A mainstay of Mexican restaurants and home kitchens, the quesadilla originated in central and southern colonial Mexico. It began as a corn tortilla gently heated until soft enough to fold and then filled with Oaxaca cheese and toasted on both sides until golden brown and crispy on the outside and gooey with cheese on the inside. Over time, chopped, cooked vegetables and bits of shredded roasted or stewed meats also found their way into the cheesy tortillas. Sometimes there were accompaniments such as avocado, guacamole, chopped onion, salsa. Sometimes the savory additions completely displaced the cheese, for a cheese-less quesadilla. And nowadays, the tortillas are often made from wheat flour rather than masa.
Influenced by the many micro-cultures of Mexico and Latin America, the quesadilla has been adopted and adapted by chefs and home cooks around the world, especially since the little cheesy things make it so deliciously easy to feed vegetarians and meat-eaters at the same table. A vegetarian quesadilla can be as simple as cheese folded into a tortilla or it can be vegan and bear such alluring fillings as sauteed huitlacoche with onions, garlic and serrano peppers, hold the cheese. For carnivores, simply add some shredded chicken from a recent roast and some tomatillo salsa or toss a few extra shrimp on the barbie for grilled shrimp quesadillas.
These black bean and mushroom quesadillas with avocado crema have a meat-like chew that makes them hearty yet still vegetarian. Use the green tops of root vegetables as with beet green, roasted beets and goat cheese quesadillas to apply nose-to-tail principles to plants. Or, fill your quesadilla with any type of greens and whatever cheese you have on hand — feta, Jack — even mozzarella, which is similar to the more “authentic” Oaxaca cheese.
Flour or corn tortilla? Before the introduction of wheat to Mexico’s agricultural landscape, corn was the only option. Nowadays, softer, flakier, more pliable wheat flour tortillas are just as popular.
While some of the particulars may vary, centuries later, quesadilla basics remain the same. And, if you are comfortable working without a recipe, quesadillas become a tasty haven for all kinds of leftovers.