In the beginning, there was grilled cheese, and it was good. How could it not be -- creamy melted cheese, bread crisped in butter? Then came the panini, once a simple Italian snack bar staple, turned seemingly ubiquitous. Now, it may be the quesadilla's turn. It's about time.
Granted, making quesadillas is not going to earn you a reputation among your friends as the next Top Chef. Not unless it's at the end of a long day of work and they're hungry. At times like that, a well-prepared quesadilla, made from a good corn tortilla and stuffed with something like mushrooms and goat cheese, or braised greens and feta, is pretty darned delicious.
Still, I can already hear some of you muttering to yourselves. Quesadillas do have a reputation as a kind of dumbed-down sandwich -- fold a flour tortilla over shredded cheddar, stick on the griddle, and there you go.
But that shortcut version is not the best way to make a quesadilla, though I do think calling it "degenerated," as Mexican food authority Diana Kennedy does, is kind of mean.
> Get creative
True quesadillas are more like cornmeal masa turnovers, or empanadas, most traditionally deep-fried. Fillings go way beyond melted cheese. They can be as exotic as huitlacoche and cream, or as down to earth as leftover stew meat, torn into shreds.
And though quesadillas made with fresh masa are dreamy beyond belief, in real life I am quite satisfied to settle for packaged corn tortillas cooked on the griddle.
I've made quesadillas filled with nothing more than fresh requeson, or ricotta, mixed with herbs, and in the summer they're terrific filled with quickly cooked zucchini blossoms. Lately my favorite fillings have been sauteed mushrooms cloaked in fresh goat cheese, and braised cooking greens dotted with feta or queso fresco. I even made the latter with cooked trimmings of bolted lettuce from the garden, and it was terrific.
Quesadillas come together in minutes: Prepare the filling, warm the tortillas on one side just long enough to soften them, flip them over and spoon the filling into the center, scatter cheese over the top, fold the tortilla in half around the filling and cook until the tortilla is lightly browned on both sides.
They're simply terrific. The tortilla toasts just enough to crisp slightly and enrich the corn flavor; the filling gilds basic ingredients with the irresistible allure of melted cheese. Serve it with a salad and you have a great dinner.
That's it: Given the right mix of leftovers for the filling, you can go from zero to a really delicious dinner in 15 minutes. Starting from scratch with the filling might take as many as 30 minutes.
> Mushroom and Goat Cheese Quesadillas
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound sliced or quartered mushrooms
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup minced shallots
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup fresh goat cheese
1/2 pound low-moisture mozzarella, cut in small dice
2 teaspoons oil
12 corn tortillas
Heat the butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat. When it has stopped foaming and bubbling, add the mushrooms and sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms have given up their moisture, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with shallots and cook until the shallots have softened, the moisture has evaporated and the mushrooms are quite tender, about 5 more minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the mint and the goat cheese.
Heat the oil on a griddle or skillet over medium heat; use a spatula to distribute it so the surface is evenly covered. Add the tortillas and cook on one side until they have softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip them to the other side and spoon 3 to 4 tablespoons of the mushroom mixture in the center. Sprinkle over some of the diced mozzarella and use a spatula to fold the tortilla in half around the filling.
Cook until the tortilla begins to brown on one side, about 2 to 3 minutes, and then flip onto the other side and cook until the tortilla browns on that side and the mozzarella is melted, about 2 to 3 minutes more. If some of the melting cheese oozes onto the griddle, that's even better. Repeat if necessary to use up all of the tortillas and filling.
Serve immediately, or keep warm in a 250-degree oven until all of the quesadillas have been made. Serves 4 to 6.
Each of 6 servings: 312 calories; 15g protein; 26g carbohydrates; 4g fiber; 17g fat; 9g saturated fat; 44mg cholesterol; 3g sugar; 686mg sodium.
> Quesadillas with greens and feta
1/3 cup minced onion
1 pound mixed cooking greens, such as kale, mustards and collards
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 cup diced feta cheese
1/4 pound low-moisture mozzarella, cut in small dice
12 corn tortillas
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and cook until it softens and begins to color, 3 to 5 minutes.
While the onion is cooking, rinse the greens in a colander but don't dry them. When the onion is ready, add the greens along with any water that clings to the leaves to the skillet. Season with salt and red pepper, sprinkle with garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the greens are quite tender, about 15 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the feta.
From here, follow directions in first recipe, spooning 2 to 3 tablespoons of the greens in the center of the warmed tortilla, then sprinkling it with some of the diced mozzarella. Cook as directed above. Serves 4 to 6.Each of 6 servings: 311 calories; 13g protein; 32g carbohydrates; 5g fiber; 16g fat; 7g saturated fat; 37mg cholesterol; 2g sugar; 840mg sodium.