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For the love of peonies

"Coral Charm"  photo credit: ilovepeonies.com

photo credit: ilovepeonies.com

It’s the beginning of Fall and I already can’t help but think about Spring.  In my 15 years living in cities (Washington DC and New York,) one of my favorites memories of Spring is walking around my neighborhood and in the distance spotting the amazing pops of fuscia and red and white and pink peonies in buckets outside of corner bodegas.  Once I was closer, the fragrance was intoxicating, better than roses.  Then I had to choose which ones to take home (because they were always pricey–2-3 stems for $15-$20 or so.)  Would I take home the ones with buds that weren’t open yet or ones that were open and full, knowing they might not last too much longer?  When I finally made my choice and brought them home, I cherished them.  So cheerful.  And just like that, they were gone from the bodegas–their season so sadly short.

One of the great benefits of living in the suburbs now and with a generous yard and floral beds, I’m able to plant my own peonies.  (Have I mentioned that our new home has a huge raised fruit and vegetable garden?  Well, it does.  I’ve had outdoor plants before, mostly container gardens and few flower bulbs in the ground, but nothing nearly close to what I have now.  Much much more on that later.  For now we’ll focus on the flower beds in the back of the yard.)  After doing some reading, peonies do best when planted in the Fall.  This gives the plants the chance to take strong root and develop in dormancy.  By Spring, they’ve had a head start over other plants just newly planted in Spring and are more likely to bloom on 2-3 stems the first season.

Before I started my research on peonies, I had no idea on the number of varieties out there.  And the best part?  They have the coolest, prettiest names.  It’s like race horses and nail polish and wall colors.  “Essie’s Ballet Slippers for my fingers and Wife Goes On for my toes please.”  (so fun playing with nail polish colors) I’d like to think that I’m the kind of person that wouldn’t be swayed into making a buying decision based on a name, but hey, I’m a marketer too.  Cora Louise, Sarah Bernhardt, Going Bananas, Many Happen Returns, and Eden’s Perfume.  So many peony names, so many beauties.  Ultimately, I chose Kansas, Coral Charm, Nick Shaylor, and Princess Margaret from Adelman Peony Gardens.

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“Princess Margaret”

Peony plants ship mostly as “bareroot.”  Bareroot basically means that the roots are dug up and all soil is removed.  When you buy peony plants at a nursery, they may have 2-3 varieties max and the cost can be $40 and up.  When you buy them bareroot online, they’re much cheaper and there are so many stunning varieties to choose from.  Peonies regardless are very expensive to buy–some bareroot varieties I saw were $60 and up.  Regardless of cost, they’re priceless as they can last 50+ years and have been known to outlive their owners.

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“Coral Charm” bareroot peony

To plant the peonies, the instructions said to dig a $100 hole–2 feet deep by 3 feet wide.  The bareroot it at most 10 inches wide, but the plant needs a lot of room and loose soil to spread out its root structure.  I didn’t go quite that deep and wide, I’d say I dug $50 holes.  After starting to dig, I found a lot of clay.  So I supplemented the soil with some Mushroom Compost and some Organic Bio-Tone Starter.  I basically dug out the soil from the ground and mixed in the compost (50/50 soil to compost mix) and added a handful of the Bio-Tone at the bottom of the hole.  After throwing in a few inches of that mix, I placed the bareroot peony on top, careful to make sure the buds pointed upwards towards the sky.  The direction of the big brown root doesn’t really matter.  The roots will find their way regardless.  I then layered the soil/compost mix on top–covering the plant by a maximum of 2 inches.

Bareroot peony, buds pointing up

Bareroot peony, buds pointing up

After a quick watering and label made, I stepped away with pride at my 4 peony plants (spaced about 18-24 inches apart.)  I’m so excited to see their beautiful blooms in a short 6 months or so!

Braised Short Ribs with Creamy Polenta

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Ahhh Fall.  Falling leaves, pumpkin-everything, hay rides, jackets, sweaters, the smell of a fireplace.  Fall means cozy to me.  What’s cozier than lovingly braised beef with creamy, warm polenta.

