Strung Along by Oaxaca Cheese

The longer you live in Mexico, the more things become a part of your life that you’d never heard of before, or that previously had been relegated to the category of “exotic specialties.”

Such is the case with Oaxaca cheese. It’s good to have a ball of it in the fridge, for healthy, high-protein snacking, for cooking, for adding to sandwiches and salads. It’s kind of a mainstay.

Queso Oaxaca (waa-haa-kah ) is a simple, unaged cheese, made by double-cooking and curdling milk and then stretching the cheese curds, resulting in the trademark stringiness.

You can find Oaxaca cheese worth buying in grocery stores — you just have to read the labels and do your own taste tests till you find one that suits your fancy. Avoid any with too many ingredients; that list should be short and leche de vaca (cow’s milk) should be the first one.

Sometimes I’ve found that it can be too salty. Here’s a tip: Pull or cut the ball apart into smaller pieces and let sit, refrigerated, in a bowl of water overnight. The excess salt will leach into the water, and your cheese will be more fresh-tasting.

What to use it for? Anything where you want melty, gooey cheese. It’s a good substitute for mozzarella or Monterey Jack, and, of course, can be eaten for fun just like string cheese (except it tastes better!) Enchiladas, quesadillas, chiles rellenos, nachosmigasmolletes, grilled cheese sandwiches, lasagna, pizza  — the list goes on and on.

Because Oaxaca cheese is a fresh cheese, you need to eat it quickly. Store in the refrigerator in a covered container of water. It should last seven to 10 days. If need be, you can also freeze it. Just put the unopened package in the freezer and thaw in refrigerator before using.

Choriqueso (“Hangover Helper”)

  • ½ lb. ground pork shoulder
  • 2 tsp. red wine vinegar
  • ¼ tsp. cinnamon
  •  1   tsp. paprika
  • ½ tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/8 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne
  • 1 tsp. grated garlic
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1½-2 c, grated Oaxaca cheese (or pulled into strings)
  • Tortilla chips for serving

Preheat broiler to high. Using your hands, mix pork, vinegar, cinnamon, paprika, oregano, cumin, cayenne, garlic, and salt in medium bowl. Heat oil in 10-inch broiler-safe skillet over medium-high heat; add chorizo mixture and cook, stirring and breaking up the meat until no longer pink. Season to taste with salt. Remove from heat. Top with cheese.

Place under broiler until melted. Serve immediately with tortilla chips for scooping.

Smoky Mushroom Quesadillas

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 8 oz. portobello mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • ½ tsp. coarse salt
  • ½ tsp. smoked paprika
  •  ¼ tsp. black pepper
  • About 2 c. (8 oz.) shredded Oaxaca cheese
  • ½ cup arugula
  • ½ cup chopped cilantro
  • 10 (6-inch) corn or flour tortillas
  • Salsa for serving

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; add mushrooms. Cook 5 minutes, stirring. Add garlic and green onions; cook 3 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Set aside. In a separate bowl, toss arugula and cilantro.

Wipe out skillet or use a comal; warm over medium heat. Heat a tortilla, flip and layer cheese, mushroom mixture, greens and cheese again on half of one side. Fold tortilla over so melting cheese seals it shut. When tortilla is golden brown on the bottom, flip and cook the other side for another 30 seconds. Repeat with remaining tortillas and ingredients.

Serve with salsa.

Cheesy Tomato-Bean Bake

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 3 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 3 cups cooked beans or 2 (15-ounce) cans beans (any kind)
  • ½ cup boiling water
  •  Salt and pepper
  • About 1⅓ cups Oaxaca cheese, grated or pulled into strings

Heat oven to 475 F (245 C). In 10-inch ovenproof skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Quickly fry garlic until lightly golden, then stir in tomato paste (being careful of splattering). Stir and fry 30 seconds, reducing heat as needed to prevent garlic from burning. Stir in beans, water and generous pinches of salt and pepper. Sprinkle cheese evenly over top. Bake until cheese has melted and browned in spots, 5–10 min. Serve with crusty bread for dipping.

— by Janet Blaser

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