Queso Blanco

In Making Food on April 13, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Week 8
Queso Blanco

As someone who shovels cheese for a living, I eat a lot of fermented milk. Name a fancy or obscure or fancy obscure cheese, and odds are pretty good that I’ve had it. Bleu des Basques? Ewephoria? Tete de Moine? Ticklemore? Stinking Bishop? Check, check and check. Most of my work day revolves around cheese and helping customers navigate its complexities. What’s the difference between raw and pasteurized? Would this go better with wine or beer? Is all cheese made from cow’s milk? Do you have any milk-free cheese? I had this cheese once; I can’t remember the name of it; it was really good; do you have it?

To keep my sanity, and my perspective, I rely on a lot of cheese-related workday humor. (“Roncal!” “What did he say?” “Cantal!” If you don’t think that’s funny, you’re crazy.) And writing cheese songs — or more accurately, rewriting the lyrics to existing songs that play incessantly on the Americoma radio station at work to make them into songs about cheese — is a pretty standard part of my daily routine. (My best work is a cover of Peter Frampton’s “(I Want You to) Show Me the Way,” if you must know. As in, “Gabietou, or maybe Chimay. Maytag Blue, or Roquefort Coulet?” Audio files to follow, someday. If I drink enough wine and someone gives me a microphone [or a hairbrush].)

At any given point in the Smart Cabbage house, we’ve got at least five kinds of cheese in the fridge. And I eat cheese pretty much every day, sometimes more than once. But there are plenty of more humble cheeses that I haven’t tried, as I realized on a recent trip to Harvestime, where I spent some time browsing their ethnic cheese set. Kashkaval. Bryndza. Cotija, which has a weirdly provocative cow on the label:

And queso blanco. White cheese, literally. Could it be more simple? And, more importantly, could it — would it — be good? I threw it into my basket, along with some poblanos, white new potatoes, and some frozen corn, and headed home to try my hand at a gratin I’d seen in the most recent issue of Bon Appetit. (Yeah, sometimes I’m that girl. I’ll occasionally take marching orders from Condé Nast Publication, though I draw the line at bringing the actual magazine into the store. And I’ll freely substitute ingredients according to my mood, what I’ve already got on hand, or what I can afford.)

When I unwrapped the queso blanco, it smelled like dog. Wet dog, more specifically. Wet dirty dog, if you want to be painfully precise. I’m used to cheeses smelling kind of weird, so I didn’t stop grating it. Nor did I stop building the gratin. But I’m not going to lie to you: I was kind of worried about this one.

Blast an 8×8-inch casserole dish (or a 9-inch glass pie pan) with cooking spray, and preheat the oven to 400. Then, get all of the prep work out of the way:

Pull 1 cup of frozen corn kernels out of the freezer, and let them hang out at room temperature while you slice and dice. De-stem and de-seed a poblano pepper or two, then cut the pepper into thin strips, two inches long  and a quarter-inch wide; saute the peppers to just-tenderness in a bit of extra-virgin olive oil while you grate 1/2 pound queso blanco (or oaxaca cheese, or whole milk mozzarella).Cut a pound of new potatoes (about three or four large ones) into 1/8-inch thick rounds, using a chef’s knife or a mandolin, whatever’s fastest and easiest for you. Whisk together 1 1/2 cups whole milk (or half-and-half), 2 tablespoons flour, 1 teaspoon salt and a healthy dose of cracked black pepper.

Once all your ingredients are set, begin building your gratin:

Arrange a third of the potato slices in the bottom of the pan, overlapping slightly. Scatter a third of the pepper strips over the potatoes, strew a third of the corn over, then cover with a third of the cheese. Repeat until you’ve used up all the potatoes, poblanos and corn; make sure you end up with the cheese on top. Pour the milk mixture evenly over the gratin, then cover the baking dish tightly with foil. Place the casserole dish on the top shelf of the oven, and place a baking sheet on the bottom shelf to catch any drips. (Please do this, as you have the advantage of learning from my messy mistakes, which wreaked havoc both on the bottom of my oven and my smoke-detector-scarred eardrums; let my tribulations be not in vain.) Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and bake until the potatoes are tender and the cheese is golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes more.

