Friday, August 24, 2012

mediterranean baked feta with tomatoes

broiled feta with tomatoes and olives

A few summers ago, I discovered what I consider to be one of the greatest things that has ever been placed over oiled grill grates on a beachy summer evening, preferably while a glass of rose trickles condensation down your hand: grilled haloumi cheese. Maybe you’re Greek Cypriot or better versed in the world of grill-able cheeses than me and are nodding silently right now, lucky enough that this is old news. Or maybe you’re confused because I just said grilled cheese and really? There is nothing new about two slices of white bread fried in butter until the gooey orange runs over the crusts and your freak-of-a-toddler won’t touch it. But, of course, this is an entirely different kind, no bread, no butter and absolutely better in summer than any other time.

a big block of bulgarian feta
a basket of pretty tomato marbles

Haloumi, the star of the saganaki show, is like the hardest feta you’ve ever seen, and quite rubbery when cold. I bet that made you really hungry, right? But the thing is, when heated, it becomes tender in the center but not runny; it doesn’t fall apart, just blisters and sighs. The easiest way to eat it is sakanaki-style, with lemon juice, black pepper and pita bread. But my favorite way is finely chop a salad of fresh tomatoes, olives or capers, red onion, olive oil and red wine vinegar and spoon it over the grilled haloumi slices. You dig in immediately and wonder where it has been all of your life.

halved cherry tomatoes

chopped kalamatas

Nevertheless, I have never spoken of haloumi here, difficult as it has been for me to ever shut my yap about a great cooking discovery, because it’s just not that easy to get. I see it more places every year — even Whole Foods and Fairway last week, and it’s always been a mainstay at cheese stores — but it’s really marked up in price and hardly everywhere and the last thing I want to do is ooh and aah over something that you’re never going to get a taste of. That is, usually. But it wasn’t until I had a chance to preview the Sprouted Kitchen Cookbook a couple weeks ago that I finally figured out how I could make this dish something that everyone could love, regardless of their level of access to Mediterranean cheeses.

ready to assemble

In her stunning first book that will immediately make you want to run to the kitchen and do something new with vegetables, Sara Forte suggests that you either grill or bake feta cheese — which will give you a haloumi-like impression but is softer and easier to find — with halved cherry tomatoes, chopped Kalmata olives, red onion, garlic, parsley and a tiny drizzle of olive oil until it becomes soft enough that you can scoop it up with a piece of flatbread. It makes a great low-fuss appetizer or side dish or, heck, even dinner with a summery salad and some cured meats or pickles, something I think we should do as much of as possible before summer is over. Deal?

baked feta with tomatoes and olives
scooped with flatbread

One year ago: Zucchini Fritters
Two years ago: Perfect Blueberry Muffins
Three years ago: Peach Cupcakes with Brown Sugar Frosting, Melon Agua Fresca and Cubed, Hacked Caprese
Four years ago: Kefta and Zucchini Kebabs and Dimply Plum Cake
Five years ago: Smoke-Roasted Stuffed Bell Peppers

Baked Feta with Tomatoes and Olives
Adapted, barely, from The Sprouted Kitchen Cookbook

I don’t think anyone would mind if you use more than the suggested amount of tomatoes. Feta is so salty and tomatoes are so delicious and sweet right now, the more the merrier. Now, I don’t have a grill but I am sharing the grilling instructions here because most of you do, but with the caveat that I haven’t tested this on a grill. My only concern would be leakage. I don’t think any harm would come from doubling up on the foil.

If you’d like to make this with haloumi (you can buy it here or here or here, btw, and probably a cheese or good grocery store closer to you), I like to cut my block of haloumi into about 1/3- to 1/2-inch slices. I brush the grill with oil and place it gently, directly on the grates, cooking it until it’s blistered on one side, then flipping it and doing the other. Lay the grilled slices out on a plate and toss it with a chopped salad made from the non-feta ingredients below, plus a splash of red wine vinegar. I usually skip the garlic (just personal taste) and would only use a tablespoon or so of minced red onion, since the salad will be raw, but otherwise think you’ll love it as much as we do.

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup chopped, pitted Kalmata olives
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion (oops, I forgot this)
2 tablespoons finely-chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, divided
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 8- to 10-ounce block feta
Crackers, flatbread*, pita chips, or crostini, for dipping

In a bowl, mix the tomatoes, olives, onion, garlic, 1 tablespoon of the parsley, oregano, olive oil and a few grinds of pepper.

On a grill: Heat your grill to medium-high. Set the feta block in the middle of a piece of foil. Pile the tomato mixture on top of the feta. Fold up the edges of the foil so that it will hold in any liquid as it cooks. Place the packet straight on a grill for 15 minutes to warm it through. Remove from grill and transfer to plate or serving dish.

In the oven: Heat oven to 400°F. Check to see that your dish is oven-proof. (I didn’t!) Place the block of feta in the middle of your dish. Pile the tomato mixture on top of the feta. Bake for 15 minutes.

Both methods: The feta will not melt, just warm and soften. Garnish with parsley and serve with crackers; eat immediately. As it cools, the feta will firm up again. We found that the dish could be returned to the oven to soften it again. We did this with leftovers, too.

* I made these. These days, I’ve been running a pizza wheel over the rolled-out pieces to pre-cut it into rough rectangles before baking it, like so.


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