Digging into the wide world of queso with ‘Homesick Texan’ Lisa Fain

Lisa Fain, the author of the popular Homesick Texan blog and two indispensable cookbooks, has spent her food writing career exploring Texas’ most iconic dishes, but her newest cookbook digs into just one of them.

Queso!: Regional Recipes for the World’s Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip” (Ten Speed Press, $15) covers the wide range of Texans’ favorite cheese dip, one that is surprisingly varied across both the U.S. and Mexico with as many regional variations as tacos and chili. (Mark your calendars for Nov. 2, which is her book launch event at BookPeople.)

It dates back further than you might think, and Fain shares a number of historical recipes for cheese dip, including Welsh rarebit. But the book really starts when Fain shares recipes for the many regional varieties of queso that are served today.

The most common queso in Laredo, for instance, is called choriqueso and is as much chorizo as shredded Monterey Jack cheese browned under the broiler. In Houston, you might have grown up eating the thick, paprika- and cayenne-laced queso at Felix Mexican Restaurant. Just on the other side of the border in Mexico, you might find queso fundido, a gooey dip so thick that it’s best eaten with tortillas, or even queso guisado, which is made with cubes of nonmelting cheese stewed in chilies and tomatoes.

Fain covers the major Austin quesos, from the heavy, spicy queso at Torchy’s Tacos to the thinner diner-style queso you’d find at Kerbey Lane and Magnolia Cafe and even a queso suited for vegans. These are the most helpful recipes for most cooks who are trying to break out of the Velveeta rut, and this is where I found the biggest takeaway for a novice queso-maker: Just buy the processed cheese.

Fain clearly distinguishes between brick processed cheese (aka Velveeta, which she does not disparage) and American processed cheese, which is sold in prepackaged slices and at the deli counter. Here’s how she explains the difference:

American cheese is a blend of cheeses such as cheddar and Monterey Jack mixed with oils, milk and emulsifiers. It’s a semifirm cheese that has a low melting point, which makes it ideal for Tex-Mex chili con queso, though it does need liquid and/or starch to hold it together in a smooth sauce.

Brick processed cheese is a mixture of various cheeses, oils and stabilizers that doesn’t have enough dairy to legally be called cheese — it’s classified as “cheese food.” It’s amazing for queso as it doesn’t need any extra stabilizers to melt smoothly.

Those are just two of more than a dozen cheeses that Fain explains how to use in the book, and these are the two that you’ll most likely want to use for everyday Austin queso. I made the diner-style queso last week and it does, in fact, taste like what you’d get during happy hour on a number of local patios. The best thing — to me — is that it didn’t taste like Velveeta.

For my taste, there’s a time and a place for Velveeta, and that’s a big party where you’re serving a bunch of people and there’s a whole spread of food. If queso is the focus of the moment — say, you’re having a friend over for a drink after work — Velveeta doesn’t cut it. Sure, it melts like a dream, but it’s too yellow, too salty, too chemical-y to really savor.

However, thanks to Fain’s book, I now have a better understanding of how to turn the next best thing (American processed cheese) into that smooth, creamy dip that keeps us coming back to Mexican restaurants in Austin. The key is cornstarch, which she whisks with milk and water or chicken broth in a number of the book’s recipes. The cornstarch dissolves in the liquid and then thickens the dip over heat. (The queso I made was almost thick enough to dip even before I added the shredded cheese.)

The back of the book is filled with delightfully creative dishes: chicken-fried steak with queso gravy, a green chili queso burger, macaroni and cheese with green chili queso blanco. Fain even has a recipe for Frito wedge salad — a chunk of iceberg lettuce topped with black beans, Frito chips, sliced grape tomatoes and a little drizzle of queso — and a cream cheese-based ice cream with green chili jam.

Austin Diner-Style Queso

In Richard Linklater’s film “Boyhood,” the protagonist finds himself in an Austin diner with his girlfriend late one night. They are being philosophical, and when she asks what they are doing there at 3 o’clock in the morning, he replies, “You know what we’re doing here? Queso!” In Austin, inviting places such as Kerbey Lane and Magnolia Cafe have long been popular spots for people to get their queso fix in the darker hours. This recipe is not specific to any particular place but will remind you of late nights and good friends. To make it Mag Mud, the popular dish at Magnolia Cafe, stir in 1 cup cooked, drained black beans before adding guacamole and pico de gallo.

— Lisa Fain

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup diced yellow onion

4 jalapeños, seeded and finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 Anaheim chilies, roasted, peeled, seeded and finely diced

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup whole milk

1 cup water

1 pound white or yellow American cheese, shredded

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Guacamole, for topping

Pico de gallo, for topping

Tortilla chips, for serving

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the onion and jalapeños and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and Anaheims and cook for 30 seconds longer.

Whisk together the cornstarch, milk and water until well combined, then pour into the pan. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, and cook for a couple of minutes until the mixture begins to thicken. Add the cheese, turn down the heat to low, and cook, stirring, until the cheese has melted. Stir in the cilantro, cumin, cayenne and salt, then taste and adjust the seasonings, if you like.

Transfer the queso to a serving bowl, a small slow cooker, or a chafing dish over a flame. Spoon guacamole and pico de gallo into the center of the queso. Serve warm with tortilla chips. Serves 6 to 8.

— From “Queso!: Regional Recipes for the World’s Favorite Chile-Cheese Dip” by Lisa Fain (Ten Speed Press, $15)

Brunch with the goats this month at Bee Tree Farm

Antonelli’s Cheese Shop is always hosting cool events, but this month, they are getting the goats involved.

The popular Hyde Park cheese store has two events where you can learn about cheesemaking and meet goats while you’re at it. The first is a Bubbles and Brunch event at 10 a.m. Oct. 14 at Bee Tree Farm, that goat farm near Manor that sells farmstead cheeses, including halloumi. Attendees will meet at the farm at 8317 Burleson Manor Road to enjoy cheese, charcuterie and adult beverages while enjoying a fall morning in the country. Tickets cost $55.

On Oct. 28, the cheese shop will host a bus tour to Pure Luck Farm & Dairy and Jester King Brewery, which are both near Dripping Springs. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and attendees will gather at Antonelli’s Cheese House, 500 Park Blvd., to catch a ride that will include tastings on the bus. At Pure Luck, guests will tour the farm and enjoy their famed products, then do the same at the brewery before heading back to Austin for a chocolate tasting at the cheese shop. Tickets cost $125.

Another event of note this month is a cheese and preserves pairing class ($45) at the cheese shop with Stephanie McClenny, whose Confituras brick-and-mortar on South Lamar is in its final stages of completion.

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