As a child, my round tummy and chubby cheeks served as a barometer for what my mom had most recently cooked. Big tummy; the new chocolate chip cookies in the freezer. Chubby cheeks; the ooey-gooey-cream-soup-based tater tot casserole we enjoyed two nights ago and then polished off as leftovers for two consecutive lunches. Yep; I was that kid. And even now, if I'm honest at parties and in social circles, I still love the same foods (and they still have the same effect!). My comfort foods. Foods that remind me of happy times growing up. Foods that feed my soul first and my stomach second. Foods that just plain sound good whatever the weather.
My husband and I have food in common; not the same foods mind you (that would be too easy)...but the love of food. As Food Network junkies, we commingle our desires for the unhealthiest of unhealthy (cheesy, fried delights) and cooking acumen. Mostly though, I think we watch to live vicariously through others because rarely do we really eat in this covetous, throw-caution-to-the-wind-kind-of-way.
As fate would have it though, a recent show surveying a variety of State Fair offerings from across the country made my heart race, my pulse quicken, and my memories of my mom's cooking leap forward. It all started with the introduction of HOT DISH at Wisconsin's annual event one year. (Hot Dish? Seriously? Could a meal's title get any more generic?) To let the rest of the U.S. in on their geographic verbiage, Hot Dish refers to a ground beef casserole that is cream of chicken-soup based and covered with tater tots.
Ah!!! THEY CALL TATER TOT CASSEROLE HOT DISH???!!! So, it must be a German-Swiss thing since central European immigrants are scattered all over the Midwest...?
But, to kick things up a notch and State-Fair-ify this properly traditional offering, one quick-thinking concession stand transformed his favorite entree into a forkless, plateless wonder. (Obvious answer: Stick it, batter it, fry it.)
My favorite casserole, unctuous and savory, is now a fair food. My favorite casserole, topped with tater tots, is portable. My favorite casserole, with creamy ground beef, is probably available for the bargain price of $7.00 for a portion less than my bulging tummy would seek.
Should this spectacle arrive at my state's fair next season, I think I'd have to protest. A casserole, such as this, involves an oven, a Pyrex, a table, a family, and a complement of applesauce. It is not fast food; it is soul-feeding food. It's my childhood. It's my comfort. It's the leftovers I can't wait to finish because sometimes they're even better the next day. And, to save everyone the suspense, it's even worth the chubby cheeks.
Carol's Tater Tot Casserole (For Wisconsinites: Hot Dish :))
- 1 pound ground beef, browned with 1 diced onion. Drain.
- Add 1 can cream of chicken soup to meat, spread into a greased Pyrex (Your call on pan size---thin or thick casserole?)
- Layer frozen peas on top, salt a smidgeon for taste
- Arrange tater tots over peas, covering entire dish
- Bake for 1 hour at 375 degrees until browned, bubbly, and gooey
- Serve with applesauce.
- Enjoy :)