Cooking Like a Mexican

 Cooking Like a Mexican

The onset of the rainy season heralds a delightful shift in our culinary cravings, doesn’t it? As raindrops dance outside, there’s an undeniable yearning for nourishing comfort foods like hearty soups and stews. And speaking of comfort, let’s journey southward to Mexico, where a captivating culinary tradition beckons us—one that revolves around the versatile ingredient we all love: cheese. It’s more than just a supporting player; this time, the cheese takes center stage in a culinary symphony that transcends the confines of the Tex-Mex dip bowl.

The word “queso” triggers thoughts of more than just gooey dips; it unveils a captivating array of fresh white Mexican cheeses, each with its own distinctive blend of springiness and saltiness. Picture a spectrum of textures, from meltingly smooth to delightfully crumbly, each bite redolent with the essence of milk rather than butter or cream. Some of these cheeses even embrace the flames of a grill, their transformation revealing a complex interplay of flavors that captivate the palate. The best part? You don’t need to make a pilgrimage to an upscale dairy counter to savor these delights.

Enter a stew that encapsulates the culinary history of southern California, Mexico—a region where the ingenious ranchers of yore learned to transform hardening cheeses into culinary gold. In a land marked by scarcity and necessity, where ingredients needed to be used before spoilage set in, culinary innovation took root. The tapestry of Mexican cuisine, woven from the threads of resourcefulness, reflects a rich heritage where every dish has a story to tell.

Imagine those ranches, nestled in solitude, distant from urban conveniences and far from the bounties of farms and livestock. The need to create sustenance from limited resources gave birth to a special cheese that, with time, evolved into a hearty, nutritious soup. This culinary gem, much like the traditions of the land it emerged from, embraced change and adaptation, morphing into the tantalizing concoction we relish today. As with all Mexican cuisine, regional variations abound, adding a tapestry of flavors and textures that paint a vivid picture of cultural diversity.

The culinary history of Mexico unfolds like a storybook, pages enriched by the arrival of European explorers on these shores. In the pre-Hispanic era, dairy products were absent from the native diet due to the absence of cows, and cheeses remained undiscovered until the Spanish conquistadors set foot on Mexican soil. It was then that the fusion of Old World techniques with New World ingredients ignited a culinary renaissance, resulting in a vibrant array of cheeses.

But this journey wasn’t a one-way street; it was a dialogue between tradition and innovation. The techniques brought by the Spaniards found resonance with the Mexican palate, birthing a treasure trove of cheeses that are as much a product of adaptation as they are of tradition. The culinary storylines of Mexico’s various regions converged, interweaving history and flavor to create a symphony of taste that continues to resonate.

Cheese-making traditions spread across Mexico like wildfire, particularly in the Jalisco Highlands of central-western Mexico, the lagoon-surrounded Coahuila state, and the northern expanses of Durango. Today, the legacy of those early cheese artisans endures, with cheese production hubs peppered across the country.

While Mexican cheese production pays homage to its European origins in terms of variety and quantity, there’s a distinctive Mexican flair that sets it apart. Some cheeses, like panela, are crafted from pasteurized milk, while others, such as Chihuahua cheese, are born from unprocessed milk. Globalization has also made its mark, as pasteurized milk finds its way into many commercial cheese varieties. A quick scan of the label provides insight into the cheese’s origins.

Yet, the journey of Mexican cheeses on the global stage hasn’t been without its challenges. The lack of pasteurization in traditional methods can pose a hurdle for those unaccustomed to the Mexican palate. But in their homeland, these cheeses are revered and enjoyed as part of a cultural tapestry that stretches back through generations.

Chihuahua cheese christened after the Mexican state that embraces a thriving Mennonite community, is a shining example of this heritage. Known as queso menonita, this cheese’s story is intertwined with history, culture, and innovation. Its semi-hard texture, akin to other varieties like Chester, offers a canvas for a range of flavors, from cheddar-like sharpness to gentle mildness. With a hue that leans towards pale yellow rather than the traditional white, this cheese has evolved over time to become a commercially produced staple enjoyed across Mexico.

So, as the rainy season blankets the land, let your culinary imagination journey to the heart of Mexico’s cheese-laden traditions. From the humblest ranch kitchens to the bustling streets of towns and cities, the story of Mexican cheeses speaks volumes about ingenuity, adaptation, and a deep love for all things delicious.

Ingredients: 

  • 7 ounces of Chihuahua cheese 
  • 1 large potato, peeled and washed 
  • ½ onion finely chopped 
  • 1 garlic clove 
  • ½ poblano pepper
  • 3 tomatoes 
  • Salt and pepper
  • A pinch of oregano 
  • 2 spoonfuls of olive oil 
  • Tortillas and limes for the side

Procedure: 

  • Cut potatoes and cheese into bite-size pieces and set aside. 
  • Boil the tomatoes, peel and puree with a pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside. 
  • Slice the poblano peppers thinly. 
  • In a pot, cook onion and whole garlic until soft. Add a pinch of oregano. Remove garlic once it’s perfumed the onions. Add poblano pepper. 
  • Add the potatoes to the pot, cook for two minutes and add in the tomato puree, along with a cup of water. Bring to a boil. 
  • Cook until potatoes are soft. 
  • Add cheese cubes. 
  • Make sure the cheese softens and potatoes are cooked. Taste for salt since cheese can become quite salty. 
  • Once the cheese is soft and the salt is right, remove from heat and cover with a lid. It is important that the cheese softens but does not melt, keeping its shape, sort of. 
  • Serve with some tortillas on the side and add a couple of drops of lime juice to taste! 

Buen provecho folks!