This is not a recipe per se, but the quest for “queijo de coalho” in the Seattle area. It’s a kind of cheese so common in our hometown, that many times we don’t realize how much we like it until we can’t find it.
“Queijo de coalho” is a kind of pasteurized cheese, with a slight acidic taste. There are actually a few varieties, some more “packed” (dense), some with more holes in the middle. They also vary depending on how they hold on when fried – some will melt almost completely, some will hold more of its shape, while some lie in the middle, creating a wonderful crispy crust which is almost as good (and sometimes even better) as the cheese itself.
Back to our search. Granted, we didn’t expect to find it here. But we thought that we’d find some similar kind, after all, it’s quite inexpensive and seemingly so easy to make (you can find it in even the smallest street markets in our home city). No such luck.
The first “candidate” for the “coalho” replacement was a Mexican-style cheese which actually looked promising at first: the “Ranchero ® Queso Fresco”. Not too expensive (less than $7/lb), found in most supermarkets (at least in our region), it looked like the real thing. Eaten raw it doesn’t resemble queijo de coalho at all – it tastes more like another Brazilian cheese (“Minas”). But it actually fries quite well, melting just enough to create a nice crust, while staying firm if you use thick pieces, or melting away more if you use thin ones. It still doesn’t taste like coalho after fried, but it can be used as an adequate substitute in most recipes.
That’s when we then discovered plain cheese curds. They taste really close to the real thing (a denser version) when raw. The brand we found (Beecher’s) was also quite moist (especially fresh ones). When fried, they also taste like the real thing, which is a huge plus. And they also melt great – I’ve already used them in a recipe in which the cheese is melted to create a kind of sauce. But they’re not as easy to find as the previous one – I only found it near the Pike Place Market in Seattle (where I don’t go as often as I should) or in some farmer markets (which are closed between November and April). They’re also pricier than the Ranchero ($16/lb), and their biggest drawback is that they don’t look anything like the real thing – I could only find them in small, bite-sized pieces. Only a problem for recipes which have a nice presentation, as they lack the original shape.
Recently a friend mentioned that he discovered the grail of coalho-wannabes: Halloumi (thanks Mario!). A Greek/Cypriot-style cheese, it has the taste of the coalho when raw (albeit a dry one), and it actually looks like the real thing (although it’s even denser than the curds). It is the most expensive of them ($20/lb), but what makes it stand out is that you can fry it and it holds its shape really well (it’s self-described as “the cheese that grills”). So for recipes in you need a pretty slab of fried cheese (like the “cartola” – a topic for another post in the future – pictured here), it’s the way to go. The only thing that I didn’t like too much about it (besides the price) was that it is quite dry and it doesn’t melt well, so you can’t get a nice crust as you could with the other “candidates”).
So which one is the best? As almost everything, it depends. The “queso fresco” is definitely the one which resembles the original the least, but since it’s cheap (and easy to find), we use it often to quell our fried cheese fix. As far as taste, I personally prefer the curds (both raw and fried), but sometimes if you’re making something that you want to look nice, I’d say go with the most expensive one. The table below compares the three kinds of cheese in their level of “coalhoness” (1 = pretender, 5 = contender).
Let me know if you find any other candidates!