Melted, gooey cheese between two toasted tortillas—even in their most basic form, quesadillas rarely disappoint. “They’re the grilled cheese sandwiches of the Southwest,” says Richard Caruso, executive chef at the Tex-Mex restaurant Javelina, a surprising new entry for hottest-table-in-town honors. “And if there’s anything Americans love, it’s cheese.”
Although a south Brooklyn native, Caruso is no stranger to the Southwest’s flavors and cooking methods. Back in 2007 he helped open the Texas-inspired Hill Country BBQ as the executive sous chef. He also learned a great deal from Mark Miller, the former chef at Coyote Cafe in New Mexico who’s widely considered the “dean of American chiles.” At Javelina, Caruso is restoring pride in a food tradition that’s long been held in low esteem.
“Tex-Mex is terribly misunderstood and I intend to straighten that out,” says Caruso. “People think it’s Taco Bell.”
Gussied-up versions of chile con queso with fresh tomatillos and serrano peppers, heaping piles of skirt-steak fajitas, and housemade pickled jalapeños for nachos are quickly changing minds. So, too, are homemade flour tortilla quesadillas, which are crisped on a traditional comal.
“The great thing about quesadillas is their versatility,” says Caruso. “It’s not like a classic French souffle where it has to be served a certain way. I personally like Chihuahua cheese and squash blossoms, even though my wife looks at me like I have three heads.”
From ideal cheese selection, to tips about achieving the perfect level of crispiness, we asked the Tex-Mex aficionado to steer us towards quesadilla enlightenment.
Here are the quesadilla commandments.
1. The Power of Flour.
Corn tortillas may be great taco vessels, but flour tortillas are more pliable and are less likely to fall apart after cooking. Fresh ones are always preferred, but for the home cook, store-bought tortillas will work too. “Go to a Mexican bodega if you can. There are definitely some good ones out there. Avoid corporate brands if possible.”
2. Size doesn’t matter.
Most versions of a quesadilla are created with a large, 8- or 10-inch flour tortilla (also used for burritos) that is folded over into a semi-circle while cooking. But if you’re entertaining a large group of people, smaller 6-inch flour tortillas (also used for tacos) make for more manageable portions.
3. Know Your Cheese.
Quesadilla’s literal Spanish translation is “little cheesy thing.” So it goes without saying that the cheese filling is pretty important. A blend of cheeses is ideal for a more nuanced flavor; mild or sharp cheddar and Monterey jack cheese is a great place to start. “Ditto for Chihuahua cheese, which has a similar fat content to mozzarella. Medium to medium-high fat content is what you’re going for. Parmesan would simply burn, and brie wouldn’t melt fast enough to bind the tortillas.” Use grated cheese instead of sliced cheese to ensure a more even melt. Chunks and cubes will simply not cut it.
4. Fillings shall be uniform in size.
Your choice of fillings is what transforms an average quesadilla into a sublime one. Veggies are always a good place to start. “The more tender, quick-cooking veggies are best: squash, zucchini, mushrooms, and spinach work well—thinly sliced so that the cheese can melt over them. The cheese will hold most of the moisture in—and if there’s a little juice that runs down your face, that’s okay too.” When you pick a protein, make sure to shred it. “You want it thin so it will cook evenly. We slice our skirt steak and shred our brisket to make it roughly the same size.”
5. Nix the butter and oil to achieve ideal crispiness.
Just because you’re using a frying pan, doesn’t mean you need to load the pan up with oil or butter. Both detract from the natural smokiness and crispiness you get from cooking a dry tortilla. “Butter is sacrilegious; it’s too European for a quesadilla and adds the wrong flavor profile. Plus, it makes it soggy.” The best way to go is using a cast-iron skillet. Turn up the burner to medium heat. Let the tortilla toast on one side for a few minutes and flip when you start to see the first signs of melting cheese. After another few minutes, you should be set.
6. Heat is a luxury.
Adding a little spice here and there is never a bad idea, especially as a way to cut through the fatty indulgence of gooey cheese. Jalapeño or serrano peppers go extremely well with most quesadilla fillings. Serrano peppers are a little spicier, so use them more sparingly. And remember to remove the seeds and the membranes from the peppers lest you end up with a throat on fire. “That’s the most traditional route, but you can also use poblanos, which are milder and smokier. There’s no hard or fast rule.”
7. Don’t overthink the process. Seriously.
It’s nearly impossible to f**k up a quesadilla. Stress is the last thing that should be on your mind, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different iterations. Changing the tortilla, the cheese, or the fillings can give you an entirely different flavor profile. A tomato-flavored tortilla with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and pepperoni is an easy way to channel your Italian roots without abandoning the Tex-Mex formula.
8. Thou shalt respect the holy trinity of condiments.
Like Darryl Hall and John Oates, some things are just meant to go together. A quesadilla experience is never fully complete without some side condiments. They will help bring some balance and acidity to the cheesy dish. A good place to start is with the Tex-Mex trinity of condiments—guacamole, sour cream, and pico de gallo. Make sure to get ripe avocados for the guac—dark green to black on the outside, soft but firm. Fresh tomato, jalapeño, white onion, and cilantro are equally important.
9. Bake it, grill it, fry it.
Once you’ve constructed your quesadilla, now it’s time to heat it up. Traditionally, quesadillas are cooked on a comal or a plancha (smooth flat griddle). At home they can be prepared in a variety of different ways—in the oven, on a grill, in a frying pan, or (preferably) a cast-iron skillet. Heck, you can even use your old George Foreman grill in a pinch.
10. Eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
The best thing about quesadillas is that you can make them whenever you want and whenever inspiration strikes. Feeling hungry in the morning? A chorizo, egg, and cheese quesadilla can take care of that. A mushroom-and-corn quesadilla makes for a great quick lunch, and a fajita steak quesadilla adds some oomph to your dinner.