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Alimentary, My Dear

Fast Food Under Way — Quesadillas

By Tamia Nelson

September 20, 2005

On a Big Trip, it's fun to take a break every few days to hang out around a fire or stove and make an elaborate meal. While someone else is washing and drying your dirty clothes and repairing any broken gear, you can simmer a pot of soup or bake a couple of slabs of bannock. But on weekend adventures I'm seldom in the mood to spend long hours in camp. There's just too much else I'd rather do. These are the times when fast food looks mighty attractive. No, I don't mean burgers-'n'-fries. I do fast food my way, or I don't do it at all. Pasta is a favorite. Foodies will like the tastes and textures, while hard-charging members of the "food is fuel" brigade won't find many meals that do a better job of replenishing their muscles' depleted glycogen stores. Still, the old chestnut is right: variety is the spice of life. And when you're looking for a satisfying change of pace, it's hard to go wrong with quesadillas.

What's a quesadilla? It's a Mexican native that's found a home away from home north of the border. But first things first. It's hard to talk about something if you can't say its name, right? So how do you say quesadilla? Good question. I've heard at least three different pronunciations: Kay-sa-DEEL-ya, Kay-sa-DEE-ya, and Kuh-sa-DEEL-ya. And I'll bet those aren't the only variants. Whatever pronunciation you favor, though, quesadillas are always delicious. They're a snap to make, into the bargain, and as for variety…well, there are as many ways to build a quesadilla as there are ways to say the name. Just follow the principles of fusion cookery and let your imagination run free.

OK. Let's get back to my earlier question: what is a quesadilla? Easy. Think of it as a toasted cheese sandwich, Mexican style. But that's not all. Cheese is only the start. Depending on the filling, quesadillas can satisfy everyone from vigilant vegetarians to keen carnivores. Moreover, you can eat them as either a quick snack on the trail or a sit-down meal in camp. How's that for versatility! Ready to give one a try? Great! Let's build a quesadilla. And since every construction job begins with a list of materials, that's just where we'll start:


Tortillas are to quesadillas what bread is to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You can make your own from scratch, of course, but if you're not in the mood, just pick some up ready-made at your local HyperMart. Then store them in an airtight plastic bag in your refrigerator till you're ready to head for the put-in.

A few words about tortillas. There are two kinds: corn and (wheat) flour. Each has its fans. You can choose a size to match your appetite, too — from small to extra-large. For the record, I use 10-inch flour tortillas for my quesadillas. They're just about perfect for folding and holding, and they're a good fit in my favorite skillets, too. Why flour rather than corn? I prefer the flavor, and they seem less likely to break when folded. If you prefer corn to wheat, however, go for it.

Got your tortillas? Good. Now you need some…


Vegans take notice: queso means "cheese." No cheese, no quesadilla. The best cheeses are those which won't separate when heated. Extra-sharp cheddar is not a good choice. The butterfat oozes out on heating, creating an oily mess. Soft cheeses are also bad news. They burn in the skillet and drip in your lap. Ouch! So keep the limburger and brie for something else. What's left? Real quesadillas are built from asadero. You'll find this in Mexican markets. But what if there's no such thing in your corner of Canoe Country? Don't despair. Mild, medium, and sharp cheddars all work well. (But extra-sharp won't, remember?) Color doesn't matter in cheddars. White or orange, it's all the same. The only difference is annatto, a natural food coloring. Jacks and muenster are good quesadilla cheeses, too. Some jacks even boast chunks of chili or jalapeño peppers if that's to your taste. Me? I walk on the mild side. My first choice is a nutty, sharp orange cheddar (orange adds color to the dish, but not flavor).

You can stop here if you want to. The simplest quesadillas are little more than a tortilla topped with melted cheese, then folded in half and eaten. But why not go further? Why not do more? Paddling's hard work, after all. Your body needs fuel to function. And to build a really hearty quesadilla you'll want…

More, Please!

But a word of caution. Too much of even a good thing can sometimes be…well…too much. Don't overfill your quesadillas. Better to make more than one for each person than to overload the tortillas and risk a sloppy avalanche. That warning aside, you can mix and match fillings to suit your taste and appetite. Possibilities include…

Meat, Poultry, or Fish  Beef and chicken are favorites, but any cooked meat or poultry will do. Fish, too. Whatever you use, however, the meat or fish must be cooked before you assemble your quesadillas. Leftovers from a roast or grill, canned meats (drain the juices first!), or reconstituted dehydrated or freeze-dried meats are all suitable. Tear or shred the meat into bite-sized pieces or slice very thinly, and flake the fish. Large cubes are no good, by the way — unless you like spilling your food down the front of your paddling jacket, that is.

Beans  Ah, yes. The musical fruit. And they're as nutritious as they are entertaining. Try black, pinto, or (dark or light) kidney beans. Canned refried beans are also popular, though health-conscious diners and vegetarians will want to use the fat-free variety. The good news? No flavor is lost when the lard is left out. Canned black and kidney beans are convenient and usually of acceptable quality. As with canned meats, however, you should drain the liquid from any canned beans before you build. Then rinse the beans with clean water. The packing liquid not only makes the quesadilla too juicy, but it's also blamed for beans' musical qualities. (I'm not convinced, but.…) Some markets also carry dehydrated beans. Reconstitute with water, following package directions.

