I love tater tot casserole. When done right, there’s nothing quite like the crunch of perfectly done potatoes balanced by a simple hamburger gravy.
Unfortunately, a lot of the versions I’ve seen lately have been pretty lackluster. Those found in many grocery store hot bars, in fact, come pre-assembled like a pan of lasagna. With their soggy tots and half-inch of mealy filling, these taste more of sodium and depressed robot tears than anything else.
And dammit, tater tot casserole deserves better. With a little extra attention and the application of some pub-food techniques, you can take this dish out of the lunch line and into the realm of art: A crispy, tasty canvas fit for the walls of the most discerning of stomachs.
The main point of reference here is the dish’s upscale cousin, shepherd’s pie. Or, if you’re using ground beef instead of lamb, Cottage pie. Think about it—mashed potatoes over a savory meat and veggie gravy? It’s really just fancy casserole.
But the techniques used for this venerable drinking fare work perfectly in a more humble application. The most important rule is don’t throw everything in at once. Once you’ve browned and removed the meat, add in your onions and other veggies just as you would for a cottage pie or beef stew.
Those classics call for the use of wine to deglaze the pan, but I’d avoid that here. A little beer is okay, if you must, but these push the flavor in a direction that outshine the homey crunch of the tater tots. Using stock (which we’ll discuss later) keeps everything a little more in balance.
Bacon poses a similar risk. If you plan to use it (and I’d recommend you do), be judicious with it. A little of that smoke and saltiness goes a long way in this application, so think of it more as an accent and less as a main flavor.
Brace yourselves, because I’m about to commit Midwest heresy. When I was taught to make this dish, both in my family’s kitchen and later in food service, the gravy base was usually two cans of condensed soup: one cream of mushroom (or golden mushroom and one cream of potato. And as familiar as that may be, I’d advise you to ditch them.
But don’t worry, we’re keeping the fungus and tubers. Just chop up a bunch of your favorite mushrooms and dice some potatoes, and throw them in with the rest of the veggies. Do the mushrooms first, though, to allow them to yield up some of their moisture.
Here’s where some of the better techniques come in. Once you’ve browned your meat and used your veggies to scrape up the goodness, dust the whole mess with a few tablespoons of flour. Stir everything around for a minute or so until the it starts to get clingy, and pour in some homemade chicken or beef stock (usually around two cups, if you’re starting with a pound of meat). Store-bought stocks will also work fine, especially if you use the unflavored gelatin trick. Beef and chicken bases such as Better than Bouillon are another excellent choice, with good depth of flavor and a long fridge life.
Once you’ve gotten to this point, assembly is pretty much standard operation - Grease a pan, spread out your filling, and arrange the tots. Add a layer of cheese if you like, and bake your masterpiece just as you would a regular pan of casserole. Just be sure to let it sit for a few minutes after pulling it out of the oven, to let that upgraded gravy settle down.
If the above tips yield up a “remastered” version, here’s one of my favorite “remixes.”
A while back, I wrote up a piece extolling the virtues of Taco John’s and its glorious Potato Olés. Their presence is the difference-maker in the chain’s wonderful Meat and Potato Burrito, a taste I’ve tried many times to recreate at home.
But one of the nearest successes eschews the tortilla altogether, coming instead in casserole form. By using cumin, coriander, oregano, chili powder (or better yet, dried chili broth), diced peppers, and chunks of tomato, you can transform the hamburger filling into a creamy, delicious burrito base. Topped with some pepper jack, cilantro, and sour cream, and you’ve got a dish-to-pass winner.
Taco Tot Casserole. How is someone not already selling this?
Preparing a semi-healthy version of this casserole is actually quite easy. And if not exactly a paragon of nutrition, it can at least be high in fiber, thanks to the use of lentils. You’ll obviously be skipping out on the fond from the beef, but browning up your onions and mushrooms until the stick to the pan will produce a similar result. Adding a little tomato paste helps, too.
This application is also perfect for using up whatever vegetables you have lying about. Carrots, celery, parsnips, and peppers, all of these are great in a meat-free tater tot casserole. You can even use veggie broth and leave out the cheese, if you want to go the extra mile and make the whole thing vegan. In that case, dried mushrooms will provide a good umami boost if simmered in your stock before deglazing. Miso paste is a wonderful addition, too.
These are just a few of the ways I’ve managed to tweak this all-time classic recipe. For all its lunchroom and canned-soup origins, tater tot casserole offers a wealth of possibilities. Try it with sweet potato tots, or whatever other crazy things you can imagine. So long as the basics are there, the odds of deliciousness are in your favor.