Sunday, January 16, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: California Part 1A (the Southern Half) - The Quesadilla

Ah, California, the largest state in the Union - third largest in terms of land, and with some of the largest cities in North America, including the largest in the US after New York. California is special to me, because for 6 1/2 years it was home - Riverside, Redlands and San Bernardino in the Inland Empire. That first city (the 12th largest in the state) was central to the history of the California citrus industry, that last one (only the 18th largest) being the home of the original McDonald's right along Route 66, and that middle one? Well, they have a very nice farmers' market, okay? Plus it's the home of my very first ever Trader Joe's experience. I will always be a Marylander, but California is, like, a part of me.

Okay, sappy time over.

California is one big, diverse state. And it will be a difficult state to profile, but not for lack of food. Quite the opposite, actually: the sheer diversity of its foods makes this one an entire blog waiting to happen.

In fact, it is such a massive, diverse state that I just can't restrict it to one post. So I am breaking California up over two weeks, lest I have one massive book-like post (not that I haven't done that before). Next week I head up to Northern California. This week, we stick with the Southern half.

Snacking State-by-State: California

Official Name: State of California
State Nickname: The Golden State
Admission to the US:
September 9, 1850 (#31)
Capital: Sacramento (7th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Los Angeles (largest, & 2nd largest in the USA), San Diego (2nd largest), San Jose (3rd largest), San Francisco (4th largest)
Region: West, Pacific (small sections of the state can be considered Northwest or Southwest in terms of its food and culture); Pacific (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Acorn, Chile Pepper, Pinyon Nut, Salmon
Bordered by: Baja California, Mexico (south), Arizona & Nevada (east), Oregon (north), Pacific Ocean (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: golden trout (fish), California Valley quail (bird), grizzly bear (animal)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: Where to begin? "New California cuisine", diversity of ethnic cuisines, especially Asian, Latin American and Mediterranean (Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Salvadoran, Korean, Italian), citrus (especially in the south), wine (especially in the center and north), seafood, dates, and so much else

Whole encyclopedias could be written about the foods of California, so pardon me for trying to sum it all up in a paragraph or two. A few thoughts come to mind. California cuisine is
  • Native American, with sedentary hunter-gatherers living off of the rich resources to be found here and in Baja California. One of the most important traditional foods was the acorn, which has to be prepped a special way to keep one from becoming ill. It was often made into several kinds of mushes.
  • Spanish and Mexican, with much of the same Southwestern influences that we see in Arizona & New Mexico, and much of the same foods spreading up from Baja.
  • pioneer food, with many of those Midwestern and Southern food traditions carried in by 49ers, Mormons and other settlers into the area
  • a plethora of immigrant cuisines - so many of the "ethnic" foods that we sometimes think of as American either flourished in California, or spread from Cali to the rest of the country: Vietnamese phở, Filipino longannisa, Thai pad thai, Japanese sushi and Chinese dim sum just to name a few.
  • Wine Country. They even made a movie about it, remember? Seriously, California's many wine producing valleys produce some of the best wine in the world, at some competitions rivaling even those from France. Napa and Sonoma are the most famous, though living for so long in the Southland, I've become more familiar with Temecula's much less well known wines.
  • "California cuisine" - exemplified by the freshest ingredients prepared in season. That comes with a de-emphasis on the Frankenstrawberries and Killer Tomatoes that are grown all over Cali and shipped to all points of the country, humongous and plump and lacking any discernible flavor (related note: California was also the home of Chicano activist César Chávez, who worked to organize migrant agribusiness farm workers so they could have at least a somewhat decent standard of living).
Since I am extending California over two posts, I will be doing a few from the more Mission-y Southern half, and a few from the more Gold-Rush-y Northern half. This post deals with the Southern half of the state. Southern California is much more familiar to me, and it will end up being the longer post, I just know it.

Southern California and Mexico - specifically Baja California - have a very special relationship, and some of the best Mexican food in our own country is right in SoCal - both the traditional and "taco shop" varieties. In fact, taco shops are as prevalent in the Southland as crab houses are here in the Chesapeake. It is real local food, and you will be hard-pressed not to find some corner that doesn't have takeout with tacos, tamales, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas and so on, often with a hearty helping of beans and rice, pickled vegetables and your choice of salsas frescas, verdes and rojas. There were just too many to define any one favorite of mine. I would normally order an enchilada, though for a quick meal, a quesadilla is always a safe bet.

The recipe: Cheese Quesadilla

This is incredibly easy, and if you have all the ingredients (as I did), fast:

* tortillas (I prefer corn but I had flour)
* your choice of cheese (I had two on hand: Wisconsin cheddar and Honduran queso fresco)

I don't need to cite any specific recipe for this one, as I have made it before. Simply assemble the following:

tortilla, topped with cheese, topped with tortilla. Chicken is also a popular filling, though I prefer the simple one myself, filled with gooey cheese and nothing more.

Heat in a skillet until the tortillas are browned and the cheese is melted (also flip the quesadilla over to make sure it browns on both sides). Top it with your choice of salsa.

Or just leave it plain like I did


Mitzewich, John. How to Prepare Perfect Sushi Rice (video)., date unknown.

Saveur. "Date Shake". ( Originally printed in Saveur Issue #70, November 2003.

Yoshii, Ryuichi. Sushi. From the Essential Kitchen series. Periphus Editions (HK) Ltd., Boston, 1998.

Yoshizuka, Setsuko. "Making California Rolls"., date unknown.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "California" page and the Food Timeline State Foods webpage link to "California".