Queso Fundido Pizza

In our early months of getting to know each as slightly more than “just friends,” my husband, Les, and I took a road trip into southern Virginia for an afternoon of antiquing. He had been working on redecorating his living room and was on the search for an interesting accent table or other cool décor item. And mostly, we were both looking for new ways to hang out together.

Along the way, we found this funky table with an adjustable wooden top that screwed down into the base. It was not very practical, given that the three legs are not properly spaced out and it tipped over if you set something on it. But it was fun and different, and with a fresh coat of paint, it livened up his living space. We also stopped at a few roadside stands, browsing through fresh peaches, honey, jams and preserves, along with all varieties of handmade crafts.

The most fun thing about that day, though, was our visit to a Mexican restaurant called Chile Rojo, just inside the N.C. state line. The music and décor were lively, the food was delish and the company of this guy who once seemed so serious to me was just about the best thing going. Les and I met in a pool hall, where we both played in a 9-ball league, and our first impressions of each other (as is often the case with married couples) were not particularly positive. He thought I was flirty (for sure, I was) and a bit on the flighty side. I thought he was intense and without much sense of humor. I couldn’t have been more wrong about that second part, and it was interactions such as this road trip that really helped me see the relaxed, authentic side of this man who would, nearly two years later, become my husband.

It didn’t hurt that we both have a passion for great food and adventurous palates that make us open to trying each other’s favorite things. On this visit to Chile Rojo, his eyes scanned the menu, landing on their choriqueso dip, which he called “queso fundido.” It was a typical Mexican queso dip—creamy, melty and salty—but this one had spicy, crispy bits of chorizo sausage floating around in it, causing a flavor explosion in every bite. Truth be told, I had probably experienced this stuff at some point in my past, and maybe I had just never heard the name of it. But in the heat of that July evening, as Les and I sipped our Mexican lagers and enjoyed dragging our crispy warm tortilla chips through this queso fundido dip, everything seemed new and delicious.

Inspired by the best choriqueso dip ever, we created a pizza that displays all the fiesta-fresh flavors of queso fundido!

That first of many road trips for us as a couple is still on my mind whenever we order queso fundido, and in honor of Cinco de Mayo this week, Les and I decided to put those fabulous flavors onto a pizza. My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough went south of the border for the occasion, as I subbed in a portion of corn flour for the usual amount of whole wheat flour, a subtle nod to the tortilla chips we like so much. Shredded pepperjack cheese provided a base for the toppings. The chorizo sausage was browned up with chopped onions, and accompanied by fire-roasted corn, pickled jalapeno and fresh slices of fresno chiles. The hot oven transformed the dollops of melty queso dip into blistered patches of ooey-gooey deliciousness, and when we pulled the pizza from the hot steel, we topped it with cool cubes of avocado and fresh cilantro leaves. Like all of our adventures, this pizza was awesome.

Oh, and it turns out Les isn’t always so serious. Thank goodness, because neither am I. ❤

Me, being loco in love at Chile Rojo, 2015.

Ingredients

2 chorizo sausage links, casings removed

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1 cup cream, half and half or whole milk* (see notes)

3 oz. white American cheese, cubed*

2 oz. cheddar and pepperjack cheese combination

A few shakes Flatiron Pepper Co. hatch valley green chiles (optional, but wow)

1/2 cup fire-roasted corn (fresh or frozen)

Small handful pickled jalapenos, patted dry on paper towels

1 small Fresno chile pepper, thinly sliced

1 ball My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough (or your favorite dough)*

1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese (or Monterey Jack for less heat)

For serving:

1/2 avocado, cubed

Handful fresh cilantro, washed and chopped

Fresh squeeze of lime

*Notes

Depending on the type of dairy you use (cream, half and half or milk), you may need to adjust the ratio a bit. Cream, of course, has the highest fat content and whole milk has the lowest. I do not recommend 2% or skim milk for queso, as they don’t have the fat content to support the melted cheese. For readers abroad, “half and half” is a popular product in the U.S. that is essentially a 50/50 mix of cream and milk, and it amounts to about 12% milkfat.

