Totopos por Todos

In the same spirit of equally amorphous concepts like salads and curries, basically anything you throw on top of tortilla chips can be considered nachos. In fact, many further blur the lines with alternative bases like pita chips or potato chips, deftly dancing across cultural boundaries with ease.

Unlike the aforementioned culinary abstractions, nachos can trace their lineage directly to one single innovator. Mr. Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, maître d’ of Club Victoria in Piedras Negras, Mexico was not even a chef, but a tirelessly hospitable host. When, in 1943, a group arrived at the restaurant and the cook was no where to be found, he leapt into action. Piling up what scant ingredients he could find, the towering plate of tortilla chips topped with sliced jalapeños and melted cheese was an instant hit. Named for the man of the moment, the Nachos Especiales, would forever change the way that Mexicans, Americans, and the world at large, ate their chips.

There’s no one “right” or “best” way to make nachos; they’re the ultimate blank slate, infinitely adaptable to your personal tastes. Though it defies the conventionally accepted definition, even the chips are variable, if you’d rather a base of fries or tots. Personally, I must insist that some form of cheese or queso is mandatory, but from there, just a few ideas for toppings include…

  • guacamole or diced avocado
  • pico de gallo
  • shredded lettuce or cabbage
  • fresh spinach
  • fresh or grilled corn
  • roasted red peppers
  • halved cherry or grape tomatoes
  • whole pinto or black beans
  • re-fried beans
  • sliced black olives
  • fresh or pickled jalapeño
  • fresh or pickled red onions
  • meatless grounds
  • pulled jackfruit
  • crumbled tofu
  • sour cream or cashew crema
  • hot sauce
  • pepitas
  • scallions
  • cilantro
  • fresh lime juice

That’s not even the half of it. Think about the possibilities for a breakfast variant, and even sweet options for dessert nachos! Given the endless choices, what are your go-to’s?

Kiss and Tell

One small batch of nostalgia, coming right up.

For someone who built a career on sweet treats, my kitchen has been churning out distinctly savory dishes lately, with desserts far and few between. It’s tough testing so many sugary indulgences when you’re baking for one, and the pandemic has cut severely into my opportunities to share. Still, there’s no denying the call of cravings, a deep, undeniable, almost primal urge for the comfort that only a bit of sugar might bring.

Large pies are out of the question, as are elaborate entremets. Nothing too fussy, nor too perishable in reasonable quantities for a solo eater to take down. Most days, I can satiate those innate desires with sensible poached pears or macerated strawberries with softly whipped coconut cream, but there’s something about the ritual of actually baking that soothes the soul, almost more than the act of eating the end results.

To that end, I turn to this scant handful of treats that comforted me as a child. Impossibly picky, there wasn’t much I wanted beyond the basics, which is where these cocoa kisses came in. Meringues tinted with a hint of chocolate, my mother modified a recipe right out of The Joy of Cooking to create a cookie that was crisp, light as a cloud, but slightly gooey and soft on the inside. Perhaps it’s not the proper form for a true meringue, though who’s to judge when they were snapped up as soon as they could cool?

Bringing down the yield to a more manageable quantity, you can whip up a batch in minutes, and feel just fine about devouring them just as quickly. Anytime I feel that familiar craving for nostalgic sweetness, I won’t deny it; this is the kind of self-care that everyone deserves.

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Broadly Speaking

What’s in a name? Broad beans are a confounding classification that encompasses a whole swath of the legume population. Some use the term interchangeably, referring to butter beans and lima beans as if they were the same thing. Defying all rational definition, in a sense, they are! Why is it that lima beans tend to get the short end of the stick, the bane of many picky childrens’ existence, while butter beans come with an air of whole luxury? Words do matter, more than one might want to admit.

Different varieties for each title exist, but the whole naming convention is further complicated by location and appearance. In the south, you’re more likely to see butter beans on the menu, but if they’re younger and thus greener, they’re the spitting image of what one might otherwise refer to as lima beans. It’s the same, but different.

If we could forget about names for a minute, I truly believe that the smaller, greener subspecies would have a fighting chance at mainstream acceptance. Tender, but with the same toothsome bite as edamame, they’re textually unparalleled in the bean kingdom. That’s especially true if you treat them properly; canned or over-boiled beans are likely the root of cause of such historical disregard, but fresh or frozen, you’re talking about a whole different hill of beans.

Pan-fried with a generous glug of fresh pressed olive oil, they finally live up to the promise of buttery taste, too. Blistered over scorching hot temperatures, a literal flash in the pan, their skins become crisp, adding a whole new dimension of texture to the plate. Simply prepared, with a touch of garlic, salt, and pepper, you could easily eat them straight, as an entree over mashed potatoes, sprinkled over salads, or served up with bar nuts as a hot new beer snack.

This same treatment works for just about any bean, including but not limited to chickpeas, fava beans, and even lentils. Now, don’t even get me started about the additional complication of the terms “pole beans” and “butter peas.”

