Our granddaughter and her father recently made a whirlwind trip to help her with her final decision about college. That meant our usual Sunday Family Dinner was changed to simple stir fry, and on return of the travelers Carol made a celebratory steak dinner for her family. Susan and I thought it was important for that to be a special time for parents and children, so we planned our own meal. A few days before that, Susan had plunked on my desk a recipe she had torn out of a magazine. It was for a combination of turkey and tater tots, and I took the message that Susan wanted to give it a try. So I went to the store for frozen tater tots and canned beans. Instead of turkey, though, I used some franks and diced ham that were in the refrigerator. The result was definitely not gourmet eating, but it wound up tasting better than either Susan or I had anticipated. The next day we got to give our granddaughter a big hug and our congratulations.
Tater Tot Casserole
- 28 ounce can baked beans
- 4 beef frankfurters, cut into ½-inch slices
- 8 ounces diced ham
- 6 small crimini mushrooms, chopped
- 4 scallions, white and green, sliced
- 2 ounces, cheddar cheese, shredded
- 1 pound frozen tater tots (about)
- Combine the baked beans, frankfurters, ham, mushrooms, and scallions and pour into a baking dish.
- Sprinkle the top of the mixture with grated cheese and arrange the tater tots on top of the cheese.
- Bake in the middle of a preheated oven at 350°F for 45 minutes or until the tater tots are browned and crisp.
- Serve while still warm.
Many years ago, I worked at a hospital named (I’m not making this up) Confederate Memorial Hospital. It was a teaching hospital, so there were many young nursing students and resident physicians. Nearly all of the patients were poor and uninsured. With all those mouths to feed, it is not surprising that the food was particularly uninspired. As you might suspect, the menu included a lot of fried okra, corn bread, greens cooked into oblivion, and grits. Even at that, everyone dreaded the weekend beginning on Friday night and extending into Monday morning. The kitchen staff was all off, except for a skeleton crew. Disposable cardboard trays were used, and the plates and utensils all were changed to plastic so that staff on the wards could clean up by dumping everything in huge trash barrels.
The entrée at Friday dinner, even for patients on special diets, was almost always fried baloney cups. Now, fried baloney cups are a common Southern delicacy, but they usually are filled with creamed chicken or vegetables. That was not the case at the hospital. The baloney cup came on the middle of a plastic plate with nothing else. It rolled around on the plate, so that for a sick, bed-ridden patient it was difficult to spear with a flimsy knife and fork that often broke in two.
Bologna lunch meat can be transformed by frying, especially when it is cooked with the cellophane rind still intact. The slice of meat puffs up in the middle on the hot skillet and the rind shrinks a bit so that you wind up with a cup-shaped vessel just begging for filling. Of course, any cook worried about finesse will remove the cellophane rind before serving. The interesting thing is that frying enhances the flavor of the bologna.
Well-made bologna is much maligned because of confusion with the super market version that I will call baloney. Along with its close relative, mortadella, the real thing can be quite delicate and delicious. The stuff called baloney is what you want to use for this dish. These days, you will have to look around a bit to find baloney with the cellophane rind intact, but even without that, a thick slice of the sausage will puff up in the middle so that you can stuff it.
This version incorporates some other standbys of Southern cooking: tater tot potatoes, American cheese, fried eggs, and mustard greens. It is clear that the dish will not help your cholesterol level, but hopefully it will bring back memories for those of us who spent some of our lives in the South.
Thick-sliced baloney with the red cellophane rinds still intact
Chopped mustard greens cooking with oil, vinegar, and Louisiana hot sauce
Making the baloney cup
Ready to serve
Better tasting than it sounds
Tater-Tot-Stuffed Fried Baloney Cups
- vegetable oil for frying
- 2 bunches mustard greens
- 2 tablespoons vinegar
- 1 tablespoon Louisiana hot sauce (or to taste)
- 8 thick slices bologna (baloney) with cellophane rind
- ½ yellow onion, chopped
- 12 tater tots
- 2 teaspoons Louisiana hot sauce (or to taste)
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ½ cup milk
- salt and pepper
- 4 slices American cheese
- 4 eggs
- Wash the mustard greens, remove large ribs, and chop coarsely. Place the chopped greens in a medium non-reactive covered pot over low temperature with a tablespoon or so of cooking oil and the vinegar. Cook until wilted. Adjust the seasoning with Louisiana hot sauce, salt and pepper. Drain, and arrange as “nests” in the middle of 4 serving plates.
- In a medium frying pan over medium high heat, fry 4 of the slices of baloney, rind on, until lightly browned. Transfer from the frying pan, remove the rind, and arrange on top of the mustard greens.
