In this April 29, 2013 photo, mushroom, pepper and onion quesadillas are shown in Concord, N.H. Full-fat cheese is the secret to a flavorful recipe. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead) ORG XMIT: NYLS668
Updated: May 15, 2013 1:35PM
At heart, a quesadilla is pretty much a Mexican grilled cheese. Take a tortilla, stuff it with something savory, add some cheese, fold it in half and toast it. It’s also pretty delicious.
I love any dish that includes melted cheese, and it’s that much better when Mexican ingredients are added to the mix. But as much as I enjoy the standard recipe for this widely loved treat, I was pretty sure I could dream up a lighter version.
I quickly discovered that it doesn’t take a ton of cheese to flavor — and glue together — the fillings of a quesadilla. as long as you use full-fat cheese. I tried using 4 ounces of reduced-fat cheese, but I found the flavor to be so weak that my tasters didn’t know there was any cheese in the recipe. A second attempt using 2 ounces of full-fat sharp Cheddar was an immediate hit.
The rest of the filling is vegetables. I started by quickly cooking bell peppers and onions over medium-high heat until that magic moment when they were golden at the edges but still retained their crunch. I added mushrooms for two reasons — depth of flavor and bulk. Carnivores like to think of mushrooms as steak for vegetarians. Any kind of mushroom would be welcome here, but I favor a mix of cremini and shiitake.
Finally, as a big fan of chiles, I had to toss in a jalapeno. But it’s your choice whether to add the seeds and ribs, which make the dish much hotter. Of course, given that dairy and chiles tend to counter-balance each other, the cheese in this recipe will tamp down some of the heat.
A cast-iron skillet is the perfect pan in which to cook this recipe or, if you happen to own one, a Mexican comal, the pan usually used for making tortillas. If you use your iron skillet often and care for it with love, it becomes almost stick-resistant, which means you won’t need much oil to cook the quesadillas. You also can grill the assembled quesadillas over low heat for a few minutes on each side to impart a lovely smokiness.
These quesadillas also would work well on a camping trip. Just chop all the vegetables and grate the cheese ahead of time and, since there is no oven for keeping them warm, you can cook them and cut them up to share as they are done. Finally, wherever and however you cook these beauties, don’t forget the avocado, yogurt and cilantro garnish, an important part of the finished product.
And if you throw together a quick coleslaw to serve on the side — dressing it with lime juice and a tiny bit of vegetable oil — you can easily stretch this into a full meal.