MEXICAN AND CARIBBEAN CUISINE IS “IN”
It can be hot, now it seems everyone thinks its cool! And, surprise, Mexican cheeses are mild–not hot and spicy. People familiar with South-of-the-Border foods know that Mexicans prefer their Jalapenos on their cheese, not in their cheese.
Today, we all know that Italian cuisine requires Italian cheeses. (Can you imagine grating American cheese over pasta?) The same is true for Hispanic cuisine. Mexican and Caribbean foods simply look and taste better when prepared with authentic Mexican and Caribbean cheeses.
Why? Because Hispanic cheeses are different from American or European cheeses. They look, cook, and taste different.
The most popular varieties of Hispanic cheese are fresh, white cheeses with names like “Queso Blanco”, “Panela”, “Queso Fresco”, “Queso Del Pais”, and “Queso Para Freir”. These cheeses all share similar make procedures and have similar eating and cooking characteristics. They were made by local artisans and had shelf-lives of less than one week. They were literally delivered to market wrapped in banana leaves and unsold pieces were returned after five days!
Fresh Hispanic cheeses are mild tasting and crumbly. They are often eaten as snacks with tropical fruits (this is the Latin version of our U.S. treat of eating aged cheddar cheese with pieces of fresh apple). Fresh Hispanic cheeses are most often used as an ingredient–either crumbled onto a salad or cooked as part of a hot dish.
This mild tasting cheese is the most popular cheese South of the Border–both for snacking and cooking. It is wonderful to cook with because unlike American-type cheeses, it will become soft and creamy when heated, but will not melt! With this cheese you can make cheesier stuffed chicken breasts, stuffed peppers, enchiladas and burritos! For a delicious, simple treat, cube the cheese and fry it on a hot skillet.
* Queso Blanco con FrutasTM --Pina y Mango-- The name of this cheese means "White Cheese with Fruit--Pineapple and Mango". This cheese is 25% lower in fat than common cheddar cheese because its loaded with fruit pieces. The cheese is a delightful sweet treat. You can cube the cheese and pan fry it for a delicious toasted appetizer since the cheese will become soft and creamy when heated but will not melt. Or, place the cubed cheese on a shish-ka-bob for a grilled delight since it won't melt off the skewer! How about a better cheeseburger?First, mix the crumbled cheese into ground meat then form into patties. Then grill or fry as usual. Your family will love these "cheese-in-the-burgers"! * Panela The most popular fresh cheeses in Mexico. This cheese is mild, white, and crumbly. Like Queso Blanco it will not run when heated--it will get soft and creamy but will not lose its shape. The cheese is used in Mexico for many cooked dishes and is commonly crumbled over salads, tacos, chili and burritos. * Queso Para Freir Very popular among people from the Caribbean. This cheese is used frequently for frying because it resists melting even more than Queso Blanco. In fact it is a variation of Queso Blanco that is similarly white and crumbly, but saltier. * Queso Fresco Very popular among many people of Mexican descent due to its fine-grained texture. It is often used to crumble over salads or put in refried beans.
The key to understanding “fresh” Hispanic cheeses is understanding that they do not melt. When heated these fresh cheeses become warm and soft but do not lose their shape or run. This characteristic is essential in many Hispanic dishes–and a requirement that no common cheese can meet. For instance many Hispanic dishes use cheese as a stuffing ingredient–Enchiladas and Chile Rellenos are popular examples. In such dishes the use of common cheese as an ingredient results in the cheese melting during cooking and running out. However, use of Queso Blanco for example, would allow the chef to present the diner with the cheese soft, warm and in the food, not running all over the plate. Thus, the chef is able to offer a truly superior end-dish by using Queso Blanco–an end-dish that looks and tastes better!
As another example, true Mexican refried beans have fresh cheese mixed into the dish during cooking–not merely shredded onto the surface as a garnish. The fresh, white cheese usually used (Panela) will not melt in the dish. Instead, the authentic refried beans dish offers the diner a delightful mixture of savory bean and refreshing cheese morsels.
