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Mild and white, here come Mexico's rancho-style cheeses.

Country-style cheeses, or quesos, with the character of those traditionally made on Mexican ranchos are making their way into Western supermarkets, alongside jack, cheddar, and other favorites. Produced primarily in California and long available in areas with large Hispanic populations, the nine kinds of white cheese described here are growing in popularity because their mild flavor makes them easy to like. The makers of Mexican cheeses also often produce two kinds of cultured creams, sweet or lightly tart. The labels don't always tell you all you want to know, so here we introduce you to Mexican-style cheeses and creams, and tell how to identify and use them.

Two basic types: fresh and cooked Both start when pasteurized cow's milk (whole, part-skim, or all skim) is clotted with a coagulant to form curds, then stirred. (Often in Mexico, but rarely here, goat's milk is used, producing a sharper-flavored cheese.)

Fresh cheeses. The simplest kind is made of drained curds and is much like pressed cottage cheese. To make other fresh cheeses, the drained curds are ground and molded, and sometimes aged. The amount of salt used varies with the cheese and the taste of the manufacturer. These high-moisture cheeses have a clean, fresh taste and smell much like cottage or farmer's cheese; they spoil just as quickly. They feel squeaky when you bite into them.

These cheeses usually aren't aged more than a few days; they must be refrigerated. (Main exception is cotija, but it also keeps best if refrigerated.) Spoilage is indicated by sour odor and flavor, accumulation of liquid or gas in packaged cheeses, and yellow to orange discoloration.

When heated, fresh cheeses hold their shape and retain their texture; overcooked, they get rubbery.

Cooked cheeses. In making these, the drained, salted curd is heated and stirred. According to how the melted curd is handled and shaped and how long the cheese is aged, each kind acquires its particular appearance, texture, and taste.

Cooked cheeses last longer than fresh ones by at least two weeks; they are most similar in flavor and texture to jack, mozzarella, or string cheeses. They should smell and taste fresh, and should always be stored in the refrigerator. A sour odor or taste is an indication of spoilage. If surface mold develops on opened cheeses, you can trim it off. Cooked cheeses soften and melt when heated in cooking.

Generally, Mexican-style cheeses, fresh or cooked, come packed in plastic wrap. Some are whole cheeses; others are pieces cut from larger wheels or bricks.

The fresh cheeses and how they behave Several are known by more than one name; we give the commonest one first. Keep in mind that these cheeses are less standardized in look and taste than domesetic and European-style cheeses. We list them from simplest to most complex.

Panela. Clotted curds are scooped into baskets and drained briefly. The cheese has a slightly coarse texture and cottage cheese flavor.

Cut into cubes, crumble, or shred coarsely and add to salads, tacos, or tostadas. When broiled, panela weeps water.

Queso fresco or fresh cheese (also called ranchero, estilo casero, and quesito) is the most widely distributed Mexican-style cheese. Like panela, it starts with drained curds. The curds are ground, kneaded, and pressed into round molds. Texture is a bit like farmer's cheese.

Slice and eat like panela. Crumble to use in burritos, enchiladas, tacos, or chilies rellenos; sprinkle onto hot beans or salads.

Queso fresco gets rubbery when broiled.

Cuajada means curd. Like queso fresco, the curds are ground, but more finely. The resulting cheese has a finer, more tender texture and is moister.

Slice to eat, or sprinkle with grated orange peel or an herb mix such as Mexican seasonings or an Italian blend.

Crumble and use as suggested for queso fresco. Cuajada toughens and gets dry when broiled.

Queso crema (not pictured) means cream cheese but it is made like cuajada with more cream added. It's sold by the piece from a block.

Use it as you would cuajada.

Adobera takes its name from its shape--like an adobe brick: the curd is pressed and drained in a rectangular mold.

Slice and eat like jack cheese.

Broiled just until hot, adobera stays soft.

Enchilado. Shaped in round or rectangular molds, this cheese is similar to queso fresco, but is pressed firmer and dried more. The outside is often rubbed with annato, a neutral-tasting bright orange seasoning used in Yucatecan cookery. Some manufacturers age this cheese, and it becomes harder and more crumbly.

