With cheese counters full of selections from all over the globe, you might half expect to hear the tune "It's a Small World" as you wander by. Cheeses from Portugal to Portland are making their way into stores, and Americans are happily discovering them.
These days, Hispanic varieties are the fastest-growing segment of the specialty cheese market. In California, the nation's largest producer of Hispanic cheeses, production has more than doubled in the last 10 years, to more than 80 million pounds.
You may know Hispanic cheeses by their individual names. Queso blanco and queso fresco often make their way into recipes featuring Mexican, Southwest or Latin food. But there are many more Hispanic cheeses to be enjoyed. And because of their mild flavor, they can be used in almost any dish that calls for cheese.
Here are the most common ones and some ideas for using them:
Queso blanco fresco This mild white cheese holds its shape when heated, which is why it sometimes goes by the name queso para freir, or frying cheese. Unheated, it's a crumbling cheese perfect for salads.
Queso blanco This differs from queso blanco fresco in that it's a good melting cheese, similar to Monterey Jack. Try using it in an omelet or a grilled cheese sandwich.
Panela A unique basket-weave pattern on the surface, created by the basket-like vessel in which this cheese is drained, distinguishes panela. A low-moisture cheese that holds its shape when heated, panela is wonderful breaded and sautéed and topped wtih tomato or pesto sauce.
Asadero Similar to provolone, asadero is a bit buttery and a great melting cheese. Unlike the sausage-shaped Italian version, asadero's shape is disk-like. Try it on top of your next pizza.
Oaxaca Speaking of pizzas, Oaxaca can best be described as braided mozzarella. It melts perfectly or is great eaten out of hand, a little like string cheese.
Cotija If you know feta, then you know cotija. The main difference is that while feta is cured in brine, cotija is simply salted and pressed to extract the moisture. Use it interchangeably with feta, but because it's a bit drier, it won't melt when heated.