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The Duchess and the Pea

What could be more proper than a decorous English tea sandwich? Filled daintily but not overstuffed, crusts carefully removed, each mouthful is an architectural feat, rendered in an edible medium. History has spared no detail on this stately creation, giving full attribution to Anna Maria Stanhope, seventh Duchess of Bedford, who felt the sharp jab of hunger midday, while dinner was still many hours off. A well-mannered lady could not simply pilfer scraps from the kitchen- Heavens, no! Fashioning these elegant little two-bite affairs to serve with tea, no one needed suffer the embarrassment of an uncontrolled appetite in civilized company.

Why, then, has it taken so long for contemporary cooks to realize the potential of another British staple, the English pea, when crafting a perfectly proper filling? Tender, sweet green pearls that sing of spring’s bounty, they’re an even more esteemed asset than the common cucumber.

While we’re on the subject of names and origins, I must wonder why there isn’t more tea involved in a rightful tea sandwich? Of course, like coffee cake, the moniker intones what should be served with the food at hand, but I find myself unsatisfied with that explanation. In my remodeled bread building, stunning butterfly pea tea powder grants lightly tangy cream cheese an arresting blue hue.

In less formal settings, the pea spread could become a dip for any variety of fresh vegetable crudites, crackers, or chips. In fact, it could be swirled through strands of al dente spaghetti for a savory seasonal treat, too. However, something about the full combination of elements, complete with effortlessly yielding soft sandwich bread, really makes it shine. Do give it a go; it’s only proper to try.

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User Friendly

Meet your new best friend: The Friendly Vegan Cookbook! No, that’s not a typo, despite how ubiquitous the term “vegan-friendly” has become in common parlance. Turning the phrase around makes it an all-encompassing embrace of the concept, rather than the outlying exception. Toni Okamoto and Michelle Cehn, two of my favorite people, have teamed up to create over 100 recipes that will serve you well, quite literally, from daybreak to sundown.

For the reluctant cook, the flexitarian, or the hungry health enthusiast, this one’s for you. Carefully curated with nostalgic fare like stuffed shells, pizza, and chickenless noodle soup, these glossy pages bring a taste of comfort to life in stunning full color, and flavor. It certainly helps that Michelle herself is an accomplished photographer, capturing lustrous still life scenes vibrant enough to warrant framing.

Naturally, I’m drawn to the dessert section of any cookbook first. Sweet and simple, the Fudge on page 204 is an easy win. You’ve gotta love a decadent homemade treat that you can make in minutes with seven ingredients (or only six, not counting the salt.) Even though my pantry was ill-prepared for such spur of the moment inspiration, I had just enough to pull off this small miracle. Ideal for a quick craving, unexpected guests, or holiday gifts, it’s hard to imagine anyone turning down these slow-melting nutty, chocolaty morsels.

Turning to more hearty meal options, the Mac ‘n’ Cheese on page 63 was calling to me from the moment we met. No packaged vegan cheese need apply to make this creamy, gooey goodness. I took some liberties to simplify mine, skipping the baking dish and extra vegetables to make a stove-top style, blue box dupe. Nutritional yeast, AKA vegan catnip, and a touch of soy sauce takes this one to boldly savory new heights.

Another reason to love this collection so much is that it truly represents a wide swath of the vegan community itself. Tapping other lauded cookbook authors for contributions, Stephanie’s Deviled Potatoes on page 141 comes from none other than Stephanie Dreyer. Plant-based meal planning expert and the founder of Batch Cooking Club, this unstoppable mother of three knows a thing or two about making foolproof recipes on the fly. Presented as finger food that’s party-ready, I’d argue these tender little potato bites are also ideal everyday snacks or sides. Protein-rich cannellini beans make the filling both balanced and substantial, brightened with the bite of mustard and black pepper.

Whether you’re a friendly vegan or still just vegan-friendly, you can’t go wrong with The Friendly Vegan Cookbook. If you don’t take my word for it, try it yourself: Enter your details in the form below for a chance to win a copy of your own! Tell me in the comment section about your go-to best friend in the kitchen. Is it a certain seasoning, special equipment, or an actual human helper? There are no wrong answers, as long as you respond in the first place!

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Fresh Starts

Strapped for cash, struggling to make ends meet as the year winds down, the time had come to sacrifice some of my extraneous toys. I finally bid adieu to an old friend, and sold my juicer. The behemoth had flown with me from Connecticut to California made the drive from Oakland to Austin, surviving both treacherous journeys without so much as a scratch. Don’t get me wrong; I loved the masticating monster. It just never found a stable place in my daily routine. Peering out from the cabinet periodically, it would catch my eye as the light glinted off its stainless steel facade, only to return to the darkness untouched.

It deserved better. A machine should be used, not just stored. Helping to kick-start a neighbor’s newfound fervor for juicing, it’s a relief to see the old gal find a loving new home, as hard as it is to let go. Before that fateful day, we gave it one last whirl, squeezing the last drops of joy from our time together.

Releasing a golden wave of liquid sunshine into my glass, tropical notes of pineapple spiked with the bright acidity of fresh lemon flowed freely in this last hurrah. Naturally sweet without any sugar, the blend was tart, tangy, bright and bold. It glistened with vitality, fresh and invigorating. That would be enough for a morning wake up call, but to celebrate the occasion, a splash of sparkling white wine felt like an appropriate final touch.

As I raise this glass, to friendship and new beginnings, my heart swells with hope for the future. May 2021 be better for all of us.

Cheers!

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