For the last several years of her life, corn tortilla quesadillas were my grandmother’s primary food. She had at least two nearly every day. Grandma made them with queso fresco or queso panela, warmed directly over our gas stove grates — no pan or tongs necessary (years of tortilla-making had made Grandma’s hands used to a certain degree of heat).
Grandma used to be my primary taste-tester, especially if it involved vegetables or chiles (which are actually a fruit). While developing today’s recipes several years ago, I was experimenting with making my favorite Mexican dishes a bit healthier. The month before, I had developed my version of cauliflower tortillas and had posted the recipe to my blog. Grandma, a huge veggie lover, enjoyed them, and the recipe proved successful for my recipe testers, but I was on the fence about the whole cauliflower-everything craze. It’s just that having grown up with freshly made corn tortillas as our primary bread source, I felt like the tortillas were missing something.
That something was the familiar flavor and texture I grew up eating. I wanted a healthier, nutritious tortilla — not low-carb keto or paleo — but a happy balance between a lower-carb tortilla and the real thing.
I thought back to my youth and helping Mom make flour tortillas for our nightly meals. Sometimes, when making them, she would add a good amount of masa harina (nixtamalized corn flour), giving her flour tortillas a unique flavor and texture. She told me she did it because adding the masa harina made rolling the tortillas much easier.
While I was developing my original cauliflower tortillas, I noted that the processed cauliflower looked and felt like masa (corn tortilla dough). That’s when the memory of my mother’s flour tortilla hack came to mind, and I thought, that’s it! That’s what the cauliflower tortillas are missing. I started experimenting, adding masa harina, tweaking the recipe until I got something I liked.
The dough has enough masa harina to provide most of the binding. I also added a little canola oil to help keep everything moist and pliable. They have a unique flavor — not quite cauliflower, not quite corn. However, unlike with the straight cauliflower tortillas, the cauliflower smell and flavor are pushed slightly aside, allowing the corn aroma and taste to come forward. These cauliflower-corn tortillas have the taste and texture of authentic corn tortillas that I love, combined with the nutritional benefits of cauliflower. Plus, they cook on the griddle, just like traditional corn tortillas.
The other significant component of today’s recipe is my cilantro-lime salsa verde. I got the inspiration from a friend who made it for me once, when I was over for breakfast. I loved it so much I developed a version for the blog the first chance I got. The salsa uses 10 garlic cloves, but not to worry, the cloves are blanched first, which tames their pungency a bit without tamping down their inherent aromatic, floral taste (repeating the blanching up to three times with fresh water each time will really tamp back the garlic bite, but I find once is enough for this salsa). Blanching the garlic is the most “cooking” this salsa will need; the rest of the ingredients go straight into the food processor raw.
This salsa is super versatile. In addition to using it in place of a tomato-based salsa for chips, here are a few more suggestions:
- Swirl several tablespoons into a half cup of sour cream for a creamy veggie dip.
- Use as a marinade for chicken or steak by massaging several tablespoons into the meat and letting it marinate overnight.
- Mix 2 tablespoons of salsa with a quarter cup Greek yogurt to use as a salad dressing.
- Top with just about anything: from eggs or warm roasted vegetables to burritos and tacos for added brightness and an herbaceous finish.
- Toss with freshly cooked pasta and olive oil for a different take on pesto.
Bringing it all together
Oaxaca cheese is one of my favorites. The cow’s milk-based cheese arrived in Oaxaca via Italian monks who brought their cheese-making know-how, and it melts wonderfully, making it excellent for quesadillas. Pair it with my gluten-free cauliflower corn tortillas and cilantro-lime salsa for a killer quesadilla. If you have all the components ready to go, it’s a great anytime snack, or pair it with a large salad and a glass of chilled white wine for a light supper.
If you don’t want to make the cauliflower corn tortillas, make plain corn tortillas instead, or head to your local Mexican market or tortilleria and buy some.
Whatever tortilla you use, it’s going to be delicious. You can find the Oaxaca cheese at pretty much any major grocery store alongside other Mexican cheeses, such as queso fresco or cotija. If you can’t find Oaxaca cheese, feel free to sub in shredded mozzarella or Monterey Jack. Don’t use yellow cheese like cheddar, which is too oily and has the wrong flavor profile, or American cheese slices — because that’s just wrong.
My 85-years-young Mexican grandmother loved these quesadillas. She inhaled them when I shot the photos for my original blog post. The next day, she enthusiastically agreed to more when I offered to make some for lunch. Grandma rarely ate lunch.
That’s a pretty good seal of approval.
Poblano and Oaxaca Cheese Quesadillas With Cilantro-Lime Salsa Verde
This recipe calls for raw poblanos, which have more flavor than a bell pepper but much less heat than a jalapeño; use jalapeño if you want more heat. Also, note that some grocery stores incorrectly label fresh green poblanos as “pasilla peppers.”
