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 Super Bowl 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 on Game Day.
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 purées works well for individual helpings; you can keep the sauce warm in a slow cooker (see the recipe at right).
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 (green pumpkin seeds) 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 5 to 8 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.