Standing at my stove, whipping up a quesadilla, gave me just enough time to think about this oh-so-perfect food. It’s good for a snack, light lunch, or cocktail nibble, loved by adults and kids alike. Heck, throw some scrambled eggs into the mix of melty cheese and warm tortilla and you’ve made breakfast.
Beyond the cheese — the queso — in the “dilla,” so to speak, everything’s negotiable. The earliest Mexican quesadillas were generally an uncooked corn tortilla filled with cheese and folded over before toasting on a comal, or griddle. In far northern Mexico, where wheat turned into a major crop, flour tortillas became more prevalent. Border area quesadillas still incorporate the flour version most frequently.
A BITE OF HISTORY
When early New Mexican cookbooks mentioned quesadillas, they usually referred to a dessert turnover. Margaret C. de Baca, in her 1937 New Mexico Dishes, for example, mixed “fresh native cheese” with eggs, sugar, and milk. Then she used it to fill circles of “pie crust dough” folded over, pinched, and baked. Only Cleofas M. Jaramillo, in The Genuine New Mexico Tasty Recipes (1942), came close to our current sense of quesadillas, which she spells “quesadias.” She rolled out biscuit dough into “thin, round tortillas,” spread them with fresh cheese, and folded them for baking on a griddle until browned on both sides.
The options for tortillas are essentially two, corn or flour. I like both. When making quesadillas with the corn variety, I layer the cheese between two tortillas. When using flour, I prefer to work with a single tortilla and fold it over the filling. That makes the flipping a little simpler given the larger size of most flour tortillas.
The cheese can go a variety of directions, as long as it’s grated and melts well. In Mexico, the choices have often been queso Oaxaca, asadero, or Chihuahua, sometimes called queso menonita for the Mennonites who have typically made it in the state of Chihuahua. Those are fairly widely available in New Mexico today. Here stateside, Monterey Jack and mild Cheddar are perhaps used most often, but mozzarella, fontina, and even brie are other cheeses that share the required ooey gooey-ness. Make sure there’s enough cheese to ooze around any additional fillings you choose.
AND WHATEVER ELSE
And speaking of fillings, quesadillas make great use of bits of anything hiding out in your fridge. Shredded roasted chicken, sauteed chorizo, roasted or sauteed corn or mushrooms, and avocado are great! In late summer, golden squash blossoms make a striking addition.
A sprinkling of dried oregano, marjoram, or epazote can be nice. I, of course, think the dish needs a little heat, in the form of chopped New Mexican green chile, or a sprinkle of dried red, a splash of hot sauce, or some sliced jalapeños or serranos. I sometimes chop chipotle chiles from the can, then mix it with a bit of the can’s adobo sauce. Just don’t put all these suggestions in a single quesadilla. Restraint is helpful in all but the cheese.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
You really don’t need a recipe for such a simple concoction. Use about 1/3 cup of grated cheese in a normal-size flour tortilla. Melt a bit of butter, just enough to coat the skillet or the griddle, or use a similar amount of oil. That yields a nicer crunch and more of the desired golden-brown splotches than does a bigger dose of fat.
Cook over medium-low to medium heat, which allows the cheese to melt at about the same speed that the tortilla is getting some nice crispy spots on its surface. With corn tortillas, I find it easier to work with two, sandwiching about 3 tablespoons of grated cheese. Feel free to get as creative as you like with other fillings and toppings, as long as you avoid overloading the tortilla base. Slice into manageable-size wedges. Many restaurants pile quesadillas high with garnishes of guac, sour cream, and salsa. Here I think is another case for restraint. A little of any might be fine, but don’t let them bury the whole basic dish of tortilla and cheese.
Enjoy nice and hot.
Story and photos by Cheryl Alters Jamison.
Four-time James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison is the host of Heating It Up on KTRC and is now the “queen of culinary content” for SantaFe.com. Find new stories about the Santa Fe food scene each week on SantaFe.com.