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~Cheesy Baja-Spiced Grill-Pan Chicken Quesadillas~

IMG_4691My mother made me grilled cheese -- I would eat one anytime she made me one.  I made my kids quesadillas -- they would eat them anytime I made them.  There was a span of time, 6-7 years, when my refrigerator was never without flour tortillas, Monterey Jack and salsa. Comparatively speaking, there's little difference between a classic grilled cheese sandwich and a cheese quesadilla -- except you use butter to grill the bread and oil to grill the tortilla.  

In terms of a quick-to-make & satisfying lunch or snack...

IMG_4707... my quesadillas are kid tested & mother approved!

IMG_4574Quesadilla (keh-sah-DEE-yah):  A round, flat, cooked-until-soft corn or flour tortilla, folded in half to form a half-moon with a savory filling sandwiched in the center.  It is fried on a well-seasoned cast-iron comal (a flat, round griddle), using no or very little oil, although in many modern kitchens, mine included, a grill pan is a great substitution.  

Almost any cooked and chopped or shredded meats and/or vegetables can be used as a filling for a quesadilla (fish and seafood are not typically used) -- the meats and vegetables must always be cooked first because a quesadilla cooks in a few short minutes.  That said, since "queso (KAY-soh)" is the Spanish word for "cheese", the obvious should be obvious:  a quesadilla is a container for ooey, gooey melted cheese.  Quesadillas require cheese.

Pg-oaxacaIn Mexico, Oaxaca cheese (wuh-HAH-kuh), a white, semi-hard cheese similar to mozzarella string cheese, is used.  It's available in braids, bricks and rounds.  In brick form it is called "asadero" (ah-sah-DEH-roh), which means "roaster", and refers to its melting quality.  It's flavor is mild and buttery and does not intrude on the foods it is served with, making it a favorite for nachos, tacos, tostadas and quesadillas.  It's said to "taste like Monterey Jack with the texture of mozzarella."

A bit about Mel's Cheesy Baja-Spiced Chicken Quesadillas:

IMG_4497The spice blend I make for these chicken quesadillas is resemblant of the spices used to make  deep-fried or grilled fresh fish tacos. Because of the abundance of fish in the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean around the Baja, Mexico region, it was the inhabitants of the region who invented fresh, catch-of-the-day Baja fish tacos.  That said, a US college student named Ralph Rubio, who was visiting San Felipe on Spring break back in 1974, fell in love with a particular fish taco made by a vendor named Carlos.  

Rubio asked Carlos to open a taco stand in San Diego, but he declined because he didn't want to leave Mexico.  Carlos did give Rubio a list of ingredients, which resulted in Rubio opening a stand in San Diego in 1983.  I love fish tacos, deep-fried or grilled, with all the traditional trimmings:  slaw, crema and pico de gallo.  My recipe, ~ Beer-Batter-Dipped Deep-Fried Cod-Fish Tacos ~ is in Categories 2, 3, 13, 14, 17 or 19.  I love quesadillas too.   It was a "no-brainer" to transition Baja-style and spice from a fish taco to a chicken quesadilla starting with these:

Baja Spice Rub, Southwestern Slaw, Pico de Gallo & Sriracha-Crema!  

IMG_4581For my dry Baja spice rub/blend:

4  tablespoons chili powder

1  tablespoon sea salt

2  teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2  teaspoons ground coriander

1  teaspoon garlic powder

1/2  teaspoon cayenne pepper

~ Step 1.  In a small bowl, stir together all of the spices, and, if you have one on hand, transfer to an empty shaker-type spice container.

Every bit will fit!  Tip:  Always keep a few clean, empty spice jars on hand!


IMG_4350For the Southwestern slaw:

4  cups store-bought coleslaw mix, a mixture of green cabbage and matchstick carrots

3/4  cup each: thinly-sliced green onions, white and light green part only, and, minced cilantro

2  tablespoons finely-diced jalapeno pepper, 2 tablespoons after removing seeds and ribs

2  tablespoons each: fresh lime juice and honey

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

IMG_4355 IMG_4359 IMG_4360 IMG_4365~Step 1.  In a large bowl, whisk the lime juice, honey and salt.  Using a rubber spatula, stir in the onions, cilantro and jalapenos.  Fold in the slaw mix.  When mixture is thoroughly combined, refrigerate 4-6 hours, or overnight, stopping to stir every now and then, until serving chilled.

IMG_4292For the pico de gallo:

2  cups 1/2" diced plum or cherry tomatoes, or a combination

3/4  cup each: diced yellow onion and minced, fresh cilantro

2  garlic cloves, pressed

2  tablespoons finely-diced jalapeno pepper, 2 tablespoons after removing all seeds and ribs

1 1/2-2  tablespoons lime juice

1/2-3/4  teaspoon sea salt, to taste

IMG_4300 IMG_4304 IMG_4309 IMG_4311~Step 1.  Place the diced onion and the pressed garlic in a medium bowl.  Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon of the sea salt.  Stir and set aside 10 minutes. 

