Who among us, beset by workaday woes, hasn’t gone looking for solace in a basket of crispy fried tortilla chips and a bowl of hot, velvety cheese festooned with juicy tomatoes and spicy chiles? If you’re like most Texans, you were probably weaned on the stuff, no doubt ladled from a crockpot abubble with Ro-Tel and Velveeta, that addictive yellow loaf of pasteurized cheese product.
Likely a descendant of queso flameado, the “flamed cheese” of northern Mexico, chile con queso (and by the way, gringos, it’s “keh-so,” not “kay-so”) might as well be its own food group in this state. The ridiculously gratifying Tex-Mex fondue is a fixture on restaurant menus and an honored guest at any tailgating party, church social, or backyard fiesta.
But home cooks trying to make something other than the Velveeta standby are often confounded by the whole affair, their hard work resulting in either an oil slick or something akin to igneous rock. The fact is, like it or not, the creamy queso most of us know and love is made with processed cheese. If that offends your epicurean sensibilities, you can take heart knowing that Julia Child, upon sampling her first queso at Matt Martinez Jr.’s No Place restaurant, in Dallas, reportedly indulged in three more servings.
Matt Martinez’s Chile con Queso
(Serves 6 to 8)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 cup finely chopped sweet onion
1/2 cup finely chopped
jalapeño (you can use canned green chiles if you prefer; just add them with the tomatoes)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup chicken broth
8 ounces American cheese (I like the white American; if all you can find are the singles, stack them up and cut into little blocks)
1 cup chopped tomatoes
Using a heavy pot, heat the oil on medium-high and sauté the onion, jalapeño, and dry ingredients for 2 to 3 minutes, until the onion is translucent. Add the broth and heat 3 to 4 minutes, allowing the sauce to thicken, then add the cheese and tomatoes. Carefully simmer the queso on low heat for 3 to 5 minutes, adjusting its thickness to suit your taste by adding broth or cheese. Serve hot and keep warm, stirring every so often to avoid the dreaded “cheese skin.”
Adapted from Matt Martinez’s Culinary Frontier: A Real Texas Cookbook, by Matt Martinez Jr. and Steve Pate. Published by Doubleday.