By Maya Dollarhide
“There is no bright yellow cheese in Mexico,” says Aarón Sánchez, chef/partner at Johnny Sánchez, an authentic taqueria with locations in Baltimore and New Orleans.
That statement might surprise some of your customers, many of them accustomed to eating Mexican food served with neon yellow queso that bears no resemblance to the authentic dairy products from Mexico.
That’s why Sánchez—co-star of Food Network’s hit series Chopped, host of Cooking Channel’s Taco Trip, and author of “La Comida del Barrio” and “Simple Food, Big Flavor: Unforgettable Mexican-Inspired Recipes from My Kitchen to Yours”—is passionate about educating the public about real Mexican cheese.
Five years ago, he partnered with Cacique, a family-owned company that makes authentic Mexican-style cheeses and dairy products in the United States, to help in those educational endeavors.
“I want chefs and the public to know about all the different kinds of Mexican and Latin cheeses and how they can incorporate them into dishes, other than just Mexican ones,” Sánchez says.
Popularity On the Rise
Just why should Mexican and Latin restaurants consider adding Hispanic cheeses to their menus? Because consumer demand for those kinds of quesos is growing. Industry data, in fact, shows just how popular Hispanic cheeses are becoming.
According to Jennifer Giambroni, director of communications at the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB), Mexican cheeses are definitely growing in popularity and acceptance. Supporting that claim: the USDA reports that per capita consumption of Hispanic cheeses grew six percent from 2010 to 2014 to almost three quarters of a pound.
Even the “cheese state” of Wisconsin—right in the middle of America’s heartland—now produces 71 million pounds of Mexican-style cheeses, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB). In 2013, basic queso fresco and queso blanco led the list of 18 varieties of Hispanic cheese the WMMB tracks (2013 was the most recent year for which figures were available as of press time).
Some of that uptick in popularity can be attributed to the growth in the Hispanic popula- tion, a demographic group whose members often search for familiar flavors and ingredi- ents, notes Giambroni, who cites information from Technomic’s “2015 Hispanic Foodservice Consumer Trends Report.”
“Over 40 percent of LSR and FSR (Hispanic) consumers say a menu that features some Hispanic flavors or ingredients is important or extremely important,” that report says.
The rise in popularity also aligns with consumers’ desire to try new flavors and explore more ethnic flavors.
According to the “Technomic Evolving Foodservice Consumer–January 2016” report, 50 percent of consumers aged 18 to 34 are more interested in trying new or ethnic flavors now than last year. In addition, the company’s “Q2 2016 Menu Category Analysis–Limited Service Mexican” survey reveals that consumers are also looking for authentic ingredients— which means restaurants can attract those consumers by using and promoting the fact that they use Hispanic cheeses.
Tips For Cooking With Quesos
The unique, authentic ethnic flavor Hispanic cheeses impart is one reason to add them to and highlight them on your restaurant’s menu.
As Giambroni says, “The most obvious benefit of using Mexican cheeses is the authentic flavor they add to each dish. Most are mild and salty and offer a perfect complement to spicy dishes. Some are made for melting— Oaxaca and queso quesadilla, for example— while others stay firm and can be fried for a unique texture.”
Another reason? Their versatility.
Sánchez encourages chefs to play around with Mexican cheeses—to think outside the box and consider using them to flavor menu items that traditionally feature other kinds of cheese. Salads are one example.
Sánchez makes a watermelon and heirloom tomato salad in the summer with a queso fresco in lieu of a feta, and adds a unique twist to his Cesar salad by tossing it with Mexican cheese.
“When I make my Cesar salad, I don’t use a Parmesan; instead I use a manchego cheese and it gives it a different sharpness and flavor,” Sánchez says.
Chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, who co-own Border Grill in Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Las Vegas, plus two Border Grill food trucks, have spent over 25 years traveling throughout the diverse regions of Mexico.
Today, the chefs return to Mexico on a regular basis for culinary inspiration and relaxation. Various Mexican cheeses are some of their favorite ingredients to include in Border Grill’s recipes.
“We love cheeses like salty cotija and Oaxacan string,” shares Milliken. “These days we’ve been breaking up cotija into little croutons, giving them a quick fry and putting them in our kale salads—salty, crunchy, gooey—YUM!”
Feniger recommends throwing panela cheese on the griddle, as she and Milliken do for Border Grill’s Griddled Panela and Corn Esquite Lettuce Tacos. “When we do this, it turns this gorgeous caramelized color and gets this wonderful texture, soft and chewy in the middle. We sometimes wrap it in hoja santa and it’s a great combination of flavors.
“When we want a complex flavored cheese for quesadillas or chile rellenos, we will use a mixture of cotija, manchego and panela to achieve a very different end result and flavor profile than, say, if you are using jack and cheddar,” Feniger continues.
Salads, appetizers and entrees aren’t the only menu categories where Mexican cheese can play a role; it also lends itself to desserts or an after-dinner cheese plate.
“Oaxacan string cheese or queso fresco with fermented honey and nuts is fantastic—or mixing cheese with guava in an empanada is great, too,” says Milliken.
The chefs interviewed for this story all agreed; Mexican cheese can easily stand alone on the plate. “As these cheeses grow in notoriety, my goal is to find more and more Latin and Mexican cheeses served everywhere,” says Sánchez.
Hispanic cheeses are gaining popularity among cheese lovers and with more U.S.-based cheese makers creating Mexican-style products, it may become easier and easier to sample a range of soft, semi-soft and hard Mexican cheeses.
“I think it will be really interesting for us to see what happens over the next 10 years with Mexican cheese,” shares Feniger, “because when it first started to gain popularity here, it was pretty basic.”
Maya Dollarhide is a New York-based freelance writer and regular contributor to el Restaurante.
Hispanic Cheeses: A Cooking and Pairing Primer
Want to know the best way to use authentic Hispanic quesos? Or wondering what kind of beer or wine to suggest customers order with dishes featuring Mexican cheese? Here are a few tips to guide you, courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB; eatwisconsincheese.com).
Queso Blanco. This fresh and crumbly cheese is slightly salty and will brown when heated but will not melt. Crumble it in tortilla soup, sprinkle over your favorite Mexican-style dish, or use in enchiladas and chili rellenos.
Pairs well with Ciders and Fruit Beers, Pale Ale, Weiss Beer; White Zinfandel, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris.
Cotija. Hard-grating cotija is the parmesan of Mexico. Use it to top enchiladas, tostadas, chilaquiles and rellenos. Add grated cotija to the hamburger when making meatballs and sprinkle over finished soup before serving.
Pairs well with Pilsner and Pale Ale; Chianti.
Queso Quesadilla. This rich, creamy melting cheese that originated in Sinaloa in northern Mexico made tortilla turnovers famous and gave them their name— “quesadillas.” Shred and use queso quesadilla to top nachos or huevos rancheros, or try it on a taco pizza.
Pairs well with Pilsner and Lager; Chardonnay.
Queso Fresco. This very soft, moist mild-flavored cheese has a fine texture that makes it ideal for crumbling and sprinkling over salads, enchiladas and tamales, and stirring into refried beans and other cooked dishes. Queso fresco is classically used in the filling for chile relleños and quesadillas, and makes a tasty addition to cold vegetable salads.
Pairs well with Pilsner and Lager; Chardonnay.