by Kate Heyhoe
What did the corn chip sing at the gym?
"Nacho, nacho man...I want to be a nacho man..."
Nachos. Hot, crunchy tortilla chips, dripping with orange glop. Or not.
If your experience with nachos is limited to AM/PM markets, fast food chains and movie theaters, then wake up and smell the salsa. These concoctions are not nachos.
Authentic nachos use real cheese, not imitation processed cheese food. The cheese is melted and bubbly, and it's not runny...not like an ersatz chiles con queso sauce.
Rumors vary as to exactly who invented them, but everyone agrees that nachos were born in one of the Rio Grande border towns, during World War II. In 1966, the Texas State Fair (a spectacular event at that time) began dishing them up to its thousands of visitors, families who came from farms, towns and cities all across the Lone Star State. Then, a disastrous event occurred: the Texas Rangers ballpark concocted a gooey, orange glob version and started passing this off as nachos. and the delectable hand-crafted snack I enjoyed as a kid has never been the same since.
I remember when nachos reached their peak of popularity in Texas, pre-1975. Nachos were made with care then, before the ballparks and fast food chains got a hold of them. My mother and I would prepare them together, as a snack or even a light supper. It was fun, they tasted great, and we would never have considered them junk food.
We made them with plain tortillas, not "Tostitos" or "Doritos." First, soft corn tortillas were quartered, deep-fried in sizzling oil until crispy, and drained (but not salted). Then the assembly would begin. Every chip was spread by hand with a spoonful of refried beans, then draped with a layer of cheese (cheddar or Monterey Jack), and finally, topped with a juicy round of sliced jalapeño. The chips were individually arranged in a single layer on a baking sheet (not dumped into a cardboard container). Chips did not overlap. We baked them for five minutes or so, just until the cheese bubbled. Each one was perfect, like a fancy canape or mini-pizza.
These traditional nachos sparkled. They were served at parties of Texas billionaires as well as rodeos. and they were irresistibly satisfying.
Sadly, cheap restaurants eventually embraced the Texas Rangers' "assembly-line nacho"—dump in a handful of chips, ladle on a runny cheese-like sauce, toss a few low-fire jalapeño slices on top and olé! The New American "Nacho."
But you needn't succumb to such faux foods.
Real nachos are macho. They're full of robust flavors and quality ingredients. While the traditional toppings include refried beans, cheese and jalapeño, endless exciting variations can be made—all without that cheese-like mystery goo.
Nachos are fiesta foods. In Mexico, small dishes known as antojitos are served as snacks, or more accurately, casual light meals. They're simple, not fancy. Satisfying but not complicated. You won't find nachos in traditional Mexican cookbooks, but you'll find similar tortilla-based dishes, like taquitos, flautas, quesadillas and chalupas. and all of these lend themselves well to informal parties and get-togethers.
If you're wondering what treat to serve at Father's Day, Graduation, or for other parties, nachos are perfect. Because most people today have never experienced them, simple authentic nachos—with refried beans, real cheese and jalapeño— can steal the scene, and they wash down well with beer, margaritas or sodas.
Experiment with other topping as well. Tiny salad shrimp, precooked at the fish counter, and leftover steak, sausage and chicken make excellent toppings. Next time you barbecue, cook a few extra pieces so you can use them for nachos. My BBQ Chicken Nachos do just that and, paired with a green salad or guacamole, can go from snack to light meal.
If you're not into quartering and frying the tortillas fresh, you can use bagged tortilla chips. Or, buy freshly cooked tortilla chips from a local Latin market or restaurant. I've often ordered bags of hot chips from Mexican restaurants and used those as the basis of my home-cooked nachos, saving time and energy in the kitchen and keeping the quality of the chip on the same level as the ingredients. Similarly, if the restaurant makes good refried beans, use them instead of canned beans or ones made from scratch. Fresh flavors are well worth the minor expense.
Kate's Global Kitchen for June, 2001:06/02/01 One Husky Little Tomato: Mexico's Tomatillo Unwrapped
Coming in July-August: The Big Grilling Guide & The Haiku of Food Contest
Copyright © 2001, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created June 2001
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