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Grandma June’s Cheesy Carrot Casserole

Chef Melissa Friedhof on PBS show

Grandma June’s Cheesy Carrot Casserole

"I have strong restaurant genes passed down from many generations," says Melissa Friedhof, the third-generation restaurateur who helms Ross' Restaurant in Bettendorf, Iowa. If you're not from the Quad Cities area, you may not have been to the restaurant … unless you're President Barack Obama. Or Vice President Joe Biden or Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul. The diner is a destination for politicians on the early campaign trail in Iowa, and Melissa and her mother, Cynthia Friedhof, were even featured on The Rachel Maddow Show preparing some of the dishes that bring campaigners to Ross'. Celebrity chef Alton Brown once stopped by, and Bette Midler dined there before a show at a local venue.

A restaurant doesn't just become a hometown institution like this overnight, and Ross' has been around since 1938, founded by Melissa's grandfather, Harold Ross. Melissa got her restaurant genes from him and from her grandmother, June, whose parents showed Harold the restaurant-business ropes at their Maid-Rite diner in Toledo, Iowa, where he worked in the 1930s. "He fell in love with grandma and the restaurant business, all at the same time," Melissa says, and eventually Harold and June married and opened their own restaurant.

Today, Ross' is known for dishes including Rossburgers (a loose-meat burger), Magic Mountains (a pile of meat, cheese and potatoes atop a bed of Texas toast) and Harold's spicy hot chili. But it's also changing with the times, as Melissa works to update the menu with innovations like gluten-free, paleo and vegetarian sections, as well as finding locally-sourced ingredients including nitrite-free bacon and cage-free eggs. The new fits right in with the classic as Melissa's vegan lentil soup shares a specials board with Harold's meaty chili.

Harold and June are both gone now, but they were hometown superstars, well-known for their cooking as well as for their personalities. Melissa can tell story after story about Harold's cantankerous charm ("People say if he was in a bad mood, he would start just throwing in the cayenne [into the chili]. Crazy amounts of cayenne, and people would know, oh, Ross is in a bad mood again today. They'd still eat it."). He was, Melissa says, "a cross between a fire hydrant and a bulldog" and "one who never backed down from a fight." June was the gracious foil to his volatile personality, known as the First Lady of Bettendorf and remembered by Melissa as "… just a beautiful lady, always smiling and always kind to people. She always looked perfect in her little suits. No matter where she was going, she would set her hair."

She also cooked – both June and Harold did, and they passed their instinctive skill in the kitchen down through the generations. Melissa grew up in the kitchen of Ross', and her earliest memories include helping out there: "I'd pick the rocks out of the beans, or help make cookies. I always loved it. It feels like home to me." Harold's famous chili recipe was measured by handfuls rather than cups and tablespoons, and that's how Melissa cooks today – instinctively, tossing in a pinch there and a glug there. The cooks in the backroom of Ross' taught her to do it perfectly. "They could make anything homemade without any measurements; they could just eyeball it."

But not all of Melissa's favorite recipes are the ones passed down from Harold and still ordered by her customers today. Food-related memories of Harold might center on his free hand with the cayenne and his creation of the Magic Mountain, but when Melissa thinks about June's cooking, it's her holiday table that comes to mind.

"She loved to do holidays and have family over," Melissa remembers as she produces the recipe for Grandma June's Cheesy Carrot Casserole. "I think about eating it, and I just picture grandma's table. I can see her red tablecloth and her candles, all the stuff in that room. It conjures up those memories and good feelings of being a child, and the holiday table. It was exciting and fun and warm."

Along with the holiday memories comes the tradition of this delicious dish, one that Melissa still makes for family Christmas today. Melissa admits it's not much like the recipes she creates for the restaurant, where she's where she's bringing a 21st-century foodie's sensibility to a classic diner. And processed cheese doesn't quite fit for a foodie. "So you look at the ingredients and you're like, hmm," she starts.

But Melissa goes for it, trusting June's instinct for feeding her family beautifully. "When you put it all together, it's amazing," she continues. "You can make it with Velveeta or cheddar, and I wouldn't normally eat Velveeta, but it kind of gives it this… velvety deliciousness. And there's real butter, and the buttered breadcrumbs. It's really yummy."

Those holiday dinners, with the red tablecloth and the bright snap of cheesy carrots front and center, are what make up June's food legacy in Melissa's memory. What will Melissa's legacy be? At the restaurant, she says, she's most associated with the vegan chocolate cake recipe she invented. "I have people that will leave their name, if we don't have it in, to call them. And I've had chefs say it's the best chocolate cake they've ever had in their lives. Congressman Loebsack actually mentioned my cake in a speech."

But before she thought of the chocolate cake she bakes for Ross', the first food that came to Melissa's mind as the one that will be her legacy was a holiday favorite that her own children love: pumpkin bread pudding. "It's so good, but it takes a ridiculous amount of time to make. You have to make the homemade pumpkin bread, and this ridiculous sauce that takes forever, and it's delicious. I usually just make it at Thanksgiving for the kids."

If there's one time when high-effort food is totally worth it, it's the holidays – and if there's one audience worth cooking it for, it's family. June's Cheesy Carrot Casserole clocks in over an hour too, with plenty of chopping and cooking, but it's still one to make year after year. After all, Melissa knows the importance of keeping family food traditions alive. "Food is comfort," she says. "It's what home means to people."

Grandma June's Cheesy Carrot Casserole

1 bag carrots, peeled and sliced

2 medium onions, diced

1 can cream of mushroom soup

¾ cup Velveeta or 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

2 tablespoons green pepper, diced

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

5 tablespoons butter (divided)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup panko breadcrumbs

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

Place carrots in a saucepan and cover with water; bring to a boil. Cook until crisp-tender.

Meanwhile, in a skillet, sauté onions, garlic and green pepper in 3 tablespoons butter until tender.

Stir in the soup, eggs, salt, pepper and Velveeta or cheese.

Drain carrots; add to the onion mixture. Transfer to a greased 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish or round casserole dish. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Melt remaining butter and drizzle over breadcrumbs. Bake, uncovered at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Makes 10 to 12 servings.