When I received the invitation to John’s 60th birthday party, I wasn’t quite sure why Pat and I had been invited. We had once hosted John and his wife Suzanne at our house for Mardi Gras (if you were there, you will recall the giant vat of China Mist Iced Tea – and you’ll note that we still drink from the sleeve of China Mist cups he brought, lo, those many years ago). John’s a fun guy and Suzanne is adorable, and we exchange Facebook pleasantries, thumbs up and witty retorts. That said, it’s not like we hang out every weekend, but the invitation alluded to the possibility of games, and when the birthday boy personally contacted me to say, “Be on the look out for the invite!” … well, how could I say no?
Three days after the fact, I have a feeling John and Suzanne might be regretting that invitation.
We arrived at the appointed hour, knowing only the host, hostess and one other couple. Our name tags had “Seven” written on them beneath our names. Surveying the party yard, I saw magic markers, poster board, a buffet of pre-chopped vegetables, a smorgasbord of cheeses, an open bar (!) and a perimeter of folding tables, each with its own campstove, fuel source, lidded pot, cutting board, knife, tasting spoons and utensils.
“We’re cooking something,” I whispered to Pat. “It’s on, bitches.”
John then explained the rules of the game: Throughout his travels with Suzanne and their adorable (and really smart) kids Neo and Eco, the family orders nachos wherever they go – including Holland (don’t bother). Sadly, their favorite nachos hailed not from Arizona, California, New Mexico or Texas… They came from some joint in Martha’s Vineyard.
It would be a Nacho Redemption Cook.
Nine teams of eight adults each plus two teams of about 40 kids apiece (I lost count; they were all short and squealing) would compete to see who could build the tastiest nachos, as judged by John, Suzanne, the head of catering for Macayo’s Mexican Kitchen and the head chef for Macayo’s. In addition, each team would need to create a name-brand for their original-recipe nachos, as well as a slogan, an advertising poster and a jingle. Oh, and the nachos had to be vegetarian, because John and Suzanne are vegetarian.
For the record, the invitation was sent and accepted before I tasted my first kale chip.
You have 90 minutes: Time starts now. Before Team Seven even rendevoused on the rooftop deck, Pat had started Siri on the timer. Appropriately, we called our hideout the Seven Up, where we introduced ourselves and sorted out our talents. Included in our midst was the head of an advertising agency, a former graphic designer and a veteran of competitive cooking wars (that would be me). We decided Team Seven would shamelessly appeal to John’s loves: His penchant for mezcal and his adoration for his Uncle Joe, and we even threw in some Grateful Dead for good measure.
“Well, who’s going to cook?”
“I finished second in the People’s Choice division for Gladiators of Gumbo,” I said. “We’ll use mushrooms as a meat substitute. Carmelize some onions, use the mezcal to burn off the brown bits, then sautee the mushrooms in the mezcal sauce – maybe throw in some black beans and call it a night. I got this.”
Kelley would be our food stylist, and Pat, my trusty sous chef. Steve would be our procurer of goods. The rest of our team – Mel, Stan, Dan and Liza – would work on the slogan and jingle. Pat fired up the burner for me (since I didn’t have a fire extinguisher).
Manning my fire, I noticed several other teams sent spies to each of the tables to sniff out the competition. I shooed them away with some choice vocabulary as I stirred my onions. As the clock ticked down, we noticed the other tables were focused more on dressing up their tables by raiding the catering area for serapes and big floppy hats. Dan, Liza, Mel and Stan popped by to rehearse our jingle “Uncle Joe’s Nachos” sung (pitifully) to Uncle John’s Band.
“It’s time to plate!” Pat shouted.
“How much time? How much time?” I asked, as Kelley arranged the chips on our platter. We only had enough for just seven measly chips, whereas our competitors had served Cialis-sized pallets of nachos to the judges. We grabbed our fresh toppings and raced to the oven, waited for our cheese to bubble, sprinkled the top with fresh tomato, lime, cilantro and the tiniest hint of purple onion and presented to our judges, just in the nick of time.
“What we have for you tonight is a mezcal-infused nacho with mushrooms and black beans serving as our protein. We have a little jalapeno burn in the back, plus three kinds of cheese. The base of the nacho is carmelized onions with some sauteed green bell pepper and garlic. Enjoy.”
I tried to do it like the do on Chopped: It’s harder than it looks, Food Network fans. The judges smiled and nodded. In the end, only one sad chip remained.
We then mumbled through our jingle and returned to our table. Arrayed around us, our competitors’ tables looked like booths at a Mexican tourism-board travel fair with candles, fake flowers and elegantly designed posters.
