Normally, we denizens of the sumptuously appointed Headquarters of Prep School Inc. try to avoid covering similar topics too closely together. A recent column on pancakes, however, garnered so much enthusiasm for the Flat Food Group that we decided to eschew tradition and have another go at the horizontal victuals. Today, we give you the quesadilla.
WHY YOU NEED TO LEARN THIS: Do you have kids? Do you know any kids? Would you describe yourself as a flat foodie? (Floodie?) If you answered “yes” to any of these, the quesadilla is the answer to most of your needs and many of your prayers. It’s easy to make. It’s versatile. It’s delicious. And best of all, it’s flat. What else do you need in a food item?
The steps you take:
In case you’ve just arrived from, I don’t know, the sun, and you haven’t had a quesadilla before, it’s a Mexican item made by heating a tortilla on a griddle or pan. (In Mexico they use a flat griddle pan called a “comal.”) Cheese or other fillings are placed on top, then it’s either folded in half or another tortilla is placed on top and the whole thing is flipped. They’re great on their own, but even better with salsa and sour cream.
First, a little history, because a little history never hurt anyone. We’ve mentioned before, in Prep School, the Columbian Exchange. This term, coined by the historian Alfred W. Crosby, refers to European explorers’ transfer of living species — both plants and animals as well as disease — between the Old World of Europe and Asia and the New World of the Americas.
Before the time of the so-called Age of Exploration, many of our favorite cuisines looked very different from what they are today. There were no tomatoes in Italian cuisine (Imagine!), no chilies in Thai cuisine and no cheese in Mexico. Keep that in mind the next time you use Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine to travel back to Montezuma’s kitchenette: not a quesadilla to be found.
For that matter, you won’t find any wheat flour tortillas at all, only corn. (Interestingly, some scholars believe that wheat flour tortillas are the result of Spanish Jewish immigrants to Mexico who were attempting to re-create the unleavened bread they knew from Europe.)
Fortunately, in modern kitchens, we have available to us not only corn and flour tortillas, but also tortillas made from a host of other ingredients: rice, spelt, chia seeds. On top of that, you could use other types of flatbreads to create something close enough to a quesadilla that your kids won’t know the difference, like an Indian chapati, the Armenian lavash or the Norwegian lefse. Remember, there are no jackbooted, black-clad cuisine police to come bursting through your door to arrest you for Crimes Against Authenticity. At least not until Donald Trump becomes president.
Let’s talk about the quesadilla filling. Shredded cheese is ubiquitous. A Mexican cheese like Oaxaca would be typical. Truthfully, though, my kids just like mozzarella or cheddar. Pretty much any melty cheese will be great for a couple of reasons. First, the melted cheese helps hold the two sides together, like a grilled cheese sandwich. Second, who doesn’t like melty cheese?
Chicken is also really common as a quesadilla filler. Grilled or pan-seared breast, sliced thin and layered with the cheese is easy and delicious.
The thing I love about quesadillas, though, is that, as much as I love the flavor and texture of tortillas, they can really function here primarily as the delivery system for whatever you’re stuffing inside. That includes leftovers from the fridge, both savory and sweet. Better yet, even though the quesadilla is Mexican, you don’t need to stick with Mexican-inspired stuffings. Anything that tastes good on its own can go inside, like leftover lamb stew or a chunky Bolognese sauce. Get creative. Raid the fridge. One thing to remember, though, is that generally we stuff only with things that don’t need cooking (like the cheese) or with precooked items (like the sauces).
As for the cooking of the quesadilla, as I mentioned earlier, there are two basic ways to make a quesadilla: using one tortilla folded in half or using two to sandwich the filling in between. There are two considerations here. The first is, how hungry am I, really? The second, and in my opinion the more important, one is, what am I filling it with? Melty cheese makes it easier to flip if you’re making the two-tortilla variety. If your filling is somewhat runny, however, you might be better off using the one tortilla method, as it needs to be only folded in half.
At my house, we use a nonstick pan that doesn’t require any fat. If you’re using a regular stick pan, you might want to coat it with a little bit of oil or pan spray before adding the tortillas. Regardless, heat the pan over a medium flame. When it’s hot, place one tortilla onto the pan. Immediately add your filling and top with a second tortilla (if you’re using one). If your filling is very cold, you might want to cover the pan to encourage warming of the filling. Don’t touch the tortilla until the bottom gets a little brown. Then, if you are using two tortillas, carefully flip the quesadilla and brown the other side. If you’re only using one, carefully fold it in half. Either way, transfer the quesadilla to a cutting board and cut it into wedges and serve while it’s hot.
Here are a few ideas for interesting quesadillas:
Bean and bacon: Mashed white beans (or black beans or pintos or kidneys or whatever), bacon and shredded melty cheese (cheddar, pepper jack, etc.).
Indian style: Cooked basmati rice, dal (cooked Indian-style lentils) and grilled, sliced chicken breast.
Breakfast quesadilla: Scrambled egg, cooked greens and more shredded cheese.
Pizza quesadilla: Like a Mexican calzone, just spread some red or white sauce and add your favorite topping.
Dessert quesadilla: Mascarpone cheese mixed with a little vanilla or a drop of brandy and slices of fresh or grilled fruit like peaches or strawberries. (Allow the tortilla to cool somewhat so that the mascarpone won’t melt.)
Prep School is a Tribune News Service column by James P. DeWan, an award-winning food writer, chef and culinary instructor who teaches at Kendall College in Chicago. He is the author of “Prep School: How to Improve Your Kitchen Skills and Cooking Techniques,” a collection of his columns.