Sunday, August 26, 2012

Nachos excepcionales

Nachos get a bad rap.  You can find them on almost any menu, anywhere, covered in pasty, bland pinto beans that have the texture of baby food.  There's usually a cursory (or sometimes heavy-handed) sprinkling of jalapenos--usually canned--and maybe a little taco or fajita meat and some sour cream.   And then there's the crowning glory: the school-bus yellow "cheese" oozing over the top.  It arrives slightly runny and quickly congeals to a texture resembling plastic wrap.  Some restaurants use grated cheese rather than a canned, processed cheese product, which is an improvement.  But unfortunately, most nachos do nothing to impress.

You may not be able to imagine this, but Vindaloo Tiramisu eats nachos, and she is not afraid to admit this fact.  She has been known to eat nachos in various Tex-Mex restaurants in various Texas locales (which she is also not afraid to admit), but she doesn't eat them there very often.  That's because the nachos that Vindaloo eats usually come from her own kitchen.  And it's also because, yes, you guessed it: Vindaloo is a food snob.

But then, this is not a state secret.

Let's just say that Vindaloo expects a lot from her nachos and works hard to make the extraordinary happen.  Restaurant nachos are often despairingly pale, lifeless, unremarkable and do nothing to tease or satisfy the palate.  There are exceptions of course, but think about it: when was the last time you had a plate of nachos in a restaurant that made you say, "Dang!  I want more of those RIGHT NOW!"?

Vindaloo's nachos are memorable and irresistible.  They are nachos excepcionales.  They pass the husband (and the soon-to-be-husband) test, the picky eater test, the I-only-eat-nachos-on-Superbowl-Sunday test, the upscale cocktail party test and the ravenous-pack-of-teenage-boys-that-are-in-their-third growth-spurt-of-the-year test.  These nachos make you glad to be alive because every bite is a full-frontal encounter with your tastebuds.  They are the culinary equivalent of the New Year's Day Polar Bear Plunge.  You will be sad and will be looking for a bereavement counselor forthwith when these nachos are gone.  You will also probably not want to share them with anyone, so if you're planning on making some to share, be sure to plan ahead and make more than you think you'll need.  A lot more.

Another redeeming factor in Vindaloo's book: these nachos are an excellent accompaniment to a juicy, fruity red wine.  Because they have lively, intense flavors with plenty of acid and spice and are relatively light on the cheese, choose a zinfandel, a shiraz, a fruity, not-too-tannic cabernet sauvignon or a full-bodied sangiovese.  As always, your wine guys at your local Spec's will help you find a great match.  Of course, if you're a beer quaffer, have at it, but as most readers know by now, Vindaloo loves a great glass of wine and would be hard-pressed to recommend anything containing hops or malt and yet remain convincingly reliable.

The concept behind a good plate of nachos is very simple: texture, flavor, contrast and color.  Basically, that means using fresh, quality ingredients and getting a little more bang for your nutritional buck than your average plate of nachos.  So with that in mind, let's talk about the foundation on which you will build your nachos excepcionales: the tostada chips.

Sure, you can use store-bought chips.  You can use a mainstream brand if you prefer, or you can even fry your own tostada chips, which are worth the extra time and effort.  But for nachos excepcionales, you'll need a substantial and flavorful chip.  Try artisanal chips made by a local tortilleria, or one of the many varieties of organic tostada chips that Central Market distributes.  Look for the flax seed, blue corn or red quinoa varieties.  They have texture, nuttiness, better nutritional value than the mainstream or generic brands and a crunch and texture that can support what you'll be piling on top of the tostadas. 

You can build your nachos with or without meat, but the meat of choice for Vindaloo's nachos is good-quality chorizo.  Choose Spanish chorizo, which is dense and dry, cured and smoked in an edible casing (you will have to chop the chorizo finely) or Mexican chorizo, which is soft and uncured, highly seasoned with vinegar and chile powder and often comes in an inedible plastic casing that you will have to remove before cooking.  Either way, you will get superior results.  One final suggestion: if you can make good carne adovada (or know someone who can), it would be an excellent alternative to the chorizo.  Just make sure the meat is well-shredded and mixed with just a bit of the chile sauce so that the tostada chips don't get saturated.