Use as suggested for queso fresco.

Cotija, also called queso seco (dry cheese) or queso anejo (aged cheese), dries as it ages at least three months, growing sharper in flavor and smell. The curd is firm and inclined to crumble. Because of its low moisture content, cotija lasts at least six months.

It's Mexico answer to parmesan; however, cotija's flavor is not as rounded or complex as its Italian counterpart. If the cheese is firm enough, grate it; otherwise, crumble and use like parmesan.

The cooked cheeses: Mexican cousins of longhorn cheddar and mozzarella As with the fresh cheeses, the cooked cheeses show much variation in style from one brand to the next.

Chihuahua is named for the Mexican state where it originated. It is also called queso menonita: Mennonite settlers are credited with creating it while trying to make cheddar cheese. The results, still emulated, range from creamy like munster to firm like a longhorn cheddar, with a taste much like the latter and the same uses for snacking or cooking.

A similar cheese called duro blandito is made in limited quantities. This cheese melts nicely and is a favorite for quesadillars or in chilies rellenos. Try it diced and added to hot soup. The melted cheese tends to get stretchy and stringy.

Asadero takes its name from the fact it heats or roasts well. When the cooked cheese is stretched and rolled into balls (also called queos Oaxaca in this form), it acts much like string cheese, pulling apart in long strands. At least one manufacturer makes flat rounds by flattening balls of cheese like a tortilla. More commonly, it is shaped into a long log and sold sliced.

Compared to mozzarella, asadero is more buttery and sometimes tangier. When heated, asadero metls well but will get stringy. It's best at room temperature or heated. Use as suggested for chihuahua.

Many manufacturers also make jack cheeses which they flavor, as with jalapeno chilies, and sell as queso jalapeno or other appropriate names.

The creams: two types, many styles

Crema is sweet cream, jocoque is sour cream. Both kinds vary in style--from creams that are lightly salted, naturally thick, rich, and a bit tart (like the French creme fraiche) to ones that are thickened with an additive and to others that are creamy but thin. Only by tasting will you know the difference. Most are sold in jars and priced like sour cream.

Jocoque tastes a little like sour cream, a little like farmer's cheese. It's usually thinner than regular sour cream and is sold in plastic tubs.

Both crema and jocoque are good with fruit and a little sugar or honey. They are favorite toppings for Mexican dishes like enchiladas, chilies rellenos, soups, and many other dishes. Use as you would sour cream or creme fraiche.

Cheese makers' favorites Here are some quick, authentic ways to make use of Mexican-style cheeses, as suggested by their producers. Fried cheese, or queso frito, is simply fresh cheese browned lightly in a frying pan to eat as an appetizer or in tortillas. Chili con queso is the popular Mexican version of cheese fondue. Quesadillas are toasted tortillas filled with melted cheese. The stuffed chilies are a fresh version of chilies rellenos. The pasta dish, with crema and cheese, is a main dish or appetizer.

Fried Cheese Cut fresh cheese (panela, queso fresco, cuajada, queso crema, adobera, enchilado, or cotija) into 3/4-inch-thick slices. Choose a frying pan in which the slices will fit slightly apart. Place pan over medium heat and lightly coat with salad oil.

Add cheese to pan and cook until browned on one side, about 1 minute; turn with a spatula and cook until bottom side is browned, about 1 minute.

Serve as an appetizer with fresh or bottled salsa, and/or with pan-fried onions; or wrap each portion in a warm corn tortilla.

Chili con Queso In a 3- to 4-cup pan or heatproof dish on medium heat, combined 2 tablespoons salad oil and 1 medium-size onion, chopped; stir often until onion is limp, about 7 minutes. Add 1 small can (4 oz.) diced green chilies and 1/3 cup whipping cream. Cook, stirring, until hot. Turn heat to low and add 1 cup (4 oz.) shredded chihuahua, queso asadero, or longhorn cheddar cheese; stir until cheese is melted.

