When it’s a sports game night, an awards show night, a fun movie night or any other occasion that guarantees your attention will be trained on a television screen rather than on what’s on the plate in front of you, it’s nachos for dinner in our house. Easy to throw together quickly, it’s basically a salad of chips and toppings, the ideal food to snack on when your attention span is limited.
When my partner and I lived in New York, we’d spend at least three Sunday nights a month at one sports bar in our Upper Manhattan neighborhood. I always got the burger and he the nachos. These nachos were made of freshly fried chips topped with a free-flowing cheese sauce that definitely had Velveeta in it and a generous ladleful of chili, accompanied by the usual suspects of sour cream, salsa and guacamole. In between sips of beer and transfixed gazes on the bright screens overhead, these nachos were the perfect bar food.
Nachos are by their very nature unfancy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a little discerning in how you make them. Although those bar nachos were wonderful, when it came time to make them at home, I took inspiration elsewhere. I wanted to keep the process at home as easy as it would be if you had a restaurant kitchen at your disposal.
As with hamburgers, each person’s version of nachos is the perfect one. Here’s mine: Inspired by a technique from Jen Agg, the chef and owner of several restaurants in Toronto, including her most recent Bar Vendetta, these nachos are like Ortega tacos on steroids, incorporating a chili-like seasoned beef sauce and shredded cheese, with shredded iceberg lettuce showered over the top. As Agg sums up the recipe in “Chef’s Night Out” — the Munchies cookbook where it first ran — these are white people nachos. And like her, I make no claims to them being anything else.
Start with the chips. Since I’m not frying fresh tortilla chips — who would?? — I buy the best ones I can find. Sometimes they’re the ones in the clear plastic bags at the deli counter at Vallarta or Albertsons, but most likely it’s the yellow bag of Calidad chips, my favorite grocery store brand. Whatever you use, make sure they’re well-salted. Pile them on a baking sheet, then dust them with a grating of lime zest, which helps undercut the layers of heaviness to come.
Next, the seasoned beef. Chili powder, dried oregano and cumin flavor the beef, simmered in broth thickened with flour. You could use a taco seasoning packet, but this is the part of the recipe where you bring in the discernment. It’s the only part you make yourself, so make it from scratch, please. Don’t eat beef? Use ground turkey, lamb or even a vegan meat substitute. (Agg’s original recipe used ground tongue left over from restaurant prep.)
Then, the dollops of pico de gallo. If you’re the type of person who makes his or her own pico de gallo, you might also be the type of person who fries his or her own tortilla chips, in which case, you’re probably not using them to make nachos. So buy the pico, drain it and spoon it over the beef. You could also just chop up a tomato if you have it, but pico already has all the flavors you need built in.
Now add shredded cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses — buy the block and shred by hand; it makes a big difference in the melting. Don’t like those cheeses? Use something else, just make sure it melts well. After that, sprinkle on raw white onion and peppers. Agg’s original recipe calls for green bell peppers, but I prefer poblanos, only because I keep them around (use what you have). Place the nachos in the oven; the heat will cook the onions and poblanos just enough for them to lose their raw bite but not enough to free them of their crisp texture.
The nachos should bake long enough to melt the cheese and crisp the chips, which leaves you plenty of time to make the garnishes. Stir some more lime zest and juice into sour cream to make a limey analogue of the drizzle-able Mexican crema, which again helps brighten what otherwise would be an overload of meaty, dairy richness. Open a container of store-bought guacamole or slice up a ripe avocado, and if you want, shred iceberg lettuce as thinly as possible. Like the cheese, it’s better to buy a head of iceberg and shred it yourself so it still has some vitality.
Once the nachos are out of the oven, bring them to the TV room and place on a towel draped over the coffee table to protect it from the heat. Top the nachos with lettuce, drizzle on crema and add several healthy thwaps of guacamole. Press “play” and turn your attention to the main event, rest assured that your dinner has already won for the night.
Serves 2 to 8
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