Order the turkey; make sure it’s organic, local and free-range. Find a new stuffing recipe that incorporates organic and local wild rice. Stop by the farmers’ market to pick up some local, organic squash. Find out where to get an organic, local pie. Develop a vegan side-dish option for your son’s new girlfriend. Is it local? Is it organic?
Is this refrain in your head? If so, are you dizzy yet? This time of year, everything food-related gets complicated. We need nourishing comfort without the fuss. How about a nice casserole—made by someone else?
“Casserole” is a French word that refers to the dish it is cooked in; sometimes it’s called a bake, a ragout, a tagine, cassoulet or goulash. We in Minnesota call it “hot dish,” a source of amusement for our less fortunate friends who must live elsewhere. There is no shame in hot dish; it is our badge of honor, our culinary heritage. And it’s pretty tasty too. Take a break from the holiday extravagance and soothe your tummy with a simple plate of hot dish. There are many of them in the area that will do the trick—here are some of the best.
SAINT RONAN’S SCALLOPS WITH DUCHESSE POTATO CRUST
Jake O’Connor’s Public House
St. Ronan in the sixth century was one of those holy loner types; apparently the hermit took off for Brittany to live an ascetic life. Ascetic is not what comes to mind when digging into his namesake dish at Jake O’Connor’s, but “heavenly” definitely applies. This rich delight rounds up four monster sea scallops, pan-fried with herbs, mushrooms and scallions. It’s brightened by a drop of fresh lemon juice, then splashed with a shower of fruity white wine. Enter the duchesse potatoes. What can we say? They’re whipped, silky with crazy-good Irish butter and piped on in a thick (and pretty) layer. The whole dish is baked golden-brown and requires exactly nothing else. At O’Connor’s, you can hunker down in a dark “snug” (a booth), and mull over exactly nothing else. $24.75 200 Water St.; Excelsior; 952.908.9650.
WILD RICE CHICKEN CASSEROLE
It may be called “casserole” on the menu, but we Minnesotans aren’t fooled: This is another classic hot dish, if a bit more sophisticated than the tried-and-true Tater Tot and hamburger number. Call it a bounty of tender-chewy Minnesota wild rice; it’s studded with fresh mushrooms and strips of tender grilled chicken. Parmesan cheese, sweet cream and a sprinkle of breadcrumbs add richness, depth and bold flavor. And give yourself a pat on the back, as the wild rice is definitely local and probably organic. $13.99 2795 Hedberg Dr.; Hopkins; 952.546.6595.
TATER TOT HOTDISH
Scoreboard Bar & Grill
This eatery offers straightforward American food—think burgers, chicken wings and walleye dinner—and serves it to the young, old and in-between. It’s a classic after-work, happy hour, watching-the-game, hair-of-the-dog type place. While it’s perhaps not a special-occasion destination, Scoreboard is something even more valuable: a faithful standard that you can count on for tasty sustenance. Scoreboard rocks a monster of a salad bar—the biggest we’ve ever seen—which includes a nightly “hot item.” On Tuesdays, the hot item is Tater Tot hot dish, which is the archetypal hot dish for many a Minnesotan. A solid paving of golden potato pillows protect the seasoned ground beef and gravy inside. The whole shebang is cloaked in a mild melted yellow cheese, which is flipping awesome. There is a mere hint of vegetal matter (don’t worry, just a hint), and it’s rib-sticking and salty enough to warrant another beer. You might as well add a side salad, since it’s included in the price. The hot-squishy garlic breadsticks are also killer munchies. Kick back, watch some game or another on TV and banish thoughts of anything local, free-range or organic. $9.95. 5765 Sanibel Dr.; Minnetonka; 952.935.6537.
TRUFFLED SHRIMP CASSEROLE
Birch’s Bar and Restaurant
You’ll have to suffer through some organic, local and possibly free-range fare here, but don’t worry. Birch’s is supremely mellow without a whisper of preachiness or pretention. Your server will most likely recommend the casserole when asked; it’s a showstopper of a recipe hiding behind the humble designation of “casserole.” Trenne pasta (a proprietary name) is similar to penne or ziti in shape but sports an elegant triangular flourish on either end. Hollow cylinders make terrific sauce-catchers, and you’ll want to catch every drop of this divine sauce. The dish itself is full of plump sautéed shrimp, sherried mushrooms, sweet peas and truffle cream. The triumphant finish is a garlic crumb crust—crunchy and buttery. You will swoon. $17. 1935 W. Wayzata Blvd.; Long Lake; 952.473.7373.
This dish has all the earmarks of a true hot dish: a family favorite, comforting, tasty and baked in a deep dish. So what if it happens to be called lasagna? Spasso is our go-to spot for great Italian food. The menu is always comforting and tantalizing, too. The vegetarian lasagna is not only meat-free, it’s also devoid of noodles (and you won’t miss them). Instead, thick slices of eggplant, summer squash, zucchini and tomato are layered with Italian mascarpone and fontina cheeses. Pesto hits important herbal key notes of basil and raw garlic. This lasagna just so happens to be gluten-free, a relief for the growing number of gluten-sensitive among us.
Don’t forget to take advantage of the neighboring spot, The Wine Shop. The vino prices are low, low, low—and it’s the best medicine for the holiday madness that is revving up for a massive takeover. $15. 17523 Minnetonka Blvd, Minnetonka; 952.224.9555.
Hazellewood Grille and Tap Room
This hot dish bears the moniker “jambalaya,” allegedly a Spaniard’s attempt to make paella in the strange new land of Louisiana. Don’t bother tracking down the origins of the name, as some say this, others say that and still others say something else. Luckily, the ingredients themselves are fairly consistent: dirty rice, andouille sausage and “trinity vegetables”—the near-holy combination of diced bell peppers, onion and celery that is also a cornerstone of Cajun and Louisiana Creole cuisine. Hazellewood includes scallops, shrimp and whitefish and pulls it all together with a moderately spiced Creole sauce that defies coherent description. We suggest that you turn off your inner critic and go with the flow of meat and heat in this wonder of a casserole. $20. 5635 Manitou Rd.; Tonka Bay, 952.401.0066.
BAKED FOUR-CHEESE PENNE
Jimmy’s Food and Cocktails
It’s so nice that it’s called baked four-cheese penne on the menu so that we can get away with ordering something gooey and comforting—basically, mac ’n’ cheese—without appearing to be stuck in elementary school. The four cheeses are surely grown up: Italian fontina, high-quality fresh mozzarella, parmesan and sharp white cheddar. No basic elbow pasta here: penne, which means “feather” in Italian, are deceptively slender tubes that amass copious amounts of the coveted creamy cheese sauce. Garlic can never be a bad thing; tossed with toasted, butter-rich crumbs, it adds a welcome hit of crunch and flavor. No, this is not your childhood neon-orange mac; this casserole is as sophisticated as any and an unmitigated pleasure on the palate. $14.95; add Chicken 16.95; add shrimp 18.95. 11000 Red Circle Drive; Minnetonka; 952.224.5858.