The Brothers Grigg had just started a frozen food company to make, among other things, french fries. But what to do with the scraps of spud left behind? These potato pieces were too small for proper fries, but there were too many of them to be discarded. One day in 1953, F. Nephi Grigg came up with a delicious solution: He chopped up the potato scraps, shaped them into bite-size cylinders, then fried them golden and crunchy.
Thus were born Ore-Ida Tater Tots.
As the last almost 60 years have proved, Grigg’s little brainstorm — a plug of shredded potato 11/2 inches long, 7/8 inch in diameter — has been an enormous success. An estimated 3.5 billion Tater Tots are eaten by Americans every year, according to Max Wetzel, associate marketing director for Ore-Ida.
Tater Tots are so golden they have morphed from brand to cultural phenomenon. After all, what would the famed hot dish casserole of the northern Midwest be without that crowning layer of tots?
“It’s just a wonderful comfort food,” says Ann L. Burckhardt, author of “Hot Dish Heaven: Classic Casseroles from Midwest Kitchens.”
“It’s a tremendously handy potato item that people can use to put together a meal,” says the resident of Edina, Minn. “I keep a package in the freezer at all times because I never know when I’m going to want to do something with them.”
Tater Tots and its imitators long ago jumped from supermarket freezer cases to restaurant menus across North America. Many chefs make their own; home cooks can as well, thanks to recipes like Lara Ferroni’s “Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats without All the Junk” (Sasquatch, $19.95).
Ferroni, an Oregon-based food writer, doesn’t remember much junk food in the house as she was growing up in southern Georgia, but “there was always a bag of frozen Tater Tots in the freezer.” While Tater Tots bring back childhood memories for her, they also have a very adult connotation as well.
“I live in Portland now, and you’d be amazed at how many bars have Tater Tots,” she said.
Tots lend themselves to more refined dining applications too.
At HauteDish in Minneapolis, chef Landon Schoenefeld has a “Tater Tot HauteDish” on the menu. It’s a play not just on the wording but the innards of the dish itself.
“Tater Tot hot dish is an iconic Minnesota dish,” he said. “Typically it’s made with ground beef and green beans and canned cream of mushroom soup with Tater Tots on top.” Schoenefeld’s version is both more refined and deconstructed, resulting in a dish rooted in the familiar but presented in a new way, with braised short rib subbing for the ground beef, a porcini bechamel sauce in lieu of the canned mushroom soup and French haricots verts replacing green beans.
The kicker, he said, are the three tots crowning the plate. Each tot is “essentially a croquette,” Schoenefeld said, a cheesy mashed potato bite that is shaped by hand, fried to set the outer crust and then baked to melt the insides.
“Easily it is our most popular dish,” said the chef, who estimates he’s sold 20,000 plates in the two years HauteDish has been open. Today’s price? $24.
“People don’t blink an eye,” Schoenefeld said. “It reminds them of a dish they grew up on.”
Total time: 55 minutes
Makes: About 54 tots
Lara Ferroni, author of “Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats without All the Junk,” likes to grate a little sweet potato or yam into her tots. She also keeps the potato skin on to preserve more nutrients. Her recipe, adapted from Cooks Country magazine, calls for corn flour and ground millet flour; substitute whole-wheat flour if you prefer.
2 pounds russet potatoes (5-6 medium potatoes), cut into chunks
1 medium sweet potato or yam (1/4 pound), cut into chunks
2 cups cold water
21/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons each: corn flour, ground millet flour
Pinch cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
Safflower or peanut oil, for frying
1. Place the potatoes in a food processor. Pulse 5 or 6 times until coarsely ground.
2. Combine the cold water and 2 teaspoons salt in a large bowl. Add potatoes; stir to coat. Drain well through a fine sieve, pushing out as much water as you can.
3. Transfer the potatoes to a microwave-safe bowl; microwave, 4 minutes. Stir; microwave, 4 minutes. Stir in the corn flour, millet flour, cayenne and remaining ½ teaspoon salt.
4. Line a 9-inch square pan with parchment; pour in the potato mixture. Spread it evenly; cool to room temperature. Chill in the freezer until frozen, at least 20 minutes. Cut into 1- by 11/2-inch tots.
5. Heat at least 2 inches of oil in a deep saucepan or skillet to 370 degrees. Fry the tots in batches, being sure not to crowd the pan, until tots are golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the tots with a slotted spoon; place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Repeat with the remaining tots. Serve immediately.