Let Us Now Praise Hot Dish, The Carb Bomb That Brings Us All Together

Last week when I was writing about Amy Klobuchar's hot dish campaign, I went looking through the Takeout archives for some past work on the semiofficial dish of the state of Minnesota. Surely someone over the past few years would have written something about this most quintessentially Midwestern concoction. But there was nothing.

Let me say right now that I have absolutely no hot dish expertise whatsoever. In my entire life, I have spent exactly three hours in Minnesota. That was the summer I was 14, on my family's Great American Road Trip to Yellowstone Park. The wonders of South Dakota and Wyoming lay ahead (Mount Rushmore! Wall Drug! The Mitchell Corn Palace!). We had no time to waste in Minnesota. If we stopped, it was only for gas.

I have known Minnesota expats, but none ever invited me over for hot dish or even offered me a recipe. Not that the subject ever came up.

But now hot dish was a subject of national importance, or at least national interest. Or maybe Klobuchar's hot dish offensive was neither, but it was a pleasant distraction from the otherwise exhausting daily cycle of political news. (See also Mitt Romney's chocolate milk rebellion.) See, look! Midwesterners eating carbs together and politely* debating what distinguishes hot dish from plain old casserole.

*That is, putting on an elaborate show of politeness with the subtlest edge of shade, detectable only by other Midwesterners. But inside, they are rolling their eyes because they know you are wrong.

I can't take part in this debate, either, because, although I am a Midwesterner, I'm from Chicago, way south of hot dish country. I also didn't grow up eating casserole. (Except for this thing called Cheesy Spaghetti Bake that I learned to make in seventh grade home ec.) From what I can gather, though, casseroles can be made of anything thrown together and baked in a casserole dish while hot dish is more strictly regimented and must consist of protein and vegetables held together by some sort of cream soup (the "Lutheran binder," as my friend Kate, who grew up in the Quad Cities, calls it) and topped with cheese and something starchy and crunchy, preferably tater tots.

But not everyone hews strictly to these rules. The recipes from the 9th Annual Minnesota Congressional Hotdish Competition, which took place last April, show that a lot of reps like to play fast and loose with these alleged hot dish conventions. While the winner, Betty McCollum's Hotdish A-Hmong Friends, a tribute to the Hmong residents in her district, does call for a can of cream of mushroom soup, the others use a wide range of binders, including milk, tomato paste, cream cheese, and Greek yogurt. (Hot dish experimentation is bipartisan.)

What I do know, though, is that I made Amy Klobuchar's hot dish recipe one cold night last week. Like any good Minnesotan—I guess—she has several, but this is the one that won the Congressional Hotdish Competition back in 2011, and this is the one she is featuring on her current campaign. I was a bit skeptical, mostly because the cream soups looked pretty gross, especially when I pulled the whole thing out of the oven and they bubbled up under the tater tots like lava. (Which I guess makes sense, because the hot dish's full name is Taconite Tater Tot Hot Dish, after rocks found in Minnesota's Iron Range.) But I was pleasantly surprised when I tasted it. It did not taste like glue. Instead, it was rich and savory. There was even a hint of umami, probably from the cream of mushroom soup. (Why does this surprise me? Do I expect so little from canned convenience foods?) The tater tots gave it a bit of a crunch, and the pepper jack cheese gave it a bit of a kick. It probably helped that this particular hot dish does not contain any soggy vegetables, the bane of my childhood dinners. There's no pretense that this is anything other than a giant carb bomb, and that is totally okay. This is the sort of dish that will sit in the middle of a kitchen table or on the stovetop with a serving spoon and people will just keep helping themselves until it's all gone.

Amy Klobuchar’s Taconite Tater Tot Hot Dish

  • 1-1½ lbs. ground beef
  • 1 (10½-oz.) can cream of mushroom soup
  • 1 (10½-oz.) can cream of chicken soup
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • A couple of cloves of garlic, minced
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 8-12 oz. pepper jack cheese, shredded
  • 1 (32-oz.) bag tater tots
  • Brown the ground beef, then drain off the fat. Sauté the onion and garlic. In a large bowl, mix together beef, onion, garlic, both cans of soup, salt, and pepper.

    Spread evenly into the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Cover with about half the shredded cheese, then place the tater tots in one layer over the entire pan.


    Bake at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes or until tater tots are crisp. Cover with remaining cheese and bake until cheese melts.

    Notes: It wasn't clear to me whether the onions and garlic should be sautéed with the beef or separately. I chose to do it separately, with a glug of olive oil, though now that I think about it, maybe they should have gone with the beef, in the simple one-pot spirit of hot dish.

    I also put the hot dish under the broiler for the last few minutes to add a little crunch and color.