Salty, creamy, crunchy and bright: Those are the tastes a good pile of nachos should bring to the party.
"Buenos Nachos" author Gina Hamadey says this snack favorite is all about the cheese, but those of us who have experienced congealed cheddars and soggy-gloppy, stuck-together chips realize it's also about the good distribution and harmony of the components.
Where to start? Right here. With a little finesse applied to each part, you can present a winning platter.
Sturdy corn tortilla chips will stand up to melted cheese and moist toppings. (Note: "Restaurant-style" on the package does not mean sturdy.) It takes about 10 minutes to make your own.
Cut 6-inch fresh corn tortillas into quarters (wedges), and fry batches in a few inches of vegetable oil until golden brown. Drain on a rack set over paper towels and salt right away. Or spread the wedges on a baking sheet, spray with cooking oil spray and toast till golden in a 400-degree oven. For a quick alternative, use store-bought fried tostadas, broken into big pieces.
Shred blocks of Monterey Jack and Colby cheeses; it's best not to use pre-shredded cheese, because it's typically coated with some type of starch or cellulose powder.
American cheese melts evenly. Fresh, crumbly queso fresco-type cheese should be sprinkled on top just before serving, or served alongside.
A thin cheese sauce that clings to chips, doesn't congeal and can be flavored with pepper purees works well for individual helpings; you can keep the sauce warm in a slow cooker. See the El Rey Nachos recipe.
Fresh salsas need to be added at the last minute, as they will dampen a nachos pile. Use a slotted spoon, or drain the liquid from the salsa before using.
Fresh jalapeño slices can bring uneven amounts of heat; use pickled jalapeño slices, which provide a nice acidic touch.
Leave sour cream and guacamole on the side, for serving. Or instead of using guacamole, try grilling chunks or slices of lightly salted avocado just long enough for them to pick up a little char.
Roasted, salted pepitas add crunch and color.
For folks who don't like cilantro, try coarsely chopped curly parsley (which won't wilt like flat-leaf parsley).
For an acidic DIY alternative, use slivers of pickled onion or a squeeze of fresh lime juice over each layer of cheese.
At home, nachos are often constructed over the expanse of a rimmed baking sheet. (Line the pan with parchment paper, for easy nachos transfer to a platter.) For better coverage, spread a single layer of tortilla chips, then scatter a minimal layer of your melting cheese of choice, making sure to coat the chips on the edges.
Bake in a 300-degree oven until the cheese has melted, then scatter your beans or meats and vegetable toppings over the cheese. Let it sit for five to eight minutes, then repeat with one or two subsequent layers, baking again each time.
When you're using a pourable cheese sauce, layering is less important than building the pile strategically so that at least half of each chip is coated. Distribute toppings over the top layer.
El Rey Nachos
Eight to 10 servings
Here, the flavored cheese sauce coats but does not cool to a firm, congealed state, which makes it perfect for those who appreciate good nacho coverage and for those occasions where guests can build their individual portions.
A sturdy corn tortilla chip is highly recommended; to make your own, see the Notes below.
Make ahead: The poblano peppers can be roasted, peeled and refrigerated a day or two in advance. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to three days; reheat over medium-low heat or, for a party, in a slow cooker on the warm setting.
Based on a recipe from Carmen Nuñez, the chef at El Rey Taqueria and Mexican Beer Garden in D.C.
For the sauce
1 1/2 pounds poblano peppers, roasted (see Notes; may substitute 4 jarred, roasted red peppers)
1 cup water
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 pound American cheese
Kosher salt (optional)
For the nachos
One 25-ounce package 6-inch fresh corn tortillas, cut into quarters and fried (may substitute 1 pound lightly salted corn tortilla chips; see Notes)
1 bunch scallions, chopped (white and light-green parts)
2 1/2 cups cooked black beans and/or cooked, chopped chicken or roasted pork
Pickled onion slivers and/or pickled jalapeño slices (see Notes)
For the sauce: Combine the roasted peppers and water in a blender (not a food processor) on high speed, making sure not to include any seeds; puree until smooth. The yield is just under 2 cups.
Heat the heavy cream in a nonstick saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the cheese and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cheese has melted and the mixture is creamy. Reduce the heat to low to keep it warm.
Stir in the poblano puree; taste, and add salt as needed. (If the chips you're using are salted, you may want to skip adding salt to the sauce.) The yield is about 4 cups.