Short ribs are quite the thing now–they’re on menu after menu in restaurants.  They can be pricey, but if you have the time, they’re so easy to prepare.  I always look for thick, meaty short ribs–they can be quite fatty and be mostly bone, so be choosy when shopping.  I recommend a nice Whole Foods or even better, a local butcher.  Always trim excess fat off, but always leave some on.  I’ve made braised short ribs a few different ways, and ideally you would make them a day ahead of time and reheat the next day.  The reason being that short ribs give off a lot of greasy fat, so if left to sit in braising liquid overnight in the fridge, the fat rises and firms at the top–making it easy to scoop off the next day.  The braising liquid also has time to thicken up and get more and more flavorful.  That being said, I’m usually not patient enough and eat them the same night I make them and they still taste awesome.

When purchasing polenta, please try to get the good stuff–I love the extra fine white polenta made by Moretti.  It’s $6 online and it will last you a long time if you keep it well sealed.  I just used the last of a bag I bought a year ago.  When cooking polenta and serving softly as a side dish or underneath a protein–never follow the polenta to liquid ratio–I always do WAY more liquid.  I use about 1/4 cup of polenta to 2 1/2-3 cups of liquid to serve 4 people.  If you want to make polenta that you will cool, cut, and fry/bake later, then follow the instructions on the package.  In this particular preparation, I actually followed the brilliant method of making it in a slow cooker–amazing!  I think this may be my only way of making it from now on.

Polenta is one of my all-time favorites and I’m always surprised it’s not served more in restaurants.  The first time I had truly amazing polenta was at The Cookery in Dobbs Ferry, New York.  The grains were so smooth and the overall texture so milky and buttery, it was heavenly.   The polenta was served under a pork osso bucco with an apple/mustard relish.  They still serve that dish and I can easily say it’s in my top-5 best meals evah.  It’s that pork osso bucco dish that was my inspiration for this combination of braised short ribs with creamy polenta.  The rich beef on the bone paired with the tang in the braising liquid on top of the velvety polenta is a marriage of the senses.

Braised Short Ribs with Creamy Polenta

Serves 4-6

From Food52.com: Dan Barber’s Braised Short Ribs

Ingredients

  • 5 pounds beef short ribs, bone on
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper (I like a coarse grind)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 1 celery rib, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, skin left on
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate (comes in a jar; slightly thicker than ketchup) or paste (comes in a block)  NOTE: I substituted a mix of ketchup, lemon juice, and worcestershire for this and it turned out great.
  • 2 fresh (or dry) bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup Madeira NOTE: I didn’t have Madeira so I just increased the red wine to 1 1/2 cups
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 2 to 3 cups chicken broth

1. Heat the oven to 225 degrees. Season the short ribs with salt and pepper. Heat a large heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the oil, then the short ribs (add them in batches, if necessary) and brown on all sides. Transfer the ribs to a plate as they finish browning. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat.

2. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic to the pot, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the vegetables are soft and all the browned bits in the base of the pot have been loosened. Put the short ribs (and any juices that have collected on the plate) back in the pot.

3. Add the light brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, tamarind paste, and bay leaves. Pour in the Madeira and red wine. Add enough chicken broth to just cover the ribs. Bring the liquid to a boil, then cover the pot and transfer to the oven.

4. Braise the shortribs until they are very tender when pierced with a fork, about 4 hours (longer if the short ribs are big). Using a slotted spoon, transfer the shortribs to a plate. Let the cooking liquid settle; spoon off as much fat as possible (ideally, you’d do this over the course of two days and would, at this point, put the liquid in the fridge overnight and peel off the layer of fat in the morning). Set the pot on the stove over medium high heat. Bring the cooking liquid to a boil and reduce to a syrupy consistency.

