There is a noticeable shortage of decent, or even satisfactory, Mexican or Tex-Mex around these parts. From what I hear and read, the issue extends to most of the Northeast. When I do crave Mexican, which is like, every day, twice, and don’t feel like making it, Viva Zapata is my favorite place to go. Located in picturesque Westport, Connecticut, the super strong margs, expansive patio, and lively vibe help me forget about the lackluster food.
That’s harsh, I know. I shouldn’t be publicly criticizing my favorite spots. The food is just fine, but it doesn’t make me go into convulsions like the Tex-Mex I get in Dallas. Until recently, that is, when we took a chance on the spinach nachos at Viva, a wacky fusion of Tex-Mex and Italian–hey, the place definitely knows their demographic!
And wow. I might as well have just told them to hold off on my dinner, because I was over the moon about these creative spinach nachos. One positive about eating Mexican food out, no matter where you go–they always seem to have the best cheese. Or maybe it’s the 500 degree oven they likely cooked the plate in, but for whatever reason, it’s super smooth and stays gooey for so long after being delivered to the table. I haven’t figured out the secret yet, but in replicating the recipe, I went for the same effect with a mixture of Monterey jack and fontina. The combo got two thumbs up from my taste tester.
Aside from the cheese, the nacho platter we received was haphazardly littered with lots of garlicky cooked spinach, then sprinkled with juicy, in-season tomatoes. It was meatless Italian nacho heaven! Often, spinach-filled Mexican dishes are just the restaurant’s vegetarian cop out, lacking flavor and freshness, but not this time. I don’t even care if it’s because they used way too much butter (as is the case at restaurants more times than you probably care to know), the taste was there.
Finally, I really appreciated the quirky, messy scoop of refried beans tossed onto the tray of otherwise fancy nachos. It just screamed, “Hey! Don’t forget you’re at a hole-in-the-wall joint and should NOT be using a fork to eat these nachos!” Had it not been for that totally contradictory but perfect scoop of beans, I might just have gotten caught up in the snobbery of my spinach nachos. In recreating this five star dish, I opted to make my scoop of beans not only meatless (refried beans often contain bacon grease), but also a little tidier with an ice cream scoop. Really, it doesn’t matter which route you take, just don’t miss the beans. I wanted to stay true to the dish as it was served to me, but to really take the Italian factor up a notch, you could make the refried beans using cannellini beans. Just beware they might get confused with mashed potatoes.
You can and should make these nachos for your next, perhaps football, party, being it’s that time of year. However, don’t judge me when I tell you I’ve now eaten these on two occasions as dinner. Are nachos for dinner socially acceptable? Remember, they have spinach on them and a big scoop of healthy beans! So, I say they pass for dinner.
Having taste tested these nachos and consumed an entire pan of an upcoming enchilada recipe this week, I actually uttered the words “I don’t really want Mexican” tonight. Once I publish this post, Steve and I are going to head out for a sushi dinner down the street, kind of in celebration of dropping our wedding invitations in the mail this morning!!! OMG, it’s real. No turning back now, hehe. Not that either of us would want to. Saying we’re excited to be married is a mild understatement.
I’m also in the process of making this cake right now. The layers are almost cool, and the butter is fully softened and ready to become frosting, covered in tons of sprinkles. Layer cakes always make me nervous. Even though this one is just for us (hello 10 pounds), I have visions of the top layer slip-sliding to the floor if my leveling is off my a fraction of a millimeter, or if the cake has retained just the tiniest bit of warmth from baking five hours ago. It’s pretty much all in my head, though. I find it hard to believe, but the last layer cake I made was actually the coconut one for my sister’s wedding a year and a half ago! Even filled with silky lemon curd, they thing held together like a champ during the car ride from Connecticut to Manhattan, and then for 5-ish hours in the basement kitchen of some downtown restaurant. Miracles do happen!
- 1 T olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, smashed
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- ½ C small chopped yellow onion
- 6 oz. (1 bag) baby spinach, roughly chopped
- 1 T olive or vegetable oil
- 1 T butter
- ½ C small chopped yellow onion
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ t dried oregano
- ½ t chipotle chili powder
- ¼ t smoked paprika
- 3 C cooked pinto beans (see notes)
- ⅓ C bean cooking liquid, water, or vegetable stock
- Salt and pepper
- 3 oz. blue corn tortilla chips (about 45 chips)
- 2 C coarsely grated Monterey jack or fontina cheese (I used a mix of both)
- 2 roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- Finely chopped parsley (optional)
- Fresh cracked black pepper
- Salsa (optional)
- Make the spinach: Heat oil in a 10 to 12 inch skillet over medium low heat. Add and sauté smashed garlic clove until browned. Add onion and cook until softened. Remove browned garlic and add minced garlic. Cook 15 seconds until fragrant, then add spinach. Cook briefly until wilted, season with salt and pepper, then remove to a bowl.
- Make the beans: Heat oil and butter in the skillet from the spinach over medium (no need to wipe it out). Add onion and fry until softened and browned. Add garlic, oregano, and spices and cook a minute or two, until fragrant but not burned. Add beans and ¼ cup liquid and stir to remove any spices stuck to the pan. Reduce heat and mash beans with a potato masher until it forms a thick, chunky paste. Add remaining liquid if needed to reach desired consistency--to your preference. The thickness of mashed potatoes is a good starting point. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm in the skillet or refrigerate until needed, if making ahead. Refresh with more liquid over low heat if beans become dry.
- To assemble nachos, preheat oven to 375 (F). Drain excess liquid from the spinach. Line a quarter sheet pan (or two of the cute little ones in the pictures) with foil or parchment and make a single layer of chips. Top with ⅔ cup cheese, remaining chips, another ⅔ cup cheese, all the spinach, and a final sprinkling of cheese. Bake 5 to 7 minutes on middle rack, until cheese is melted. Sprinkle generously with black pepper, tomatoes, and chopped parsley and add two scoops of refried beans. Serve chips right on the tray, or remove to a serving platter or plate (if serving to kids or intoxicated adults).
You can totally use canned pinto beans. I had spare time and a bag of dried pinto beans in the pantry, so I soaked the beans overnight then boiled them with some big chunks of white onion, a smashed garlic clove (or two?), and a couple teaspoons of kosher salt. If you have time, go for the scratch-made beans: it adds tons of flavor.
As written, the recipe is vegetarian (ensure your cheese doesn't contain animal rennet), meatless, and gluten-free.
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