Is this student staple cheesy Tex Mex junk or the perfect finger food? Can radishes ever replace jalapeños - and is it best with or without beef?
This crispy, cheesy snack has become a modern student classic. So, for today's lecture - what's the best way to make nachos?
A little titbit for the historians among you: although you won't find nachos on menus in Mexico, unlike the chimichanga they were at least created there. The story has it that, back in 1943, the maître d' of a restaurant in Piedras Negras, faced with a lunch party of American wives from the army base at Eagle Pass and no chef, went into the kitchen and threw together an impromptu meal from what was to hand. The ladies were so impressed by his melange of tortilla chips, cheese and jalapeño peppers that they took it home with them - "nachos especiales" features in a 1954 cookbook published by Eagle Pass's Church of the Redeemer, named after its creator, Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya.
Mexico can't be blamed for that orange slick of cheese sauce that soon replaced Anaya's Wisconsin cheddar, however - in the 70s, nachos became popular fare at sports games in the Lone Star state. To speed up the cooking process, a condensed cheese "product" (it doesn't meet the FDA qualifications for cheese) was developed that would remain obligingly warm and gooey for the duration of play. (A surprisingly fascinating history of its evolution is available here.)
It was during my time at university that I first encountered this cheese sauce, at the cinema. Horrified fascination led to a purchase. Suffice to say, before I even begin, I can assure you these nachos will contain no cheese "product". The other toppings, though, are definitely up for debate.
The tortilla chips
I've decided not to use Doritos, mainly on the basis that I'd prefer the base of the dish to taste principally of toasted corn. Salt is acceptable; "cool original" flavour is a distraction.
Saveur magazine promises to whisk readers back to the "joys of a simpler nacho" - as long as you don't mind frying your own chips. (Tortilla chips weren't widely available commercially until the nacho craze took off.) I cut corn tortillas, which can be found in the speciality food section of larger supermarkets, as well as online, into quarters and fry them in vegetable oil until golden and crisp. They taste pretty good, but despite draining and patting them dry, they're still greasier than the bought version. I must admit to preferring the packaged sort here.
Rick Bayless, chef, restaurateur and author of a number of books on Mexican cooking, suggests an alternative based on the tlayudas (chargrilled tortillas) of Oaxaca, using whole tortillas, brushed with chorizo fat and cooked over direct heat until crisp and slightly charred. They're delicious but unwieldy, and prone to collapsing during consumption: better as an individual snack than a sharing dish.
Nachos certainly don't need meat - Ignacio's original version, which I suspect the Saveur recipe is based on, is still pretty tasty today, but most recipes more complex than emptying a jar of salsa on to some tortilla chips do seem to involve it.
At its most simple, in Bayless's dish, this is just fried fresh chorizo, crumbled on to the toasted tortillas, but I also try a quick chilli con carne with minced beef and beans, as suggested by blogger turned Food Network star Ree Drummond, AKA the Pioneer Woman; beer-braised pork carnitas from Bon Appetit magazine; and spicy, tomatoey beef short ribs from the New York Times, slow-cooked until the meat falls from the bone and all over the tortilla chips.
I'd highly recommend trying the carnitas and ribs with rice or warm corn tortillas and salad, but I find these two wasted on the nachos. The ribs, in their cumin and coriander spiked sauce, are too intensely savoury with the salty chips (something I also find with the chorizo, which is good with Bayless's tortillas, but too much with chips), and too wet to boot. The tender strands of beery pulled pork, meanwhile, don't deserve to be dried out on a top of a load of crisps.
Best is the chilli: the smaller pieces of meat are easier to distribute on top of the chips and stand up to baking, remaining moist but not wet (you might want the bottom layer to soften a bit, but you don't want them to be soggy).
However, much as I'm loth to criticise an Oklahoma cowboy's wife on the subject of chilli, her recipe is a little bland for my taste - and I'd prefer to leave the tomato element for the salsa. That said, my own chilli recipe (which obviously I consider perfect most of the time) is too smoky and wet for this particular dish, so I've made it dryer and slightly more subtle in flavour. I love the body and texture Drummond's beans give, though instead of pinto I've gone for smaller black beans, which are easier to keep on the chips.
