Queso Fresco

Queso fresco, or queso blanco as it’s called in Spain, sounds a lot more than what it is–fresh cheese. A Mexican cheese, it is light, crumbly, somewhat spongy  and acidic in flavor.  It’s a terrific everyday cheese–sprinkle it on beans, garden salads or use it in quesadillas.  Many taco trucks, stands and restaurants dust the crumbled bits over a snack or entree before serving. Commonly found just about everywhere throughout Mexico it is easily found just about everywhere in Northern and Southern California.  While traveling in Mexico I’ve seen the cheese curds being ground on a metate before they are pressed, by hand into round baskets.  Introduced to Mexico from Burgos, Spain,  it is typically made with a combination of cow and goat milk. A very mild French feta can often be used as a substitute if need be. It’s fairly easy to get your hands on if you are in a major metro area.
In fact, it was the Spaniards who introduced cows and goats, as sources of meat and milk, to the Mexicans, changing their diet forever. From my research:

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)

Spring Fava Bean Spread

Perfectly perfect for a picnic…because sometimes we need our veggies along with our cheese.

Spring Fava Bean Spread

1 1/2 cups fully shelled, blanched fava beans*

1/4 cup olive oil

1 spring onion, chopped

1 stalk green garlic, chopped

1/3 cup Pecornio Romano, grated (or other dry, easily grated cheese)

6 large mint leaves, chopped

1/4 cup lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste

*note:  3 pounds raw, whole fava pods will roughly equal 1 1/2 cups fully shelled, cooked

Prepare fava beans (remove outer pod, blanche for 5-6 mins, remove outer shell).  New to fava bean prep–check out this video.

Add beans and other ingredients to food processor, blend well.  Add more mint, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste, as needed.  Blend until smooth and creamy.  Garnish with a few mint springs.  This spread can be served warm as a side dish or as a condiment on lamb burgers.  For picnics, indoors or out, serve cold with fresh vegetables, pita chips or fresh baugette.

Recipe courtesy of Oak Hill Farm, Glen Ellen, CA