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Quesadillas - to fold or not?

“Gooey melted cheese and sweet chillies … what's not to love? ” Jamie Oliver

In his last program Jamie Oliver made quesadlillas - it was going to be the family's lunch and the version he made had several vegetables in it - I can't quite remember which now, because he was really saying use what you've got. The trick was to grate it all and squeeze it dry as well before cooking. And this does seem to be important - keeping the filling ingredients dry before cooking that is. He called them Veggie Quesadillas and I have to say they looked pretty good. As he said, they were a kind of toasted cheese sandwich. I have never made such things and probably never will - well David and I don't really do snacks and it will probably be a while before we have all the grandkids over again. Although when we do maybe I will give it a go. If you want to give it a go the Jamie way, check out the video below.

They looked pretty easy although I did wonder whether it was (a) as easy to turn over the somewhat large tortilla, as he made it look and (b) whether you could really do it in a non-stick pan and it wouldn't stick. I suspect that if I tried the same trick it would (a) all fall apart whilst flipping and (b) it would also stick to the pan. Plus (c) the outside would be cooked and the inside raw. There were a few people who said to cook them in a little oil, but this seemed to destroy the integrity of the tortilla somehow.

As to turning them over - well he did it with just a big slice implement and his hands. Others suggest the sliding on to a plate and flipping over on to another plate, before sliding back into the pan technique. I guess it could work. If your first attempt à la Jamie ends up on the floor - well half of it anyway, then you could give the plate method a go.

"Get ’em prepped, stack ’em up, and you’re ready to cook.” Jamie Oliver

He did make it look pretty easy, but I do wonder whether it's one of those things like bricklaying that looks pretty simple until you try and do it yourself.

Actually there seems to be quite a degree of dispute as to the method of turning over. For there are two basic quesadilla forms - the half quesadilla and the full quesadilla. What Jamie made was the full version, whereby you create a sandwich with two tortillas with a filling in between. Jamie prepared the whole thing before he started cooking. That is he made the 'sandwiches' one by one and stacked them at his side ready to cook - filling already in before it hits the pan. Others I have noted put one tortilla in the pan first and then add the filling before topping with the other. I suppose the danger of the Jamie method is that whilst you are transferring the filled tortilla to the pan, half your filling could fall out. He made it look easy but I wonder. Mind you he was making pretty large quesadillas Smaller ones would be easier.

With the half quesadilla you put the filling on half the tortilla and then fold over the other half. If you fill them beforehand then you will need to flip the tortilla over halfway. If you do it in situ then I guess you can see when your filling is cooked before folding over. I think it would probably be better to prepare beforehand though as this would double the cooking time for the filling. And surely you want your filling to be cooked? But then again I guess you could cook the filling beforehand too. In fact, now that I think about it, this is another tricky thing about quesadillas, getting the filling and the tortilla - both of them - cooked to perfection at the same time. Another reason for not too much filling - indeed the main reason probably.

And what about that filling? What you have at right here is the 'traditional' filling. Chesse is the main ingredient - preferably oaxaca which is a Mexican stringy kind of cheese. I gather that here in Melbourne you can get it at Casa Iberica in Fitzroy - Melbourne's Spanish quarter - particularly Johnston St. If you can't get it then mozzarella with a bit of salt is the best substitute but probably, in some ways the cheap kind as the real stuff might be a bit too watery. Felicity Cloake in her normal thorough way tries out all sorts of alternatives, deciding in the end to go with a mix of mozzarella and halloumi, cheddar or havarti. Jamie, on the other hand, who admittedly is talking to a different audience (one that has to make do) says anything will do. And to be honest Felicity Cloake almost said the same thing when she stated that "as far as I’m concerned at least, there is no such thing as bad melted cheese,"

Then to the cheese you add chilli - jalapeño preferably and a Mexican bitter herb called epazote. Now I really don't think that is available here.

