Friday, May 25, 2012

Baked Mushroom and Zucchini Quesadillas with Cool Cilantro Lime Pesto

There is hardly a bad time for quesadillas.  They can be the all-so-necessary in-between daytime snack, or a satisfying dinner.   Typically, you’re only option is cheese.   This is where the record starts skipping.   Sure it’s simple, but you can only enjoy processed cheese for so long.  If you are lucky, maybe you will also get some chicken thrown in there too.   But do not fret!  As the greenery in the produce section diversifies and multiplies, now is the time to add vegetables to everything – even your quesadillas.  Turn the record over; we’ve got a new song to play.

For this particular batch of quesadillas I chose portabella mushrooms for their meaty taste.  Zucchini was more of a frugally driven choice.  Besides corn, it’s one of the cheapest items in produce during the summer.   Carrots or bell peppers have potential as well.  

What really sets these quesadillas apart is the cilantro lime pesto.  I know I have been on a pesto kick recently, but for good reason.  No hassle, great taste.  It’s like buying quality products for half price!  This pesto – which I served cold – gave great contrast to the taste and texture.  So if you find yourself stalling out on plain old cheese quesadillas, there is hope.  Just add pesto, and presto!  You have yourself an old tune with a new twist. 

Cilantro Lime Pesto
1 cup cilantro, chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/3 cup walnuts, chopped
1 jalapeno, chopped
Zest of one lime
Juice of one lime
Enough olive oil to reach desired texture

1.       In a blender or food processor, add all ingredients.  Blend until you have reached desired consistency. 
Makes about ¾ cup.

Mushroom and Zucchini Quesadillas
1 medium zucchini, sliced
2 cups portabella mushrooms, sliced
¼ cup olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 ½ cups Monterey, Cheddar, or Mexican blend cheese, shredded
4-6 whole wheat tortillas (depending on how you portion)
Optional: Sour cream or salsa

1.       Heat a frying pan over medium heat, until you can feel heat.  Add 2 T olive oil.
2.       Add in zucchini and mushrooms (may have to add mushrooms first, then zucchini if space does not allow both – just don’t crowd the vegetables!) Sautee for about 5-7 minutes, or until vegetables are tender but not soft.  Remove from pan.  Keep pan warm if you wish to fry your quesadilla and not bake it.
3.       Spread pesto on tortilla (or if you want to keep the pesto cold, skip this). 
4.       Layer vegetables and cheese on tortilla.  Either fry or bake your quesadilla (I did mine in the toaster oven).
5.       If you have not added the pesto, add it now.  Slice the tortilla in quarters.  Serve with sour cream salsa, more cheese, etc.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mexican Chicken Stacks

There is no such thing as Mexi-can’t food.   There is only Mexican.   Cheesy? Yes.  But there must be something about the word, “Mexican”.  Put it in front of any other type of food and it’s as if you can’t go wrong.  It reminds me of good mash-up music.  Overlay two separate things and somehow it becomes a perfect union.  How else could Mexican lasagna, Mexican burgers, Mexican ice cream, or Mexican pizza work so well? With a best friend visiting for the weekend, it was time for my own Mexican mash-up. 

I started with a slice of warm cornbread right from the oven.   This would be my cornerstone – I could build from here.  Cheese acted as the melty mortar for my Mexican stack.  Then brick-red Chili Tomato Sauce added a touch of crimson color and a fiery heat.  But I was careful to cool things down before they burned down the house.  The Lime-Grapefruit marinated chicken and even a few slices of avocado would be perfect touches.  Finally, I added the arugula, which made for a peppery, crunchy roof for this now towering Mexican Chicken Stack.   

Each bite was a symphony of flavors.  A full chorus of tastes and textures sang wildly as I dug through my stack.  It looked much like a deconstructed Taco Casserole, but tasted so much more gourmet.  I could taste every different section of the stack on its own, but all the parts worked so harmoniously with the whole.  I would recommend this to anyone who craves freshness and values making food from scratch. 

