Tator Tot [sic] Specialty Casserole is a throwback to a different time, made from ground beef and a bunch of pantry and freezer items. This dish is one of two “Tator Tot” recipes from the 1988 recipe collection Thank Heaven for Home Made Cooks, compiled by St. Casimir Catholic Church in Krakow, Wisconsin. Both are built on the same framework: ground beef, canned cream soup, all poured over a bed of frozen tater tots and thrown in the oven. As the name implies, Tator Tot Specialty Casserole is the fancier of the two, adding vegetables and seasonings to the usual pantry and freezer ingredients. Weirdly, both recipes use the spelling “Tator Tot” rather than “Tater Tot”. Given that the word is short for “potato” I suppose that spelling it “tator” isn’t all that crazy. But it’s wrong. “Tater Tot”- with an “e” – is a trademark of the Ore-Ida company, and spelled the way it’s spelled.
When I was a kid I would have killed to have this sort of thing for dinner, but the creamy casserole wasn’t in my mother’s repertoire. I only got stuff like this when I ate over at friends’ houses, and I always imagined other families eating stuff like this every night. When dining at home we ate very little meat, and I learned to overcompensate for protein consumption when dining out. Thirty-odd years later I still find protein-forward dishes like this oddly appealing.
Recipe preparation is straightforward. That’s kind of the whole point of a meal like this. Hamburger is browned with onion, mushrooms, and mixed with canned soup and corn. The whole mixture is spread over frozen tater tots and baked for an hour. Aside from chopping onions and browning the meat and vegetables there’s very little prep work required. And the results are, um, as expected. My children, who are very patient with my vintage recipe fetish, decided that this “wasn’t actually all that bad”. The carb-and-protein goodness was the perfect fuel for my adult son, who plowed through multiple helpings and polished off the leftovers. No one was fooled into thinking that this was haute cuisine, but everyone was well fed.
There’s not enough vegetable matter in Tator Tot Specialty Casserole for me to feel good about serving it as a standalone meal. I ended up serving it with sliced tomatoes, which lent a deconstructed hamburger vibe to the whole meal. A green vegetable or salad would also be suitable alternatives, but skip the bread. There are plenty of carbs here to go around already. Enjoy!
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease a 13x9 casserole dish.
- Fry ground beef in a hot pan until mostly browned, breaking up into small pieces. Drain excess oil, leaving a few tablespoons behind.
- Stir in chopped onions and cook for 4-5 minutes until onions are translucent and starting to sweat their liquid. Then stir in mushrooms and continue cooking 4-5 minutes more, stirring occasionally.
- Stir in all remaining ingredients, except for tater tots. Remove from heat.
- Pour tater tots into the casserole dish in a single layer. Pour remaining ingredients over top.
- Cover and bake 1 hour. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.