Next, consider the beans.  Traditionally, refried or whole, cooked pinto beans are used.  Refried beans tend to make the tostada chips soggy and whole pinto beans, while perfectly acceptable for restaurant nachos, are, well, just that: acceptable.  Why not elevate nachos beyond the acceptable and predictable?  This recipe calls for black beans, which you can cook yourself and drain well before incorporating with the chorizo, or you can use good-quality canned black beans that have been rinsed and drained.  You can also substitute small red beans (not kidney beans) or borlotti beans if you can find them.  Surprisingly, black-eyed peas also work well with these nachos because of their earthy, nutty flavor.  The goal is to have a flavorful bean with a firm texture that brings as much nutritional value to the table as possible.

Other key ingredients that make Vindaloo's nachos excepcionales rise above the norm are chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, plenty of garlic, three different kinds of onion for color, flavor and texture, pickled or fresh minced jalapenos, a little chopped, seeded tomato or sweet red pepper for color, and two cheeses: queso cotija for saltiness and Monterey Jack for creaminess and tang.  Again, please try to find the freshest, best-quality ingredients you have available to you.  Nachos are a simple concept, but as with most simple foods, high quality ingredients elevate a pedestrian dish to an exquisite one.  Your tastebuds will thank you.

Savor these nachos.  And please write when you do.  Your comments are coveted.

Nachos Excepcionales

Of course, use this recipe as a starting point for your own exceptional nachos.  Sliced black or green olives, avocado, chopped roasted red pepper, chopped roasted Hatch green chile, sour cream and leftover ropa vieja are all viable additions and/or substitutions.  Salsa optional.

1 bag (about 12 oz.) Central Market tostada chips (I prefer red quinoa with flax seed or blue corn varieties)
6 to 8 oz. Mexican chorizo, casings removed (or about 3/4 cup Spanish chorizo in small dice, or an equal amount of carne adovada, shredded)
1 cup cooked black beans, drained (or one 15 oz. can of black beans, rinsed and drained)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 Tbs. white onion, minced
salt to taste
2 to 3 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, minced
1/2 cup minced pickled jalapenos (I prefer the acidity of pickled jalapenos for these nachos, but you can substitute 1 fresh jalapeno, stemmed, seeded and minced if you like)
3/4 cup crumbled queso cotija
1 1/4 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup diced red onion
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
1 medium tomato, seeded and diced, or 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
sour cream, salsa and/or chopped cilantro for garnish, optional 

1.)  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2.)  Lay tostada chips evenly over the surface of a large baking sheet with sides.
3.)  In a medium saucepan, saute chorizo over medium heat, breaking it up with a spoon or spatula.  If using Spanish chorizo or carne adovada, you will probably need to add a little olive oil to help saute the meat without sticking.
4.)  Add black beans, minced garlic, minced onion, salt to taste and minced chipotles.
5.)  Stir mixture well and lower heat to medium-low.  Taste and correct for salt.
6.)  Cook meat and bean mixture about 5 minutes, adding water if necessary.  The mixture will clump together slightly. 
7.)  Spoon dollops of the meat and bean mixture evenly over tostada chips.
8.)  Scatter jalapenos over tostadas, meat and beans.
9.)  Scatter queso cotija and Monterey Jack cheeses over all.
10.)  Scatter diced red onions, green onions and diced tomatoes (or diced red peppers, if using) over all.
11.)  Bake for approximately 10 to 12 minutes, or until Monterey Jack cheese is melted and slightly browned on the edges.
12.)  Serve immediately, garnishing with sour cream, salsa and cilantro, if desired.  Serves two very hungry people or four people as a hearty appetizer.

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