Casseroles and the Midwest

My roommate in collage used to make corn flake, Campbell’s soup and Velveeta cheese casseroles. I thought she was out of her mind. Like 90% of a recipe shouldn’t come out of a vacuum sealed package, right? But after seeing the world a bit, I’ve learned to look at foreign cultures differently. With complete cultural relativity I’d like to introduce you to the most famous casserole in the American Midwest.

Actually in the Midwest casseroles are called hot dishes. My friend Alex, who grew up in Michigan, is half Belgian, speaks a gaggle of languages, and has visited many many countries, introduced me to THE hot dish classic, tater tot casserole. This little baked number is a combo of ground beef, Campbell’s cream soup, shredded cheddar and tater tots. You had no idea, did you?

For those of you who don’t know, tater tots are processed potato nuggets that are often served at school lunches. The exterior is brown and crisp while the interior has the texture of a potato that’s been through a wood chipper. Once baked up in the casserole, the tots disintegrate into a single gooey layer covered in dairy and beef.

I have to be honest, tater tot casserole will not make my death-row dinner list, but it’s good. It’s good like Wendy’s chicken nuggets are good or Pizza Hut is good. It’s good like Cheetos or Cool Ranch Doritos. There is something so wrong about this dish that it’s right. It will fill you up, keep you warm and remind you that some things can only be found right here in the U.S. of A.

Tater Tot Casserole

1 pound ground beef
1 can (approx. 10 ounces) cream of chicken condensed soup
1 can (approx. 10 ounces) cream of mushroom (or celery) condensed soup
1 1/2 cup milk or sour cream or mixture of the two
1 package (1 pound) frozen tater tots
1/4 pound each: shredded Cheddar and Colby Jack cheese (or 1/2 pound of either type)


Preheat oven to 375 F. Brown ground beef in medium saucepan; drain. Add soup and milk. Mix together over med-heat. Add 3/4 of cheese and mix until melted. At the bottom of a 9 x 13 baking dish, arrange tater tots in single layer.

Pour meat/soup/sour cream mixture over the top, spreading evenly over all tater tots. Sprinkle remainder of cheese over the top. Bake for approximately 30 minutes or until center is bubbling and top cheese is golden brown.

As a final note, I’d like to thank George for his casserole post. Thanks for the inspiration.

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Warm Gingerbread with Vanilla Ice Cream

When it’s cold and you want to bring some warmth in, gingerbread does the trick. The prep time is only about 20 minutes so in less than an hour you can go from frigid and sad to toasty and happy. I was able to make this without going anywhere near a grocery store which is also a big plus. If you have ever made a gingery baked good, you are bound to have the molasses and ginger powder staples kicking around your cabinets and they keep forever. The recipe below comes from a Better Homes cookbook my Mom bought me a few Christmases back. It makes a light, moist, cake with a crumbly crumb. Warm up and enjoy!


1 ½ cups flour
¾ tsp ground cinnamon
¾ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ cup shortening
¼ cup brown sugar
1 egg
½ cup molasses
½ cup water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sift dry ingredients together in a medium sized bowl and set aside.
In a large bowl, cream shortening and add sugar until well combined.
Add egg and molasses, blending well.
Alternately add flour mixture and water to shortening mixture.
Pour batter into a well buttered 9 ½ inch round baking pan.
Bake for 35-40 minutes.
Cool in pan.
Serve warm for the best results.

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Picture it, Tokyo, 2002, I am cycling through the suburban streets making mental record of every late-night restaurant I pass. Two containers of Jiffy Pop rattle around my bicycle basket and wonder when my next real meal will be.

Dan, the vegan, had invited me over for dinner. Back then I was a lot less progressive when it came to alternative eating and I was convinced I would need a late-night burger to recover from whatever he fed me.

There are few times when it feels good to be wrong, but when Dan’s girlfriend, Yoko, opened the door welcoming me to their gyoza making party, I took in the scent of pork, bowed low, and said Arigato.

So that was the last time I made gyoza from scratch. This time things didn’t go so smoothly. During the final cooking stages I tossed and agitated those little dumplings to within an inch of their lives. Some of them lost their filling and the others stuck together in a protective sticky mass.

Learn from my mistakes. Fry your gyoza in a row with one broad side touching and don’t move them until the cooking process is over. At the end turn them out of the pan like a cake.

Refrigerating for a day or two and freezing are also fine, but the moisture of the filling will make your gyoza sticky so don’t dump them into a Tupperware container like I did. Line them up a save yourself the grief.

Pork Gyoza

2/3 cup chopped cabbage (soaked in boiling water and drain when tender)

4 Tbsp chopped green onion

1 pound ground pork

2 tsp sesame oil

2 tsp sugar

2 tsps soy sauce

2 tsp grated fresh ginger

40 gyoza wrappers

2 tbsp vegetable oil
rice wine vinegar
chili oil

Blend all ingredients in a bowl except the vegetable oil.

Place one teaspoon of filling in a gyoza wrapper.

Fold in half crimping the top.

After filling all wrappers, add vegetable oil to a pan.

Once oil is hot, place gyoza in the pan frying the bottoms until brown.

Add two tablespoons of water and cover pan.

Steam gyoza until filling is 170 degrees 4-5 minutes.

Turn them out of the pan onto a plate.

Use rice wine vinegar, chili oil and soy sauce to create a dipping sauce. The proportions are up to you.

*Substitute the pork with chopped firm tofu for the vegetarian/vegan version.

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