Any worries that your gratin will smell or taste like dog will turn out to be unfounded. The gratin will be amazing. The queso blanco will be amazing and delicious, a perfect cross between stretchy and crispy, creamy and salty, flavorful yet not overwhelming. I’m considering using  it on my next lasagna, at least on the very top — but I don’t know that I’d use it in quesadillas or tacos, or any other recipe where you’re looking for the cheese to simply melt. This cheese begs to be run under the broiler, to get bubbly and crispy and golden-brown. And it’s dirt cheap!

  1. That sounds delicious and all, but can I get that cow’s digits?

  2. the queso blanco package that I see at my local workery implies that it is the mexican equivalent of halloumi or juustalopenia (or whatever it’s called). It doesn’t actually use those words, natch, but the sentiment is there. If you’ve got a slice left over, give it a try. What you said about how it turned brown certainly suggest the truth of that.

    • Funny how I’ve looked at, and stocked, those packages of queso blanco on a damn-near-weekly basis for the past three years, and never once thought about eating — much less grilling — it. I’ve got a recipe for homemade queso blanco (it’s just milk and vinegar!) that I’ll get around to one of these days…

  3. First off, I LOVE that you referenced the whole Roncal/Cantal thing. But I have to say my favorite cheese song so far is “You’ve got to fight for your light Havarti”. 🙂

  4. Hey, SC. Do you think I could assemble this thing in the morning or the night before, maybe just saving the milk-mixture mixing and pouring for the last minute, and then move it nearly straight from fridge to oven?

    Also, did you use regular corn or that big, white corn Latino grocery stores have?

    “You’ve got to fight for your light Havarti” makes me want to quit my desk job and work in groceries.

    • I would absolutely assemble it ahead of time, if I were that forward thinking. And honestly, I’d go ahead and mix/pour the milk while I was at it. Just cover it tightly with the foil, then slide it right into the oven. Allow a little extra time for baking, though, since the ingredients’ll be stone cold.

      I used regular old frozen bagged corn kernels. Nothing fancy.

      Cheese songs are pretty great. Though be mindful that they exist almost solely to counterbalance the lunacy of customers.

  5. Reader’s report: I put this thing together last night and let it sit in the fridge for about 20 hours, milk and all. I used already-grated cotija cheese, though, alas, I could not find the brand with the flirty little cow, and that did have me concerned. I came home tonight, threw it in the oven cold, not even preheating first, and went for a nice walk. I figured the oven and the cold dish could heat together. I left it in there for nearly an hour and a half, and even after that it was nowhere near as brown as yours, but–what do you know–I think it came out pretty good. A little hot sauce, a little more pepper, a little sour cream. It could have used maybe a smidge less salt (perhaps my cheese was saltier than yours). But dang, I was pleased with my first gratin. My dinner guest had three helpings, too. Looks like I’ll be trying more gratins, in addition to making this one again. Thanks, Smarty!

    • I’m glad it was delicioso! However, I think I might have confused matters with the sexy-cow photo. (It’s simply the first in a line of inappropriately flirtatious food-mascot photos I’ll be posting.) Cotija was not the cheese I used in the gratin; I used queso blanco instead (which is both less crumbly and less salty than cotija). It’s a cheese that takes heat really well — it will get crispy and caramelized. You can actually slice it and put it in a frying pan, as Dr. Niles suggested in another comment.

      Sorry again for the confusion, but I’m glad it still turned out well!

      • Ohhh! That explains that. I guess I should have read a little more carefully. Oh well. How wrong can you really go with cheese and potatoes?

  6. […] a lot of things taste or smell gross before they get good. See, for example, the stench of uncooked queso blanco, or the hog-rendering-facility smell of pork belly as it braises. Sauerkraut, vinegar and beer fall […]

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