Citizens – while many are celebrating the start of Summer and a long weekend today, I am choosing to also remember what Memorial Day is REALLY all about: honoring those who made the supreme sacrifice and gave their lives in the service of our country over the last 245 years. In the last two decades, we have grown sadly polarized (dare I even say tribalistic?) in our politics – a fact which sickens me to no end. We are ALL Americans, equal and (supposedly) indivisible and I hope we return soon to those halcyon days of yore when we weren’t continuously at each others throats over Red or Blue partisanship.
Today, I propose to celebrate that fading memory of inclusiveness in addition to our fallen troops with a recipe from the heart of Texas. I speak of nothing less than queso (cheese) dip – a sacrosanct Texas culinary treasure that unites us in mutual love of cheese, chips and gastronomy as one TFD Nation! Interestingly, the two states with the most total active duty and reserve members of the military, as of September 2017, were: California with 184,540 followed by Texas with 164,234 – an apropos statistic as I live in CA and my wife’s family are all from TX (many of whom served honorably and with distinction in the Navy, Air Force and Army from WW II to the present-day).
As noted in a fascinating article from mashed.com:
The origins of queso dip, a potluck staple, may be steeped in the heart of Texas, but that’s not who first developed an Americanized twist on Mexican flavors and called it cheese dip. Queso dip has been around for quite a long time in a form we could likely recognize as the dish we know today. The first published recipe of this cheesy and slightly spicy side has been attributed to an 1896 issue of an American magazine called The Land of Sunshine (via The New Yorker).
The entry for “chiles verdes con queso” was categorized under the heading of “Mexican food” and discovered by queso researcher Lisa Fain, blogger of Homesick Texan and author of the book “Queso! Regional Recipes for the World’s Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip.” Fain describes this original dish as being chile-heavy instead of cheese-focused, but we imagine it’s still delicious. The evolution to cheesey-ooey-gooey sauce likely was influenced by the popularity of fondue and a British favorite dish called Welsh rarebit which, surprisingly, is a version of melted cheese over toast.
Fain reports recipes for “Mexican rarebit” as early as 1914 adding chiles to the melty cheese, likely a precursor to our queso today. And while the origins may surprise you, the region that drove the popularity of this dish is likely common knowledge. The rise of chile con queso is widely attributed to Texas and Tex-Mex cooking (via American Express Essentials).
One specific source may date back to a 1918 menu at Martinez Café (now called El Fenix) by Mexican restaurateur Miguel Martinez. This queso was specifically designed for chips and is the kind we expect to hang out near our guacamole and salsa or pico. “The queso became such a huge hit, it quickly evolved into the signature dip that is still served to — and beloved by — our guests today,” says Alfred Martinez Jr, grandson of Miguel and the family’s now franchise operation.
And while Texas has been eating queso for over 100 years, you can thank the 1960s and ’70s for bringing this hit dish mainstream for the rest of us. Rotel dip used the well-known Rotel tomatoes with cheese product Velveeta to help develop our common make-at-home favorite today.
Another article from amexessentials.com goes into further historic detail:
In Texas, queso isn’t just a dip, it’s a way of life.
Queso, which means cheese in Spanish, isn’t a direct translation when you’re ordering it with a basket of tortilla chips or drizzled over a breakfast taco, but rather an abbreviation for chile con queso, an almost liquid melted cheese dish dating back to turn-of-the-century Texas, when Tex-Mex cuisine originated. Now, queso is eponymous with the beloved dip, found in fast food and sit-down establishments across the state (and beyond, thanks to Texas expats craving queso wherever they ended up), but it’s truly distinct from its food of origin, Mexico’s queso fundido.
Rick Lopez, Executive Chef at contemporary Austin Mexican restaurant La Condesa, explains: “Queso fundido [molten cheese] uses cheeses that are more suitable to be baked and melted, including chihuahua cheese, asadero and even mozzarella, typically paired with red chorizo, strips of roasted peppers and/or onions. Fundido is usually served with tortillas and a salsa or pickled vegetables. On the other hand, Tex-Mex queso is fondue that utilises more milk to create a mornay sauce, and is very thick and creamy, yet perfect for dipping chips or totopos.”
