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Clara’s Quesadillas

Recipes From the RanchMy Great-Grandmother Clara had a Portuguese last name, but she was half Scots and half French-Basque.  Growing up, I knew her as an aged, lean woman who liked to laugh and gamble at the nickle slots. She was a fiery old lady. In fact all the Kincaids were known for their heat in the small cow-town of Tres Pinos, California. They were tough pioneers and buckaroos with a fighting-spirit.

This Scots clan clung fiercely to their Catholic faith despite being kicked out of Scotland for fighting on behalf of the Bonnie Prince Charlie back in the mid-18th century. My particular ancestral line of Kincaids settled in Virginia then Missouri before pushing cattle into California to build up ranches that would feed the gold-rush miners. Great-Grandma Clara’s grandfather, James Kincaid, settled in the San Benito County area where hills and valleys were rich for growing hay and cattle. The Kincaids even helped to build the Tres Pinos Catholic Church.

Tres Pinos was the furthest inland from San Francisco that the train pushed. This track traveled through vineyards, orchards and ranches known to Steinbeck, and any story of his that I’ve read, I can’t help but picture the place of my birth; the same place where Great-Grandma Clara was born; the place where buckaroos come from. The Kincaid women were tough. Clara’s mother was a justice of the peace and famous for orneriness.

One Kincaid woman, an aunt of Clara’s, decided she had enough of being a ranch wife and left her husband and children, stepping onto that San Francisco bound train with a young, handsome cowboy. The story goes–which is printed for posterity in an old 1880s Tres Pinos newspaper–that the aunt’s husband met her at the station with a gun. He shot the young swain, but didn’t frighten his wife at all who simply yelled at her husband, wrapped her cowboy’s wounded arm and left on the train.

So it should come as no surprise that Great-Grandma Clara like food that matched the temperament in her Kincaid blood. She liked it hot. This recipe is a bit of an alteration on my part. Originally Clara heaped this cheese-topping on a split loaf of French bread, but I use it for quesadillas. Serve it with sliced mangoes for lunch or along side vegetable soup for dinner.

Clara’s Quesadillas

  • 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 2-4 Tbsp spicy taco sauce
  • 1 can diced jalapenos (or you can use mild green peppers)
  • 1 can chopped black olives
  • 1/2-cup chopped red onion

Simply mix all the ingredients. When ready to make quesadillas, pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. I prefer white-corn tortillas, but you can use your own preference. Set out as many tortillas as you want (my cookie sheet accommodates six at  a time, but usually I just make one or two for myself for lunch). scoop cheese mixture onto each tortilla, spreading evenly. Top with a second tortilla. Bake for five minutes and then carefully flip. Bake for another three to five minutes. Serve with sliced fruit, rice or a green salad to counter the heat.


How to Host a Tapas Party

Tapas, Spanish for “little bites,” is an easy way to feed friends. Social by nature, a tapas party is true slow food. The tapas meal is served one course at a time with everyone gathered around, sharing bites. You can bring the party to the kitchen where the cooking is ongoing.

To host your own tapas party, you’ll need the following:

  • Spanish wine, enough for one or two glasses per guest
  • Menu, recipes and fresh ingredients (best bought the day before)
  • Small plates, one for each guest
  • Several serving platters (you can wash plates in between courses)
  • Cast iron cooking pan (ideally, cast iron)
  • Cooking pot
  • Cookie sheet

First, create your menu. You can find recipes online and it is okay to use a few of your favorite appetizers that are not of Spanish origin. “Tapas: A Classic Collection of Spanish-Style Recipes” offers all the tapas recipes you need to get inspired.

One spice required that you might not have readily in the kitchen — although once you try it, you’ll want to keep it handy — is smoked Spanish paprika. There is Spanish paprika and smoked Spanish paprika. Get the smoked; you’ll fall in love with this sultry spice that clings to potatoes and brightens vegetables. If you live in Missoula, Butterfly Herbs & Tea sells the spice in bulk. Penzeys Spices sells it online and in their stores, if you live near one.

When you create your menu, start with a simple platter: fruit, nuts, cheese. Go with what fruit is ripe and in season, for example, strawberries in early summer, blood red oranges in winter. Dried cherries or apricots are a good choice any time of year. Almonds are the traditional tapas nut and you can roast them in the oven with olive oil and coarse sea salt, adding smoked papkria to taste after roasting. Manchego is sheep’s milk cheese from Spain and the most traditional for tapas. However, you can serve an aged cheese such as Irish cheddar.

