I arrived to my birthday celebration an hour and a half late, wearing rubber rain boots, covered in dirt, sweat, and stains, and permeating the room with an obvious scent of deep fryer. I had just finished working the floor during a slammed HBFC service, preparing for a friend’s wedding at HBFC the following day, and managing a massive cleanup effort for a unexpected flooded restaurant basement.
This... was not how I envisioned my 38th turn around the sun would begin.
But life often unplans your plan, and there I was going along with a revised one, slightly defeated but still managing to laugh about it. Really, if I didn’t laugh at how absurd the situation was I would have cried. (Ok. Maybe I cried for like five minutes in a moment of utter frustration in the basement. But mostly I laughed.) My friends - Carl, Nadia, and Chris, already well on their way to good times at the party - gently ushered me to the shower upstairs. Nadia gave me a hug, a towel, and a fresh change of underwear. She is the best.
The original birthday plan, made months prior, was to have nachos, a firepit, and a reunion of sorts. Last year, the four of us journeyed to Black Rock City, the temporary desert metropolis that comes alives as Burning Man for one week each summer. This year, my birthday landed on the same date that they burn down the temple, the spiritual center of the city. I wanted to honor that beautiful experience with a backyard mini burn with my Burning Man family and nachos. But not just any nachos. Playa Nachos.
The playa being the mile stretches of dry lakebed alkali ground where Burning Man is held, and the nachos being aptly named, as they were quite literally nachos prepared and eaten while on the playa. I won’t get into the details here, but going to Burning Man required a lot of group effort planning, gear, strategy, survival tactics... and a lot of food. Naturally, that was my chosen responsibility. Keeping our food simple due to bare bones equipment and challenging environmental conditions, yet cheffed up because hey, I could -- we ate well out there. Among the meals I prepared, playa nachos were the crowd favorite.
True, I believe nachos are one of the most soul satisfying foods on the planet. Eating salty tortilla chips covered in warm cheese sauce and full flavored toppings is magical. Even more magical is eating nachos while watching the sunset over desert mountains, while illuminated costumed people ride illuminated costumed bikes down your dust ridden street. Add a few good friends to that scene, and you’ve got yourself a substantially good life experience.
Birthday 38 was memorable for sure -- and it was a different kind of substantially good life experience. Some substantially challenging big things happened back to back to back. But I watched with wonderment what happened in the small spaces between, and that is where I choose to honor it.
The determined HBFC and SDC teams rallying together under pressure and leveling up our game. Humbly discovering that I am capable of surprisingly graceful courage under pressure leadership. Two people celebrating their love under the twinkling lights on HBFC’s patio. The mini temple that Carl built, burning bright as the flames soared ten feet in the air and heated the entire backyard -- the four us hoping the neighbors wouldn’t call the cops on the goddamn hippies and their fire rituals. I ate playa nachos, laid down in the soft grass, and looked at the stars with my friends. We dreamed up a new plan to return to Burning Man next year, and construct an art project to gift nachos to people out on the playa.
To that end… Burning Man 2016, get ready. I’m coming home, and I’m bringing a whole lot of nachos with me.
In the meantime... here are guidelines for making playa nachos:
Playa nachos can consist of any number and type of toppings, but the base is always tortilla chips and science cheese.
Science cheese is cheese sauce made with science! While the technique and recipe hail from the Modernist Cuisine books, I‘m not exactly sure how the name came to be but no matter. Science cheese is legit. It is kinda reminiscent of velveeta in texture, but without all the processiness and questionable ingredients.
Science cheese is comprised of equal parts cheese and milk with a bit a sodium citrate which stabilizes the sauce so it doesn’t separate or break. Sodium citrate is available for purchase on the internet.
The measurement for cheese is always the same by weight, so any combination of cheeses may be used. This makes approximately one quart of science cheese: 506 grams of cheese (shredded or ground up), 506 grams of whole milk, and 22 grams of sodium citrate. Heat milk to simmering, whisk in sodium citrate to dissolve, turn heat to low and slowly add the cheese in small batches, whisking to incorporate. You can also use a stick blender if you have one.
Once all the cheese is incorporated, check the consistency. If it is really thick, add a little more milk to thin it out. At this point you can cool the cheese for later use or hold it warm if eating relatively soon. If it starts to solidify, just rewarm it.
Science cheese travels and holds fantastically. You can freeze it and it reheats well. It is handy to keep around, especially if you want the option to make nachos on the fly. Or in the desert.
Topping options are limitless, but my current roster reads like this: chips, jalapeño jack and colby science cheese, crispy chopped bacon, black beans mashed with onions/garlic/lime, salsa verde, cilantro, avocado, heirloom tomatoes (in season only) and pickled jalapeños*.
*Nadia believes with her whole heart that pickled jalapenos “are an integral part of any nacho experience.” I will not dispute her.
Gather your nacho toppings. It is best to have all the toppings ready for plating, because once nacho assembly begins, you will want to eat ‘em immediately. Trust me. This will happen.
Spread the chips in a single layer on a sheet pan. The chips can overlap, but don’t create too many layers because the toppings won’t reach all the chips. Chips with no toppings = no bueno.
Heat the science cheese over low heat until it reaches your desired temperature. I usually go for hot but not screaming hot. Like you can stick your finger in the cheese for a long second without burning yourself. (Does that make sense?)
Pour the hot cheese evenly over the chips, achieving ample coverage.
Spread your toppings over the cheesy chips.
Ok - now eat the nachos.
- Obviously playa nachos will be delicious in most locales, but if you also want a sustainably good life experience, eat the nachos with friends in beautiful, weird, and/or remote places.