To assemble the nachos, line individual wide, shallow bowls or baskets with wax paper or coated paper liners. Place two or three handfuls of chips in each one. Ladle the sauce over each portion of chips, then scatter equal amounts of the scallions, beans or cooked meat and the pickled onion on top.
Serve right away.
Notes: Roast the peppers on a baking sheet in a 425-degree oven for about 20 minutes, until they begin to deflate and the skin looks loosened. Transfer to a zip-top bag and seal to steam for about 10 minutes, then discard the skins, stems and seeds.
To make your own corn tortilla chips, fry the quartered fresh corn tortillas in batches in 350-degree canola or vegetable oil just until golden. Drain on a rack over paper towels; if you wish to salt them, do so right away. To bake them instead, spread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and spray with cooking oil spray, seasoning lightly with salt, if you'd like; toast in a 375-degree oven till lightly browned and crisped.
To quick-pickle the onion, toss together 1 red or white onion cut into thin half-moon slices, 2 tablespoons of sugar and a generous sprinkling of salt in a medium bowl; let it sit for five to eight minutes, so the onion wilts a bit. Stir in 1/2 cup of red wine vinegar; let it sit for about 15 minutes, so the vinegar infuses the onions and the sugar and salt dissolve.
Nutrition | Per serving (using store-bought unsalted chips, no-salt-added black beans and 1/4 cup pickled jalapeño slices): 720 calories, 22 g protein, 60 g carbohydrates, 44 g fat, 20 g saturated fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 680 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar.
Hot-Cold Nacho Wreath
Six to eight servings
Some folks might look at this creation from Poole's Diner chef Ashley Christensen and dub it a queso dip, but we think the melted cheese layered on the chips and the nifty chorizo-cream cheese topping make this a smart, crowd-accessible way to serve nachos.
Unless many hands will dig in immediately, we suggest mixing the shredded cheese at the center with sour cream; that will keep the melted cheese from congealing quite so fast or firmly.
Make ahead: The chorizo-cream cheese topping can be made and refrigerated a day or two in advance.
Adapted from "Buenos Nachos," by Gina Hamadey (Dovetail, 2016).
2 or 3 medium hothouse tomatoes, diced
2 scallions, trimmed and cut into thin slices (white and light-green parts)
Juice of 1/2 lime, plus wedges for serving
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
8 ounces fresh chorizo sausage links, casings removed
2 poblano chili peppers, roasted and cut into 1/4-inch dice (see Note)
8 ounces regular or low-fat cream cheese, at room temperature (do not use nonfat)
10 ounces sturdy corn tortilla chips, preferably DIY (see related recipe)
One 8-ounce block Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (2 cups total)
One 8-ounce block Colby or mild cheddar cheese, shredded (2 cups total)
1 cup regular or low-fat sour cream, plus more as needed (do not use nonfat)
1 to 2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce, for serving
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Toss together the tomatoes, scallions, lime juice and a small pinch of salt in a medium bowl.
Line a bowl with paper towels. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the chorizo, in pinches; cook for five to seven minutes, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until the sausage is cooked through. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the chorizo to the lined bowl.
Discard the paper towels from under the chorizo in the bowl; add the roasted, diced poblanos and cream cheese, stirring until well incorporated.
Arrange a layer of the tortilla chips in the shape of a wreath on the lined baking sheet, forming it as wide as possible. Scatter some of each cheese over the chips. Repeat to create two more layers of chips, and using about half the cheese, total.
Combine the remaining shredded cheeses and the cup of sour cream. Spoon the mixture into the center of the wreath.
Spoon the chorizo-cream cheese topping all the way around the inner edge of the wreath. Bake for about 10 minutes or until the cheeses have melted.
Scatter the tomato-scallion mixture and the lettuce (to taste) around the wreath. Spoon a dollop of sour cream at the center. Serve right away, with lime wedges.
Note: Roast the peppers on a baking sheet in a 425-degree oven for about 20 minutes, until they begin to deflate and the skin looks loosened. Transfer to a zip-top bag and seal to steam for about 10 minutes, then discard the skins, stems and seeds.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 8, using low-fat cream cheese, store-bought unsalted chips and low-fat sour cream): 600 calories, 24 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 40 g fat, 19 g saturated fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 730 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar.