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Pepper Jack

There's something about opposites that makes the tongue dance: sweet and sour, hot and cold, smooth and crunchy—or any unexpected combination. In the cheese world, mild-mannered Monterey Jack and spicy hot chili peppers form the unlikely—and wildly pleasing—partnership known as pepper jack.

One of the few American cheeses, there are conflicting stories about how Monterey Jack originated. One suggests that Franciscan monks in Monterey, California, made the original jack cheese in the 1700s. (Monks do seem to have a way with cheese.) Another is that Spanish missionaries who came to California in the 1700s made a country cheese that the locals continued to make after the missionaries left; this became the jack cheese we now know. It was later named for the entrepreneur who sold it, David Jacks.

Ivory with flecks of deep red peppers, pepper jack is a semi-soft, buttery, cow's milk cheese with high moisture content. Because of its sponge-like pores, it's appreciated for its ability to absorb excess oils. It's especially popular in the American West.

Sometimes named for the peppers it contains, pepper jack may include jalapeño and habanero. By the way, there are several names for Monterey Jacks, too, including California Jack or simply jack.

Like other cheeses, pepper jack is a good source of calcium. It also contains protein and vitamin A.

Serve this lively cheese on a platter alongside something entirely different, such as a Gruyere or cheddar. It partners especially well with black beans, breads, crackers, grapes, meats (especially beef and barbecued meats), melons, olives and pickled vegetables.

A good melter, pepper jack is ideal for all manner of grilled sandwiches, quesadillas, pizzas and cheese sauces. Stellar examples: this Roast Beef Sandwich with Wasabi Mayo and these Chicken Quesadillas with Salad and Chipotle-Lime Dressing.

Melt it atop your next burger and use it to stuff chicken breasts. But also consider using pepper jack to make over a baked potato or transform that traditional macaroni and cheese or potato casserole into a spunky entrée.

Come to think of it, pepper jack will perform perfectly in almost any dish that calls for cheese and a spicy dose of attitude. Quench the hot thirst it inspires with a cabernet sauvignon, a chardonnay, a Mexican beer, or Riesling.

Learn how to store cheese to maximize flavor and freshness.