Ep. 73 North Dakota, Land of Hotdish and Heidi Heitkamp
Hotdish, it’s a culture and a recipe.
The Hotdish just might be the Heartland’s secret weapon against polarity and division. As nostalgic tinder, as cultural placeholder, as a blank canvas for farmers’ hip grandchildren, and as a cherished family dinner, the hotdish is unassailable, but it also unites. It warms. In Minnesota the Hotdish has inspired more bipartisan camaraderie than a softball game.
Hotdish very loosely translates as “casserole” in other parts of the country, but not really. “Casserole” has none of the emotional gravity, the cultural relevance of Hotdish. Hotdish in the Upper Midwest is so fundamental to dinner tables and social gatherings that every group makes them, and nobody doesn’t like them. Intramural quibbles like tater tots vs. wild rice, or canned soup vs. homemade roux inspire healthy competition, but Hotdishes are so popular they are coming back even though they never left.
Thomasine Heitkamp, Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s older sister, recently won “Best Hotdish” at a fundraiser for her sister in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The crowd moved deliberately along two banquet tables loaded with pyrex rectangles and crockpots, spooning tastes onto their plates. There was an artichoke and oyster Hotdish, a taco Hotdish, Shakshuka Hotdish, barbecue chicken and quinoa Hotdish, a number of macaroni and cheese Hotdishes. Some were loose chili-style Hotdishes and some firmer rice or pasta-style Hotdishes. Some were topped in breadcrumbs, some biscuits, of course tatertots and one with strategically placed meatballs. Heitkamp won with a Chicken Pot Pie and Cheddar Biscuits Hotdish, a creamy base of chicken pot pie with that light roof of fresh biscuits and just the right amount of bite from the cheddar cheese.
I spoke with Heitkamp later by phone to ask what exactly is a Hotdish. She said it’s a culture and it’s a recipe.
“The Hotdish culture is comfort food in the winter. In some of our communities - where you don't have an opportunity to stop at the supermarket on the way home, you can just look in your refrigerator and pull out something good - some vegetables and some starch, a can of cream of mushroom soup, and some protein - and mix it all together and put it in the oven and you have a warm dinner that's multipurpose.”
North Dakota is a broad, flat land with only 750,000 people distributed through it, all of whom have an intimate relationship with winter. The Hotdish is a cultural and literal remedy to the cold, to the barren, and to the hunger for community. But it is also a recipe: it’s a protein, a starch, a vegetable, bound in cream, topped with crunch, and baked.
The Hotdish origin story probably begins during World War I, when patriotism meant conserving more American calories for soldiers overseas. The United States Food Administration published recipes for something called “Hot Pots,” one dish meals that stretched a family’s pound of ground beef. The first time anyone actually read the words “Hotdish” was in 1930, in a Minnesota Lutheran Ladies Aid Cookbook. That recipe called for - ta-da - hamburger, onions, celery, canned peas, canned tomato soup, and Creamettes, or miniature macaroni, all stirred together and baked. For many housewives, a recipe like this with all those short cuts and cans must have felt like real liberation.
To this day there is no shame in listing canned soup as an ingredient. Old and young Hotdish cooks, old fashioned and modern, embrace the can, also known as the “Lutheran binder,” because canned cream soup is so ubiquitous in Heartland church cookbooks. Still, some endorse a homemade bechamel or white sauce thickened with roux. Either way, the soup or bechamel sauce is the vehicle that corrals and suaves the other elements. Molly Yeh is a blogger, cookbook author and host of the Food Network show, “Girl Meets Farm.” She moved from a Juilliard School Brooklyn life to her husband’s family sugar beet farm in Minnesota. (They met at Juilliard; she’s a percussionist and he’s a trombonist.) From her husband’s grandparents’ home, Yeh creates for all of us the romance of prairie life with cute panache. In the Hotdish section of her cookbook, “Molly on the Range,” Yeh explains that on their kitchen shelving there’s still a handmade label marking the spot for “cream of mushroom soup.” Yeh has left the label, but keeps quinoa and parisian tea there instead. She makes her own bechamel. Her cookbook, “Molly On The Range,” includes a hotdish section which, of course, tells you how to make the traditional Chicken Pot Tot Hotdish - chicken pot pie topped with Tater Tots, but Yeh also gets a little Brooklyn with a recipe for “Wild Rice Hotdish with Ras El Hanout and Dates.”
Topping a Hotdish is its own politics, and it’s both liberal and conservative. Choice of topping is liberal: anything goes. Crescent rolls, scalloped potatoes, shoestring potato sticks, hashbrowns, meatballs, potato chips - really, use anything, although Tater Tots set the standard for bejeweled Hotdish surfaces when they were first created by Ore Ida labs in 1953. Whatever the topping, it needs to be arranged in neat, orderly rows. No strewing. No sprinkling. No tossing. Order and geometry rule. That’s the conservative part.
After the 2010 Midterm Elections, then Minnesota Senator Al Franken decided the best way to rally the Minnesota Congressional Delegation together for the next legislative session was to hold a competitive Hotdish night. Six of the ten members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation showed up: Senator Amy Klobuchar, Representatives Michele Bachmann, Tim Walz, Keith Ellison, and Betty McCollum. Klobuchar’s “Taconite Tater Tot Hotdish” took first place and the Walz “Chicken Mushroom Wild Rice Hotdish” second.
Every year since then the Minnesota Congressional delegation has assembled for this unifying annual Hotdish night. As Franken says, "It's always nice to put aside our differences and come together over some great Hotdish." For the record, here’s a roster of the winners - both parties represented.
