A few Saturdays ago, wearing red lipstick and riding boots, I took a free Mexican cooking class with my old Nashville roommates, Sara and Sarah. We met in a bright, sunny space dubbed the grocery store’s “community room,” where the tall ceiling stretched as high as a church building’s and the kitchen featured two portable stoves. While Sara asked questions and Sarah sipped iced coffee with sunglasses perched atop her head, all three of us leaned forward from our third row seats to get closer looks as a man named Michael flashed through a handful of demonstrations, beginning with tortilla soup and ending with fried avocados on sticks.
Michael, who looked a little like a stoic Ron Howard, gave constant tips and tricks to our little, informal group of around 16 as he worked. He explained how to chop an onion (sort of like this), why he likes polenta as a soup thickener (the flavor), when to add spices (to oil, before liquid, as most are fat-soluble). When he completed a dish, we tasted—and, no one is more surprised than I am to say this, but the taste I liked best was the quesadillas.
So let’s add quesadillas to the long list of foods I didn’t grow up eating (along with avocados, raw tomatoes and all roasted vegetables, in case you’re keeping track). Before February, my quesadilla experiences were fewer than the fingers on one hand: 1) a cheesy, greasy appetizer I’d ordered once in college and 2) a sloppy, wet mess that had resulted from my attempt to make one at my parents’ house last Christmas.
The very week before our Saturday cooking class, however, something had changed. In an impromptu dinner one night, Tim had laid corn tortillas on a skillet, melting cheese and peppers between them, flipped the pair, browning both sides, and cut them into quarters. I’d liked the spicy, cheesy results so much, I’d ended up making myself quesadillas again and again for three days straight, sometimes as an afternoon snack, sometimes for lunch while Tim was at meetings.
So on the Saturday morning with my roommates when Michael the Cooking Coach browned his quesadillas of black beans and cheese and cilantro, when I tasted them and liked the results yet again, these were the key points I took away:
1. Don’t overstuff the tortillas! Both Tim and Michael filled their tortillas carefully, spooning thin layers of toppings rather than building hefty hills. Overfilling is rookie mistake #1, according to Michael, and the exact reason my Christmas quesadillas had gone south.
2. Only oil the pan if you need to! If you’re using packaged tortillas, look at the ingredients to see if there’s oil in the list. If so, don’t worry about oiling the pan to heat your quesadillas—they won’t need it. And on the other hand, if you use tortillas without oil, like we have, only oil the pan a little. You don’t want greasy, oily fingers when you eat a quesadilla; you want crisp edges and great flavor.
3. Veggie hash + spices + cheese = a good bet. I’ve seen various quesadilla filling formulas online, and, on Facebook, received mouthwatering suggestions like chicken pesto or curried chicken, both of which I’d love to try. But that said, trust me when I tell you, one bite into the spicy sweet potato version in this post, you’ll have a hard time wanting anything else again. Spicy and sweet, crispy and soft, these quesadillas remind me of the inside of a vegetarian Indian samosa and are especially nice topped with a yogurt sauce. Plus, as one more point for quesadillas everywhere, they are classic homemade fast food: pulled together, start to finish, in mere minutes flat.
Spicy Sweet Potato Quesadillas
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, which I don’t have but saw referenced several times online with versions of this recipe // as a sort of related side note, I did happen to find an original copy of The Moosewood Cookbook last night at our used bookstore and everything about it, from the hand-drawn illustrations to the real-food-focused recipes, blows me away.
Makes 12 little quesadilla triangles, which could serve 2 very hungry or 6 slightly snacky people
You may top these quesadillas with whatever you like, but we found something with yogurt works well to counteract the sweet potato spiciness; in our case, that meant mixing leftover parsley pesto with yogurt and it was excellent!
2 teaspoons coconut oil, divided*
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, grated or minced
1 cup peeled, grated sweet potato (from about 1 medium-to-large sweet potato)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or Italian spice blend
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
Generous shake of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper, to taste
6 of your favorite tortillas (we used sprouted grain)
A few slices (i.e., enough to cover 3 tortilla shells) of your favorite cheddar cheese
Heat about a teaspoon of coconut oil in a large skillet. Add onion and garlic and let cook until onion is translucent and fragrant, just barely beginning to brown. Add grated sweet potato and spices (oregano, chili powder, cumin, cayenne). Stir everything together; cover the pan; let mixture cook for ten minutes, lifting the lid to stir it once or twice. After 10 minutes, the sweet potato mixture will smell as spicy as a Mexican restaurant and resemble the look of shredded chicken. Remove it from the heat and salt and pepper to taste.
Put another skillet on the stove (cast iron works great here), put it on medium-low to medium heat and add about a teaspoon of coconut oil, just enough to lightly (!) coat the pan (*If the tortillas you’re using already have any oil in the ingredients list, you may skip the step of oiling the pan. The natural oils in the tortilla will be sufficient, and you don’t want greasy shells).
Lay one tortilla in the pan, and spread sweet potato mixture on top, spreading it out but leaving space around the edges. Lay enough cheddar cheese on top of the sweet potato mixture to create a second layer. Top with another tortilla and let cook. When cheese is melting and bottom tortilla is beginning to brown, flip the quesadilla with a spatula. Let cook long enough to brown the other side. Remove to plate and cut into fourths. Repeat process two more times with remaining ingredients.