If you think quesadillas are Mexican, you’re half right. Traditional quesadillas consist of corn tortillas folded over cheese to make half-moon-shaped turnovers that are cooked on a comal or griddle until the tortilla is done and the cheese melted. Maize, which we call corn, was domesticated by native Americans thousands of years ago, probably somewhere in what is now Mexico.
By 1521, when Cortés and his gang defeated the Aztecs and occupied their capital, Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards were amazed to see the great variety of fresh and cooked foods including “dough,” or tortillas being sold in markets throughout the city. Some of them may have been stuffed with vegetables or meat, but there was no cheese and therefore no quesadillas. Quesadilla is a diminutive of the Spanish word for queso and means something like “little cheesy thing.” But since they are always made with tortillas, I think that the name is particularly appropriate.
Cheese was unknown in the new world until the conquistadors brought cows and sheep to Mexico and taught the natives how to make cheese. As is the case with all traditional foods, no one really knows who made the first quesadilla or what it had in it. However, the odds favor a corn tortilla with cheese, chili peppers and tomatoes.
Some people say that the best cheese for quesadillas is now made in Mennonite villages in northern Mexico, which gives us a tie to Jerri’s Mennonite heritage. Similar to Monterey Jack, the cheese is referred to as queso menonito in Chihuahua, where it is made, and is marketed elsewhere as Queso Chihuahua. Jerri remembers her mother telling about making a white cheese at home when she was growing up near McPherson, Kansas, which may have been something like what those Mennonite farmers make in Mexico.
Besides dairy cattle, the Spaniards also introduced wheat to the new world, which led to the flour tortillas that are most commonly used to make quesadillas today. The gluten in wheat flour means that tortillas can be larger and more flexible, and this explains why quesadillas today are often dinner-plate-sized creations filled with a wide variety of ingredients.
Jerri’s niece Gina shares a number of traits with her Aunt Jerri, among them a belief that no edible food should be thrown out. The last time we visited Gina her husband Chris had grilled steaks for the family. Since, like me, he believes in putting plenty of food on the table, there were leftover steaks in the refrigerator.
Trust me when I say that leftover steak smothered in cheese on crispy tortillas is delicious.
When I emailed Gina for her recipe, she took the time to explain how she makes quesadillas, and I can’t do any better than to share her email with you.
“Here’s my effort to describe the Quesadilla. For a while, this was Carson’s [Gina and Chris’s daughter] only food choice – along with grilled cheese and mac n cheese. Quesadillas are a great way to use leftovers, and they are versatile, so everyone’s palate can be pleased.
Tortillas, flour or corn (we prefer flour)
Cheese. Any will do, single cheese or a mix, grated or slices. Common choices are
Any combination, preferably leftovers:
beef, pork, turkey, lamb, or chicken of any sort
fish – any type
hot peppers and sweet peppers
Seasonings such as garlic powder, salt, pepper
We prefer to use leftovers straight from the fridge, but if the ingredients you have chosen need to be cooked or sautéed, prepare those ingredients first. Then heat a large skillet over medium heat.
Place two tortillas on a work surface. Spread butter on one side of each tortilla. Place one tortilla butter-side-down in the heated skillet. Immediately layer the cheese, top with your other ingredients and add a second layer of cheese. Add any seasoning you like and cover everything with the second tortilla, butter side up. Flip the tortilla carefully with a wide spatula after about 5 minutes per side. Remove the quesadilla from the pan and let it cool for one or two minutes. Cut it into wedges. Serve with salsa or sour cream if you wish.
Of course, quesadillas can be cheese only. And peanut butter and jelly quesadillas are very tasty, too! (The jelly liquefies in the heat, so use sparingly and place mostly in the center two-thirds of the tortilla.)”
NOTES: Gina says that you can use sliced or grated cheese.
I like just about all the ingredients listed by Gina, and you may like peanut butter and jelly quesadillas, but I repeat: Leftover steak smothered in cheese on crispy tortillas is delicious.
Check your refrigerator and make some quesadillas!