Our table looked like my kitchen after Mardi Gras… or my kitchen on any other night of the week… or afternoon… or Sunday morning after breakfast.
“Shit. Were we supposed to decorate our table?” I asked… “We need a better sign!”
As each team walked up on stage in numerical order to display their hand-lettered posters and sing their exquisite songs,Pat grabbed every magic marker he could find to scribble out some semblance of a logo (What had our teammates been doing all this time, besides slaughtering a Grateful Dead tune and drinking? Oh yeah, drinking.) We dumped the contents of our table into our up-turned chefs hats, pushed those behind the tablecloth and brushed the debris onto the grass (sorry!). We dubbed our table-tableau, Minimalist. We didn’t need to bring our school’s Glee Club out to do an adorable, original song like one of the kids’ teams (overachievers!). Our food would speak for itself… since our table said, “Ugly” and our jingle said, “Wha???”
Then came judgment time: We did not win Best Jingle – that would be the team that spoofed the Brady Bunch theme and listed all of their ingredients (at least I think it was them – I might have been drinking at this point). We did not win Best Slogan or Best Sign (that daily-double went to the team that like their nachos the way they like their women – a little bit of sweet / a little bit of heat). But when John raised the giant, one-liter glass gun of tequila in the air, I knew.
“And the winner, whose nachos are good enough to be served at Macayos, is TEAM SEVEN!”
WEEEEEE ARE THE CHAMPIONS, MY FRIEND!
I ran up to the stage and hoisted the (surprisingly heavy) trophy into the air.
“I’m sorry y’all had to compete against us! Team SEVEN rules! Woo-hoo!” I shouted doing an incredibly Caucasian victory dance. Then I hoisted the gun-shaped bottle over my head and squealed: “Say hello to my little friend!”
Their 11-year-old daughter was nonplussed and kept saying that the only reason THE KIDS didn’t win was because the prize was alcohol.
“You should probably take that up with your Dad then since he’s the one who bought the prize… and just gave it to TEAM SEVEN! WOOT! WOOT! Winner winner, nacho dinner! Put that in your backpack and suck on it!”
Yeah, I’m classy like that… trash-talking to an 11-year old. Suffice it to say, when I shouldered the rifle of tequila and began parading around the backyard, I think my invitation to the 70th birthday party was revoked… which is a shame, because the 60th was a helluva a good time.
So, I will say THANK YOU, to my excellent Team Seven-mates: Dan, Liza, Stan, Steve, Mel, Food Stylist Kelley and Graphic Artist Pat. Couldn’t have won it without you – and I just wish y’all all lived in Arizona so we’d have someone to drink this tequila with (a line is gathering in our driveway). A heartfelt thanks (and many apologies) to our gracious hosts, John and Suzanne, for the invitation. It was definitely a night to remember… or at least one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon unless I exercise my Second Amendment rights and drink that whole bottle of tequila.
Oh, and here’s the winning recipe for UNCLE JOE’S NACHOS:
NOTE: I have no idea how much this makes – our original recipe only made seven (7) nachos, as our procurement officer Steve was searching for only the finest, freshest ingredients. One would have thought I was competing in The Taste instead of Vegetarian Pitmasters. So I’ve tried to scale this up, but I cannot guarantee the results since Pat won’t let me back in the Bertinelli Test Kitchen because I insist on open-carrying my tequila gun around while singing Uncle John’s Band.
- Sturdy chips, I mean, seriously STURDY – they need to be able to lift some weight and maintain crunch. I think we may have had fried flour tortillas, but whatever those chips are at Macayo’s, they’re good.
- 2 tablespoons of cooking oil
- Half a white onion, chopped
- 1 green bell pepper
- 4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 ounces of mezcal
- 8-10 white mushrooms (slice 3/4ths of them and chop the rest)
- 2-5 fresh jalapenos, chopped, seeds and membranes removed (We have asbestos lining our soft palates. You may have a lower threshold for pain. Choose accordingly).
- 1 can of black beans, drained
- 1/2 cup of grated machego cheese
- 1/2 cup of grated cheddar cheese
- 1/4 cup of grated mystery cheese (it was white and had a really hard consistency, almost like reggiano parmigiano but it had a slightly less tangy flavor – you just want to dust this on top – because it’ll have a little crisp to it)
- 2 teaspoons of ancho chile powder
- 2 teaspoons of chipotle powder
- Squirt of fresh lime juice
- Finely chopped fresh veggies to sprinkle on top when you’re done cooking: Tomato, cilantro, avocado (thinly sliced), red onion (use sparingly)
- salt to taste
- Vegetable cutting board
- Can opener
- Strainer for your beans
- Empty bowls
- Slotted spoon
- Frying pan with a lid (Just in case the mezcal ignites, we need to stop the fire)
- Spatula / stirring device of your preference (the lucky olive-wood roux-turner was at home)
- Cheese grater
- 2 standard, run-of-the-mill dessert spoons or plastic spoons. One for tasting, one for scooping.
