Melty cheese of any kind always makes me think of my children as young ones. Our cast-iron griddle spent a dozen years on the stove waiting for the day’s quesadilla orders.
My son preferred simple renditions of white cheese and flour tortillas, while my daughter liked more complex combinations of tangy goat cheese and soft vegetables. No matter their age, the children in our house never tired of the warm, handheld goodness.
As they grew up, we added mild guacamole and salsas for dunking. Later, roasted vegetables and shrimp got tucked into the quesadillas. As my prowess in Mexican cooking expanded, so did our quesadilla concoctions. These days, we press fresh corn masa into rounds to welcome boutique cheeses and the garden’s squash blossoms. Flour tortillas, quickly defrosted, turn into midnight snacks with leftover roasted vegetables and long shreds of smoked hard cheese.
Two secrets we learned that elevate our quesadillas beyond kids food: First, use the freshest tortillas you can find, such as those delivered daily to a Mexican market. Or, follow the instructions on the package of masa harina to make fresh masa dough, then press out fresh corn tortillas to bake on a heated griddle. Second, skip pre-shredded cheese; the cellulose added to prevent caking also prevents a good melt. It only takes a few seconds to shred a couple of ounces of firm cheese, and the rewards are great.
Other warm cheese offerings likewise capture our attention. Saganaki, that Greek kasseri cheese flamed with alcohol, tastes like a salty, carb-free quesadilla. Queso fundido, the Mexican cheese casserole, satisfies our penchant for warm cheese; we happily scoop it up into hot tortillas or over thick corn chips. We feel a similar fondness for chunks of French bread dunked in cheese fondue.
In Argentina, provoleta is commonly served as the starter at an asado – a traditional, celebratory meal of grilled meats. The sturdy provolone-like cheese often cooks directly on a grill before it is served on a plate. Sometimes, small bowls of chimichurri and olives accompanied the cheese.
At home, I played around with the cheese for a quick version of provoleta using unsmoked domestic and imported provolone. The domestic cheese melted beautifully, but rendered out a bit of fat (which I mopped up with a paper towel). The imported sharp provolone had a saltier edge that really welcomed the salad topping. Other options I like for the provoleta include tangy Greek kasseri and mild tasting Mexican queso fresco, queso blanco and panela – all of which soften nicely when heated.
The ticket to success: the thickness of the cheese. Look for chunks that are between ¾- and 1-inch thick, so it browns and melts at the same time.
Like any good melty cheese offering, I could easily enjoy these timeless recipes as a main course with a hearty green salad and cold Mexican beer or an Argentine Malbec.
JACK AND AVOCADO QUESADILLA TRIANGLES
Makes: 2 servings
1 medium ripe avocado, halved, pitted
¼ teaspoon salt
Chopped fresh cilantro or chives, optional
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Crushed red pepper flakes or smoked paprika, optional
4 flour tortillas (6 inch)
Scoop avocado pulp into a small bowl. Roughly mash with a spoon; season with salt and cilantro, if using.
Heat a well-seasoned or nonstick griddle over medium heat until a drop of water evaporates on contact. Add 2 tortillas in a single layer. Top each with ½ cup of the cheese, spreading it to within ½ inch of the edge. Sprinkle each with pepper flakes, if using, then a second tortilla. When the bottom tortilla is hot and a bit golden, about 1 minute, carefully flip to brown and heat the other side, about 30 seconds.
Transfer to a cutting board; cut each into 6 wedges. Serve right away with the mashed avocado.
PER SERVING: 572 calories, 37 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 41 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 22 g protein, 1,217 mg sodium, 9 g fiber
CARAMELIZED ONION, ASPARAGUS AND GOAT CHEESE QUESADILLAS
Makes: 2 quesadillas
2 teaspoons expeller-pressed canola, safflower or sunflower oil
½ small yellow onion, very thinly sliced
4 asparagus spears, chopped
Salt to taste
2 very fresh corn tortillas, about 6 inches in diameter
3 to 4 ounces crumbled soft goat cheese
Chopped fresh cilantro
Roasted tomato salsa
Heat a small nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 1 teaspoon of the oil and the onion. Cook, stirring often, until onion is soft and caramelized, 6 to 8 minutes. Add asparagus; cook and stir until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Season with salt. Transfer to a plate.
Heat a nonstick or well-seasoned griddle over medium heat until a drop of water evaporates on contact. Add remaining 1 teaspoon of oil and add tortillas. Turn once to coat tortillas with oil. Heat until softened, about 30 seconds. Immediately top half of each tortilla with half of the onion mixture and half of the crumbled cheese. Fold tortillas in half to enclose the filling. Press with a flexible spatula to compact everything. Cook until tortillas crisp a bit; flip to crisp the other side, 1 to 1½ minutes. Serve hot sprinkled with cilantro. Pass the salsa.
PER SERVING: 231 calories, 16 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 53 mg cholesterol, 15 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 9 g protein, 209 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
SKILLET PROVOLONE WITH SALAD
Makes: 4 appetizer servings
1 chunk aged provolone cheese (¾-inch thick) or 2 smaller chunks with the same thickness, totaling about 12 ounces
1½ cups halved cherry tomatoes
1 cup sliced baby romaine or baby salad greens
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 to 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano or ½ teaspoon dried
Crushed red pepper flakes, optional
4 to 8 thick slices crusty bread, warmed
Let cheese rest, unwrapped, at room temperature while you get everything else ready. You can leave the cheese out uncovered for several hours.
Shortly before serving, heat oven to 200 degrees. Mix the tomatoes and lettuce in a bowl. Season with the olive oil, vinegar and a pinch each of the parsley and oregano.
Turn on the exhaust fan over the stove. Heat a small (6- or 7-inch diameter) seasoned cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Reduce the heat to low. Add the chunk of cheese; sprinkle with half the remaining parsley and oregano, and crushed red pepper to taste. Cook until the bottom of the cheese starts to brown and the middle starts to soften and ooze, about 3 minutes. Carefully flip the cheese with a spatula. Sprinkle with the remaining herbs and pepper flakes. Continue to cook until the bottom of the cheese is golden brown but not hard, 1 to 2 minutes.
Meanwhile, warm the bread on a baking sheet in the oven for a few minutes. Transfer bread to a basket; cover with a towel to keep warm.
Serve the hot cheese right away, straight from the skillet, topped with some of the salad. Scoop the cheese onto the bread slices and pass remaining salad.
PER SERVING: 427 calories, 27 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 59 mg cholesterol, 21 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 25 g protein, 919 mg sodium, 1 g fiber