"Greek gourmets know
where the best cheese, olives, oil, oranges, melons, wine and even
be found, and go to immense trouble to procure them_They are also
generous and hospitable, and when they see that a foreigner is
take great pride in seeing that he is entertained to the very best
Elizabeth David, A Book of Mediterranean Food
In a food-obsessive world that forever seems to clamor for the more sophisticated, esoteric, and expensive, it's a pleasure, not rare, to return to those simple, best things that we've known and savored for years, A recent nibble of warm Gruyere proved this, as did a big bowl of Pho at Van's the other night. A fresh fig, alone, or steamed asparagus scattered with good sea salt, a knob of butter melting on the tips. A drop of good balsamic vinegar in the hollow of an avocado…
Now that Greek feta has achieved its name-controlled status, we've taken another taste or two of that ancient cheese. The stark whiteness, distinct crumbly texture and milky, earthy acidity reminded me just how satisfying this guileless simplicity can be. Conferring with my Greek friends, I noted that they all appreciate and condone simple preparations of perfect ingredients. Two weeks of research and testing feta recipes validated this conviction.
Feta, as you may know, means
"slice" in Greek, and has been around at least since Homer wrote the
Odyssey. It is part of Greek life to the extent that it is simply
referred to as
"cheese", there, and is omnipresent at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
At its best, it is 70% sheep milk, the rest being goat milk, which
stark whiteness and bite. (Cow's milk feta, to me, is kinda "yeah,
whatever.") Good Feta is not the opalescent white of its cousins halloumi
and kasserei, but a chalky, crumbly alabaster, a
perfect visual (and
gustatorial) high note for sweet red tomatoes or peppers, and the inky
of its natural olive counterparts. Fetas made with all goat milk we
find to be
hard and brittle; all-sheep versions are a bit too creamy. It is the
"pickled" cheese that we purvey, rindless, and preserved in a milky,
briny bath. The Danes, French, and Bulgarians have imitated Greek feta
years: their versions have merits. In a taste test we found however
indeed preferred our barrel aged
Another celebrated Greek product that has earned that protected status is the Kalamata, and the two together, when treated respectfully, are one of the happiest culinary unions we know. Just remember to rinse them, both. They have a bad rep for being salty, as do other culinary imperatives like the caper and the anchovy. Salt is, after all, a curing agent and a preservative, a necessity before refrigeration, certainly in the scorching Mediterranean sun. Such saline comestibles benefit from a good rinse or soak in cold water, and we have long advised washing your feta, capers and olives. An easy appetizer or light meal could be these two classic elements washed and marinated: Rinse a cup of Kalamatas (or another of the myriad outstanding olives that the Greeks offer us) in hot water and let them drip dry in the colander for a while. Combine with the zest of a lemon, a sliced garlic clove or two, a crumbled branch of rosemary or thyme, a couple of bay leaves, and a good grinding of black pepper. Cover in good Greek olive oil (we use Aptera Cretan oil, from our friend Nick Souvall, owner of Aptera and a descendant of the grove). I sometimes put the olives into a saucepan, cover them with cold spring water, and then bring them just to the simmer over medium heat. When I added a grand dollop of Nick's greengold oil to the warm olives recently, the ensuing aroma was that of a new mown lawn in the height of summerverdant, pungent, potent… Let the olives rest, chilled, for two days or up to a month- they will get better and better. When you have rinsed your feta slices (slices feta?) put them on your blue platter and arrange the olives around, and drizzle some of the now-deeply-infused green oil over the snowy cheese. Grill some good pita that has been brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper, and serve them warm with the cheese and olives. If you've got a roasted red pepper, include that, and thus create a tableau of chalky white, inky black, and startling scarlet. Close your eyes and imagine the bees at work in the herb garden- they are on their way. You can preserve your feta in the same marinade you use for the olives, and if you've got the cheese and olives bathing in the fridge and a bunch of arugula and a tomato, well, how bad can life be?
I recently found a slow braise of a slice of feta to be a wonderful new approach to this cheese. I rinsed a halfpound slice of Greek feta, placed it in a small baking dish, and covered it with a weak vegetable stock. I covered the ramequin tightly and baked it in a 325 degree over for a half hour or so. The feta was curiously transformed into a subtle, complex and milky pillow, holding its shape tenuously. Any piquancy had dissolved into the ephemeral nuance of sheep and goat milk. You can also bake little squares of feta on pretoasted squares of good country bread or slices of baguette, in a 400-degree oven, until they start to brown. Both methods are perfection served with a mélange of grilled vegetables or simply a tomato and cucumber salad, heavy on the oregano.
