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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 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 cow's milk 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 too 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)

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