Friday, April 11, 2008

A more natural chile con queso

chile con quesoIf I share a secret with you, do you promise not to laugh? I like Velveeta. I know, I know—that stuff isn’t even a proper dairy product. Instead it’s a cheese food that can sit on the shelf (no refrigeration necessary) for years on end. But in Texas we have a special place in our hearts for Velveeta, especially when it’s melted with a can of Rotel. We call that concoction chile con queso, or just queso for short.

Chile con queso, which translates to peppers with cheese, is pronounced “kay-so.” And I admit, as trashy and processed as cheese food is, in its melted state it is good stuff—a party standard that can’t be beat. But when you go to a restaurant and order queso, you would hope for something a tad more sophisticated. And sure, many places serve something they call queso compuesto, which is a fancy way of saying “queso and other good things"—good things being a scoop of guacamole thrown into the bowl, or some beans or fajita meat also added to the dip. Restaurant queso, however, is often still made from processed cheese. It may be a higher quality, restaurant-grade of processed cheese, but nonetheless it’s still a rectangular brick of cheese food. Don’t get me wrong, I love the stuff, and can eat buckets of it. But I was curious if it was possible to make queso with real cheese and still have it taste like its processed-cheese brethren.

chile con quesoI decided to start my queso quest by doing a bit of research on the history of chile con queso. In its yellow, molten state it’s a truly Tex-Mex creation, but there is a proper Mexican counterpart also known as chile con queso that is made with white Mexican cheese. Most often found in the northern states of Chihuahua and Sonora, this version is made with fresh poblanos or Anaheim chiles that are roasted and cut into strips. These roasted chiles, also known as rajas, join tomatoes and onions in a warm sauce made from milk and Mexican cheese, such as asadero. Instead of chips, it’s served with warm tortillas.

So if Mexicans can make their chile con queso with real cheese, there’s no reason Texans can’t make it with real cheese either. I began searching for a recipe, and found one on Chow. It was called “Texas Queso Dip,” which should have been a clue: this recipe was probably not for Texans since we generally don’t qualify our food with the word “Texas.” And when I read through the method, I had little hope that it would even taste good. The problem? To make a smooth cheese sauce you should have a roux, which this recipe didn’t have. Instead, it tossed the cheese with cornstarch before melting it in milk. Despite my doubts, I went ahead and worked through the recipe as written, and indeed, it was a bust. The melted clump of cheese sat like an island in a sea of liquid. Alone, the two substances tasted fine, but queso is a velvety concoction and this was decidedly not.

I read other recipes where people would throw their shredded cheese in with some milk and peppers and microwave the mixture. Allegedly, a perfect queso would result, (I don’t have a microwave to test these recipes) but I just can’t buy it. The reason why Velveeta is so ubiquitous is because cheddar and Monterrey Jack don’t meld into a smooth sauce with ease.

chile con quesoEnter my Tex-Mex hero Stephen Pyles. His queso recipe corroborated what I had long suspected—you need to make a béchamel sauce and then gently fold in the shredded cheese. And while his recipe as written did not state this, I had discovered through my research that the key to a smooth queso is adding the shredded cheese to the béchamel slowly, a little bit at a time. This allows the cheese to melt evenly, avoiding the clumps and oiliness usually associated with real-cheese queso.

After making batch after batch of queso with real honest-to-God Longhorn cheddar and Monterrey Jack, I am overjoyed to report that yes, it tastes just as good, if not better than our classic Velveeta with Rotel. As an added bonus, it’s almost as easy. And while I never have a brick of Velveeta lying around my kitchen, I almost always have all the ingredients for real queso on hand, which after eating it almost every night this week, I still haven’t decided if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

This is good stuff, and you can customize it any way you wish. Say you want it to be bright orange, then just use cheddar. Want it to be extra spicy? Use super hot chiles such as Serranos. Don’t like cilantro? Then don’t include it—it’ll still taste good!

chile con quesoNow that I’m a fresh ingredient, real-cheese queso convert, will I forever shun my old friends Velveeta and Rotel? Of course not! There’s a time and place for everything, and sometimes nothing but melted processed cheese will do. I am very happy, however, that I can now make queso another way, too.

Do you ever make your queso with real cheese? How do you do it?

