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My Challenge? Appetizing Tater Tot Casserole

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My friend issued me a challenge that hasn't been bested by my cookbooks or my powers of Googling. Heck, even Chow didn't have a topic, forcing me to quit lurking and ask a question.

Neither of us grew up eating Tater Tot Casserole, though being from the southern Midwest we are are familiar with casseroles and potlucks in general. Without that haze of nostalgia she claims that the tater tot casserole her former roommate concocted bimonthly was the most reprehensible thing she's ever had. A gloppy mess of condensed soup, ground beef, canned green beans (sometimes), and a strata of essentially steamed tater tots on top with some bagged cheese over the top.

I like casseroles and think they can be done well. I think Tater Tot Casserole could be made edible but now that she called me on it I'm kinda stuck. I can't find any recipe that has been dressed up, which surprised me. (Though one woman's secret ingredient is sour cream.)

Any advice, Chowhounds? I'm torn on what my approach should be. Should I stick with all the processed foods that are typical but just improving on his techniques? (I know the boy. I've seen him eat ramen straight from the package. I know he didn't fry those tots first, and I think a crisping in bacon grease and not being tucked under cheese to become soggy would make a difference.) Should I gussy up the ingredients with some carmelized onion, a bechamel, etc? Or maybe take it to a different flavor profile and make essentially a Shepherd's Pie with tater tots instead of mashed spuds? And then the thought of sweet potato tots and some cayenne drifted through my head...

Picture attached? What we want to avoid.

 
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  1. what's the original recipe? It would be easier to help you take it uptown if we knew what we were driving...!

    15 Replies
      1. re: The Dairy Queen

        That is really close to how it sounds. I don't think there is so much an original recipe as a general concept, like a lot of good old American Campbell's style casseroles.

        1. re: The Dairy Queen

          I think if you start swapping in sweet potatoes and getting too far from the original, you're crossing the line to a "tater-tot casserole INSPIRED" recipe, rather than taking TTC to a higher level.

          Ground sirloin (the lean stuff) to begin with...you could even toy with using ground bison. (a beef/bison blend - you don't want it to be TOO lean)

          Use the tater tots -- you're making TATER TOT casserole, not sweet potato casserole.

          Bechamel sauce, mixed at about 2:1 with sour cream. (I use this ratio all the time to sub for cream of whatever soup -- can't buy condensed cream soups here - -and it works really well)

          Fresh vegetables, natch.

          Some chopped sauteed mushrooms -- crimini or porcini, please.

          First off, I'd put the tater tots on a baking sheet in the oven to crisp and brown. Steamed tots are nasty. Now take a pancake turner and mash them a little. Put them back in the oven to crisp a little more.

          Brown the ground sirloin with some shallots and garlic (leeks, maybe?). Drain well.

          Blanch the veggies quickly - they'll finish cooking in the oven. Layer those over the sirloin.

          Then the sauteed mushrooms (make sure they're drained)

          Now the bechamel/sour cream mixture.

          And now the broken, toasty tater tots. NOW bake it til it's hot through -- you're not really cooking anything to speak of here -- just making sure it's all bubbly.

          In the last few minutes, sprinkle some good cheese (I'm thinking a Gruyere) over the top and return to the oven til the cheese is melted and golden.

          1. re: sunshine842

            I agree that sweet potatoes are way too far off course, but I still like the hash brown idea. I think the point of tater tots in TTHD is the crispy topping with a layer of softness. You can still achieve that with hash browns, I think, and do it from scratch.

            ~TDQ

            1. re: sunshine842

              Ore Ida now makes sweet potato tots!

            2. re: The Dairy Queen

              Where's the cheese? Gotta have a few cups of cheese. Or maybe that's the vegetarian version- cheese no beef.

              1. re: Berheenia

                According to my husband, there's no cheese in TTHD!

                ~TDQ

                1. re: Berheenia

                  There is in the one I make, under the TTs.

                2. re: The Dairy Queen

                  DQ

                  it never ceases to amaze me how helpful so many CH'ers are when others are in search of some specific thing.
                  you are one of them-appreciate you for finding this.

                  and thanks a lot cause you know tomorrow on my way home I'm gonna stop at WallyWorld and pick up Tater Tots and make this links' hot dish:))))))

                  1. re: iL Divo

                    You're very kind, thank you. I hope you like the dish. I can't say I've prepared that particular recipe, but a recipe very near to that is what my husband grew up with. (You'll see that the person who provided the recipe as well as several from the commenters hail from Minnesota...) He'd say you'd want to use corn or peas rather than the green beans mentioned as an option and that cheese has no place in the recipe, even for sprinkling afterwards, but I seldom personally find any harm in adding cheese to something! He sautes onions nearly everytime he uses ground beef in any dish. Per my husband: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8666... Not haute cuisine by any means, but a form of comfort food for those who grew up with it.

