Discovering 21st century queso and Mexico City’s vibrant culinary scene
Eyeing the choices arrayed under glass at cheesemongers’ shops is our favorite kind of virtual travelogue. The trail leads through whole nations of dairy art from French Epoisses and Italian Gorgonzola to Spanish Manchego and California’s Redhawk Triple Crème from Cowgirl Creamery. We may eye British Cheddar, but cheeses imported from neighboring Mexico? Not so much.
Almost identically shaped rounds of grate-able Añejo, mild and meltable Asadero, tangy Chihuahua, all-purpose Queso Fresco, Mozzarella-like Queso de Oaxaca, and farmer’s cheese-like Panela fill multiple refrigerated supermarket shelves of Latino markets and also supermarkets in much of the Western U.S. However, those popular “Mexican-style” cheeses are made in California, Wisconsin or New York State.
And while we have grown accustomed to a glowing orange cheese blanket smothering bean-centric burritos and nachos at Tex-Mex restaurants, a hot generation of chefs and cheesemakers in the United States and in Mexico City is changing that image with innovative cuisine and a new appreciation for the country’s artisan cheeses.
Meet Mexico’s Top Quesero
The mystery of Mexican cheese to most Americans, and many Mexican chefs, has inspired a one-man cheese campaign. Meet Carlos Yescas, a former United Nations migration expert and admitted curd nerd. He founded the Mexican Institute for Cheese, and with his sister, Georgina, opened a cheese distribution company, Lactography in Mexico City, to market small production cheeses that might otherwise disappear. Their QuesoStore in the Mercado Roma is the first shop in the country to specialize in Mexican artisan cheeses.
One reason for Mexican cheeses’ lack of fame is that it is used differently. “Cheese in Mexico has always been an ingredient first, unlike in France, Spain and Italy where you’ll see a separate cheese course,” says Yescas, who calls himself a “quesero” rather than a “cheesemonger.”
“Most are fresh cheeses made by families and small producers using raw milk,” he says. U.S. law prohibits the importation of raw milk cheeses, something Yescas is working to change as the head of
Boston’s Oldways Cheese Coalition. The organization’s Raw Milk Appreciation Day has grown to include 600 tasty events in 17 countries in 2016.
If you visit Mexico, Yescas recommends some eye-opening small batch producers. “There really are some wonderful, flavorful aged cheeses being made,” he says, including those from Queso de Oveja del Rancho San Josemaría; Sierra Encantada; Quesos La Consentida; Mesón del Cotija; and Ramonetti.
Changing The Taco Paradigm
Just as British musicians reintroduced American ears to the blues and rock-and- roll music in the 1960s, it was non-Mexicans who introduced cooks to the pleasures of authentic Mexican regional fare.
Writers like British-born expert Diana Kennedy opened the door. Chicago’s Rick Bayless at his Frontera Grill and Topolobampo and on his long-running PBS program “Mexico — One Plate at a Time” has made the complex cuisine accessible a la Julia Child and fancy French cooking.
Joanne Weir is optimistic about changing perceptions because she changed her own attitude. The James Beard Award-winning author of 17 cookbooks and host of PBS’ “Joanne Weir Gets Fresh” opened a modern Mexican eatery called Copita in Sausalito four years ago following her research for an epic volume on tequila.
“What’s interesting is that I had thought Mexican cuisine really wasn’t that exciting. Then I started tasting regional cooking in Mexico. I love the acidity of the limes and the brightness and complexity of the flavors,” says Weir.
“At Copita we work to dispel the idea that Mexican food is a big plate of rice and beans, and that it has to be cheap,” she says. Copita’s attractions include Enchiladas de Pollo en Mole Manchamanteles with apple, Queso Oaxaca, almonds and crema and Tortilla Soup with avocado and Cotija.
Initially, Weir had trouble finding Mexican-style cheeses that were equal to the other ingredients she was sourcing. “Now there are a bunch of small batch cheesemakers in this country. I really like the cheeses from Queso Salazar made in Brentwood,” she says. One of the most popular dishes at Copita is elotes, roasted corn on the cob dusted with chile arbol, brushed with butter, drizzled with chipotle aioli and sprinkled with grated Salazar Cotija.
Mexico City’s Wow-Factor Fare
Mexican-born chefs are transforming the cuisine in their home country and the United States. Mexico City-born chef Richard Sandoval has been at the forefront of Mexican-inspired cuisine and operates more than 40 eateries in the U.S., Mexico and around the world including Zengo in Washington, D.C. and Tokyo’s Toro Gastrobar.
There are definitely no combo plates or chile rellenos gushing gooey cheese on the menu at New York’s Cosme. Even the tacos are literally of a different shade, says Mariana Villegas, kitchen manager at the acclaimed modern Mexican spot opened by chef Enrique Olvera, known for his fine-dining destination Pujol in Mexico City.
“We mix farmer’s cheese with lime zest and serve it with different colors of roasted beets and green tomato with serrano pepper, charred corn salsa, epazote and lots of fresh lime juice,” says Villegas. The dish is served with striking pink-hued fresh corn tortillas made with beet juice.