The remainder of your menu will be an array of vegetable and meat tapas. Each course is served one at a time so look at your recipes carefully to decide the timing of which ones to begin and end with. Go light on the meat or the meal will be too heavy for your guests. One or two meat courses, plus four two six vegetable courses is a good balance. Have crusty bread available throughout the night to sop up some of the savory juices from each course.

Finally, finish with a cooling desert. Tapas is spicy — not necessarily spicy hot, but warm with paprika, cumin and garlic –so a mango sorbet or Spanish flan or coconut cream pie a nice end to the meal. Sorbet or lemon ice is a great choice in the summer. Flan or pudding-based dishes are traditional to Spain.

Do your shopping the day before. Before your guests arrive, have the cheese set at room temperature and ready the fruit, nut and cheese platter in advance. Have the crusty bread ready, too. If you marinated olive or mushrooms, start with that course after guest get arrive. Most tapas recipes are simple, but you’ll be cooking all evening. Take a break in between course and join in the merriment. Invite guest to help prep the next course. Remember, this is “slow food” spread out over two to four hours.

To get you started, here is a sample menu served in this order along with a few simplified tapas recipes based on my own tapas parties:

  • Grapes, Irish cheddar, raw almonds
  • Olives
  • Crusty Bread
  • Smoky Pine Nuts & Green Beans
  • Bacon Wrapped Asparagus
  • Parmesan Garlic Toast
  • Red Wine Linguisa
  • Garlic Mushrooms
  • Seared Spanish Potato Wedges
  • Coconut Cream Pie

Smoky Pine Nuts & Green Beans

Trim and blanch one pound of fresh green beans, drain and set aside. Saute 1/3 cup of pine nuts in 1 tsp. olive oil, stirring for several minutes until toasted. Place nuts in a small bowl and toss with 2 Tbsp. smoked Spanish paprika. Using the same saute pan (cast iron works best) stir-fry the blanched green beans in 1 tsp. olive oil for three minutes, then add the pine nuts and stir for another minute. Place on a platter with a drizzle of lemon juice (fresh is best).

Bacon Wrapped Asparagus

Preheat oven to 350 F. Start with one bundle of fresh asparagus and one package of thin, but quality bacon. Thick bacon makes it hard to wrap. Take one strip of bacon and spiral-wrap one stalk of asparagus. Lay each one in a baking pan. Once all the stalks are wrapped, placed the pan in the oven until the bacon is cooked, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Parmesan Garlic Toast

Leave the oven on after preparing the asparagus-wrapped bacon. Thinly slice a baguette of sourdough. Lay each slice on a cookie sheet. While slicing, melt half a stick of butter with 3 cloves of garlic (chopped, coarsely). Butter each slice with melted garlic butter. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and shredded Parmesan. Toast in the oven 5 to 7 minutes.

Red Wine Linguisa

Admittedly, linguisa is a Portuguese sausage, so you can substitute chorizo. The day before, prick two sticks of sausage with a fork and cover with red wine. Let it marinate in the refrigerator until it is time to prepare the course. Heat a cast iron pan as you you slice the wine-soaked sticks, reserving the wine. Pan fry with 2 chopped cloves of garlic for two minutes, then pour the wine, heating until it bubble. Turn down to a simmer, cooking the sausage for 10-15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Garlic Mushrooms

Saute 8 ounces of sliced, fresh mushrooms in 2 Tbsp. butter with 3 cloves of chopped garlic for 3 to 5 minutes until almost tender. Then add 2 Tbsp. brandy, salt and pepper. Cook another 3 to 5 minutes, then sprinkle with tarragon at the end.

Seared Potato Wedges

Heat a frying pan with a drizzle of olive oil. Quarter 1 pound of small yellow potatoes in half. If your potatoes are larger, chop into smaller wedges than quartering. In a small bowl, mix 3 tsp. smoked paprika, 1 tsp. cumin and 1/2 tsp. salt. Add potatoes in small batches to the bowl and toss until well-coated. Sear on each side until fork-tender and crispy.

Toasted Coconut Cream Pie

Try this simple recipe from the box of coconut pudding.

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