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Ethnic Cheese PerceptionsEthnic Cheese Perceptions

September 29, 2008

8 Min Read
Ethnic Cheese Perceptions

Cheese is always a crowd pleaser. But, while classic American cheeses remain a favorite among U.S. consumers, more people are seeking ethnic cheese, prompting the culinary world and food processors to take note. From sprinkling asadero shreds over a plate of spicy nachos to serving baked empanadas stuffed with Cotija, ethnic cheese’s appeal and versatility—particularly from the Italian and Hispanic options—is endless.

Rediscovering Italy

Processors continue to respond to strong consumer demand for Italian cheeses, such as Parmesan, Romano and, most recently, Asiago, by incorporating them into many new line extensions and new products. Italian cheese continues to be a favorite among our customers—approximately 50% of our company’s new product concepts contain Italian cheese.

While traditional Italian cheeses remain popular, chefs have begun exploring different Italian cheeses

Burrata. Originating from southern Italy, burrata is a fresh cow’s milk cheese created by dipping fresh curd into hot whey. It is then stretched and kneaded to the desired texture. The stretched curd is stored in a bag for one day to several weeks, depending on the desired flavor and consistency of the soft-centered cheese. Short aging delivers a soft to semi-firm flowing center of the cheese. Adding ingredients, such as dried or fresh fruit or herbs, to the curd before dipping into the hot whey adds flavor.

With its rich, buttery flavor and creamy texture, burrata functions well as a stuffing in ravioli or other filling applications, as well as a salad topper. Chef Jeremy Fox, one of the Best New Chefs named by “Food & Wine,” features burrata in a strawberry basil pizza margherita and in a grilled peach and French bean salad at his Napa, CA restaurant, Ubuntu.

Buffalo mozzarella. This fresh mozzarella cheese offers a soft texture and sweet, delicate flavor. Now produced domestically, buffalo mozzarella is made from a combination of water-buffalo milk and cow’s milk. Because it is a fresh cheese with a limited shelf life and can be created in a matter of minutes, some fine-dining chefs opt to make their own buffalo mozzarella to feature in specialty sandwiches, pasta dishes, savory soups and fresh salads.

One of my favorite buffalo mozzarella dishes is Italian tomato Caprese, a summertime favorite with fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella combined with basil and an Italian vinaigrette. The acidity from the vinaigrette and tomatoes blends very well with the soft roundness of this fresh cheese. Though often not practical to use buffalo mozzarella in manufactured applications due to its short shelf life, there are several manufacturing-friendly process and specialty cheeses that can be substituted to achieve a similar texture and flavor.

Fontina. A semi-soft, mild cheese with a light, nutty flavor made in Valle d’Aosta, Italy since the 12th century, fontina has been popular among American chefs for decades, and its use and familiarity among consumers is growing.

Fontina works well in sauces for beef or pork, as well as in soufflés, fondues and pizza, due to its high melt properties—it becomes soft when heated but will not melt out, thus resulting in a smooth texture and mouthfeel. I enjoy adding fontina to nontraditional applications, such as a shrimp egg rolls, as well as traditional dishes like butternut squash and sage ravioli or a seafood manicotti. When I was a restaurant chef, one of our featured dishes paired grilled peaches with fontina, strawberries marinated in balsamic vinegar and turbinado sugar, and prosciutto-wrapped melon.

Although a semi-soft cheese, fontina can become quite hard as it ages and develop a more-pungent aroma than younger cheeses. For a milder, creamier taste experience, try Danish fontina, which is a less aged and softer than Italian types.

Taleggio. This semi-soft, washed-rind cheese from the Val Taleggio region in northern Italy is known as one of the oldest soft cheeses, with references dating back to the 10th century.

Made from cow’s milk, Taleggio is a soft, oozy cheese with a velvety mouthfeel. Though it has a pungent odor, it has a surprisingly mild flavor. After an initial salty impact, the flavor unfolds to reveal meaty richness, yeasty undertones and a fruity finish. When ripe, it is creamy, almost runny, with a dry, but not cracked, rind.

Taleggio’s complex combination of texture, flavor and distinctive aroma makes it an increasingly popular choice that pairs nicely with a variety of red and white wines such as merlot or a dessert riesling. Its soft, creamy texture allows Taleggio to flourish in numerous applications. It can be chopped for salads, spread on toast, or melted in hot pasta sauces, risotto or polenta. As a finale to a great meal, I enjoy the combination of membrillo (preserved quince paste) and a touch of Taleggio on an almond tuile as a sort of petit four.

Some on-air chefs are showcasing Taleggio. Food Network chef Giada De Laurentiis recently featured it in a warm pear panini.

