Hooked on Hotdish Casseroles

By Jessie Price, "Hooked on Hotdish," September/October 2010

Find out how we took on the classic make-ahead casseroles of the Midwest hotdish and gave them a fresh, lighter, EatingWell spin from wild rice to Tater Tots.

Over the years, the varmrett has evolved and Minnesotans don’t think of these one-dish wonders as just casseroles. There are actually hotdish rules, according to many “authorities.” For starters, the word is “hotdish,” not “hot dish” with a space. And to be proper, the dish should include meat of some sort, a starch (potatoes, rice or noodles are common), a bit of vegetable (frozen or canned preferably, for ease) and a binder, which is typically a creamy soup, like cream of mushroom. In fact, canned cream of mushroom soup, which was introduced by Campbell’s in 1934, is referred to as “Lutheran binder” in some regional cookbooks because it was so commonly used in these dishes, which are a staple, to this day, at Lutheran church functions. The advent of canned soup, which replaced traditional homemade white sauce (béchamel), helped speed along hotdish’s popularity because it made them even more convenient. A busy mom could brown some meat, open a few cans, stir it all together, pop it in the oven, and poof! dinner was ready.

Today the hotdish tradition carries on in Minnesota homes and churches. It turns out Eric doesn’t start every meal by browning ground beef like his mom did, but he still makes hotdish regularly for his family. His hotdish of choice is Tater Tot hotdish—ground beef with cream of mushroom soup, perhaps some frozen green beans or peas, and then a layer of Tater Tots on top. Seriously????! I was drooling! After he told me about that one I was ready to hop the next plane to get back to my kitchen and start experimenting. I was sure this sort of dish was the perfect candidate for an EatingWell makeover—we would make it with fewer calories, less saturated fat and processed ingredients, but still with plenty of ooey-gooey comfort factor.

When I did get back to Vermont, the weather had turned chilly and I headed to the store to pick up the frozen Tots, canned soup and a bag of frozen French-cut green beans. For my first taste of hotdish, I thought it was only right to go with an original. The results were heavenly…Americana on a plate. The next week I tried a crescent roll hotdish—same idea as the Tater Tot, but with premade crescent rolls spread with sour cream baked right on top. The taste? Well, let’s just say one bite and I was thinking about getting on the elliptical trainer the next day. Plus I looked at the ingredients on those crescent rolls and I wasn’t too happy to see trans fats listed.

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