Picadillo Quesadilla Recipe
¡Hola! We’re coming to you from Mexico City with our first international recipe. Since we’re in Mexico, the home of the taco, quesadilla, flauta, etc, with this recipe, we’re starting to stretch the definition of “sandwich,” for the first time. Don’t panic, it’s only a word, after all. Though we’ve been featuring traditional sandwiches up until this point, we’ll be pushing the boundaries for a while, especially here in Latin America, where starches aren’t always in bread form. Today we present a picadillo quesadilla recipe because one of the very first things we ate in Mexico City was a cheesy quesadilla filled with picadillo. Before we dive into what that’s all about, let’s back up and look more closely at the notion of a quesadilla.
As with so many dishes, the history of the quesadilla is vague and subject to manipulation. Tortillas were around first, of course: they’ve been around for about 10,000 years or so, give or take. Before the Spanish arrived in Mexico, people here were eating something that looked like a quesadilla, but they didn’t have cheese (dairy products were not used in pre-Columbian Mexico). The Spanish brought many new food items to Mexico, cattle being one, which is how cheese came to be part of Mexican cuisine. This indicates that the “quesadilla” of today could not have existed, certainly not with such a name, prior to the Spanish conquest.
Over time, the quesadilla became an integral part of Mexican cuisine with the contents evolving as new ingredients were introduced to people here, and, in a culinary trend that plays out over and over, the ingredients used vary by region. In the north, you’re more likely to see beef on your quesadilla. In the coastal areas like Baja and Veracruz, you may see shrimp or fish on your quesadilla. In central Mexico, you’ll see squash blossoms, huitlacoche, or a combination of the inspirations of other states, since they’re able to draw on inspiration from all of them due to their proximity and well-established trade routes with Mexico City.
What’s so odd is that here in Mexico City (and only here), when you order a quesadilla you must specifically request queso (cheese). The default quesadilla here isn’t actually a quesadilla but is merely a folded over, stuffed tortilla done in the style of a quesadilla. It struck us as totally odd, but that is, in fact, how things are done around here. We quickly learned to specify cheese, because a quesadilla without cheese is, well, just a ‘dilla.
Also note that the type of tortilla used on a quesadilla varies depending on the region. In the northern states of Mexico, it’s much more common to see a flour tortilla used, as is the case in the US. But here in Mexico City and in many other states, a corn tortilla is used. And make no mistake, these aren’t the flimsy, crappy little corn tortillas you find in the states. These are usually handmade, thick tortillas akin in consistency and thickness to a flour tortilla. They’re robust, hearty, and quite filling. Since corn tortillas are the norm here in Mexico City, we’ve gone ahead and used them in our recipe, too. Finally, here in Mexico quesadillas are traditionally made with a single tortilla folded over and stuffed more like a taco. They’re also prepared by warming them on a hot griddle or pan, not toasted with butter as they are in the states. This is why we’ve brought you a quesadilla that’s folded over and not “synchronized,” as the stacked tortilla quesadilla is called here.
Ah, research – it’s really the best part of having a food culture and recipe blog. We started our research for this particular sandwich just a couple days after arriving in Mexico City. On our first Saturday here, we visited the local street market, which sells everything from clothes to vegetables to meats (read about our experience on Culture Curious here). Our AirBnb hostess was kind enough to show us the ropes of a Mexico City market. While shopping, she suggested breakfast, and we jumped on it. For newcomers like us, diving into street food can be daunting but having a guide help us ease into it was all we needed.
Our hostess told us that the quesadilla is common thing to order for breakfast here, though we couldn’t find any research to substantiate that. Regardless, a quesadilla is a good call for breakfast: they’re simple, tasty, and filling. What more could you need? Our recipe here today is inspired by the quesadilla Addie had: a simple one with picadillo, Oaxaca cheese, and fiery red salsa. In word: perfect.
Picadillo is ubiquitous dish of Spanish origin that’s popular throughout Latin America. It’s basically a mixture of beef, tomato, onion, carrots, and potatoes, though honestly, that combination depends on the cook, the recipe, and where in Latin America you find yourself. As with so many things, there are hundreds of ways to make picadillo, and the recipe we’re including here is but one. It’s inspired by the style of the picadillo we had at the market, and it’s our own original recipe, informed by several other Mexican-style picadillo recipes we found in the course of our research (all cited below in the recipe area, in case you want to do your own research). Bottom line, the picadillo we’ve created is simple and straightforward and serves as the perfect base for a breakfast quesadilla.
So now that we’re clear on what’s going into our quesadilla, it’s time for us to set out to get the ingredients and make it ourselves!
