Cooking Like A Mexican

Cheese in Mexico: Papas Poblanas
BY: ALEJANDRA SARACHAGA

Mexico, as any other part of the world, has its own cheeses that have been developed over time after we learned from the Spaniards to breed animals that give milk and use it as part of our diet. Mexico had no such animals until the Spaniards and other visitors, (actually, invaders!) from Europe brought them.

When you think of some of Mexico’s most iconic dishes—tacos, enchiladas, frijoles—chances are, there’s cheese involved. Crumbled, grated, sliced, and melted, the cheeses in Mexican dishes contribute salty, tangy flavors and offset some of the heat from chiles and spices. But when it comes to identifying some of Mexico’s traditional cheeses (and other dairy products —namely, the ones you encounter in Mexican restaurants and cookbooks—you’re probably stuck at queso fresco and Cotija. Or perhaps your idea of Mexican cheese is the white and orange shredded cheese mix found in your grocery’s dairy section.

cheese.jpgI would like to clarify three of the most common mistakes that have been spread around by people who tried to substitute some of these cheeses in their own recipes. For example, queso blanco is not a type of Mexican cheese. It’s a general term for white cheese, used primarily in Central and South American recipes. Queso añejo is not an aged version of queso fresco; it is its own kind of cheese, totally different in texture, moisture, and shape. Queso quesadilla does not exist in Mexico, and queso jalapeño is just a variation of any cheese mixed with jalapeños. Monterrey Jack with jalapeño is a good example of this.

Mexico’s cheese tradition has relied almost exclusively on using cow’s milk, but also goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses can be found in Mexico. They are very popular, especially in villages around the mainland, and also here in the peninsula, particularly the ranchos on the way to La Paz. You will see a lot of signs on the highway entering La Paz saying, “Se vende Queso Fresco.”  We sell fresh cheese.

There are seven traditional Mexican cheeses that are great for cooking, as well as two other dairy products. Along with their key characteristics, here we will mention in some cases workable substitutes for each cheese, which both suggests their flavor profiles and offers an alternative solution if you can’t find a particular cheese. Of course, the best way to enjoy these cheeses is to cook with them.

The Añejo cheese is dry and salty; this cheese is generally sold pre-grated. Sprinkle on enchiladas, antojitos (Mexican style snacks), and refried beans. You can use the Romano type instead.

Asadero cheese is mild tasting with a pleasant acidity. This fresh cheese is slightly chewy, yet tender. Because it melts wonderfully, use it to top a bowl of chile con queso, or as stuffing for chile rellenos. Provolone might be an option instead, but not the greatest.

Then we have the Chihuahua cheese. Named after the Mexican state from which it originates, this cheese is also sometimes referred to as queso menonita, for the Mennonite farmers who first made this cheese. When fresh, it resembles mild cheddar in taste and texture. As it ages, its flavor becomes tangy. You can grate it to top dishes, or stuff it into chile rellenos (rellenos just means stuffed), or tamales. It is very similar to the Monterey Jack, or mild cheddar.

Cotija cheese is also used in many Mexican recipes. This strong-flavored cheese is sold aged, making it a bit dry, salty, and almost granular in texture. Often served crumbled, Cotija doesn’t melt so much as soften. If you are desperate you can use Parmesan cheese.

Now, Queso fresco means fresh cheese. It’s a salty cheese that’s usually enjoyed crumbled, but can also be sliced or melted. Use it on refried beans, enchiladas, or stuffed in chilies. The Ricotta salata, or French feta (milder and less salty than the Greek and Bulgarian varieties) might work.

One of my favorites is the queso de Oaxaca also known as the “mozzarella of Mexico” (sold as quesillo in Oaxaca). Queso de Oaxaca is a ball of cheese created by rolling up broad skeins of cheese, and its texture resembles that of string cheese. Shredded, it can top refried beans, tostadas, and soups. Sliced, it melts wonderfully for quesadillas. If you really have to substitute this one use string cheese, mozzarella, or domestic muenster.

And for last, the friendly queso panela. This one is molded in a basket, a fresh cheese sometimes sold as queso de canasta (canasta meaning basket). The unusual shape and textured exterior help distinguish this cheese—which is best enjoyed while still moist and fresh—from its counterparts. And I said, friendly because it has flavor but few calories, so it’s my savior when I am on a diet and I need to munch something.

There are other Mexican dairy products that I will mention here, now that we are on this topic, like the requesón, which is soft, creamy, and mild tasting. This ricotta is a by-product of cheese making. To produce the ricotta, the whey, with its residual small pieces of curd, is heated. The curds then form a layer on the surface that is skimmed off and strained. It is perfect for stuffing chiles.

In Mexico, real crema is a naturally soured cream similar to authentic French crème fraîche. (Note that many of the versions available in the U.S. are commercially cultured products.) Drizzled or dolloped over dishes, crema adds a rich, tangy bite.

If you are not in Mexico, don’t worry; there is no need to come down here to find them. These days, cheeses made in Mexico—as well as domestic products made in the Mexican style—can be found much closer to your hometown. In cities with a large Mexican heritage community, look for the cheeses in ethnic food marts or grocery stores. Some gourmet shops may also carry these cheeses.

Even though the most common use for cheese in Mexico are the famous quesadillas and some types of enchiladas, there are many other delicious recipes that include cheese like the one we present today, papas poblanas.

 

INGREDIENTS:

1 1/2 pounds fresh poblano chiles (about 5)

1 pound onions, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch strips

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 pounds large potatoes

1- 1/2 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup whole milk

PREPARATION

Roast chiles on their sides on racks of gas burners on high, turning with tongs, until skins are blackened all over, about 10 minutes. Immediately transfer to a bowl and let stand, covered tightly, 10 minutes.

When chiles are cool enough to handle, peel or rub off skin. Slit chiles lengthwise, then stem, seed, and de-vein. Cut lengthwise into thin strips.

Cook onions with 1 teaspoon salt in oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 8 minutes. Stir in chiles and remove rajas from heat. Reserve 1/2-cup rajas for topping.

Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Generously butter a 3-quart shallow baking dish.

Peel potatoes, then cut crosswise into 1/16-inch-thick slices with slicer. Transfer to a small heavy pot. Add cream, milk, and 1 teaspoon salt and bring just to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally (liquid will thicken). Stir in rajas, and then pour mixture evenly into baking dish. Sprinkle reserved 1/2 cup rajas on top.

Bake until potatoes are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let stand 15 minutes before serving. ,