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Talking Tots With Dan Whalen And Why You Need More Potato Nuggets In Your Life

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Bacon wrapped tots? OH MY.
Matthew Benson

An all-tater tot book. Sounds like a novelty, right? When I picked up notorious food mashup blogger Dan Whalen’s new release, “Tots! 50 Tot-ally Awesome Recipes from Totchos to Sweet Po-tot-o Pie,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the more I read, the more I started to realize that tots really are versatile, lending their salty crunch to dishes from the lowbrow and oh-so Midwestern hot dish to Middle Eastern tot shakshuka to desserts like tot churros and salted caramel tot cookies. Even salad can benefit from tot-ification (tot croutons, y’all!). When you find yourself in the frozen aisle potato section, grab a bag of tots and let your imagination run wild. Here’s what Whalen had to say about his latest creation.

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Tot stuffed meatballs
Matthew Benson

Why should Americans eat more tots?
Tots have been sidelined for too long! Chefs have been using tots for the past 10 years or so in new and creative ways, but I feel like it hasn’t translated to home cooks yet. I am hoping this book changes that! Not only are they delicious and have that fun nostalgia associated with them, but they are also a shortcut ingredient. They are already cooked so when you are making dishes with them you really are skipping a step. They are also way more versatile than you would expect which you can see by browsing this book for just a few minutes.

What Boston-area restaurants are doing great things with tots?
There are too many to list, but here are a few of my favorites!

Lulu’s in Allston has a dish called either weekday hash or white trash hash (depending on when you get it) that is tater tots topped with pulled beef, a sauce and eggs, and it will cure any sort of hangover you might have. They also do pizza tots that are just perfectly seasoned tots you can eat as an appetizer.

At Olitokli in Allston you can get tots topped with a variety of Korean toppings, my favorite being bulgogi and a fried egg.

At Five Horses Tavern in Davis Square and the South End they have a totcho special that changes weekly and they are always creative and delicious.

Bukowski Tavern in Inman has pork belly tots that are tossed with brussel sprouts and topped with a horseradish cream.

For higher end, Yvonne’s has “fancy potato cubes” that are house made tots with a dutch dipping sauce and topped with gouda and a pickled egg.

Will Gilson has a special that he pulls out for certain events at Puritan & Company and elsewhere where he serves caviar on a fast food style “hashbrown” which I actually consider to be a large tot.

When you wrote the book, were you aware of the potential for tots to open doorways for people eating gluten-free? I particularly love the idea of using mini-tots instead of croutons in a Caesar salad and tot grilled cheese.
I actually did! One of my closest friends has Celiac Disease and this was definitely on my mind working on the book. I tried to keep flour and wheat out of as many recipes as possible to keep a large percentage of the book gluten free, and I use potato flakes a few times as a binder or instead of a roux.

What’s your favorite recipe in the book and why?
Totchos will always be a favorite because I make it for large groups of people. There are instructions in the book for making it for either three to four people or closer to 10. But I really really love the breakfast bur-tot-o. Putting tots in a breakfast burrito was sort of a revelation to me and it is definitely the one I have made for myself the most. If you have a bag of tots in the freezer it’s so easy to open it up and throw a few in the pan with your eggs in the morning. I also am obsessed with the salted caramel tot cookies because they are surprising and so damn good.

Where did the idea for a book on tots originate?
The publisher was actually looking for someone to write a tot book and I was the first person on the list which, honestly, being on the top of someones tot list is possibly the biggest compliment I have ever received. When they finally called I thought to myself, I have been training for this moment for my whole life.

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Totapeño poppers
Matthew Benson

Who ate all of the test recipes. Were there any recipes that were particularly difficult to perfect? Why?
I sent out recipes to lots of people to test but when I was working on this one at home I pretty much ate everything myself. There were many salads and workouts in between for balance. I brought some tot cookies around to people and they were very confused at first but still loved them!

The hardest recipe to perfect was homemade tots. I wanted them to be perfect and lots of homemade tot recipes are weird. I don't think there should be flour, eggs or any other fillers, and I definitely don’t think there should be grated or mashed potatoes - it needs to be chunks. I also wanted to have options for varieties like zucchini or cauliflower tots, and different ways to make [tots] like frying or baking. I fried a lot of potatoes that month and my roommates were very annoyed by the fried food smell.

What other foods are ripe for exploring beyond their traditional use? What’s the next tot?
I have several ideas for what might be the next tot, but you will have to wait for the cookbook to find out!

What recipe from the book would you recommend starting with, for someone unfamiliar with tots?
I really think totchos is the best way to start. If you are really that unfamiliar, try one of the custom spice blends or dips for the tots first, but totchos are where I really fell in love with tots again.

Were there any recipes you had to leave on the cutting room floor? What were they and what happened?
I tried to make a meatloaf and coat it in a tot crust. I still might make this for my blog eventually but it didn’t really come together for me after trying four or five times. There is too much fat dripping out of the meatloaf and the tot crust was fragile and fell apart while cutting. I have been continually inspired by tots though since writing the book and have posted about 15 new tot ideas on my site since I finished the book.

Tots! 50 Tot-ally Awesome Recipes from Totchos to Sweet Po-tot-o Pie” by Dan Whalen is now available in stores and online. And check out this Tot-Topped Pizza recipe for a sneak peek at what the book has to offer.

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