2011 Sen. Al Franken's Mom's Mahnomen Madness Hotdish and Rep. Chip Cravaack's Minnesota Wild Strata Hotdish (tie)
2012 Rep. Tim Walz's Hermann the German Hotdish
2013 Rep. Tim Walz's Turkey Trot Tater Tot Hotdish
2014 Rep. Betty McCollum’s Turkey, Sweet Potato, and Wild Rice Hotdish
2015 Rep. Tim Walz’s Turkey Taco Tot Hotdish
2016 Rep. Collin Peterson’s Right to Bear Arms Hotdish
2017 Rep. Tom Emmer's Hotdish of Champions
As with any important social force, there is Haiku. Pat Dennis, stand-up comedian specializing in Hotdish humor, has written Hotdish To Die For, a collection of mystery stories featuring weaponized Hotdish and she has edited Hotdish Haiku. An example:
Herd of Lutherans
Running to church hotdishes
The metaphors are all easy; we’re living in cold, barren times. Let’s take a cue from Al Franken, from Heidi Heitkamp, from North Dakota and Minnesota. I hotdish, you hotdish, we all hotdish. Let’s make it a verb, and get this tradition out of the Upper Midwest. Ramen Hotdish must be a thing.
Here are two recipes from that Grand Forks night: Thomasine Heitkamp’s Chicken Pot Pie with Cheddar Cheese Biscuits and Thomas Yabroff’s Shakshuka Hotdish, an adaptation. Yabroff is a Heitkamp staffer. He told me he had never made a Hotdish before, and decided to just make his favorite thing - Shakshuka - and then - in the words of New York Times food writer Sam Sifton, “you cover the bitch in Tater Tots.”
Chicken Pot Pie with Cheddar Biscuit Hotdish
(For homemade chicken stock and freshly picked chicken meat: poached a 3 pound chicken in water to cover with 1 halved onion, 2 ribs celery, 1bay leaf, 1 teaspoon pepper corns, and 2 teaspoons salt. When cooked through, about 30 minutes, let chicken cool in the broth. Remove chicken and vegetables to a bowl, or just discard vegetables. Strain broth through paper towels or thin cheesecloth laying inside a colander. Remove meat from chicken bones.)
FOR THE POT PIE FILLING:
3 Tablespoons Butter
1 Small Onion, Chopped
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1/3 Cup Flour
2 Cups Chicken Broth
1 1/2 Cups Milk
2 Cups Shredded Cooked Chicken
2 Cups Frozen Mixed Vegetables
1/2 Teaspoon EACH Salt, Pepper, Thyme
FOR THE BISCUITS:
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/2 Cup Melted Butter, 1 Stick
1 Cup Milk
1 1/2 Cups Shredded Cheddar Cheese
OPTIONAL BISCUIT TOPPING:
3 Tablespoons Butter, Melted
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 Tablespoon Fresh Chopped Parsley
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a 9x13 inch baking dish, or spray with non stick cooking spray and set aside.
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, cook for 2-3 minutes until slightly soft. Whisk in the flour. Allow the flour to cook for 1-2 minutes.
Gradually whisk the chicken broth and milk into the flour mixture. Whisk constantly for 2-3 minutes while mixture bubbles and thickens. Stir in the shredded chicken, vegetables, and seasonings.
Pour the filling into the prepared baking dish. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes before topping with the biscuits.
In a large bowl mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, garlic powder, melted butter and milk. Stir in the shredded cheddar.
Remove the casserole dish from the oven. Working quickly, use a 1/4 Cup measuring cup to drop the cheddar biscuits on top of the casserole evenly. Return to the oven and cook for another 15 minutes, until the biscuits are cooked through.
If using the optional biscuit topping, whisk together all of the topping ingredients in a small bowl and brush over the tops of the cooked biscuits.
Shakshuka is a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern/Ottoman Empire born dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato and pepper stew. I used a favorite Shakshuka recipe, omitted the eggs, and shingled it with Tater Tots.
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground caraway seed (or buy whole seeds and grind them)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, chopped (about 3 cups)
1 large red or green bell pepper, roughly chopped
1 large or 2 small jalapeno peppers, seeded, ribs removed, and finely minced
4 tablespoons tomato paste
5 tablespoons minced garlic (6-7 large cloves)
1 28 ounce can whole plum tomatoes, crushed by hand
2 packed cups spinach leaves, roughly chopped
5-6 ounces feta cheese cut into 1/2-inch cubes.
1 bag Tater Tots
Measure all the spices into a small bowl. Set aside.
Make the sauce: Preheat oven to 375ºF. Heat oil over medium heat in a large pot or dutch oven. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 8 minutes. (turn heat down to medium-low if they start to brown) Add bell pepper and jalapeno, and cook until softened, about 4-5 minutes. Add tomato paste and garlic and cook, stirring, for a minute or two, until tomato paste is incorporated. Add canned tomatoes and spices. stir through. Turn heat down to a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens. Mix in the chopped spinach and simmer for 5 minutes more. Remove the bay leaf. Sauce can be made ahead and kept in the fridge or frozen. Reheat sauce before proceeding.
To Bake: Spoon sauce into a large, shallow, oven-proof skillet or casserole. Press the cheese cubes evenly into the sauce. Lay the Tater Tots in neat rows on top. Place the dish in the middle of the oven and bake for 20-30 minutes, watching carefully for Tater Tots to become golden brown.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes before bringing to the table, but serve warm.