua Tree, not just for the flowers but for the great weather (the summer months can be especially hot).