By the time these recipes are published, I will have a granddaughter — my first. I do not feel old enough to be anybody's grandmother, but I am thrilled to welcome a new child into our lives.
Another mouth to feed. I can't wait.
Melty cheese of any kind always makes me think of my own children as young ones. Our cast-iron griddle spent a dozen years on the stove waiting for the day's quesadilla orders. My son preferred simple renditions of white cheese and flour tortillas, while my daughter liked more complex combinations of tangy goat cheese and soft vegetables. No matter their age, the children in our house never tired of the warm, handheld goodness.
As they grew up, we added mild guacamole and salsas for dunking. Later, roasted vegetables and shrimp got tucked into the quesadillas. As my prowess in Mexican cooking expanded, so did our quesadilla concoctions. These days, we press fresh corn masa into rounds to welcome boutique cheeses and the garden's squash blossoms. Flour tortillas, quickly defrosted, turn into midnight snacks with leftover roasted vegetables and long shreds of smoked hard cheese.
Two secrets we learned that elevate our quesadillas beyond kids food: First, use the freshest tortillas you can find, such as those delivered daily to a Mexican market. Or, follow the instructions on the package of masa harina to make fresh masa dough, then press out fresh corn tortillas to bake on a heated griddle. Second, skip pre-shredded cheese; the cellulose added to prevent caking also prevents a good melt. It only takes a few seconds to shred a couple of ounces of firm cheese, and the rewards are great.
Other warm cheese offerings likewise capture our attention. Saganaki, that Greek kasseri cheese flamed with alcohol, tastes like a salty, carb-free quesadilla. Queso fundido, the Mexican cheese casserole, satisfies our penchant for warm cheese; we happily scoop it up into hot tortillas or over thick corn chips. We feel a similar fondness for chunks of French bread dunked in cheese fondue.
Little wonder then that we ordered the provoleta appetizer everywhere we went in Argentina. La Tablita in El Calafate served our favorite version — a round disk of crusty cheese, soft on the inside, seasoned with fresh oregano and topped with a tomato, garlic and lettuce salad. We scooped the warm, tangy cheese onto crusty bread and wished the kids were with us. Really.
In Argentina, provoleta is commonly served as the starter at an asado — a traditional, celebratory meal of grilled meats. The sturdy provolone-like cheese often cooks directly on the parrilla, or grill, before it is served on a plate. We also had the specialty served to us in a provoletera, a cast-iron pan dedicated to the cheesy dish. Sometimes, small bowls of chimichurri and olives accompanied the cheese.
At home, I played around with the cheese for a quick version of provoleta using unsmoked domestic and imported provolone. The domestic cheese melted beautifully, but rendered out a bit of fat (which I mopped up with a paper towel). The imported sharp provolone had a saltier edge that really welcomed the salad topping. Other options I like for the provoleta include tangy Greek kasseri and mild tasting Mexican queso fresco, queso blanco and panela — all of which soften nicely when heated.
The ticket to success: the thickness of the cheese. Look for chunks that are between ¾- and 1-inch thick, so it browns and melts at the same time.
Like any good melty cheese offering, I could easily enjoy these timeless recipes as a main course with a hearty green salad and cold Mexican beer or an Argentine Malbec. Perhaps a glass of cold milk for the granddaughter — when she's ready for my cooking.