Food & Dining

Your quesadilla can be better

Quesadillas with fresh corn masa are filled with sauteed poblanos and onions, folded and sealed, then browned in a skillet.
Quesadillas with fresh corn masa are filled with sauteed poblanos and onions, folded and sealed, then browned in a skillet.

Who needs a recipe for a quesadilla? Grab a flour tortilla, pile on shredded cheese and heat it up in a pan until the cheese melts. There, I summed up about 75 percent of the quesadilla recipes around, and you only had to read one sentence.

Of course, you could add some chicken, which would account for another 10 percent of the recipes, but that’s stretching the limit of most people’s quesadilla comprehension.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of quesadilla. Gooey, melted cheese on a tortilla is almost always a fine and good thing, but it’s not the only quesadilla available. In fact, it’s helpful to think of quesadillas in two broad categories: Those made with pre-made tortillas and those made with fresh masa.

The latter, especially, are less vehicles strictly for cheese consumption and more like empanadas or turnovers. In “Authentic Mexican,” Rick Bayless describes them as “deliciously stuffed pockets of Mexican flavor, bearers of well-spiced vegetables, meats and cheese, transporters of chile-spiked hot sauce or smooth guacamole,” which sums it up nicely. Notice how cheese isn’t the sole ingredient?

In fact, numerous recipes exist for quesadillas made with fresh masa in which cheese plays a limited or, in some rare cases, completely nonexistent role. In “My Mexico,” Diana Kennedy offers a number of quesadilla recipes in which the only cheese is some crumbled queso fresco sprinkled on top.

How can a quesadilla exist without cheese? Honestly, you’d be forgiven for thinking of these as a kind of empanada. Though, there’s a chance we’re thinking about this too much. In their rambunctiously entertaining “Tacopedia,” Juan Carlos Mena and Deborah Holtz delve into the paradox of “cheeseless quesadillas,” noting that while it doesn’t exactly make a lot of sense, “that’s their name, so what can we do?” Good point.

Regardless of whether they have cheese or not, these kinds of quesadillas are mostly made with fresh masa, the same corn dough that’s used to make corn tortillas. Occasionally other ingredients, like lard, wheat flour and baking soda are added to the masa, though not always. The masa dough is flattened into a circle using a tortilla press, a small amount of the filling is added across the middle and then the masa is folded up to form a half-moon shape. This is griddled or gently fried until it develops a golden-browned crust, ever so slightly crackly without being crisp.

Unlike quesadillas made with fresh masa, folded-over quesadillas basically require cheese. Forget, forever if you can, the pre-shredded “Mexican cheese” found in the supermarket. What you want is something tangy that melts easily. This can be as simple as a decent quality Monterrey Jack, or, if you’re near a well-stocked Mexican grocery store, Chihuahua or Oaxacan cheese is deal.

While store-bought corn tortillas make fine quesadillas, especially if you add some fat to the skillet when crisping them, I do actually prefer the flakiness of flour tortillas here. When cooked in a little fat, the flour tortillas develop a gorgeous speckled browned appearance and hold the fillings without cracking.

The extra strength of flour tortillas also allows us to be slightly more liberal with the amount of filling. That means that you can add multiple components, just so long as you’re smart about it. Let’s tackle the most common meat-filled one out there: the chicken quesadilla.

And now, your quesadilla recipes.

Fresh corn masa

Prep: 35 minutes. Cook: 20 minutes. Makes: Eight quesadillas.

▪ Two poblano chiles.

▪ Two tablespoons canola oil, divided.

▪ One large white onion, cut into quarter-inch thick slices.

▪ Half a teaspoon salt.

▪ One clove garlic, minced.

▪ Half a cup chopped fresh epazote (if available) or fresh cilantro.

▪ 12 ounces fresh masa dough.

▪ Half a pound shredded Monterey Jack or queso Chihuahua.

▪ Guacamole for serving.

If using a gas stove: Place poblano chiles on the grate above a burner. Turn heat to high. Cook until blackened on the bottom. Use a pair of tongs to rotate the chiles until blackened all over. Transfer chiles to a paper bag to steam, 15 minutes. Peel off blackened skin, and remove stems and seeds. Cut poblanos into quarter-inch thick slices.

If using a broiler: Adjust oven rack to top, and heat broiler to high. Set chiles on a foil-lined baking sheet, and slide sheet underneath the broiler. Cook until blackened on top, three to four minutes. Flip and cook until blackened on the other side, another 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer chiles to a plastic bag to steam for 15 minutes. Peel off blackened skin, and remove stems and seeds. Cut poblanos into quarter--inch thick strips.

Heat one tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add poblano and onion slices; season with salt. Cook, stirring often, until onions are lightly browned, eight to 10 minutes. Add garlic and epazote (or cilantro), and stir well. Cook until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Turn off heat. Transfer chile and onion mixture to a bowl; set aside until cool. Clean out the skillet.

Heat remaining tablespoon of oil in the skillet over medium heat.

Divide masa into 1.5-ounce balls (about the size of a pingpong ball). Place an eight-inch round sheet of plastic (thin grocery store bags work extremely well) on the bottom plate of a tortilla press. Set one masa ball on the plastic, and place a second eight-inch round sheet of plastic on top. Flatten the masa gently with the tortilla press, until it’s about a four-inch circle and about quarter-inch thick. You may need to press more than once for an even quesadilla, turning the disk 90 degrees between each pressing.

Carefully remove the top sheet of plastic. Place an ounce of cheese and a few strips of the poblano and onion on half of the masa circle. Using the bottom plastic sheet, fold the quesadilla in half to form a half moon shape. Compress the edges, so that no filling can get out. Gently roll the quesadilla onto your hand; transfer directly to the skillet. Cook, flipping the quesadilla every minute or so, until the exterior is nicely browned, six to eight minutes. Repeat with remaining masa balls. Serve with guacamole.

Nutrition information per quesadilla: 293 calories, 14 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 33 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 12 g protein, 317 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.

Chicken, onion

Prep: 25 minutes. Cook: Four to six minutes per batch. Makes: Four quesadillas.

▪ One cup apple cider vinegar.

▪ Two teaspoons salt.

▪ Two tablespoon sugar.

▪ Half a red onion, thinly sliced.

▪ Two jalapenos, thinly sliced.

▪ Eight ounces shredded Monterey Jack or queso Chihuahua.

▪ Four ounces cooked, shredded chicken breast.

▪ Four eight-inch flour tortillas.

▪ One tablespoon canola oil

▪ Guacamole or salsa.

Pour apple cider vinegar into a medium bowl. Add salt and sugar; stir until dissolved. Add red onion and jalapenos. Set aside for an hour. Drain before using.

Place a quarter of the shredded cheese and shredded chicken on half of a tortilla. Add pickled red onion and jalapeno slices to taste. Fold in half. Repeat with remaining tortillas.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Place two of the quesadillas in the pan. Cook, two minutes per side. Repeat with other two quesadillas. Cut into triangles and serve with guacamole.

Nutrition information per quesadilla: 450 calories, 27 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 74 mg cholesterol, 28 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 25 g protein, 1,048 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.