5. Lay a short rib or two in each of 4 wide shallow bowls. Spoon over a little sauce. Serve proudly.

Creamy Polenta

Serves 4 (you may want to double recipe if you have leftover short ribs)

From FoodNetwork.com: Creamy Polenta

Ingredients

  • Vegetable cooking spray
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 1/3 cups half-and-half, divided  Note: I substituted with whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1/3 cup coarse polenta, or corn grits
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • Special Equipment: slow cooker

Directions

Spray the insert of a slow cooker with cooking spray (for easier clean up) and preheat on high.

In a medium saucepan, add the milk, 1 cup half-and-half, 1 tablespoon butter, and polenta. Season with salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly to keep the mixture lump-free. Boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Pour the mixture into the slow cooker and cook on high for 2 hours, stirring once or twice per hour. Once you are ready to serve, open the slow cooker and whisk in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, remaining 1/3 cup half-and-half, and Parmesan.

Recipe courtesy Melissa d’Arabian

Goat Cheese and Beet Plin with Tarragon

 

beet-and-goat-cheese-plinMy husband and I recently visited my family in Philadelphia and finally had the opportunity to visit one of Chef Marc Vetri’s restaurants, Osteria.  I have followed Vetri for a few years and own two of his cookbooks: Rustic Italian Food and Il Viaggio Di Vetri.  Everything always looks amazing in his cookbooks and on his menus.  I’m a pasta freak, especially fresh pasta, and I am actually embarrassed to admit how long it took us to finally visit one of his restaurants.  We were not disappointed.  From the bread to the salads to the pasta… the pastaaaaaa.  Glorious.  The most amazing part was that the best thing we ate at that meal was something we didn’t order–it was something that was comped to us (long story as to why.)  It was the beet and goat cheese plin with tarragon.

Paper-thin pasta sheets, creamy beet filling, sweet butter sauce, salty cheese all topped with tarragon–a spice I never would have thought of–all together, heaven.  “Plin” meaning a “pinch” are the teeniest agnolotti/ravioli you can imagine.  Each little plin became a battle for my husband and I to fight over.  As I always do after experiencing an incredible meal at a restaurant, I attempted to recreate the dish at home.

After a quick Google of the dish, I actually found the recipe on Oprah.com with this accompanying photo.  This recipe also appears in Rustic Italian Food (which is a good reminder for all of us to not forget about the cookbooks on our shelves for inspiration.)

Goat Cheese and Beet Plin with Tarragon

Serves 8
from Oprah.com

Ingredients

  • 1 pound pasta dough (see separate recipe: Handmade Pasta)
  • 1/3 cup fresh tarragon leaves, coarsely chopped, plus some whole leaves for garnish
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into 8 equal pieces
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • Freshly ground pepper (optional)

For the beet filling:

  • 1 large red beet (6 to 8 ounces), scrubbed
  • 1/4 cup fresh white goat cheese
  • 1 small egg, lightly beaten (2 1/2 Tbsp.)
  • 1 Tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Directions

For the filling: Preheat the oven to 425°F. Wrap the beet in heavy-duty aluminum foil, place in a shallow pan, and roast until fork-tender, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove and let cool enough to handle. Peel the beet, cut it into small chunks, and puree along with the goat cheese, egg, and Parmesan in a food processor or with a handheld immersion blender. Season with salt and pepper to taste and spoon the filling into a pastry bag or ziplock plastic bag with one corner cut to make a small piping hole.

Lay a pasta sheet on a lightly floured work surface, one long side parallel to the edge of the counter. Trim the short sides so the edges are straight. Cut the dough in half lengthwise, preferably with a fluted pasta cutting wheel, to make 2 long sheets. Lightly mist the dough with water.

