Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tater Tot Casserole, Remixed

Remember back in the day when we packed raw ground beef into a loaf pan, doused it with cream of mushroom soup, studded it with those ghastly, chopped, formed and extruded plastic potato nuggets, then baked the whole shebang? I know. Tater Tot Casserole was delicious! Admit it! The stuff was dripping with fat, and sodium-laden beyond belief. But oh-so-satisfying!

What if we were to aim for a healthier version? Yes, these are the things that I think about when waking up at sparrow twit on these lovely summer mornings.

As luck (or excellent intuitive marketing skills) would have it, my fridge contained a greedy haul of organic local potatoes, the freezer held grass-fed, Pat 'n Tam's ground beef, and in the pantry was a can of organic cream of mushroom soup.

Maybe you don't want me messin' with your childhood casserole ... if so, just think of it as something else, like 'Gratin of Minced Beef with Porcini Mushrooms and Baby Potatoes' or something. But I think it appropriate to hark back to this dish's modest, middle-American roots, and its Ore-Ida namesake, the tater tot!

One 0.5-ounce package Oregon Mycological or other brand dried porcini mushrooms

2 pounds Pat 'n Tam's ground beef
1/2 of a Walla Walla sweet onion, chopped
1 can Amy's (or other natural brand) organic cream of mushroom soup
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

About 10 small, organic potatoes, scrubbed and sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Fresh chives

Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl, pour over boiling water just to cover, place a smaller bowl on top of the mushrooms to hold them in the liquid, and let sit at least half an hour. Chop the mushrooms and strain the broth through a fine strainer into a small bowl. (Porcini sometimes have grit in them.)

In a large-ish bowl, mix the chopped mushrooms, ground beef, onion, soup, thyme, salt and pepper. Stir well, so everything is mixed evenly. You may at this point saute the beef mixture and drain the fat; I drained it after the casserole was baked.

Press beef mixture into a shallow casserole. Clean bowl well with spatula. To the bowl, add the sliced potatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss well, then spread the potatoes over the ground beef mixture. Drizzle mushroom broth over all, and run a grind or two of fresh pepper over it.

Cover with foil and bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes. Uncover, and bake about 20 minutes more or until potatoes are browned and done, and beef is no longer pink.

There will be juices. I slightly tipped the hot dish and poured the juices from a corner of the dish into a Pyrex measuring cup. You don't need to drain all of them.

Sprinkle top of casserole with snipped chives. And dig in!

Makes six hearty servings.

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