This week you may notice a lack of sweet treat talk that is typical of this blog. While baked goods and ice cream will still be present as I search for the best the city has to offer, there are simply too many food topics that I want to discuss. And so, some weeks this blog will discuss a savory meal that I have been thinking about, or even a debatable food topic I want to explore. There’s a whole world of food to talk about and break down! So many meals dear to my heart! And what is the purpose of food writing if not to explore those very foods?
One of the first things I ever cooked by myself was a quesadilla. It’s probably up there as the first thing most people are able to make solo. Few things are more simple, or more pleasurable, than a tortilla with cheese. An extremely simple and palatable introduction to the world of Mexican food, the quesadilla is, as far as I have encountered, a fairly un-controversial food (unless you’re gluten or dairy free of course). Its similarity to grilled cheese puts it in the realm of comfort food, yet something about its lighter tortilla casing makes it more of an everyday meal.
This summer I took that concept extremely literally, as there was a multi-week long period where I had a quesadilla every day for either lunch or dinner. While the particulars of the contents varied, I was going to have had a quesadilla for a meal by the end of the day. This was not exactly because my love for them was so great (though I was particularly craving Mexican food during that period), but because I had happened to come in the possession of a LOT of tortillas while at my internship as well as a LOT of cheese. I cannot express the staggering amount of both things I had. And with not a whole lot of money and a desire to save something by the end of the summer, I once again became a quesadilla connoisseur. Not only were they extremely cheap, but they were fairly quick to make, which in the fast paced work environment was a must most days and nights.
Before I discuss the internals of a quesadilla, there are two points of the external situation I must address. Firstly, the tortilla. I do not like a corn tortilla. Ever. For anything. Yes, I have had handmade corn tortillas. And they are fine. But I would always rather have a flour tortilla. After coming into possession of a package of corn tortillas at one point this summer, I actually thought I would once again give them a try and make use of them. But upon trying one my mouth was filled with a bitter taste I never imagined coming from a starch, and abandoned hope. The pack was most likely bad, but as I was already not a fan, it only furthered my lifelong aversion.
My dislike for corn tortillas is likely linked to my generally dislike of corn. It has never made sense to me (nor to anyone else as it has been made extremely clear), because corn is generally sweet and starchy, two things I am known to love. Corn on the cob should, in theory, take that even further as being those two things that you also smear butter on. But the corn flavor has always been one my tongue rejects, and the texture not a real winner either.
The real mystery of the situation has come with my recent affinity for corn chips. Never a big fan formerly, I have come to really appreciate the flavor of a basic tortilla chip. So one would think that this would translate into liking the tortilla itself. But no. It brings a flavor that I just cannot get on board with in any dish, and a texture that doesn’t interest me.
Now, a flour tortilla is a whole other ball game. I have always loved flour tortillas in every way. As a kid I would often grab one as a snack. Nothing on it, nothing done to it. Just a straight up flour tortilla. And I would never do this with a slice of bread, which I would need to toast or add a smear to in order to make it snack worthy. But something about a plain ol’ tortilla just did the trick for me. Of course it’s even better in its recommended applications. Perfect for containing a hearty burrito, baking in the oven as an enchilada, and primarily for cooking up a great quesadilla. The outside gets well-browned and crispy, but still soft when you bite into it. The flavor is comforting, mild, and perfect for holding all the stars of the party that are inside. I will always opt for a flour tortilla for basically everything when given the chance, for in my mind it is the superior tortilla.
The second point which I feel very strongly about is the manner in which it is cooked. I cook my quesadillas on a dry pan. No fat. No oil of any kind, no butter (God forbid). Completely dry. This is the way I thought all quesadillas were made until I ordered some quesadillas at various restaurants and I received them dripping in oil, glistening too much for me to comfortably hold. This does nothing for me. It doesn’t add to the flavor, it makes it no crispier than a dry pan (if anything the oiled-up ones I’ve had are made slightly soggy from the residual oil), and it makes a food that is so wonderfully hand-held unable to be such.
