COWBOY CASSEROLE

Cowboy Casserole, also known as a tater tot hot dish, can be baked in the oven in a cast iron skillet or transferred to a traditional casserole dish. While on the campaign trail in 2020, Sen. Amy Klobuchar served her version of the hot dish, seen here, during "Hot Dish House Parties."

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time driving Route 2 and Interstate 495 North — most of it stuck in a slowly creeping parking lot that spans four lanes of commuter traffic between Lowell and Haverhill. One time, I found myself stalled in the middle of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle group from Ohio. By the time the traffic started moving again, I had been made an honorary member.

Stalled traffic, missed exits, GPS screw-ups or whatever else has happened — did I mention spilling a huge cup of Diet Pepsi in my lap? — has been worth it. At the end of the ride, my new love awaits me, all giggles, coos and, more often than not, a dribble of spit-up, slightly curdled, baby formula for my shoulder. Yes, there’s a new Guy in my life, my three-month-old grandson, Guy Matthew.

And, of course, being a mom and grandma, I come bearing gifts — diapers for Guy and food for his parents. I usually bring a meatloaf, some kind of cookies or bars and whatever dish from his childhood my son craves. With the holidays approaching, I’ll be bringing some French Canadian meat pies on the next trip.

This time, I'm bringing jumbo cookies loaded with peanut butter M&Ms and a Cowboy Casserole that I froze for them to reheat for supper some night. I’ve tried many versions of the casserole, a shepherd’s pie-type dish that uses tater tots as a top crust. The tater tots bake up nice and crispy and the sauce is nice and creamy, with the tang of the cheddar cheese. I also sometimes add a chopped jalapeno pepper, because why not …?

COWBOY CASSEROLE

(Courtesy of The Pioneer Woman)

Yields: 6 servings

INGREDIENTS

4 strips of bacon (about 3 ounces)

1/2 yellow onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 pound ground sirloin

One 10.75-ounce can cream of mushroom soup

3/4 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, divided

3 cups baby spinach, roughly chopped

1 cup frozen corn

Nonstick spray

8 ounces shredded cheddar or Colby jack cheese

One 32-ounce bag of tater tots

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Chopped chives or scallions, for garnish

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the tater tots from the freezer to let them thaw slightly while you prepare the filling. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until golden brown and extra crispy, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove to a paper towel lined plate and leave the grease in the skillet.

Add the onion to the skillet and cook until slightly softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 more minute. Add the ground beef and break into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Cook the meat until no pink pieces remain, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat. Stir in the soup, milk, salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper and mix until smooth. Fold in the spinach to wilt slightly, then the corn.

Sprinkle the cheddar cheese evenly over the top of the casserole. Place the tater tots on top in a single layer, arranging them in concentric circles (or just toss them on and push them very close together.) Sprinkle the top with Parmesan cheese and the additional 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes until the tater tots are golden. Remove from the oven and crumble the reserved bacon over top. Let rest for 5 minutes. Top with chopped chives or scallions and serve.