Winter Comfort Foods: Cheesy Tater Tot Casserole

Winter Comfort Foods: Cheesy Tater Tot Casserole

Cheesy tater tot casserole

Cheesy tater tot casserole

When my friend Scott announced he was preparing a tater tot casserole, my ears perked up.  Tater tots? As in the crispy, little potato nuggets that I loved as a kid?  I begged him to tell me more.  A native of Nebraska, Scott says he grew up on tater tot casserole, and prepares the same recipe his mother made, which he happily shared with me.  Scott’s tater tot casserole is a playful rendition of shepherd’s pie — ground beef, diced vegetables, canned soup and plenty of tater tots. It’s something the kid in all of us would enjoy… and here is my interpretation of the dish.

I created this recipe using a popular hash brown casserole as an inspiration, then added flavorful chicken sausages and sweet bell peppers to the mix.  I used sun-dried tomato smoked sausages, but regular hot dogs or shredded chicken breast will substitute nicely.  Serve this casserole with a side of steamed broccoli, lima beans or a fresh salad and you’ll have an easy comfort food favorite.

With my friend Scott

With my friend Scott

Cheesy Tater Tot Casserole
Serves 6


6 cups frozen tater tots
1 red bell pepper, diced
4-5 smoked chicken sausages, sliced
2 10-oz cans of cream of chicken soup
1 cup sour cream
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups frozen peas
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 400 F.  Spray or grease a 13×9 rectangular baking dish and set aside.
  2. In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil and bell pepper over medium high heat.  Add the sausages and saute until peppers are softened and sausages have toasted, about 3-4 minutes.  Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the condensed soup, sour cream and milk.  Add the garlic powder and salt and pepper to taste.  Once combined, add all the cheese, tater tots, peas and the sausage mixture.  Mix until well combined.
  4. Pour into the prepared baking dish and bake, uncovered for 30-40 minutes.  The casserole is done when the tots are slightly browned and the cheese is melted.  Remove from oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
So Long Summer Vegetable Tart

So Long Summer Vegetable Tart

Summer Vegetable Tart

I just completed a segment for Daytime TV — hopefully, you had the chance to see it!  The show was focused on Labor Day weekend, so I chose to do an end-of-Summer recipe, featuring yellow squash and zucchini.

This recipe appears in my cookbook under Asparagus and Almond Tart.  The nice thing about this savory tart is that you can swap out ingredients to fit the season, as I did for the show.  I cut long zucchini and yellow squash into thin circles, then used both fresh and dry herbs to season.

The other ingredient you can swap out with this tart is the cheese.  I love the combination of Gruyere and Parmesan, however, you can use other cheeses, such as fontina, Comte and even white cheddar.

Because the crust is made from store-bought puff pastry, this recipe comes together in no time.  So take a break from too much work this weekend and celebrate the finale of a delicious Summer.

Summer Vegetable Tart
Adapted from the recipe: “Asparagus and Almond Tart” published in the cookbook Food with My Friends

Serves 4-6

1    sheet of puff pastry dough, thawed
1    cup Gruyere cheese, grated
1    cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2    zucchini and/or yellow squash, cut into ½ inch circles
2    tablespoons fresh or dried thyme
1    egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon of water

Olive oil for drizzling
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Thaw the Puff Pastry
Thaw the puff pastry. Line a 13-by-9-inch rectangular baking sheet. Once the dough is pliable, roll the dough to fit baking pan. Transfer to baking sheet.

2. Score the Dough
Using a knife, score a 1-inch border around the dough, making sure not to cut through. Use the tines of a fork to prick inside the border, at small intervals, about ½ inch apart. Docking the dough will allow steam to escape while baking, ensuring a flaky crust.  Freeze the dough for 15 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F.

3. Bake the Dough
Brush the border of the dough with the beaten egg and water. Bake the dough for 10 minutes. Remove from oven. Using the back of a flat spatula, flatten the pastry crust inside the border, leaving the crust high and intact.

4. Fill the Tart
Fill the inside of the crust with both cheeses. Lay the squash circles into rows, alternating types if using both zucchini and yellow squash.

