A few quesadillas

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The oldest published recipe for quesadillas, from 1831, is found in El cocinero mexicano. These are remarkably similar to the ones we still make today.

Quick quesadillas  Either make or buy small, soft tortillas. In the middle of each tortilla place some cheese, which can be fresh or aged cow’s milk cheese or even goat’s milk cheese if you add a bit of salt, then fold the tortilla in half and sew it together with cornbrush or maguey fiber, or pin the halves together with three blades of sacaton [Sporobolus wrightii]. Cook the quesadillas without delay, on a grill over live coals or on a griddle, until the cheese just starts to melt. Remove the threading and serve at once because they’re no good cold. Some people fry their quesadillas in deep fat or sprinkle them with salt and sauté them in black butter.

This recipe is unusual for a couple of reasons. It’s the only antojito to appear in Mexico’s first printed cookbook, which distinguishes it from things like tacos, memelas, and sopes. The gente de razón (as the upper class referred to itself), for whom cookbooks were published in those days, felt that indigenous cuisine was beneath their dignity. Even now restaurants that would never consider offering tacos, memelas, or sopes proudly offer some sort of quesadilla as an antojito, entremés, tentempié, or appetizer.

Further on we present several examples from our own Baja California restaurateurs.

When Hernán Cortés dined with Moctezuma, they ate what later became known as tacos. By using a corn tortilla the way that Ethiopians use njira bread, one can pick up bits of almost anything and eat it wrapper and all. But Cortés and Moctezuma did not eat quesadillas – there simply was no cheese among the hundreds of dishes at Moctezuma’s table. The quesadilla had to wait until Mexico developed a dairy industry. And that brings us to another unusual thing about quesadillas: Mexico is the only lactose-intolerant part of the world where cheese plays an important part in the local cuisine.

So much of Mexican cuisine, and so much of the Mexican people, derives from centuries of miscegenation such that all but the most irredeemably right-wing around here proudly refer to the process as nuestro mestizaje. Without our culinary mestizaje, there would be no carnitas, no filete azteca, no menudo, no burritos … and no quesadillas. By the time Cortés landed in Veracruz, the locals had domesticated only five animals (as Sophie Coe relates in Petits Propos Culinaires): the turkey, the Muscovy duck, the dog, the bee, and the cochineal insect. Inasmuch as none of those animals can be milked to produce cheese, we have the Spanish, and later the Germans, to thank for the Mexican dairy industry.

Cheese press from the Mission era. Manual pressure was applied to the piston at top causing the whey to run down the sluice.

Cheese came to Baja California in 1697 with the Jesuits. Not only did each mission make requesón (ricotta, drained by gravity) and queso del país (the same cheese but drained by mechanical pressure in order to prepare it for aging): more importantly, the soldiers who accompanied the missionaries were given large tracts of land as a reward for their service. Throughout our peninsula, the descendants of many of these soldiers still live on their ancestral ranchos and produce what is referred to locally as queso ranchero. Even as far north as Monterey County, at Rancho Los Laureles, the granddaughter of Corporal Manuel Baronda marketed her version of this cheese during the nineteenth century – and it is now known universally as Monterey jack.

With thirty-one states and the world's largest federal district, Mexico is certainly going to show a lot of culinary variation. Quesadillas have many names (sincronizadas, empanadas, mulitas, gringas, pochas, “quekas”); they can be grilled, baked on a comal, fried in oil, arguably even made without cheese; their tortillas might be made of corn or wheat. The one thing these variations all have in common is that they're made from a tortilla folded in half. And even that single point of agreement is lost in modern interpretations, in which the ingredients are placed between two flat tortillas, heated through on a comal, and served sliced like miniature pizzas.

Typical garnishes are salsa fresca, crema mexicana, guacamole, shredded lettuce, and grated Cotija cheese. Cooked sauces such as salsa roja, salsa tomatillo, and salsa chipotle are often used. Also effective, particularly where avocados are a luxury, is Julia Child’s avocado brandade. These are helpful in offsetting any dryness in the quesadilla itself.