Authentic Hispanic

Given the growing Hispanic population and the popularity of the cuisine, Hispanic cheese has exploded in the United States. Menu Insights data from Mintel, Chicago, show the number of menu mentions for Hispanic cheeses jumped 78% from 2006 to 2007, with queso fresco, Cotija, Oaxaca and Manchego leading the way. Some of the nation’s trendiest restaurants are featuring these on their menus, including Gautreau’s (New Orleans), Mesa Grill (New York, Las Vegas, Bahamas), Table Fifty-Two (Chicago) and Frontera Grill (Chicago).

Queso fresco. One of the most-popular Mexican cheeses is queso fresco, also known as queso blanco, a creamy, unaged, white Mexican cheese. With its mild, slightly salty flavor, queso fresco serves as an excellent topping for Mexican dishes, including enchiladas, soups and salads. It also works well in dishes requiring restricted melt, such as empanadas, as it will not melt or blow out when heat is applied.

I also use queso fresco or a comparable restricted-melt cheese when preparing crossover menu items like Mexican lasagna bites, made by layering lasagna noodles with various Mexican ingredients, including queso fresco cheese. The lasagna is chilled, then cut into squares and rolled in ground pasta crumbs. When the lasagna bites are baked, the queso fresco maintains its integrity to create a delicious, bite-sized appetizer. The light flavor also blends well with other ethnic applications, such as Thai, where traditionally you would not find a cheese, but the flavorful addition makes for a somewhat unexpected, but delicious, combination. Thai barbecue chicken pizza with queso fresco is one possible option.

Cotija. This hard, grating Mexican cheese, also known as queso añejado, is named after the Mexican town of Cotija in the state of Michoacán. Sometimes referred to as the “Parmesan of Mexico,” Cotija is an aged, extremely salty, pungent cheese. Its flavor profile enhances any Mexican dish, including beans, enchiladas, tacos or salad.

I use Cotija when creating Hispanic corn gratin, prepared by taking freshly grilled corn, rolling it lightly in mayonnaise or sour cream and then sprinkling chili powder on top.

Our proprietary menu research lists Cotija in Cuban applications, and I believe its appeal will continue to increase.

Oaxaca. Originating from the Mexican state of the same name, Oaxaca cheese’s flavor profile is similar to unaged Monterey Jack and has a texture similar to mozzarella. It is an excellent melting cheese for quesadillas, chiles rellenos and queso fundido, as it softens without completely melting when heat is applied.

If melt restriction is an important characteristic but shelf life is a concern, a mild, restricted-melt cheese can be a more-manufacturing-friendly alternative to Oaxaca or other fresh melting cheeses.

Manchego. Hailed as Spain’s most-famous cheese, Manchego is sheep’s milk cheese named for the Manchego sheep that graze the plains of La Mancha in central Spain. A semi-hard to hard cheese, its rich, nutty flavor can vary in intensity depending on its maturity. Somewhat melt-friendly, some chefs use Manchego as they do Cheddar. It functions well in quesadillas, empanadas and other filled applications, as well as on salads or vegetables.

Increased mention of Manchego in our latest proprietary menu research versus six months ago suggests that Manchego could become the next big ethnic cheese. Mintel research also supports frequent use of this cheese in fine-dining restaurants, and it should start trickling over into casual-dining outlets.

Manchego is one of my particular favorites, with its versatility and roundness of flavor. You can use it as a salad topper via Manchego crisps (crispy, fried Manchego), or in dessert applications such as an almond and Manchego soufflé with Calvados (apple brandy) ice cream. Table Fifty-Two serves Manchego cheese with hand-cut french fries and paprika seasoning.

Cabrales. Another Spanish cheese of distinction is Cabrales, a rough-rinded, semi-soft blue cheese named after a village in the Picos de Europa Mountains. Although now typically made from cow’s milk, Cabrales was developed from blending cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk.

Cabrales offers a soft, creamy texture and pungent flavor. It has the ability to hold up under heat or liquid without breaking. In my opinion, Cabrales is the best blue cheese the world has to offer. From salad to soufflés, to savory tarts and sweet cheese beignets, I have always been an admirer of the decadent, aromatic bouquet of Cabrales and the hearty bite of its big, blue flavor.

Ethnic cheese can enhance and transform a variety of dishes. Its many varieties, flavor profiles and melting properties have already generated new menu concepts and crossover applications, and I believe the appeal of ethnic cheese will only continue to gain momentum as consumers become more exposed to these flavorful regional cheeses and top chefs continue to experiment.

Justin Young is executive chef of Kraft Food Ingredients, Memphis, TN. In addition to having extensive restaurant experience, he apprenticed with French Master Chef Pierre Orsi and is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, College of Culinary Arts, Charleston, SC. Young is a member of the Research Chefs Association. For more information on Kraft Food Ingredients, visit kraftfoodingredients.com or call 901/381-6612.

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