Vegetables  The candidates include cooked, thinly sliced fresh vegetables like onions, red or green bell peppers, chili peppers, or jalapeños. Cook chopped garlic along with them for that extra touch (and toot). Chopped or sliced seeded tomatoes — that is, raw or cooked tomatoes from which the seeds have been removed — are also tasty. Canned chili peppers or jalapeños can be used, too, so long as the peppers are drained first. And drained, ready-made roasted peppers taken from a jar or can are delicious. Some folks like sliced green or black olives, or slivered sun-dried tomatoes.

That pretty much exhausts the list of primary structural materials. But you're not done yet. Now it's time to inventory the trim and fittings. It's time to consider…

Spices, Herbs, and Other Flavorings

Some like it hot, and quesadillas can be made as spicy as you can stand it. Chili powder or a purchased packet of salsa or taco spice mix is a good starting point. Cooks who prefer more control over their flavorings might wish to try ground cumin, ground coriander, or fresh cilantro. Yes, I know — fresh cilantro isn't a spice. But this parsley-like herb has a pleasantly sharp tang and is a traditional element in Mexican cooking. I've also used ground cinnamon and dried oregano for flavoring, and while these may not be authentic, they are delicious. Squeeze a little fresh lime juice into the filling, too, or use the reconstituted juice from one of the plastic limes you'll find in the HyperMart. And folks who like it really torrid can always use a hot pepper sauce.

Still not satisfied with your architectural plan? No problem. There are always…


Guacamole, salsa, or picante make fine garnishes for quesadillas. The HyperMart carries them ready-made in degrees of heat from mild to scalding. Seeds and nuts are also good. I like toasted pepitas — squash seeds — for their crunch and flavor.

Got your list of materials? Then we're ready to build. But before we begin, let's take a minute for the mandatory OSHA briefing:

Safety First

Trust me on this one — food poisoning adds nothing to any outing. (If you're not the sort to take anything on trust, just ask Farwell, who has vivid memories of several days spent running rapids in a canoe with a Sigg chamber pot tucked under his seat. Convenient? Yes. Comfortable? No way! And at dinner time the Sigg pot had to report back to the galley. Needless to say, Farwell didn't enjoy his meals much.) Of course you can take foods on a weekend trip that you couldn't bring on a longer expedition, but all fresh foods can spoil. That's why it's worth bringing a small soft cooler and a couple of freezer blocks along on your weekend adventures. They're not much of a burden, and once the food is eaten, the empty cooler can be folded flat and stowed away. Be sure to freeze any spoilage-prone foods (cooked meats, for instance) in advance of the trip, too, and then store them in your cooler under way. By the time you reach camp they should be nearly thawed, yet still be cold enough to check bacterial growth.


Now there's nothing holding us back. It's time…

To Build a Quesadilla

You don't need many tools — just a skillet with a lid and some cooking oil to grease it. (I use canola or corn oil.) Since you'll have to flip the quesadilla in the pan, a spatula is useful, although a spoon or fork can also do the job with a little deft handwork. Assembly is similarly straightforward. You can fold one tortilla to make a half-moon, or use two to construct a sort of sandwich-in-the-round. I favor the half-moon, perhaps because I find it easier to flip. In any case, you build your quesadilla up from the foundation. Here's the construction plan in detail:

  1. Place one tortilla on a clean, flat surface. (The bottom of a reasonably flat-bottomed canoe or kayak will do in a pinch.)

  2. Sprinkle a thin layer of grated or crumbled cheese over half of the tortilla, leaving a one-inch border along the outer edge.

  3. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of whatever filling you favor on top of the cheese and spread it evenly, taking care to leave the border empty.

  4. Dust spices and herbs over the filling.

  5. Garnish.

  6. Fold the quesadilla in half, pressing gently down around the one-inch border.

  7. Heat your lightly-oiled skillet over a medium flame or fire until the oil is hot. (How hot is hot enough? If it sizzles vigorously when you drop a tiny crumb of tortilla in the oil, you're good to go. If the oil smokes, however, it's too hot.) Then place the quesadilla in the pan and cover. (Covering the skillet helps melt the cheese and warm the filling.) After 1-2 minutes, lift the lid to check on progress. The first side should be golden brown and crispy. If it is, carefully flip the quesadilla and cover the skillet again. Heat the second side for another 1-2 minutes, or until it, too, is golden brown. Don't use too high a flame! You'll burn the tortilla before the cheese is melted.

  8. Serve the quesadilla whole or cut into wedges. Repeat as often as needed.

To make quesadillas-in-the-round, cover one tortilla with cheese and filling, then add spices and garnish, leaving a one-inch border all around the circumference. Cover with the second tortilla, "seal" the edges, and heat in a covered skillet as already described. WARNING! Flipping this quesadilla requires considerable finesse if you want to avoid spilling the filling. Practice at home first.

Fast food on the riverbank? Why not? Quesadillas are just the start. You could take the same ingredients and make a fajita with them, wrapping everything up in a tortilla roll. In fact, fajitas are another of my favorite quick meals. But quesadillas are special. I love the contrast between the ever-so-slightly crispy exterior and the chewy filling. And they're delicious, too. In fact, I think I'll build a couple for lunch. No burgers-'n'-fries for me today, thanks. I'm doing fast food my way!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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