5. Bake the Tart
Return tart to oven and bake until the squash is tender, about 12–15 minutes. At 2 minutes prior to finish, sprinkle the tart with the thyme leaves and bake. Remove from oven and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle generously with olive oil.

Allow tart to cool then slice and serve.

Breakfast Torta: Chorizo, Egg, Black Bean and Cheese Sandwich

Breakfast Torta: Chorizo, Egg, Black Bean and Cheese Sandwich

Tortas in a cast iron grill pan

Red, Green or Christmas?  That’s a question you get asked a lot in New Mexico.  The answer has nothing to do with the holiday spirit or festive lights.  It’s about salsa, the Spanish word for sauce, which accompanies just about everything you can possibly order at a restaurant.  Personally, I find Christmas, using both red and green salsa, to be the best option — especially in the morning.  New Mexico has the BEST breakfast burritos!

Prickly pear cactus margaritas in Chimayo, NM

I happen to love spicy foods, especially during Summer.  When the weather heats up, I long for hot weather cuisines such as Jamaican, Ethiopian, Indian and Mexican.  The capsaicin found in chilies and peppers have long been known to boost circulation and cool the body, but beyond these health benefits, I find that spicy foods make me eat less and drink more.  And there’s nothing wrong with that!

Recently, my friends Charles and Tim told me they were hungry for breakfast.  It was the middle of a hot and sticky night and they needed an energy boost.  While sipping on a cold beer, my thoughts drifted to my travels in New Mexico, which made me smile and offer to cook.  In less than 15 minutes I whipped up a handful of breakfast burritos, and I’ll never forget how much fun Charles, Tim, Ivana, Joel and I had while eating them.

In Old Town Albuquerque

Since I can’t leave well enough alone, I decided to improve my breakfast burrito recipe.  It started off with the basics: eggs, shredded potatoes, hot sauce, bacon, salsa and tortillas — and has grown into a Breakfast Torta recipe.  Torta, is the Spanish word for bread, and in Mexican cuisine, tortas are hefty sandwiches.  My breakfast torta is inspired by New Mexico foods, with ingredients like crumbled chorizo, black beans, diced onions, a fried egg, and of course, plenty of salsa.

This breakfast torta is intended to wake up all of your senses in the morning by being spicy, savory, hearty, fragrant and flavorful.  I use a panini press to bring it all together, but you can use a heavy pan or even a foil lined brick to toast the sandwich.  You can also make and refrigerate the chorizo filling before hand, in order to save time in the morning.  However, if you find yourself playing short order cook in the middle of the night, taking orders for after-hours eats, this torta will surely keep the party going.

Breakfast Torta
Serves 4 hungry people

Food photography by Stephanie Cameron.

2    Bolillo Rolls (or 4 small ciabatta or kaiser rolls)
1    pound fresh chorizo, casing removed
1    small yellow onion, diced
2  cloves of garlic, chopped
1   14.5-ounce can black beans, drained
8   ounces queso fresco or cotija queso (or equal parts grated fresh mozzarella and crumbled goat cheese)
4  eggs
1   cup red salsa
1   cup green salsa (Hatch chile preferred, but tomatillo is a good substitute)

  1. In a cast-iron or heavy skillet, crumble the chorizo into small bits over medium-high heat. When the sausage is mostly cooked, after 3–4 minutes, add the diced onions and garlic, and cook until onions are clear and transparent, about 3 minutes more. Add the drained black beans, and stir well to combine.  Adjust flavors if needed (using seasonings such as salt, pepper, cumin and oregano) and remove from heat.
  2. Split the bread rolls in half. Use your fingers to remove the inside breading. Save this bread for breadcrumbs or for garnish for soup at a later time. Slice, grate or crumble the cheese as needed.
  3. Heat a panini press or flat griddle pan.
  4. In a separate pan, fry the eggs (I prefer over-easy, to a medium softness, but scrambled works too).
  5. Fill the bread cavities with the chorizo mixture then top with eggs and cheese. Add the remaining sliced bread to create a sandwich. Place sandwich in panini press or on heated griddle. If using a griddle, be sure to weigh the sandwich down with the bottom of a heavy pan, plate or brick. You will need to flip the sandwich to toast both sides.
  6. Once sandwich is toasted, allow to rest for 1 minute then slice diagonally.  Serve with two salsas for dipping.