It apparently has a really pungent flavour and English names like wormseed and skunkweed which are rather off-putting. So what can you use instead? Well Nigel Slater made a paste with green tomatoes, chilli, garlic and coriander. Or you could leave it out. Nigel might be trying to be semi authentic with this, but his filling isn't, as it's tomatoes and onions and cheese.

Cheese does seem to be the vital ingredient even though you will find several recipes that do not include it. Mind you there are some versions in Mexico that also do not include cheese, so go figure.

For yes it is a genuine Mexican dish. Well it's actually an evolution from basic tortillas stuffed with squash or pumpkin that the Aztecs made. When the Spanish conquistadores came they brought with them sheep and cattle and therefore milk and cheese, which proved to be popular enough to add to their indigenous version. The origins of the name by the way are disputed a bit but the general opinion seems to be that it means 'little cheesy thing'. So yes you really ought to have cheese.

However, as Nigel Slater says, "You can be as inventive as if you were filling a sandwich", and you will find hundreds of different versions out there. But don't get carried away. Two words of warning:

"The trick with quesadillas is to keep the filling really simple, then go a bit mad with your sides." Jamie Oliver

He has around half a dozen different versions himself on his Jamie Oliver website. This one is called the 'ultimate' and shows an array of sides. The most common sides that you will find are various different kinds of salsa, guacamole, hummus - which seems rather odd to me - shredded lettuce and other vegetable bits. You take your slice of quesadilla dob on something else, fold it over and eat. It would certainly look pretty at a barbecue and would feed the hungry kids, big and little, as they arrive. But it would mean someone slaving over a hot stove too.

Felicity Cloake, too has a word of warning:

"contrary to pictures found on certain social media sites, quesadillas should not be spilling over with molten cheese and sausage (or, indeed, macaroni cheese and Cheetos); rather, they should be fairly flat or they’ll be hard to eat." Felicity Cloake

So keep the filling meagre.

A lot of filling would make them hard to cook as well I suspect, particularly if you are making one of those big ones. Fillings such as this one at left would take longer to cook surely? So maybe if you are aiming for this sort of thing you would have to at least partially cook the filling first.

A quick aside. When I started on this I checked out my cookbook library although I don't have much on Mexican food. I have one book on Spanish and Mexican food - which made no mention of them at all. I also have a pretty old volume from the Time/Life International cooking series on Latin American cooking, that did mention them but gave no recipe. Well it sort of did, but not formally as it were. But perhaps that's the point. It's a bit like saying 'sandwich' in English. I mean the only think a sandwich has consistently is bread - and it's not even always two slices. The Time/Life description by the way seemed to say that the tortillas were filled, sealed and then deep-fried. And indeed there are versions out there like this. Too crispy says Felicity.

I also thought that some of my more modern trendy cookbooks would have recipes but no. Donna Hay doesn't even have any on her website. You will generally find them from time to time in the Coles and Woolworths magazines, but not apparently in delicious. Which is sort of strange. Are they not trendy enough? Have they become a sort of MacDonalds food?

One last word about tortillas. Of course you can make your own, but why would you when Coles, for example has at least twenty different kinds on sale? Jamie obviously got his out of a packet. Interestingly Felicity Cloake didn't seem to think that English supermarkets had them - but Jamie obviously had bought his. So I must say I find Felicity a bit hard to believe. Maybe she wrote her article a long time ago. And there seems to be no opinion as to whether the tortillas should be corn or flour ones. I think this is a regional thing. They do seem to say that the street sellers in Mexico, who make their own, probably make them a little thicker than the pressed manufactured ones, and that this makes the dough just that little bit more delicious. So if you're feeling strong one day have a go at making your own.

It's a good thing they don't take too long to eat, because according to Felicity they are:

"best enjoyed hot from the grill with a lick of salsa and a second already on its way."

So perhaps you need to have two on the go at once. Or you can cheat even more and buy a quesadilla maker - sort of like a toasted sandwich maker. I think they have them in Aldi from time to time.


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