It went down like this:
“That’s the taste of spring.”
She took another bite and thought about it some more.
“Yeah, that’s the taste of spring.”
It was hard to argue with her. I’d just served Michelle a new quesadilla recipe I was trying out for the first time, and that combination of young Quebec asparagus and freshly foraged Quebec morels tasted like the very essence of spring to me, too. Which is exactly why I’d made them.
A couple of days earlier I’d had a conversation with my Mom about lobster and what pairs well with it. Because we were having this conversation in May, the first things that came to were things like ramps, and asparagus, and fiddleheads, and new potatoes. And that had me thinking about how things that emerge from the same geographic region at around the same time often taste pretty good together. Obviously, there are limits to this strategy, and as the bounty of summer and fall arrives, the sheer abundance of possibilities complicates things to a certain extent—there are almost too many options—but we certainly don’t have that problem when it comes to springtime in Quebec. There just aren’t that many things growing regionally yet, and the arrival of each new product can seem like a momentous occasion.
This was the frame of mind last week as I was leafing through a cookbook my sister had sent me a couple of years back from a nuevo Mexican restaurant in Oakland called Doña Tomas that's in her neck of the woods. The book in question is Doña Tomás: Discovering Authentic Mexican Cooking, by Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky (with Mike Wille), and when I came across that recipe for the quesadillas with morels and asparagus, it suddenly all made sense.
There were definitely elements to the recipe that seemed a little exotic from our perspective, here, north of the 45th parallel, but in other ways it seemed like a perfect match for the local terroir. Morels and especially asparagus are both ingredients that signify spring in Quebec, and the queso in question was chèvre, another local specialty.
As Mark Bittman points out in The New York Times this week, morels can seem like an exorbitantly priced luxury, but they don’t have to be. If you know the right people, they can teach you to forage them locally, or hook you up with morels they themselves have foraged. If you are the right people, you already know how to forage them, and you've already got your spots. Hell, you might even have some freshly foraged morels on hand. In other words, it's quite possible to access a nice supply for free. If you don’t have these skills, or these connections, you can find freshly foraged local morels at farmers’ markets like Jean-Talon in Montreal* or the Capital City Farmers Market in Montpelier. The ones you find at the market will be expensive, but morels are intensely flavourful and fragrant, so a little goes a long way. In the case of this particular recipe, the original calls for half a pound of morels, but I made it with less than a quarter of a pound (100 grams), and the filling was still unbelievably rich and savoury.
Bittman's recipe is for a classic pasta dish with morels and peas, a combination he refers to as "pasta's springtime companions." Around here, though, we're a lot more famous for our asparagus, and asparagus arrives in quantities much earlier than "real peas" (i.e., freshly picked spring peas). Locate a source for your morels, pick up some tender, young asparagus from your local farmers' market, find yourself a tangy chèvre--preferably locally produced--and you're just about ready to go.
The other key ingredient--the one that lends the recipe a touch of the exotic--is poblano chiles. These days poblano peppers are readily available across much of North America--even Quebec--but our regional cuisine isn't exactly known for its use of chiles. The rest of the preparation for this recipe is actually very French--there's lots of butter, some chèvre, some milk, and even some whipping cream--but the Poblano Cream that it calls for is a stroke of genius, one that creates a holy communion out of the various ingredients, and one whose smokiness, warmth, and lovely bitter-green flavour is the recipe's most Mexican (or perhaps Cal-Mex) element.
The one major adjustment I made to the recipe was to roast the asparagus in the oven (at 400º for about 15 minutes) before tossing it with the morel mixture (which I sautéed for a little bit more time--3 to 4 minutes--to ensure that they were tender, aromatic, and flavourful). But here I'll offer the recipe almost exactly as it appears in Doña Tomas.
Without further ado...
Quesadillas with Morels & Asparagus
For the Poblano Cream:
1 large poblano chile (or two medium-small ones), toasted, peeled, stemmed, and seeded
1 cup milk
2 tbsp canola oil
1 1/2 tbsp flour
1/2 tbsp kosher salt
1/2 cup crema or sour cream
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
For the filling:
1 tbsp canola oil
1 shallot, peeled and minced
2 to 3 tbsp unsalted butter (Note: please adjust this amount if you use far fewer morels than the 1/2 pound called for, like I did)
1/2 lb morels*, coarsely chopped
kosher salt to taste
1/2 bunch asparagus, diagonally sliced 1/8" thick
For the final assembly:
12 fresh corn tortillas (5" in diameter, please)
5 oz chèvre**
1/4 bunch cilantro, stemmed and chopped, for garnish
To prepare the poblano cream, place the roasted and peeled chile and milk in a blender and purée until smooth.
In a separate small skillet, combine the oil and flour over low heat to make a roux. Stir constantly for about 10 minutes, until your roux is golden brown and has a pleasant nutty aroma.
Transfer the chile & milk mixture to a saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Whisk the roux into the boiling milk mixture and decrease the heat to achieve a gentle simmer; the sauce should begin to thicken immediately. Simmer for about 20 minutes to fully cook out the flour taste, seasoning with salt as necessary. Remove from the heat and whisk in the crema or sour cream, as well as the whipping cream. Adjust the seasoning with salt as necessary and keep warm, but be very careful not to scorch the poblano cream.
To prepare the filling, place a large sauté pan over medium to medium-high heat and add the oil. Add the shallot and sauté until translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the butter and morels and cook over medium heat for 1-2 minutes, adding a bit of salt as you go, until the mushrooms are heated through. Add the asparagus and a little more butter if necessary and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until the asparagus is tender [using thin, young asparagus will make this goal more easily attainable, and the final product tastier]. Adjust the seasoning with salt as necessary.
Heat and lightly grease a griddle. Working in batches as necessary, place the tortillas on the griddle to warm. Place a scoop of the filling on one half of each tortilla, sprinkle with chèvre, and fold in half with a spatula. Brown the quesadillas for about 3 minutes on each side, until the cheese is melted and the outside is crisp. The quesadillas can be held warm in a 200ºF oven as you finish the cooking process, but don't leave them in the oven for too long, lest they become tough. It's much better to serve them fresh, made to order.
To serve, arrange the quesadillas on plates or a platter, drizzle the centers with that wonderful poblano cream, and garnish with cilantro. Serve warm and devour.
[recipe based almost exactly on one that appears in Doña Tomás: Discovering Authentic Mexican Cooking, by Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky, with Mike Wille]
These were definitely the most decadent quesadillas I've ever made or encountered. They were also the very best quesadillas I've ever tasted, and a true taste of spring. If you know where to find morels in the wild, the only question is: What are you waiting for? If you don't, this recipe will definitely be a bit of a splurge, but it also makes for a wonderful celebration of springtime in Quebec. By way of Mexico. By way of Oakland, CA.
* If you're in Montreal, and you don't know where to forage fresh morels, I highly recommend paying a visit to Les Jardins Sauvages at Jean-Talon Market.
** If you're going to Jean-Talon Market anyway to pick up your morels, I suggest picking up a fresh, young chèvre from Chèvrerie de Buckland.