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.
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!

Braised Lettuce and Peas (Yes, I’m Cooking Lettuce)

Braised Lettuce and Peas (Yes, I’m Cooking Lettuce)

Say the word lettuce and many Americans think of a crisp cold salad, the start of a large buffet or some sort of landing area for other vegetables.  But say lettuce to someone knowledgeable in Chinese or French cuisines and thoughts of casseroles, stir-fry and soups come to mind.

Cooked lettuce is comfort food to many in Asia and Europe but has yet to make much of an impression in the United States.  While we love the taste of braised collard greens, steamed cabbage, creamed spinach and rich pasta mixed with leafy arugula, there’s little appreciation for cooking lettuce.

When I buy lettuce, I opt for a whole fresh head as it’s cheaper than buying the bagged stuff.  Having a variety of ways to enjoy lettuce – from a garden salad, to a wrap around a filling, to a steamed side dish – ensures that nothing will go to waste.

One of my favorite late night snacks is a small pot of peas with wilted lettuce.  Every now and then, I find myself hungry, knowing it’s too late in the evening to cook a full-on meal, yet too early to go to bed.  In those instances, I opt for some sort of vegetable snack and when I need something heartier, I cook the vegetable.

Cooking lettuce is so simple, I have a new variation with every attempt.  Some days I squeeze fresh lemon juice on Boston lettuce, allowing the tender leaves to pick up fresh acidity.  Other times I’ll add a sprinkle of freshly chopped mint, right at the end, to give the lettuce a hearty bite.  I love the taste of Romaine lettuce, with its dark green leaves and thick stems, paired with bright baby peas and a pat of butter.  Below I’ve included such a simple recipe I hope you enjoy it as a side dish or special snack.  Warm and rich, it evokes the joys of soup without the heaviness of a stew.

Braised Lettuce and Peas

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small shallot (thinly sliced)
Half head of Romaine lettuce (chopped into large pieces)
1 cup chicken stock (vegetable stock is also good)
1 1/2 cups frozen peas

In a stockpot or deep saute pan, melt the butter.  Add the shallot and saute for one minute.  Add the lettuce and chicken stock and bring to a simmer.  Add the peas and cover for two minutes.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Garnish with any variety of heavy cream, freshly chopped mint, grated carrots or squeeze of lemon juice.