A staple of elementary school lunch trays in the 1990s and Brooklyn dive bars in the early aughts, the Tater Tots brand of frozen potato nuggets sold by Ore-Ida has become successful enough since being introduced in the mid-1950s that, similar to Kleenex and Band-Aids, the name has become synonymous with the product.
That success was summed up quite succinctly by the product’s inventor, Francis Nephi Grigg: “The Tater Tot is the hero in the history of the saga of Ore-Ida Foods, Inc.,” Grigg wrote in as 1989 account of how the Tot came into existence.
The humble tot is also the hero of a starchy side dish pitmaster Leonard Botello IV serves up at his Texas barbecue joint Truth BBQ. Alongside meaty mains like brisket and pulled pork, Botello has installed a tot-centric item on Truth’s menu that recalls a dish he remembers his grandmother making when he was a kid: tater tot casserole.
“My grandma on my mother’s side would make it for the holidays and stuff like that. We would have it for Christmas breakfast,” Botello tells InsideHook. “It always stuck with me because it’s real hearty and Southern. I wanted to do something at Truth that was similar or at least reminded me of that part of my childhood. My grandmother left a box of recipes, but that one was not in there. So, I basically had to just go off of what I remembered. It’s not the same, but it’s similar in a lot of ways.”
According to Botello, he’ll often use his memory as the foundation for creating a fresh take on an old dish.
“It’s kind of like a building process. That’s usually how I like to cook,” he says. “I’ll have something that reminds me of a dish and I’ll try to base the new dish off of flavor profiles that really, really stuck out to me. I’ll start out with stuff that I like and then just add or take things out.”
Made with cheddar cheese, bacon and sour cream, Botello’s casserole really came together with the addition of Cajun seasoning.
“Tater tot dishes can be good, but sometimes will be a little bland from all the starches in there,” Botello says. “It needed a little spice and a little salt. We kept adding salt and then it became too salty. I was looking for something that could amplify that flavor profile without being overly salty. That ended up being Cajun seasoning. We were trying to step outside of the box a bit with that.”
Now that his take on it is perfected, tater tot casserole remains a morning meal for Botello, as it was when he was a kid eating his grandma’s version of the dish.
“I like to eat it for brunch with an over-easy egg and hot sauce,” he says. “It’s really good like that. I’ve seen people put it in breakfast tacos, too. I don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of people eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
What will you eat it for? The recipe is below.
Leonard Botello IV‘s Truth Tater Tot Casserole
- 1/2 lb butter, melted
- 1 can cream of mushroom
- 6 cups shredded cheddar cheese
- 2 1/2 tsp Cajun seasoning
- 2 cups of sour cream
- 1 can of rotel
- 1 cup white onion, diced
- 1 cup bacon, diced, rendered
- 1 bag frozen tater tots
- Bake tater tots per directions and mix with all ingredients and four cups of cheese.
- Pour into a casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees until bubbly. (About 30-40 minutes).
- Top with remaining cheese and cook an additional 15 minutes, using the broiler for the last five minutes or so to get a nice browned top.
- Let cool slightly before serving in order to let the casserole set up a bit.
This article was featured in the InsideHook Texas newsletter. Sign up now for more from the Lone Star State.