Pipe teaspoon-size rounds of filling along the bottom half of each pasta sheet, right along the bottom edge, leaving 3/4 inch between the rounds. Pick up the dough beneath the filling on the long side of the pasta sheet and fold the pasta and the filling over, working your way down the pasta sheet so the entire bottom edge of the pasta and the filling is folded over once (see the photos on page 85). Repeat, folding the entire bottom edge of the pasta and the filling over once more. You should be left with one long strip of naked pasta above the folded part. Using both hands, gently pinch your fingertips and thumb together on the pasta between each round of filling to create a pillow of filling that stands a bit more upright. Use the pasta wheel or a knife to trim the entire length of excess pasta to within 1/2 inch of the pillows. Cut between each pillow to create individual pastas, being careful to leave an even, sealed edge on each side. Repeat with the remaining pasta dough and filling. Toss with a little flour and set aside. Makes about 48.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the plin, quickly return to a boil, and cook until tender yet firm, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain the pasta, reserving the pasta water.

Just before the pasta is done, ladle 1 cup pasta water into a large sauté pan. Add the chopped tarragon and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the butter, one piece at a time, whisking until melted before adding the next piece. Continue until the butter is incorporated and the sauce is creamy. Slide the drained plin into the warm sauce. Toss gently until the sauce is creamy, adding more pasta water as needed. Divide among warm pasta bowls and garnish with Parmesan and tarragon. Add a few grindings of black pepper if you like.

From Rustic Italian Food (Ten Speed Press) by Marc Vetri.

 

Upgrade your home for $12.99

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Ever notice that beautiful tall green plant that seems to appear everywhere in designer mags? From Houzz to Elle Decor to Lonny Mag, the lovely Fiddle Leaf Fig tree adds instant style to any room.  The best part is that you can add one to your home for only $12.99 care of Ikea.  With a sweet basket, careful pruning, watering, and patience, your fiddle leaf fig can be standing tall in a few years.  Sadly Ikea doesn’t ship this little beauty, so you have to go to an actual Ikea location or visit your local nursery.  You can order one from Amazon.com here.

Chicken Celery Scallion and Cilantro Dumplings

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Yummmmm… dumplings.  So comforting, so many flavors and textures.  Most Asian restaurants offer some sort of dumplings, some better than others, but I always feel that New York City has the best offerings.  From Dumpling Man in the East Village to Dim Sum A-Go Go in Chinatown, my mouth just dances from the salty, meaty, crispy goodness.  After reading issues of Lucky Peach and past issues of Bon Appetit, I finally got the bug to make my own.  The process was actually much easier than I thought (once I figured out how to get my dumping ‘crimps’ just right,) it just took some time and patience.  The essential way to get the crimp right is to make sure you don’t use too much filling.  In my case, I had to use pre-made wonton wrappers (trimmed to a circle shape with a biscuit cutter,) I used 1 tsp of filling for each.

I started with the filling–made it up mostly with what I had on hand.  I’d encourage you to experiment.  The key is that your ingredients are all really small and about the same size–any chunks of, say, celery, may rip open your wrapper.

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If your grocery store has round wrappers, awesome, use those.  Mine didn’t, so I bought the wonton wrappers (egg roll wrappers are too big,) and cut them in a circle shape using a biscuit cutter.  If you don’t have one, find a glass that has the right size opening and using a knife, cut the circle shape out.  Once the filling is in the middle, fold the wrapper over and seal with a little water (I basically just dipped my finger in some water to do this–don’t use too much, or your dough will get soggy.)  Next, the crimping–the art of the dumpling making.  I put my right hand index finger on the right side of the dumping and my thumb on the left side and slowly twisted my index finger down my thumb.  Since my dumplings were small, I managed 3 crimps to properly seal and make pretty.  Be patient here.  I’d say of the few dozen dumplings I made, I had to throw away about 5-6 (Mostly because I put too much filling in, used too much water, or filling ripped through.)

