Last week, The Atlantic published an article that set out to tell the rest of the country what we Iowans are really like, so everybody would know what kind of people will be setting the tone for the GOP nomination race at the first-in-the-nation caucus. The article does not put us in the most flattering light, and it did not go over well here, to say the least. I think it’s safe to say the author, Stephen Bloom (a University of Iowa professor who is currently visiting at the University of Michigan) will never be honored as grand marshal of the Iowa State Fair parade.
I read the article, of course, to see what everybody was so upset about, and my reaction was as follows: “Meh.” (Picture me shrugging my “hardy” Midwestern shoulders as you read that.) Sure, it’s full of generalizations. Sure, it sort of makes it look like all we do here is hunt, fish, praise the Lord, and cook meth. (I only do one or two of those things on an occasional basis, I’ll let you guess which ones. Hint: not the meth.) But I think most people who’ve spent any significant amount of time here know that Iowa can be a great place to live. And if the few that don’t see that want to persist in believing that we’re all a bunch of closed-minded country bumpkins, well….I guess I’m not particularly concerned.
I must comment further on the food-related portion of the article, though. Professor Bloom writes about food in Iowa: “Comfort food reigns supreme. Meatloaf and pork chops are king. Casseroles (canned tuna or Tatertots) and Jell-O molds (cottage cheese with canned pears or pineapple) are what to bring to wedding receptions and funerals.”
Well, I’ve never heard of people bringing food to a wedding, potluck-style, but funerals, absolutely. My mom used to get calls quite frequently, as a member of the St. Joseph’s Ladies’ Guild, to bring a “salad” to the parish center for a funeral dinner, and she usually made what we referred to as “cherry fluff.” Cherry fluff includes:
- 1 tub of Cool Whip
- 1 can crushed pineapple
- 1 can Eagle Brand milk
- 1 can cherry pie filling
Then you freeze it, and put it in a tupperware or glass dish that has your name on it, so nobody on the clean-up crew cabbages onto it after the funeral dinner. Mom also told me she would occasionally add “some sort of nutmeats” for texture. I told her the word “nutmeats” makes me uncomfortable.
And yes, Iowans do tend to enjoy tater-tot casserole. I hadn’t had it for years, because it’s usually a ground-beef-laden dish, but when I read the article I suddenly had a serious tot craving. So I made a few tweaks to the standard recipe–meatless “meat” and a homemade cheese sauce instead of canned cream-of-mushroom soup–and ended up with something traditional enough for a square dance down by the river in Keokuk, yet upscale enough to entertain insurance clients in Des Moines.
I’m not usually into fake meat products, because I don’t miss eating meat. But I wanted this casserole to have the texture of the real thing, so I used this stuff:
I don’t think I would want to eat it on its own, but it worked perfectly mixed with the veggies and sauce. The sauce starts with a roux (which is not hard, it just sounds hard because it’s French), and gets a little bit of a kick from some pepper jack cheese.
You should know that this casserole received an enthusiastic thumbs-up from my dad, barbecue master and staunch carnivore! I’m always very proud when I can achieve that with a veggie recipe. I’ll type out the particulars below, and then get back to cleaning my turkey-huntin’ rifle. Until next time, fair friends!
Vegetarian Tater-tot Casserole
- 1 16-oz. bag frozen mixed vegetables, defrosted
- 12 oz. meatless “ground beef”
- 4 oz. grated pepper jack cheese
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp flour
- 1 c. milk (I used 1%)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- about 1/4 tsp Kitchen Bouquet*
- about 1/2 of a 32-oz. bag frozen tater-tots
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9×13 baking dish. Prepare the “meat” as directed on the package–it may need to be browned for a few minutes in a skillet, or it may be fine to just crumble it up. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Then add the flour, and stir to combine. This is the “roux”–cook it for a minute or so, stirring constantly. Then add the milk and salt, and whisk until there are no lumps. Continue whisking (or stirring) until the mixture bubbles just slightly and thickens. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add about half of the grated cheese. Stir until the cheese is melted. In a large mixing bowl, combine the frozen veggies, the fake ground beef, and the cheese sauce. Pour this mixture into the baking dish and spread it into an even layer. Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese on top. Then line up the tots on top of the vegetable mixture, and bake for 30-35 minutes (until the whole casserole is bubbling and the tots are crispy).
*Kitchen Bouquet is a seasoning/browning sauce used to add flavor and color to gravies, sauces, etc. Totally optional.