Who needs a recipe for a quesadilla? Grab a flour tortilla, pile on shredded cheese and heat it up in a pan until the cheese melts. There, I summed up about 75 percent of the quesadilla recipes around, and you only had to read one sentence. Of course, you could add some chicken, which would account for another 10 percent of the recipes, but that’s stretching the limit of most people’s quesadilla comprehension.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of quesadilla. Gooey, melted cheese on a tortilla is almost always a fine and good thing, but it’s not the only quesadilla available. In fact, it’s helpful to think of quesadillas in two broad categories: those made with pre-made tortillas and those made with fresh masa.
The latter, especially, are less vehicles strictly for cheese consumption and more like empanadas or turnovers. In “Authentic Mexican,” Rick Bayless describes them as “deliciously stuffed pockets of Mexican flavor, bearers of well-spiced vegetables, meats and cheese, transporters of chile-spiked hot sauce or smooth guacamole,” which sums it up nicely. Notice how cheese isn’t the sole ingredient?
In fact, numerous recipes exist for quesadillas made with fresh masa in which cheese plays a limited or, in some rare cases, completely nonexistent role. In “My Mexico,” Diana Kennedy offers a number of quesadilla recipes in which the only cheese is some crumbled queso fresco sprinkled on top. Dudley Nieto and Bruce Kraig’s “Cuisines of Hidden Mexico” includes a recipe for quesadillas de huitlacoche (the prized black corn fungus) with no cheese whatsoever.
How can a quesadilla exist without cheese? Honestly, you’d be forgiven for thinking of these as a kind of empanada. Though, there’s a chance we’re thinking about this too much. In their rambunctiously entertaining “Tacopedia,” Juan Carlos Mena and Deborah Holtz delve into the paradox of “cheeseless quesadillas,” noting that while it doesn’t exactly make a lot of sense, “that’s their name, so what can we do?” Good point.
Regardless of whether they have cheese or not, these kinds of quesadillas are mostly made with fresh masa, the same corn dough that’s used to make corn tortillas. Occasionally other ingredients, like lard, wheat flour and baking soda are added to the masa, though not always. The masa dough is flattened into a circle using a tortilla press, a small amount of the filling is added across the middle and then the masa is folded up to form a half-moon shape. This is griddled or gently fried until it develops a golden-browned crust, ever so slightly crackly without being crisp.
There are a bewildering collection of variations for these kinds of quesadilla. Though rajas (charred strips of poblano) and huitlacoche (a black corn fungus) are very common, essentially any filling you could have in a taco can make the transition to quesadilla. The only rule is moderation. Add too much cheese or filling, and the dough will…