Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Brief Guide to Mexican Cheeses

By Kc Kudra

If you are like a lot of Americans, your conception of the role of cheese in Mexican food is a little skewed. Typically, what one sees a lot of in the US is an Americanized version of Mexican dishes; many people's only exposure to cheese in the context of Mexican cuisine is either cheddar cheese or perhaps Monterey jack in a taco or burrito.

However, Mexico has many cheeses to try for yourself and thankfully; many of these products are becoming increasingly available here as well. Ever since Mexican farmers began making cheese, it has been an important part of the country's culinary heritage, just as it is in the US; but of course, with its own unique spin.

The art of cheese making came to the Americas with the Spanish, who imported goats and cows. These new foods were quickly adopted by Mexican cooks and styles unique to the country soon developed and some Spanish style cheeses found new fans in the New World. Mexican cheeses provide a variety of different flavors and textures perfectly suited for a wide array of traditional Mexican foods.

Quesadillas are something, which are familiar to most Americans, though the cheese used in making these popular snacks in Mexico is less so. Queso Oaxaco is the cheese of choice for this dish in Mexico. It is a type of cheese, which is similar to string cheese and has a mild flavor, which suits it for use in quesadillas and other recipes where a mild melting cheese is called for as well as eaten on its own as a snack. Queso Oaxaca is becoming easier to find in the states and cooks looking to add an authentic flavor to their quesadillas will find this cheese well worth seeking out.

Cotija cheese is named for the town in Michoacn state where it was first made and has often been called the Mexican version of Parmesan or Romano. This hard, salty cheese has an assertive flavor which makes it a great match for salads and refried beans - try crumbling or grating a little into salads and soups. It can also be an excellent stand in for Romano in pasta dishes.

If you are a fan of Munster cheese, you will find a lot to like about queso criollo. Originating in Guerrero state, this cheese is a natural on sandwiches, including the Mexican sandwiches called tortas and also makes a good choice for quesadillas and other Mexican recipes. Try using this mild, nutty yellow cheese anywhere you would use Munster.

Queso fresco is a cheese, which originates in Spain but has been enthusiastically adopted by Mexican cooks. This is a mild, soft cheese made from both cow's and goat's milk. Try queso fresco crumbled on salads or tacos, as a filling for chiles rellenos, or serve it with fruit; berries and pears make especially wonderful pairings with this mild cheese.

There are more wonderful Mexican cheeses than there is room here to discuss; but that just means there is more to explore and experiment with in your kitchen! Next time you are planning to cook your favorite Mexican recipes, have a look at your local Mexican grocery, and seek out some new cheeses to add a new and delicious dimension to your old favorites.

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