Can-free, to follow your heart

It is true that the way to a man's heart is through his tummy. Even after seventeen years together, I am still learning this about T.

A common discussion on our way home from work is "What we shall have for dinner." More often than not T answers, "Chicken," and leaves it at that. "Chicken WHAT?" is my response. "Tacos? Pizza? Salad? Fried? Burgers? Meatloaf?" I rattle off a list of chicken options, and T just smiles and lets me decide.

Canned condensed soup was considered a convenience food when it rolled into grocery stores across America. In Minnesota, our grandmas and moms reached for Campbell's Soup to hold together casseroles, and an entire new food group was created: the hotdish. Campbell's cream-of-something was particularly popular, and remains so, mixed with some ground meat, vegetables, and a starch. (Throw the concoction into a slow cooker and you've got a meal worthy of any hardy Minnesotan and reminiscent of those elementary school lunches of long ago.) Edie Schmierbach recently defined hotdish (or hot dish) in the Associate Press:

To qualify as a hot dish, recipes should call for a combination of protein (tuna for example), a canned vegetable (peas are popular), a starch (maybe mashed potatoes) and a binding sauce, (perhaps a can of cream of mushroom). For crunch, cooks may add tater tots, chow mein noodles or crushed potato chips.

But let's not go the canned soup route today. I prefer making hotdish with can-free binders such as a thick sauce or gravy (preferably with melty gooey good cheese). Which is where my dinner discussion with T landed the other day. "How about tator tot hotdish?" I suggested to T. He thought about my idea and answered, "Yes, that sounds like it might hit the spot." It was a blustery not-quite-winter, not-quite-spring afternoon: damp and chilly. Our tummies were craving something warm and filling. Soon we were enjoying our dinner.

"Wow!" T exclaimed. "This is the best hotfish I've EVER had!" He paused long enough to take another bite. "Can we have hotdish every week?"

It's the little things that confirm our happiness with life, and it's appreciation of those little things that keeps a couple together.

No-Can Tator Tot Hotdish
6 servings

For the sauce:
2 tablespoons each butter and flour
1 tablespoon coarse ground mustard
1 1/2 cup milk
1 cup Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
1/2 teaspoon pepper

In saucepan melt butter and whisk in flour and mustard. Continue whisking over medium high heat until well blended. Add milk and continue whisking until milk starts to bubble and thicken. Turn off heat, whisk in cheese until melted, and season with pepper.

For the filling:
1 tablespoon butter
5 ounces mushrooms, chopped
1/2 white or yellow onion, chopped
1 pound ground turkey
1 large zucchini, spiralized or chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt and pepper

In large skillet melt butter over medium high heat. Add mushrooms and onions and cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms release their liquid and the onions become translucent; about 5 minutes. Add turkey and cook another 8 to 10 minutes or until turkey is cooked through. Add tomato paste and zucchini and cook additional 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

For the topping:
1 pound tator tots (you will not use the entire package)
1/4 cup Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

To assemble:
Generously spray bottom and sides of 9x9 inch square cake pan with non-stick spray. Add filling and top with all but about 1/4 cup of sauce. Top with tator tots, remaining sauce, and shredded cheese. Cover with foil and bake in 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking until cheese melts, about 15 minutes.

Let hotdish stand for 10 minutes before serving.


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