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May 15, 2013

Full-fat cheese the secret to this healthy quesadilla

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 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 counterbalance 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.

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