A kind of cross between French fries and hash browns, tater tots are an increasingly popular food in not only American homes, but also American restaurants.

Tater tots — an invention and registered trademark of the folks at Ore-Ida — have been in grocery stores since 1956. And Americans eat about 70 million pounds of them a year.

Tots are still mostly eaten in homes. But casual restaurants nationwide began adding tots to their list of side dishes several years ago, and more recently many restaurants have branched out into using tots in any number of hearty comfort-food dishes.

Tots as ingredients have lots of potential. Think of many of your favorite comfort foods or bar noshes, and you’ll probably quickly realize that tater tots can take center stage with a simple substitution.

That makes them a good choice for Super Bowl snacks when we reach for some of our favorite flavors and when we tend to like our food as hearty and as filling as it comes.

Though tater-tot nachos — what some people call “totchos” — have become quite common on restaurant and bar menus across the United States, that is just the beginning of what cooks can do with tater tots.

It’s a good place to start, though, and a real crowd-pleaser. And like all of the accompanying tots recipes, totchos are easy to do for even novice cooks. Bake a panful of tots, then top them with your choice of taco-seasoned ground beef, chorizo, beans, cheese, tomatoes, onions, avocado, jalapeno, olives and sour cream. They’re hard to resist.

Another popular use of tots is in a breakfast casserole, which may make an even better dinner than breakfast because of how filling it is. Eggs? Check. Sausage? Check. Hash-brown-like potatoes? Check. Bake this up all together in a cast-iron skillet with sauteed onions and peppers and cheese and you have a heck of a meal. As with many tots recipes, the trick is managing the ingredients so as to not cover up the tots themselves, which need to be uncovered and exposed to the oven heat to get nice and crisp.

Buffalo wings or buffalo chicken dip will be on many Super Bowl menus this weekend. Those fans can get in on some tot action, too. In the Buffalo chicken tater tot casserole, the meat from a rotisserie chicken is tossed with Buffalo sauce, a little celery and blue cheese-cheddar mixture, then topped with tots. Again, keeping the tots on top and exposed gets them brown and crisp.

Tots do go on the bottom for the tot version of pizza, but they are precooked to get brown and crisp on the bottom, as for pizza crust. Once the tots are at least partially cooked, they can be mashed a bit with a spoon or spatula to form a solid “crust” that then becomes a platform for pizza sauce, cheese, pepperoni and more.

Last but not least comes dessert. It may seem strange to think of dessert made with tots — but not if you get hold of sweet-potato tots, which already are just a tiny bit sweet.

I used sweet-potato tots to make my own sweet tot sundae. After baking the tots, I rolled them in cinnamon sugar — I could have stopped there and had a pretty good sweet snack. But while still warm, I used them to top a bowl of ice cream and fudge sauce, complete with a maraschino cherry on top.

In testing recipes, I also made tots from scratch. As much as I like to cook, homemade tots are a tedious affair. It’s like making fries with extra steps — which might be fine if we didn’t eat the tots so darn fast. But this is one case where I’m OK with a store-bought shortcut.

And if you happen to have a few tots left over, you can use them to play your own version of paper football during halftime.

Recipe from Michael Hastings

Recipe from Michael Hastings

Recipe from Michael Hastings

Recipe from Michael Hastings

Recipe from Michael Hastings

mhastings@wsjournal.com

336-727-7394

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