Five Great Minnesota Versions of Hotdish (a.k.a. Casserole)

Turkey tetrazzini, the bane of every single Thanksgiving weekend in the state of Minnesota.
Turkey tetrazzini, the bane of every single Thanksgiving weekend in the state of Minnesota.

As winter approaches, with its occasional rain and frigid mid-50s-high temperatures, people break out the sweaters, boots and think about hot, stick-to-your-ribs food. In the winter, a lot of baking happens and a lot of lasagne, but when it's chilly out, I think of the time I spent in Minnesota and Iowa -- and about hotdish.

What, exactly, is hotdish? It's a casserole, except in Minnesota, the casserole is the dish it comes in, and hotdish is what goes inside. It's nearly always made from some kind of starch (nothing fancy -- rice, noodles or potatoes) and meat, often ground beef, held together with cream of mushroom soup, so ubiquitous in the state it's often referred to in church recipe booklets--yes, that still happens--as Lutheran binder. Cheese makes a regular appearance, and canned or frozen vegetables such as corn, peas or green beans may be mixed in.

While some hotdish has spread -- tuna-noodle hotdish is common throughout the United States, and the turkey tetrazzini pictured is nearly universal after the turkey sandwiches and just before the turkey soup in the pantheon of Thanksgiving leftovers -- nobody does hotdish like Minnesotans. Here are five of the state's finest.

5. Plain (Regular) Hotdish

When someone says they're having hotdish for supper and won't elaborate, this is what they mean: the basic model, constructed of ground beef, some kind of tomatoes (for example, canned tomato sauce, or maybe tomato paste mixed with tomato juice), pasta (usually elbow macaroni), cheese (often Cheddar, but sometimes Velveeta), salt and pepper. There's no Lutheran binder in this one; it's more like the world's least-interesting baked ziti.

4. Green bean hotdish

Everyone knows this one! It's green beans and Lutheran binder with Durkee brand fried onions on top. It's spread from its Midwestern roots to take over Thanksgiving tables all over the country. I've tried to gussy this up by using fresh Blue Lake green beans and making my own cream of mushroom soup, and it sucked. Alton Brown's tried it, too, and it doesn't work. It has to be canned for it to taste right.
 
3. Knoephla hotdish

If you know without the photo what knoephla are -- a variation on spätzle, or tiny flour-and-egg dumplings that are more round than elongated -- then you are probably from northwestern Minnesota, along the border with North Dakota. Like most other hotdishes, this one has Lutheran binder, but it also contains onions and sauerkraut. Don't knock it till you try it -- it's actually kind of like pierogi in a casserole dish.

2. Taco hotdish

That's right: tacos in hotdish form (we won't mention the horror that is the actual Minnesota taco). Ground beef, salsa (nearly always Pace Picante mild), cheese, onion, "Spanish" rice, and tortilla chips or Fritos crunched up on top, with lettuce and tomato to be added later. Don't fool yourself, though: Chiles other than the occasional can of Ro-Tel (uff da, spicy!) have absolutely no place in the traditional hotdish. While there are now people in Minnesota who appreciate spicy food -- both of them live outside of Minneapolis -- in general, taco-flavored means it has tortilla chips, taco seasoning from a packet from the Supervalu, and ground beef. Don't forget the sour cream.

1. Tater Tot hotdish

In accordance with the unofficial state motto of Minnesota ("Be nice!"), when someone dies, neighbors, friends and co-workers bring the family food for a couple of weeks while they get their lives back together, starting with a covered-dish lunch after the funeral. (In rural Minnesota, the three meals are breakfast, dinner and supper; lunch is anything that doesn't fit into those three times.) The traditional lunch is fruit salad (what the rest of the country calls ambrosia), hotdish and bars, and the most common hotdish at a funeral is Tater Tot hotdish, which contains Lutheran binder, ground beef and usually a vegetable such as green beans. It's a shame it's got a little bit of stigma because it's one of my favorites.

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