Dave's Eggs
What Cheesemongers Eat When They Think No One's Looking
May 26, 2006

I heartily suggest that those with delicate food sensabilities turn away, because we are about to embark on a gastronomic journey that is not for the purists or faint of heart. It's also not for most Califorinans.

As many of you know I'm from Minnesota, and a few years ago I found a cheesemonger of similar background. McCheese is from North Dakota and over a morning's hearty cheesesling, the two of us would often swap stories of hot dishes, snow plows, and cars plugged into houses. Overhearing all of this, Head Cheese came to the conclusion that she was "a Minnesotan in another life." (She's from Modesto but because she's also the queen of bread puddings, we don't hold that against her.)

As Head Cheese continued to hear more tall tales about green bean casseroles, seven-layer salads, and sandwich loaves, she decided that we had to have a "Feeling Minnesota" party, at which we would eat all those foods that once sent me screaming and retching from the dinner table. We also agreed to watch a movie that sends people screaming and retching from the living room. I'd never seen Fargo and was more than happy to finally find a reason to sit down, grab a barf bag, and laugh along with the rest of the Coen brother-adoring public.

After culling some recipes from the Neighborhood Ladies back in Minnesota, I decided to make the Tater Tot Hot Dish as supplied by Glenda Scandinavian Last Name.

Tater Tot Hot Dish

1 1/2 lb. ground beef
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of celery soup
1-2 cans of French cut green beans
1 pkg. dry onion soup
Frozen Tater Tots

Brown ground beef. Place on bottom of 9 x 13 cake pan. Add onion soup and green beans. Cover with cream soups. Bake for 30 min. at 350 degrees. Cover with frozen Tater Tots and bake an additional 10-15 minutes or until Tater Tots are heated through.

Isn't that a beaut? I had that dish at block parties, potlucks, Brownie picnics, and especially when we first moved into the house on Ewing. That's the big thing in Minnesota: hot dish upon hot dish is brought to new neighbors until their kitchen looks like Flanders Fields except, instead of poppies, it's rows and rows of blue Corningware flowers.

I was in a sweat not to completely go Sandra Lee all over this dish, so I decided to make a few changes. For starters, because it is newly spring here, I went with half ground beef and half ground lamb from Prather Ranch. And since I was already making a stop at Prather Ranch, I thought about getting my green beans, not out of a can, but from the Farmer's Market. However, as I was gently rolling some nice fresh haricots verts between my fingers, I caught sight of Iacopi's beautiful baby artichokes went right off the bean idea.

I was thinking out loud to my mother about puréeing up my own cream of mushroom soup when she ventured, "Stephie, this doesn't sound like Minnesota any more." I relented and went to Albertsons where I spent a few tough minutes staring at the Campbell's Soup display. The idea of condensed soup makes me shudder all over my body, but I suppressed my gag reflex and grabbed the necessary cans of celery and mushroom. (I klassed it up by going with Roasted Garlic Cream of Mushroom instead of just plain Cream of Mushroom!)

Cheese and Crackers

Totally fearful that this dish was really going to be a disaster, I decided to fortify my offering with a few Minnesota necessities in the form of Ritz Crackers (oh, buttery, salty deliciousness!), a round of herby Boursin, a jar of marinated mushrooms (a Keckler Family Christmas is never complete without these juicy little suckers), and individually-wrapped Laughing Cow cheese wedges. I almost had a conniption when my eye next landed on Kaukauna Port Wine cheese. It's Genuine Wisconsin Spreadable Cheese! That looks disturbingly like rainbow sherbert!

Port Cheese Spread

My sisters and I used to eat tubs of this cheese product around the holidays. We were convinced that liking port-fortified cheese spread proved what truly sophisticated palates we had at ten and thirteen. Pair that cheese spread with a strawberry-wrapped candy and beef sticks from Hickory Farms and you might as well pass the Grey Poupon to us in the back of our luxury minivan.

Given that I have herbs and spices a-plenty at home, I did hold firm against using a dried soup seasoning packet as a complete waste of money and sodium intake. After softening a diced yellow onion in a high-sided sauteuse, I browned the beef and lamb and seasoned it with fennel, salt, black pepper, and dried Mexican oregano. The meat got all brown, beautiful, and leaked heady juices, so I knew it was time to add four finely-sliced scallions and let them gently cook off the burner. The baby artichokes were peeled, steamed, chopped, and distributed over the browned meat in the bottom of a Pyrex baking dish. Finally, I took a firm grip on myself and steeled my stomach for this next step.

Once the condensed soups were squelched out of their cans, I made valiant attempts to spatula them evenly across the meat. The unfortunate thing was, they were so globby and gluey that when I attempted to spread them, they just tended to pull up my carefully arranged meat and artichoke layers. This didn't bode well for my stomach. Nevertheless, I baked the hot dish (sans Tater Tots, for now) and when I pulled it out, the skin-on-milk look of the spatulaed soups was even creepier. Over at Head Cheese's apartment, I added the layer of frozen Tater Tots and finished off the dish, which by this time was bubbling and smelling quite wonderful.

Laura's Salad

McCheese's Midwestern offering was a Seven-Layer Salad constructed with Farmer's Market veggies (she didn't compromise on the lettuce, though, that was 100% Iceberg), sharp shavings of aged Mahón, and thick-cut bacon. However, in due deference to our arteries, she decided against a mayo-mixed-with-sugar dressing and instead got a bottle of Annie's Cowgirl Ranch dressing. Which we used liberally, of course.

McCheese's boyfriend brought Fargo, beer, and all the fixings for his deviled eggs. While he whipped up a batch of tangy, jalapeno-laced delicacies, we snacked on the "cheeses" and a can of fried onions. Cracking open a few cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, we realized this had become more of a Sandra Lee Party than a Feeling Minnesota sort of do. But it's okay, we ate everything ironically. And man, was it good. Even my condensed soup-laced hot dish was tasty enough to make me go back for seconds. Thirds. Fifths. My rule of thumb shall henceforth be: you can never go wrong smothering a dish in Tater Tots.

We finished off Fargo and our meal with Head Cheese's Baked French Toast Casserole with Maple Syrup (the real Log Cabin stuff, none of those pure and natural syrups to mess with our theme!) and I'll tell you what, that dessert and movie put me in a very chipper mood.

Speaking of outlandish accents, I'm going back to Minneapolis next week where I will be indulging in gastronomic trips down memory lane to Wagner's Drive-In, Leeann Chin, King and I, Town Talk Diner, Lake Superior (the actual lake, not a restaurant), Byerly's, and god knows what else.

Take care, ja?

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