Thursday, April 30, 2009

Queso Fresco - Home Cheesemaking

Homemade Queso Fresco

This Queso Fresco was our very first attempt at a pressed cheese, and it came out very well. Pictured above the day after it was made, it is completely ready to use. How awesome is that?

Our first test was to use it how we normally use queso fresco when we have it on hand: crumbled atop something. In this case, it is gracing a simple breakfast of memelitas:


The cheese added a very nice lactic and salty element to the salsa atop freshly cooked corn tortillas.

In addition to our traditional uses, this cheese has surprised us with its versatility. It melts much better than we expected, and makes for a very nice quesadilla. Given this, we decided to give it a shot as a pizza cheese. We made a simple Pizza "Margarita" (no, not Margherita - this a Mexican, not Italian cheese after all...)

Grilled Pizza with Queso Fresco

The result was quite nice indeed.

The cheese-making process is actually quite simple - like many artisanal products, it mostly takes time and a little attention to detail. For recipe guidance I've been using the book Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses by Ricki Carroll. It's been a very helpful resource.

For my queso fresco I started with two gallons of organic whole milk. The thing that gives many cheeses their characteristic twang is an active culture that produces lactic acid. I used a freeze-dried version (Mesophilic A) from that you add directly to the milk. Since my milk was homogenized I also added a little calcium chloride to avoid an overly soft curd.

Queso Fresco

After letting the milk ripen at 90°F for 20 minutes, I stirred in some diluted rennet and let it form a reasonably solid curd - it sets up rather like a custard. Next the curd gets sliced into little cubes and the solids start to release a lot of liquid (the whey).

Queso Fresco

The cubes release even more whey and shrink significantly while you slowly increase the temperature to 95°F and gently stir them. I was surprised to learn that many cheeses use almost identical ingredients and preparation techniques, but that a few degrees of temperature variation makes the results quite different.

Queso Fresco

After pouring off as much whey as possible, it's time to salt the curd. The simplest method for ensuring an even distribution is to gently stir it and break up clumps using your fingers.

Queso Fresco

Because queso fresco is a "pressed cheese", you then need to press it. The compression requires weight, which I improvised like so:

Improvised Cheese Press

Upon reflection, I like to think of this press as representing my three careers thus far - Microbiology, Epidemiology, and now making good food. The press worked well, apart from a few loud, startling tumbles - one of which sent the cheese flying. Fortunately, no damage was done - we do need a real press, though...

Now that I'm comfortable with the cheese-making process I'm anxious to try my hand at some hard, aged cheeses like cheddar, gouda and maybe a parmesan. But since those take several months to mature, I'm sure we'll be eating lots of tasty queso fresco in the meantime.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Smoked Tri-Tip

Smoke Tri-Tip

We're getting our first really hot weather here in San Diego, and for us that means it is time to fire up the grill. We had a nice prime Brandt Beef Tri-Tip - a beautiful piece of meat with lovely veins of fat marbled through it.

It was smoked for a bit over an hour over a mix of pecan and hickory to an internal temp around 140°.

This was our first time smoking Tri-Tip. Wow, was it good!

Smoked Tri-Tip

The frenzy of the slicing was exceeded by the frenzy of the eating...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Lamb Meatball Tagine Pizza And Other Cross-Mediterranean Explorations

Meatball Tagine Pizza

I find myself endlessly fascinated by the various cuisines of the world. On the one hand I am intrigued by their diverse styles and flavors. On the other, I'm often also struck by things that they have in common.

Case in point - the similarities and differences among the foods of Southern Europe and North Africa - the "two sides of the Mediterranean", if you will.

One evening we made a Moroccan Lamb Meatball Tagine:

Moroccan Lamb Mini-Meatball Tagine

After my initial reaction (I love it!), I thought about how the tomato base in the tagine reminded me of an Italian pasta sauce (and an Indian curry sauce as well, but that is another story altogether). As is often the case, I was planning another dish while eating the current one (something Sherry finds frustrating).

In this case, the next dish was to use the leftover meatballs and sauce with pasta (taking it to the "North Side" of the Mediterranean). The pasta we used was Campanelle, which is named after its characteristic trumpet shape.

Campanelle with Moroccan Lamb Mini-Meatballs

The result was very nice indeed. Probably even more enjoyably than the original dish.

Bolstered by this success, we decided to try using the tagine as a pizza topping. It seemed fitting, since various forms of flatbread are a staple of cultures on both sides of the Mediterranean. Pictured at the top of this post, and below, the resulting pie was wonderful:

Meatball Tagine Pizza

We cooked the pizza on the grill, of course. Everything came together in a perfect conglomeration of flavors and textures. I just hope we can re-create it.

And we've got more Lamb "Tagineballs" safely stowed away for whatever other cross-cultural experiment we come up with next.

Campanelle with Moroccan Lamb Mini-Meatballs

Lamb Meatball Banh Mi, perhaps? Maybe some tacos? On a breakfast sandwich? In a soup?

We'll see...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Our First Cured Sausages

Cured Spanish Sausages

Our new meat curing fridge has now officially borne fruit, and I'm happy to report that our first cured sausage is a success!

It is an improvised "Spanish-style" sausage that we first did as a "regular" sausage and later as a smoked sausage. We figured it wouldn't hurt to give it a try as a cured sausage.

I'm glad we did.

Cured Spanish Sausages

I find it amazing how the sausages change during the dry curing process - shrinking and darkening, flavors getting concentrated within. They lost over a third of their weight during the 3 weeks of curing, firming up into dense, solid links.

So far we've just been eating it straight-up, sliced thinly. The taste is wonderfully rich, complex and meaty.

Cured Spanish Sausages

We are very pleased with our first cured sausage. It certainly won't be our last - especially since we have some Saucisson Sec that is almost ready...