- In the same frying pan, heat another tablespoon of oil. Add the chopped onions and stir until lightly browned.
- Remove the rind from the remaining 4 slices of bologna, chop coarsely, and add to the frying pan. Stir until lightly browned. Then stir in the tater tots, breaking them apart with a fork or wooden spoon. Stir in the hot sauce and flour. Cook for a few minutes until the flour is incorporated to remove any raw taste. Add the milk, bring to the simmer, and stir until the mixture is thickened. It should not be soupy, but just moist enough to hold its shape.
- Fill the baloney cups with the mixture. Top each with a slice of American cheese. Run under a hot broiler until the cheese melts.
- In the meantime, fry the 4 eggs. Top the melted cheese with the fried eggs. Serve.
We recently had a wonderful family gathering with our children (their spouses didn’t attend) and some of our grandchildren. My wife’s family has had a beautiful farm in East Texas for over fifty years. Our children had spent many times during their growing-up years there, enjoying swimming, fishing, hiking. horse riding, and just generally having a good time. Now, because we all lived so far away and because travel to the fairly remote place was difficult and expensive, we decided to sell the farm. After we had accepted an offer on the farm, we needed to make one last visit to load up personal items and to enjoy the place for one last time.
It turned into a great family gathering when all of the kids found a few days to spare in their busy schedules. For nearly a week, people came and went, fished and hiked, laughed, sat in front of a camp fire, and ate some good food.
The woods run deep
Looking for grasshoppers
The littlest fisherman
Catching fish bait at Big Pond
A tiny frog from the Big Pond
What a whopper!
Tombstone in the Back 80
Saying good-bye to Gus-Gus the Gum Tree
Our family has been lucky to have excellent cooks in many generations, so one of the best memories for all of us is the good food we have enjoyed on the farm: festive Thanksgiving dinners, fried catfish, fresh vegetables from the once-one-acre garden, and wild blackberries from the surrounding fields and woods. One meal that we all remember was a huge buffet that ladies of the church had prepared for a family gathering many years ago at a time of family sadness. The spread was lovingly prepared, but the most noteworthy dish was made by one of my late mother-in-law’s closest friends. I call it East Texas Casserole, but if you look for the recipe on the internet, you will find it called Redneck Casserole. I have changed the name because I would never call any of the gracious ladies of the church society rednecks. The dish is easy to prepare – one of those open the can and dump creations – and it gets uniformly good reviews on the web. You can prepare it in 30 minutes or so.
Most internet recipes call for grated Cheddar cheese, but to me that is not really authentic. For the real thing you will need to use Velveeta cheese food. I grew up on the stuff, and so did most other kids of that era, including my wife. The product has an interesting history which you can read about in great detail in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink edited by Andrew F. Smith (Oxford University Press, New York, 2007)
Bush’s barbecued beans
One pound of hot dogs
Eight ounces of Velveeta
Onions translucent but not browned
Hot dogs cut into half-inch slices
Onions, baked beans, and hot dog slices combined in the cast iron skillet
Arrange the frozen tateer tots on top of the onion, bean, and hot dog mixture
Sprinkle the grated Velveeta on top of the baked casserole and return to the oven
East Texas casserole ready to serve
The short story is that two American cheese companies were looking for ways to prevent cheese from spoiling so rapidly and to store it at room temperature. A process was patented by Joseph L. Kraft in 1916. Tinned cheese was distributed to the troops in World War I (Remember Spam in World War II?) Eventually the two cheese companies agreed to share the patent and Velveeta made its brand-name appearance in 1928. Velveeta must contain at least 51% cheese (that’s why it is called cheese food) and will keep almost for eternity on a shelf at room temperature. These amazing properties are due to sodium citrate and, later, sodium phosphate among other preservatives. Subsequently Kraft brought out boxed macaroni and cheese in 1937, using a dehydrated version of Velveeta. Millions of boxes are sold each day, and it is discouraging to many mothers when their offspring prefer Kraft’s macaroni and cheese dinner to their carefully made from-scratch version.
EAST TEXAS CASSEROLE
Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Heat a 2 quart cast iron skillet over medium heat.Add the diced onions and oil, stirring until the onions are translucent, but not browned, about 55 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- Stir in the canned beans and hot dog slices.
- Arrange the frozen tater tots on top of the mixture.
- Bake on the middle rack of the preheated oven until the tater tots are golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes.
- Remove the skillet from the oven, sprinkle the top with the grated Velveeta, and return to the oven for about 5 minutes. Then turn the heat off in the oven and continue to bake for a few minutes until the Velveeta is well melted. Serve immediately.