Another example of the importance of using authentic cheese in Hispanic cooking is in Caribbean Fried Cheese recipes. These dishes, essentially require that the cheese be cut into large 1/2" to 1" cubes and thrown directly onto a hot frying pan. The cheese should get warm but not lose its shape. The cheese is usually served after it has browned on all sides–but has not melted. Clearly no common cheese can be used in such a recipe. Only a “fresh” Hispanic cheese such as Queso Para Freir will suffice for demanding preparation situations such as this. Increasing numbers of “American” restaurants are using this cheese as a replacement for breaded mozzarella sticks because of consumer comments and the fact that since it will not melt, it will not gum-up the operation of their deep fat frier if it is left unattended for too long. It is often served both plain as an appetizer and dipped in powdered sugar as a dessert.
The second major group of Hispanic cheeses are melting cheeses. These cheeses have names like “Queso Quesadilla”, “Asadero”, “Queso de Papa”, “Oaxaca”, and “Queso Para Derritier”. These Hispanic cheeses melt without seperating into solids and oil. Traditionally, these cheeses were made by heating raw milk and letting the milk “run”, that is letting the native bacteria multiply. The result was a modestly acidic cheese similar to our common muenster cheese but with obvious shelf life limitations. Today the most popular Hispanic melting cheeses with seven-month refrigerated shelf life due to strictly sanitary making procedures.
Hispanic melting cheeses are generally mild tasting (except Queso Jalapeno) and smooth textured. They are often eaten as a snack right out of the package. Usually, as their name suggests, they are melted in hot dishes. Hispanic melting cheeses, unlike common U.S. cheeses such as cheddar, do not seperate into oil and solids when they are heated. Consequently they make dishes like pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, and cheese burgers more “cheesy” and less greasy. Of course they are invaluable in preparing Mexican dishes such as quesadillas and tacos.
Use of Hispanic melting cheeses like Queso Quesadilla or Asadero in popular dishes like quesadillas or nachos greatly increases the finished dishes’ appeal. The diner is presented a plate with more cheese in the right place–on the tortilla or the chips–and less greasy oil all over the plate!
Queso Quesadilla This cheese is smooth, soft, mild and white. It is a family favorite throughout Mexico both for snacking and because it melts easily to make your favorite dishes rich and creamy. Melt on a tortilla for an easy, delicious quesadilla. Also great for cheesier grilled cheese sandwiches--plain or with ham or turkey. It's a wonderful topping for cheeseburgers. * Asadero A smooth, yellow cheese with more "tang" than the mild Queso Quesadilla cheese. This cheese is ideal for baking because its stronger flavor adds to the appeal of a baked dish. * Queso Jalapeno A smooth, soft cheese with bits of real Jalapeno pepper in it. Ideal for making quesadillas with a little extra zesty flavor or for anytime snacking. This cheese is a "hot and spicy" item. It was created it in response to U.S. demand for a "hot" product by simply adding jalapeno peppers to smooth Queso Quesadilla cheese. * Queso Media Luna This is a popular cheese in Puerto Rico where it is also called Queso de Papa. It is an orange, moist Colby-type cheese which is used for cooking and snacking.
The third major group of Hispanic cheeses are hard, grating-style cheeses. They have names like “Cotija”, “Seco”, “DuroBlando”, and “Anejo Enchilado”. They all have strong flavor and a dry crumbly texture. Traditionally, they were made by salting fresh cheese and leaving it outdoors to age in the heat for up to a year.
* Cotija Known as the "Parmesan of Mexico", this cheese is strongly flavored, firm, and perfect for grating. It is used in Hispanic cooking in a manner similar to the way Parmesan is used in Italian cooking. Cotija is commonly used to add a lively garnish to common dishes: simply sprinkle on top of refried beans, salads, chili or lasagna. In Mexico it is also widely used to enhance the flavor of many savory dishes by mixing directly into the casserole or recipe. In the U.S. it is increasingly popular on pasta. See for yourself how much zestier any pasta or even simple macaroni and cheese will taste with a sprinkle of Cotija! * Anejo Enchilado A firm, pressed cheese rolled in paprika. This cheese is not as strongly flavored as Cotija but can be easily shredded or grated. It is commonly used as a topping or stuffing for enchiladas, burritos, and tacos. * Duroblando A strongly flavored Caribbean cheese that is firm, and has a mild smoked flavor. It is used for grating in a manner similar to Cotija.