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?

Strike Oil in Hill Country

As one of, if not the single most important pantry staple in kitchens worldwide, olive oil is big business. Production has more than tripled in the last 60 years, skyrocketing beyond 3,262,000 tons at last count in 2019. From that endless pool of golden oil, US production is a comparative drop in the bucket; less than half of a percent of that figure is grown domestically. Finding a local olive oil producer out in the middle of Texas, of all places, is akin to finding a mirage in the desert.

However, against all odds, Texas Hill Country Olive Co is not a heatstroke-induced day dream, but a real place just 40 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Austin. Winding down twisted roads that cut through open fields, the brief journey out of town drops you into a wholly different world. Situated on 17 acres of pristine alkaline soil, the orchard is home to 2,000 olive trees. What began in 2008 as a winery quickly evolved into a world-class olive oil powerhouse, netting the small business top honors in the prestigious New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) for their very first harvest, back in 2010.

Locals and tourists alike gather to take a peek behind the curtain, enjoying guided tours that run the length of the grounds and back through the mills within the facility. When I visited back in late February, it was perhaps not the most auspicious time; still reeling from the devastating winter storm, the damage was readily apparent. Trees lay barren, cracked and bleeding vital sap down every weathered trunk. Typically, olive trees can withstand a change of about 15 degrees over a 24-hour period, not the mind-bending 90-degree shift we saw over the course of a week. Some can be saved by severe pruning, but others can only be salvaged as mulch or fertilizer at this point. The only olives visible outside were found on the ground, dried and withered, ghostly reminders of previous growth.

Despite that, there’s still hope in the forecast. Flowers are blossoming now alongside April showers, and each individual flower will develop into a single olive. All olives start green, slowly darkening on the branches to a dark mottled plum hue. Unlike large scale commercial operations, you won’t find any lye or chemicals to artificially force this brilliant metamorphosis. Come September and November, the harvest will begin, yielding anywhere from 18 – 35 pounds of fruit per tree. That might sound like a lot, but bear in mind that it take 14 pounds to make one 250ml (1 cup) bottle of olive oil.

Presses imported from Italy complete the transformation right on site. Flesh and pit alike go straight in; washed, crushed, and made into paste, the mash is agitated at 65 – 85 degrees to maintain the illustrious designation as “cold pressed.” Spun at high velocity, the paste is separated from the oil using centripetal force.

After seeing such love and labor go into every golden drop, you can fully appreciate the depth and breadth of flavors presented in each lavish tasting flight. Dancing through different blends and flavor-infusion oils, various balsamic vinegars are presented as complimentary and contrasting pairings. Explosive aromas overwhelm the senses, astounding the unprepared with every subsequent sip. It’s a heady experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Don’t fill up on the complimentary bread and apple dippers, though. The Orchard Bistro at the heart of the everyday operation is a destination in itself. Menus vary seasonally, sourcing local produce with an emphasis on cooking everything from scratch. Much is culled from their own garden for freshness that can’t be beat.

Ask the chef about vegan options, and they’ll make sure you’re taken care of. Perennial staples include crisply toasted crostini, whole olives, and olive oil with homemade sourdough bread for dipping. For a light lunch, the antipasto salad is far better than your average leafy affair; a riot of colors, adorned with pickled vegetables and marinated chickpeas. The heartier grain salad includes tender, toothsome farro with the produce du jour. Don’t forget to check the daily specials for the soup offerings, hot or cold. I was lucky enough to drink down a creamy cauliflower bisque when I stopped by, lavished not with heavy cream, but [of course] olive oil.

Plan to spend a day out at Hill Country Olive Oil Co, taking in the fresh air, relaxing on the dog-friendly patio, and if you come later in the summer, getting your game on in their planned bocce ball court. Make sure you grab a bottle of the signature strawberry-balsamic lemonade, sweetened primarily with the concentrated vinegar itself. Before long, you’ll feel like part of the family here, too.

Wordless Wednesday: Breakfast, Lunch, or Brunch?

Counter CultureGF Breakfast Sammie (Garbanzo Sausage Patty, Mung Bean “Egg”, Local Tomato, Cashew Cheeze and Aioli on a Toasted Organic GF English Muffin)

Burma LoveBurmese Samusa Wrap (A hearty spinach wrap featuring Burmese curried potatoes and peas and crunchy fresh veggies with tea aioli dip)

Casa De LuzSaturday Lunch (Garden Greens Tossed with Basil Dressing, Basmati Rice with Mixed Vegies, Pinto Beans with Steamed Vegetables Sprinkled with Pumpkin Seeds and Garlic, Blanched Kale Topped with Almond and Oregano Sauce, Pickled Red Cabbage and Beets)

Opera CafeChaga Frappe (Mushroom-Based Mocha Blended with Ice and Topped with Coconut Whipped Cream)

Dosa by DOSAButternut Squash Dahl (Lentils, butternut squash, ginger, garlic, onion, tomato and turmeric)

Citizen EateryChorizo Omelette (JUST Egg omelette stuffed with chorizo & cheddar cheese topped with avocado, aioli & salsa verde)