Spicy Sweet Potato Quesadillas: A Vegetarian Twist on A Classic

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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.

sweet potato quesadillas | foodloveswriting.com

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, 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.

Sweet Potato Quesadillas | FoodLovesWriting.com

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.

spicy sweet potato quesadillas | foodloveswriting.com

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.

Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home: Fast and Easy Recipes for Any Day – via Amazon

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.

Spicy Sweet Potato Quesadillas

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 arugula 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.

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About Shanna Mallon

Shanna Mallon is a freelance writer who holds an MA in writing from DePaul University. Her work has been featured in a variety of media outlets, including The Kitchn, Better Homes & Gardens, Taste of Home, Houzz.com, Foodista, Entrepreneur, and Ragan PR. In 2014, she co-authored The Einkorn Cookbook with her husband, Tim. Today, you can find her digging into food topics and celebrating the everyday grace of eating on her blog, Go Eat Your Bread with Joy. Shanna lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with Tim and their two small kids.

34 thoughts on “Spicy Sweet Potato Quesadillas: A Vegetarian Twist on A Classic”

  1. I also have only have had my own wet & soggy attempts at a quesadilla before but you won my heart when you said the inside was like a samosa. I’m so excited to try these – my boyfriend is away for the next few weeks so I’m pretty sure I’ll be making myself a quesadilla every night!

    • Girl after my own heart! I’m so thankful to know you in this blog community, Kathryn. Thanks for continually encouraging me with your comments here.

  2. I’ve been looking for something to do with the roasted red pepper tortillas I have stashed in my fridge. I think this recipe will be just perfect.

      • I served these for lunch yesterday along with homemade refried black beans and it was a smashing success of a meal! The quesadillas were absolutely delicious and were filling without being too heavy. Thanks so much for the tasty recipe!

    • Seriously, with the crispy exteriors and the sweet and spicy insides? So good. Even better with a yogurt sauce on the side. Hope you agree, Marie!

  3. These look delicious, Shanna! I have always been a big quesadilla fan, but the thought of one that is reminiscent of a samosa? I’m sold!

  4. That’s a good idea for filling! And yes they so sound like our Indian samosas..How funny that today I was thinking of making samosas for dinner!

  5. Shanna – polenta as a soup thickener? That just blew my mind – can’t wait to try it! These quesadillas look delicious as well. I think I definitely do over-fill mine, so that will be something to think about next time.

  6. I eat my fair share of quesadillas but had never had them filled with sweet potatoes. Will definitely give this a try if I manage to track down some sweet potatoes here (they are annoyingly rare in Italy).

    Love that you gave quesadillas another try despite bad experiences! It is such a quick and healthy dinner. My favourite combo is beetroot amd goat gouda, served with a quick pico de gallo and guacamole for dipping, delicious!

  7. Quesadillas are definitely not a huge food trend here in Australia, and especially not when I was growing up! As an adult I have only dabbled in them a little, and usually I give them a little Mediterranean twist and use feta, sundried tomatoes, and olives. But spicy sweet potato sounds like a perfect experiment to me 🙂 Thanks for sharing, I’m sure my darling will love these too! Mexican date night it is 🙂

    • I love hearing new ideas for what to put inside the quesadillas, Amy — thanks for the Mediterranean tip! Hope you enjoy these!

  8. I love this idea. We eat simple cheese quesadillas (whole wheat tortillas and shredded cheddar cheese, no additional oil or anything necessary) as a pretty regular quick lunch around here (so much easier than grilled cheese sandwiches, and both boys–and our dog, the sneaky rascal–LOVE them!). I’m always trying to find ways to make veggies more appealing for my younger son, and I wonder if putting some shredded sweet potatoes in the cheese might be a way to do that. I am positive I will like them, but I will keep my fingers crossed that my selective eater will too! I’m adding sprouted grain tortillas to the shopping list to make these a healthier option for me.

    By the way, I have found a key to making the texture nice is to heat the tortillas on both sides before I add the filling…just warm up the pan and then heat them until it warms through, you will be able to tell, it’s like it removes the excess moisture or something, helping to make it nicely crispy). Then flip, do the same on the other side, remove and do the same to the other tortilla. On the final side of the second tortilla, add filling and then put the first tortilla on top. Shredded cheese helps makes it melt faster, and it helps when the tortillas are warm. Can’t wait to try all this with your filling suggestion!

  9. The overstuffed quesadilla, who hasn´t been there. This is a different combination but the flavors sound so wonderful, I´m pinning it right now. Beautiful Shanna!

  10. Hi Shanna! I’m back already to tell you that I made these for lunch today, and they did not disappoint! Unfortunately, my boys still prefer a plain old cheese quesadilla, but I am certainly going to make myself this variety while I serve them the basics. I was thinking it would be good next time to mix in the shredded cheese with the sweet potato filling, so that it all gets gooey and sticky to the tortillas (one side was more cheesy than the other). And I de-glazed my pan with all the yummy spice remnants by sauteeing some kale in there to serve alongside the quesadillas. Delicious. Thanks so much for the recipe!

    • Thanks for the report back, Rachel! I loved looking through your post and hearing how things went. I’m so glad you enjoyed them! : )

  11. Love that this is adapted from a Moosewood recipe…I live just a few blocks away from the restaurant!

    And hear, hear, on the need for THIN layers of toppings. It is so tempting to pile them on, and I still do it sometimes even though I know better. Those quesadillas never stay together…

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