My talented friend, photographer and New Mexico native, the incredible Stephanie Cameron

Lesson 3: Molotes – My Mexican Comfort Food

Lesson 3: Molotes – My Mexican Comfort Food

Waiting in line at the molote stand

While strolling down the streets of Tlaxcala, I noticed a long line of people hovering around a certain street vendor.  A piece of paper, handwritten in magic marker, identified the goods: “Molotes.”   At first glance, I assumed I was approaching a taco vendor, but upon closer inspection, I realized that molotes were not tacos at all!  They look a lot like empanadas, golden hand pies plump with filling and aromas rich from savory goodness.  The vendor had an assortment of fillings, from tins of seasoned beef, chicken and pork, to bins of various grated cheeses and tubs of different salsas.  I ordered a molote stuffed with mashed potatoes and chipotle salsa.  After it left the deep fryer, it was topped with salsa verde and a squirt of crema.  It was heavenly!

Molotes are fresh tortilla dough stuffed with any kind of filling available.  They are then sealed into a half moon shaped and deep fried, creating a crispy, delicate and flaky crust.  These little hot pockets are then drizzled with salsa and crema, and they are so addictive, it’s common to see folks order one then get back in line to order another.

Molote frying in a pan

When I told Chef Estela about my new found favorite streetfood, she smiled and nodded and didn’t give it another thought.  But I kept going on and on about how much I loved these things. . . that today, she taught me how to make them.  As I should have known, her version was even better than what I had on the street.  I devoured the hot molote as soon as it came out of the pan.  My tastebuds were dancing with delight.  Crisp, flavorful and filled with cheese, Chef Estela told me to enjoy, then informed me that since I now know how to make them — I have no excuse to spend my money on the sidewalk.  Si, senora!

Chef Estela Silva, Mexican Home Cooking School

Use plastic or wax paper to prevent sticking


2 cups masa harina
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup warm chile water (or you can use achiote seasoning)
Fillings as desired
Oil for frying

  1. Combine the masa harina, flour and baking powder in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Slowly add the water and mix until a dough forms.  The dough should be sticky, not dry.
  3. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to rest for 30 minutes.
  4. Gather a small handful and roll into balls.
  5. With your hands, a tortilla press, or even a rolling pin, flatten the balls into long ovals.
  6. Place the filling in the center of the tortilla, then fold tortilla over, creating a half-moon/semi-circle shape.  Press the ends together to create a seal.
  7. Pan fry in a small amount of oil.  The molote should be crisp and golden on all sides.  Serve with shredded lettuce, salsa verde or a drizzle of crema.
Comfort Me in Macaroni and Cheese

Comfort Me in Macaroni and Cheese

There are certain things that will instantly make me happy:

  • spending hours in comfortable pajamas

    Bacon and Peas Macaroni and Cheese!

