A New Spin on Minnesotan Soul-Food

My profile says that I'm a proud Minnesotan by birth. And, except for a brief 6-year stint of living in New England between the ages of 2-8, I grew up there as well. I lived in the same town until I went to college...which was 1 town away and still definitely in Minnesota. (Purely coincidence that the college was so close to home, though.) Suffice it to say that Minnesota runs through my veins. And I grew up on hot dish. That's pretty much what dinner was about 6 nights out of the week. Hot dish is my soul food. That comfy meal that I have on a blue day to cheer me up. Some of my favorites from childhood include Cream Tuna on Rice, my family's Macaroni & Cheese recipe, Tater Tot Hot Dish, and Hamburger Hot Dish (of which there are multiple versions).

You're now asking me (unless you're actually Minnesotan yourself), Um, what is "hot dish?" The official translation for "hot dish" from Minnesotan English to Other-49-States-English is "casserole."

The definition that you'll find in any Minnesotan English Dictionary (if one actually existed...) is:
Hot Dish n. A meal comprised of 4 elements: a meat, a vegetable, a grain, and a sauce. Some hot dishes also include an optional 5th element: a starch.

I would add to that definition (5th element: a ton of fat. Perhaps you see where this is going... Yeah, since I started this diet, I've been unable to eat any of the hot dishes I grew up on. Nor could I use any of the new ones I've discovered in my Minnesotan cookbooks over the years. (Yes, I own more than one - 3 to be exact.) The classic sauce for a hot dish is cream of mushroom soup. Cream of chicken soup comes in a close second. Ketchup or BBQ sauce an easy third. Check the No List - none of those are allowed. Cream soups are dairy based, and have you seen the amount of fat in one can of it? It was a sad day when I had to acknowledge the fact that hot dishes seemed off-limits while I was on this diet...

And then, one day, I discovered that butternut squash soup has the consistency one needs for the sauce element of a hot dish! My world suddenly became so much brighter! And I set about concocting my own version of a hot dish. And it makes me so happy - sticks to my bones the way a real hot dish should, and makes use of left-overs just as hot dishes were made to do! As the Guinness guys would say, "Brilliant!"

I made this last Thursday, after a few days of eating my butternut squash/carrot/leek soup. The pictured version is the result of the recipe I've posted below, but I've added some alternatives to the recipe at the end - since the whole idea of a hot dish is, of course, to be versatile and to use up food that will go bad. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Chicken & Butternut Soup Hot Dish
[Note that this recipe might actually take longer to make than the average Minnesotan would expect a hot dish to take, but it's worth it, believe me!]

Sauce: About half of the Butternut Squash Soup recipe found here (about 4-5 cups?) - or really, use whatever butternut squash soup you want to use (Whole Foods has a great boxed version that doesn't use pepper in the creation)
Meat: 1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into small chunks
Veggie: 3/4 cup corn, give or take depending on how much corn you like (I use frozen, but you could use fresh off the cob just as easily)
Starch: 2 medium-sized red potatoes, cubed
Grain: About 1.5-2 cups grains from "Grandma's Grains" recipe (not my grandma, though)
Approx. 1/2 cup water
Ground cinnamon, to taste (probably about 1/2 tsp)
Ground nutmeg, to taste (probably about 1/4 tsp)
Ground ginger, to taste (probably less than 1/4 tsp)
Pinch of salt

1. In a medium pan, bring enough water to boil to cover potatoes. Once boiling, add potatoes and lower to medium heat. Cook until potatoes are soft enough to stick a fork through, but not mushy. Remove from heat, drain water and set aside.

2. Put corn in a small pan and add enough water to slightly cover bottom of pan (not enough to cover corn). Cover and simmer over very low heat until corn has steamed and water has evaporated. Usually about 6-7 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

2. Put butternut squash soup in large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in water to desired consistency. (Honestly, the amount above is pure guesswork - this depends more on the consistency of the soup you're using and how runny you want your sauce to be). Add cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. (Again, the amounts listed above are guesses, which is why I say "to taste.") Heat until soup begins to foam on top and is hot to the touch (the old "pinky finger test"), but not boiling.

3. While soup is cooking, sear chicken pieces on a skillet over medium-high heat, stirring and flipping continuously. Cook until middle of thickest chunks are no longer pink. Remove from heat and set aside.

4. Once soup is hot, add a pinch of salt. Taste soup, and add more spices if needed. Stir in grain mixture (should be precooked, don't add the grains uncooked!) and heat for about 2-3 minutes. Add potatoes, corn, and chicken. Reduce to low heat, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes, allowing flavors to meld together and all elements to heat equally.

To round out the meal, serve with whole grain bread and steamed green beans and a side of Waldorf Chicken Salad found here, minus the chicken chunks.

An alternative to this recipe: instead of using the grain mixture, use about 1-1.5 cups of whole grain rotini. Cook to not quite done (pre-al dente?), since simmering in the soup will cook the pasta the rest of the way through.

I've also considering trying peas instead of corn, to give some different colors to this hot dish.

I think, for a vegetarian, one could certainly use tofu here, or just skip the meat part (although a little part of me cringes to say that, because that essentially undoes the whole idea of a hot dish...)

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