Procurement & Ingredients
As you know, the procurement process and the ingredients we use are an integral part of the experience for us. We aim to use the best possible ingredients, procured from interesting, responsible, and/or local sources, as much as possible.
For this recipe, we’re dealing with pretty basic ingredients, which makes shopping rather easy. We picked up our ground beef and our Oaxaca cheese at an organic grocery store called The Green Corner, and we picked up nearly everything else—the veggies for the picadillo and the tortillas—from the local Saturday market where we had the original quesadilla we’re reproducing here. The salsa is the only thing we picked up at the regular grocery store, though if we’d been thinking about it, we’re sure The Green Corner has delicious salsa. Since we keep a big jar if salsa on hand all the times, we didn’t think to buy more especially for this.
Let’s talk a bit about our sources. As we said, the Green Corner is an organic grocery store, located in Coyoacán, our delegación (borough/larger area of town) in Mexico City. They’re a Mexican-owned and operated company with five locations throughout Mexico City. Our location is not only a grocery store but a little café as well. They’ve a fairly wide selection of items, considering how small the place is. Though we don’t buy much meat, when we do, we buy it (and our eggs) from here, as we’re more confident of the quality/responsibility of the products from here than from other places. Plus, we were in the habit of buying organic (or at the very least, locally and/or ethically raised) meat anyway so we’re used to paying the premium that these meats command. For us, it’s totally worth the premium to know more about where our food comes from.
We’re less clear about the sources and origins of the vegetables we purchased, but we like the fact that at this Saturday market, we’re giving our food pesos to individuals personally. It’s not like spending our money with a big faceless corporation. The money we spend goes directly to families and individuals who procure the items they sell from larger produce markets and distributors. We also like to visit the market to get hand-made tortillas, which are essential to this recipe. We’re fortunate to live just a few blocks away from the Saturday market here in Coyoacán and just one block from the Sunday market. Very convenient!
Now that we have our ingredients, let’s get to the cooking part!
Overall, preparation of the quesadilla is pretty darned simple. The real work, so to speak, comes in making the picadillo, and that’s why this recipe takes as long as it does. If you have the opportunity to make the picadillo ahead of time, then your job is much easier when it comes time to make the quesadilla. Let’s look at a few key aspects of preparing this dish.
While the picadillo does take a little time, it’s quite easy to prepare. As always, be cautious in the first step when you’re frying the potatoes. The oil can spatter if you’re not careful, and that’s dangerous. We suggest wearing an apron. Otherwise, it’s all pretty straightforward. Also, a tip on picadillo usage: you can also use this stuff to make tacos, burritos, or enchiladas, or even use it to top scrambled eggs or your favorite burrito bowl. It’s a versatile dish, and once you get a feel for making it, we’re confident it’ll become a staple in your kitchen, as it has in ours.
As with so many other sandwiches, structural integrity is vital for the success of this sandwich. We used Oaxaca cheese on this quesadilla, though you could use any other cheese that melts well: cheddar, Colby-jack, Monterey jack, Manchego, even mozzarella (which is what Oaxaca cheese is, basically). Also, since Oaxaca cheese comes in a knotty ball (similar to mozzarella), we decided to slice the cheese thinly instead of grating it, since Oaxaca cheese doesn’t really lend itself well to grating. Plus, around here we’ve noticed that it’s custom to use slices of cheese on quesadillas (as opposed to shredded) so, if nothing else, “When in Rome…”
But back to structural integrity: to enhance the structural integrity of the quesadilla, we placed two thin slices of cheese on the bottom half of a corn tortilla then topped that with picadillo and two more slices of cheese. As shown below, make sure your picadillo doesn’t extend beyond half of the tortilla or it will quickly become messy. You want to be able to easily fold over the top half of the tortilla.
Okay, here’s where it gets just a bit tricky. The first thing you need is a nice long spatula, like we have shown in the skillet below, or something similar. The turning of this quesadilla is the most “harrowing” part of this whole project because you’re dealing with rather loose ground meat as the filling. Be patient and allow the cheese on the bottom of the tortilla melt so that it holds some of the filling in place. When you’re ready to flip, make sure to have the closed end of the tortilla as the side that stays closest to the pan. This will ensure that minimal to no filling falls out. Be patient, be strong, and have faith: we know you can do this!