                    ~TDQ

                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                      DQ
                      my entire family hails from Minnesota.
                      all are still there.
                      all prepare this hot dish for any and all occasions.
                      you brought me back, thank you

                      1. re: iL Divo

                        Oh, I didn't realize you were from MN. Yes, I am still in MN, but I'm not "from" here. I"m a transplant and a new'ish one, relatively speaking. So, I'm just learning about how to prepare hotdish and wild rice and lefse and other MN delicacies.

                        ~TDQ

                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          Also a transplant to MN. Had my first tater tot hot dish very recently (after 23 years here!) and have to say that that is the ultimate comfort food. However, I imagined that it could be improved a bit with green beans and mushrooms. The friend who made it probably did a bechamel, just 'cause he's a foodie. I'll try your suggestion, TDQ. Thanks!

                          1. re: The Dairy Queen

                            Oh no DQ, not me at all, born and raised in sunny Southern California, but mom and all her family ceptin her mom and dad were born there.

                            I have always adored their very typical hot dish meals.
                            so good so hearty, so family...

                3. I would love to see the outcome of your quest. I like your shepherd's pie approach, except that I wonder if you could use shredded potatoes/hash browns instead of mashed? That crispy aspect is really important.

                  Something like this might be a starting point, though, I have to laugh at this even being referred to as "entirely from scratch"... http://joyinmykitchen.blogspot.com/20...

                  ETA: or maybe you could use the hash browns as a bottom layer as a crust, like this: http://www.homesmsprealestateblog.com...

                  ~TDQ

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                    Maybe Beatrice's book can help. Lots of it is on google books including her basic white sauce recipe: http://books.google.com/books?id=oMn0...

                    ~TDQ

                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                      I hadn't thought of hash browns as a crust, I really like it. I once had a breakfast casserole that used hash browns as a crust, though part of why it worked so well was the egg custard that had melded with it before baking.

                      Yeah, scratch seems a stretch, but those home made tots look interesting...

                      And thanks for the google book! I've used them for school but never looked at cookbooks on there!

                      1. re: roame

                        You know what, I'm kind of embarrassed. I didn't realize she made her own tots for that recipe! I saw that tater tots were an ingredient (not noticing the link to the recipe for tater tots) and made some assumptions when I saw a commercial spice mix and a frozen vegetable mix also mentioned. More power to anyone who wants to make their own tots, I say! They would get nothing but respect from me!

                        ~TDQ

                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          Well, they were odd tots. I mean, A for effort, but they are baked mashed potatoes rolled in a coating. I'm ambivalent to the addition.

                  2. I do something that might pass.

                    Chop up some green chiles
                    Shred some cheese, I mix Jack and Cheddar, but this is flexible
                    Cook tater tots according to bag directions (I deep fry)
                    Remove skin and brown some chorizo in a pan
                    Combine cooked tots, chorizo and green chile in a broiler-proof pan
                    Cover with shredded cheese
                    Broil until cheese looks perfect -- melted and about to brown.

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: travelerjjm

                      Oooh, chilies and chorizo improve everything...

                      1. re: travelerjjm

                        Sometimes we add scrambled eggs, too.

                        1. re: travelerjjm

                          Oh my what do you call this ambrosia?

                          1. re: blue room

                            Well, we don't really have a name other then "chile cheese tots (with chorizo or with eggs or with ...)". Any suggestions?

                            1. re: travelerjjm

                              I'm gonna call them "Traveler's Tots". Yep.

                        2. If you get really ambitious, you could make your own tater tots: http://www.chow.com/recipes/29271-bas...

                          Chow even has flavor variations: http://www.chow.com/food-news/70531/m...

                          11 Replies
                          1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                            +1 on the homemade tater tots. The storebought kind always leave a weird taste in my mouth. You could even switch it up and make zucchini tots!

                            1. re: charlesbois

                              Interesting. I've never heard of zucchini tots, but they sound good if this is what you were thinking: http://www.skinnytaste.com/2012/07/zu...

                              Personally, I still think some form of potato is an important part of tater tot hotdish. Of course, I'm sure Zucchini Tot Hotdish would be perfectly lovely.