I always use American cheese for its incredible meltability. I’m not sure if that is a word, but I think you understand my point! Regular cheddar has great flavor on its own, but without the special enzymes that exist in American cheese, a sauce made with only cheddar will break in the heat of the oven. I purchase American cheese in chunks at the deli counter of my supermarket, rather than the dairy aisle.

Our pizzas are baked on a steel, preheated at 550°F for an hour before baking. If you bake at a lower temperature, you will need to adjust baking time, and consider turning on the broiler for a brief minute at the end, to put a nice blister on the queso topping.

Note also that this pizza is par-baked before the queso dip is added, then returned to the oven for final browning. Do not add the queso at the start of the baking time, as it will burn and may prevent even cooking of the dough.

The queso is beautifully browned and creamy, and the chorizo crisped up a bit in the oven.

Instructions

First, the queso dip, which we love on its own, so we made more than we needed for this pizza. Without question, we will enjoy the rest on homemade nachos or just snacking with tortilla chips. If you make the queso ahead of time, note that it will become solid in the fridge. No worries, just warm on low heat to creamy consistency again, and cool to room temp for topping the pizza.

When you are ready to make the pizza, preheat the oven to 550°F if using a steel, or the recommended temperature for your pizza stone. Your oven rack should be about 8 inches from the top of the oven. If you are using a pizza pan, place the rack in the lower third of the oven to ensure thorough baking of the crust, and plan to adjust your baking time.

And now, the rest of the pizza!

Muy bueno!


Barbacoa

You have heard of the concept of a “bucket list,” tracking the experiences you want to have during your lifetime? Well, rather than making commitment to go skydiving or backpack through Europe (no thanks to either for me), I’ve narrowed down my bucket list to focus on foods. Cooking is a joyful adventure for me, but I am prone to become overwhelmed with too many new ideas in a way that, ironically, puts me in a cooking rut. What better way, I thought, to expand my culinary knowledge and have the satisfaction of accomplishment, than to put my wish list foods on a schedule? I wrote about this in October, when I finally tackled pierogi, the delicious potato and spinach-filled dumplings that were easier to make than I expected. Today, I’m making good on a promise from that post. I’ve moved barbacoa to the “done” column.

Despite having spent at least half of my growing-up years in southern Colorado, where I lived part-time with my mom, I had never heard of barbacoa until the Chipotle chain of restaurants popped up in my current city. Most of the “Mexican” food I knew was the standard Americanized fare, which is odd, given the demographics in Colorado. Who doesn’t love fajitas and burritos and such? But there are so many more interesting Mexican foods, and this is undeniably one of them. Barbacoa is beef, but it’s not the same as steak, as you might have in fajitas. It is rich and savory, tender and spicy, and super-versatile as a filling for a variety of casual dishes. And you know what I learned this week? It is ridiculously simple to make.

You need a good-size (preferably grass-fed) chuck roast, which is essentially the same thing you would use to make a pot roast. It’s full of marbling, which renders down into the most succulent texture in a slow cooker. Add a few spices or Mexican rub of some sort, onions and garlic, some hot peppers if you’d like, and just enough liquid with some smoky and acidic tones to tenderize and give balance to the meat. Put it in the slow cooker and wait for the magic.


For my husband, Les, and me, this mouthwatering magic could not come at a better time. The Super Bowl is just days away, and in a normal year, that would put our kitchen skills into preparation overdrive for the arrival of guests at our annual big game party. As strange as it was to have only the two of us at the table for Thanksgiving, it will be even weirder to not have a houseful for the Super Bowl. We are making the best of this pandemic reality the same way we did for Thanksgiving—by trying out a few new foods. Les will no doubt make his pimiento cheese and—spoiler alert—his amazing smoky guacamole. I may not be able to resist whipping up at least a half dozen deviled eggs and maybe a batch of hummus to snack on. But our main dish item for this year’s scaled-down celebration is this barbacoa. Delicious. Done.


