Full-fat cheese is key to this healthful quesadilla

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Food & Dining

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At its heart, a quesadilla is 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 sure I could come up with a lighter version.

I quickly discovered that it doesn't take a ton of cheese to flavor and hold the fillings together 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 tasters said they didn't know there was any cheese in the dish. 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 moment when they were golden at the edges but still retained their crunch. I added mushrooms for depth of flavor and bulk. Any kind of mushroom would be welcome here, but I favor a mix of cremini and shiitake.

As a big fan of chiles, I had to toss in a jalapeño. But it's your choice whether to add the seeds and ribs, which make the dish much hotter. Given that dairy and chilies tend to balance each other, the cheese in this recipe will reduce 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, a pan usually used for making tortillas. If you use an 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.

This recipe would work well on a camping trip. Just chop the vegetables and grate the cheese ahead of time. But wherever and however you cook these beauties, don't forget the garnish.

If you throw together a quick coleslaw to serve on the side — dressing it with lime juice and a bit of vegetable oil — you can easily stretch this into a full meal.

Mushroom, Pepper and Onion Quesadillas

Start to finish: 30 minutes; Servings: 4

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 mixture of both)

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 1/2 cups assorted sliced mushrooms

1/2 fresh jalapeño, 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 oil. Add the onion, bell pepper and a pinch of salt, then sauté 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 sauté 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 jalapeño, cheese and a bit of salt and pepper. Mix well.

Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel. Coat it with cooking spray.

Put 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.

Per serving: 350 calories; 180 calories from fat (51 percent 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.