Thursday, May 8, 2014

Waxing Nostalgic for Mexico: Quesadillas Fritas Con Ensaladita de Col & Agua de Pepino

Quesadillas Fritas con Ensaladita de Col;
Fried Quesadillas with Cabbage Salad
Some meals bring home the sunshine.  They make me smile, they make me lounge, they make me want to run in the clover barefooted like a little girl.  Some meals make me think of home - when home was mom and dad and sister, half-Spanish, half-English (NOT Spanglish), Texas sunshine, and the smell of lime, cilantro and onions.  In some ways, that still is home - in other ways, it isn't because now I'm the mom.  And it's my sons wreaking havoc and smelling the smells of Mexico that will, one day, bring nostalgia to them.

I made a trip back to Mexico in early April to see my ailing grandmother.  I didn't have much time - just a few days - but I took a moment to smell my grandfather's roses, his lime tree, to walk the market of Queretaro and eat some carnitas tacos at a stand on the street.  I am lucky that here in Denver we live very close to one of the major epicenters of Mexican culture in Colorado: Federal Ave.  There are enough panaderias (menudo on the weekends!), paleterias (they also sell esquites and corn on a stick!), and taco stands (as well as any other variation of Mexican street food) to keep my never-ending-nostalgia for Mexico at a reasonable level.  My son is growing up eating Mexican street food far more often than I ever did.  I can get fresh tortillas, queso Oaxaca (my favorite cheese growing up that my mother and aunts used to freeze and smuggle into the US in their suitcases), and all the Mexican cuts of meat that I need for a good taquiza (taco-grill-out).  Not to mention fresh Nopales.

In that spirit, I want to share a meal I made recently that takes me back to Mexico, to my childhood, but also contains a new Mexican food discovery - one that belongs to my kitchen now - not  my mom's - one that has become Roman's go-to Spring drink, and an indispensable part of my own repertoire of Mexican comfort foods.

the meal
*  *  *

There is this one little taco place called Tacos Junior (it's a chain) near us that we go to almost every Tuesday night after Roman's soccer practice.  He always orders the Tacos de Carne Asada, a cheese quesadilla and rice.  Matt gets a Huarache with Carnitas.  And, besides the ever-rotating list of foods, I always get a fresh "Agua" de sabor - a fruit drink made by blending water, sugar and fresh fruit.

They make them fresh for you per-order and $4 will get you a giant Big-Gulp sized cup of whatever fruity-deliciousness you choose.  I've mentioned these before when I posted a recipe for Agua de Limon a few years back (did mention this Lime shorage is killing me?!).  I almost always get Lime or Watermelon.  Matt always gets Horchata.  But recently I went rogue and tried a new flavor I'd never heard of before but which, on hindsight, is painfully obvious.  Roman's favorite vegetable.  Agua de Pepino - Cucumber water. 

What a waste my life has been!  And no, non-hispanic-American-friends, I don't mean that trendy concoction pushed by the likes of Martha Stewart where you infuse plain water in a fancy dispenser by placing daintily cut cucumber slices and ice into it.  I mean taking a whole damn cucumber and blending it up with water and sugar and lime or lemon juice.  I mean DRINKING a cucumber.  It's freaking incredible.  DO IT.  Spring in a glass, I tell you.  It was the only thing I made for Roman's party last weekend that actually ran out.  People were mesmerized.  Hell, so was I . :)

Agua de Pepino
Makes 2 liters


Large pitcher
1 1/2 -2 cucumbers, washed & very roughly chopped (you can peel them if you want, but I don't)
2 limes or lemons (preferably limes)
1 cup sugar (or to taste)
~2 liters water
Optional variation: fresh mint


1. In a blender with 1 liter water and the cucumbers (and mint if you want it), liquefy until completely....well, liquified. :)  The mix will be somewhat pulpy (which I really like), but should not have "chunks" in it.

2. Meanwhile, combine the other liter of water and the sugar in the pitcher and mix until completely dissolved.  Do not be tempted to add the sugar after the cucumbers or the lime juice - my mother assures me the sugar will not dissolve as the water will already be saturated.

3. Add the lime / lemon juice and mix.

4. Add the cucumber mix to the pitcher (you can pass it through a strainer as you go, if you prefer, but I never do) and mix well.