Now, you might think that ordering a “quesadilla de queso” makes as much sense as ordering a “fish taco de pescado”. Both phrases are heard frequently in Ensenada. During his visits there, Humberto Peña Cano reports getting shrimp in his quesadillas when he fails to be specific. (By the same token, there are fish tacos de camarón in the Mercado Negro, but that is a subject for another day.)

Although the quesadilla did start out being simply some cheese melted inside a corn tortilla, it has evolved into an effective way to use up leftovers wherein the cheese serves to glue all the ingredients together. So nowadays, if you're looking for the original item, it helps to be redundant.

The cheese should be mild and it needs to melt without releasing its oil. Cooks throughout Mexico insist that orangey cheeses, such as cheddar, be avoided because of their inappropriate flavor … and perhaps because of their unappealing color. Alicia Gironella de Angeli and Jorge de Angeli, Mexico’s royal gastronomic couple of the previous generation, recommend farmer’s cheese, like the traditional one still being made on the old Crosthwaite ranch at El Tigre. Almost everyone else uses semisoft ripened cheeses such as Oaxacan quesillo (also called “asadero”), adobera, or the Mennonite cheeses of Chihuahua. North of the border you might use mozzarella, Monterrey jack, Lappi, Münster, or even provolone. Here in Baja California we like to use one of the younger cheeses from Real del Castillo, an historical gold-mining area halfway between Ensenada and San Felipe.

Tasting Santa Brígida cheese at the Mercado Campestre.

Santa Brígida cheeses from Tijuana are another possibility for those who live nearby. This award-winning artisan operation makes a queso blanco suitable for aging, a panela, and a requesón all by hand in small batches from certified milk and delivers the products personally to customers in Tijuana and San Diego. All three Santa Brígida cheeses work exceptionally well in quesadillas. Santa Brígida doesn’t maintain a website but our Reader Service will put you in touch with them on request.

Particularly in the central part of Mexico (and, by extension, wherever chilangos are found), quesadillas can be filled with pretty much anything. Carne asada, chicken, chorizo, tinga poblana, mushrooms, pancita, picadillo, and cuitlacoche are among the most common choices, with or without the addition of chicharrón, squash blossoms, or epazote. Homemakers typically use whatever leftovers might be at hand: such spur-of-the-moment quesadillas can be on the table in five minutes.


In this photomontage, we see doña Rosa María of the taquería Los Ángeles (colonia Libertad, Tijuana) preparing a carnitas mulita. “In Puebla, where we’re from,” says Rosa María, “Oaxacan quesillo is the best choice. It melts without separating. Around here, though, we can usually get a mozzarella from north of the border that works even better because it is similar but with a slightly sweeter flavor.”

You can be more deliberate about your quesadillas by seeking out a particular filling. Smoked marlin is a favorite throughout the peninsula because pretty much every fishmonger carries it. Chopped shrimp is commonly offered from food carts in Ensenada and has passed into national culinary fame as the taco gobernador, in honor of one of the Sinaloa drug cartel’s favorite politicians. Tinga, cochinita pibil, and chilorio are so popular that you can find them in cans and anaerobic bags on supermarket shelves.

The restaurant at Cervecería Tijuana has been serving chilorio quesadillas for years. They didn’t respond to our request for their recipe, so we thought we do a five-minute version at home using some canned chilorio.

A more elaborate quesadilla comes from Martín San Román, whose classical training taught him to bind his fillings. He demonstrates his smoked marlin quesadillas to an English-speaking audience in this video link.

Smoked Marlin Quesadillas
4 ten-inch corn tortillas
1 oz minced onions
2 oz minced tomatoes
1 oz minced fresh jalapeños
1 oz minced green olives
2 oz olive oil
6 oz smoked marlin
½ cup mayonnaise
4 oz shredded Monterey jack cheese
salt and pepper

Sauté the tomatoes, onions, jalapeño chilies, and olives in the oil for two minutes. Add the marlin, cook for another minute, then cool. Season to taste, add mayonnaise, mix well. Place a fourth of this mixture and a fourth of the cheese in the middle of each tortilla. Heat on a griddle over low flame until the cheese just starts to melt, then fold the tortillas in half. Heat through on both sides, cut into wedges, and serve immediately with red or green salsa.

