I enjoy a little romance every now and then — something innocent and simple, with no sex and a happy ending. (I’m talking about romance novels, of course).


Among my favorite authors is Lavyrle Spencer. When I heard she was retiring a few years ago, I was sad (and also puzzled; I didn’t think writing was something you retired from; I thought you kept writing until you slumped over on your keyboard).

How am I going to haul this discussion around to the subject of food? Be patient.

A while back, I read a book of Spencer’s called “Small Town Girl,” in which a famous country-western star goes home to the Minnesota hamlet where she grew up.
The first night she’s home, the size-5 singer, who avoids fats and carbohydrates the way a a claustrophobic sidesteps elevators, is appalled when her mother serves a Tater Tot Casserole. I, on the other hand — having never met a carb I didn’t want to take home, and a crispy carb? Come to Mama! — was intrigued. I hadn’t eaten a Tater Tot in years but it sounded good.

I hopped online like a bunny on a carrot and found out that the Midwest “covered dish” tradition is built on a Tater Tot foundation. Cheese casseroels, meat casseroles, spaghetti sauce casseroles.

So it was that, paging through a magazine the other day, I was intrigued by a recipe that combined frozen potatoes, cheese and chicken in a mustard sauce. I liked the idea but not this recipe, which plopped O’Brien potatoes, ground chicken, yellow hot dog mustard and canned cream into a slow cooker — oh, icky goo!

I decided to see if I could come up with something with a little more texture and maybe a little less fat. This is what I made.

Mustard Tot Hot Dish

1/2 large onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken, chopped (breast or thighs)
1/4 cup minced flat-leaf parsley (about 1/4 bunch)
Butter-flavored cooking spray
16 ounces (about 1/2 bag) Tater Tots
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon medium-coarse black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups nonfat half-and-half (or lowfat milk)
2 tablespoons stone-ground mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups lightly packed grated Jarlsberg cheese
1 cup Jarslberg cheese, grated
Spray a medium-size frying pan or saute pan with butter-flavored spray. Over medium-high heat, saute onions and parsley until onions are softened. Place onions and parsley in casserole dish. Spray pan with more butter-flavored spray and saute chicken until meat turns white and a bit golden at the edges. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Place in casserole dish and add Tate Tots and toss to mix.
In the same saute pan, melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat. With a whisk, stir in flour and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Gradually add half-and-half or milk, stirring with whisk, and allow to simmer and bubble a bit for 3-5 minutes. Add cheese and pour over potato-chicken mixture and toss lightly.
Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until bubbly and heated through.

It got the three grunt seal of approval from you-know-who.

Notes: If you want a more pronounced mustard flavor, add a tablespoon or two more mustard; this is quite mild. You can use any semi-soft nutty white cheese — Emmenthal, Gruyere, Fontina. Husband thought it could use more onions.