                              So, yesterday I asked my husband (who grew up with TTHD) what he thought were the essentially elements of TTHD.

                              Him: "Ground beef, tater tots, corn or peas (whichever you had on hand), and condensed soup. At our house, you always sauteed onions with the beef, but that's not essential."

                              Me: "How about canned green beans?"

                              Him: "Green beans? No, never! That's just wrong. And definitely not canned."

                              Me: "Cheese?"

                              Him: "No. No cheese!"

                              Me: "Does it have to be condensed soup? Can't you just make a white sauce from scratch?"

                              Him: "Nope. Canned."

                              Me: "Why not white sauce? Most people probably couldn't tell the difference anyway."

                              Him: "Well, if you can't tell the difference, what's wrong with canned? Besides, it's supposed to be a pantry meal."

                              Me: "Everyone has flour, butter, and chicken stock in their pantry."

                              Him: "Look, it's not supposed to be GOOD."

                              Me: "What? It's not supposed to be GOOD?"

                              Him: "No, you never go, 'Yay, TTHD!'. You don't go, 'Boo, TTHD!' either. You just knew your mom was pulling together dinner from whatever she had on hand that night."

                              So, there you go, folks. TTHD is not supposed to be good...

                              ~TDQ

                              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                "TTHD is not supposed to be good..."
                                Oh, but it CAN be! ;)

                                1. re: kattyeyes

                                  Of course! That's why WE are all here!

                                  ~TDQ

                                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                    The best part of that conversation is that tater tots are assumed to be a staple that we have at all times.

                                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                    Oh my gosh make me laugh! So green beans would put it over the not supposed to be good limit?

                                    So funny what we have such strong and absolute opinions on. Err... facts.

                                    Sorta like people at Thanksgiving dinner requiring canned cranberry - dumped out with the can impression still intact. Nothing else can be substituted in or it is ruined!

                                    1. re: Sal Vanilla

                                      I have a relative who would eat tater tot casserole 3x every day, green beans or not.

                                      Same relative requires cranberry sauce from a can with any meal that involves turkey. Relative doesn't eat turkey- only the sauce

                                      1. re: cheesecake17

                                        Is your relative named Bill? And do you have a tall, gorgeous (emphasis there) blonde incredibly sweet sister carrying an extra 10 in her caboose?

                                        I am in a a battle for my self esteem. Pardon the descriptors. ; ) Unless you are my sister. In which case... bring cran cocktail again this year. See if you can make Mr. Sullen go off the deep end. Bwahaha! We'll hide the actual cran from him and spring it on him after he has a good pout.

                                        1. re: Sal Vanilla

                                          Haha, my relative is old enough to eat what he wants with no one bothering him anymore. As in "it's ok that grandpa had four cupcakes before dinner, ya know he's OLD"

                                          But hey, to each their own. And for what it's worth this relative snatches taters off the kids plates

                                2. I've had dishes that involved tater tots that were delicious, but the tots MUST be crisped first. Also, mixing the tots with cream of crap soup is going to make them nasty no matter what, so I would save that for your filling mixture and use the tots as more of a topping, as in this recipe: http://www.cooks.com/rec/view/0,2226,... Better would be to leave the cream of crap soup out entirely and use sour cream and/or eggs as your binder (although that might take it more into the breakfast realm), or make a bechamel.

                                  Pre-crisped tots can hold up to cheese just fine, so feel free to add cheese as a topping as long as you've got nice crispy tots under it.

                                  I would leave out the canned vegetables entirely - I find canned vegetables to be absolutely revolting and their foul texture would ruin any dish. Go with freshly sauteed mushrooms or quartered, caramelized shallots (or both) if you must add vegetation. Even something like chopped, sauteed kale would be better than canned anything.

                                  A sweet potato tot casserole sounds heavenly - I'd use spicy pork sausage instead of ground beef, with some caramelized shallots and fennel and maybe a little blue cheese on top?

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: biondanonima

                                    Nothing is worse than soggy fries or tots, it's great to hear that you have had them come out crispy if the right prep work is done.

                                    Yeah, there will be no canned greenbeans in my kitchen ever, if I can help it. I'm all for sauteed mushrooms or caramelized anything though.

                                    I like the thought of blue cheese with the sweet potatoes, that sounds really good. Maybe some andoullie as the sausage... I like where this is going.

                                    1. re: biondanonima

                                      This tot concoction sounds good. Sweet potato, fennel, blue cheese and that's just the beginning. Why do I feel like I am reading a DOtM?