While queso is speculated to have originated in Mexico sometime in the 19th century (if not before), the first known recipe for queso dates back to 1896. As Texas food expert Lisa Fain writes in her book QUESO!: Regional Recipes for the World’s Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip, the recipe was published in a story about Mexican food in California-based magazine The Land of Sunshine.
At the time, European-style fondue was rising in popularity across the Atlantic, which could account for the idea behind the Mexican-European mash-up dip. Preserved menus from the decades that followed show chile con queso was served on restaurant menus in San Antonio and then beyond. Recipes for queso in cookbooks and community publications became more commonplace.
Texas, which became America’s 28th state in 1845, shares a border with Mexico, and had previously existed as a part of Mexico (1821-1836), making Mexican heritage and cuisine an inherent part of Texas’ identity before it even joined the United States. Some speculate that queso as we know it today was developed to make Mexican food resemble more Anglo-American dishes, and therefore more palatable to those who may shun ethnic cuisine.
In 1918, Mexican restaurateur Miguel Martinez opened Martinez Café (now called El Fenix) in Dallas, a restaurant which offered American-style dishes with some Mexican flare, i.e. early Tex-Mex. The restaurant developed queso to top tacos, and eventually, “The queso became such a huge hit, it quickly evolved into the signature dip that is still served to – and beloved by – our guests today,” says Alfred Martinez Jr, grandson of Miguel Martinez. El Fenix now has 22 locations across the state, and is one of many fast-food-style chains that offers the dip with a cult following. Torchy’s Tacos, which serves queso topped with chorizo or guacamole with a basket of crispy tortilla chips, is another name tossed around Texas as a local favourite.
Queso surged in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, when the emergence of processed foods and TV marketing promoted cooking and enjoying queso at home. Texas-based canned tomato company Rotel started advertising outside of the state, and encouraged making Rotel dip by mixing its cans of tomatoes and peppers with pasteurised cheese, i.e. Velveeta. Both products are still common in at-home Texas-style queso.
I have been to many a family get-together in Texas where this orange pot of bubbling cheesy salvation graced the table with a benison of melted goodness (proof if you ever needed it of a kind and loving Deity) – and I’m quite glad for it, as I am very fond of the dish. Now, I shall risk excommunication by attempting to place my own stamp upon a Texas mainstay – so buckle up, it’s going to be a hell of a ride, Citizens! 🙂
First off, I would never DARE mess with the foundation of melted Velveeta® ‘cheese’ and Ro*Tel® diced tomatoes with peppers – that is a combination that defies improvement, at least for this recipe! What I WILL tweak are what goes into it – the simplest queso are just these two ingredients, and while delicious, I CAN improve the interstitial flavors that will combine to make this more nuanced, more meaty and above all – even better than the two ingredients alone!
Roasted garlic is a most welcome addition, as is adding in charred, peeled FRESH poblanos – both add savor and smoke to the final dish! I also like to add some well-cooked lean ground beef to the dip, preferably 90/10 lean-to-fat ratio, for more meaty savor – well-browned sausage would also work, but it tends to be very fatty and that grease never emulsifies well with the cheese. To simulate sausage flavor, I instead add some fennel pollen (finely-ground fennel seed also works) to simulate that flavor profile without the added fat (buy top-quality fennel seed pollen from here). Fennel pollen is more subtle and more ‘buttery’ in flavor, so I prefer it in this recipe.
I also like a TINY bit of of another Texas flavor mainstay – mesquite smoke and in tandem with that, the unfairly-maligned Monosodium Glutamate – aka MSG. My preferred method of adding both plus salt and other spices is an ingredient well-known in the State’s Tex-Mex cooking: Bolner’s® Fiesta Brand Mesquite Flavored Fajita Seasoning! A little sprinkling really helps to develop all the other flavors and adds that subtle Mesquite flavor that really takes my version over the top! Two additions I have added are totally optional – a little onion powder and cumin, which also help to simulate sausage flavor, but to MY personal specifications!
Citizens, I am highly confident you will fall head-over-heels for My version of a deserved Texas classic – consider enjoying it before a bowl of classic Texas chili (made to my own exhaustive specifications, of course!) and please remember all those who died so we can live in freedom on this most somber of holidays – regardless of politics.
Battle on – The GeneralissimoPrint
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