Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Potato challenge - Cheesy hashbrowns

This hashbrown casserole that I brought to dinner on 8/31/15 was one of the dishes that started this whole potato adventure, so technically it's not really part of the potato challenge because the challenge didn't exist yet, but I have decided to overlook that little detail in favor of this perennial favorite.

Interestingly enough, while this dish is quite well known according to the all-knowing-Internet, I had never encountered it in almost 30 years of living in the US.  The first time I had these hashbrowns was at a dinner party where my (German!) boss served it as a side dish.  My daughter and I liked them so much that I asked for the recipe.

I have to admit that I was a little surprised to find out that it was not a "from scratch" recipe, but something I would define as "cooking with cans".  Let me tell you what I mean with that: "From scratch" to me starts with ingredients that are as close to the original state as possible.  So, a potato dish starts with a potato that needs to be peeled, then cut and cooked etc. "From scratch" involves flour, water, salt or milk - rather than cans, mixes and convenience foods.

My preconceived notion about Germans and home cooking probably goes back to my Mom.  She is certainly someone who cooks from scratch.  Actually, in many ways, she was the inspiration for the potato challenge, because she is able to turn potatoes into all kinds of German potato dishes including potato dumplings (Knoedel), Schupfnudeln, which are a fried German version of gnocci and many other things that I have not even attempted to make yet. She also bakes from scratch - and without recipes.  Having done this for as long as she has, she just knows.

Watching her cook soup with her Thermomix is amazing.  When it's almost done she often opens the fridge and looks for things she can still toss in there - like a piece of hard cheese, some leftover cream cheese with herbs or some spices that were left from a different dish. But her most amazing skill when it comes to cooking or baking is her ability to turn one thing into something else, when it didn't work out the way it was.  She told me many a story that involved yeast not rising which resulted in some wannabe yeast dough being turned into German noodles or something else instead.  My Mom grew up in the war.  Food was not something you threw away - ever!

When I first came to the States, I certainly couldn't cook like that.  As a teenager, I never showed any interest in learning to cook from my Mom.  I remember telling her one day that "anyone who can read, can cook" and I know now just how foolish that statement was.  One of the first things I learned to make in the States was mashed potatoes from scratch, because I didn't know what brand of flakes would taste the best, so making them from potatoes was safer.  Truth be told, I ate a lot of cheap Ramen noodles before I had kids.  My idea of cooking German food was to import lots of different Maggi or Knorr sauce/spice mixes from Germany to try to recreate the dishes I knew from home.

Around that time, my future mother-in-law asked me if I could cook and I told her "no",  I couldn't cook.  What I meant was that I couldn't cook like my mother cooks - and I had resigned myself to th e fact that I would never be "someone who cooks".  My mother-in-law  then proceeded to teach me how to make her chili: Brown beef, add a can of Brook's chili beans, 2 cans of  tomato sauce, some chili powder, some ketchup and simmer for an hour - something like that - and of course I could cook like *that*!  Maybe I could be someone who cooks after all?

Realizing that I could use convenience foods to create home made meals actually got me started with cooking, because it took the pressure off from having to learn to cook from scratch to feel like I was actually "cooking".  Using cans and convenience foods to make meals was a lot more in line with my life as a "graduate student", "working parent" and later "divorced, working mother to two small kids".
If you are at that place in your life where all you can muster are meals using convenience foods embrace "cooking with cans".  There is nothing wrong with it.  The meals are still home-made; they can still be healthy, can involve creativity and is much more affordable than eating out.  Rest assured that there may come a time when the "farm to table" movement can find a place in your life.

I started cooking from scratch when my kids were in high school. They're done with college now - and they're still not terribly interested in cooking themselves. I enjoy cooking very much, which is something that still surprises my Mom.  I enjoy receiving a variety of random vegetables from my CSA, Bountiful Baskets or the local Chinese grocery store and trying new recipes.  I'm writing this blog in part, because I want my kids to be able to look up the German (and other) recipes if they ever decide that cooking from scratch is for them.

But I digress....

These cheesy hashbrowns are a perfect example of very tasty dish made from cans and convenience foods, which is probably why it is a go-to recipe at for my boss, who is also a working parent.  It's not terribly healthy, but I promise that your kids will love it.  Mine do.

Recipe: Cheesy Hashbrowns

32 oz of frozen hash brown potatoes.  (I use the diced rather than shredded potatoes)
8 oz sour cream
1 onion (chopped)
1 stick butter (optional, it's not really needed)
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 cups shredded cheddar cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl
Add all ingredients to a large glass baking dish
Preheat oven to 400F
Bake at 400F for 60 minutes.

Alternatively, all the ingredients can be added to a crockpot and cooked for 4 hr on high or 8 hr on low.

I always leave out the butter.  This dish is plenty greasy without the addition of butter.
I have also substituted cream of chicken soup with nacho cheese soup, when that was all I had.
The dish that results from this recipe is mostly potato rather than a creamier hashbrown.  If you prefer your hashbrowns more saucy, add another can of cream of chicken or nacho soup.

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