It wasn't that long ago that if you wanted to make authentic Mexican quesadillas you needed to head to an ethnic grocer to track down Chihuahua cheese. Or you punted and used cheddar, or maybe mozzarella.
People just weren't familiar with Mexican cheese. Even cheese expert Steve Jenkins didn't include a section on Mexican options in his groundbreaking 1996 book "Cheese Primer," focusing more on French and Italian varieties.
In fairness, the cheese-making tradition in Mexico doesn't run as deep as it does in Europe and didn't start until Spanish explorers brought cows, goats and sheep to the country.
Yet today, Hispanic-style cheeses are made throughout Mexico and in the United States and share space in the diary case with American, English and European varieties, making it much easier to add authenticity to your Cinco de Mayo menu.
"In the past 10 years we've seen a great migration of Hispanics into the suburbs and you can see changes in the supermarket," says Jenny Aguilar, marketing specialist with Nuestro Queso, a cheese company based in Elk Grove Village.
Nuestro Queso crafts Mexican-style cheeses at a plant in downstate Kent using milk from Illinois cows. And two of its locally produced varieties have come up winners at the American Cheese Society's national competition earlier this year. In the fresh cheese category, Nuestro Queso's queso fresco took first place; its panela took second. The company's Oaxaca variety took second in the string cheese category.
"Before you couldn't find it in big chain stores, you'd only find Kraft Mexican blend," Aguilar says. "Now you can find two to three Hispanic brands."
I asked Aguilar for help in pulling together a primer of sorts for Mexican cheeses; we came up with five styles with suggestions for using them.
Chihuahua or Duranguense: Named after the states in which it is typically produced, this is the most popular style of Mexican cheese. It was first produced by Mennonite settlers so you might also find it under the name queso menonita. It's almost always sold in rounds and has a salty, mild, sometimes sour flavor. It melts well, making it the choice for cheese dips (queso fundido) and quesadillas.
Cotija: This firm and somewhat crumbly aged cheese (queso anejado) is often sold grated, just as you would find Italian parmesan. Use it to top chili, refried beans or lasagna.
Queso Fresco: This is a fresh cheese made from cow, sheep or goat milk. Its spongy texture and high moisture content mean it doesn't melt well but is good for crumbling into salads. When heated, it becomes soft and creamy, so try it in stuffed peppers or on enchiladas.
Oaxaca: This semisoft stretched cheese is Mexico's answer to mozzarella. It's pulled into ropes (strings) and then rolled into a ball. With flavor that ranges from sweet to buttery, it's wonderful in quesadillas and on nachos and pizza.
Panela: Also called basket cheese (queso de canasta) for the way it is molded in baskets, this white, fresh milk cheese has a mild flavor. It's commonly used as a garnish for burritos and sliced onto sandwiches. Sliced thick and pan-fried, it's a tasty snack.