Big Cheese

An ode to cotija, the versatile Mexican cheese we love to cook with.

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In these tight economic times, more cooks are recalling the old adage "Waste not, want not", but in my mother's kitchen thriftiness has always ruled. When I was growing up, tired tomatoes found their way into lamb soups that soothed my family through long New York winters, and wilting eggplants, carrots, and cauliflower met their fate in simmering pots of lentils. I was hardly surprised, then, by my mother's reaction one evening last summer when I arrived at her doorstep with a pound of Mexican cotija cheese: "How are you ever going to use all of that?"

Queso cotija, or queso añejo, as it's more widely known, is a hard, aged, white cheese that's usually crumbled over finished dishes like salads, tacos, and quesadillas. I'd brought it that night to sprinkle on the grilled corn I was preparing for a barbecue dinner. Corn slathered with mayonnaise and enlivened with cheese and chili powder is a popular street snack in Mexico, and plenty of New York restaurants have adopted the preparation as an appetizer, so I was excited to introduce it to my parents—especially because corn tossed with chili powder is also a common Indian snack. The corn used up only an ounce of cheese, though.

The pressure was on, but I wasn't worried. Specialty ingredients, like mustard, chutney, or sausage, always end up getting used in Mom's house, and I knew that my pound of cotija would too.

Fast-forward to the birthday of my older sister, who insisted that, as a gift, I bake her favorite cheddar cheese scones with chives and cream. As I began grating a block of extra-sharp cheddar, Mom appeared at my side: "You're going to use your white cheese too, right?"

My sister protested, insisting that she wanted my scones as I had always prepared them, but the idea sparked my interest. So, in addition to the half pound of cheddar, I threw in a cup of grated cotija. Cotija doesn't melt as well as other cheeses, but it does add a salty, slightly funky bite. My scones didn't disappoint, and the cheddar was made even sharper with the tangy cotija.

There was still plenty of cheese left to play with; because of its high salt content, cotija can last for quite a long time. As the weather turned cold, I returned to the idea of Mexican corn sans barbecue. I tossed together the ingredients for corn bread from a regular recipe and added creamed corn, chopped jalapeños, chili powder, and plenty of grated cotija and cheddar. The creamed corn and cheese made the corn bread extra moist and rich, and I could even see the little bits of cotija after the bread had baked. I had hit upon a classic.

About a cup of grated cotija remained, but I trusted that Mom would find a solution. Despite her Indian background, she makes a killer lasagne, and the next time she prepared it she ran out of mozzarella. Once again, the cotija saved the day. Tucked in between the pasta's layers, the cheese sang through the thick, meaty tomato sauce and ricotta-and-egg filling. It was easily the most memorable lasagne that Mom's made in years.