It’s a safe bet that, for as long as humans have been eating cheese, they’ve been doing so by melting the stuff and scooping up the results with something else that’s tasty. That’s done in some form or another all over the cheese eating world, but for my mind, the most sublime and delicioso dish in this regard comes from Mexico – Esto es Queso Fundido.
Since the Belyy Dom recently threatened to further screw with imports from our southern neighbors, I thought it appropriate to highlight the wealth of all great things cheesy that comes from Mexico. This is also a good time to point out some important misunderstandings about what’s a genuine Mexican dish and what’s purely Tex Mex.
So, let’s swing for the fence right off the bat – Anything made with some version of American cheese, (Velveeta, Super Melt, Extra Melt, whatever), is not Mexican food in any way, shape, or form. Yes, a lot of restaurants use this stuff, (even ones that say they make Mexican food – Keep in mind who they’re feeding…) Yes, in Texas queso really is widely made with it. Yes, after a beer or three, queso made of nothing but Velveeta and a can of Rotel diced tomatoes and chopped green chiles tastes pretty damn good – But it’s not Mexican food, and that’s that. It’s also not just cheese variety that speaks to authenticity, it’s the volume, or proportion, per dish. Generally speaking, Mexican cooking uses cheese as a balanced part of a dish or meal – It’s not something buried under half a pound of molten goo – That’s a purely American affectation.
What is the Real Deal, then? Queso fundido, or sometimes queso flameado, would be it. Fundido means melted, flameado means flambé. Both are genuinely served down south in taquerias and restaurants. Fundido is pretty common, often in play at home for using up this and that from fridge or pantry, while flameado is done more for show or special occasions, (and it is it spectacular – Go to Benito’s in Fort Worth and you’ll see what I mean.) Fundido in restaurants is probably more popular up in the northern part of Mexico.
Typically, you’ll see a blend of cheeses mixed with chorizo, chiles, tomato, onion, maybe cilantro and garlic, depending on what’s good or needs to get used. Traditional preparation calls for the cheese and the adjuncts to be cooked separately and mixed just prior to serving. Chorizo and veggies are most often sautéed, while the cheese might be prepared via stove top, oven, or broiler. Fundido or flameado are most often served with fresh tortillas as an appetizer, or as a condiment for primary dishes.
There’s somewhere around 40 unique varieties of Mexican queso down there, and they’re every bit as nuanced and delicious as cheese from anywhere else. Sure, cheese came to Mexico because of invading Spaniards and their cows, sheep, and goats, but hey – the locals made the best of it, and they still are – much to our benefit. There are varieties you can find almost anywhere in Mexico, like Queso Fresco, Panela, and Oaxaca, but there are far more that are truly regional, and home cheesemaking is still pretty widespread. Today there are at least a dozen major cheese producing states and regions. Most of the output comes from raw cows milk, (albeit the mass produced stuff is pasteurized), with a little bit here and there from sheep and goats – And there are efforts underway to increase the output and variety of non-cows milk cheeses.
Until quite recently, finding good quality, genuine Mexican cheese up here in los Estados Unidos was not all that easy, but that’s changing. In a lot of grocery chains, you’ll discover a few mainstays offered, and if your town is graced with a good Latin grocery or two, you’ll probably find a lot more. This Sunday morning, I stepped into the La Gloria market in Bellingham, Washington and found a thriving, vibrant store packed with great stuff, (including a fantastic carniceria). At first I was the only white person in there, (always a good sign), but then a father and two young sons arrived, and I watched Pop present his eldest to the counter, where he did a fine job ordering in halting Spanish – Very cool indeed. After working with the counter guy for a bit, he told me that most of the cheese they offer is imported from Mexico, but there are good queseros establishing themselves here in the states, which is very good news.
Alright, so – assuming that you can find decent Mexican queso, what would you want for stellar fundido? There’s a wealth of great melting cheeses that will fit the bill. Here’s my short list, along with reasonable substitutions in parenthesis.
Asadero (Provolone) – This is a slightly chewy fresh cheese with a nice tang. It melts really well, so it’s great for fundido, (or for chiles relleños).
Chihuahua (Jack) – This is my personal fave. From the state of the same name, and sometimes called Menonita in honor of the Mennonite farmers who first introduced it, good Chihuahua is like Jack cheese used (and aught) to be. Fresh it’s like a tangy mild cheddar with a very light bite – aged it sports a deep and complex tang.
Enchilado (Parmesan) – tangy, aged cheese rolled in paprika, that gets crumblier as it gets older – It’s like cotija that’s tastier, less salty and better at melting. Adds a really nice depth to a blend.
