Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Variations on a (quesadilla) theme

My earliest quesadilla memory (can you believe I even have one?) is from an outing to Chili’s—the “Mexican” version of TGIFridays, where the main draw was a ridiculously thick chocolate shake served in a frosted beer stein with chocolate sprinkles on top. By the time I’d finished half my shake (and had indulged in a generous helping of the chips that came before the meal), I usually had room for about two bites of lunch. But they were a tasty two bites—or so I thought at the time. I always ordered the same thing: A chicken quesadilla.

As almost-fast-food fare goes, Chili’s chicken quesadilla was a pretty decent offering. Chunked, char-grilled chicken, a mix of shredded Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses, a nicely-cripsed tortilla, and salsa for dipping. I usually had two days worth of leftovers afterward, and reheated in the oven, they were good, too.

But tastes change. Palates demand variety and nuance. And while I still enjoy a homemade Mexican-themed quesadilla on occasion, my quesadilla fixation has broadened to include a whole array of tortilla-encased options. To read about how I got launched on my quesadilla improvisation, go here. Or simply rustle up some tortillas of your own and start experimenting.

Quesadillas are, quite simply, sophisticated grilled cheese. Grilled cheese for grownups, in fact. Oh yeah. And they make good appetizers, too.

Spinach and sun-dried tomato quesadilla (Variation 1)
I recommend using cream cheese for the spinach and sun-dried tomato quesadilla, but if you’re feeling in the mood for something Greek, substitute 2-3 T crumbled feta for the cream cheese and add 1 T chopped kalamata olives to the mixture before spreading it on the tortilla.

Spinach-mushroom quesadilla

What you’ll need:
Microwave-safe bowl
Cutting board
Box grater
Small mixing bowl
Small frying pan
Large frying pan

Generous handful baby spinach
2 T water
2 thin slices of onion (slice it down the middle, NOT end to end) pulled apart into rings
1/4 cup sliced white mushrooms
1/2 T butter
Handful of shredded Pepper Jack cheese or 2 T cream cheese, softened
Salt and pepper to taste
Burrito-size flour or wheat tortilla
Optional: Cooking spray or olive oil for pan

Place spinach and water in microwave-safe bowl. Cover and microwave until wilted—1-2 minutes, depending on strength of your microwave. Let spinach cool slightly, then drain, squeezing out excess water, and chop thoroughly. Meanwhile, melt butter in small saucepan. Add mushrooms and onions and sauté over medium heat until mushrooms release their juices and onions turn translucent. In mixing bowl toss spinach together with mushrooms and onions (leave the juices behind or the quesadilla will get too wet) and a dash or two of salt and pepper. If using shredded Monterey Jack, mix that in as well. (If you’re using cream cheese, spread entire tortilla with the softened cheese before adding the filling.) Otherwise, pile filling into one half of tortilla and fold over other half, pressing gently to seal. Heat frying pan over medium-high heat. (You can oil the pan beforehand if you like your tortillas crispier.) Add quesadilla and, pressing down with spatula occasionally to aid sealing process, cook 3-4 minutes per side, or until the cheese begins to melt and the outside is nicely browned. Cut into wedges and enjoy.

I created this recipe based on a wonderful crepe filling that also calls for chicken. If you have leftover chicken breast, feel free to shred some of that up and add it to your mixture. The main trick with quesadillas—as with pizzas you make at home—is not to over-load them. If worse comes to worse, instead of one enormous quesadilla, make two with less filling. That way, your creations will stay together in the pan … and make it all the way to your mouth.

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