Makes 6 quesadillas
3 teaspoons butter, divided
12 cauliflower corn tortillas (recipe follows) or store-bought corn tortillas
½ poblano, deseeded and finely diced
1 ½ cups shredded Oaxaca cheese
Cilantro-Lime Salsa (recipe follows)
Place a skillet or griddle on medium heat. Add ¼ teaspoon butter and swirl to melt. Add one tortilla to the pan, then add ¼ cup of shredded cheese, spread evenly. Add a sprinkling of diced poblano over the cheese. Top with a second tortilla. Cook until the bottom tortilla is golden and crispy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Lift quesadilla off the pan, add a little more butter, swirl to melt. Flip the quesadilla over and cook for 3 to 5 minutes until crispy and golden and cheese has melted. Transfer to a chopping board and carefully cut into quarters. Keep in a warm oven while you make the rest of the quesadillas, or serve immediately with cilantro-lime salsa on the side.
Makes 12 (4 ½- to 5-inch) tortillas
½ medium head cauliflower
1 cup masa harina
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ tsp kosher salt
¼ cup canola oil
½ cup warm water, plus more as needed
Secure the chopping blade in your food processor. Cut cauliflower into florets and drop them in. Pulse until you get the look of cornmeal; transfer to a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 4 minutes. Spread cauliflower in a sheet pan to cool faster; let sit 10 minutes. Line a fine-mesh strainer with cheesecloth; add a third of the cauliflower. Use the back of the large spoon to press out excess water. Gather the ends of the cheesecloth together and squeeze, releasing as much water as you can. Place pressed cauliflower into a bowl and repeat with remaining cauliflower; set aside.
Add masa harina to a mixing bowl. Whisk in baking powder and salt. Stir in oil. Measure out and add 1 tightly packed cup of cauliflower; reserve excess cauliflower for another use. Pour in ½ cup warm water and mix thoroughly by hand. Continue kneading until the dough holds a smooth ball shape. If the dough feels dry or cracks easily, add additional water a teaspoon at a time, incorporating well after each addition. Dough should be smooth and moist without being sticky. Divide dough in half, then divide each half into 6 equal portions. Roll each portion into a smooth ball and return to the bowl. Cover with a clean, damp dish towel.
Cut 12 (5-inch) squares of waxed paper (or kitchen parchment). Place one sheet on the bottom plate of a tortilla press (or work surface); take one ball of dough and flatten slightly between palms, place on the waxed paper, cover with a second piece of waxed paper, and close the press gently, applying pressure with the handle. (If not using a press, top with a small chopping board or smooth-bottomed plate and apply pressure straight down to flatten.) Open the press and make a quarter-turn of the dough packet; close and gently press again. Continue doing this until dough is roughly ⅛ inch thick and about 4 ½ to 5 inches round. Remove dough packet and repeat.
Heat a cast-iron griddle or skillet over medium-high heat. Test by adding a drop of water; water should dance around, sizzling before dissipating. Very lightly spray the surface with cooking spray. Starting at a corner, carefully peel back one side of the waxed paper from a tortilla, changing corners/direction if the dough starts to tear. Place tortilla onto the griddle and carefully peel back the second sheet of paper — cook for 2 minutes. When the tortilla is ready to be flipped, use a spatula to lift and flip. The tortilla should move and release easily from the griddle. If it’s sticking, it needs a little longer cooking time before flipping. Cook the second side for 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the tortilla to a towel-lined bowl and cover. Repeat with remaining dough. Serve immediately or let cool completely, add to a resealable bag and store in the refrigerator. Enjoy within 3 days.
Cilantro-Lime Salsa Verde
Makes about 1 ¼ cups
10 garlic cloves, peeled
1 bunch cilantro, leaves and small tender stems only
½ or 1 whole poblano, seeds and stem removed, rough chopped
¼ onion, rough chopped (about ⅓ cup)
Zest and juice of 1 lime
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Pinch sea salt, or to taste
Add garlic cloves to a small saucepan, cover with water by 1 inch, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, drain and set aside.
Add cilantro to a food processor. Add the poblano chile (half for less heat, or entire poblano, rough chopped, for more heat), garlic, onion, lime zest and juice, olive oil and a pinch of salt. Process until smooth, about 4 to 5 minutes, scraping down sides as needed. Taste and add additional salt, to taste. Store in refrigerator but let it come up to room temperature before using.
Recipes are copyrighted by Anita L. Arambula and are reprinted with permission from “Confessions of a Foodie.”
Arambula is the food section art director and designer. She blogs at confessionsofafoodie.me, where the original version of this article was published. Follow her on Instagram: @afotogirl. She can be reached at [email protected].