Mexican Chicken Stacks
- The layering really depends on your preference.  Mine went as follows: cornbread, cheese, tomato sauce, chicken, and arugula.  However, next time I think that I would switch the chicken and arugula and add avocado slices or sour cream to the very top.  I have also considered adding chipotle peppers to the Chili Tomato Sauce.  I have included my recipes for the Chili Tomato Sauce and the Lime-Grapefruit Chicken.  The cornbread I used was from Smitten Kitchen.  There is lots of room for variation in this recipe, so be creative!

Chili Tomato Sauce
2 T olive oil
½ cup onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
4 T ground chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp cayenne pepper, ground
1 (28 oz) can tomatoes, diced (do not drain)
1 cup chicken broth

1.        Heat a large pot over medium heat until hot, add oil. 
2.       Add onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, or at least until onions are translucent.
3.       Add garlic; continue to sauté over medium heat for about 3 more minutes. 
4.       Add chili powder, cumin, and cayenne pepper.   Stir until aromatic – about 1 minute. 
5.       Add tomatoes and chicken broth and bring to a boil. 
6.       Reduce temperature to medium heat. 
7.       Reduce the sauce down by about half, or until the sauce thickens (about 15-20 minutes).

Lime-Grapefruit Chicken
Juice of 2 limes
Zest of 2 limes
Juice of 1 grapefruit
1 cup cilantro, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely diced
Salt and pepper
Sugar or honey, to taste
Jalapeno, finely diced
2 green onions, finely sliced
2 chicken thigh and leg quarters, bone-in

1.       Mix all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. 
2.       Use half of the marinade to add to the chicken; reserve the other half for a sauce for the chicken after it has been cooked.
3.       Marinade chicken for at least 30 minutes.   
4.       Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350˚ F.
5.       Bake chicken until juices run clear, about 30 minutes. 
6.       Remove chicken from bone, and shredding it.
7.       In a medium sized bowl, add the reserved marinade to the cooked chicken and refrigerate, covered, until ready to eat (up to one day).   

Monday, May 7, 2012

Spicy Thai Pesto

Traditional Italian Basil Pesto is made up of an iconic family:  Italian basil (many people assume this to be the one and only type of basil), pine nuts (nearly as expensive as pearls), and Parmesan, (basically a brand in itself).  Coming from that sort of lineage, how could Italian Pesto not be delicious?  

Spicy Thai Pesto grew up on the other side of the train tracks.  Thai Basil’s licorice scent didn’t attract too many of the ladies and Thai chilies don’t necessarily play well with others.  But smoothed out by the cool nature cilantro and mint, this pesto starts out cool and fresh, packs heat.   So for those of you not wanting to bring the heat, scale down your chilies.  Many would say a pesto without cheese is sacrilege, but I didn’t find it to detract from the overall taste.  I didn’t even use peanuts this time, only because I did not have any.  But they would add body to the mix, and add filler to stretch your pesto further.  

This Spicy Thai Pesto is a smooth, cool operator at the beginning, but be careful – he bites.  Use this pesto as a spread for crackers and sandwiches, a dip for fresh veggies or bread, or a marinade for fish and chicken.  When traditional pesto is too stuffy or too overdone, Thai Basil is sure to “kick it up a notch”.   

(And it is good 'til the last the photo shows.  Couldn't capture it before I ate it all!)

Spicy Thai Pesto
1 cup thai basil, roughly chopped and packed
½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
¼ cup mint, roughly chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
2 green onions, finely sliced
4 Thai chilies, chopped
½ cup peanuts, roughly chopped (optional)
½ tsp sesame oil
1 T salt
Juice of 1 lime
¼ cup olive or canola oil

1.       Prep all ingredients. 
2.       Put ingredients into blender, food processor, or mortar.  Blend (or grind with pestle) until smooth.
3.       Eat immediately or save in fridge until later. 
Makes about 1 cup.