A Hamburger Today

An Ode to RoTel Queso (Plus 4 Things You Can Do with RoTel)

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[Photographs: Adam Kuban]

Wow. Y'all really like RoTel, huh? I know how you feel, because I love the stuff, too. Mostly because it's the key ingredient in one of my favorite easy-to-make, last-minute party dips: RoTel Queso. Or just plain queso. Or cheese dip.

Chances are you have a different name for it depending on where you're from. At one point, I had taken to calling it Midwest Nacho Dip, because nobody I met when I lived on the West Coast or here on the East Coast knew what it was — except for other Midwesterners. Of course, if anyone has a claim on the stuff, it's Texans, since the stuff was invented there, in the very bottom of the state, in Harlingen, by a man named Carl Roettele. Whoa, two t's and only one l in that name? You can see why he called his blend of chopped tomatoes and green chiles RoTel instead.

Anyway, when Kenji posted his recipe for Cheeseburger Dip last week and said it couldn't be found in NYC, he touched a nerve with a lot of folks, including me. I guess I should have kept my comments to myself, because when I noted that you could indeed find it if you looked in the right places, he challenged me to come up with some recipes it could be used in.

Honestly, the only recipe you need is the classic:

1 can RoTel + 1 pound Velveeta = Heaven in a Bowl

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Amounts here are representative, i.e., that is *not* a whole pound of Velveeta. As if. (I made half batches since we don't have anyone to give this stuff away to.)

I've actually written about this stuff before — a long time ago in a Talk topic from 2006 ("What's Your Guilty Pleasure?"), when Serious Eats had, like, 20 readers, so you probably have not seen this. I love being able to quote myself:

My "guilty" pleasure is something I call "Midwest Nachos." I think all you Midwesterners out there already know where I'm going—it's a party dip made with Ro-Tel and Velveeta.

I put "guilty" in quotes because I'm not particularly ashamed of liking this stuff. It's crazy delicious, and almost every non-Midwesterner I've introduced it to takes a shine to it after the first bite. Granted, there's a lot of arm-twisting on my part and a lot of face-making on their part, but once they dip a Tostito into the creamy yellow goodness and crunch haltingly into the tiniest tip of the tortilla chip, they surrender a part of their soul to the Heartland. BAM! Another convert.

In a former workplace, the offices of a certain women's lifestyle magazine you may have heard of, a fellow Kansas expat and I turned a good number of the staff on to this treat at the numerous birthday parties that were held for coworkers. Here were people you'd never think would go for this, and they were eating it like fiends and would in fact come to ask for it at future birthday parties.

OK. I'll admit, I do feel some unease about this treat, but not for its high fat content or its other bad-for-you-ness. I feel guilty about buying this for fear of what any foodie passerby would think. As NYMinknit says [in this comment], this stuff falls into the category of "'trashy,' 'embarassing,' or 'not acceptable to a foodie, except in an ironic way.'" And I really hate feeling that way.

I had never thought of this stuff as a "guilty pleasure" until moving to New York and meeting more and more foodies. At some point, I began to feel ashamed of even looking at the Velveeta in the refrigerator case*, much less putting it into my cart. If I had a sudden craving for my beloved snack, I would first pick up a few essentials—bread, OJ, coffee—to sort of mitigate the Velveeta purchase, like a timid teenager slipping a box of condoms among his toothpaste, gum, and deodorant. Whenever I feel this way, I stand in the 10-items-or-less lane, shake my fist to heaven, and curse the (real or imagined) foodies roving the imports aisle at Key Food: "Let me have my Midwest Nachos, and let me eat them in peace!"

Anyway, if you'd like to become as conflicted as I am about this dish, here's the recipe:

Cube a one-pound loaf of Velveeta, dump in a can of Ro-Tel, and nuke that all in a microwave-safe dish until melted. VoilĂ ! (Can you even use a French word in the vicinity of this stuff?)

If you're still feeling conflicted about all this (I still struggle with it four years later), you can always replace the Velveeta — the most questionable part — with Kenji's cheese sauce or make his cheeseburger dip minus the ground beef.

* Yes, for some reason the grocery I used to buy Velveeta from refrigerated it, when, scary stuff that it is, it's shelf-stable.

Variations on a Theme

1 Can Ro-Tel + 1 Pound Velveeta + 1/2 Pound Ground Beef or Sausage

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Again, amounts pictured are representative.

As I said, the above "recipe" is pretty much perfection as a quick and easy dip, so I've never really strayed that far from it. The most frequently cited variation online seems to be to add 1/2 pound of ground beef or sausage to the above, with some folks in the Cheeseburger Dip thread (fatty, joanmc) calling for Jimmy Dean sausage, which is what I tried in mine.

Good, but the breakfast sausage flavor threw me for a loop. Was this dip saying "game day afternoon" or "early morning breakfast"? I preferred the ground chuck of the Cheeseburger Dip recipe.

1 Can Ro-Tel + 1 Pound Cream Cheese + 1/2 Pound Ground Beef or Sausage

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In addition to adding meat to the dip, joanmc actually proposed this substitution, which I found pop up quite a bit while looking for Ro-Tel dips on the web:

Rotel + cream cheese + Jimmy Dean sausage rivals the Cheeseburger Dip!

The flavor of the Ro-Tel is distinctive enough that you almost can't tell the difference. Instead of the saltiness of the Velveeta, you get the slight tanginess of the cream cheese — oh, and a very pale dip.

Bob Armstrong Dip

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The one thing that kept coming up over and over in the Cheeseburger Dip comments was Bob Armstrong Dip. Invented at Matt's El Rancho in Austin and named for the Texas politician, the official recipe doesn't specifically call for Ro-Tel, but it sounds like SE'rs are subbing the stuff in for the diced tomato and green chiles.

I would have made a batch of this myself, folks, but after my 7-Layer Dip Showdown the other week, I did not have the patience to futz with a multilayer dip again. No, I'm saving the Bob Armstrong Dip for next year's dip-off or Super Bowl.

The Other Quick and Dirty Dip

1 Can No-Bean Chili + 8 Ounces Cream Cheese

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Every time I make or mention the Ro-Tel dip, my wife (who seems determined to play the contrarian in all my dip-making schemes) always mentions a dip she recalls from long ago: No-bean chili + cream cheese.

Apparently a Texan friend of hers used to make it. I googled around and found a recipe that called for layering cream cheese, no-bean chili, and cheddar and then baking it. When I presented that to the wife, however, she was like, "WHAT?"

The cheese on top had melted and released an unappetizing-looking layer of grease, and, layered as it was, the cream cheese did not mix well with the chili when scooped.

Turns out, you're just supposed to mix the chili and the cream cheese together in a small slow-cooker.

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