The NYT suggests using a shop-bought salsa, preferably a tangy salsa verde (which can be easily ordered online, though I was surprised to spot it in my local Tesco), while Drummond and Bon Appetit make their own. I love Drummond's super-quick and wonderfully fresh-tasting pico de gallo, using fresh tomatoes, onion, jalapeños, coriander and lime juice, though I'll be using spring onions rather than the yellow sort, which I find too harsh when raw. Once flavourful fresh tomatoes are a thing of the past, however, I'd suggest buying a good ready-made salsa, or giving a cooked tomato salsa, such as this recipe from Drummond herself, a go.
Guacamole is also a popular accompaniment to nachos. I already have a signature recipe, but on this occasion, Bayless's version, thinned with water to give a drizzling consistency, proves more practical. I love the tart tomatillos he puts in too, but I have to concede these are even harder to get in the UK than a properly ripe avocado, so I've gone for the more traditional lime juice option - if you want to splash out on some online, however, do give his recipe a go.
Obviously an important factor in any nacho recipe, but it's fairly tricky to get hold of the American cheese of choice, monterey jack, in this country. Frankly, I don't think it's worth the effort. Cheddar, as used by Ignacio himself, has a far better flavour and will melt almost as obligingly.
Bayless calls for queso fresco, a fresh, crumbly cheese, now available online and in London and Scotland, thanks to Kristen Schnepp of Peckham's Gringa Dairy. It brings a nice, creamy lactic flavour to the dish. If you can't get it, feta, though saltier, has much the same texture. As neither cheese does much in the way of melting, I've decided to mix it into the guacamole - the flavour is excellent with the avocado, and this stops it tumbling off the chips.
Saveur uses pickled jalapeños in its recipe, which supply a pleasing tanginess, but even better is the crunch and subtle heat of Bon Appetit's sliced radishes. They also have the benefit of looking rather pink and pretty on a dish that has a tendency towards boring beigeness.
Many recipes also suggest topping the nachos with sour cream. I find the guacamole creamy enough, but if you'd really like "nachos with all the fixings", as Bon Appetit describes their version, then by all means blob some on top (they suggest thinning it a little with water), along with some hot chilli sauce for good measure.
The cooking method
Drummond "nukes" the nachos in a microwave and the NYT grills them, but the best results, I find, come from baking, which heats the dish all the way through without making the base layer soft and chewy. Crisp and hot, cheesy and creamy, spicy and fresh, meaty yet full of beans - trust me, when your mum tearfully reminded you to eat a balanced diet while you were away at university, nachos are what she meant.
The perfect nachos
For the chile (or use 250g of your favourite recipe)
2 tbsp oil
1 onion, finely chopped
½ green pepper, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tsp flaked chipotle chilli or 1tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp ground cumin
1 tsp Mexican oregano (optional)
250g beef mince
2 tsp dark muscovado sugar
200g cooked black or pinto beans
70ml hot black coffee
For the salsa (or use a decent shop bought version, especially if ripe tomatoes aren't available)
2-3 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
2 spring onions, finely sliced
½ green jalapeño chilli, seeded and finely chopped
Small bunch of coriander, finely chopped
Juice of 1½ limes
For the guacamole
½-1 red chilli, deseeded (depending on heat)
Small bunch of coriander
1 large ripe avocado
Juice of 1 lime
Splash of water
20g queso fresco or feta, crumbled
200g salted corn tortilla chips
100g cheddar, grated
4-5 radishes or pickled jalapeños, thinly sliced
Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and soften the chopped onion and pepper. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or so, stirring, then stir in the spices and oregano, if using, and cook for a couple of minutes.
Add the mince, turn the heat up and brown well, stirring.
Stir in the sugar, beans and coffee, season to taste and turn down the heat. Leave to simmer gently while you prepare the sauces.
Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. To make the salsa, if not using shop-bought, combine all the ingredients and season to taste.
To make the guacamole, whiz the chilli and coriander in a food processor until pureed, then add the avocado and lime juice and whiz until smooth. Add just enough cold water to bring it to a dropping consistency, then add the crumbled white cheese and season to taste.
Put a third of the tortilla chips into an oven dish, and top with a quarter of the chilli and cheddar. Repeat this twice more, then put the remaining chilli and cheese on top and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese has melted.
Top with the salsa, guacamole and sliced radishes or jalapeños, and serve immediately, with any extra salsa or guacamole on the side.
Nachos: cheesy Tex Mex junk or the perfect accompaniment to a well-chilled bottle of Dos Equis and a football game? And, while we're at it, students old and new: which foods sustain you through the gruelling regime of early lectures and late-night partying?