Serve with ice on a sunny day.

NB: I keep a wooden mixing spoon in my pitcher at all times as the pulp will separate from the water after just sitting for 2 minutes.  You need to mix it each time before serving.  Keep refrigerated and it will last 2-3 days.

 *  *  *

The other half of the meal I want to share is a dish my mother used to make for us.  Fried quesadillas with ground beef, served with a simple lime & cabbage slaw.  You can change the filling for these as you wish, but some typical versions are: chorizo and potatoes, sauteed mushrooms or picadillo.  I took some liberties with my spicing for the ground beef  filling (for example, I like cumin - and coriander - a lot, and my mom hates it), though, technically speaking otherwise, this is my mom's recipe.  The only thing I will say is non-negotiable is the insane, almost-excessive amount of lime and black pepper that goes into the slaw.  I promise you it does not disappoint, especially when eaten with such a rich, fried food.  You can add diced, cooked potatoes to the filling as well.

Quesadillas Fritas & Ensaladita de Col
Serves ~4; Makes 20 Quesadillas


Canola or Corn oil (for frying)
20 Corn tortillas
1/2 lb queso oaxaca or shredded mozzarella

1/2 lb ground beef or pork
splash of red wine vinegar
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1/4 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp black pepper
dash or two of garlic powder
dash of cinnamon (optional)
1 tsp coriander, crushed (optional)
1/2 small onion (white or yellow) chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 - 1 serrano pepper, chopped (or to taste)
salt to taste

Lime-Pepper Cabbage Slaw
1/2 - 3/4 head of cabbage, sliced thinly into long, fine strings
3-4 limes, juiced
1-2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
salt to taste


1.  Assemble the cabbage salad and set aside at room temp: Slice cabbage finely into long little strings (not squares or it will be very hard to handle) and place into a serving bowl.  Dress with lime juice and lots and lots of pepper.  The quantity given above is an approximation.  Basically: just a lot of pepper.  Add salt to taste and toss.

2. For the quesadillas: With 1 tbsp oil sautee onions, garlic, pepper.  Add red wine vinegar and deglaze pan.  Add ground beef and all spices and cook-through. Set aside.

3. Heat your oil (about 1-inch high) in a frying pan over medium-high heat (not high eat or the quesadillas will burn).  Meanwhile, microwave the tortillas (wrapped in a paper towel) in batches as you make the quesadillas (about 5 at a time, or however many you think will fit in your frying pan as a batch), for 30-45 seconds, to soften them.  Throw a crumb of cheese or tortilla into the oil and when you see it frying you'll know the oil is ready.

4. You need to work quickly here or your oil will start to burn: Take the first batch of tortillas and, laying them out flat, add some cheese (about 1-2 tbsp worth) plus about 1-2 tbsp of the meat mixture to one half of each tortilla.  When you've assembled them, gently fold the tortilla over and immediately place into the oil.  Be very gentle or the tortilla will break and/or the fillings will fall out of the quesadilla into the oil causing a frenzy of flying hot oil.  Not good.

5.  The oil should be bubbling vigorously around each quesadilla.  (If it isn't, the oil is too cold and you should turn up the heat or your quesadillas will be oil-logged-nastiness.)  Use a spatula to gently press the quesadillas down.  Cook about 1-2 minutes on each side or until golden brown, turning carefully so filling does not spill out.  Remove crispy quesadillas to a paper-towel lined plate and start over by heating the next batch of tortillas in the microwave.

Serve the quesadillas warm or at room temp with a side of cabbage slaw.  I like to also serve with a basic homemade salsa, avocado slices, and extra limes.  I also stuff the quesadillas with the slaw.  Oh, and don't forget the glass of Agua de Pepino.

NB: Do not place quesadillas in an oven to keep warm or they will get tough!  I learned this the hard way! 

¡Buen Provecho!

This post is brought to you by the cheesy throw-back online Spanish-music radio station Matt found and I am addicted to: Rey de Corazones.  And also the hilarious Spanish song from my childhood by Miguel Bose I heard on Rey de Corazones a few weeks back; it's like a hispanic power-ballad about a bandit lover: Amante Bandido.
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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your recepies that are no doubt treasures from your family. I`m intrigued by the combination of spices in the quesadilla recipe and will definitely make some.