Manchego (Jack or Asiago) – The Mexican swing on the famous Spanish variety, this is a semi-firm cheese with a nice nutty flavor that melts very well. It’s a cows milk cheese, as opposed to the sheep milk Spanish version – The fireworks between the two countries over this topic are truly something.
Oaxaca (Mozzarella) – produced in balls as Mozz is, it’s a mild tasty cheese and a great melter.
My thoughts now turn to what you want from this dish when you make it. If you’re intending to eat everything you make right away, then there’s no need to consider the longevity of the final product. If on the other hand, you want queso that you can keep in the fridge for a few days and pull out for quick use, an alternative recipe is in order – I’ve provided the kicker to make that happen as well. Finally, if you want to try a hand at flameado, there’s a recipe for that, too – Just be bloody careful, (and don’t be ripped when you prepare it). It is not necessary to do the table presentation flaming and mixing trick, and I’ll strongly urge you not to try that, it’s all to often a recipe for disaster – What you’ll get is a lovely, smoky note from the tequila.
Final note – Chorizo is not necessary for great queso, but it is a delight. Mexican chorizo is a whole different animal than Spanish – There are a bunch of varieties, and every one I’ve tried is great. Unlike the Spanish stuff, which is a hard, cured sausage, Mexican chorizo is a fresh product, perfect for grilling solo, adding to queso, or for tacos, and anything else you like. If you’ve got a good carniceria near you, I’ll guarantee they make it, so snag some.
Queso Fundido de Urban
1 Cup Queso Chihuahua
1/3 Cup Queso Asadero
1/3 Cup Queso Manchego
1/3 Cup Queso Enchilado
2-4 fresh Jalapeño or Serrano Chiles (sub 1-2 mild Hatch, Anaheim, or even sweet bells, if you don’t want heat)
1 small Sweet or Yellow Onion
2 fresh Roma Tomatoes
2-3 cloves fresh Garlic
3-6 stems fresh Cilantro
1 Cup cold Chicken Stock
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot (Corn Starch is OK for a sub)
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil
Salt and freshly ground Pepper
Optional: 1/2 Pound fresh Chorizo (Or Chorizo Seco if you can get it)
Grate and portion all cheeses.
Stem, trim, and if necessary, field strip chiles, then dice.
Peel, trim and mince garlic.
Peel, trim and dice 1/2 onion, (I like about a cup of diced – Your mileage may vary).
Dice tomatoes (leave them whole and dice – The liquid is a good thing).
Fine dice the cilantro, stems and all.
If including, cook the chorizo in a heavy skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat – Again, you can incorporate this into the queso, per the steps below, or leave it solo – It’s up to you.
Combine arrowroot and cold Chicken stock in a mixing bowl and whisk to completely dissolve and incorporate.
Add avocado oil to the hot pan and heat through. Add chiles and onion and sauté until the onion starts to brown slightly, about 2-4 minutes.
Add the tomato and sauté until they start to break down slightly, about 2-3 minutes more.
Add the garlic and sauté until the raw garlic smell dissipates, about 1 minute.
Add the arrowroot slurry to the veggie mix and stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate thoroughly – Continue mixing until the sauce starts to thicken, about 1 minute.
Add the cheese in batches, (1/3 to 1/2 Cup at a time), and stir to incorporate thoroughly.
If using, add the chorizo to the queso with a slotted spoon and stir to incorporate thoroughly.
Let the queso simmer for about 3-5 minutes so everything heats through and marries nicely.
Serve in a shallow bowl with fresh tortillas, or chips, with fresh pico de gallo, or as a side for tacos, enchiladas, chimis, what have you. If you can get (or make) fresh corn tortillas, that’s what you want.
To make fresh corn chips, preheat oven to 375° F. Cut tortillas into even 6ths, and arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet, and season lightly with salt. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until top side starts to brown, then flip the chips and bake for another 8-10 until golden brown and crispy. Serve hot.
For the Extended Dance Version of Queso – Substitute 1 Cup of Evaporated Milk for the water, add the arrowroot to that, and whisk until arrowroot is fully dissolved. Proceed as per the recipe the rest of the way. The addition of the milk will create a queso that will stay more liquid instead of seizing up as the cheese cools – Will keep in an airtight refrigerated container for 3-5 days, and makes for easy reheating, or even room temp chowing.
For the Flameado – Add 1/4 Cup Reposado or Anejo tequila to the finished queso while it’s still in the skillet. Flame with a match and allow the alcohol to burn off as it does its magic on the top surface of the queso. Always add booze from a separate cup – Never straight from the bottle! And okay, if you really must, you can flame on and then bring it to the table while she’s still lit, but be bloody careful, for Pete’s sake!