As prevalent as Mexican food is today in American culture, it's easy to forget that it wasn't always that way in the Midwest.
I don't know when Taco Bell arrived in the Mahoning Valley, but we didn't get one in Middletown until I was in high school in the late 1970s. Around the same time, the family would make the half-hour drive to Centerville, south of Dayton, to go to Chi-Chi's, which opened around the same time (Trivia note: One of the founders of Chi-Chi's was Green Bay Packers wide receiver Max McGee).
Now I know Chi-Chi's and Taco Bell weren't - and aren't - authentic Mexican fare. My father, who kept the coast of California safe during the Korean War, told me so. But those chains introduced many of us in middle America to corn tortillas, refried beans, salsa, guacamole and other components of Mexican cuisine.
Black Bean and Smoked Gouda Quesadillas with Caramelized Onion may not be authentic Mexican cuisine, but they are tasty.
When I started at the Tribune Chronicle in 1984, there was a group of reporters that regularly would go to El Carlos in Lake Milton. I still have fond memories of the chile rellenos I had in when my wife and I were on vacation in San Francisco in 1991. And when we were in Chicago a few years ago, I made sure to get breakfast at Rick Bayless' Xoco, which was near our hotel.
Since this is the last food page before Cinco de Mayo, I decided to feature the kind of Mexican food this Scottish-German-Irish Anglo mutt makes.
Mexican is one of the things I'll cook at home, especially when I'm looking to throw something together quickly. And because of the pseudo-Mexican food I grew up on, what I cook at home is a pretty bastardized version of the real thing, like using a cheese that originates from the Netherlands. Rick Bayless would shudder, but it can be a quick, hearty, meat-free dinner.
Black Bean and Smoked Gouda
Quesadillas with Caramelized Onion
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large onion, sliced thin
1 tablespoon garlic-beer vinegar (optional)
1 15-ounce can black beans
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
Pinch of Mexican oregano
1 cup shredded smoked gouda (about 4 ounces)
Two whole wheat flour tortillas (regular flour tortillas are fine)
2 teaspoons canola oil
Heat the tablespoon of canola oil in a skillet. Add onions, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to brown and caramelize, about 20 minutes.
In a small pot, empty the can of black beans. Add cumin, chipotle pepper and Mexican oregano and cook over medium-low heat until hot.
Heat two teaspoons of canola oil in skillet until hot. Put one of the tortillas flat in the skillet. On one half, spread a quarter cup of shredded gouda, a quarter cup of caramelized onion, a third of a cup of the black beans (use a slotted spoon if any liquid remains with the beans) and another quarter cup of shredded gouda. Fold the other half of the tortilla on top of the layers. Repeat with the other tortilla. Cook for minute or two until the tortilla starts to brown on the bottom. Flip with a spatula and let the other side cook for a minute or two.
Serve with guacamole, sour cream and/or a favorite salsa.
2 large ripe avocados
2-3 tablespoons lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2-4 canned green chiles, rinsed, seeded and chopped
1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 jalapeno, minced
Pit avocado and scoop out pulp. Mash pulp coarsely with a fork.
Blend in lime juice, garlic, chopped cilantro, chiles, tomato and jalapeno. Season to taste with salt.
Garnish with cilantro sprigs.
The most difficult thing is when I tend to fix Mexican, I never measure anything. It's very much a-little-bit-of-this, a-little-bit-of-that, that-looks-about-right kind of cooking.
Quesadillas lend themselves to that. As long there's cheese inside that flour tortilla that gets browned and little crisp in the skillet, the results can be a winner. But I actually got out measuring cups and spoons to make these quesadillas.
The combination of the components is what makes them so flavorful. The transformation that takes place when raw onions are cooked low and slow in a little oil is a marvelous thing. I like to throw a splash of garlic beer vinegar in to add some acidity, but onions are just fine without it.
Black beans absorb the flavors of the spices they're cooked with and are a great high-fiber, meatless protein. Cumin is a must, but feel free to improvise with the other spices if you don't have ground chipotle pepper or Mexican oregano. Another ground chili pepper or even a chili blend can be substituted.
We also buy whole wheat tortillas instead of regular flour tortillas. It adds several grams of fiber and makes it easier to convince oneself that something with that much cheese is healthy.
The smoked gouda melts well when shredded, and its flavor doesn't get overwhelmed with the other spicier ingredients.
Make sure the oil is hot before dropping in the tortilla so it doesn't get saturated and greasy, and have all the ingredients close at hand to assemble them quickly. The dish only needs a few minutes in the skillet. And when cooking two at a time, working quickly means the first one won't get burned while the second one is being assembled.
I also decided to include the recipe for guacamole we always use in the Gray household. My wife is the maker of the guacamole, and I love this recipe, which she found years ago in an inexpensive softcover "Sunset Mexican Cook Book."
There certainly are more exotic guacamole recipes - Momocho in Cleveland is great place to visit for guacamole with ingredients like smoked trout, jicama and goat cheese - but my wife's guac is as good or better than any I've had in more authentic Mexican joints than Casa de Gray.