Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of my crazy idea to move to Texas in pursuit of science, but I have always been a fan of Tex-Mex cuisine. I’m not sure what defines Tex-Mex precisely; I think of it as an amalgamation of tortillas, spicy salsas, inventively seasoned meat and beans, corn in ground and whole form, and cheese. Lots of cheese. Oh, and deep-fried avocadoes—holy moly, those are good. I know the deep-fried avocado can make you stop, take a deep breath, and check to see that yes, your heart really did just skip a beat. It’s kind of an insane idea: Let’s take the fattiest fruit we can find, dip it in batter, and bathe it in more fat! But before that, we’re going to stuff it with fat in the form of cheese! A deep-fried avocado isn’t everyday food (at least I hope it’s not), but it’s worth having once in your life. I’ve had it a few times now, a crispy, cheesy specimen shared with three others at a tiny table in a crowded Mexican restaurant, and let me assure you: it’s worth it. Do it so you can tell all your friends you’ve eaten a deep-fried avocado, which is sure to inspire shock, awe, and maybe even a little admiration. And if you and I ever cross paths and you brag to me about deep-fried avocado adventures, I’ll give you a high five.
Avocadoes aside, I love Tex-Mex food in many of its incarnations, but my very favorite way to do Tex-Mex is at home, with my own well-worn pots and pans. Good food is as much about taste as it is about texture, and Tex-Mex is delightful in both ways. (For evidence, please consider the above-mentioned deep-fried avocado: crispy, creamy, gooey, all in one messy little breaded package.) I draw the line at deep-frying avocadoes at home, but I’m very happy to whip up a quesadilla or two for something that’s crispy, creamy, and gooey without the vat of used oil to clean up afterward.
I used to be devoted to one and only one way of making quesadillas: fried in oil inside a skillet. But one evening, a chilly winter night not too long ago, I was shown that once again, butter is better. Matt was visiting, and, as is his habit, he took over my kitchen to cook us dinner. On one side of the stove, he cooked onions and peppers until they were silky and sweet; on the other, he melted lumps of butter in a skillet. Into the butter he laid fresh flour tortillas, purchased from the tortilla factory down the road from me. He warmed up the tortillas, letting them luxuriate in their buttery puddle, and then he layered those onions and peppers followed by big handfuls of cheese. Matt is not one what might call a “restrained” or “health-conscious” cook. He’s in the kitchen for one reason and one reason only: flavor. And oh my goodness, those were some of the best quesadillas I’ve ever had. I know I’m spoiled, as is everyone who gets to eat his food, but you and I can both steal his quesadilla trick: cook them in butter, or a little butter plus oil if you like.
The other thing you need to know about cooking quesadillas on the stovetop is that you shouldn’t be too afraid to crank up the heat to let those tortillas get crispy and a little black. We’re not aiming for completely burnt here; just a little burnt to add another layer of flavor and good crunchiness.
After learning about Matt’s secret butter trick, I happily adopted it for my quesadilla nights until a few weeks ago, when my friend Ammie told me how delicious the quesadilla recipe in Melissa Clark’s book is. When we catch up on the phone, Ammie and I usually compare notes about what we’ve cooked lately, and she’s been on a roll with In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite. She is showing that book who’s boss. I’m so proud of her! The quesadilla recipe, she explained, uses a broiler method to cook the quesadillas. I should add here that Ammie has a long-standing fear of the broiler, and she’s very brave to consider cooking anything under the broiler after a traumatic experience with asparagus.
Quesadillas under a broiler? I was intrigued. I could see how it might work—the broiler would crisp the tortillas and even burn them a little bit, providing that much-loved hint of charred flavor. And compared to the stovetop method, the broiler would make things easy easy easy: just throw the quesadilla on a baking sheet, slide it under the broiler, set the timer, flip when you hear the beep beep beep, and slide it back under the broiler for another minute or so.
Out comes a crispy, creamy, gooey quesadilla, which you can then slide onto a pretty bamboo cutting board and slice into quarters with a sharp knife. Take it to the table and sit down to a dinner of hot quesadillas, green salad, and maybe a cold glass of white wine.
It’s what summer should look and taste like.