My apartment sounds like the silence of the lambs. Except, instead of innocent lambs screaming at the slaughter, I have mosquitos, a swarm of them, and while I can only see and kill a few, I know they’re there. Their screaming gives them away. It’s a dog-eat-dog-world out there, and I plan on spending the next few hours killing me some mosquitos, otherwise I’m waking up swollen with welts. And itchy bites do not make for easy concentration in a Monday-morning yoga class.
Between swatting outbursts, I decided to arrange a Mexican cheese taste test, fairly simple given that I have four, FOUR, types of cheese waiting in my refrigerator right now. What can I say, I am a lover of all things cheesy, be it dairy product, bad joke, boy or eighties power ballad.
Queso número uno (starting from the left): Quesillo. This cheese has figured prominently in my time so far in Cholula, namely in the finger-licking good quesadillas made at my favorite restaurant stall inside the market building and on top of cooked chayote to give it some kick. White, salty and stringy, this cheese makes a good snack raw and melts into stringy goodness.
Número dos: Queso Manchego. In reality, this cheese has no right to call itself manchego, the true stuff coming only from La Mancha, Spain (home to no less than Don Quijote himself). The Mexican version is also made from sheep’s milk, but I have yet to see it cured and aged to the drier, harder consistency and the developed flavor that made me fall in love with true manchego. Also what makes the Spanish cheese such a perfect accompaniment to jamón ibérico or, when that stretches the wallet too far, jamón serrano. (I also love that traditional Spanish dessert of manchego paired with quince paste, membrillo) But alas, Mexican cheeses are mostly simple, fresh affairs. Not that I’m complaining! Queso Manchego is softer and less developed to be sure, but still has good flavor.
Número tres: Queso Chihuahua. Softer and milder than the Manchego. Supposed to melt really well due to the high fat content (think soft cheddar). I plan on using it to top a tortilla and vegetable casserole on the agenda tomorrow.
Número quatro: Queso fresco. A white, salty, soft and crumbly cheese made of cow’s milk. A cheese with many uses: eaten straight, crumbled on top of appetizers, sliced to make a melty filling for enchiladas or chiles. I plan on, ahem, exploring this cheese’s many facets.
And there are many left to try, including but not limited to: queso panela, queso asadero, queso añejo, queso cojito (just grated cheese to top various antojitos).
I also tried Queso de Puerco, not really a cheese at all but, rather, headcheese—a favorite deli meat in various European countries. In other words, all the goodies from the pig’s head, including ears, and any meaty bits, congealed with the naturally gelatin of the skull. The smell is reminiscent of bologna, but there is no mistaking the various textures that makes up this delicious deli meat—it’s all in plain sight. It made a great torta with mayo, sliced tomato, onion and avocado and the slightest spread of salsa de chipotle.
That oddly-named foodstuff is a nice segue into the real theme of this week: meat; slow-cooked, juicy meat and various tender and fatty animal parts, all wrapped up in freshly-made tortillas, topped with a little diced onion, cilantro, lime juice, and salsa roja or verde, and gobbled down greedily between glugs of fruity, sugary refresco.
Wednesday was Gustavo’s birthday. After some obstacles and failures I will refrain from relating here, including struggling to wrestle control over my ancient oven with nigh a temperature gauge and foolishly using some very-odd smelling butter bought from a butter mountain at the market (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), I succeeded in baking my favorite chocolate cake from Molly Wizenberg’s fantastic blog Orangette and equally delightful new book A Homemade Life. But that’s not the exciting part, just the part where I brag a little. The exciting part was accompanying Sr. Canal and Sra. Zanella to buy carnitas, buche and cueritos for Gustavo’s birthday. Pork and pork parts. That I can live with. Now, tripe and intestinal bits have never really been my favorites, I often think this meat has the texture you would expect it to and tastes just a little too, well, bodily. But buche, pig’s esophagus, was delicious. Tender and yielding, never chewy, juicy, with a delicate pork flavor. Cueritos are yet another incarnation of cooked pig skin. In contrast to the fried chicharrón—a great snack and potato chip alternative—or the soft, almost disintegrating gelatinous chicharrón stewed in sauce, this pork skin was tender yet still substantial, slow-cooked and flavorful; as anyone who knows his textures can attest, a Jello Jiggler wins hands-down when up against your dish of run-of-the-mill, flimsy Jello.
The next day, after a late night celebrating Gustavo’s birthday, Bush, Sr. Canal and I loaded up in the Chevy and headed to Pachuca. Sr. Canal’s dentist appointment was merely a pretext, the real reason for this expedition was the highway-side barbacoa, mutton (borrego) slow-cooked, seasoned and wrapped in maguey leaves, in an earth pit, covered with rocks and dirt to seal in the heat overnight. It seems that the best food in Mexico is found next to some highway.
On the way to the appointment, Sr. Canal got out of the car, crossed multiple lanes of traffic to the median and yelled to the cook to save us some panza, his favorite. When we rolled up an hour and a half later, there was more than enough panza, both verde and roja, waiting for us. We started with consomé, or broth. I was expecting a mild meat broth of some sort, much like the consomé de pollo I had sampled before. Instead, I was greeted with a fragrant, rich broth with a few garbanzo beans in the mix. The onion, lime, and salsa added to taste lightened the nearly-intoxicatingly rich broth. As Sr. Canal saw my eyes widen with the first bite, he chuckled, exclaiming “¡Jugo de carne, puro jugo de carne!” Pure meat juice. Literally; a pan is placed underneath the slow-cooked borrego, capturing the juice that runs down from the meat, which is served as a first course.
Next, a platter of barbacoa, panza verde and panza roja covering a cooked maguey leaf, served with small, green, fresh tortillas, onion, cilantro, and the universal salsa verde and salsa roja. Now I know I said I have never been much of a tripe fan, but this mixture of odds and ends changed my mind. Esophagus, stomach, heart, and who knows what else, all chopped up and mixed with flavorful sauces. I liked the stuff more than the straight barbacoa. Probably had something to do with the high fat-content. Makes for great eating. In the photo, the panza roja is closest and to the right, panza verde in the middle, and the barbacoa to the left and back.
After this mind-numbing gluttony, we loaded back into the car to continue our expedition. We first visited the sixteenth-century aqueduct, built by indigenous hands to bring fresh water to the Franciscan convents built in the region.
Next, on a tour of the countryside in search of ex-haciendas. We saw several up close, but many more tucked up under distant hills.
We also saw our fair share of campesinos herding cows and sheep.
We returned home, fat, happy and tired.
These meaty feasts were a much-welcome change from the eggs, yogurt, cereal, chicken broth and tortillas I had been living on for three days, huddled on my couch with a fever. I guess those antibiotics my doctors prescribed were a good idea after all. Although the same medication is available here, over the counter. As a result, I have no recipes to offer. Cooking was far from intriguing this week. Eating, on the other hand, never fails.