I grew up in Santa Ana, California on First and Bristol Street right behind El Toro Meat Market. A staple in the community, el super offered not only meat, but fresh tortillas, masa, harder-to-find Mexican produce (like tejocotes or guanabanas), and—most importantly—a very stocked cheese counter that never failed to bring me (and my belly) great joy.
Cheese was present, not only as a seasoning for most meals (queso cotija and fresco add an inimitable tang, salt, and creaminess to flautas or frijoles de la olla), but as the star. Quesillo (also known as queso Oaxaca) and Panela, especially.
Queso Oaxaca is a creamy, semi-hard cheese from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It resembles string cheese in flavor and texture (and so, mozzarella is a great substitute in a pinch). Panela, on the other hand, is creamy, dense, and much firmer. It’s great for frying or grilling, as the outside will not only hold, but crisp up, while the interior gets nice and melty (like halloumi). I like queso Oaxaca in griddled quesadillas—which show off the cheese’s maximal melty qualities, and Panela in fried quesadillas—in which the sturdy cheese melts, but mostly retains its shape.
A quesadilla—whether griddled or fried—can be a great companion for many dishes, or dressed up for a full meal. Here’s a guide on how to make either (or both!) at home.
For a griddled quesadilla, you’re going to need a comal, skillet, or flat-top griddle set over medium-low heat, a corn or flour tortilla, and 1/4 cup of shredded queso Oaxaca.
1. Toast your tortilla.
Start by placing your tortilla on your comal or skillet and let your tortilla toast for 1 minute. Flip and toast another 1 minute.
2. Add the cheese, fold & flip.
Add the queso Oaxaca or mozzarella to half of the tortilla, fold then place a lid over the quesadilla. Placing a lid over your quesadilla will create steam and melt the cheese. Let the quesadilla cook for 2 to 2 1/2 minutes, then flip and cook for another 2 to 2 1/2 minutes, or until the tortilla is well-toasted and the cheese is melty.
3. Serve with beans, salsa, or ham (!).
Griddled quesadillas are great with a bowl of frijoles de la olla, or by themselves with a spoonful of a spicy salsa de molcajete. If you want to take your quesadilla to the next level, add a slice of ham on top of the cheese before you fold the tortilla and you have a sincronizada!
For a fried quesadilla you’re going to need a medium-sized skillet, 1 cup of vegetable oil, a corn tortilla and 1 (3x-4-inch) slice of queso panela.
1. Heat the oil.
Start by heating the vegetable oil in the skillet.
2. Warm the tortilla.
While the oil heats, pop your tortilla in the microwave for 1 minute. This is going to help make the tortilla pliable; a cold tortilla will rip.
3. Add the cheese, fold, & fry.
Take the tortilla and place the slice of queso panela on one half of the tortilla then fold in half. Once the oil is hot and shimmering, dip the quesadilla into the oil and fry for 3 to 3 1/2 minutes on each side until crispy and golden.
4. Serve with shrettuce, salsa & more cheese.
Fried quesadillas are great dressed with shredded lettuce, tomato slices, crumbly queso cotija, and a creamy avocado salsa.