Grilled Queso Panela with Roasted Tomatillo and Poblano Salsa
Yes, you can grill cheese. I'm not talking about cheese between two slices of bread—also grillable—but bare slices of cheese thrown directly over the flames. Longtime readers of this blog probably already know this thanks to my obsession by one of the greatest cheeses of all time—halloumi. Halloumi is a very firm, salty goat and sheep's milk cheese from Cyprus that's a bit too hard when it's cold, but turns wonderfully creamy and squeaky when grilled or pan-fried. While I'll probably always advocate for halloumi as the best grilling cheese, it doesn't have a monopoly on the genre, and I tried out a whole host of others last summer including this queso panela that I served with a roasted tomato and poblano salsa.
Queso panela is a Mexican basket cheese made from cows milk. Right off the bat, it doesn't present itself as an ideal candidate for grilling due to its fairly high moisture content, semi-soft texture, and very mild flavor that's not much more than a bit of salt against a young, fresh cheese.
Despite reservations I had about its ability to grill, I was pretty sure I'd be able to overcome those. My main concern was making it delicious, especially since this cheese had mighty big shoes to fill in the shadow of Halloumi. To ensure my queso panela delivered the goods, I decided to pair it with a super tasty poblano and tomatillo salsa.
I've made salsa verde many times over for things like green chile or enchiladas, so I wasn't expecting much different out this incarnation, but I altered the quantities of the ingredients just a bit to make a thicker sauce and ended up with what I consider the best salsa I've ever concocted.
My normal salsa verde relies more heavily on tomatillos than poblanos, but this one I went in with about a 50/50 mix of each. I roasted my peppers on the stove until charred all over, and placed the tomatillos under the broiler until completely softened—both of these roastings can be done on the grill as well.
After the peppers rested in a covered bowl, I peeled them and transferred them to the jar of a blender along with the tomatillos, cilantro, lime juice, and garlic. I gave the whole thing a whirl until the salsa was as smooth as it was going to get.
I then tasted it and adjusted the seasoning with sugar to balance to the tartness of the tomatillos, cayenne to add a touch of heat, and salt. The final salsa was pretty amazing with a complex play between the fruity peppers, tart tomatillos, bright lime, and herbal cilantro with both a fresh and roasted flavor that gave it a lot of depth.
After finishing the salsa, my hopes were high that this was going to be amazing. I was brought down a notch as grilling wasn't as easy I hoped it would be. Halloumi is so firm that remains totally intact on the grill, but the queso panela stuck to the grates a bit and never developed the browned, crusty exterior I wanted. I still got some nice grill marks though, and preserved those by using a thin spatula to separate the cheese from the grill for flipping and removal.
As I finished grilling the cheese—just a minute or two per side—I nestled the slices of now even softer queso panela into a bed of the bright green salsa. I topped the slices of cheese with fresh diced onion and cilantro, and served the whole thing with warm corn tortillas. The cheese itself may never stand up to halloumi, but the entire dish taken together was pretty incredible.
I've already waxed poetic about that salsa, and it did its job mightily here, providing the primary flavor which paired well with the mild cheese. The onion and cilantro added a touch of freshness and crunch, making it just that much more interesting. Once I added the tortillas into the mix, this instantly went from what felt like an appetizer to a meal. Wrapping the cheese and salsa into a pliable tortilla gave it extra heartiness with the added corn flavor that completed the entire thing very nicely.
Grilled Queso Panela with Roasted Tomatillo and Poblano Salsa
- Yield 4-6 servings
- Prep 25 Minutes
- Cook 5 Minutes
- Total 30 Minutes
- For the Salsa
- 2 small or 1 large poblano pepper (about 1/3 pound)
- 3 large tomatillos, husked, washed, and halved (about 1/2 pound)
- 1/3 cup packed roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
- 1 tablespoon fresh juice from 1 lime
- 1 teaspoon freshly minced garlic (about 1 medium clove)
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- Salt and cayenne pepper, to taste
- 1 small yellow or white onion, finely diced
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
- 12 ounces queso panela, cut into 1/2-inch slices
- Corn tortillas, for serving
- To make the salsa: Preheat broiler. Roast poblanos over an open flame on a gas stove or grill until skins are completely charred. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand until cooled, 5-10 minutes. Peel off charred skins; remove stems and seed poblanos.
- Meanwhile, place tomatillos, cut sides down, on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Transfer to broiler and cook until tomatillo skins have charred and flesh has softened completely. Transfer tomatillos to the jar of a blender along with poblanos, cilantro, lime juice, and garlic. Puree until very smooth. Transfer salsa to a small bowl and stir in sugar. Season with salt and cayenne pepper and thin with water, if necessary. Set aside.
- Mix onion and chopped cilantro together in a small bowl; set aside.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over entire surface of coal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Grill cheese slices until browned on both sides, 1-2 minutes per side. Remove from grill.
- Place tortillas on grill and cook until warm and pliable, about 30 seconds per side.
- Spread a layer of salsa on the bottom of a shallow dish or plate. Nestle cheese in salsa. Spoon onion and cilantro mixture on top and serve immediately with warm tortillas.
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Chad Thompson This would be a great idea for folks doing the Meatless Monday thing. When I first glanced at the lead picture I thought you had grilled some chicken tenderloins :)
The salsa looks incredible.
Laurel I have a block of paneer in my freezer. Would this be an acceptable stand-in for the queso panela? I assume it would be far more forgiving on someone who's never grilled cheese before.
Josh @Laurel Never tried paneer on the grill before, but think it would work well.