By and large, Mexican cuisine is a cuisine by the people, for the people. It’s peasant food, for the most part, especially things like quesadillas and tacos. As we’ve seen with so many sandwiches featured on this site before, “sandwiches” (out-of-hand eaten foods) are usually the food of the poor and the working class. They’re simple and filled with basic, nutritious, cost effective ingredients. They’re highly portable, which means they can be eaten anywhere, in any situation. Here in Mexico City, people eat on the run all the time, at any time. It’s quite common to see a group of people, standing, huddled around a small taco cart or stand while a cook, over a gas or charcoal griddle, dishes up tasty vittles to those who hang close and pay up. Sandwiches are also filling, and a little bit goes a long way. There’s something about a starchy product like a roll stuffed with or tortilla wrapped around various ingredients that speaks to us as humans, universally. There’s something so common, so familiar. We’re already looking for and looking forward to the next sandwich that crosses our path.
For the Picadillo:
- 1/2 pound white potato (~1 medium), cut into 1/2" cubes (keep peelings on)
- 1 cup canola oil (you’ll need more if you’re using an electric fryer)
- Fine salt, to taste
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil (such as vegetable, canola, olive, or grapeseed)
- 1 medium-sized onion, diced
- 1 large carrot, peeled, quartered, and sliced about 1/8” thick
- 1 medium-sized Serrano chile (stems, seeds, pith removed), finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon fine salt
- 2 Roma tomatoes, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon fine salt
- 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon paprika
For the Quesadilla:
- 6 corn or flour tortillas
- 1 small ball Oaxaca cheese, thinly sliced
- 1 cup of prepared picadillo
- Salsa, your favorite brand or recipe, to taste
- Optional: sliced fresh avocado
For the Picadillo:
- The first step is to fry the potatoes. If you have a Fry Daddy or any other electrical fryer, that's recommended over frying manually, for both temperature control and general safety. Fill to the proper line with oil and heat to 350 ºF.
- However, if you must use a skillet: heat about a cup of vegetable oil in a skillet--preferably a 10- to 12-inch skillet--to about 350 ºF.
- From here on, the directions are basically the same: Once the oil is heated, add the potatoes to deep fry. You may need to work in batches, depending on the size of your skillet or electric fryer. Cook each batch of potatoes for 8 to 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Stir gently but often to prevent sticking.
- Carefully remove the potatoes from the frying oil and set the them on a plate lined with paper towels, to cool. Sprinkle with salt while the potatoes are fresh from the oil.
- Once you're done frying, remove the skillet from the heat (or unplug your electric fryer) and allow the oil to cool in a safe place away from the rest of the cooking action.
- In a separate large skillet, add the 2 tablespoons of oil and the onion, carrot, Serrano chile, and the first teaspoon of fine salt. Stir well to incorporate, and cook for 7 to 10 minutes until carrots are tender and onions are wilted. Stir often to prevent vegetables from sticking or browning.
- Add the garlic, stir well, and cook for another minute, until garlic is fragrant.
- Add the tomato and continue to cook another 3 to 5 minutes, until tomato has softened.
- Add the ground beef, and stir well to incorporate it into the vegetables. Cook, stirring often, until ground beef is cooked all the way through, about 5 minutes.
- Add the fried potatoes and the remaining spices (cumin, salt, oregano, and paprika). Stir well and cook for another 5 minutes, until the potatoes are reheated through.
Cooking the Quesadillas:
- Start by heating a dry medium-sized skillet over medium high heat.
- Working with one tortilla at a time, place a tortilla in the skillet and to the bottom half of each tortilla a little cheese, caramelized vegetables, and about a tablespoon or so of picadillo. Then top that with a little more cheese.
- Please note: To distribute your ingredients evenly, use about 1/6 of your non-picadillo ingredients on each quesadilla. You will have much more picadillo than you need for one dinner of quesadillas.
- Once your ingredients are in place, carefully fold over the top half of the tortilla and use a large spatula to hold down the top of tortilla until it can stay folded on its own.
- After 1 to 2 minutes (depending on your stove heat), the quesadilla should be ready to flip. Carefully and slowly flip the quesadilla, making sure that the closed end stays closer to the bottom of the skillet as you flip. This should minimize the amount of filling that falls out.
- Allow the quesadilla to cook another 1 to 2 minutes, until the cheese is melted on that side as well. Be sure to pay careful attention to both the skillet and the heat of the flame, as cooking times vary based on the power of your range and the cookware you’re using.
- Once the cheese is nice and melted, remove the quesadilla from the skillet. Repeat the process until you have all of your quesadillas ready. If you can do it, cook more than one quesadilla at a time to speed the cooking process.
- When you’re ready to eat, garnish the quesadillas with your favorite salsa and some avocado slices, if desired.
Notes on Timing:
- The picadillo takes 30 minutes to prep and 40 minutes to cook.
- The remaining 10 minutes of cook time is for preparing the quesadilla.
Our picadillo recipe is inspired by the recipes found on these sites:
Total:1 hour 20 min