by Kate Heyhoe
The only way to make food taste authentically Mexican is to use authentic ingredients. Take a trip to an Hispanic market and you'll discover a wide range of dried spices and fresh herbs, dozens of chile varieties, and several key cheeses that transform gringo-style Mexican food into true homestyle Mexican cooking.
Mexican cheeses, though, can be hard to select if you're not familiar with them, because each cheese type has its own distinctive cooking, melting and flavoring attributes. Queso means cheese in Spanish, and Hispanic cheeses can be grouped into three basic types: fresh cheeses, melting cheeses and hard cheeses. In addition to cheeses, thick, tangy creams or cremas play an important part of a finished dish.
Fresh cheeses are moist, crumbly and prized for their ability to become soft when heated, but without running or melting. Why would you want a cheese to hold its shape? For dishes like chiles rellenos and enchiladas, in which the cheese is actually a stuffing. In these instances, a soft queso fresco works best because it won't run or ooze out when melted. Common fresh cheeses that keep their shape when heated include Queso Blanco, Queso Fresco, and Panela. All are mild in flavor, and they can also be used without heating; if you've ever been served a salad or a platter of refried beans with a soft, crumbled white cheese on top, it's likely one of these.
One advantage that Mexican melting cheeses have over Cheddar and Monterey Jack is that they resist separating when heated. That is, the oil does not separate from the solids, making for more palatable and attractive nachos, quesadillas and baked cheese dishes. Look for names like Queso Asadero, Oaxaca, Quesadilla and Chihuahua— all are good melters, with smooth, creamy texture. Asadero has a slight tangyness and a more robust flavor, making it one of my favorites.
Mexicans enjoy adding a sprinkling of a grated or finely crumbled dry cheese to finish off a dish. The most common is Queso Cotija, and has a texture and taste similar to Parmesan, but with its own distinctive style— I use it often and you can even find it pre-grated in shaker containers. It has a lively taste and perks up the flavor of cooked dishes as well as salads. Another hard cheese is Queso Enchilado, a white block of cheese with a red, paprika coating. It's quite salty, though, and in fact is too salty for my tastes; I prefer the milder Queso Cotija.
The cooling quality of a thick, rich cream tames and complements the spiciness of chiles. Look for Crema Mexicana sold in cylindrical plastic jars. This fresh cream is thicker than whipping cream, more like crème fraiche. You can whip it into a soft dessert topping, or use it as is, drizzled on savory dishes or added to thicken a sauce. Crema Agria (also known as Crema Centroamericana) has a similar texture but is even tangier, adding a mellow tartness similar to sour cream but richer.
Kate's Global Kitchen for May, 2000:
Mi Casa Es Su Casa Month:
Celebrating Mexican Home Cooking
Also visit Global Destinations: Mexico for more Mexican Recipes.
Copyright © 2000, 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
Modified August 2007
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