Dill and fennel are natural accompaniments to feta, and a wispy frond of either on the snowy cheese is exquisite. I have often crumbled feta on a dish of golden braised fennel before serving. A very simple and useful Greek sauce is one composed of one part crumbled feta, one part Greek strained yogurt (use the Fage two percent we carry), a profusion of chopped, fresh dill, a smattering of lemon juice, a bit of grated zest. Freshly ground telicherry pepper, if you like. Stir this together and let it sit for a half hour, then serve with crudités, particularly spears of Kirby cucumber, all cool and suave. Matisse, and I, would have an olive or two with it.
Feta (and dill) are of
components of Spanikopita, the
wonderful layered dish of buttered filo leaves and spinach. I have
memories of that first Spanikopita emerging from the oven, all puffed
its leaves secreting a deepest green layer of spinach and feta, deeply
of onions browned in oil, nutmeg, dill, butter. Probably thirty years
many thousands of filo triangles in the interim, maybe too many… That
Moussaka, too, its pale ivory béchamel layer besmirched with the
that always bubbled up from the eggplant below. And many homemade
with or without avgolemono, and the perfection of Greek grilled
and a now defunct Idra restaurant on
I, of course, digress. Big time. Pragmatically, a Spanikopita trick: after it has baked for its allotted time, usually about forty minute to an hour, remove it from the oven and let it rest for three minutes. Then overturn it onto a baking sheet and return to the oven for fifteen or so minutes. This will cook the lower layers of filo, and though they will never achieve the golden glory of the upper layers, they will crisp nicely and not be doughy. More Aegean simplicity: simply warm one of our new organic Greek honeys (from "Demeter's Pantry") over a low flame, and then pour over a slice of rinsed and dried feta. Or use a regular local honey (for the immunity benefits, these are tricky times) and warm it with a sprig or two of rosemary or a teaspoon or so of coarsely ground black pepper. Either way, you have a unique new dessert in your repertoire.
Herewith, two recipes, generously shared with us from gracious Greek friends. The first comes from Nick Souvall, owner of Aptera Imports, who ships us that gorgeous green Cretan oil:
"Here is the Greek Kaltsouni (small greens/cheese pies) recipe with help from my mom, Mary Souvall:
1 cup water
½ pound of spinach
Prepare the filling:
Prepare the dough: Mix the dough ingredients and knead until you obtain hard dough.
Prepare the Kaltsouni for sautéing: Roll out the dough to about 1/8 of an inch thickness. Cut out circles the size of a small saucer and fill one side of the circle with the filling. Fold the other side over the top and seal by pressing down the edges with the prongs of a fork. Sautee in olive oil at medium heat until slightly brown on each side.
Mrs. Maria Mavodones, a long time customer and gastronome (we now have cheese and conversation with three generations of her lovely family) kindly shared this Pumpkin Spanikopita recipe with us. I resorted to butternut squash (not many pumpkins around now) as per her suggestion. The bulgur adds a nice chewiness and the colors are wonderful. Try that Spanikopita renversée trick here-it's an added step but worth the effort. The Spanikopita got raves amongst my foodie cohorts.
Mrs. Mavodones writes, "Our family members all like cheeses from around the world. Greek feta is adaptable to so many recipes. The following recipe illustrates this point:
2 tablespoons olive oil
Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until very soft about 8 minutes. In large bowl combine onion, pumpkin, eggs, feta, bulgur, parsley, nutmeg, ground black pepper and about 1 tsp. salt or to taste.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly butter a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.
Trim filo dough to 11 x 15 inches. Cover with plastic wrap while working. Lay 1 sheet of filo in and up the sides of the prepared pan and brush lightly with melted butter. Top with 7 more sheets, brushing each one lightly with butter.
Spread with pumpkin butter mixture. Top with 8 more sheets of filo. brushing each lightly with butter, including the top sheet.
Bake until crisp and golden, about 45 minutes.
Remove from oven and let stand 10 minutes. Cut into 20 squares with a small sharp serrated knife. Serve warm or at room temperature.
P. S. I used fresh pumpkin. Perhaps one can use butternut squash."
It might be fun to celebrate Aniksiatiki (Spring) with some of these new, and ancient, uses of feta. We wish you simple and delicious repasts, all the hyacinths you need, and, as always, peace.