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 flavour — 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 flavour 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 flavour and bulk. Carnivores like to think of mushrooms as steak for vegetarians. Any kind of mushroom would be welcome here, but I favour a mix of cremini and shiitake.
Finally, as a big fan of chilies, 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 chilies 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.
MUSHROOM, PEPPER AND ONION QUESADILLAS
Start to finish: 30 minutes
1 firm ripe avocado, diced
1 tablespoon lime juice
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
4 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
1/2 cup chopped red or green bell pepper (or a mix)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 1/2 cups assorted sliced mushrooms
1/2 fresh jalapeno, finely chopped (seeds and ribs discarded, if desired)
2 ounces coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese
Four 8-inch flour tortillas, preferably whole wheat
Nonfat plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Heat the oven to 350 F.
In a small bowl, toss the diced avocado with the lime juice and a bit of salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a large, preferably cast-iron skillet over medium-high, heat 2 teaspoons of the oil. Add the onion, bell pepper and a pinch of salt, then saute until golden at the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.
Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of oil to the skillet along with the mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium and saute until the liquid the mushrooms give off has evaporated, about 7 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to the bowl with the onions and peppers. Add to it the jalapeno, cheese and a bit of salt and pepper. Mix well.
Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel. Coat it with cooking spray.
Set 2 of the tortillas flat on the counter. Divide the onion-pepper mixture between them, spreading it evenly over each. Press a second tortilla firmly over each.
Heat the skillet over medium. Add one quesadilla and toast until golden, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a baking sheet. Repeat with the second quesadilla, placing it on the baking sheet when toasted. Bake for 5 minutes, or until just heated through. Cut each quesadilla into quarters, then divide between 4 serving plates. Top each serving with avocado, yogurt and cilantro.
Nutrition information per serving: 350 calories; 180 calories from fat (51 per cent of total calories); 20 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 15 mg cholesterol; 32 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 12 g protein; 520 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."