The California Cook: Quick and delicious quesadillas

Ho, Lawrence K. -- B58460297Z.1 LOS ANGELES, CA. MAY 27, 2010. Quesadillas with mushrooms and goat cheese. Food shoot in studio on May 27, 2010. (LAWRENCE K. HO/LOS ANGELES TIMES)
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

In the beginning, there was grilled cheese, and it was good. How could it not be — creamy melted cheese, bread crisped in butter? And then, of course, came the panini, once a simple Italian snack bar staple, turned seemingly ubiquitous. Now it looks like it may be the quesadilla’s turn. And, really, the only thing to be said is: 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.

And hey, quesadilla queen Nina Garcia won the Vendy award a couple of weeks ago, beating a half-dozen other street food vendors, including, among others, someone serving an apple-and-Brie grilled cheese.

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.

And, in truth, there are times when even that simple version is not a bad thing to eat. My poor wife, who doesn’t seem to be able to go out in public without being bombarded with the question, “Who really cooks at home?,” usually answers that her culinary gifts are restricted to a mean quesadilla and a great chocolate chip cookie. And I’ll happily confess that there are nights when I get home late from the office and one of those quesadillas, served with a green salad and a Lakers game, seems infinitely more pleasurable than even a foie gras torchon at Mélisse.


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 (though probably at least a little bit of that should always be included). They can be as exotic as huitlacoche and cream, or as down to earth as leftover stew meat, torn into shreds.

And though I’ll happily agree that 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 had good luck with the ones Trader Joe’s calls “handmade.” They seem to have a slightly more pliable texture and fresher taste than most others. Of course, if you have a favorite tortilleria in your neighborhood, that should be the first choice.

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 sautéed 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’ve got a great dinner.

One of Garcia’s special twists seems to be melting the cheese on the griddle before adding it to the quesadilla. Maybe it was my cheese (I use low-moisture mozzarella, “pizza cheese”), but when I tried this at home, the results weren’t very good — the cheese clumped up and crisped, but without adding appreciably to the flavor. I prefer to scatter it over the top and let it melt into the filling.

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, and I can still make it in less than an hour even with a grocery stop.

Ready, set, roast

Indeed, while chowing down on a quesadilla the other night, I couldn’t help but think about the incident last month when my friend cookbook author Michael Ruhlman created such a stir by (to paraphrase) calling nonsense the notion that people were too busy to cook, and by calling out some recipe writers who push “quick’n’easy” shortcuts to home cooking.

In one way, he was right, of course. Cooking dinner doesn’t need to be a project, and there are plenty of things you can feed your family that don’t involve picking up packaged food and reheating it.

But in offering a solution, Ruhlman revealed a tone-deafness to the way many of us are having to live today. In its own way, his recommending roast chicken as the perfect weekday dinner alternative to, say, popping a Lean Cuisine in the microwave, is just as wrong-headed as pointing to the drive-up window.

It’s not that I have anything against roast chicken. It’s one of my favorite Sunday dinners and it’s a dish that should be in the repertoire of every cook. There is no meal that offers as high a pleasure-to-effort ratio. But proposing it as a weekday after-work dinner is just crazy.

Ruhlman’s reasoning was that it takes only an hour to roast a chicken. Technically, that’s true. Not in real life, though. I tried it the other night just to see. I left my office downtown at the normal 6:30 p.m. An hour on the Blue Line got me to Long Beach at 7:30. Stopping by the grocery to pick up the chicken made it 8 by the time I got to the house. It takes 20 minutes to heat my old O’Keefe and Merritt oven to 400 degrees and then 50 minutes to roast a chicken (plus a 10-minute rest to let the juices settle).

Sorry, I’m just not European enough to sit down to dinner at 9:15 on a weeknight, and judging from freeway traffic and the crowd on the MTA, I’m not alone in keeping that kind of schedule.

The real problem goes deeper than a simple roast chicken, though. It’s that old black-white, all-nothing attitude that either you are doing things exactly the right way (you know, the way they’ve always been done, the traditional way, the way your French maman would have done it), or you might as well be eating fast food.

There were any number of examples of perfectly fine, realistic dishes Ruhlman could have cited that wouldn’t have made anyone without two hours to spend getting dinner on the table on a Wednesday night feel like a loser who might as well be scarfing up Double-Downs.

He could have talked about an omelet, or pasta with butter and Parmigiano, along with a salad. Maybe even a quick risotto (45 minutes start to finish, including bringing the broth to a simmer).

And, of course, now that all the cool kids are eating them, quesadillas.