Truthfully, when I posted my new "Ask Carlos" series a few months ago, I thought I'd be the only one asking the questions. But I underestimated you guys. Turns out there are quite a few people interested in Mexican cheese -- and I am really, really proud to be able to answer your questions. Here's the first installment of Ask Carlos, in which Mexican Cheese expert Carlos Yescas answers two readers' questions. Look for the next installment later this month. Dear Carlos: What Mexican cheese can I use to substitute Mozzarella or Parmesan cheese in lasagna? -- Jorge P. Tocayo: I’ve been married to a Michoacana for over 20 years and have had the fortune of visiting that great state at least once annually. I have come to really appreciate queso cotija, but now that we live in Washington DC, I find it almost impossible to find it - or a suitable replacement for crumbling atop certain dishes. We have to bring back a few kilos (media rueda) every time we return. Do you have any recommendations? Also, do you know the history behind the development and commercialization of this cheese? -- Carlos A. A: Hi Jorge and Carlos: Thanks for your questions. I am going to answer them both together, because they deal with similar topics. First, Jorge. I am happy that you are looking to make Mexican lasagna. Have you heard of budín azteca? It is a great alternative to Italian lasagna that uses tortillas instead of noodles. Mozzarella is a pasta filata or pulled curd cheese. The original mozzarella is made with water buffalo milk and its flavor is very light, but creamy. Quesillo de hebra (otherwise known as queso oaxaca -- I don’t like that name because it was first used dismissively, because the cheese came from a poorer state) is also a pulled curd cheese. It should be a good substitute. However, because quesillo is made with cow’s milk, the acidity makes it melt less uniformly than mozzarella. If you can find a double cream quesillo, you should be able to achieve the same results. In Mexico, I always recommend to chefs to substitute Parmigiano-Reggiano with a good cotija made in Michoacán. And now, Carlos, this also addresses part of your question. Cotija is a very special cheese. The original cotija is made in the Sierra Jalmich, in the mountains of Jalisco and Michoacán. The cheese is then aged in the town of Cotija for a minimum of two months and up to 60 months. The flavor of the cheese depends very much on where in the mountains it was made, but it always has a very distinct mineral, creamy taste. Sometimes the minerality is recognized as saltiness, and that is the reason why cheap commercials copies are just a fresh cheese with a lot of salt. Lactography, my company in Mexico, has really good cotija aged for different amounts of time. We also have a double cream quesillo made organically in Chiapas. They are only available in Mexico right now, but trust me, we are trying to bring these amazing cheeses to the United States. Real cotija has no substitute in terms of flavor, but Carlos, you can use original Parmigiano-Reggiano to approximate the texture and some of the creamy-but-aged flavor of cotija.
Carlos Yescas to answer my questions -- he’s a Mexican cheese expert whom I interviewed on this blog last year, and we’ve become friends. He's also written a new book in Spanish called Quesos Mexicanos. Carlos wrote me back a pretty great response and I had a lightbulb moment. What if others out there had Mexican cheese questions, too? Surely I can’t be the only one. So I’m launching a new feature on this blog. It’s called Ask Carlos and it aims to answer your questions -- any question! -- about Mexican cheese. We’ll kick off the first one with the question I sent him just a few weeks ago, but I would love to run your questions in the future. (Please don't let me stand as the only one geeking out on Mexican cheese.) If you’ve got an inquiry, en inglés o español, send it to us at askcarlos [at] themijachronicles.com. And without further ado, here is the first installment of...Now that I’m back in the States, I’ve found myself occasionally wondering where to find the best varieties of Mexican cheese, or which American cheeses might have Mexican properties. Just a few weeks ago I emailed
ASK CARLOSDear Carlos: I'm attempting to recreate an enchiladas queretanas recipe at home, and the recipe I have calls for queso ranchero. It's supposed to melt in a pan with some sauteed onion, and that's the enchilada filling. Do you have any idea what an acceptable substitute might be? I don't remember exactly what the filling is like, as I haven't been to Querétaro in awhile, but I don't recall it being oozy and stringy. The recipe does call for grating the cheese, however. Guessing I don't want to go with the "queso ranchero" label cheese they sell at the Latino grocery store around the corner? Maybe Muenster? Abrazos, Mija Carlos responds: Mija, I confess I love to get emails like this. This is one of the biggest issues in cheese life in Mexico. Queso ranchero is a fresh, queso blanco made with very fresh curd. However, in Querétaro, they call queso Adobera queso ranchero. All the states in the Bajío have this issue. The cheese they want is something similar to a Tetilla from Spain or something like a Colby from the midwest. It will be a cheese that melts easily, but doesn't become stringy like quesillo. If you don't have those available, you could also get Fol Epi, most Polish delis would carry it. Finally, Muenster is an American cheese with a similar personality disorder. The French Munster is a very stinky cheese. There is also a German cheese, which I'm guessing is the cheese that was brought to the U.S. by immigrants and it is firmer, but still features a distinct orange rind from some b. linens growing on it. The American Muenster is basically a cheddar with color and a little bit of acidity, but really nothing worth talking about. The deli stuff is awful, I think, but since it is made in blocks, it is great for sandwiches. Hope this helps. --Carlos Don't forget to email us your questions!
I first I met Carlos Yescas last year, during a beer and Mexican cheese tasting at a deli in Polanco. He led the cheese portion and he was excellent: he talked about lesser-known Mexican cheeses with a passion of a guy who'd made them himself. The event was organized through his company Lactography, which supplies artisan Mexican cheeses to restaurants in Mexico City. Yescas runs the company with his sister, Georgina Yescas A. Trujano. Lactography hosts three tastings this weekend: one tonight with Mexican microbrews at Culinaria Mexicana, and one Saturday and Sunday with mezcal at Salón Obregón, part of the Corredor Cultural Roma-Condesa. When he's not teaching classes about Mexican cheese or working with Lactography, Yescas is finishing a doctorate in politics in New York. I met up with him there a few months ago and he graciously answered a few questions over coffee. Here's more on him. Q: What does Lactography do? A: We monger cheese knowledge. That means that we are trying to educate producers, retailers, and consumers about artisan cheese. Our goal is to ensure that people have access to better cheese, produced with quality milk and with the care and craftsmanship of great makers. For that, we train retailers to take better care of cheese, but also we go back to producers, especially in Mexico, to help them produce better quality cheese. However, the most important part of our mission is to expose the consumer to better products, explain the provenance of cheese and the care that its makers put into it. We strive to help producers maintain their livelihoods, while bringing better products to the market. 2. When we met in New York, I asked you what were the most common myths about Mexican cheese. You replied, "In Mexico or the U.S.?", and I didn't realize until that moment that of course both countries carry their own distinct stereotypes. Can you share with me some of the most common misconceptions about Mexican cheese in the United States?
Reserve your spot at the Culinaria Mexicana tasting tonight here, or check out the menu for the Lactography cheese tasting at Salón Obregón this weekend. To reserve a spot at the latter, email firstname.lastname@example.org.