Perhaps the most ironic detail about my lifelong vegetarianism, a fact that I have shockingly failed to admit, is that when I was three-years-old, my family and I moved to Hyde Park, New York, so my father could train as a chef du cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America. Yes, a lifelong vegetarian grew up with a father who not only trained to butcher and prepare every non-vegetarian item possible, but he, himself, was also a vegetarian. Actually, by today's need to classify every nuance of non-meat eating status, he was a pescatarian. And now, oddly enough, after living in Europe for the past 18 years, he eats meat. That's another story altogether, though.
I, myself, was also a pescatarian for a short stint. Until a chewy mussel that I ate at Legal Seafood in Boston sent me vomiting into the night. I didn't eat seafood again for twenty-five years. Even today, I can't handle much more than a crunchy beer battered fish and chip entree, with lots of tartar sauce, of course. The fish and chips are really just a vehicle for the condiments afterall. Have I mentioned that I have an affliction called condimentia?
In 1977, when I was five, my father graduated from the CIA and was offered a scholarship to a Hotel Restaurant Management program at Miami International University. And so it was that my parents and I moved to Coconut Grove, Miami, that Spanish became my second language, and that I attended an elementary where I was the white minority amongst my Cuban friends, Sylvia, Jesus, Mercedes, Angel, and Hector. My father worked twelve hour days as head chef at various restaurants, hotels, and country clubs in the Miami area. He prepared Superbowl breakfasts for the Cowboys and Steelers in the Superbowl in 1979 and cooked delicacies for The Eagles when their tour brought them to Miami a year later. After long hours on his feet fashioning filet mignon and adorning plates with mashed potato ribbons, he craved simple, yet satisfying food, which was not meat based. In those days, the last two criteria were mutually exclusive. No one thought that vegetarian food could be satisfying.
The answer? A little something my parents and I affectionately referred to as the Cheese Thing. What is a cheese thing, you ask? Simply put, the earliest versions consisted of a tortilla baked to delightful crispiness, topped with melted cheese, chopped tomatoes, and scallions, and then garnished with shredded iceberg lettuce and salsa.
Recently, I've been revisiting childhood favorites, such as the cheese thing and tabbouleh, for example, and had a little chat with my father to discuss these nostalgic noshes. He told me that he, too, still eats cheese things when hankering for a simple, flavorful fix. He also set me straight on the origin of the cheese thing, a birth that I was surprised to hear took place years before even I was born. In the late sixties and very early seventies, my father, still a young long-haired buck, like most hippies his age, traveled across the country and in and around the West Coast. My uncle Peter lived in Tucson, Arizona, at the time, so my father paid him a visit. In a state where the Mexican population and cultural influence was and is very high, it isn't a surprise that Peter was fashioning the Mexican inspired cheese thing left and right. Of course, this was at a time before every convenience store, specialty top, and grocery store chain, no matter the level of sophistication, offered ten dollar designer salsa choices in flavors ranging from raspberry chipotle, to green chile, black bean, and caramelized corn. In the early days, the cheese thing was simple: tortilla, cheese, tomato, scallion, lettuce, delicious. According to my father, as he and his brother continued to eat cheese things on a regular basis, they began to branch out, a foray that resulted in the eventual addition of a slathering of refried beans.
The cooking technique? At first, the boys would set their veggie laden tortillas under the broiler and pull them out as soon as the cheese melted. Eventually, however, they discovered that this technique left the tortilla itself soggy and (gasp) the rest of the vegetables undercooked. They then tried baking the cheese things in a toaster oven set to a high temperature. This crisped the bottom of the tortillas and cooked the other ingredients to perfection.
Eventually, after preparing cheese things for almost a decade, my father began to explore yet another technique. Note that I've adorned the method with some of my own editorializing, but where it is you shall never know. Heat a large skillet to medium-high. Lightly brush both sides of a tortilla with vegetable oil. Lay the tortilla in the skillet and pan roast until the bottom is golden brown. Flip over the tortilla, spread on a thin layer of beans, sprinkle on the cheese, tomatoes, and scallions, reduce the heat to moderate, cover for 5 to 10 minutes, allowing the cheese to melt and the veggies to heat up. Using a spatula, remove the cheese thing from the pan, garnish with iceberg lettuce and salsa, fold in half, and devour. The only drawback is that this method prevents the preparation of cheese things simultaneously. Today, when I make a cheese thing, I just throw on all of the ingredients except for the greens and salsa, toss it in an oven preheated to 425º, and bake for 5 to 10 minutes. Voila.
Looking back, the cheese thing was really nothing more sophisticated than an open-faced quesadilla, prepared in our humble kitchen at a time before every sports bar on Earth offered quesadillas as an appetizer garnished with a scoop of Ortega pico de gallo and a dollop of sour cream. However, for me, the cheese thing is something more. It is a reminder of the simplicity of childhood, of a time when my parents were young, happy, and playful. Eating a cheese thing on a warm, spring evening brings me back to my childhood in Coconut Grove, the smell of the orange trees sprouting their first blossoms, the sights of hibiscus blossoms unfurling their petals each morning and plantains hanging from trees, and the memory of my mother devouring a freshly-picked mango, the stringy pulp dripping down her chin as she deliriously savored the fruit's decadent sweetness. Cheese things remind me of unadulterated joy.
Now, how the hell do you make a cheese thing? It's really quite a simple process, but the main point is to get experimental with toppings and flavor combinations. Here are some hints:
Try a new kind of tortilla. These days, I've been avoiding the lard-based white flour tortilla, substituting them with Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas, a brand that is not only lowfat, but intensely flavorful. Tumaro's offers a variety of flavors, ranging from jalapeno-cilantro, to honey wheat, to chipotle-chile, to green onion. Not only do they work well as a cheese thing vehicle, but also work perfectly as a veggie wrap.
Bang around a few bean ideas. This week I've been gravitating toward refried beans, but I've also been known to cook up a pot of black beans flavored with garlic, cayenne, cumin, salt. Eat the beans with some rice and veggies or scoop 'em onto a tortilla.
Tempt your taste buds with different toppings. Here are a few of my favorite flavors:
• sauteed zucchini, chopped into bite-sized pieces
• sauteed baby bella mushrooms and onions or sauteed portobella caps, sliced into strips
• roasted red peppers
• pickled jalapenos
• nopalitos (picked cactus), chopped into bite-sized pieces
• tunafish (Dad's idea, not mine)
• fresh baby greens
• iceberg lettuce
• chopped fresh cilantro
• roasted garlic cloves
• salsa of your liking
Here's hoping that your cheese things offer you the same joyous nostalgia that mine do.