Heaps of shredded lettuce and leafy cilantro! Black beans and olives! Chopped tomatoes, pickled radishes, and sliced jalapenos! Think of it as a huge salad. You know, the kind that has chips and cheese lurking underneath.
This is what we call “dinner nachos,” and they’re different from “snack nachos,” which are just a handful of chips and shredded cheese melted in the microwave, maybe a little Frank’s hot sauce shaken on top. Dinner nachos are a complete and balanced meal (if you think I’m dreaming, please don’t wake me), and for the occasion I make an actual cheese sauce. Not because regular grated-cheese nachos are broke and need fixing—they aren’t and don’t—but because the sauce guarantees a better-distributed cheesiness to offset some of the healthier ingredients. Also, your plate won’t congeal into that mass of cooled cheese that tears off in a big sheet when you eat the wrong chip. I know you know what I’m talking about.
The cheese sauce is easy and almost foolproof (as long as you don’t use pre-shredded cheese, which will make it inclined to solidify). Plus, there’s none of that disappointing lack of cheesiness you can experience when you make the classic kind of cheese sauce that starts with a béchamel and ends with the feeling that there’s not enough cheddar in the world to make it taste the way you want it to. This one is sharp and tangy, smooth and rich, and, in a word, perfect. Stirred into cooked noodles, it makes a wonderful mac and cheese. Or skip the hot sauce, serve it with cubed bread, and call it fondue.
We do nachos as another of our DIY dinners, because everyone loves it that way. You get a plate of tortilla chips smothered in cheese sauce, and then you help yourself to all the fixings that are out on the coffee table. Most of these are pantry or always-in-the-fridge items, and we don’t always have all of them: slivered romaine or iceberg lettuce; black beans (from a can, drained and rinsed); sliced black olives (from a can, drained); chopped cilantro; chopped tomatoes or chunky salsa; sliced pickled jalapenos (from a jar); sour cream; chopped onions; guacamole or diced avocado (sometimes); shredded rotisserie chicken if I have really planned ahead, which is unusual.
The only thing I actually make, besides the cheese sauce, are pickled radishes, even though I’m the only person who would miss them: Bring to a boil ½ cup white vinegar, ½ cup water, and 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Pour this mixture over some sliced red radishes—they will turn gorgeously pink—and let sit at least an hour. (You can do sliced red onions the same way, if you like.) Refrigerate leftovers for up to a month.
One last thing: You don’t strictly need to use orange cheddar in the sauce. But if you don’t, it won’t taste quite as cheesy. Don’t ask why. Just trust me.
Get the Recipe: Perfect Nacho Cheese Sauce
Hands-on Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, grated by you (not pre-grated)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup evaporated whole milk (but keep the rest of the 12-ounce can handy)
1-2 dashes of hot sauce
1. In a large bowl, toss the cheese with the cornstarch.
2. Put the cheese mixture, evaporated milk, and hot sauce in a medium-sized pot over low heat.
3. Heat, whisking constantly, until the sauce is smooth and not quite as thick as you want it to be, since it will thicken as it cools. This will take 5 to 10 minutes, and it will go through different phases as it heats: clumpy, grainy and thin, then glossy and gorgeous. If it gets too thick, you can thin it with additional evaporated milk.
Catherine Newman blogs about cooking and kids at Ben and Birdy. She’s the author of the books Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy, and she edits the award-winning non-profit kids’ cooking magazine ChopChop. She lives in Amherst, MA with her husband, Michael, and kids, Ben, who’s 16, and 13-year-old Birdy.
Catherine Newman blogs about cooking and kids at Ben and Birdy. She’s the author of the books Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy, and she edits the award-winning non-profit kids’ cooking magazine ChopChop.