Imperial Valley Treasure - The Special Quesadilla

As I do every year in late winter, I just spend two weeks in Imperial County recently, more affectionately known as the Imperial Valley, for the Imperial Valley Fair. If you travel to Imperial County, late winter is mostly the time to go – you don’t want to go starting…soon. It’s just too darn hot!

Imperial Valley has a number of treasures:
 Blue Angels annual show (I got to watch them train in the skies above for two weeks, way cool!)
 The annual county Fair – a really community-based effort and regionally specific with lots of agriculture and Hispanic culture
 Driving the outer roads and seeing “agriculture” happen before your very eyes – sheep grazing in the fields, crops growing, crop dusting planes RIGHT above you and “the smell of money” (or manure) in the air
 80º days in early March
 Some great people I have met over the years
 Outstanding Mexican restaurants and the Special Quesadilla

Now when I visit Imperial Valley, I have two problems – how many times in two weeks can I eat Mexican food? And how many times in two weeks can I eat Mexican food? That may sound like the same question, but it’s not.

The first “how many times in two weeks can I eat Mexican food?” refers to can I make enough time to eat Mexican food as many times as I would like during my two weeks.

The second “how many times in two weeks can I eat Mexican food?’ refers to how many times can I consume tacos and enchiladas and special quesadillas and chips and refried beans and still fit in my clothes without regretting my choices.

So you see two entirely different questions.

One question that never comes up is “will this Mexican restaurant have special quesadillas?” I can find special quesadillas at any restaurant in the Valley.

What is a special quesadilla, you might ask? It is something that is so delicious and wonderful that I can hardly resist passing it up at ANY Mexican restaurant in the Valley.

I have never experienced a special quesadilla a la Imperial Valley at any other Mexican restaurant I have ever been to, and as a Southern California Girl, that is saying a lot!

The special quesadilla is a puffy, crispy, golden pocket of tender, warm, deep-fried goodness that is filled with melted cheese. You can order them with carne asada or pollo or carnitas, but I like the delicate cheese-only version.

The outside of the special quesadilla is not like a normal quesadilla, it’s as though it is made of pastry dough, stuffed with cheese and deep fried. Not just a normal flour tortilla that is pan fried with butter and cheese melted inside.

This concoction is so unique, that this year when I had lunch in Imperial Valley with a friend of mine from San Diego (he lives in San Diego, visits Imperial often and has traveled the world), I ordered the delectable special quesadilla and he was wide-eyed and astounded when it arrived – and hooked on the first bite.

The next time you travel through Imperial Valley (located between San Diego County and the Arizona boarder), stop at any Mexican Restaurant – I like Celia’s, El Zarapé, La Hacienda and a few others – and order a special quesadilla. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

By the way, my mouth is watering already, anticipating next year’s opportunity to savor a special quesadilla.


The Good Oven

I know it’s just an oven, but it is clearly a “big deal” at the Diner.

The new oven has officially been named “The Good Oven.” Named for its exemplary behavior and cooking ability. The Good Oven’s area has even been adorned with some “Diner” inspired décor. It’s just so good; it needed a little something extra.

Last night provided a few new tests – Italian dinner. I had a new type of pasta I am using Maestri Pastai from my new friend Pasta Bob. It’s beautiful and tasty pasta, not the normal store-bought stuff. Some red sauce, I finally found the store-brand (in caught-short-on-time) situations when I can’t make the every so delicious Art’s Special Sauce. I added Tarantino’s Sausage, from here in San Diego. And garlic bread.

The pasta water cooked on the new BIG burner for just that purpose, bringing a pot of water to a boil quickly. The sausage cooked in the oven evenly, and the sauce was just fine. Everything was going along just swimmingly.

Then the true test…Garlic Bread. HH asked if we were having any, I responded “yes.” He said, “Oh, the true test of the new oven.”

The new oven actually has two broiler settings – hi and lo! What to do! So I went with the hi – why not!? The garlic bread went in; I diligently watched the bread, hoping the timer, i.e., smoke detectors, would not go off. The browning took longer than in the old oven. I turned the pan around to make sure there would be even browning – I always had to do that before.

The garlic bread came out, brown, not black! I served it. I called HH to the table. He looked at the garlic bread and said, “What’s that?” “Garlic Bread,” I said quizzically. He said, “I don’t recognize it. You’ve never served me garlic bread that looks like that! It looks…like…garlic bread!”

Deliciously browned and toasty, not burned and black and unevenly cooked. And viola! The Good Oven.


Heater Meal

Have you ever had a Heater Meal? I hope not.

Heater Meals are distributed by the Red Cross in an emergency situation. That’s why I hope you have not had one.

I was given a Heater Meal in November when I had a meeting with the Red Cross. The meeting was about a display and possible competition they would do during this year’s San Diego County Fair. My contact, Holly, (funny, I rarely run into another Holly!) shared a Heater Meal with me and basically said, “Try it, you’ll like it!”

Holly told me about how it heats, that the heating element in the box can actually be taken out, manipulated and turned into a crude form of alcohol – maybe more information than I wanted, but interesting none-the-less.

Holly told me that everything, EVERYTHING, I needed to heat and eat the meal is in the box. She said there are a variety of different menu items available, and that if you are hungry, they are not so bad.

Holly asked me to try the Heater Meal and let her know what I thought. So I took it home, put it in my cupboard where I could see it, expected to eat it this night, then that afternoon, then next weekend. I just never got around to it, until a few weeks ago.

What an experience!

