By Jessie Price, "Hooked on Hotdish,"September/October 2010
Last fall at my husband’s grandmother’s 100th birthday party in Minneapolis was when I first heard of “hotdish.” The word, spoken with a slight Minnesotan lilt, seemed so much more nostalgic than “casserole,” which is in essence what a hotdish is. It evoked images of my own grandma, who grew up in Iowa, with her coiffed do and a ruffled apron, opening cans of Campbell’s soup to stir into dinner.
At the birthday party, I was seated next to Eric, one of my husband’s relatives. Like everyone I met at the party he wanted to talk food. (They all know I’m a food editor.) So I asked him what he ate growing up. He said that every night his mother started dinner by browning ground beef in a skillet before doing anything else. He’d ask, “What’s for dinner?” but she wouldn’t know. Once the meat was on its way, she’d grab a few ingredients from the cupboard or freezer, assemble them in a casserole dish and the next thing he’d know, she’d be opening the oven door to pop in a hotdish to bake until it was bubbly.
Apparently hotdish has been the answer to what’s for dinner in Minnesota as well as the Dakotas, Wisconsin and parts of Iowa since at least the 1800s. The origins of the word are murky, but one popular theory is that the name came from Norwegians who settled in Minnesota in the late 1800s and brought along their tradition of casseroles, which they called varmrett, or “warm dish.”
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.
It was time to start slimming down these dishes. I wanted to try another classic, wild rice and chicken casserole, but I skipped the canned soup and made up a quick light, creamy sauce instead. That opened the floodgates. I realized rules were made to be broken and if I wanted to lighten them all, use fresh vegetables, skip potato chip toppings or never use canned soup, that was just fine. It was hard to go wrong and, frankly, I was hooked on hotdish.
When I talked with the EatingWell Test Kitchen team about developing these recipes, we knew we probably wouldn’t follow all the hotdish rules, but I’m pretty sure the recipes we developed are just right. They’re healthier, with fewer processed ingredients, and use homemade sauces instead of canned soup. They’re easy to put together, they can be made ahead and taken along, and many can be popped in the freezer and reheated later. And most of all, they taste like rich, satisfying comfort in a casserole dish. Perhaps next time I see the relatives in Minnesota, we’ll share one of these hotdishes together.