  • chewing on sour patch kids
  • drinking margaritas on the rocks
  • petting a happy dog
  • going on a long, scenic walk
  • diving into a delicious plate of macaroni and cheese
I did all of these things last week, as I went through a very shitty experience.  Yeah, I said it, and yes, it’s crude, but that’s the best word to describe what I went through. I did all of the above and did it with my friends.  And now, I’m in a much happier place!
Previously, I posted two of my favorite mac ‘n cheese recipes, and now, I’m pleased to share my Bacon and Peas Macaroni and Cheese.  Hee, hee, hee….. just saying it makes me happy.
When tackling this recipe, take your time and play happy music.  Use the microwave for an easy way to crisp the bacon.  You can choose to blanche the peas or you can just throw them in the casserole.  Shred your own cheese if you choose, or simply open a bag of pre-grated.  Who cares?   I make this recipe whenever I need to get out of a funk.  It makes me happy, and I hope it does the same for you.
I owe a world of thanks to all of my backers, but especially to the friends who encouraged me to get up and keep going — Korey, Jen, Michelle, Liza, Jason, Ray, Jeremiah and Stevens — big hugs to each of you.  The pity party is over, thanks for the drinks!
Bacon and Peas Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 5 people (4 normal people and 1 person down in the dumps)
3 cups small sea shell pasta (or elbow macaroni)
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup frozen peas
5 strips cooked bacon, crumbled
4 ounces sharp white cheddar, grated
4 ounces sharp yellow cheddar, grated
1 12 ounce can evaporated milk
2 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1/2 tablespoon grated nutmeg
Salt and Pepper to taste
  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until al dente.  Drain but do not rinse. Return noodles to the pot and add the butter.  Mix until butter is melted and all the noodles are coated.  Set aside.
  3. Butter a 8×8 square baking dish or use vegetable spray.
  4. Beat the eggs with the two milks.
  5. Pour a layer of noodles into the baking dish.  Top with a layer of crumbled bacon, and a handful of the peas.  Add a handful of the two types of cheeses and pour half of the milk mixture over the noodles.  Repeat this process until you reach the top of the dish.  You may or may not use all of the milk mixture.  I usually have about 4 ounces remaining (sorry, but it’s true).
  6. Sprinkle the top layer with nutmeg, cracked black pepper and salt if desired.  Bake for 30 minutes until cheese is browned and bubbling.  Allow to stand for 10 minutes, then serve.  Enjoy with friends immediately.

A small square of happiness!

Spinach Macaroni and Cheese – So Good!

Spinach Macaroni and Cheese – So Good!

“Wow, this looks yummy!”

Spinach Mac and Cheese: Thanks Everyday Food!

Tyler and I are thumbing through the April edition of Everyday Food  Magazine, packed with all kinds of fantastic, easy and quick recipes.  He stops on the Spinach Macaroni and Cheese recipe and asks if I’ll put it together for him. Of course I would! 

Regardless of how advanced your palate is, if you grew up in America, you understand our love affair with macaroni and cheese.  We start with the blue box, the funny shaped elbow noodles cooked to a rubbery consistency then mixed with a gritty orange powder (and we loved it!)  Most of us, however, graduate from that, moving towards baked casserole versions topped with crisp bread crumbs and made with real cheese.

My preference is the stove top version, one that starts with a roux and ends with a fondue-like cheese sauce.  I love using a blend of sharp English cheddar as well as Gruyere cheeses, as they melt nicely and compliment the pasta with a richness that only real cheese can provide.  Grate your cheese at home, as the pre-grated cheeses do not melt as nicely.

Fresh spinach adds great flavor to macaroni and cheese

In terms of pasta, most people use traditional elbow macaroni, but I like penne rigate, cooked al dente, so I have plenty to bite into.

Finally, my adult tastebuds long for an additional layer in macaroni and cheese — a layer of fresh vegetables.  I have used spinach, tomatoes, butternut squash and even chile peppers with plenty of success.  Onions are a must, as the sweetness they bring enhances the roux.  I recommend using yellow onions.

Since the best recipes always seem to encourage your own personal twist, I suggest you try the Everyday version then give my rendition a go or twist it your own way.  Tyler used corkscrew pasta and garlic in his, and I used a mixture of cheeses and a pinch of nutmeg.  Eat up and enjoy!

Spinach Macaroni and Cheese (my way)

1 pound penne rigate pasta (cooked al dente in salted water)
4 tablespoons butter
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups milk (I use 2% but Tyler recommends Whole Milk)
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/4 cups grated Gruyere
1 1/4 cups grated English Cheddar
2 cups fresh spinach leaves
Salt and Pepper to taste

In a large heavy pot or dutch-oven, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the onions and allow to sweat gently, without browning.  Stir often with a wooden spoon, about 3-5 minutes, until onions are tender and clear.

Coat the onions with the flour and stir.  Using a whisk, slowly add the milk, just a few tablespoons at a time.  Continue adding and whisking until all the milk is used and a nice thick roux has formed.  Switch back to the wooden spoon, as the roux should cover the back of the spoon nicely.  Stir in the cheeses until melted, and add the nutmeg, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Add the pasta and spinach until well combined.  Serve immediately.  Then tweet a pic to me and let me know how you fared!

Anything for Tyler!