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My Recipes-of-the-Week are featured here on my Home page. You can find 1000+ of my kitchen-tested recipes using the Recipes tab, watch nearly 100 Kitchen Encounters/WHVL-TV segments using the TV Videos tab, join the discussion about all of my creations using the Facebook tab, or Email your questions and comments directly to me--none go unanswered. "We are all in this food world together." ~Melanie

07/15/2019

~A Bit About Mexican Cotija & Queso Fresco Cheese~

IMG_2616Americans love Mexican food.  Americans love it so much, we'd all vote for a taco truck on every street corner.  That said, when it comes to Mexican food, we Americans have quizzically wed ourselves to using cheddar or Jack cheddar cheese as toppings in or on nachos, quesadillas, refried bean dip, tacosburritos, enchiladas, chili con carne, etc. Most of us are guilty as charged and I am no exception.  Shredded cheddar is in my refrigerator at all times, and nine out of ten times, it's going on something Tex-Mex.  American kids and adults alike love cheddar, every grocery store in even the remotest regions sells it, and I'm not here to change your mind about it.

Choosing between two items that look identical is tricky. 

Setting our cheddar aside, in recent years, thanks to Mexican food being featured on many TV food shows, high-quality non-chain Mexican restaurants, serving authentic Mexican-style dishes, have begun popping up in communities, or within reasonable driving distance of communities, who've never tasted anything but Taco Bell before.  Happily, the American palate has become quite sophisticated about Mexican food.  Because of and in conjunction with all of the above, two beloved, real-deal Mexican cheeses have become readily available in American markets (and I couldn't be happier to have them at my fingertips): cotija cheese and queso fresco cheese.

Cheese 101.  Because of aging, no type of cheese is the same across the board -- that applies to cotija and queso fresco too.

Blessed are the cheesemakers.  They make hard, dry, grating cheeses; firm, moist, sliceable cheeses, and; soft, gooey, spreadable cheeses.  They make blue, white and yellow cheeses. Some cheeses are aged for years, others for a few months, and, some aren't aged at all.   They make herby, spicy, fruity and/or nutty cheeses.  They make mild, aromatic and strong, stinky cheeses.  They make cheese from the milk of cows, goats and sheep -- sometimes it's pasteurized and sometimes it's not.  There are a thousand+ varieties of cheese in this food world -- some are mass produced, some are specialty, some are artisan and some are farmstead. There are cheese societies that come up with cheese standards and government organizations that enforce cheese laws.  Yes, thanks to the cheesemakers, we live in a very cheeesy world.

Mexican cheese producers are no different from any other cheese makers, but, today I am limiting my Mexican cheese topic to comparing two of their most popular, new-to-us-Americans, varieties, cotija and queso fresco, and, both of these rising stars fall into the category of crumbly cheese.

A bit about cotija (coh-CHEE-tah) cheese:

IMG_2622Cotija is a Hispanic/Latin American-style full-fat cow's milk cheese, named after the town of Cotija in the Mexican state of Michoacán, and used mostly in Latin American-style dishes.  When the cheese is young and fresh, it is very white, moist and salty, bearing an immense resemblance to feta cheese -- this is the type of cojita found in American markets.  That said, with aging, which causes the moisture to evaporate, it becomes hard and much tangier, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, which has earned it the nickname, the "Parmesan of Mexico". Originally aged for 3-12 months, nowadays commercial producers add an enzyme to speed up the process.  Cotija cheese, like feta, when exposed to the heat of an oven, softens, but doesn't have the properties to melt to an ooey-gooey state.

A bit about queso fresco (kay-soh fres-koh) cheese:

IMG_2607Queso fresco, which means fresh cheese in Spanish, is a mild-flavored all-Mexican-style cheese, and, is the traditional, most-used cheese throughout Mexico. Resemblant in appearance to cotija, it is made from cow's milk -- raw milk for use in Mexico and pasteurized milk for distribution in the USA, which behave differently when exposed to the heat of the oven, with the American version melting to a creamier state.  That said, because queso fresco is a fresh cheese with an aging process of just a few days, its shelf life is short and should be used within 5 days. When queso freso is tossed with a a bit of Parmesan, it's a great substitution for the somewhat harder-to-find cotija.  That said, in a pinch, feta cheese can be substituted in most recipes with little-to-no compromise.

