One gaze at restaurant menus like those of A16 in San Francisco or Babbo in NYC tells you that American chefs have fallen long and hard for fresh cheeses such as mozzarella or burrata. And certainly their fresh and tangy sisters, chevre and feta, live a long, full life in salads across the nation.
But what about queso fresco? Unless their focus is entirely Latin American, it’s rare that high-end restaurants in the United States, even those in California and the southwest of Texas where Mexican culture heavily influences the states’ cuisine, flaunt the Mexican freshies.
But they’re naughty for not doing it. Bad. Queso fresco rocks.
It’s cheaper then the best burrata made in the U.S., readily available especially in California and Southwestern states, and (hold on to your britches) often tastes better than some of the most reputable mozzarella sold in grocery stores and some gourmet markets, and, it expresses the flavors of fresh milk as charmingly as the Italian favorites. In short, it’s damn good and we need to eat more of it.
Queso fresco’s name says it all. Made all over Latin American countries, this pressed, fresh cheese makes guest appearances in numerous dishes south of the U.S. border. Crumbled, sliced, melted, queso fresco is a workhorse cheese that pleases no matter how it’s served. When traveling in Mexico, I saw it most often crumbled like a light dusting of snow over salads, beans and enchiladas. As the filling for chile rellanos, it lends a slightly salty and fresh buttery taste to the finished product.
The best ones tell the charms of the fresh, sweet milk from which they are made, and if whole milk was used (bless the cheesemaker), queso fresco will soften wonderfully, but not melt entirely, between two corn tortillas.
I would highly encourage all of you to explore your local queso frescos. I’ve found some awesome ones in Cali, sure, but have tasted just as many tasty ones from Wisconin. Play with it where you would use feta or chevre on salads, crumbled over lentil and black bean soups, and as a treat atop garlic and olive oil-laden pasta.
My most recent favorite queso fresco dish, which was aided by a leftover duck confit leg that my roomie who works at Chez Panisse brought home from work, was a very simple salad I made at home with the last of the seasonal tomatoes. If the late summer tomatoes aren’t gracing your market stands anymore, try using plums or the soon-to-be released persimmons. Using a little arugula in this salad is optional.
For the confit, I hope that you either have a roomie who also works at Chez Panisse (please don’t take mine), a butcher chop near you who confits ducks occasionally, or time to slowly cook your own (duck) legs in pure duck fat. Mmmmmm……. duck fat.
Queso Fresco and Tomato Salad with Duck Confit
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 minced shallot
1 teaspoon thyme, freshly chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1-2 duck confit legs The Technique for Duck Confit- Gourmet Magazine
2 medium-sized heirloom tomatoes, of different color
2.5 ounces queso fresco
Combine balsamic, garlic and thyme in a small bowl. Let sit so thyme will soften and “cook” in the vinegar for 2-3 minutes. Add olive oil and stir. Salt and pepper to taste.
Slice tomatoes and arrange on plate so the different colors alternate. Salt and pepper lightly. Pull the meat from the duck confit legs and place over tomatoes. Crumble queso fresco over salad and drizzle with vinaigrette.