If you’d like a sweet column about holiday entertaining, cute hors d’oeuvres, and table decorations, I’m sure that between Pinterest and Epicurious you’ll be covered. This month, I’m ignoring the season to talk about nachos.

I love nachos. Nachos are a perfect food. Above all, they are communal. Few people eat nachos alone. You go out with a group of friends, order a round of beers, and a big plate of nachos. When they land, everyone digs in. We practice etiquette while eating nachos, trying to share the guacamole. and those awesome crispy-cheese chips. Yet we are selfish too, digging deep to get the beans and the gooey mess at the bottom.

Also, nachos are a great way to move some leftovers. If you had chili the other night, and there is only a cup or so in the fridge, that isn’t enough for dinner. But if you make a big pile of nachos and pour the chili overtop, it makes a great dinner. Got a couple of leftover burgers from the cookout the other day? Make your nachos, break the burgers up over the top, pop them in the oven, and you have cheeseburger nachos.

I don’t believe people understand how to simply make nachos at home. I remember visiting my cousin Frankie Fuller (yes, that is his name) in LA many years ago. We were hanging out with a bunch of his LA friends, at his LA house, doing LA things, and getting pretty hungry. Frankie announced that he would make us some nachos. I was excited, because it was my first time in LA and I anticipated some authentic California-Mexican food to come out of the kitchen right in front of my eyes. Transition to total dismay when Frankie’s recipe for Nachos was to place tortilla chips on a plate, shingle with Kraft singles, and microwave. A bland, gooey mess arrived at the table, served with Pace Picante jarred salsa. I could have had that back in DuBois, PA.

Of course, we snarfed them down. Frankie lives in Thailand now and I’m guessing, from the pictures posted on Facebook, that he eats a lot better now.

Nachos are easy

Get the oven hot, assemble the pile, and jam it in. 10-15 minutes and a hot pile of delicious comes out of the oven.

To make nachos, you need three things – good chips, good cheese, and good toppings. Most important are the chips. I have a slight chip obsession. Our chips are made for us by the DiCio family at their chip plant right outside of Pittsburgh. I don’t know how they got into the chip business, but they have been our chip people since the birth of Mad Mex. Their formula is different from any other chip made, as far as I can tell. They make nixtamal from locally raised corn. Nixtamal is made by cooking the corn with calcium hydroxide (lime). This process releases flavor and aroma, makes nutrients more accessible, loosens the hull of the corn seed, and alters the chemical structure of the polysaccharides to allow dough formation.

Once the nixtamal is made and the husks are removed from the corn, the corn is ground into a dough called masa. Fresh masa makes the best corn tortillas – supple, aromatic, delicious – but must be used fresh as soon as they are made. Corn tortillas available for purchase in the supermarket are made from reconstituted masa harina, a dry flour made from fresh masa, and don’t retain the same level of softness.

Nic’s crew adds some masa harina to the fresh masa to get the dough to the right consistency for chips. I’m not sure of the ratio of masa harina to fresh masa, they say it depends on each batch and must be judged by the eye and hand. They then roll the dough into our triangular chip shapes, flash fry them, run them through the salter, and bag them.

They are the best chips. For a substitute, I buy the Frontera brand chips at the grocery store. Rick Bayless does a pretty great job with all things Mexican food, and does as well with the chips. I imagine their formulation is similar to ours, and when I get a chance to meet Rick one day, I hope to ask him.

For cheese, I believe in a mild cheese. Monterey Jack is best. It seems to pair really well with Mexican flavors, melts nicely, and gets a great nutty flavor when it browns on the edges of the nachos. Mozzarella stands in as a substitute if necessary, but it is softer and meltier and has less flavor.

Finally, the toppings

I like to add beans or meats or chilis before I put the nachos in the oven. I like to lay down a base flour tortilla, put some of the beans or chili on there, top with cheese, then chips, then cheese, then cheese and chili and meat until your heart is pleased. The nachos get placed into the oven to heat through and melt the cheese.

When they come out, I like to dollop toppings right on top. Always guacamole, always salsa, and sour cream1 if you have those kinds in your group.

Of course, you need to drink with nachos. A nice hoppy beer, a light fruity red wine, or a crisp margarita are great. But if you want to get in the holiday spirit, here are the recipes for a couple of holiday margaritas that are pretty delicious.

Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, Super Solstice, and Happy Kwanza to all!

Turkey Nachos with Winter Cocktails

1 We use Daisy because it is one of the only brands on the market that contains one ingredient – Cultured Cream. There are many other brands in the market that contain guar gum, acidulants, stabilizers, Sodium Phosphate, Potassium Sorbate, etc. Daisy is clean and delicious.