THE WASHINGTON POST – A month into our new lives as foster parents, my husband broke through our dinnertime rut with a revelatory meal idea: Frito pie!
It’s a nostalgic dish for both of us, native Texans who remember football-game concession workers who would slash open a bag of chips, dump in hot chili (typically a can of Wolf Brand), sprinkle in cheese and pickled jalapeños, and hand it over.
Carl had been gently agitating for me to make it for years, and now that we had an eigth-year-old charge who seemed to like Tex-Mex food (one of his favorite songs is Parry Gripp’s Raining Tacos), the time was right.
Or so we hoped.
To say that the past few months since the little guy arrived have been a whirlwind doesn’t do justice to the scrambles involved in learning how to offer stability, safety and unconditional love to a child whose life has sometimes been woefully short on all three.
We had gone through dozens of hours of training, which we needed; unlike some of our empty-nester classmates, we have never been parents before.
As my husband and I have divvied up household responsibilities, I’ve maintained charge of the kitchen, where I’m as confident a cook as you might imagine.
But many days, satisfying the child in a way that also gets some healthy-ish food in his stomach has been as humbling – and often as unsuccessful – as when I’ve tried to speak French in Paris.
Our first priority was making him feel comfortable, so we stocked up on chicken nuggets, fish sticks and ice pops.
Soon enough, though, he confessed a liking for green beans, spinach and broccoli, along with brown rice and beans, provided he got to drown them in an on-the-spot concoction of barbecue sauce, ketchup, hot sauce and copious amounts of salt. Why argue with that?
For every triumph (“this is the best pizza I’ve ever had!”), there has been a crushing disappointment (“Papa John’s is better than your pizza!”).
And sometimes the highs and lows come within minutes of one another. One weekend morning, only a few days after he arrived, I proposed an activity I thought no child could resist: making classic chocolate chip cookies. I was right. He wanted to help me weigh out the ingredients, stir them into a dough, scoop it onto baking sheets, and watch the balls puff and spread and darken through the glass oven door.
Then the best part: Eating one warm. When he took a bite and said, “These are good,” my heart soared. When he followed with a quiet “But I don’t really like chocolate chip cookies,” it sank. I looked at the three dozen perfect specimens cooling on the racks, and texted a neighbour that I had a delivery for her.
He loves dipping vegetables in commercial ranch dressing, no surprise – so I whisked farm-fresh buttermilk and organic sour cream with dried herbs, making it taste as close to a fresher/better version of Hidden Valley as I could imagine. To him, though, my version was so bad it smelled and tasted like – well, I’d rather not repeat it. (As I have told the kid, it’s not nice to yuck on someone else’s yum.)
Lately, we’ve settled into a dinnertime rhythm. Remembering how much my own mother had her small, rotating repertoire of dishes – no experimenting with some new cookbook idea every night – I started relying on the tried and true: crispy tacos, Instant Pot gumbo, skillet pizza, burritos, fried fish, Cajun-spiced shrimp, and the trinity of beans, greens and cornbread.
And then my husband brought up Frito pie. Brilliant! While the little guy sat with his tutor in the next room, I quietly assembled a family-size version in my trusty cast-iron skillet. I’m a label reader, but I can’t remember the last time I read a bag of Fritos, and was pleasantly surprised at the mere three ingredients: corn, corn oil and salt. On went the chips, then my favourite canned vegetarian chili, Amy’s, and grated cheddar. It bubbled and browned, and when I served it, I set out toppings: scallions, avocado, hot sauce, cilantro, lime, pickled jalapeños and more. Carl and I loaded our portions with greenery, while the kid went straight for the bottle of Cholula Chipotle.
We told him how each of us remembered eating it when we were his age, prompting him to ask to see pictures of us as children, as he scooped up his dinner. The verdict: Two small thumbs up.
The second time I made it, I refined my assembly (saving half the chips and cheese for last-minute baking on top, to maintain crunch) and tried an organic brand of corn chips and a blend of cheddar and jack cheeses. Even better. The third time, a week later, I had it down: I can put this together with my eyes closed!
A voice broke through my reverie: “Frito pie again? Didn’t we just have that?”
He was confident. He was comfortable. He was safe. And he was loved. “We did, little guy, just last week,” I replied. “And we’ll have it next week too.”
VEGETARIAN FRITO PIE
Active time: 10 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
6 to 8 servings
This version of the traditional concession-stand meal in the Southwest and Midwest, sometimes called a “walking taco,” takes it out of the bag and into a skillet.
Preheating the chili helps keep the chips from getting too soggy on the bottom, and saving some chips to add toward the end keeps them crisp on top, too.
Use whatever corn chips you prefer: Fritos (look for lightly salted if you are concerned about sodium), or an organic brand such as RW Garcia.
Top with your favorite chili, canned or homemade. And employ whatever combination of toppings you like – or just set them out for your crew to dress their own plate up or down as they see fit.
Storage Notes: The Frito pie is best eaten freshly made, but you can refrigerate it (without garnishes) for up to three days; rewarm/recrisp under the broiler.
INGREDIENTS FOR THE PIE
One (8.25- to 9.25-ounce) bag corn chips, such as RW Garcia Organic Yellow Corn Chips or Fritos Lightly Salted, divided
Two cups shredded Mexican cheese blend (may substitute 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack or pepper jack plus 1 cup shredded cheddar), divided
Two cans vegetarian chili, such as Amy’s Light in Sodium (medium or spicy), heated
FOR THE OPTIONAL TOPPINGS
Thinly sliced scallions
Flesh of two avocados, cubed
Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
Cholula Chipotle or other hot sauce of your choice
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
In a 12-inch cast-iron skillet or 9-by-13-inch casserole dish, evenly spread half the corn chips. Layer with half the cheeses, then the hot chili.
Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the chili mixture is bubbling, then top with the remaining chips and cheese and bake an additional five minutes, or until the cheese melts.
Serve hot, with the additions of your (and your guests’) choice of toppings.
Nutrition (based on 8 servings) | Calories: 184; Total Fat: 10g; Saturated Fat: 5g; Cholesterol: 27mg; Sodium: 381mg; Carbohydrates: 16g; Dietary Fiber: 5g; Sugar: 4g; Protein: 13g