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To cook, I placed about a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan and seared one side.  I flipped them over, tossed a few tablespoons of water in the pan, quickly covered with a lid, and allowed the dumplings to steam and sear the other side.  Use your eyes here–once both sides are brown, they’re done.  Less than 10 minutes for both sides.  To serve, I put a small bowl of dipping sauce out (1/2 soy sauce, 1/2 rice wine vinegar, sugar to taste) plus Sriracha for spice.  Delish.  Overall, a great home victory.  I think they’d make an awesome Super Bowl appetizer.  Were they better than the frozen variety, like Trader Joe’s?  Yes.  Were they better than Dumpling Man, no.  But let’s face it… folks that make dumplings for a living will certainly be better at it than me (I’m not Bobby Flay…)

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Chicken Celery Scallion and Cilantro Dumplings

Makes 40 or so (depending on size of wrappers used)

Ingredients

1/2 pound chicken sausage

3 scallions, thinly sliced

1 inch peeled ginger, minced or grated on a Microplane

1 tsp sesame oil

1/2 tsp rice wine vinegar

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tbsp. minced fresh cilantro

1 stalk celery, diced small

1 package of dumpling wrappers (or wonton wrappers cut to circles)

Dipping sauce: soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sugar

Directions:

1.  Combine top 8 ingredients in a bowl and stir to combine.

2.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Follow dumpling making steps as outlined above and place on parchment–be careful that dumplings don’t touch each other (they’ll stick!)

3.  If not cooking right away, freeze dumplings on tray in freezer.  Once frozen, place in a tupperware and store until ready to cook.  You can cook them frozen the same way I outline in step #4, just be sure to give the dumplings a few more minutes to steam.

4.  To cook, heat a frying pan over medium heat and add 1 tbsp of vegetable oil to the pan.  Add dumplings, making sure dumplings don’t touch each other (my pan fit about 15 comfortably.)  Sear until browned.  Flip dumplings over, add about 2 tbsp. of water to the pan, cover with a tight fitted lid, and steam/sear for a few minutes (until browned and steamed through–the steaming cooks the filling.)

5.  Serve with dipping sauce.  I like 1/2 soy sauce, 1/2 rice wine vinegar, a dash of sugar, and some hot sauce.  You could grate some ginger in the sauce too.

Whole Wheat Bread

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Somehow I found myself with two 5-pound bags of whole wheat flour and not a speck of white flour in sight.  I went on the hunt for wheat bread recipes and sadly discovered most bread recipes contain a mixture of whole wheat and white flour.  Finally I found this super easy and quick recipe with only whole wheat flour and was delighted with the results.  After baked and thoroughly cooled uncovered at room temperature, the bread stayed moist stored in a large Ziploc bag on the counter (NOT in the fridge) and did not mold after a 4+ days (a rarity for homemade breads.) While you might be tempted to laugh at the exact baking time listed in the directions–don’t.  The bread baked perfectly.

Turns out that 100% wheat flour recipes can be more challenging as the bread can turn out very dense and almost bitter.  By adding lovely sweetness from molasses and honey, this bread did not turn out bitter at all–rather it tastes homey and healthy.  The sweet-level is just enough, but it’s extra glorious when topped with honey butter or butter with a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon.  I also used this bread to make egg-in-a-hole, and it was delicious.

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100% Whole Wheat Bread

Very slightly adapted from CopyKat Recipes

Makes 2 loaves.

Ingredients

  • 2 3/4 Cups of hot water
  • 1/3 Cup of Oil, Olive is fine
  • 1/3 Cup of honey
  • 2 tablespoons Molasses
  • 1 tablespoons Salt, Sea Salt is good
  • 7 1/2 cups of 100% Whole Wheat Flour
  • 2 packets of Dry Active Yeast

Instructions

1. Place the first five ingredients in a standing mixer with a dough hook and mix.

2. Add: 2 Cups 100% Whole Wheat Flour and 2 packets of Dry Active Yeast. Mix.

If your not sure about your yeast proof it in a little warm water with a sprinkle of sugar first.

3. Continue to slowly add flour 1/2 Cup at a time while mixing until the dough quits sticking to the sides of the bowl. It should be tacky to the touch. The trick is to have enough consistency to stand up with the least amount of flour so the bread will be fluffy. In any case do not exceed 7 1/2 total cups of wheat flour. Don’t over mix or the bread will be tough.

4. When your dough is finished, Cover the bowl and let it rise for about 30-45 minutes. The dough will be larger but it doesn’t need to double when using a heavy mixer.