Ingredients


3-4 lb. beef chuck roast

Kosher salt and black pepper

2 Tbsp. smoky pepper BBQ rub* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. oil (olive, canola or avocado are all good here)

1 medium onion

5 cloves garlic

1/2 fresh poblano pepper*

1/2 red jalapeno*

1 small can mild chopped green chiles

2 Tbsp. Worcestershire

2 Tbsp. brown sugar

2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

1 Tbsp. chipotle puree with adobo*

2 tsp. liquid smoke

Juice of 1 lime

About 1/2 cup water or beef broth

2 dried bay leaves


*Notes

An ideal smoky BBQ rub for this dish would include some type of smoked pepper (ancho or chipotle, for example), some garlic, onion and herbs. The main thing I recommend when choosing a pre-made rub is to pay attention to the sodium content. Ingredients are listed in order of their ratio, so if salt is listed early, the blend has a lot of it. Les and I recently ordered some fantastic blends from a company called Flatiron Pepper Company. I respect the fact that they do not include salt in their blends—it means I have more control of the sodium that goes into my dishes, and I’m also not paying a premium for a cheap ingredient. If you want to make your own rub, you might try my “Fire & Brimstone” seasoning, which is detailed in this week’s post for Tex-Mex Stuffed Sweet Potatoes.

We enjoy spicy foods at our house, and I used a couple of fresh peppers that we already had on hand. Poblanos have some mild heat, but primarily a smoky flavor. Red jalapeno is hotter. Use what you’re comfortable with, or leave them out altogether in favor of an extra onion. This is what’s great about cooking at home—you get exactly what you like. 😊

For the chipotle puree, we dump a can of chipotles with adobo directly into the food processor. The result is a thick, smoky sauce that has heat but also some fruitiness and a big dose of smoke. It keeps well in the fridge for several weeks and is a good addition to any type of Mexican dish or chili.


Instructions

As always, I’ll get you started with a visual walk-through of how I made it. You’ll find written instructions below, and keep scrolling for a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.


  1. Cut the chuck roast into equal, baseball-sized chunks. Sprinkle them all over with kosher salt and black pepper (unless your spice blend already has both).
  2. Combine the BBQ rub and oil in a large bowl. Toss the roast chunks in the oil until all sides are evenly covered. Cover the bowl and rest it at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, or up to an hour.
  3. Chop up the onion, garlic and any fresh peppers you are using, and set them aside, along with the canned green chiles.
  4. In a measuring cup, combine the remaining ingredients and whisk until blended.
  5. Heat a large pot or skillet over medium-high heat. Drizzle a small amount of oil into the pot and add the roast chunks, a few at a time to avoid crowding the pan. Remember that a quick drop in temperature will prevent good searing. Turn the pieces over when the bottom is browned, and continue this until all sides are browned. Our slow cooker has a browning feature, so I was able to do this directly. A cast-iron skillet would be perfect for this, if your slow cooker has a ceramic crock. Transfer the meat chunks to the slow cooker when they are browned all over.
  6. Scatter the onions, garlic, peppers and green chiles over the top of the meat.
  7. Pour the liquid ingredients into the cooker. If you used a separate skillet for browning, you may first want to swirl some of the liquid into it to deglaze and gather up all the tasty browned bits, so that you don’t miss any of that fabulous flavor.
  8. Tuck the bay leaves down into the liquid. Cover and cook on low setting for about 10 hours. We set this up at bedtime and woke up to the most amazing aromas.
  9. When the meat is nice and tender, remove it with tongs to a cutting board or glass baking dish and shred it. We found that undisturbed overnight cooking left the submerged bottom of the meat chunks tender, but the exposed parts were still firm. We simply turned the meat over and gave it another hour or so. To shred the meat, use two forks to pull it apart in opposite directions.
  10. Return the shredded meat to the flavorful liquid and keep it warm until ready to serve. If you plan to serve it later, refrigerate the meat and liquid together, and re-heat the amount for your recipe in a saucepan over low heat, or return it to the slow cooker if you plan to serve the whole amount.


Barbacoa is so good as a filling for street-style tacos, with fresh crunchy radishes and cilantro, plus a squeeze of lime. Or wrap it up in a larger flour tortilla with rice and peppers. Or serve it in a bowl with black beans, rice, lettuce, avocado and pico de gallo or salsa. If you’re like me, you probably won’t be able to resist having “just one more taste” straight from the slow cooker.

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Smoky Guacamole

Terrie and I enjoy surprising each other with gifts that we know the other will appreciate and play to our sense of adventure in the kitchen. So it was a few Christmases back when I opened one of my gifts and unveiled the book Buenos Nachos! by Gina Hamadey. Terrie knew that I already enjoyed making different kinds of nachos and had come to recognize herself how enjoyable nachos could be as a dinner, and relatively healthy, too, if you plan for it. The book is, as the title indicates, a treasure trove of nacho recipes, many of which come from restaurants whose owners shared their secrets. The part of the book I’ve put most to use, though, is in the smaller section on accoutrements such as salsa, guacamole, queso and “refreshments.”

Specifically, I’ve latched onto “Smoky Guacamole” as a go-to offering at parties or pre-dinner snacks at our house. I was a latecomer to guacamole, I have to admit. I moved to Southern California after college and refused to get into the chill, SoCal swing of things and eat a disgusting-looking condiment with a questionable consistency. Instead, I simply expanded George Carlin’s skepticism about “blue foods” to include pasty green stuff. I don’t remember exactly when I gave in and tried guacamole, but I cannot imagine life without it now. The freshness of the lime and cilantro added to chunks of avocado and tomatoes was made for a nacho chip. Or, in the recent case in our household, as a side/add-on to homemade barbacoa tacos.



The reason I like this particular recipe—the very first one I tried from Buenos Nachos!—is the boost guacamole gets by simply adding in a couple of tablespoons (or more, as I like to do) of chipotles in adobo sauce. The smoky spice of the adobo sauce gives guac exactly the kind of “elevate your happy” that my better half talks about so often.

Coincidentally, smoky guacamole also serves as a fine topping or side for any of the nacho dinners I put together. Next up for me out of Buenos Nachos! will be liberating and enhancing a savory cheese sauce from one of the nacho recipes. But for now, I hope you enjoy this smoky guacamole as much as we do.


The usual guac suspects are all here, but the chipotles in adobo is the standout ingredient that puts the smoke in Smoky Guacamole.

Ingredients

3 avocados, halved and cubed

2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped

Juice of half a lime

1/2 medium red onion, chopped

2 Tbsp. or more pureed chipotles in adobo sauce* (see notes)

3 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro

Salt and pepper


*Notes

To make the chipotle puree, empty an entire 7 oz. can of chipotle peppers with adobo sauce into a food processor. Pulse several times until mixture is mostly smooth. Transfer mixture to a bowl and keep in the fridge for about two weeks. In this recipe, use as much adobo as your spice meter desires. Add some to your next batch of chili, or use it to kick up a homemade bbq sauce.


Instructions


  1. Put the diced avocado in a large bowl and add the lime juice. Toss lightly to prevent the avocado browning.
  2. Add in the tomatoes, onion and chipotle-adobo puree. Stir with a large spoon or mash with a fork; if you prefer a smoother guacamole, you can mash the avocados first, but fans of chunky texture can settle for just mixing up the ingredients.
  3. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Finally, add the cilantro and fold again.

Buenos nachos!

Heaven on a chip.

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