My mom is amazing at any number of things. She can speak and/or read seven different languages, many of them dead. She can sing louder than a whole church full of people and turn any and all of my problems around so that they are obviously anyone's fault but mine. She can write a flawlessly grammatical sentence that fills an entire double-spaced page, and she is emotionally and financially supportive when her flailing, liberal-arts educated daughters are having life crises (as we are wont to do).
Most of these things, however, have prevented her from caring much about being a good cook.
When my parents were first married, they lived in a tiny efficiency apartment in Berkeley, Calif. Mommy was a student at UC Berkeley, and my dad was in seminary. Obviously, they were not rolling in cash, but my dad frequently insisted on going out to dinner anyway. My mom couldn't figure it out, especially because she had learned from her frugal friends a few simple and cheap recipes to save money. Years later, my dad finally told her it was because he referred to these dishes as "pea pies," and if there was one thing my dad hated, it was English peas.
Later, when my sister Annie and I were growing up, the meals Mommy served us contained a few variations on even fewer themes. One night it was noodles that were heated up along with the water they were being cooked in (as opposed to boiling the water first) and then covered with cold tomato sauce. The next night we had huge chunks of cheddar cheese and a slap of refried beans microwaved between corn tortillas. These are some of the most memorable delicacies of the Cahoon household circa 1985 to 1996, and they would be modified for Daddy's deadened taste buds by pouring Tabasco sauce on them.
To be fair to my mom, it's most likely because she's so good at so many (arguably more important) other things that she didn't devote much time to our family meals. These days, on the rare occasions I go home, she makes me my favorite Mommy dishes—whole wheat biscuits for every breakfast, and chicken, broccoli (cooked to my specifications) and cheesy béchamel sauce for dinner—quite the turnaround.
Besides, it's not as though we went hungry: Fortunately, we went out for dinner. A lot. Annie also took a stand and learned to cook around her sophomore year of high school. (In retrospect, pan-fried quesadillas and stuffed shells don't seem that innovative, but it was like a revolution at our house.) She also always let me pretend to help—granting me tasks like grating cheese and pouring sauce while she did the real footwork. That's what I like to call the little sister advantage.
Anyway, 10 years later, guess who can make crispy, melty and tasty quesadillas all by herself? This girl. Here's Annie's recipe, along with my own for Salsa Soup, which makes a cool complementary dish for a hot spring or summer night. Add some Coronas or margaritas, and call it a night.
1 can of diced tomatoes (14.5 oz.)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 small white onion
4 cloves (about 2 teaspoons) garlic
1/3 cup of apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper fl akes
Salt and pepper to taste
Peel and chop cucumbers, onion and avocadoes. Put diced tomatoes, tomato paste, cucumbers, onion and avocadoes in blender and pulse the chop or puree button until well-mixed but chunky. Juice lime into the blender/food processor and add cider vinegar, red pepper flakes and some salt and pepper. Pulse a few more times so all ingredients are incorporated. Taste and season further as necessary. Garnish with sour cream and avocado, and serve with pita chips, tortilla chips or quesadillas.
Flour tortillas (corn works, too, but not so much on the crispy front)
Black beans, refried beans, baby spinach—all optional
Put an oven-safe plate in the oven and preheat it to 200°. Oil a frying pan lightly and let it heat up to
medium-high heat while you grate the cheese. Lay out as many tortillas as you want quesadillas and add a layer of cheddar cheese to each. If you want to add the optional ingredients, put black beans and/or spinach (I recommend a combination of both) on top of the cheese, then add a top tortilla. For refried beans, spread a thin layer on the top tortilla before stacking. When the pan is good and hot, add one quesadilla and let cook until the cheese is partially melted and the bottom tortilla looks crisp, then flip and cook until cheese is fully melted. Move finished quesadillas to oven to keep warm until you serve them.