5. Spray two bread pans with cooking spray.

6. Drop the dough on a floured surface so you can work the dough and shape it. Roll it in the flour and shape it in your hands to make a nice ball getting enough flour on it so it isn’t sticky. Divide the ball in half and do it again. Shape the loaves by turning the dough under it’s self over and over. When the dough is shaped right the sides and ends will be sealed and all you will see is a nice oblong shaped loaf with smooth sides and top. Drop the loaves in your bread pans and let them rise until almost doubled, about 2 hours.  Bake in a preheated oven at 350 for 36 minutes. If you forgot to preheat 41 minutes. (gas oven)

7. When done turn the bread out of the pan to a rack to cool. You can eat it right away (a great time for real butter) don’t wrap it until completely cooled. (Condensation will make it soggy) Put in tinfoil to store on the counter. If you put it in the refrigerator it will turn into a brick. Enjoy.

Grilled Zucchini + Lentil Quesadillas

When in the guts of Summer, when temperature highs are in the 90s (or 100s) and humidity is giving you a new hair-do, the real high points for me are AN OUTDOOR GRILL and OUTDOOR FARMERS MARKETS.  This week browsing the New York City Stuyvesant Farmers Market with my friend Sarah, the real stars were pit fruits (peaches, nectarines, plums,) tomatoes, and zucchini.  Nick and I stocked up on all of the above.  Inspired by the gorgeous yellow and green zucchini, I set out to make a vegetarian main course using this versatile vegetable.  Using what I had on hand (tortillas,) I decided to go for quesadillas.  For added protein and fiber, I added lentils.  The end result was so delicious.  You should see this recipe less as a “recipe” and more as a template.  You could easily substitute grilled eggplant or red/green peppers for the zucchini and your favorite cheese will work as long as it melts well.    An important tip: be SURE to cook your veggies first. If you don’t, they’ll put out too much liquid and give you a tortilla mop–and not a crisp Summery bite.

Grilled Zucchini + Lentil Quesadillas

Serves 6

Ingredients

4 zucchini, green or yellow or both

8 medium-size flour tortillas

1 medium red onion

½ pound fresh mozzarella, sliced as thinly as possible

1 cup cooked and cooled lentils

1 jalapeno pepper (optional)

salt + pepper

cooking spray

Directions

  1. Slice the zucchini in half horizontally.  Then slice the halves vertically as thin as you can (approx. ¼ inch thick.)  Spray both sides of the zucchini with cooking spray and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Slice the red onion in half, root to top.  Slice the root and top ends off and discard.  Peel the tough outer skin and discard.  Slice the red onion into 8 wedges, root to top ends.  Spray with cooking spray and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Slice jalapeno as thinly as possible and set aside (you will not be grilling the jalapeno.)
  2. Grill the zucchini and red onion on both sides, flipping once.  You can do this in an indoor cast-iron grill pan or on an outdoor grill.  Carefully watch your veggies so that they don’t slip through the grates!  If you like, you can cook them on an outdoor veggie pan.  Allow to cool.
  3. Place one tortilla on a cutting board or wide plate.  Arrange cooked zucchini slices to cover the tortilla in one layer.  Scatter a few cooked red onions on top.  Cover with a single layer of mozzarella cheese.  Spoon ¼ cooked lentils on top of the cheese and scatter a few fresh jalapeno slices.  Finally, top with second tortilla.  Continue with all remaining ingredients as explained until all ingredients are used up.  You will now have 4 quesadillas.
  4. Place quesadillas on a hot grill and CAREFULLY flip once.  (I like to place the one-side cooked quesadilla on a plate and cover with another plate.  Flip the plates over, with the quesadilla still inside.  You can then slowly slide the uncooked side of the quesadilla onto the hot grill.)  You’re looking for medium-dark brown grill marks and oozy cheese.  Let rest on a cutting board for a minute or two and then slice into wedges.  Serve with extra hot sauce or fresh chopped herbs.