New world pesto: A thing of the past
Special to the Appeal
Remember the term “fusion cuisine” where two or more cultures were represented on the same plate through ingredients, techniques, or borrowing of terminology? It never really took hold but instead was replaced by more subtle descriptions of today like “Asian inspired,” “Mediterranean influenced” or “Latin nuanced.”
It’s nothing new. For hundreds if not thousands of years a type of culinary fusion has been taking place, like the use of noodles in both Asian and European food. In the Orient you have wontons, pot stickers and soba noodles while in Italy there’s raviolis, tortellinis and spaghetti.
Marco Polo is usually credited with connecting the dots but what about the similarities between totally unconnected cultures like Europe and the Americas? Compare Italian pesto with some of the moles found in Mexico. In both cases you’ll find the aromatics of an herb mixed with garlic and some sort of seed or nut to hold it all together.
Either aliens from another planet passed on the recipes along with the blue prints for the pyramids, or human beings, left to their own devices and the finite larder of our world, eventually arrived at the same conclusions.
Probably the latter.
The idea for our quesadilla came from The California Pizza Kitchen. In the late 80s I had a job as a private chef for this wealthy hotelier in Aspen, Colorado. In addition to the house in Aspen, he had a 97-foot yacht in St. Tropez, a condo in San Francisco and a home in Beverly Hills.
Trying to be part of the Hollywood set, he would entertain a lot of second tier celebrities. Not Joan Rivers, but her gynecologist. Not Hugh Hefner, but his ex-girlfriend.
Two of the guests turned out to be the founders of California Pizza Kitchen, and one of the pizzas they tossed around to exemplify their concept consisted of barbecued chicken, fresh corn and cilantro.
A few years later we gave it a Latin twist and turned it into a quesadilla. It’s been on our menu ever since.
One of the key elements is the poblano pesto, and here in lies the notion of fusion. Roasted poblano chilis are mixed with cilantro instead of basil and bound together with pumpkin seeds instead of pine nuts. Kind of a new world pesto with historic roots. Like an Italian pesto, it can be added to reduced wine and cram to make a sauce for pasta, fish or chicken, or simply spread on a tortilla with a little cheese and grilled.
Fusion cuisine was sort of laughed off the stage when it was first introduced, but is now pretty much accepted. With the volumes of food info out there in print and on the screen feeding the public’s appetite for more, the world gets a little smaller.
Barbecued Chicken Quesadilla
with fresh corn and poblano pesto
8 flour tortillas
12 oz. grated Monterey Jack cheese
2 oz. grated Asiago cheese
2 oz. grated Cotija cheese
2 large ears fresh corn
Poblano Pesto (recipe follows)
4 6 oz. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/2 cup barbecue sauce
Shuck the corn and cook in lightly salted boiling water until slightly tender. Cool under cold water, cut the kernels from the cob with a sharp knife and reserve.
Fire up the grill and cook the chicken breasts, basting with barbecue sauce until done then allow to rest ten minutes. Both the corn and the chicken can be prepared up to this point and held covered and refrigerated for as much as a day.
To assemble, place four of the tortillas on the table. Combine the three cheeses in a bowl then divide the mix evenly over the tortillas. Sprinkle the corn evenly over the cheese. Cut the chicken breast into quarter inch thick slices and distribute over the cheese and corn being sure to spread it out so that you get chicken in each bite. Spread a healthy amount of the pesto on one side of each remaining tortilla, give the chicken a last little shot of cheese and top with pesto tortilla.
A griddle works best but any frying pan will do. Heat a dry griddle to medium high heat, add the quesadilla and cook until crisp and light brown (like a saltine), flip it over with a spatula and crisp up the other side. Remove to a cutting board, cut into wedges and serve as soon as possible. Serve with a little sour cream mixed with chipotle.
makes about 1 cup
4 large poblano chilis, roasted, peeled and seeded
1 small bunch of cilantro, rough chopped
1/4 C. of toasted pumpkin seeds
2 T rice wine vinegar
2 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed
couple pinches of Kosher salt
Directly over an open flame or under a very hot broiler, roast the chilis, turning occasionally until they are just blackened. Place them in a bowl and cover with plastic. Rest 15 minutes.
Remove the blackened skin by rubbing with a towel or gently scraping with a knife, but don’t run them under water. It takes away the smoky flavor of the charred chili. Rough chop the chilis and place them in a blender or food processor with the remaining ingredients. Process (blend) to smooth paste but still some texture – like pesto. Store refrigerated in an air tight container. It will last three days or so, but try to get to it sooner.
• Brian Shaw and his wife, Ardie, own the Cafe del Rio, 394 S. C St. in Virginia City.