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Making Queso Fresco (and refried beans)

Another favorite around here?  Queso Fresco!  We use it on almost everything from tacos to enchiladas to sopes to gorditas to flautas to tortas to pasta to chilaquiles to quesadillas.  I love it!  Queso Fresco is a fresh Mexican cheese...that is soft and somewhat moist...but perfect for crumbling.  It doesn't really melt, but I LOOOOVE the way it tastes when it's warm.  It's sort of spongey and salty and milky. Mmmmm!  In all honesty, I usually buy it.  That's because I had yet to find a recipe that gave me what I was looking for.  Well folks, those times are through.  The MAN has come through...as if I ever had any doubt.  The longest part of the process is the culturing step...but it all hands-off, so don't let that scare you away.  I used citric acid (as opposed to the lime juice) when making the cheese since I already have it on hand for cheese making.  If that scares you or you don't have any readily available, then try the lime juice method!  Another thing...you may be tempted to dump the salted curds into a mold, but it really isn't necessary.  Simply gathering them together into the shape of a disk is perfectly sufficient.  Not to mention- gorgeously rustic!

Queso Fresco
makes ~1 lb.

1 gallon whole or 2% milk (remember, the richer the milk/flavor, the better the cheese)
2 c. buttermilk
1 tsp. Citric Acid (sometimes called sour salt)
OR
1 c. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. salt (pure, fine-ground sea salt works best)

 Culture the milk.  Pour milk into a very large pot over med-low heat.  Stir in buttermilk.  Bring milks to 75° F, turn off heat, cover pot and let sit for 3-4 hours.

 Set the curd.  If using citric acid, stir it into ¼ c. cold water, continuing to stir until dissolved.  With lid off pot, turn heat to medium and stir dissolved citric acid or lime juice into milk mixture.  You will immediately see small curds start to form.  Every couple of minutes, stir slowly, gently, & thoroughly over entire bottom of pot until milk reaches 195°F, ~20 minutes.  At this point the curds will be very obvious, floating in the milky-transparent whey.  Remove from heat, let stand five minutes without stirring so all the curd can rise to the top.
  Drain the curd from the whey.  Wet a large piece of cheesecloth and line a large colander with it.  Set colander in sink (or over bowl if saving the whey).  Carefully ladle all of the curd into the colander. Gather the cheesecloth around the curd and gently squeeze to expel a bit more whey.  
Unwrap curd onto a plate, break it up, and sprinkle w/ the salt...working it in with a spoon or your fingers.
Gather the cheese curds into a 1" thick disk, transfer to a plate, cover, and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.
After it's chilled in the refrigerator, it is ready to use! It should last about 5 days or so, covered and refrigerated.
My preferred method is just crumbling a bit off and onto my plate...or into my mouth.  And I must say...I like it while it's still warm, too...before it's even gone in the fridge and had time to set.
Simple Refried Beans

 ~1 Tbs. bacon grease, lard, or olive oil
~1-2 c. cooked pinto beans w/ some cooking liquid
garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, chili powder, salt, & pepper, all to taste

Heat fat in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add in beans w/ some cooking liquid.  Mash them up with a potato masher and continue to toss until they are a bit dried out.
Stir in spices to taste, cook for another few minutes, and then remove from heat.  Serve.
One of my favorite ways to put it all together is to make a Torta.  Slice a bolillo or telera bread in half and toast, cut side down on a hot skillet until browned.  Spread some hot refried beans on the bottom bun.  Scatter crumbled queso fresco over the beans. Layer on some sliced tomato.  Add some meat if you wish...I used Peperoncini Beef.  Scatter lettuce or cabbage over that along with some cilantro, avocado and some salsa.
*Also, check out my friend Mely's post over at Mexico in my Kitchen...she gives a great Queso Fresco tutorial using a different recipe!

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