The recipe from 1831 says we can either make our tortillas or buy them. (In those days both versions were made by hand.) Handmade tortillas are thicker, softer, and taste much more of corn than do the machine-made tortillas that were introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century. Even handmade tortillas have changed over the years: tortear, the art of shaping tortillas between both hands working in opposition, has been replaced by a hand press and plastic wrap. Each one of the three processes creates its own texture in the tortilla – the oldest being the best – but, invariably, any tortilla made by hand will taste better than the mass-produced product.

When cooks work with fresh masa, they might add shortening, baking powder, or wheat flour in order to achieve different textural effects. To make their tortillas lighter and more cake-like, Benito Molina and Solange Muris (Mexico’s royal gastronomic couple of the current generation) added a bit of baking powder to the masa for their Pescadillas when they demonstrated quesadillas de pescado on their television program. The effect of the baking powder can be seen in the images of their website photoessay, linked here, even though the ingredient was omitted from their published recipe.

14 oz fresh fish
1 onion, quartered
2 cloves garlic
1 tbs yerba santa, finely minced
1 tbs canned chipotle chile, finely minced
1 tomato, finely minced
11 oz fresh tortilla masa

salsa roja:
4 tomatoes, chopped fine
1 red chile jalapeño, deveined and minced
1 onion, minced
fresh herbs, minced
salt and pepper to taste

Boil the fish and the onion in plenty of salted water. Remove from heat and cool. With a fork, break the fish into small bits.

Mince the onion and garlic and sauté them in olive oil. Add finely chopped tomato and the chipotle adobado. Add the shredded fish and cook for five minutes more. Remove to a bowl and allow to cool.

Form the masa into golf balls. Press each one between two pieces of kitchen paper to form the tortilla. Place some of the filling near the center of each tortilla and fold the tortilla in half. Press the edges together with your fingers to seal. Fry in plenty of hot oil until they’re golden brown. Remove and drain on absorbent paper.

Salsa roja. Chop the tomatoes evenly, seeds and all. Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Serve as a garnish to the pescadillas.

For our pièce de résistence, we asked chef Ascendencio Montes de la Piedad y Venus, leader of the BajaMedismo Movement, for his interpretation of this dish. As to be expected, his inspiration is strictly local – “muy d’acá”, as he says.


“I call my creation Las Kekas De Mi Kierensia because they remind me of when, as a child, I played in the tide pools of Puerto Nuevo. The cheese is from the cows on my mother’s rancho near Real del Castillo. She’s been coming down the mountain to sell in the open-air market every week for the last seventy years, carrying her cheeses in a wicker basket on a tumpline. I harvested the lobster myself just north of Puerto Nuevo and, since the lobsters were out of season, I also tipped the PROFEPA official with my own hands. The corn was grown on my farm in Kansas, which I purchased thanks to NAFTA in order to raise my own genetically enhanced strain of Zea mays var. Monsanto that includes some of Moctezuma’s DNA. My mother once again helped out by grinding our corn on the Kumeyaay’s sacred metate in Jacumba. When it came time to serve, I had to borrow an old-fashioned round plate from a neighbor because all my rectangular sushi plates were in the dishwashing machine.”


Billy said...

I’ve been to all the top restaurants in Baja and know all the culinary movements but I’ve never herd of Chef Piedad Y Venus. Does he have a restaurant? Where can I try the dish he made for you?

The Real Tijuana said...

Chef Ascendencio (if we may use the title correctly) is the self-proclaimed creator of the BajaMedismo Movement. He holds court in his restaurant, El Aparador de la Inocente Palomita. If you hurry you might still be able to get the limited-edition black chef's jacket emblazoned with his trademarked motto, "Vendemos el chisporroteo porque se nos perdió el bisté."

Chef's quekas pay homage to those "foodistas" who insist on confusing pretentiousness for gastronomy. They were really made with Chihuahua jack cheese, supermarket surimi, a light béchamel sauce, and masa from the neighborhood tortillería. ¡Provecho!