Do you ever learn something that makes you question what you really know about life? I grew up thinking Pluto was a planet, chocolate milk came from brown cows and a grilled cheese was a sandwich. It turns out none of those is true – as Alejandro Rodriguez and Andreina Chavez explain to me, grilled cheese means something entirely different in Latin America. They actually grill their cheese. No bread, no butter; just cheese and a hot pan. I am intrigued.
We’re sitting in the Avenida Food Hall & Fresh Market in Calgary where Alejandro and Andreina have recently opened a retail stall for their distribution company, Latin Food Specialties. The family owned company aims to promote locally made Latin-style foods, Andreina tells me, but its main products are the Fresk-O cheeses made by Andreina’s brother, Rafael Chavez. Those delicious, grill-able Fresk-O cheeses. The company originally launched with three fresh cow’s milk cheeses in 2012: queso fresco, queso paisa and queso duro.
Back then they were producing cheese in the Leduc food processing development centre; a government-owned pilot plant and product development facility. Although Rafael had over 20 years’ experience as a cheesemaker, the trio were new to Canada and they had to develop a market for their Latin American cheeses, says Alejandro.
In fact when they first started out, they were the only producers of Latin-style cheese in Alberta. However it didn’t take long for the traditionally-made cheeses’ popularity to spread; their milky, soft queso fresco even won the 2013 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix in the best grilling cheese category! With demand growing quickly, Latin Foods moved manufacturing to their own facility in Lethbridge nearly three years ago. They’ve also added another cheese to their lineup: hard, crumbly and addictively-salty queso Cotija.
Named for the Mexican town of Cotija, this cheese is nicknamed “Parmesan of Mexico” because it gets hard and crumbly as it ages. Grate Cotija on top of tacos, enchiladas, salads, soups and casseroles or add it into your salad dressing for a satisfyingly salty kick. Or, like the other Fresk-O cheeses, grab a non-stick pan and turn the heat up! You can marinate the cheese with herbs if you’d like, but Andreina recommends simply frying cheese slices in a high temperature pan for about 30 seconds per side, until golden brown and gooey. Having taste tested it myself, I wholeheartedly agree that nothing else is needed to make these cheeses sing. The heat brings out the salt and melts the cheese ever so slightly while the pan creates a crispy layer that begs you to take a bite.
If sitting down and eating slice after slice (trust me, you can’t eat just one) of grilled cheese isn’t for you, there are a ton of ways to try Latin Foods’ fresh cheeses. Try a grilled caprese salad, put a slice of grilled cheese on your burgers or add it to quesadillas, burritos and even soups. A soft cheese on top of baked potatoes with bacon is a sure hit, and you can even grate a harder cheese into your lasagna for a cheesy layer that will keep its structure. And of course if you’re making deep-fried cheese sticks, this is the queso for you.