I took the pre-package meal out of the box, the bag of liquid, the utensils and the “plate” or tray to serve it on. I read the instructions, opened the bag of liquid – smelled it, tasted it – just water - and put it in the instructed meal bag.

Immediately the bag started smoking, I mean really smoking – and stinking! Others in the office I was in peaked around the corner to see what was happening. I touched the heating element in the Heater Meal, it was burning hot! I let it sit and “cook” and wondered what I was getting myself into. (I was glad I had brought something else for lunch that day!)

Finally, my Southwest-Style Chicken with Rice and Beans was cooked, right before my eyes with a little bag of water, and some other stuff. What was that other stuff? Hmmm…. But I promised I would try it, so I did. It is not the normal meal that I would be interested in eating, with all the “stuff” in it.

I mixed it around a bit on the tray, so it would look a little less processed, stuck my spork in and took a taste. It wasn’t too bad. My lunch certainly looked and sounded better, but given an emergency situation I can see where it would be a great opportunity for a hot meal. And the cooking process was by far the most fascinating part!

Not bad Holly thanks for sharing.


"My" Very Own Girl Scout

Last year, I shared the story of why Girl Scout Cookie time is so important to me. And about “my” very own Girl Scout, Miss Audrey Rose. Also, about the 2,000 mile trek the cookies make from Miss Audrey’s house to the Diner.

Again this year, “my” very own Girl Scout Miss Audrey gave me her best sales pitch and I bought ten (10) boxes of GS cookies – that’s down two (2) boxes from last year due to shipping costs. Once again Miss Audrey was amazed and excited about just how many boxes Auntie Holly bought. The excitement in Miss Audrey’s voice when she realized how many I was buying makes it all worth it!

And now the Diner is down to its last box of Girl Scout Cookies – Thin Mints. As exciting as ordering and receiving the cookies are, it is just as sad that the last box is almost gone.

It’s back to baking homemade chocolate chip cookies – in my new oven!


A New Oven

A new oven arrived this morning to the Diner! One that does what it’s told (I hope). One that doesn’t burn things. One that doesn’t cook unevenly. One that actually heats at 350º when told, not 500º because it wants to. One that doesn’t have a mind of its own.

Isn’t it beautiful! Isn’t it lovely!

Well, there are finger prints on it already from the install, so I’ll have to get some special cleaner for that. The fact that it oven has the potential to listen and do what it’s told is a wonderful thing!

By the way, I do apologize for the extreme length between posts; it’s just been very busy lately. I have a few stories to tell and hope to write those this weekend so there will be new posts soon. Hang in there! New delectable dishes are on the way!


The Quest - Part VII

Those of you who have been stopping by the Diner regularly, know about The Quest. For those of you who are newcomers to the Diner, here’s a quick review:

• January 2008 I began looking for Mastering the Art of French Cooking (MTAOFC) after reading Julie & Julia
• August 2009 I started writing about The Quest after finding a new version of MTAOFC at Costco – but a new copy was not the point, a seasoned copy was the point
September 2009 MTAOFC hit #1 on the New York Times best sellers list for the first time, 48 years after it was originally published
October 2009 I visited a used book store in The Village near the Diner, but no cookbooks what so ever
October 2009 I found an original copy of the New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and felt one step closer
December 2009 I finally watched Julie & Julia the movie, and received a whole bunch of cookbooks that were my great Aunt Mary’s for Christmas – there was a copy of New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne, but no MTAOFC
January 2010 I went to a bunch of thrift store book sales, bought about 50 cookbooks for a project I’m working on, but, again, no MTAOFC
February 2010 I received a wonderful present, my grandmother’s original cookbook, although still not MTAOFC

In the meantime, I have been searching yard sales, thrift stores, used book stores, checked MTAOFC out from the library, and perused the book at Barnes & Noble but refuse to purchase an “unseasoned” copy.

Recently, I was away on a business trip for the past two weeks, returning Sunday night (hence the lack of culinary delights at the Diner). I’ve been trying to get settled again and refocus. This morning everything came into focus…

I was making a cup of tea and just happened to look up on the shelf past my recipe binder, which I used last night to make Julia’s Potage Parmentier (Leek and Potato Soup). There was something different, something unusual, something that made me gasp and literally took my breath away! There, looking down on my between my magazine holder of Paula Deen and Food Network magazines, and my Food Lover’s Companion was a familiar, but unexpected, orange label with “French Cooking” stating out. If it had been any closer it would have bitten me!

There, on MY shelf, was Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck! It is seasoned, yet in great shape. I opened the front cover and below what looks like the original owners signature was this:

To My Wife Holly,
The owner and operator of Holly’s Diner. Hoping this treasure brings you and your guest(s) year after year of good food made with love…
I Love You…

My eyes are welling up as I read it again!

This MTAOFC is an original edition, published in 1961.

I can’t believe it! HH had it waiting for me since Sunday when I returned home and I just discovered it this morning! Boy, I have been in a daze for the past few days!

Apparently he decided I would never be able to find MTAOFC at a yard sale or thrift store, and certainly would not find it in my price range - cheap. So he took it upon himself to do a little research, enlist the help of a few friends (thank you Patty, Abby and Lisa!) and procured a copy for me.

So in MY kitchen/Diner, on MY shelf is MY copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (Actually, I think it's going to stay tucked under my arm today until I have the time to sit down and read it from cover to cover.)

Now we all know he is my Handsome Husband, but this confirms the other thing I have known all along, he is the PERFECT Handsome Husband for me.

Thank you HH, I love you so very much, I can’t wait to get cookin’!

The Quest, finally, comes to a very happy ending.