Hold on, folks! Before we leave the subject of beef in our regional cooking, we have to deal with that important bovine byproduct, cheese.
Here in Arizona, that’s simple. The cheese is almost always some standard yellow cheese like Colby, and it’s grated. It’s more fun in Sonora, which is cheese-making country. Sonoran cheese comes in two main varieties: queso ranchero, a hardish, slightly salty, white cheese, and queso cocido, a softer white cheese. Both come from cows.
The queso regional can simply be cut into small blocks and fried till the outside is crisp and the inside melted. Or it can be crumbled and added to almost any dish. I use it, for instance, when I’m frying up a mess of zucchinis, onions, and red peppers. Or in cheese enchiladas. Or melted in a bowl as queso fundido.
But let’s go to Father Kino’s other great contribution to our regional cuisine: wheat. With the addition of wheat, dwellers along the river valleys could grow a crop in the winter as well as in the summer. Wheat flour tortillas became a Sonoran specialty — small ones, big ones, and huge floppy ones.
In my experience, the biggest flour tortillas are made on the Rio Sonora, while the thinnest ones come from roadside stands in the village of Tasícuri, on the old road north from Magdalena. You can almost read a newspaper through them!
There is a story circulating in Tucson about the tourist who, when confronted with one of our large flour tortillas, tucked it under his chin under the assumption that it was some sort of napkin. According to the folks at EL Charro Restaurant, the incident happened there in the 1940s, and the visitor was presidential candidate Thomas Dewey. I’ve heard it told about other places as well. It’s too good a story not to travel!
You can melt your queso cocido between two small flour tortillas for quesadillas, or use queso ranchero and a larger tortilla in the oven for a cheese tostada. Then you can take those same large tortillas and wrap them around any sort of filling, and call them burros. Then you can dip that burro in hot oil and fry it and it becomes a chimichanga (or chivichanga, as some prefer.)
Chimichangas seem to have been invented in or around Tucson. The name has fostered many explanations, but the Dictionary of Mexicanisms says that the word comes from Southeast Mexico, and means something like “thingamajig” or “whatyoumacallit.”
That’s all — I’m hungry!