It was only after he heard her footsteps fade and the bedroom door shut that he dared to open the refrigerator door. He would have to be quick. His mother, who felt uncomfortable eating food someone else cooked in her kitchen, would be out in a matter of minutes to determine how her domain warmed three degrees without her at the helm.
But it might take a while to find what he was looking for. After she saw him looking at the small cream-colored, crumbly, prized block only days before, his mother had moved the cheese. It was very special to her. He heard stories of padded suitcases, decoys, and Nicaraguan and American customs agencies and suspected they had at something to do with the cheese.
Eleven minutes, a carton of spilled milk, and several quickened heart palpitations later, he found what he was seeking. From it he cut a thick slice the size of a card deck, wrapped it in a baggie, and ran to his car.
It was my birthday and Juan was supplying the Queso Seco Nicaraguense.
Pressed, and of a firmer consistency and tighter grain than feta, Queso Seco Nicaraguense is as hard to find in the United States as a non-hybrid SUV in Berkeley.
Unlike brie or mozzerella, Nicaragua’s version of queso seco is not meant to be eaten sliced and fresh. Lightly smoked and very salty, this cheese was created with the intention of flavoring beans, rice, and meats in a country where cheese used to cost less than salt.
If, after hearing Queso Seco Nicaraguense, you guessed its name to mean dry Nicaraguan cheese, very good. But there’s more. The specific cheese that Juan’s mother worked hard to acquire comes from one particular region within Nicaragua known for their queso seco. Like Parmesan Reggiano, the cheese is named after that region. But Juan and I don’t know its name because his mother is keeping it a secret, perhaps in jest, perhaps in the name of revenge for Juan stealing a slim slice.
What do you do with it?
It’s a tasty little cheese but is more appropriate for cooking and crumbling than slicing, although eating a sliver or two of it fresh did make my tummy feel warm inside.
In Juan’s mom’s kitchen:
After cooking beans, she’ll crumble the cheese over the legumes and rice. Then she’ll hide it with love.
Elsewhere in Nicaragua:
Unbeknowst to a former roomate and myself, sometimes this cheese is included as a filling in flaky cookies. Surprise! It makes a smoky, salty pastry similar to… nothing I’ve ever tried before. A little more like a cheese pastry or savory cheese biscuit than cookie.
In my kitchen:
I cooked up a stash of wheat berries that had been sitting in my baking cupboard for a month or five, steamed some green beans and tossed it all with argula, basil and queso seco.
In honor of the cheese’s original intention as a savory flavoring, my especially thin wallet and a ridiculously expensive Parmesean Reggiano wedge that was taunting me with its price at my local cheese shop, I made an impromptu pesto with this salty savory beauty on another day. It made a rustic, nutty pesto that topped spinach noodles nicely.
Has anyone ever tried this cheese? What do you do with it, besides sneak it in cookies? And…do any cheese lovers know its proper name?