Tater Tots tossed in Wagyu beef tallow. Scratch-made mushroom soup. Not a can to be found.
After years of tweaking his hot dish recipe, Andrew Nicholson is selling an elevated version of the Minnesota potluck classic, take-and-bake style. And he knows it's a gamble.
His burgeoning business, Minnesota Nice Tots, offers two kinds of hot dish — traditional and spicy — for pickup once a week from Nicholson's northeast Minneapolis home. The $25 tray can easily feed four.
"This is the dish I've made the most throughout my adult life," Nicholson said. "I've definitely been perfecting it over the years."
But does hot dish need perfecting? It's one of Minnesota's homegrown foods that rarely gets the gourmet treatment. It has a reputation for simplicity.
In "Prairie Home Cooking," author Judith Fertig describes it as "the sort of meal a harried mother or disinterested cook might throw together."
Nicholson wants to change that.
"Maybe this is a risky, bold move to do, because everyone's like, 'I can make a hot dish,' " Nicholson said. "But I'm not using Campbell's mushroom soup mix with it. It hits a little different when it's a homemade, from-scratch mushroom soup."
He mixes it with ground beef, a secret blend of seasonings, a variety of vegetables, a layer of cheddar cheese, and, of course, the tots, which have been kissed with wagyu beef fat. Baked at 350 degrees for an hour, with a few minutes under the broiler to crisp up those tots, the resulting casserole is rich, hearty and as comforting as one would expect.
For those who want to try something even more out of the box, order the version Nicholson calls "legit spicy — which might not seem like a Minnesota thing," he said. "But I feel like there's at least a little bit of a movement of people liking spicy food." Going forward, he'll add new flavors, including curry style, "black and bleu" and Tex-Mex.
As Minnesota Nice Tots experiments and grows, Nicholson has an advantage: a team of chefs at a high-end restaurant to guide him.
With 15 years of experience in the Twin Cities hospitality scene as a server, bartender and manager, this is Nicholson's first professional foray into the kitchen. He currently works as a server at Josefina in Wayzata, and uses its prep kitchen on his day off to make large batches of hot dish.
Having always been on the public-facing side of restaurants, there's a learning curve.
"The first time, I was making a large batch, and it was really kicking in. OK, this is a lot of work, working with a giant pan with 15 pounds of beef in there," he said. But his colleagues in the kitchen have been generously offering their knowledge as he toils away with his tots. "It's a work in progress."
Eventually, Nicholson would like to launch his own food truck or brick-and-mortar restaurant devoted to hot dish. But he'll try breweries, first. On Nov. 27, Minnesota Nice Tots is the featured food vendor for the Small Business Saturday Market at Modist Brewing.
Could Minnesotans finally be ready to get their hot dish from somewhere besides their own pantry?
"Yeah, I'm hoping for that," he said.
Minnesota Nice Tots (minnesotanicetots.com) will be at Small Business Saturday Market, Nov. 27 from 2-7 p.m. at Modist Brewing (505 N. 3rd St., Mpls., modistbrewing.com). Order take-and-bake hot dish at exploretock.com/minnesotanicetots for pickup on Saturdays from 2-4 p.m. in northeast Minneapolis.