Conversely, a dry pan creates a quesadilla that is perfectly crisp and golden brown, while staying clean for the hands to hold, and for pan clean-up afterwards, which is an added bonus. From there you can feel free to dip your quesadilla into some salsa or guac if desired, smear on some sour cream, but in a way that still maintains the integrity of the quesadilla. While I do not always find myself having to defend this choice to others, I do occasionally find someone who likes to coat their pan in canola oil or something of the like, and seems to find my dry pan boring and absurd. I scoff at that, for what is far from boring can be found on the inside.
Sometimes there’s just nothing like a plain and simple cheese quesadilla. Throw a tortilla in a pan, sprinkle the cheese on half, let it melt a little, fold it over (I’m also all about the folded quesadilla rather than two tortillas on top of each other. Nothing is better than a quesadilla slice off of the folded edge. It’s also less unwieldy.), flip, cut, and you’re done. But even a cheese quesadilla can have a little more excitement. Another reason the quesadilla was a perfect go-to food for me this summer was that it required only spices that I had brought with me. This usually includes some dried onion (if I don’t have any onion on hand to quickly dice and throw in, which I normally do), dried garlic, a little MSG, a couple of twists of black pepper, and a couple of heavy shakes of red pepper flakes. I’ll add all those on after applying the first layer of cheese, and then sprinkle a little more cheese on top to seal the deal. Though not required, it adds a little zest to the party that I always enjoy.
But part of the greatness of the quesadilla is the possibility for variation. A chicken quesadilla is a great classic and served me well a couple of times, with a wonderful lime chicken cut nice and small so as to not create awkward bites. But a shrimp quesadilla, a totally new experience for me born out of a need to use up my shrimp and the tortillas before we moved out in a few days, was also quite good and a protein I am surprised I don’t see in quesadillas more. Why do we celebrate them in tacos often, yet not in their folded and fried counterpart? Yes, de-tailing them is a little time consuming, but their light texture brought something pleasant and different, and was great when cooked as I typically prepare shrimp (with some lemon juice and zest and lots of pepper – both black and red). Speaking of citrus, I also mixed the zest and juice of a lime straight into the cheese of a cheese quesadilla a couple times (we also came into the possession of a lot of limes once), and though subtle, it was a great way to add the citrus flavor without having to cook up a protein with it. When in the possession of tomatoes I liked to dice up about half of one, bag the other half for later, and sprinkle it in.
But the true star of the summer was the black bean quesadilla. I have never really liked any kind of bean all that much before, but something changed in me this summer. While at home in New Hampshire I fell in love with my Mom’s five bean salad – perfect over greens for lunch, or as a side with a burger – beans with rice and some kielbasa, and subsequently bean quesadillas. Something about it just checked all the boxes flavor wise, and it was extremely convenient price-wise as a can was typically 99 cents (one week it was 2 for 99 cents and let me tell you I don’t think I have ever been happier to have been shopping outside NYC). A can of black beans was pretty much always in the house, rinsed, and in a Tupperware ready for quesadilla application. While occasionally they found their way into a potato, tomato, onion, and egg meal or mixed amongst some Spanish rice, their fate was almost always a quesadilla. Even once I got back to New Hampshire and my food options were a bit vaster, I was craving a black bean quesadilla. In fact, writing this spurred me to go out and get some tortillas and cheese so I can make one for dinner this week. How long the craze will last, who knows? But with something so good and easy, who cares?
So really, my summer of quesadillas is still continuing. Though consumption is not daily, I still love the food that fueled me through some hard work and great times, not to mention giving me a platform to practice the basics of using a pan and seasoning my food many moons ago. Have you forgotten the wonder of the quesadilla lately? Stuck in a burrito and taco rut? Get some flour tortillas, cheese, and whatever else you have on hand and give the quesadilla, and in turn yourself, some love.