Chile Con Queso
1/2 onion diced (about 1/2 cup)
4 cloves of garlic minced
3 Serrano peppers diced
3 jalapeno peppers diced
2 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of flour
1 cup of milk
6 cups of shredded cheese, can use any combination of Longhorn cheddar and Monterrey Jack
1/2 cup of cilantro, chopped
2 plum tomatoes, peeled and diced (about 1 cup, can use canned if tomatoes aren’t in season)
1/2 cup of sour cream
Salt to taste

1. Melt the butter in a saucepan on medium-low heat, and then cook the onions and peppers for about five minutes or until onions are translucent.
2. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.
3. Whisk the flour into the butter, vegetable mix and cook for about 30 seconds.
4. Add the milk to the pot, and cook on medium, whisking constantly until sauce is thick, about five minutes. Stir in the cilantro and tomatoes.
5. Turn heat down to low, and a 1/4-cup at a time, slowly add the shredded cheese stirring into the white sauce until completely melted. Repeat.
6. Stir in the sour cream.
7. Add salt to taste.

Serves four.

Notes: You can vary which chiles you use to control how hot you want the queso to be. Also, if the sauce is too thick, feel free to add a bit more milk a tablespoon at a time. The key, however, to a smooth sauce is adding the cheese very slowly and not adding any more cheese until the previous addition is completely integrated into the sauce. Also, it's important to shred your own cheese as pre-shredded has fillers to prevent it from clumping that will also interfere with the queso dip becoming smooth.

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Rebecca said...

I just made this for New Years, and it came out beautifully! I did make a few changes, using what I had on hand (2 cups shredded cheddar, 2 cups of shredded gouda), and bought a bag of a shredded Mexican style 5-cheese blend. I also fried a half-pound of lean ground beef to which I added some ground chipotle powder to give a smokey kick, and added it to half the queso to use in a brown rice and broccoli casserole. Sadly, no decent fresh tomatoes to be had, so used canned. This is my new favorite queso... thanks so much for sharing it!! :-) Reheating leftovers right now!! :-)

Jessica said...

So can this be made on the stove and tossed into the slow cooker, or is there an art to making it slow cooker worthy??

Lisa Fain (Homesick Texan) said...

Jessica--While I've never done it, many people have told me they make the queso on the stove and then keep it warm in a slow cooker.

Tiff said...

I stumbled upon this recipe this afternoon and it literally made my day! No Velveeta in South Australia but I definitely can get my hands on some cheddar here! Thank you for the recipe and this wonderful website!

jenniferbussey said...

My new favorite cheese for pretty much any context is Butterkase, so I will definitely try some proportion of that here. If you haven't had Butterkase, do two things. First, go to your grocery store deli counter and try it. Second, add me to your will as an expression of your eternal gratitude. Butterkase tastes like the love child of provolone and butter, and that's the texture. (Mmmm... butterkase...) And thanks for having a non-Velveeta queso recipe. I knew I could count on you!

Vidya Amin said...

How would this work for making ahead? Would you just keep it warm on the stove till guests arrive? thanks!

Lisa Fain (Homesick Texan) said...

Vidya--Yes, or you can refrigerate it and then reheat it, too.

ky_hiker said...

I know this is an older post, but just wanted to comment that I grew up in the 1970s in Tennessee eating velveeta + Rotel queso, but we added a half can of refried beans and ate it with Fritos! Wow, were we ever excited when they invented giant Fritos... :-)

Anonymous said...

I have organic cheddar and jack and organic irish cheddar (a delicious white cheese). could these be used?

Lisa Fain (Homesick Texan) said...

Anon--They could work, though if the cheddars are aged and a bit crumbly, the sauce will probably not be very smooth.

Diane Shaw said...

I make the Velveeta queso, and my dad used to make a thicker cheddar cheese queso from scratch, and I have a friend who told me about a veggie based cheese queso their (Mexican) family makes, that I have really enjoyed. I am also a displaced homesick Texan, raised in Houston, family from Waco area, now living for many years in Michigan. When I make queso, or enchiladas, or basically any one of your recipes at home my family and friends go wild! Thanks for being a homesick compadre! Recipe: steam cauliflower and celery and whatever kind of ciles you want (two poblano and one serrano, maybe an adobo if you want the smoke)just to mush- mortar and pestle that down (or blend.)Add that to a roux of butter and milk (and flour slurry) thats very blond. over medium low heat stir in shredded cheeses- cheddar, farmers cheese/queso blanco, maybe some asiago, maybe even some smoked gouda or something smoky. Top with chorizo lardons and green onions if ya want to get fancy. chips, tortillas, cardboard boxes, whatever you use to eat it with will work. yummo.

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