On Midwest Cooking: The Hot Dish

I noticed, the other day, just how many of my internalized Upper Midwest family meal recipes start with, “Brown a pound of hamburger.” It struck me as I was surveying the contents of my freezer, thinking about meal prep while simultaneously considering the restrictions on meat buying that my local grocery stores have implemented.

Hamburger is a stapje of many dishes I grew up with. The most dominant of these is something we obliquely refer to as “hot dish,” but the definition and recipe for hot dish varies by person, family, region, or specialty. Any pot luck dinner will feature as many variations of a hot dish, otherwise known as a casserole in other regions, as there are people to eat them. Each has some kind of meat, some kind of starch, some kind of vegetable, and a sauce to hold it all together. If it’s baked, it usually will also have some kind of crunchy topping.

The quality and type of ingredients often reflect the means of the household creating the hot dish. For example, when I was a child, browning hamburger could mean either cheap, fatty beef, or lean ground venison from the deer my father and his brothers would hunt or every fall. I recognize that in many parts of the world, venison is a luxury food dish; in northern Wisconsin, it is staple winter meat for many low-income families, who hunt for the deer themselves or know someone who can provide one for them.

It requires different handling than beef; depending on the deer and the conditions in which it was feeding, cooked ground venison can give a waxy mouth feel. I learned to brown it, drain the fat, and rinse it in hot water before I added seasonings, to avoid that. Chicken, canned tuna or salmon, or leftover meat of any kind also can be featured in a hot dish. All of the meat is cooked first before being combined with its other parts.

Starches run the gamut, from boiled noodles to rice to hash browned potatoes. Sauces, too, vary widely. As I was growing up, we relied heavily on canned condensed soups for our sauce component, and canned vegetables. (Funny, I just had the random thought that canned vegetables are for hot dish, and fresh are for plain eating alongside meat and potatoes. Interesting what sticks with you.)

Three different hot dishes still find themselves in my own, grown-up menus with a fair amount of frequency, though they differ a bit from the originals. The first, referred to as “Dad’s,” remains a favorite of my father. Originally, it’s just 16 oz of macaroni, cooked; 1 can of condensed tomato soup; 1 pound of hamburger, browned; and 1 can of corn, tossed together while hot and served from the pan.

My grown up, lighter version eliminates the fat and salt of the condensed soup (which I rarely cook with any longer). I also use different shaped noodles on a whim. Often, it’s 16 oz penne pasta, cooked and tossed with one pound of browned lean ground beef and one jar of marinara or other favorite tomato sauce. I top it with parmesan at the table. I’ve also been known to eliminate the meat and mix in a cup of mozzarella, ricotta, or cottage cheese, turn out into a baking pan, top with more cheese, and heat in the oven until everything’s melty.

A second common hot dish, features tuna. For this one, I do use condensed soup: cream of mushroom, actually, but I’ve seen higher-end recipes that use a béchamel with sautéed mushrooms, too. This is a combination of 16 oz. cooked egg noodles, 12 oz (two cans) tuna packed in water, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, and 1 can of peas, drained. Toss together and serve hot from the pan, with or without parmesan on top.

The last one is colloquially known as “Tater Tot Hot Dish,” and there’s as many variations of it as there are families who produce it. It’s a take on a classic shepherd’s pie, but it uses whatever ingredients are in the cupboard. My favorite combination is 1 pound lean ground beef, browned; 1 can cream of mushroom soup; and 1 can mixed vegetables, all tossed together. Turn that out in a 9 by 13 baking pan and cover the top of it with frozen tater tots. Bake until the tots are browned and crispy, and serve.

As meat restrictions remain, I’ll probably have to get more creative with my menus. I know how to cook high-protein vegetarian meals, and I’m afraid my family will just have to enjoy a few of those a week. It’s healthier, anyway. I think it might take some getting used to, but with so much happening in the world right now, it’s a small thing to change in the greater scheme.

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