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My wife and I celebrate most major holidays with a potluck affair at my in-laws', and New Year's is no exception. Usually, I spend time crafting the perfect dish to awe our mass of cousins and then relish in their enthusiasm for whatever fatty meat I've cooked up. But this year, we found ourselves in a kitchen-less hotel room in Austin, instead of our usual home-base of Houston, TX.
As I sat over lunch at Hopdoddy with the siblings, we pondered what we could make that would require minimal prep and little-to-no cooking. Our first thought? To take inspiration from the smooth and flavorful green chili queso into which we were enthusiastically dipping our fries. My sister-in-law took to the internet to find a winning recipe, but came up empty-handed. So, saddened but not deterred, we picked our server's brain about their house queso and I began devising a recipe in my head as he dished on their preferred chili choices.
I started to see that it wasn't going to be the easiest thing to quickly throw together, so we didn't end up tackling the dip for the celebration—I filled that role with crackling skinned chicken wings that went as fast as I could fry them—but I knew it was the first thing I wanted to take on for Sauced in the new year.
Getting that Green Chili Flavor
The question of how to make the cheese sauce was never an issue—I've been making Kenji's cheeseburger dip with great success for years, so I planned to use that as my base recipe here. But I did want to figure out how to get the most green chili flavor into the dip, and that required some modifications.
In an ideal world, I would have sought out the much-loved Hatch chili—Hopdoddy said they use Hatches when they can—but seasonality and locality make it a difficult find for most, so I looked to my common stand-in for decent green chili flavor and went with poblanos.
I roasted a couple of poblanos until they were softened, for a heightened fruitiness that would shine through their heat. I wanted their flavor to really permeate the sauce, so I chopped them finely in a food processor and added them to a saucepan with evaporated milk. Once it was heated up, I added in a cornstarch-coated 2:1 mix of mild Monterey Jack and white American cheese to melt. For some added punch, I also roasted a jalapeño and threw it into the mix, and finished the sauce with some cilantro and green onion.
I was after green chili flavor and I got it, but it wasn't quite what I was looking for. The jalapeño dominated the more subtle poblanos, drowning them out almost completely. Meanwhile, the Monterey Jack delivered the mellow base that I wanted, but it lacked the silky-smooth texture of previous cheese dips I've made.
Fixing that Green Chili Flavor
I certainly wanted heat in my dip, but jalapeño delivered too much. I started to think of a more predictable and measurable heat source and immediately grabbed the cayenne. As I started to measure it out, I thought I could use this opportunity to also add more depth to the sauce and decided to do a 50/50 mix of cayenne and chipotle powder to add a little smokiness to the spice. I also tossed in some cumin and adjusted the cheese ratio so it was more American-heavy.
This time around, things were looking up—the roasted poblanos gave strong character to the smooth cheese sauce, for a well-rounded and nuanced flavor with hints of smokiness, earthiness, and a final punch of heat on the tail end. The only problem was the dip was too American-cheesy for my taste; switching back to an equal combo of Jack and American fixed that problem right up.
I finally had the cheese sauce I set out to make. Maybe during the few weeks that Hatches actually show up in New York, I'll take another stab at it, but for now, this is a queso I can proudly bring to the family celebrations to come (think SuperBowl).
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