Before Friday, I had never eaten Tater Tot Hot Dish, and it was about as far from being on my list of “things to make someday” as leg of lamb–or leg of any other animal for that matter—it’s a vegetarian thing O_o. But a few days before Thanksgiving, I got an email from my brother asking me to bring something to the day-after-Thanksgiving brunch they host during the annual Lukken-Making Extravaganza. His exact words were, “Maybe a Tater-Tot Hot dish or something??”
Was I reading correctly? My brother, the globe-trotting sophisticate, was asking for Tater Tot Hot Dish? At first I was going to write back and ask if that’s what he really meant. Then I started googling recipes, and decided to make this a personal challenge: Create a really great Tater Tot Hot Dish, loved by all in attendance, that was less artery-clogging than the recipes I was finding online; and the fact that it was vegetarian would be a non-issue.
For those of you not from the Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin area, “hot dish” is what pretty much the rest of the world calls a casserole.
The recipe settled upon to adapt comes from someone I admire a great deal, Senator Amy Klobuchar. She won a few years ago when Minnesota’s delegation in Washington had a hot dish competition. Starting with an award-winning recipe was smart!
To make it vegetarian, I substituted Trader Joe’s Beef-less Ground Beef (found in the refrigerated section) for the traditional hamburger. It’s one of the few meat substitutes I still use occasionally.
The original recipe called for a can each of condensed cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soup. Knowing that Campbell’s has MSG, yeast extract and a few other ingredients I avoid, I looked at natural foods brands and found Pacific Organic Condensed Cream of Mushroom to be a much less processed alternative—basically contains only what would be in a homemade soup. Also, Trader Joe’s has a Condensed Cream of Portabella Mushroom I had used in recipes before, so I subbed that for the Cream of Chicken.
Around here, Ore Ida is probably the most-popular tater tot. Again, this brand has ingredients I avoid, like disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate and “natural flavoring” (which could be many things and oftentimes not vegetarian). There are several natural food brand versions of the tater tot—use your preference. I ended up with a combination of Alexia and Trader Joe’s—both have no scary additives.
To help keep the healthy concept in mind, I opted for the low end of the cheese range in the original recipe. It called for 8-12 ounces of pepper jack cheese and I used closer to 8. Not sure that pepper jack was the most kid-friendly variety, I subbed half with colby jack and it ended up still having a bit of a kick from the pepper jack without being too spicy for the kids.
I was nervous bringing an untested recipe for a group that included adult foodies, elementary school-aged kids, and a chic teenager, all with discerning tastes. I had to chuckle when my niece, knowing that hamburger is usually in Tater Tot Hot Dish, kept asking me what I was going to eat. I side-stepped the questions and after genuine comments of approval from all after the first few bites, I fessed up to Kimi that the hamburger was vegetarian (that in itself brought more questions!). It didn’t seem to matter—the entire dish was gone in short order. It was a huge success! My brother even asked for the recipe—not the original recipe—my version! It was at that point, I decided this was blog-worthy.
Having not taken photos of the original dish, I made another smaller batch today and notched up the health aspect a bit by adding a few big handfuls of chopped spinach and kale once the onion and garlic were cooked. For some reason, today’s version was even better and Pete and I really had to exercise restraint and not go back for thirds! I hope your family enjoys this as much as mine!
Vegetarian Tater Tot Hot Dish
1 tablespoon butter, plus more for buttering the baking pan
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Chopped onion, about ½ of a large one
2 large or 3 small cloves garlic, minced
A couple big handfuls chopped spinach and kale
1 ½ package Trader Joe’s Beef-less Ground Beef (in refrigerated section)
Salt & Pepper
One 11 oz. box Trader Joe’s Condensed Cream of Portabella Mushroom Soup
One 12 oz. box Pacific Organic Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup
8 oz. pepper jack cheese, shredded (or half pepper jack and half colby jack)
Tater Tots (I used a combination of Alexia and Trader Joe’s brands)
Chopped parsley for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Butter a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. In a heavy pan, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add the chopped onion and cook for a few minutes until onion starts to soften. Add the garlic and cook another minute or two. Add the chopped spinach and kale and cook until greens wilt. Mix in the beef-less ground beef and continue cooking until heated through.
In a large bowl, mix together the beef-less mixture and the soups. Season with salt & pepper (you can make it up to this point the night before refrigerate until the next day). Spread mixture evenly over bottom of buttered pan. Cover with about half the shredded cheese. Place tater tots in one layer over the entire pan—squeeze in as many tots as you can.
Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Cover with remaining cheese and bake until cheese is melted. Remove from oven and let sit 5-10 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley, if using, before serving. Makes 6-8 adult-size servings, more if serving kid-size appetites.