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It's now the all-American quesadilla

Published Jan. 18, 2006

(ran TTS, TNS editions)

The humble quesadilla is America's new grilled cheese sandwich, and then some.

"Kids love grilled cheese sandwiches," says Roberto Quinones, executive director of the Tortilla Industry Association in McLean, Va. Quesadillas - tortillas filled with cheese and placed on a hot griddle just until the cheese melts - "put a new spin on grilled cheese," he says.

Typically, Americans are not about to stop there. Quesadillas might have gotten their start in Mexico, where they traditionally contained little more than quesillo de Oaxaca, a tangy cheese.

But Americans have embellished their quesadillas, stuffing them with grilled chicken or barbecued beef. And the tortillas now are likely to be made with spinach or sun-dried tomatoes.

Eugene Suarez Jr., who with his father owns Abuelita Mexican Foods in Manassas, Va., attributes the quadrupling of their business over two years to the Americanization of tortillas.

"Tortilla-based foods are not considered Mexican anymore," he says. "They've become mainstream."

Tortillas, of course, are used for more than quesadillas - wraps for sandwiches, for instance. Tortilla sales nationally have climbed an average of 8 percent annually for the past 10 years.

Quesadillas are easy to make, inexpensive and eminently adaptable. They also make great hiding places for mothers looking to slip some vegetables and protein into their kids' diets, Quinones says. "And you don't have to cut the crusts off."Potato QuesadillasFor the quesadillas:1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil1 small white onion, thinly sliced1 large russet potato, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes1 cup fat-free, reduced-sodium chicken brothSaltFreshly ground black pepperEight 8-inch fat-free tortillasFor the garnishes (optional):1 cup low-fat sour cream1 tomato, seeded and chopped2 fresh or pickled jalapeno chili peppers, thinly sliced1 small white onion, thinly sliced For the quesadillas: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat 2 nonstick rimmed baking sheets with nonstick spray oil.

In a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, for about 6 minutes or until golden brown. Add the potato and cook for 1 minute.

Stir in the stock or broth and cook for 8 to 12 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft and the liquid has been absorbed. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Arrange 4 of the tortillas on the baking sheets. Divide the potato mixture among the tortillas and spread evenly. Top each with 1 of the remaining tortillas. Lightly coat the tops with nonstick spray oil. Bake for 5 minutes, turn over and bake another 5 minutes, or until lightly browned and heated through.

Cut each quesadilla into 8 wedges.

For the garnishes: Arrange the sour cream, tomato, jalapeno chili peppers and onion in separate serving bowls, if using. Serve with the quesadillas and pass at the table.

Nutrition information per serving (based on 4): 286 calories, 11g protein, 63g carbohydrates, 4g fat, 6mg cholesterol, 1g saturated fat, 631mg sodium, 17g dietary fiber.

Makes 4 quesadillas.Chicken QuesadillasWith Roasted Red Peppers and Spinach4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 4 ounces each)2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil2 to 3 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper12 ounces fresh spinach (about 4 1/2 cups), firm stems removedEight 8- to 10-inch flour tortillas3 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese (about 12 ounces)2 cups chopped, roasted red bell peppers (2 to 3 peppers), stemmed, seeded and diced (see note) 1/2 cup chopped scallions, white and tender green parts1 cup Mango Salsa (recipe follows) Brush both sides of each chicken breast half with the oil and coat with the pepper, patting lightly so it sticks.

Place a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook for about 5 minutes per side or until golden.

Set aside to cool before shredding into bite-size pieces.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the spinach and blanch it for 1 1/2 minutes. Drain through a colander and rinse with cold water. Using your hands, squeeze as much moisture out as you can. Chop coarsely and set aside.

Place 4 of the tortillas on a work surface.

Using half of the cheese, scatter it evenly on each of the tortillas. Layer the shredded chicken on the cheese, followed by the peppers, spinach and scallions. Top with the remaining cheese. Place a tortilla on each one and press down lightly.

In a large pan, griddle or grill pan over medium heat, cook each quesadilla for 2 to 3 minutes per side or until it lightly browns and the cheese melts. Cut into 6 to 8 wedges. Serve with Mango Salsa.

Note: To roast a bell pepper, place it on a piece of aluminum foil positioned about 4 inches from the broiler element. Turn every few minutes until the skin is charred on all sides. Place the charred pepper in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it sit for 15 minutes. Remove the charred skin; it will slip off.

Nutrition information per serving (based on 6): 486 calories, 37g protein, 25g carbohydrates, 26g fat, 94mg cholesterol, 13g saturated fat, 693mg sodium, 7g dietary fiber.

Makes 4 quesadillas; 4 to 6 servings.Source: Adapted from "Quesadillas," by Steven and Katherine Ramsland (Prima, 1997).Mango Salsa1 large mango, peeled, seeded and diced1 jalapeno chili pepper, roasted, peeled, seeds and stem removed, and minced (see note)Juice from 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)1 tablespoon minced cilantro1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oilSea saltFreshly ground black pepperCrushed cardamom seeds In a medium bowl, gently toss the mango, jalapeno chili pepper, lime juice, cilantro and oil. Add a pinch each of the salt, pepper and cardamom and stir to combine.

Note: To roast a jalapeno chili pepper, follow same procedures as for a bell pepper (see previous recipe).

Nutrition information per serving: 17 calories, 0g protein, 2g carbohydrates, 1g fat, 0mg cholesterol, 0g saturated fat, 15mg sodium, 0g dietary fiber.

Makes 1 cup.