You can forget the kid’s version of quesadillas, those last-minute emergency meals made of heated tortillas and cheese. Chef Ivan Calderon makes vegetable quesadillas far from the expected, thoughtful blueprints that reveal irresistible flavors and textures. The quesadilla’s shape is a surprise as well, an empanada-like fried turnover encased in his special tortilla dough.
As you might expect from Calderon, the founder and owner of Taco Rosa and Taco Mesa restaurants in Orange County, his corn tortillas are made from scratch. The gift, and it is a tasty one, is that he adds mashed potatoes to the fresh corn masa, a flavor marriage that is scrumptious.
Inside the dough is a filling made of 1/4-inch-diced vegetables sauteed with fresh serrano chiles; the frisky mix is augmented with a mix of Oaxaca and pepper Jack cheeses. Once folded and fork-tine sealed, these beauties are fried and served with guacamole, house escabeche, and sour cream on the side. Move over meat, these quesadillas are a vegetarian dream come true.
Having opened his first Taco Mesa 30 years ago, he has a long history of impressing guests with his takes on the Mexico City fare he experienced in his childhood, a youth spent divided between a parent who lived in the U.S. and a parent who lived in Mexico City. Eventually he settled in the U.S. as a teenager.
Along with his passion for delicious cuisine, he is recognized for his gregarious warmth and generosity. He credits restaurant pioneer, the late Larry Cano, with encouraging his career. Calderon was studying in the food and beverage program at Orange Coast College, when Cano recognized his talent and spent time talking to him about the hospitality business. Cano placed him in positions to help him flourish, making him assistant manager at Mexican restaurants opening in cities around the country. His take-away advice? Surround yourself with talented people. Look at successful restaurants and observe what is unique about them.
He did and adapted what he saw with a goal to made it even better in his own restaurants.
Four Taco Mesa eateries: Costa Mesa, Ladera Ranch, Mission Viejo, and Orange
Two Taco Rosa Restaurants: Irvine and Newport Beach
Dream Come True: Plans are in place to open a new drive-up concept, Taco Mesita, in Old Towne Orange next spring. It will feature slow-cooked dishes in a quick-service environment.
Restaurant Faves: Oceans & Earth, Yorba Linda, because I like the care and detail that they put into their dishes.
Soccer fan: We have soccer tournaments with other restaurants, such as El Ranchito or Mother’s (Markets). Taco Mesa usually wins.
Drink of choice: Tequila, neat. Aged, double barrel if possible.
Secret talent: I play acoustic guitar. I’m a ’70s guy—everything from the Animals to James Taylor to Bob Dylan.
Collector: I collect art with ancient, religious themes, such as altars. I like learning about ancient religions.
Here is the recipe for chef’s delectable quesadillas. Yes, it is from scratch. Yes, it is a project, a pretty big one. Yes, the escabeche (pickled vegetables) must be made in advance, so start with that. You will have enough leftover escabeche to accompany an endless number of dishes, everything from scrambled eggs to pork chops. And it’s good to know that if making this dish seems like the impossible task, you can find comfort knowing that it is on the menu at Taco Rosa Restaurants.
Ivan Calderon’s Vegetable Quesadillas
Yield: about 12, plus leftover escabeche (escabeche – can be halved, but leftovers are delicious)
2 1/2 pounds peeled raw carrots, sliced diagonally, about 1/8-inch thick with ovals about 1 1/2-inches long
1/2 pound very small raw cauliflower florets
1/2 pound peeled brown onions, cut into thin strips, about 1/4-by-1 1/2-inches
8 ounces fresh serrano chilies, stemmed, cut into thin lengthwise strips, see cook’s notes
Escabeche seasonings: 1 teaspoon salt, 4 garlic cloves (sliced), 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar, 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/3 cup vegetable oil
8 ounces potatoes, either Russet or Yukon Gold, peeled, quartered
1 1/2 pounds fresh corn masa (masa para tortillas), sold in many Mexican markets in Orange County
Sea salt, to taste
Granulated garlic and ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 cup finely diced onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 ounces finely diced zucchini
4 ounces finely diced yellow zucchini or crookneck squash
1 fresh corn on the cob, grilled or roasted, kernels cut from cob
2 ounces finely diced red bell pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Guacamole: 2 ripe (but not squishy) avocadoes (peeled, seeded), minced serrano chili (to taste, seeds and veins removed if desired), 2 tablespoons minced cilantro, 2 tablespoons minced yellow onion, salt and pepper (to taste), fresh lime juice (to taste)
For forming tortillas: tortilla press, two sheets plastic wrap or plastic bag
For assembly: 4 ounces mixed grated cheese (Oaxaca and pepper Jack)
For frying: vegetable oil, deep-fry thermometer
For serving: sour cream or crema Mexicana, escabeche, crumbled cheese – either queso fresco or Cotija, optional garnish – thinly sliced watermelon radish
Cook’s notes: Serranos? The amount is up to you. Calderon doesn’t seed them or remove the veins. He loves it spicy-hot, so he uses a lot. Adjust the number of chilies to suit your taste.
- Prepare escabeche: In a large nonreactive bowl, combine carrots, cauliflower, onions, and serrano chilies; toss. Add salt, garlic, oregano, bay leaves, pepper, white vinegar, oil, and apple cider vinegar; toss well. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or up to 4 days.
- Prepare dough for tortillas. Place potatoes in saucepan and cover with water. Bring to boil on high heat. Reduce heat and boil gently until tender. Drain and mash with potato masher. Cool. In a stand mixer fitted with the flat blade, combine mashed potato, masa, salt, granulated garlic, and pepper. Mix on medium spread until well combined, about 2 minutes. OR, mix by hand, stirring until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
- Prepare filling: Heat oil in large deep skillet on medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, zucchini, yellow zucchini or crookneck, corn kernels, red bell pepper, salt, and pepper. Cook stirring occasionally, until vegetables are just barely tender. Remove from heat. Set aside to cool.
- Prepare guacamole: Combine all ingredients and mash with a potato masher. Set aside for assembly.
- Place a square of plastic wrap (or plastic bag) on tortilla press. Top with a round of masa placed in the center and another square of plastic wrap on top. Gently press (don’t make it too thin). On one side of pressed dough add a spoonful of vegetable filling and a generous pinch of cheese mixture. Fold other side over top using the plastic wrap to support it. Pinch to close. Press tines of fork around the curved edge to secure (and look pretty). Repeat with remaining ingredients.
- Heat enough vegetable oil to cover quesadillas in very deep skillet or pot. Heat to 350 degrees, testing with a deep-fry thermometer. Fry a few quesadillas at a time until they start to float, and they start to brown a little. Drain on sheet pan lined with paper towels. Repeat until all quesadillas are cooked.
- To plate: Place 2 quesadillas on dinner plates. Surround each serving with a generous spoonful of guacamole, sour cream and escabeche. Top guacamole and sour cream with crumbled cheese and if desired, add a thin slice of watermelon radish.
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”