Keep warm over a candle or on an electric warming tray, and scoop onto crisp tortilla chips to eat. Makes about 2 cups, or 6 to 8 appetizer servings.

Quesadillas To make each quesadilla, lay 1 flour tortilla (about 7-in. size) in a 10- to 12-inch frying pan on medium-high heat; if desired, rub the warm pan lightly with butter before adding tortilla.

Cover tortilla with thin slices of asadero or jack cheese and sprinkle with crumbled cotija or grated parmesan cheese. Top with a few slivers of green onion and a little chopped hot fresh or canned chili, such as jalapeno. When tortilla is warm but still soft and flexible, fold in half and contineu cooking, turning often, until cheese is completely melted and tortilla is lightly browned. Allow 1 or 2 for a light entree or snack.

Chilies with Corn and Two Cheeses Slit 12 fresh Anaheim or California chilies (about 1-1/2 lb. total) lengthwise. Pull out seeds and discard; rinse chilies.

In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter or margarine over high heat; add 1 large onion, finely chopped. Stri until onion is limp. Add 3-1/2 cups fresh or frozen and thawed corn kernels (from 6 ears, or 2 packages, 10-oz. size) and stir until corn is hot.

Remove from heat and stri in 1 cup (5 oz.) crumbled or grated cotija or parmesan cheese and, if desired, 1/3 cup crema, jocoque, or sour cream. Fill chilies equally with this mixture and arrange cut side up, side by side, in a 10- by 15-inch pan. Cut 12 pieces (about 12 oz. total) asadero, chihuahua, or longhorn cheddar cheese in strips about 1/2 by 1 by 3 inches. Stuff one strip into each chili.

Bake, uncovered, in a 400 [deg.] oven until chilies are soft and tinged with brown, about 25 minutes. If desired, offer an additional 1 cup crema, jocoque, or sour cream to spoon onto hot chilies. Serves 6 as an entree 12 as a first course.

Pasta de Marquez In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan on medium heat, cook 1/4 cup chopped onion, 1 small clove garlic (minced or pressed), and 1 bay leaf in 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, stirring often until onion is limp, about 7 minutes.

Core 2 medium-size tomatoes; coarsely chop tomatoes and add with juices to onions. Boil on high heat until tomatoes are very soft, stirring, about 5 minutes. Blend in 3/4 cup crema or whipping cream. Spoon sauce onto 3 cups hot cooked spaghetti; sprinkle with 1/4 cup crumbled cotija, finely chopped queso fresco, or other fresh cheese. Lift with 2 forks to blend. Garnish with fresh parsley sprigs and tomato slices. Makes 2 main-dish servings, 3 or 4 first-course servings.--Angeles Samoyoa, San Jose, Calif.

Who makes these cheeses? If you need to find a local source for Mexican-style cheeses, these manufacturers will be able to help you: Acosta Cheese Plant, Route 2, Box 265, Deming, N.M. 88030; (505) 546-7054. Ariza Cheese Co., 7216 Alondra Blvd., Paramount, Calif. 90723; (213) 630-4144. Bobadilla Meat Market, 5080 Mission St., San Francisco 94112; (415) 239-4128. Cacique Cheese Co., Box 729, City of Industry, Calif. 91747; (818) 961-3399. The Cheese Factory, 830 Main St., Pleasanton, Calif. 94566; (415) 846-2577. Cotija Cheese Co., 2838 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles 90023; (213) 264-6701. Cypress Grove Chevre, 4600 Dows Prairie Rd., McKinleyville, Calif. 95521; (707) 839-3168. El Paso Cheese, Box 26481, El Paso, Tex. 79926; (915) 778-9486. Jalisco Mexican Products, 17227 Jersey Ave., Artesia, Calif. 90701; (213) 865-1769. Lagunas Cheese, 2939 34th St., Sacramento 95817; (916) 456-9459. Marquez Brothers Mexican Imports, 190 Martha St., #1, San Jose, Calif. 95112; (408) 297-9977.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Jun 1, 1985
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