It’s the side dish of my childhood, what school cafeterias invariably paired with burgers, sloppy Joes, hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches and sundry other entrée staples. Growing up, I must have eaten Tater Tots at least once a week, but after college I turned my back on those golden brown, crunchy-yet-soft, mild-yet-savory fried potato puffs.
While I never would have guessed that we’d be reunited, tastes and times have changed with the re-invention of my old school friend. Today these potatoes are no longer relegated to institutional fare. Tots appear everywhere from upscale, New American-style restaurants to bars, burger joints and food trucks. Nor are they merely side dishes for hot sandwiches. Chefs partner them with omelets, pulled pork and fried chicken or serve them on their own as a hearty appetizer or entrée.
Fond memories of Tater Tots
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Nostalgia drives this renewed passion for Tater Tots, said Julie Crist, owner of The Tot Cart in Philadelphia. “Parents used to make Tater Tots for their kids. Now they have souped-up versions of those elementary school lunches,” she said.
Among The Tot Cart’s offerings are “chicken tot pies,” which feature chicken potpie filling layered over potatoes, and a dessert tot consisting of tots tossed in cinnamon sugar and drizzled in dulce de leche. “The salty-sweet mixture makes tots ideal for dessert. With their crispy outsides you really can put anything on them,” said Crist, who serves more than 100 types of tots from her food truck in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
At Alexander’s Tavern in Baltimore, tots are the house specialty. “Tots play on Alexander’s theme of taking a childhood classic and giving it an adult twist,” said executive chef Faith Paulick.
Alexander’s Tavern diners nosh on “tot-chos,” potatoes smothered in queso and jack cheeses, salsa, sour cream and jalapenos, as well as chili- and cheese-covered tots and BBQ sweet potato tots. The best-selling item on the menu is Maryland tots, Paulick said. These are tots blanketed with lump crab meat, crab dip and Old Bay seasoning.
To keep tabs on the food’s popularity, Alexander’s Tavern maintains a “tots sold” counter on its website. To date, the restaurant has sold more than 3 million.
Tater Tots a boon to profits
Although Tater Tots now feature in an array of clever dishes, they had far humbler beginnings. They simply were a way to use the scraps from freshly cut french fries.
In 1952 F. Nephi Grigg of Nampa, Idaho, began considering how he and his brother Golden could turn the leftover slivers at their potato-processing plant into something more profitable. At that time the cuttings were being sold as livestock feed. Grigg decided to try grinding up the pieces, mixing in some spices, pushing the concoction through a form and then deep-frying the bite-sized chunks. With that, Grigg created the first batch of Tater Tots.
He premiered his invention at the 1953 National Potato Convention in Miami, and the tots were an instant hit.
Thanks to Tater Tots, by the late 1950s the Grigg brothers possessed a quarter of America’s frozen potato market. In 1960 the brothers changed their company name from Oregon Frozen Foods to Ore-Ida, a nod to their facility’s proximity to the Oregon-Idaho border.
Five years and multiple new facilities later, the Griggs sold Ore-Ida and its Tater Tots to the H.J. Heinz Co. for $31 million. Heinz, in turn, made these frozen potatoes a staple of American kitchens, cafeterias and childhoods.
While I may have been raised on those mass-produced, frozen tots, I now prefer to make my own. It’s not a complicated or labor-intensive process. In fact, I only need a few ingredients — potatoes, flour, salt, pepper and oil — and a grater, a slotted spoon and a deep pot.
As I’ve learned through trial and error, the key to good tots is to fry rather than bake them. The difference between those two techniques is night and day, Paulick said.
“Frying gives you nice, even cooking. The potatoes are crispy on the outside and cooked completely on the inside. Unfortunately, you don’t get the same result when you bake tots,” she said.
Crunchy tots allow you to pile on a host of ingredients, including cheeses, meats and sauces. They also enable you to serve them school-cafeteria-style, unadorned except for a dusting of salt and pepper.
Scallion Potato Tots
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
2 pounds Russet potatoes, washed
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white ground pepper
3 tablespoons minced scallion, whites only
Grapeseed or canola oil, for frying
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Prick the potatoes with a fork and place them in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool for 10 to 15 minutes, until they are no longer too hot to touch.
Using a pairing knife, peel off and discard the potato skins. With a box grater, grate the potatoes into a bowl.
Add the flour, onion powder, salt, white pepper and minced scallion and, using a fork, toss together until evenly combined.
Fill a deep pot with 2 1/2 to 3 inches of oil. Heat the oil on medium-high until it reaches 350 F on a thermometer.
Drop the tots into the oil one at a time. Cook until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, scoop out the cooked tots and place them on a clean, dry cloth to drain. Repeat until all the tots have been fried.
Sprinkle a smidgen of salt over them, if desired. Serve warm.
Main image: Tater Tots, long a staple of school lunches, have been elevated to gourmet fare by some chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt