With Cinco de Mayo just around the corner, the logical thing for me to do would be to share a traditional Mexican recipe culled from the multitude of cook books on my shelf, complete with the history, lore and techniques to back it up.
Instead, the recipe today calls on my childhood recollections, inspired by the Texas mentality that brought you Dr. Pepper as a marinade for pork. Where required eating at the Texas State Fair was a small bag of Fritos smothered in chili, cheese and onions cleverly called a “walk away chili cocktail.”
Back when the school district counted French fries with ketchup as two of your daily servings of vegetables.
Today’s dish is Chili con Queso, not unheard of in Mexico (known as queso fundido), but elevated to an art form in Texas. Every church, school, or non-profit organization’s fundraising cookbook would have at least one.
In its most elemental form, it consisted of melted Velveeta mixed with a can of Ro Tel tomatoes, a mixture of diced tomato and green chili. From there the variations begin whether it’s different cheeses — Monterrey Jack, cheddar, Asadero, Chihuahua, or even goat cheese — or various chilies like poblanos, Anaheims, serranos or jalapenos. Some versions use chicken stock or milk. You might even see a splash of tequila.
Our version uses a little milk and flour in the form of a béchamel (a basic white sauce) to which we add the cheese, chilies and seasoning. I feel this approach is a little more forgiving in both the preparation and serving. Because of the béchamel you avoid the oil slick that can sometimes form on a sauce made with just cheese. And when serving, the béchamel buys you a little more time at the table before the cooling causes the queso to get too firm to eat easily.
Incidentally, this is essentially the recipe we use for mac ‘n’ cheese only without the chilies and spices. The thing that keeps it in the “trashy”, Texas, tongue-in-cheek sort of vein is the Velveta and French’s mustard.
This is a great dish for the upcoming Cinco de Mayo festivities. It can be made ahead of time so long as you reheat it gently. A fondue set or warming plate is a good idea to keep the dish warm enough for dipping. Serve it with tortilla chips, slather it on warm tortillas or for the true Texas experience, a bag of Fritos. Dip in!
Chili con Queso
Makes about 6 cups
2 ounces butter
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
5 tablespoons flour
4 cups milk
8 ounces Velveeta, cubed
6 ounces cheddar, grated
1 ounce French’s mustard
2 poblano chilies, roasted, peeled and diced
1 can Ro Tel tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon salt
To clean the poblanos, place them over an open flame or under a broiler and cook them, turning frequently, until the skin is black but not to the point of gray (ash). Place them in a bowl and cover with plastic. Let rest for 15 minutes. Scrape the blackened skin off with the back side of a knife. Open them up and scrape out the seeds. Discard the stem.
In a small sauce pan, sauté the garlic and cumin until fragrant. Stir in the flour, and cook for about one minute stirring constantly. Add about a half a cup of the milk and stir to make a paste, then add the rest of the milk and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook for two minutes. Stir in the cubed Velveeta, and stir until melted. Add the shredded cheddar and stir until melted. Stir in the diced chilies and Ro Tel tomatoes and return just to a simmer. Add the salt and taste. Either serve warm, or cool and refrigerate. Reheat over low heat stirring frequently.
Brian Shaw and his wife, Ardie, own Cafe Del Rio in Virginia City.