I transfer the rock-hard pound of ground beef from the deep freeze to the microwave already dreaming about what it would help us whip up for dinner tonight. Defrost 6 minutes. Next up on my mental recipe -- secure the two other frozen ingredients, green peas and tater tots.
Truthfully, I bank on cinched bags of next-to-nothing, and one quick foray into the bottom of the deep freeze confirms my predictions. But, alas...who measures when making a casserole? So I begin to brown the thawing meat with some minced onion and salt. Turning the flame to medium and covering the pan to avoid splatters allows for some quick tent-building in the adjacent family room. At seven minutes, the timer reminds me to head back into the kitchen and a quick 'zhuj' to crumble the meat invites me to cut the flame, tip the pan to gather grease, and incorporate the cream of chicken soup.
Which by anyone's standards of home-cooking announces the arrival of comfort. The gooey comfort that only accompanies condensed soup.
And maybe a homemade, partially baked cookie, too.
So, all casserole recipes call for 'a greased casserole' which means the dish -- not the dinner. We spray up the stoneware, glop the hamburger mixture inside, pat it into place with a wooden spoon back, and uncinch the peas.
Ooooh. Not as many as I had imagined; which, I suppose is a blessing. While I'm a pea-lover, my boys are on the fence...and my husband is decidedly against. We'll approximate because for this team, less is more. I lovingly lob more into the far left corner -- I'll be responsible for that portion.
Unselfishly, of course.
A quick shake a salt balances what could become the milquetoast middle -- that vegetable layer -- and then it is onto the casserole's crown -- the tator tots. Which, my mom always told me, "I arrange mine across the top; they always look better that way." So I do, too, because I like a pretty dish. All the tater tots line up like little soldiers. Or squares on a hundreds chart. I am by myself at this step, so I don't count.
Had I not been, I could provide you the exact number. I'm guessing it to be over 150; so we will all have to be alright with my humble estimation tonight. I use some clues from the related episode of "Curious George" to come to that conclusion. I would be remiss if I skipped over one smallish detail: I am three tater tots short. I do what anyone would do to save a dish -- I add the next best thing.
Crinkle-cut french fries. Three of them. With seasoning, which gives me pause, but the pretty dish theory encourages me to proceed.
Oven ready, the 'casserole of casseroles' begins its hour-trip toward browned and bubbly. We transition the orange and blue robot tent from the basement into the family room and rebuild it in the northwest corner beside the pair of leather club chairs.
With five minutes remaining, I pull the applesauce from the fridge and prepare two ramekins' full for two boys. I dance around adding cinnamon because they do really love that, but the purist in me wins out and I serve it plain-jane.
Because that's how it best goes with tater tot casserole. Traditionally speaking.
OK, my bias.
With one minute remaining, I fill four glasses -- assembly line-style -- with ice cubes and then cold water from the fridge dispenser.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
"Hey, gentlemen, the casserole's ready and the table is set. LET'S EAT!"