Read this book: “Queso! Regional Recipes for the World’s Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip” by Lisa Fain (Ten Speed Press, $15)
By Wendell Brock
You may think there’s only one recipe for cheese dip, and of course that would be the gooey, addictive chile con queso they serve at your favorite Tex-Mex joint.
In fact, as Lisa Fain (aka The Homesick Texan) demonstrates in her delightful new book, there are dozens of variations of the crowd friendly classic that people love to scoop up with tortilla chips. When it comes to queso, most of us have no problem paying extra and pushing aside the complimentary salsa that’s standard at many Mexican joints. (And better for you, too.)
Depending on where you grew up, your familiarity with queso may be limited to the restaurant standard; in fact, there’s a whole world of chile-cheese dip that’s easy to whisk up at home.
Just in time for tailgate season, “Queso!” celebrates the cheesy social lubricant in all its melted glory, starting with early recipes that first appear around the time Swiss fondue and Welsh rarebit came into vogue (the late 1800s) and moving forward to the present day.
Into a pot of bubbling cheese, Fain tells us, you can add almost anything: beef picadillo, spicy chorizo, spinach, cactus, corn.
And once you’ve concocted that queso, you can top it with guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, chili, beef fajitas; stir in crab; crawfish tails, or sausage; or use it as a topping for tacos, hamburgers, eggs, chicken-fried steak—even as a dressing for wedge salad sprinkled with Fritos.
Fain’s recipes, for standards and all kinds of quirky variations, look absolutely delicious.
Lady Bird Johnson’s Chile Con Queso, published in The Washington Post in 1964, called for aged cheddar, which created a lumpy mess the White House chef referred to as “chile con concrete.” This is a good time to point out that many cheeses aren’t naturally smooth when melted, so American cheese and processed bricks of cheese are often the best way to go.
If you don’t eat cheese, Fain offers a couple of vegan versions. And if you can’t stand the thought of American cheese or Velveeta, she shares a scientific method for making smooth, velvety queso with real cheese. (The secret is sodium citrate, a salt.)
I’ll let you decide if that defeats the purpose of this guilty pleasure.
Meanwhile, if you see me at the grocery store with a brick of Velveeta, a bag of tortilla chips and a six-pack, don’t judge. Just grab a chip and dig in!
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock) .