IMG_4315 IMG_4317 IMG_4321Step 2.  Add and stir in the finely-diced serrano chiles or jalapeno peppers, followed by the cilantro and the tomatoes. Set aside at room temperature for 10 minutes, then, stir and taste.  Add the additional salt and/or lime juice if you feel the mixture needs it -- I added no salt and additional lime juice today.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and up to 6 hours, to allow flavors to marry, prior to serving chilled or at room temperature.  While the pico de gallo is marinating, stir it occasionally throughout this time, whenever it's convenient.

IMG_4369For the Sriracha-infused crema:

1/2  cup Mexican crema, or American sour cream

1/4  cup Sriracha hot sauce, more or less to taste

IMG_4368Step 1.  In a small bowl combine crema and Sriracha.  If you have a squirt bottle, the kind used to dispense salad dressings, transfer the mixture to it.  This type of bottle will make topping the quesadillas easy & mess free.

The condiments & crema are made.  It's time to make some quesadillas!

IMG_4603For the chicken, cheese & slaw filling:

6  boneless, skinless, chicken thighs,  trimmed of fat, about 1 1/2 pounds, 3 cups grilled & chopped chicken, 1/3 cup per quesadilla

2  tablespoons Baja Seasoning Rub/Blend, from above recipe

4  cups grated Monterey Jack cheese, about 1 pound, 3/4 cup per quesadilla

IMG_46071 1/2-2  cups Southwestern slaw, from above recipe, a generous 1/4 cup per quesadilla

For the quesadillas and condiments:

6, 8" round flour tortillas

Sriracha-Infused Crema, from above recipe

Pico de Gallo, from above recipe

IMG_4611 IMG_4613~ Step 1. Use a pair of kitchen shears to trim thighs of excess fat -- leaving small bits on the chicken is ok. Place thighs on a cutting board or baking pan that has been lined with a sheet of plastic wrap and liberally season tops with Baja seasoning. Set aside 15 minutes.  The plastic wrap makes cleaning up easy.

IMG_4618 IMG_4616~ Step 2. After the 15 minute rest is over, use a paper towel to oil the bottom of a 12-inch grill pan, or, a cast-iron comal, or, nonstick skillet with 1 tablespoon of corn, canola, peanut or vegetable oil.  

Note:  While you can use butter or olive oil, that is so NOT authentic Tex-Mex-style. Adjust heat in grill pan to medium-high.

IMG_4620 IMG_4623 IMG_4626 IMG_4630~Step 3.  Place the chicken thighs, seasoned sides down in the hot grill pan.  Liberally season the seconds sides with the Baja seasoning.  Continue to grill until thighs are cooked through on both sides, turning only once, about 6 minutes per side, about 12 minutes total.

Note:  Even when liberally seasoned, you will only use about 1 tablespoon of seasoning, per side, for seasoning 6 chicken thighs (2 tablespoons total).  This will leave you with about 4 tablespoons to keep on hand on your spice rack or in your pantry for future use -- that's convenient!

IMG_4650 IMG_4638~ Step 4. Using a spatula, transfer the chicken thighs from the grill pan to a cutting board and allow to rest at least 15 minutes, and up to 30 minutes (they must rest at least 15 minutes to allow the juices to redistribute themselves throughout the meat), prior to chopping them in small bite-sized bits and pieces.  

You will have 3 cups of perfectly grilled, chopped, moist and very-flavorful chicken.

IMG_4652 IMG_4656 IMG_4658 IMG_4661 IMG_4666~Step 5.  Clean  pan, oil it with 1 tablespoon of oil, and heat pan over medium.  Place one flour tortilla in pan and sprinkle 3/4 cup of cheese over the top to within 1/2" of the edge all the way around.  Place 1/3 cup of chicken over one-half, then, top the chicken with 1/4 cup of slaw.  By the time you put the slaw on top, the cheese will be melted.  Using a spatula, lift and fold the unfilled half up and over the filled half and transfer to a cutting board.  Repeat with remaining tortillas.

Wait 1 minute prior to slicing each quesadilla into 3 triangles...

IMG_4683... drizzle each piece w/crema & a dollop of pico de gallo...

IMG_4728... plate, serve & enjoy each & every bite!

IMG_4718Cheesy Baja-Spiced Grill-Pan Chicken Quesadillas:  Recipe yields 6, 8" half-moon-shaped quesadillas/18 pieces after cutting them all into thirds/4-6 servings allowing for 3-4 pieces per serving.  Recipe also yields 6 (almost 7) tablespoons Baja seasoning, 3 cups Southwestern slaw, 2 cups pico de gallo, 3/4 cup Sriracha crema, and, 3 cups grilled, chopped chicken.

Special Equipment List:  small spoon; empty spice jar (optional); cutting board; chef's knife; small whisk; large rubber spatula; garlic press;  hand-held cheese grater; plastic wrap; kitchen shears; 12" grill pan or nonstick skillet; paper towel; wide spatula

IMG_2662Cook's Note:  For another Tex-Mex all-American favorite, "queso dip" ("cheese dip"), try my recipe for ~ Tex-Mex Soul-Consoling Food: Chile con Queso ~.  You can find it by clicking into Categories 1, 2, 13, 17, 23 or 24. This ooey-gooey family-friendly, snack-appetizer is one you definitely want to have in your Tex-Mex tailgate recipe box. 

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)


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