California and Texas are two big states with a strong Spanish and Mexican influence. In Texas however, the word queso, the Spanish word for cheese, has a very specific meaning unknown to this Californian.
My granddaughter and her husband, native Californians, moved to Austin several years ago to make their fortune after giving up on the high cost of living and lack of opportunities here. They have done well; they bought a house, found jobs in tech and are basically living the American Dream, both with just community college degrees.
When my husband Tarmo and I went out to visit them a year ago, they kept telling us they had to take us out to try queso. Sounded good. It turns out the queso, shortened from Chili Con Queso, is a Tex-Mex standard, often served with chips as an appetizer, and what I recognized as nachos. It’s basically a smooth, cheesy dip made with tomato sauce and chilis. It’s the kind of appetizer that is easy to overindulge in, leaving little room for the rest of the meal. Like my friend Amy Newell has been known to say, “Too much cheese.”
This recipe is a vegan version invented by Kathy Hester of healthyslowcooking.com. It is made in honor of Torchy’s Tacos, a famous restaurant that started as a food trailer in Austin and is well known for its queso.Vegan dishes often use nutritional yeast, smoked paprika and miso to replicate the rich flavors that can be found in animal products. This recipe uses nutritional yeast and smoked paprika, and adds the rich and slightly sweet butternut squash for substance. The brand, Chiquilin Pimentón Ahumado, makes a nice smoked paprika and comes in a cute metal tin. I found it at Staff of Life in Santa Cruz, where I also buy nutritional yeast.
Make the Rojo Sauce first or use your own favorite tomato salsa.
2 cups diced cooked butternut squash or potatoes
½ cup cooking water
¼ cup of homemade rojo sauce, with a few teaspoons reserved for topping
¼ cup nutritional yeast
½ to 1 teaspoon salt, to taste
½ teaspoon oregano
1 (4 ounce) can diced roasted green chilies
Chopped cilantro, for topping
Guacamole, for topping
Homemade Rojo Sauce – makes about 1/4 cup:
2 dried New Mexican or Pasilla Chile Peppers
1/4 cup water (or cooking liquid from peppers)
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
Make the salsa rojo first. Toast the chilis in a dry sauté pan over medium heat until they become fragrant in about 3-4 minutes on each side. Then carefully remove the stem and seeds.
Put the peppers into a small saucepan and cover with water. Cook over medium heat until the peppers are soft in about 10 minutes. Drain but keep ¼ cup of the liquid.
Place the cooked peppers, ¼ cup of water or cooking liquid, garlic, paprika, cumin, oregano and salt into your blender and blend until smooth. You will need to stop and scrape down the sides of the blender several times to make sure everything is smooth. Do not wash the blender because you can also use it to make the queso.
Roast or boil the cubes of cooked potatoes or squash. Drain except for ½ cup. Add that water with the rojo sauce, nutritional yeast, salt and oregano to your blender. Blend until smooth. You will again need to stop and scrape down the sides of the blender several times.
Scrape the mixture into a small mixing bowl and mix in the diced green chilies. Taste to adjust flavors. Spread the queso mixture on a wide serving plate. Place a large scoop of guacamole in the center. Top with chopped cilantro and reserved rojo sauce.