Minnesota hot dish nostalgia provides some comfort

  • My friend sent me a photo of the cover of her Midwest hot dish cookbook -- called "Hot Dish Heaven."

    My friend sent me a photo of the cover of her Midwest hot dish cookbook -- called "Hot Dish Heaven." Susan Anderson-Khleif

Updated 9/19/2021 7:34 AM

Many know I like to cook, and experiment. And I think when bereaved it is especially good to indulge in a little nostalgia. An old recipe "comfort food" is not necessarily bad for you or fattening. "All in moderation" was the Minnesota way of thinking when I lived there.

Well, recently I made a Minnesota experiment -- an old-style Minnesota "hot dish." I found some cooked ground beef in my freezer. Time to use it. I had cooked it to be ready to make some Nazareth Hashweh -- made with cooked ground lamb or beef, rice, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, salt and browned pine nuts. But I got the idea in my head to make an old-style Minnesota hot dish instead, because I had a lot of my homegrown tomatoes on hand. So I set out to make the hot dish.


First I chopped up a lot of tomatoes and made a chunky cooked tomato mixture with a spice mix called herbes de Provence. In Minnesota, I'm sure it was just salt and pepper, and maybe chopped onions for seasoning. We did not know about herbes de Provence up there when I was growing up.

Then I cooked the spiral pasta, which should have been elbow macaroni, the main pasta used in Minnesota when I was a kid, but spiral is what I had on hand. Then I added the cooked pasta and the cooked ground beef to the tomatoes. Tasted it. (Must always taste what we are cooking.) It was very good.

So I put it in a baking dish and sprinkled it with bread crumbs stirred with a little melted butter. I set is aside for a bit and later put it in the oven to warm up and brown the top.

Oops! It was much better before the oven! The oven overcooked the pasta. Lesson learned. Should have added pasta undercooked or even uncooked before the oven. At least I ate a small bowl before I ruined it.

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Then I remembered. Mom made it only once in a while, but always in a skillet and not in the oven. She served it directly from the stove top. No oven next time. The only other pasta dish Mom ever made was spaghetti, and only once a year on my brother Nic's birthday at his request.

It was a meat, potatoes, salad, veg-type cuisine up there in northern Minnesota.

I told some friends about what I'd made and got such fun responses. My friend sent me a photo of the cover of her Midwest hot dish cookbook -- called "Hot Dish Heaven."

And I got several other emails from friends here in Illinois and a couple friends who grew up in the Midwest -- each with a recipe or description of their favorite hot dish. Many I must try. Not just nostalgic but tasty, too!

So the point is: The famous hot dish is not limited to Minnesota but is definitely a Midwest cooking tradition. And people remember them from childhood and cook them for their own families, wherever they live now.

And there are endless variations, usually some combination of meat, chicken, cheese, pasta, eggs, rice, tomatoes, onions and/or green peppers, seasoned with salt and pepper. I guess the moderation idea is also Midwestern, not just Minnesota. Wild rice hot dish is a Minnesota specialty because it grows in Minnesota. I just ordered a pound of wild rice. So it's next on the list!

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at sakhleif@comcast.net or see her blog longtermgrief.tumblr.com. See previous columns at www.dailyherald.com/topics/Anderson-Kleif-Susan.

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