When I was young, pepper meant one thing and one thing only: a spice bottle filled with tarry black powder, the kind that burned my tender kid-tongue and made Saturday morning cartoon characters sneeze up a big cloud of soot.
I eventually tried bell peppers, first green, which didn't (and still don't) do anything for me, and eventually red, orange and yellow, which I could (and do) nibble unadorned all day long.
But Mexican peppers were a mystery until I moved to California four and a half years ago. What was once a hard-to-find specialty item is now a produce aisle staple. Jalapenos, pasillas, Anaheims, and habaneros raise no more eyebrows here than carrots, bananas or peas. They've entered the popular culinary vernacular, too, and, judging by how much heat and pizzazz they add to Latin-inspired dishes, they've won legions of adoring fans, even those who don't know their tacos from their enchiladas.
Pasillas (called "poblanos" outside California) are my favorite, a surprise given my distaste for green bells. (If you missed my accidental green pepper gardening mishap, click here.) With a more nuanced flavor and less forward heat than their high decibel counterparts, pasillas add complexity to sauces, salads, soups, quesadillas, and pretty much anything else with a Mexican spin.
To mellow their flavor, always char them either under the broiler or directly over the burner of your gas range. Once softened, slip off the skins and tuck them into your favorite preparations.
Here are two riffs on the same combo: roasted pasilla strips paired with fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, pinto beans, and cotija cheese. Loose, they're a salad. Sandwiched between two tortillas, they're quesadilla-bound.
Recipe for Pasilla Cojita Quesadillas (or Salad)
Cotija is a crumbly Mexican cheese with a feta-like consistency and slightly milder flavor. And please take my advice: although this is a handheld dish, you'll want to keep a fork handy when eating to make it easy to scoop up any filling that manages to escape. If you like, you can even double the filling ingredients, serving the extra the following day as a simple salad, dressed only with olive oil and lime.
Serves 2 (1 quesadilla per person)
1 fresh pasilla pepper (called poblanos outside California)
1 ear fresh corn (or 1 cup frozen kernels, cooked)
1/4 cup canned pinto beans, rinsed and drained
4 corn tortillas, red chile flavor if available
1 tablespoon canola oil
3 tablespoons cotija cheese
8 grape tomatoes, halved
1 lime, quartered (for serving)
Roast the pepper directly over the flames of a gas burner, turning with tongs, until completely charred. (Alternatively, char under the broiler, turning once or twice, 5 to 7 minutes total.) Transfer to a deep bowl, cover bowl with plastic wrap, and allow to steam for 10 minutes. Peel off and discard charred skin, core, and seeds, and slice flesh into thin strips.
Meanwhile, while pepper steams, bring a pot of water to a boil. Boil corn for 3 minutes. When cool, use a sharp knife to remove kernels from cob. You should have about 1 cup.
On a small plate, mash beans with the back of a fork. (If making a salad instead, keep beans whole.)
Heat an 8" skillet over medium-high heat. Brush 1 tortilla with oil and place oiled-side down in hot skillet. Top with half of beans, half of pepper strips, half of corn kernels, and half of cheese. Brush a second tortilla with oil and place on top of filling, oiled-side up.
Cook 2 minutes, or until the underside begins to brown, then carefully flip and cook the other side 1 minute longer. (Don't fret if the filling falls out. It will. Just nudge it gently back in.)
Repeat with the remaining tortillas and filling.
Cut each quesadilla into quarters, garnish with tomatoes, and serve with lime.