I had some very special guests coming over this past Wednesday and so I spent the weekend before that trying to figure out what to make. My first destination was the top shelf of my cookbook collection, where, as you now know, I keep the books I’m most excited to cook from these days. The book that I reached for was Nancy Silverton’s Mozza at Home which, I’ve come to believe, is Nancy Silverton’s best cookbook.
I own all of Nancy’s books–from her iconic Breads from the La Brea Bakery to The Food of Campanile (which she wrote with her then-husband, Mark Peel)–but this one is really geared towards the home cook, much more so than the others. Sure, it’s nice to know how she makes her sourdough bread (and I made that recipe once from Breads from the La Brea Bakery, almost a decade ago, creating a wild yeast starter with grapes and flour and water in an open Tupperware container… my roommate Lauren wasn’t thrilled), but it’s even better to know how she feeds her actual friends who are coming over for dinner. And as I flipped through the pages, I suddenly found my answer in the least likely recipe you’d ever expect to find in a Nancy Silverton cookbook: her version of Dean Fearing’s Frito Pie.
As Nancy tells the story, she was at a food event where she ran into her old friend Dean Fearing “one of the pioneers of southwestern cuisine” and was surprised to discover him serving chili directly in a Fritos bag. Says Nancy, “I took a bag of Dean’s Frito pie, dug my spoon down into it so I penetrated all the layers, and took a bite. I just loved it–the hot chili with the cold sour cream and crunchy Fritos. At first bite, I knew that I would have to make and serve Frito pies one day in my own backyard.”
To seal the deal for me, one of my dinner guests, Jim (you might be familiar) is from Texas and so this really seemed like the perfect thing to make.
DAY ONE: MAKE THE CHILI PASTE
I started on Monday at the Grand Central Market where I loaded up on chiles (ancho and pasilla), plus cumin and coriander seeds at Valeria’s Chilies and Spices:
This place is a great place to know about, I bought tons of everything (spices, chilies) and the grand total came to $14. No more buying spices at Gelson’s!
Back at home, I began the insane process of making the chili paste. I should tell you here that there’s no way in the world that I’m typing up this recipe, it’s four pages long. So you’ll have to buy Nancy’s book or take it out of the library or find this recipe elsewhere online (sorry). But you’ll get to see lots of inspiring pictures here, so that’s something!
It all begins by toasting peanuts in the oven, then the chilies, and then the cumin and coriander seeds in a skillet which you then grind in a spice grinder (one of my favorite tools in the kitchen).
Next–and this is where things start to get a little kooky–she has you fry strips of tortillas in hot oil to make crispy tortilla strips that’ll get ground up in the paste. If I had to do this all over again, I may have just thrown a few Fritos in the blender instead, but don’t tell Nancy that.
Then it’s just a matter of sautéing onions, carrots, celery, shallots, and garlic in oil…
Adding all of the chilies and ground spices…
And finally beer and orange juice.
You cook that all down until the liquid is reduced by half, then you add in the peanuts and tortilla strips…
…and cook until the liquid’s evaporated and the tortillas are soggy.
I have to say, despite all the steps here, this was actually really fun and smelled really good. Plus I was listening to Tropicalia Essentials, which is a great album to cook to, in my opinion. (I also listened to Rod Stewart Unplugged, but that’s our little secret.)
Into the blender that all went…
I had to add some water to make it blend up.
Then I scraped that into a bowl…
And our Day One work was done. We had achieved chili paste.
DAY TWO: MAKE THE CHILI
At the start of Day 2, I went to Gelson’s and bought the rest of the ingredients, including the most important one.
I also bought the meat for the chili. Nancy calls for beef sirloin, which is a bit pricey, but definitely worth it. As Nancy says: “It isn’t a great cut of meat, but it works perfectly in this recipe. After being cooked for more than an hour in the chili ‘gravy,’ the meat becomes tender, but the cubes aren’t mushy and they don’t fall apart like more tender cuts of meat might. You still need teeth to eat it.”
Most of the work on Day 2 involved browning the meat, the most important step in anything like this (a braise, really), because that’s where so much of the flavor comes from. The secret? Don’t crowd the pan. That means taking your time, and listening to more music. This time around: Promises, Promises and You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown. These are the right musicals to listen to in the fall, by the way. They don’t work in the spring (try A New Brain and Carousel for that).
Once all the meat is browned, you cook onions and scrape up all those delicious brown bits. Then you add all the meat back in…
And all that chili paste you worked so hard to make. (Really, it was nothing. I enjoyed it!)
Stir that all together and then add some blended chiles in adobo…
And cook that all together for an hour and a half, until you have the most glorious chili you’ve ever seen or tasted.
Really, this is incredible stuff. If you just stopped here, you’d be a very happy person. But we’re not stopping here so…
Let it cool, put the lid on, and refrigerate overnight.
By the way, you don’t have to do this over three days; I just did that so I could relax and enjoy myself at the dinner party. Which brings us to…
DAY THREE: TIME FOR FRITO PIE
So there were other things at this dinner besides Frito Pie. I made the Caesar Salad that Nancy recommends you serve with it (heavy on the lime and Tabasco); and I made this Tres Leches Cake from Food and Wine Magazine which I’ve made before and it’s always a hit.
I also went to Gilly Flowers in Silverlake and asked for a bouquet that would go nicely with a Frito Pie. I’d say they did a nice job!
Then it was just a matter of prepping all the toppings: onions, queso fresco, Cheddar, crema, cilantro, etc.
At last the moment arrived and the Frito Pie party began.
First up, the Caesar Salad which Justin very kindly helped me plate (I opted for roasted cherry tomatoes instead of the anchovy croutons because we were about to eat a giant bag of Fritos for dinner):
Laying in bed the night before this dinner, I worried over how I would serve the Frito Pie. Nancy says, “It’s important that you use the smallest bag of Fritos… Obviously, you could also serve the chili in a bowl, though it means more to wash up, and it’s not nearly as charming a presentation.”
The problem? I could only find medium-sized bags of Fritos. Nobody would want that many Fritos presented to them on their plate… what a conundrum!
Until I had a eureka moment. “Eureka,” I said to myself. “We could cut holes in the bags and then dump the Fritos we don’t want into a larger bowl. Then everyone can decide how many Fritos they want to leave behind before assembling their Frito pies.”
And that’s exactly what we did. Jesse led the charge, demonstrating the best way to cut a square into the Fritos bag.
Then into the kitchen everyone came with their Fritos; ladling chili directly top and then visiting the Toppings Bar also known as my kitchen table from Ikea:
Behold, a labor of love if their ever was one. Frito Pie:
What can I say? This was everything I wanted it to be and more. A little like chilaquiles, the Fritos soak up all of that spicy, meaty goodness and then add a great crunch as you’re biting in. Plus, this was a ton of fun to serve at a dinner party. I mean, when else do you hand a giant pair of scissors to your dinner guests and ask them to cut into a giant bag of Fritos before sending them into the kitchen to assemble their own dinner?
The dessert, again, was tres leches cake and really easy to make ahead (in fact, you have to make it ahead in order for the tres leches to soak in). Here’s a picture:
And so, thanks to Nancy Silverton for inspiring me to make something I would never have thought to make on my own. Now the only question is… what to do with all of those leftover Fritos?