Winter is a great time to dig into unassuming comfort foods like macaroni and cheese or chili slow cooked all day into sweet submission. If you have children like mine than you have run head first into the problem known as tater tot casserole.
Sometime during their formative years someone exposed them to this strange dish of tater tots, cheap ground beef, and cream of something soup. If you slavishly follow a recipe on the internet you will be left eating a 9×13 pan of sodium enhanced flavors brought to you by the giants of industrial agriculture.
The first thing to eliminate was any ground beef that might contain the joys of pink slime or be dosed with antibiotics or just be nasty. This was easy. On my weekly run to pick up a loaf of jalapeno cheddar bread at NewPi in Cedar Rapids I ordered up one and a half pounds of all-natural ground beef. I chose the fattier product because I intended to sauté some vegetables in the drippings.
The other major quibble I had with most tater tot casserole recipes is the use of canned cream of goop soup. Seriously, who thinks cream of mushroom or chicken or celery or onion tastes much better than a jar of processed cheese? The stuff is basically a gelatinous salt delivery mechanism. The easy answer was to replace a couple of cans of condensed soup with a rich béchamel sauce. This is one of my go to sauces when I want something creamy as a base. It comes together in a few minutes and I always have the ingredients around.
A major way I added flavor without resorting to the salt shaker was to use very flavorful white cheddar. A little bit of white cheddar goes a long way in adding a shot of flavor.
I really wanted to do something about the inclusion of Ore-Ida tater tots. Like, I really did not want to give my money to a monster industrial food conglomerate like H.J. Heinz, but Ore-Ida’s tots are the best option. I have tried every bag of overpriced, supposedly better for me, options and every time the result is the same: buck up and by the tots from Ore-Ida. Damn.
In the end, it tasted like ‘Murica!
Reimagined Tater Tot Casserole
- 1 32 ounce package tater tots of your choice
- 1 ½ pounds all-natural ground beef
- 1 decent sized onion diced
- 1 cup corn
- 1 cup peas
- 2 cups béchamel sauce
- Shredded white cheddar to personal preference
- Salt and pepper to personal preference
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Brown ground beef and break it up into small chunks; Try not to make it into chili sized chunks because you want a little bit of size
- While meat is browning, toss in diced onion and cook until softened
- Add corn and peas; Cook until warm
- Remove from heat and incorporate béchamel
- Pour into 9×13 pan
- Top evenly with tater tots; One 32 ounce bag should roughly cover an entire 9×13 pan with a few stragglers stacked on top
- Bake for 30 minutes or until tater tots are crispy
- Scatter shredded cheese on top and bake for an additional 5 minutes
Total prep time, including making a béchamel sauce from scratch, is about thirty minutes with a thirty five minute cook time. So, you are in and out in under an hour.