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FALLING FOR FETA

A sprinkling of the crumbly, tangy cheese adds pizazz to a wide range of dishes. What's not to love?

Life is better with feta cheese.

The tangy, crumbly cheese, most often seen in thick slices on a Greek salad, dresses up almost anything, save for maybe ice cream and chocolate cake.

Omelets, pizzas, salads and pasta are at teh top of a long list of dishes that welcome feta like an old friend. Baked mac-and-cheese is more interesting with a handful scattered on top. A grilled burger with melted feta and grilled red onions will beat anything else at a backyard party. Cool tzatziki sauce takes a Greek-inspired burger to another level.

There's more: a spoonful in a bowl of canned tomato soup, a sprinling over store-bought hummus and even a bit in your deviled eggs.

Think of feta whenever you make dishes with pasta, rice, lemon, olives, chicken, shrimp, tomatoes, pine nuts, white beans and all manner of roasted vegetables, including beets and asparagus.

And don't forget juicy watermelon. The classic combination of sweet, watery fruit and salty, piquant cheese is magical. It seems wrong, but the yin of one bounces off the yang of the other so pleasantly that your first bite becomes two becomes three. There's a habit forming here. In the middle of a humid Florida summer, this is one refreshing side dish.

The two flavors, and more, come together beautifully in Nigella Lawson's Watermelon, Feta and Black Olive Salad. There's lime juice, Italian parsley, fresh mint and a generous grinding of black pepper, too. Layer the ingredients in a wide, shallow platter and serve immediately while the watermelon is still ice-cold. This dish is not enhanced by time.

A little feta goes a long way for people who shy away from cheese because of its fat content, much of it saturated. A tablespoon of crumbles (about 25 calories and 2 grams of fat) adds zing to a plain tossed salad. It might just keep your taste buds happy and you on your diet.

Old-world cheese

European feta is traditionally made with sheep's milk, sometimes goat's and occasionally a mixture of the two. It is cured in a saltwater brine, and is curdlike in appearance when broken apart. Domestic feta, which you find in grocery stores, is made from cow's milk so it is much more mild.

Maureen Sharon, who presides over the cheese room at Mazzaro's Italian Market (2209 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 321-2400), carries feta from Bulgaria, Greece and France, along with domestic varieties.

(Among the countries of the European Union, only Greece is allowed to use the word feta to describe this type of cheese. Other countries there must label their versions "salad cheese" or "Greek-style cheese.")

The French feta, which is Mazzaro's priciest at $8.99 a pound, is Sharon's favorite.

"The French is more mellow, real pleasant and very soothing," she says. "The Bulgarian ($4.79 a pound) is strongest and the Greek ($6.49) is somewhere in between."

A 6-ounce tub of Athenos feta is about $3.50 at grocery stores.

If you buy feta in blocks, Sharon recommends storing it in brine, water or milk when you get home to keep it moist. She often keeps brine on hand to pack with the cheese for customers who want it.

Don't bother, she says, on amounts less than 1/2 pound.

"You'll eat that right away."

More ways with feta

Besides the watermelon and feta salad, we tested two more recipes that star the tangy cheese. Both are worth your time.

Egg Noodles with Brown Butter and Feta is one of those dishes, similar to the watermelon salad, that seems strange at the outset. But we were drawn to it because it has only four ingredients, all of which are mentioned in the name except freshly ground pepper. Could these few ingredients really amount to anything?

In two words: heck yeah.

Browned butter is made by melting butter in a pan until it turns, well, brown. The trick is not to let it burn, which can happen quickly. After it melts, continue to stir to prevent scorching. You are toasting the milk solids, making the flavor rich and nutty.

It's best to use a light-colored pan rather than a dark nonstick pan so you can judge the color of the butter. Once it turns light brown, it's done. We browned the butter in a large skillet and then mixed in the cooked noodles and feta right in the pan. A few grinds of black pepper finished the dish.

This is quick comfort food that's surprisingly complex in flavor. The better the quality of the ingredients, the better the dish.

Feta Cumin Corn Bread can be made in a loaf pan or muffin tin and works well as an accompaniment to chili, beef stew, especially Greek stifado, or even spicy grilled shrimp. Its dense crumb is made for sopping runaway juices and indeed the bread is best paired with something moist.

Pockets of feta are laced throughout. The ground cumin adds a toasty, nutty element. Every other bite includes the slight heat of scallion.

We like all three dishes here, but you don't have to follow a recipe to enjoy feta. Keep it on hand for whenever the mood hits.

At our house, that's often.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or jkeeler@sptimes.com. Her recipe blog, Stir Crazy, is at blogs.tampabay.com/food.

SALAD

Watermelon, Feta and Black Olive Salad

1 small red onion

2 to 4 limes, depending on juiciness

3 pounds sweet, ripe watermelon chunks

9 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

Bunch of flat-leaf parsley

Bunch of mint, chopped

3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 ounces pitted black olives, such as Kalamatas

Freshly ground black pepper

- Peel and halve the red onion and cut into very fine half-moons and put in a small bowl to steep with juice of the limes.

- Cut watermelon into approximately 1 1/2-inch triangular chunks. Put watermelon and feta in a large, wide shallow bowl. Tear off sprigs of parsley so that it is used like a salad leaf, rather than a garnish, and add to the bowl along with the chopped mint. Pour onions, along with their juices over the salad in a bowl, add the oil and olives, then using your hands toss the salad so that the melon chunks don't lose their shape. Add a grinding of black pepper and taste to see whether the dressing needs more lime.

Serves 4 to 6 as a side salad.

Source: Nigella Lawson

SIDE DISH

Egg Noodles with Brown Butter and Feta

12 ounces dried egg noodles or egg pasta

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter

6 ounces (1 1/2 cups) Greek feta, crumbled

Freshly ground pepper

- Cook noodles in a 6- to 8-quart pot of boiling salted water until just tender (softer than al dente). Drain well in a colander.

-While noodles cook, melt butter in a small heavy skillet over low heat and continue to cook until it begins to turn golden brown, about 6 minutes. Remove from heat.

- Add noodles to butter and toss gently to coat. Add feta and stir. Season with freshly ground pepper

Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish.

Source: Gourmet 2006 via www.epicurious.com

ACCOMPANIMENT

Feta Cumin Corn Bread

1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2 cups crumbled feta

1 cup thinly sliced scallion

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup olive oil

- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl sift together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cumin, add the feta and scallion, and toss the mixture well. In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, sugar and oil. Add the milk mixture to the cornmeal mixture and stir the batter until it is just combined.

- Pour the batter into a greased 9- by 5-inch loaf pan, and bake in the middle of the oven for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Let the corn bread cool in the pan on a rack for 5 minutes and run a thin knife around the edges of the pan. Turn the corn bread out onto the rack and let it cool completely.

- The corn bread may be made two days in advance and kept wrapped tightly in foil and chilled.

Source: Gourm et 1993 via www.epicurious.com

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