Try them on my Grilled Mexican Sweet Street Corn (Elotes)...

6a0120a8551282970b01b7c8874bf0970b... or my Warm Mexican Sweet Street Corn Cups (Equites):

6a0120a8551282970b01bb092a9963970d"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipes, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2019)

07/13/2019

~ Adding Olives to Mexican or Mexican-Style Dishes ~

IMG_2554Olives in Mexican food?  It's controversial.  So-called experts will flatly state that olives in Mexican food make the dish Spanish, not Mexican, meaning "don't".  That said, with some of the largest concentrations of green olive trees in the world being located in regions throughout Mexico, areas bordering Texas, and, the Guadalupe Valley in Northern Baja California, common sense would and should lead one (it did me) to a different conclusion, meaning, if you are an olive lover, "go for it".  Just know, a Mexican dish you added olives to can't be peddled as "authentic" or "classic" Mexican" -- olives render the dish "Mexican-style", or, "Mexican-American fusion food".  

A good deal of research on this subject revealed to me:

IMG_2583 2It's not that Mexicans don't eat olives, they just don't put them on tacos, or use them in dishes accompanied by, or wrapped in, tortillas.  Mostly, they eat olives as snacks, add them to salads or drop them into alcoholic beverages -- who doesn't love a jalapeño- or cotija cheese-stuffed olive eaten out of hand, added to a salad or in their martini.  It's also worth noting that, for a time, during the colonial period, 1521-1821, the Spanish government forbade the planting of olive trees and/or groves in New Spain (as Mexico was named during this period), which, quite possibly, is the sole reason why olives aren't present in vintage family recipes and classic Mexican dishes that have been handed down from generation to generation -- olives were forbidden fruit.  It's also (understandably so) very plausible that Mexican resentment toward the Spanish government in general caused many Mexican cooks to refused to cook with and serve-to-them, their beloved fruit. That said, olive trees did make their way into Mexico (read below), they exist in Mexico today, and, nowadays, Mexicans do, on occasion, just like the rest of us, eat and enjoy olives.

Green olives are not indigenous to Mexico, but they are no stranger to Mexico or the Mexican people or Mexican cuisine.

5b46bd3b30abb.imageWild olives (oleaster) once grew all over the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia, but bore little resemblance to the modern olive tree until about 5,000 years ago when it was cultivated in Crete and Syria into what we are familiar with today.  Once established, olive trees flourished in Spain, Tunisia, Morocco, and other Mediterranean countries for thousands of years, and, were featured in many culinary specialties. The Spaniards were the first to realize this fruit could have international appeal and took the first cuttings to Peru in the early-to-mid 16th century.  From there, Franciscan Monks introduced olives to Central America, then smuggled them North, where olive trees thrived within the walls of their missions of Mexico.  In 1769, olive cuttings were planted at the San Diego Mission where they found yet another happy home in California.

Americans might love black olives, but, they're not even a part of the small part olives play in a Mexican kitchen.  Black olives are an all-American addition, catering solely to the American palate.

IMG_2603"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2019)

07/10/2019

~ Texican Tomato, Cucumber and Green Olive Salad ~

IMG_2583Olives in Mexican food?  It's controversial.  So-called experts will flatly state that olives in Mexican food make the dish Spanish, not Mexican, meaning "don't".  That said, with some of the largest concentrations of green olive trees in the world being located in regions throughout Mexico, areas bordering Texas, and, the Guadalupe Valley in Northern Baja California, common sense would and should lead one (it did me) to a different conclusion, meaning "go for it".  While a Mexican dish with olives in or on it can't be labeled "authentic", the addition of olives is fine.  

A good deal of research on this subject revealed to me:

IMG_2552It's not that Mexicans don't eat olives, they just don't put them on tacos, or use them in dishes accompanied by, or wrapped in, tortillas.  Mostly, they eat olives as snacks, add them to salads or drop them into alcoholic beverages -- who doesn't love a jalapeño stuffed olive eaten out of hand, on their salad or in their martini.  It's also worth noting that, for a time,  during the colonial period, 1521-1821, the Spanish government forbade the planting of olive trees and/or groves in New Spain (as Mexico was named during this period), which, quite possibly, is the sole reason why olives weren't used in vintage family recipes and classic Mexican dishes that have been handed down from generation to generation -- olives were forbidden fruit.  It's also (understandably so) plausible that Mexican resentment toward the Spanish in general caused many to flatly refuse to cook with and serve them their beloved fruit. That said, olive trees did make their way into Mexico anyway (read below), they exist in Mexico today, and, nowadays, Mexicans do, on occasion, just like the rest of us, eat and enjoy olives.

