This is strikingly evident in the realm of cheesemaking which, though introduced by conquerors from another continent, evolved into a regional occupation, producing distinctly Mexican cheeses. In many parts of Mexico, this trade has become a family tradition, its secrets and techniques passed on from one generation to the next.
In the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, where cattle descended from animals brought from Europe provide a major means of sustenance, the production of cheese is an important and respected industry, and one which is still frequently carried out in the home. Ranchers arise early each day to milk the cows, initiate the curdling, and begin the process of making queso ranchero, the ubiquitous appellation for many different types of cheese, including the ricotta-like requeson,the smooth, moist panela, and the pale yellow queso chihuahua.
Sugar-Dusted Emapnadas With Queso Fresco
Yield: 12 servings
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup cold water
4 ounces queso fresco cheese, grated (about 2 cups; see note)
2 quarts vegetable oil, for frying
Peach or strawberry jam, optional
1. Sift flour, salt and 2 tablespoons sugar into a large bowl. With a pastry blender, cut the shortening into the dry ingredients until it is fully incorporated. Add egg yolk and mix well. Knead in the water, 2 or 3 tablespoons at a time, until a smooth dough forms. (Alternatively, make the dough in a food processor using the pulse function.)
2. Pat the dough into a round, flatten into a disk and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
3. Divide the chilled dough into a dozen 1-inch balls. Using a manual tortilla press, a rolling pin or the heel of your hand, press each ball into a circle about 1/8 inch thick and about 6 inches in diameter.
4. Mound about 2 tablespoons cheese in the center of each round; fold the dough to form a half-moon. Use a dinner fork to crimp together the outer edges. Make sure the edges are well sealed so they don’t leak while frying. You can roll and crimp the edges a few times to help ensure that they’re closed tightly. (Alternatively, use a plastic empanada press from a Latin market.)
5. Pour the oil into a large stockpot over medium-high. Heat until it reaches 350 degrees (use a candy or deep-fry thermometer to monitor the temperature). Line a baking sheet with paper towels.
6. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, fry the empanadas until they are golden brown and crispy, about 3 to 4 minutes, turning once. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the empanadas to the baking sheet to drain excess oil. Using the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar to dust the empanadas as they drain.
7. Serve, topping if desired with a dollop of jam.
Per serving: 260 calories; 19g fat; 3.5g saturated fat; 20mg cholesterol; 4g protein; 18g carbohydrate; 1g fiber; 170mg sodium.
Notes: If queso fresco isn’t available try substituting with ricotta salata. After assembly, uncooked empanadas can be wrapped tightly in plastic and foil and frozen for up to two months. Thaw in the refrigerator before frying.
Adapted from “The Latin Road Home,” by Jose Garces (to be published in October by Lake Isle Press)