Touchdown!: Up your game with a healthier version of a Super Bowl classic

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters

I may not care much about the Super Bowl, but I’m certainly paying attention to the food. The popular food site “The Daily Meal” looked at Google trends over the past month to determine the top ten foods of the day. I was surprised to hear that pizza is number one, and Super Bowl Sunday is the busiest day of the year for most pizza takeout shops. I would have guessed wings. This year, I’m not interested in either of those foods. I’m all about the nachos.

I’ve always viewed nachos as junk food. They’re greasy chips smothered in cheese. That’s not quite the type of food I’d serve. Until I did. And in doing so, found that nachos need not be junk. You can make a plate of nachos and not have to feel bad about it, whether they’re for a Super Bowl party or a quick occasional meal.

As usual, it comes down to the quality of the ingredients. There’s not much to nachos. They’re not a complicated food. That means there’s nowhere to hide. Opening a few jars and packets, then dumping everything over a cheap bag of chips and tossing it in the microwave could work, if that’s your kind of thing. But you’re not fooling anyone with that. On the other hand, browning some lean ground beef with a mix of spices, melting freshly grated cheese into a simple white sauce, and slicing up a few peppers, onions and tomatoes doesn’t take long and makes all the difference.

The great thing about nachos is that there’s no one way to make them. Chips, salsa and cheese sauce are all standard, though you can go anywhere from there. Serve them with beef, as I mentioned, or try chicken, beans or pulled pork. Change the spices on the protein to give the dish an influence from a certain kind of cuisine, such as Thai, Italian or Indian. They can be heavy on the meat, or have no meat at all. It’s your call. My one insistence is to skip the jar of black olives. But maybe that’s just me.

When it comes to serving nachos at a party, I’m in full support of setting the ingredients out for everyone to make their own plate. Then everyone can warm their plates in the oven until crispy. That way, someone like me can forgo the olives, while the next guy can pile them on. Everyone wins. It’s kind of like buying several kinds of pizza to please a crowd. Except you can control the quality and don’t have the expense of buying five pizzas.

Here are three easy means of improving your nacho game. Start by using spices you likely already have — you know, on that spice rack you were once gifted — to make a flavorful blend to season your protein.

Next, cook your meat, beans, tofu or what have you, fresh. I’m appalled that cans of pre-cooked ground meat (often combined with beans) exists on grocery store shelves. Do not buy this junk. If you can’t afford a pound or two of quality ground beef (preferably local) you should reconsider having a party in the first place. I don’t like getting a mouthful of onion in my nachos and my girlfriend doesn’t like biting into a raw jalapeño, so I like to cook these together with the beef. It adds more flavor to the meat as well. You can certainly still add the raw vegetables to your nachos as toppings.

Finally, make the cheese sauce yourself. I know it sounds like a challenge, but trust me, it’s not. Put away that fluorescent Velveeta stuff and try this with a fine block of Vermont cheddar. You’ll need to grate it yourself, as the pre-grated are often coated in starches that may make them difficult for melting. Then you stir it into a thickened white (milk) sauce and you’re ready to turn up the halftime concert and go crazy.

Nacho cheese sauce

Makes about 2 cups

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 8 ounces cheese
  • 1 teaspoon sriracha
  • Grate the cheese and set aside.

Melt the butter in small pot. Add the flour and whisk to combine. Cook about 30 seconds or until the mixture (called a roux) starts to turn golden brown. Slowly whisk in the milk, and when combined, turn up the heat to bring to a boil. Lower the heat so the sauce remains at a gentle simmer. When thickened, turn off the heat and stir in the cheese and sriracha.

Taco/nacho seasoning

Makes about 4 tablespoons

  • 2 tablespoons chili powder 1 tablespoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon cornstarch 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika 1 teaspoon ground coriander 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small, airtight jar. Shake to combine. Use as needed. This will keep for several months but likely won’t last that long, when you can use it to season any meat, bean, or tofu dish, and in tacos, nachos and quesadillas.

Adapted from Alton Brown’s Taco Potion #19.

Nacho ground beef

Enough for 1 large plate of nachos

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 1 jalapeño, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • 1 ½ tablespoons nacho seasoning
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, jalapeño and garlic and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the beef, breaking up with a spoon, the seasoning and salt. Cook until the meat is browned. Taste and add more seasoning or salt, if needed.

Layer the meat onto a large plate of chips along with your cheese sauce, salsa, and vegetables such as shredded cabbage, chopped scallions, red onion, jalapeños and cilantro.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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