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Celebrating National Potato Day

In case you forgot–or never knew to begin with–today is National Potato Day, giving us the kind of excuse we love to eat a lot of spuds. But along with the celebration, we should get a little education so here are some interesting facts about potatoes.

According to a survey conducted by National Today an internet site covering all the National Days in the U.S.–and there are a lot of them including National Tooth Fairy Day that’s coming up this August 22, our spud preferences are:

  • 22% of the 1000 people surveyed said curly fries are their favorite type of French fry.
  • Nearly half (46%) of all people surveyed picked Lay’s as their go-to bag of potato chips. As an aside, I totally agree having unfortunately stopped by my daughter’s house where she had–and the operative word is “had”–a bag of Lay’s Classic and a carton of French Onion dip. 
  • Slightly more than one-in-three (34%) people surveyed, chose McDonald’s as their favorite fast food restaurant when it comes to fries. 
  • As for favorites, the number one is French fries followed by mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, hash browns and then Tater Tots (which has its own National Day on February 22).

All of this brings me to Dan Whalen who always has a bag of Tater Tots in his freezer and a propensity for writing about eclectic takes on food for his blog, “The Food in My Beard: Comfort Food, Twists & Mash-Ups,” so his publisher thought he’d be a natural to pen a cookbook on, you guessed it, tots.

 “Americans love tots –those little balls of heavenly potato magic,” says Whalen in his typical enthusiastic way, noting that tots can now be found on restaurant menus. But the stats back him up. Americans consume approximately 70 million pounds of tater tots per year.

Though I’m not sure how many restaurants are devoting menu space to tots I have seen them occasionally. But Whalen, whose articles can be found in serious food magazines like Saveur, Bon Appétit, Serious Eats and Fine Cooking as well as MSNBC, and Huffington Post, has come up with some intriguing recipes, the kind you wouldn’t be ashamed of serving to guests in TOTS! 50 Tot-ally Awesome Recipes from Totchos to Sweet Po-tot-o Pie (Workman 2018; $12.95).

            “I grew up eating them,” Whalen tells me when we chat on the phone. “But I wasn’t as huge of a fan as I am now. Growing up it was a lazy food, but they’ve transformed, become more modern and more interesting once chefs started doing more interesting things with them.”

            Whalen has some techniques for making sure your tots are at their best.

            “When cooking, turn the oven off after its preheated and they’re in the oven,” he says. “That way they’re soft and tender in the over, otherwise they turn into crunchies. Or you can pan fry them, it takes them to the next level.”

            He also shares some tot history.

            “What’s really cool is how Ore-Ida invented tots,” he says. “They were making French fries and were trying to figure out what to do with the leftover potato pieces besides feeding them to farm animals.”

            There were mistakes along the way in creating his recipes including a meatloaf coated in a tot crust.

“It didn’t really come together for me after trying four or five times,” he says, “there was too much fat dripping out of the meatloaf and the tot crust was fragile and fell apart while I cut it.”

Despite this disappointment, he persevered and remained a big fan of tots.

“I have been continually inspired by tots though since writing the book,” says Whalen, “and have posted over 15 new tot ideas on my site since I finished the book.”

The following recipes are from his book. None of them, you should be warned, are low in calories. But you probably know that already.

The following recipes are courtesy of Dan Whalen.

Bacon Wrapped Tots

24 frozen tots

12 bacon strips

Dipping sauce(s) of your choice, for serving

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Set a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet.

Cut the bacon strips in half crosswise. Wrap a piece of bacon around each tot and place each, seam-side down, on the rack.

Bake until the tots are browned and the bacon is cooked through and crispy, about 25 minutes. (The cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of the bacon, so keep your eyes on them!)

Transfer the tots to a platter, skewer each with a toothpick, and serve immediately with the dipping sauce.

Chipotle Mayo

Yields about 1 cup

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup sour cream

2 teaspoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried oregano)

1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, plus 1 tablespoon adobo sauce from the can

Combine all of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until smooth.

Chipotle mayo will keep, in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to 3 days.

Cheese Sauce

Yields 1 1/2 cups

1 cup whole milk

1 cup nonfat dry milk powder

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 block (8 ounces) cheddar cheese, freshly shredded (see footnote)

1 teaspoon hot sauce

1/4 cup diced pickled jalapeños

2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

Combine the milk, milk powder, and cornstarch in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly. Continue to cook, whisking, until the sauce thickens, and the milk powder has dissolved, about 1 minute.

Remove from the heat and whisk in the cheese. The cheese should melt, no problem, but if it doesn’t, return the pot to low heat and whisk until it does. (Be careful with the heat at this point because the sauce could separate if heated too rapidly.)

Allow the cheese sauce to cool slightly, then stir in the hot sauce, jalapeños, and red pepper flakes. Serve warm.

Note: Preshredded cheese will not work in this recipe.

Totchos

Serves: 4

For the pico de gallo:

3 vine-ripened tomatoes, diced

1 small onion, diced

5 jalapeños, stemmed, seeded if you wish to reduce the heat, and diced

1 small garlic clove, minced or grated

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Juice of 1 lime

Kosher salt

For the guacamole:

1 large avocado, halved and pitted

2 Tablespoons pico de gallo

Juice of 1 lime

Kosher salt

For the totchos:

1/4 cup vegetable or peanut oil

1 1/2 pounds frozen tots (about 65 tots)

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) shredded Cheddar cheese

1/4 cup pickled sliced jalapeños

1/2 cup sour cream

Make the pico de gallo: Combine the tomatoes, onion, diced jalapeños, garlic, and cilantro in a small bowl. Add the lime juice and the salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate the pico de gallo until ready to use (up to 3 days).

Make the guacamole: Scoop the avocado into a medium-size bowl and mash with a fork. Add 2 tablespoons of the pico, along with the lime juice. Stir and add salt to taste. Cover with plastic wrap touching the surface of the guacamole and refrigerate until ready to use (up to 1 day).

Make the totchos: Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a plate with paper towels.

Heat the oil in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and swirl to coat. Add the tots to the skillet in batches of about 20, so as not to crowd the pan, and cook, undisturbed, until browned on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Gently stir and toss the tots, being careful not to break them, until they are browned on all sides and crispy, about 10 minutes. Transfer the cooked tots to the prepared plate and repeat with the remaining tots.

When the final batch of tots is just about browned, pile the rest of the cooked tots back into the skillet. Top evenly with the cheese and pickled jalapeños and transfer the skillet to the oven. Bake until the cheese is melted, about 10 minutes.

Remove the skillet from the oven and top the totchos with the pico, guac, and sour cream. Serve immediately right in the skillet with a big serving spoon and plates and forks for everyone to dig in. Remember that the skillet is hot!

Variation:

To scale this recipe up for a crowd, double the pico de gallo and guacamole. Use 4 pounds of tots and divide them between 2 sheet pans (18″ x 13″). Double the cheese, pickled jalapeños, and sour cream. Follow the assembly and cooking instructions above, then dump one of the trays onto the other to form a pile.

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