- Copious pot holders (you’ll thank us)
- Good lighting (Our hosts provided us with a camp light, and we used our iPhone flashlights, but I’m a big fan of overheads now that my eyes are 42).
INSTRUCTIONS (Again, I haven’t reproduced this in daylight on a stove so I’m not sure how this will work).
Over medium-ish heat, warm up your oil and throw in your onions with a little salt. Start stirring. You want to get as close to a real, carmelized onion as you can, to break down those sugars inside. They need to get brown. I have no idea how long this takes because I couldn’t really see what was happening in my pot. I’d say go for 20-25 minutes and keep stirring (Sorry, nothing I cook takes less than an hour, and we had 90 minutes – VICTORY TAKES TIME, PEOPLE). You’re hoping for brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Toss in your bell peppers and garlic and go for another 5 minutes.
With your slotted spoon, remove your faux-trinity / fake mirepoix mixture (onions, bell pepper, garlic – a trinity has celery; a mirepoix has carrots) to one of your empty bowls (see how I did that?). Don’t drain off your oil and you don’t have to get all the stuff out of your pan because you still want your brown bits. Turn up the heat and add your mezcal. It will steam up. DISCLAIMER: I hope it doesn’t catch on fire, but keep that lid handy. I am not responsible for your arm-hair or eyebrows. Keep stirring and cook off that alcohol. It’ll bubble a lot. Once it doesn’t smell like a morning of regret (maybe a minute or two?), toss in your mushrooms, jalapenos and black beans. Add half of your ancho and chipotle chile powders (Again, I have no idea how much we used, but you can titrate based on your pain threshold). Add another dash of salt to taste. Stir that around for another 5 minutes or so until the jalapenos have softened and the mushrooms look like “sauteed mushrooms.” Turn off your heat source.
Now, you can start the delicate process of assembly. Preheat your oven to “nuclear.” It was a commercial-grade oven and I have no idea how hot it was. Let’s just say that when you’re at Macayo’s and they tell you not to touch the plates, I now know why.
Array your sturdy chips on a platter. I like a single layer of chips. If you start piling chips upon chips upon chips, something’s gonna get soggy; someone’s not going to get cheese or faux protein or vegetables; and you will lose the nacho cookoff.
Spread a spoonful of your onion-bell pepper-garlic mixture on top of each chip. Add one layer of machego cheese. Spread a spoonful of mushroom-black bean-jalapeno mixture on top of the machego cheese. Sprinkle the cheddar on top of that. Finish with a dusting of mystery cheese. Dust with a little finishing salt – just a dash of kosher – and a squirt of lime on each (not too much). Put that platter in the oven, careful not to burn yourself.
Keep an eye on it. You want the cheese to just start to bubble. On “nuclear,” it took about 2 minutes, tops. Grab your potholders (we prefer kevlar) and remove your platter of goodness from the oven.
Sprinkle (and I mean sprinkle in the stingiest way possible) some of your FINELY diced red onion on top of each chip, along with a little bit of chopped tomato (maybe one, pea-sized piece) and a leaf of cilantro. Slice an avocado finely and lay a small piece across the top of each one. What we want is, crunch on the bottom from the chip, then layers of flavor through the mild, sweet base of onion, then through the mezcal-mushroom with a little back-end heat from jalapeno, then up through the gooey cheese and finally a little pop of crisp freshness on the end. Nachos can get mushy fast with all that stuff on them.
Sadly, you won’t have as good a food-stylist in your home as Kelley is, so your nachos probably won’t taste as good as ours because they won’t look as pretty, but that’s OK, you won’t be competing against Team Seven at home, so you won’t have to worry about sheepishly looking like Taylor Swift at the Grammy’s.
If you are competing with this recipe, you will want to rehearse your victory dance so you don’t make a complete fool of yourself (too late, Stacy) and make sure you rehearse your victory speech so you thank all your teammates and don’t make a complete ass of yourself (way too late, Stacy), and hope that 10 years from now, your hosts will have forgotten the spectacle you made of yourself and that their daughter isn’t managing the guest list (they have long memories, Stacy, consider yourself blacklisted).
Happy Birthday to John… and Neo… and Eco – and thanks again to Suzanne for being such a gracious hostess. Cheers!