Green olives are not indigenous to Mexico, but they are no stranger to Mexico or the Mexican people or Mexican cuisine.

Wild olives (oleaster) once grew all over the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia, but bore little resemblance to the modern olive tree until about 5,000 years ago when it was cultivated in Crete and Syria into what we are familiar with today.  Once established, olive trees flourished in Spain, Tunisia, Morocco, and other Mediterranean countries for thousands of years, and, were featured in many culinary specialties. The Spaniards were the first to realize this fruit could have international appeal and took the first cuttings to Peru in the early-to-mid 16th century.  From there, Franciscan Monks introduced olives to Central America, then smuggled them North, where olive trees thrived within the walls of their missions of Mexico.  In 1769, olive cuttings were planted at the San Diego Mission where they found yet another happy home in California.

Americans might love black olives, but, they're not even a part of the small part olives play in a Mexican kitchen.  Black olives are an all-American addition, catering solely to the American palate.

IMG_2550For the Texican-style chopped salad:

1-1 1/2 cups quartered and sliced cucumber, peeled or unpeeled, your choice

1-1 1/2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half

3/4-1  cup coarsely-chopped deli-salad-bar-style green olive mix, preferably one containing garlic and sun-dried tomatoes

1/2 thinly-sliced scallions

1/4-1/2  cup queso fresco cheese crumbles + 1/4-1/2 cup additional crumbles for garnish

For the red wine vinaigrette:

1/2  cup vegetable oil 

1/4  cup red wine vinegar

1-2  tablespoons sugar, to taste

1  teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

The difference between cotija and queso fresco cheese.

IMG_2394 IMG_2394 IMG_2558 IMG_2558 IMG_2558 IMG_2568~Step 1. To prep salad, slice, dice or chop ingredients as directed, placing all in a medium bowl as you work.  To this point, salad ingredients can be prepped, covered and refrigerated 2-4 hours prior to dressing and tossing.

IMG_2545 IMG_2545 IMG_2562 IMG_2572~Step 2.  To prepare the vinaigrette and dress the salad, in a 1-cup measuring container with a tight-fitting lid and a pourer top, place the oil, vinegar, sugar and oregano.  Place the lid on the container and vigorously shake it until ingredients are combined.  Add 4-6 tablespoons of the vinaigrette to the salad.  Using a large rubber spatula, gently fold the dressing into the salad.

Note:  This refreshing relish-esque salad, goes great with grilled chicken, steak, ribs, and fish or seafood too.  Got leftovers?  Pull or slice the the protein into bite-sized pieces, toss it into the salad and stuff it into pita pockets for lunch the next day.  There's more.  If you want to serve it as a starter course to a sit-down meal, spoon it atop a bed of crispy lettuce chiffonade -- it's dressed to pucker-up, briny perfection.  That said, because it's marinated, it's best served within 12-24 hours, so, don't make more than you and yours can eat in within that time frame.

This refreshing chopped relish-esque, condiment-type salad...

IMG_2580... pairs great w/chicken, ribs, steak, fish or seafood (pictured here w/Southwestern Cheese-Topped Corn & Bean Pudding):

IMG_2589Texican Tomato, Cucumber and Green Olive Salad: Recipe yields 4-6 cups side-dish salad.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; 1-cup measuring container w/tight-fitting lid and pourer top; large rubber spatula

IMG_2426Cook's Note:  With a few cuisine-appropriate substitutions, this salad can be transitioned to pair with food from any number of cultures.  For example:  To prepare ~ Greek-Style Chopped-Salad w/Red Wine Vinaigrette ~, use a kalamata black and green olive blend, red onion, feta cheese and Mediterranean oregano (in place of  green olive and sun-dried tomato blend, scallions, queso fresco and Mexican oregano. Or, to make it Italian, go with basil and small, fresh mozzarella balls.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2019)