When is the last time you hosted a dinner party? You know: food and drink, conversation and good times. At home. No restaurants.
Yes, the roadblocks add up: It’s too time-consuming, or intimidating or expensive. The weather isn’t cooperating. The house is a mess. The prospect of dealing with the details is just too much. But it doesn’t have to be.
Let’s counteract winter’s isolating forces, and make a pact. Sometime, over the next few weeks, let’s cook and eat, and enjoy one another’s company. Nothing fancy, just friends or family, neighbors or newcomers, gathered around the table for an uncomplicated and delicious meal.
To help make it happen, let’s keep it simple, OK? Extend a few invitations, then follow our easy-to-prepare guide for this quintessentially Minnesotan meal.
The menu’s centerpiece is a hot dish. That’s because Minnesota’s humblest culinary export is extra-hot right now, thanks to its potluck voter-outreach role in Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s recently ended presidential bid.
Not only was Taconite Tater Tot Hot Dish (a savory blend of ground beef, cream of mushroom soup, cream of chicken soup, pepper Jack cheese and Tater Tots) making the rounds on the campaign trail, but this Klobuchar-Bessler family favorite was chronicled in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, and on the airwaves of National Public Radio.
The notion of serving hot dish to company feels slightly counterintuitive to Amy Thielen, author of “The New Midwestern Table.” Which in itself is vaguely counterintuitive, since Thielen’s bestselling title includes a chicken and wild-rice hot dish recipe that went viral when the cookbook was published in 2013. She’s fine with the contradiction.
“So many people have told me that they make my chicken and wild-rice hot dish for guests, and being from northern Minnesota, it’s just not something I think of as dinner-party fare,” she said.
“But if you didn’t grow up in the land of scoop dinners, as I did, it’s just sufficiently oddball enough to qualify for company.”
Agreed, especially when the result — which is free of the requisite Tater Tots and Campbell’s soup — is this appealing.
We’re serving it with a light-and-bright winter citrus salad that takes full advantage of the colorful oranges currently flooding supermarket produce sections. The recipe is a favorite from “The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking From Italy’s Farmhouse Kitchens,” a gem from Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the founding voice of public radio’s Minnesota-made “The Splendid Table.”
Dessert? Church basement bars, naturally, from whiz Minneapolis baker Sarah Kieffer. She’s the author of “The Vanilla Bean Project” cookbook and the force behind the must-follow “The Vanilla Bean Blog: A Baker’s Soliloquy.” These buttery blondies-with-a-twist are so easy to prepare that they come together with a bowl and spoon; no electric mixer required.
Other contributions include a selection of Minnesota-made cheeses — curated by a local cheesemonger, of course — and a shortlist of pairing suggestions from Twin Cities wine and beer sellers.
Make a shopping list, run the vacuum cleaner, set the table, light a few unscented candles and you’re halfway there.
At first glance, the hot dish recipe repertoire, which is designed to get dinner on the table, pronto, and generally relies upon all kinds of supermarket shortcuts, might not be considered inspired dinner-party fare.
But Thielen upends that sense of doubt. Her impressive version skips the genre’s gluey, sodium-soaked canned condensed soups (aka “the Lutheran binder”) in favor of an easy-to-compose cream sauce fortified with leeks and celery.
Still, the formula doesn’t entirely ignore the hot dish tradition of store-bought components (precooked chicken and dolled-up Ritz crackers, for instance), and many of the steps can be prepared far in advance of serving. A vegetarian version can be produced by subbing roasted mushrooms for chicken.
In the timing-is-everything department, Thielen’s next book, coming in fall 2021, is all about dinner parties. Her research is making her fluent on the subject.
She noted that of the 200-plus recipes in “The New Midwestern Table,” the hot dish — along with her versions of onion dip and a cracker crust pizza — are the ones that people make the most often.
“That makes sense, as they’re fancy versions of everyone’s childhood memory food,” said Thielen. “The hot dish stands out, because people outside of the Upper Midwest really don’t know what it is. The name is so odd. It says nothing about the ingredients, just that they’re hot and served in a 9- by 13-baking dish — almost as if the food itself doesn’t matter.”
Thielen’s deliciously satisfying recipe subverts that notion. Which makes it the perfect centerpiece for a relaxed dinner gathering.
“I think that the power of hot dish comes via its delivery system,” she said. “You never need a knife, or to cut something with the side of your fork. It’s just a repetitive scooping motion, digging and returning, over and over.
“Sitting at a table of people eating hot dish, you can hear the percussion of it. Hot dish is a soothing thing to eat solo, but in a group is profoundly comforting.”