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There are some mashups so gut-wrenchingly glorious, so decadently delicious, so damn greasy, that they deserve to be tasted, tested, improved, written about, modified, expanded, contracted, broken down, reassembled, broken down again, and possibly reassembled (after lunch) until they've finally emerged in their ultimate form. Kung Pao Popeye's might be one such mashup. Totchos—that'd be Tater Tots dressed like nachos—definitely are.
There's no shortage of Totcho recipes online, but I'm pretty happy with my own version. I've tweaked each nacho element just the way I like it.
We started with the cheese sauce. Plain old grated cheese on nachos is the worst. It melts unevenly, it breaks and turns greasy, and it congeals into crusty cheese rafts as soon as the nachos begin to lose a bit of their heat. Bechamel-based sauces don't have the requisite goo and gloss-factor. Luckily, our Gooey Cheese Sauce recipe solves both these problems by emulsifying real cheddar cheese with just a touch of cornstarch and evaporated milk.
Rather than going with store-bought salsa, we made our own charred tomato salsa by broiling tomatoes in the oven along with onions, garlic, and jalapeños. Once they were completely black on their upper surfaces, we puréed them with some lime juice and cilantro. The salsa comes out sweet, fresh, and complex, with a tinge of bitterness from the charred bits. (It also happens to be my go-to salsa recipe to go with chips).
Diced tomatoes are generally bland and watery compared to all the other flavorful toppings on nachos. Here's a trick for fixing that: salt the chopped tomatoes in advance and let them drain in a strainer while you prep the rest of the ingredients. Salt will draw out excess moisture, which leaves the tomatoes left behind far more flavorful.
To top it off, I add bunch of finely chopped Spanish chorizo sautéed in its own fat until crisp. Not exactly a traditional nacho topping, but it's so much more flavor-packed than chili or plain ground beef. For freshness, red onions, cilantro, pickled jalapeños, and scallions make the cut.
Just like you can make or break a sandwich depending on how you stack it, proper layering is essential in constructing the perfect tray of totchos. What could be worse than eating the over-gooped upper layer of tots only to find a completely goop-free lower layer? It's like when you go to the movie theater and have to slog your way through the un-buttered bottom half of the popcorn bag, desperately trying to scrape the last vestiges of the golden topping from your greasy fingers.
Moral of the story: layer your tots and ingredients so that every tot is evenly gooped, from the first to the last.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.