WHO: Susan Bates, 47, wife, mother of three and employment coordinator at the TradeWinds Hotel.
WHAT: Taco Casserole
ABOUT THE RECIPE: Fifteen years ago, Bates bought a taco casserole mix at the supermarket and realized she could come up with her own version. Today, her taco casserole is a family favorite loved by everyone, including herself. (She makes it for her own birthday dinners.) When her daughter, Becca, visited from California this month, she asked her mom to make the casserole. "I missed it while I was in California," she says.
What makes it so special?
"I have a secret ingredient which makes it the most delightful taco casserole anyone would ever taste, in my opinion — and that would be sugar," Bates says. "Sugar is the special ingredient that gives it just a little bit of pizzazz."
Along with the sugar, Bates loves the combination of textures: the "crunch from the tortillas" combined with the "creaminess of the soup" and the "spice from the taco seasoning."
Growing up in Southern California, Mexican food was a staple in her childhood home. Now she incorporates those dishes in her own cooking: tacos, enchiladas, burritos and Spanish rice are weekly meals. The taco casserole is a tradition she has started with her own children, along with their ritual of eating meals together as a family every night they're home. "It's just a family tradition that I'm sure 30 years from now . . . will be a possible memory."
FAVORITE THING TO COOK WITH: A pinch of sugar can enliven most recipes, whether it's a taco casserole or spaghetti sauce. "Most of (my recipes) probably include sugar," she says. "Sugar and garlic powder are two things I always make sure I have on tap."
ON THE SIDE: Tortilla chips and sour cream. You can eat the casserole with a fork or scoop it up with the tortilla chips.
TIPS: Personalize it. If you like spicy food, you can "increase the taco seasoning." If you love cheese, "then you might want to sprinkle (cheddar) cheese over it," then put it back in the oven for five minutes to melt, Bates says.
WHY COOKING? Bates has a theory: Picky eaters are good cooks. Her list of hated foods includes most fruits and vegetables, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and bologna. But she knows that if she makes a meal herself, she'll like how it turns out. As a child, she used to slip her dreaded food onto her siblings' plates once their mom left the room. "Meals were just a thing I tolerated three times a day," she says. "After I was married and learned that I could create meals that I liked, it ignited something in me that I never knew was there. The cooking process is almost as enjoyable as the eating process because I know I'm making something that is exactly what I want and will like."
By Emily Young, special to the Times
Signature Dish is published periodically in Taste. If you have a recipe that you would like featured or would like to nominate other home cooks and their dishes, please email the information to [email protected] with a name and daytime phone number. Include SIGNATURE DISH in the subject line. Nominations can be mailed to Taste, Tampa Bay Times, 490 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.