Villegas grew up in Monterrey in northeastern Mexico where the creamy goat milk cheese called Requeson is traditionally made. “We look for American cheeses that match the traditional ones,” she says. She stocks Queso Fresco from upstate New York that tops the brunch dish huevos rancheros with refried black beans. “We use Queso Oaxaca which is meltable in our epazote and mushroom quesadillas.”
Regional Cooking Styles
Once upon a time eateries dished “Italian,” “Chinese” and “Indian” food that was really a mishmash of dishes from all over the nation. Slowly the joy of regional Tuscan, Hong Kong or Goa-style flavors has caught the attention of the nation’s palate.
“Chefs in Mexican fine dining have really started to focus on regional cooking styles and dishes like pipian and moles. They are looking at specific types of beans for a dish, and heirloom corn varieties and original local seasonings,” says Carlos Yescas of Lactography.
It’s the classics with a twist made from scratch with great ingredients in an array of distinctive regional styles from Oaxaca to Puebla and Michoacan as well as Mexico’s metropolitan capital area where sophistication is embraced.
“It’s unbelievable what’s going on in the restaurants in Mexico City,” says Weir. “Mole sauces of all kinds are going wild including a great deconstructed mole. At La Unica restaurant we had these huge roasted marrow bones that just came to the table with warm handmade corn tortillas and a spoon.” Copita’s chef Daniel Tellez, who hails from Mexico City, has served as a tour guide.
Mexico City chefs have also moved beyond what Yescas calls the “pre-Colombian focus” to include foods introduced by immigrants over hundreds of years. For example, the city’s famous tacos al pastor were actually inspired by gyros sandwiches sold by Lebanese vendors.
Fine dining establishments there are even starting to serve cheese plates with two or three Mexican artisan cheeses. “They are looking for small producers to find exactly the right high-quality cheese from a specific region like Chiapas or a breed of cow whose milk has a certain flavor profile,” he says. “Chefs are paying much closer attention to everything they serve including vegetables. How do you prepare perfect, beautiful carrots?” says Yescas. CC
- Añejo: Dry, salty, Parmesan-like, often sold pre-grated for sprinkling on finished dishes like enchiladas
- Asadero: Mild, tart, slightly chewy and melts well on quesadilla and in chile rellenos
- Chihuahua: Mild, fresh, with taste/texture like Cheddar for grating or stuffing
- Cotija: Dry, sharp tasting and usually used crumbled on various dishes
- Queso Fresco: Tart, fresh cheese crumbled on salads, tacos and enchiladas
- Queso de Oaxaca: Ball of cheese that can be served shredded like string cheese or melted like Mozzarella
- Panela: Moist, fresh snack cheese usually eaten cool
- Requesón: Soft, creamy, Ricotta-like cheese
- Crema: Thin soured cream similar to crème fraîche used drizzled on roasted corn and other dishes.
Elote (Roasted corn with chipotle aioli)
6 ears corn, tops trimmed
1 cup mayonnaise
1 small clove garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp chipotle en adobo
1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ tsp ground chile de arbol
1 tsp ground guajillo
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
½ cup crumbled Cotija cheese
3 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
3 Tbsp minced red onion
6 large lime wedges
Preheat an outdoor grill over medium heat. Cut the top ends off the corn. Place on the grill and grill, turning occasionally, 12 to 15 minutes.
In the meantime, in a blender or food processor, combine the mayonnaise, garlic, chipotle, and lime juice and ¼ tsp salt until smooth.
In a small bowl, combine the chile de arbol, guajillo and ¼ tsp salt. Set aside.
When the corn is done, peel back the husks and discard the silk. Brush the corn with melted butter. Drizzle the chipotle aioli onto the top in a zigzag pattern. Sprinkle with the Cotija, cilantro and red onion. Sprinkle the spice mixture onto the top. Serve garnished with a lime wedge.
Recipe from “Kitchen Gypsy: Recipes and Stories from a Lifelong Romance with Food” (Oxmoor House) by Joanne Weir
Panela en Salsa Verde (Fresh Cheese in Roasted Tomatillo Salsa)
½ lb (about 4 medium) tomatillos, husked, rinsed and cut in half
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 serrano pepper or small jalapeño, stemmed and roughly chopped
1 2 oz Mexican-style Panela cheese ½- inch slices
¼ red onion, thinly sliced
¼ cup chopped cilantro (thick bottom stems cut off)
Make the sauce: In a small non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, roast the tomatillos (start them cut-side down) and garlic until soft and browned, 3 or 4 minutes per side. (If a non-stick skillet is unavailable, line a regular skillet with aluminum foil.) Scoop the tomatillos and garlic into a blender or food processor, add the chile and ½ cup water and blend until smooth. Taste and season with salt, usually a generous ½ tsp.
Finish the dish: Film a heavy-bottomed skillet with vegetable oil and bring to medium heat. Add cheese slices, and sear until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Pour in salsa and bring to a rolling boil. Scoop sliced onion into strainer and rinse under cold water. Sprinkle over the dish, along with the chopped cilantro, and serve with warm corn tortillas.