For the past few weeks, meal-planning has made me anxious.
I couldn’t think of any dish that would make me feel how I used to in the kitchen — relaxed, happy, a gusto. This is probably because our temporary kitchen had dull knives, no blender and two tiny pots that held four cups of liquid max. One can only make so many two-pot soups before wanting to throw herself into a heap on the floor.
Grocery shopping stressed me out, too, because everything in New York is so damn expensive. I read labels and checked prices, but still felt like I didn’t know what American food meant anymore, let alone American food that stretched my dollar.
Eventually — the kicker — I found good corn tortillas. My friend Allison took me to Hot Bread Kitchen in Spanish Harlem, where I bought a dozen wrapped in a vacuum-sealed bag. At Whole Foods, I bought poblanos, good-quality Monterey Jack cheese and some dried black beans.
Back in our tiny kitchen last week, I made the black beans and leaned over the pot, letting the steam envelope my face. I was about to char the poblanos in a nonstick skillet when I realized, holy cow — I have a real gas flame now. So I put the chiles directly on the fire to make rajas.
With the beans simmering and the chiles blistering, it felt like my old life again. Even rubbing the skin off the poblanos — a job I usually hate — was fun, because the poblanos were so much firmer compared to how they used to turn out on my old electric stove in DF. I made the quesadillas just like I used to, on the stove, folded half-moon shapes, letting the tortillas crisp as the cheese melted.
The funny thing was, this quesadilla actually tasted better than the ones I’d made in Mexico. The cheese, made in Wisconsin, oozed out in drippy, creamy strings.
I didn’t have any salsa but that was okay. For the first time in almost a month, things felt normal and right. I allowed a small part of myself to believe that some parts of my new life — even Mexican things — may be even better here.
We’ve since moved into our new apartment in Elmhurst and I’ve been eating quesadillas almost every day. They are cheap and delicious, so my what-to-eat problems have been solved, especially since my new friend Girelle introduced me to the kick-ass red jalapeño salsa from Tulcingo in Corona.
Chicken quesadillas with rajas and cheese
Note: These are really designed to use whatever you have in the refrigerator, so I’m not listing exact portions. They’re great with any leftover roasted chicken, or any leftover vegetables that can be sliced somewhat small and fit inside a folded corn tortilla. They don’t even have to contain cheese! Chilango quesadillas often leave it out. (That said, I used cheese because I was craving it… and I don’t live in Mexico anymore.)
2 Poblano peppers
Cheese of your choice, sliced
One piece leftover roasted chicken
Good-quality corn tortillas
To prepare the rajas, place chiles directly over the gas flame and let cook until black and blistered in spots.
If you have an electric stove, you can char the chiles in a comal or a nonstick skillet, WITHOUT oil — note they take longer and will not be as firm if you do it this way. But the taste is still more than acceptable. I don’t recommend using the broiler, because I think that’s too much heat, and you’d be sacrificing flavor.
Once chiles are about charred all sides, remove them to a clean kitchen towel and wrapped them up into a little bundle. Let them sit for 20 minutes, to loosen the skin and make it easier to peel. Peel the chiles as best you can using the pads of your fingers or a paper towel. Once peeled, cut open and scrape the seeds into the trashcan. Cut the chiles into strips about a quarter- to a half-inch wide. Set aside.
Warm up your leftover piece of chicken in the microwave or on the stovetop, and shred it into small pieces with your fingers or a fork.
Heat corn tortillas directly over the gas flame or on a comal. Once the tortilla can be folded over without breaking, remove it from the heat and place it in whatever pan you’ll use to make the quesadillas. (This can be the same comal, or you don’t have one, a skillet works.) Add a few little slices of cheese onto one side, plus the rajas and the chicken. Fold the other half over and let cook until you just see the cheese beginning to melt. This should only take maybe 30 seconds to a minute on medium heat.
Flip and continue cooking, until cheese is creamy and oozy. Serve immediately with salsa on the side.