Celebrating the most popular Greek cheese
For the lucky, such as Greek-American chef and cookbook author Michael Psilakis, Feta cheese has held a long celebrated place in the kitchen and in cuisine since childhood.
“My memories of Feta growing up are very vivid,” he says. “It was always on the kitchen table, and I was always grabbing a little piece. As the seasons changed, there was something different next to it. In the summer, there was watermelon. The sweet watermelon of summer with the salty, briny, tangy flavor of Feta cheese — it was like a roller coaster of flavor in your mouth.”
But too many cheese lovers raised outside the Greek food tradition have dismissed Feta after less exhilarating encounters, often as the dry chunks or sprinkles atop lackluster, vinegary salads. Emilie Villmore, the Cheese Wiz at Bacco’s Wine + Cheese in Boston, was one of those people. “I had this dry, crumbly image in my head. Salt was all I’d ever tasted when I tasted Feta.”
And then Rachel Juhl, education leader at Essex St. Cheese in Long Island City, NY, introduced her to a creamy, moist sheep’s milk Feta from Tastanis, a creamery on the island of Lesbos. “It’s the first Feta I’ve fallen head over heels for,” says Villmore. “I thought, ‘This is what Feta’s supposed to be like.’ I get why everyone loves it.”
Dr. Christos Apostolopoulos, president of the Greek Federation of Dairy Industries in Athens, says Greece exports 45 percent of all the Feta it produces, sending 3,000 tons of it to the United States each year. Feta, which means ‘slice’ in Greek, is a Protected Designation of Origin product in the European Union, which means that, in order to be called Feta, the cheese must be made from sheep’s milk or a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk (no more than 30 percent), and must be produced in Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus, Thessaly, Sterea, Peloponnese or Lesbos Island.
As to the taste, says Villmore, “It’s fun because the first thing you notice is the texture, which is a little bit crumblier. It’s creamy, moist with a bright citrus note on the front. Very gently, it gets a saltiness that lingers on the palate in a good way.”
Juhl explains because the sheep are “100 percent grazing on this volcanic soil, it has a sweet herbaceousness. It’s light in salt. The sheep’s milk gives it an incredibly creamy mouth feel. It has a beautiful, sweet flavor; not barny [of the barnyard].”
Among Feta enthusiasts, taste preferences vary wildly. “Think about a pickle, and how different pickles can be,” says Psilakis. “Some people like a soft pickle that’s not very acidic — mellow, calm, fresh. Some people want to squint when they eat the vegetable. I’m on the latter side.”
For his New York restaurants Kefi, Fishtag and MP Taverna, Psilakis sources his oak barrel-aged Feta, a blend of sheep’s and goat’s milk, from Dodoni S.A., one of the top 10 Feta-producers in Greece. “It has a very sharp, very piquant, citrusy kind of flavor.”
While the PDO designation for Feta is a bit of a flashpoint between the EU and the United States, where there is no restriction on the labeling of American-made cheeses, the reality is cheese connoisseurs are enjoying plenty of Feta-style cheeses from countries such as France and Bulgaria, as well as America.
When Farr and Mojgan Hariri bought the Belfiore Cheese Co. in Berkeley, CA, in 1989, Farr had “a crazy idea” to make a domestic Feta using cow’s milk. He turned out to be not so crazy. His Feta has received multiple awards from the American Cheese Society and in 2002, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association named Belfiore’s the best domestic Feta.
Farr grew up in Iran, where “when you say cheese in Farsi, the Persian language, you really mean Feta. It’s a table cheese, served with bread, crackers and fresh or dried fruits. So of course I was always looking for good Feta. Everything I could find in the ‘80s was imported — Greek, Danish, Polish, Bulgarian. I couldn’t see any domestic varieties at that time.”
With California’s abundant milk supply at the ready, Hariri set to it. “We follow a recipe that is somewhere between Mediterranean-style Greek Feta and a Bulgarian Feta. It yields a very nice, pungent, I want to say characteristic flavor. And yet it is not too strong. We get the flavor profile — pungent and full-flavor — by a combination of different cultures we add to the cheesemaking process. The texture is very similar to Mediterranean-style Feta. It’s soft enough almost to the point where you can spread it on a piece of bread.”
To Psilakis, Feta’s beauty is in its versatility. “At the restaurant level, we use Feta cheese a lot because it’s a very resilient cheese in multiple applications. You can eat it raw, you can grill it, you can deep-fry it. It’s wonderful on top of a casserole you’re going to be placing in the oven. It melts, but it doesn’t melt completely.”
At C’est Si Bon, a gourmet grocer and catering shop in Palm Beach, FL, zucchini pancakes with Feta, scallions and minced dill are the customer favorite among the dishes that incorporate Feta, according to Aris and Pat Voyer, who opened the shop in 1983.
C’est Si Bon offers two types of Feta for sale. Mt. Vikos organic Greek Feta, made from a blend of sheep and goats’ milk, “is traditional with a ‘bite’ — great on salads, omelets and pizza,” says Pat. Valbreso, a 100 percent pure sheep’s milk Feta from France, “is creamier and milder than traditional Greek Feta, though still crumbly and great on salads. It is also a great choice on a cheese board with figs, walnuts and a glass of port wine.”
Read more about Feta cheese here.
Egg White Frittata With Roasted Tomatoes, Feta, And Fresh Herbs
Intensely flavored add-ins — roasted tomatoes, pungent cheese and bright herbs — are all it takes to turn fluffy egg whites into a meal. Stuff a wedge of this into a warm pita and wrap in foil if you need breakfast — or lunch or dinner — on the go.
1 Tbsp canola oil
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 cups roasted cherry tomatoes with their juices
¼ cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (parsley, mint, dill)
16 egg whites (2 cups), beaten until foamy
3 Tbsp crumbled Feta cheese
Fresh ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 500°F.
Combine the oil and garlic in a 10-inch nonstick ovenproof skillet over medium heat and sauté until the garlic begins to brown. Stir in the tomatoes and herbs and season with salt and pepper. Distribute the tomatoes evenly in the pan. Pour the egg whites over and sprinkle with the Feta. Transfer to the oven and bake until the egg whites are set, 6 to 10 minutes; they shouldn’t jiggle when you shake the pan. Let cool until the eggs are fully set. Cut the frittata into wedges and serve warm.
Zucchini Pancakes (C’est Si Bon)
2 lbs fresh zucchini, grated
1 large onion, finely minced
4 scallions, minced
2 tsp fresh minced dill
1 Tbsp fresh minced parsley
4 large eggs
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup matzoh meal
2/3 cup grated fresh Feta cheese
Blended oil (half olive, half salad)
Feta Crème Fraiche (recipe follows)
Trim zucchini and grate. Sprinkle zucchini with salt, and let stand for 30 minutes. Squeeze out liquid.
Combine all ingredients.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Heat oil in a sauté pan on medium temperature. When hot, add a spoonful of the mixture to the pan and cook on both sides. Taste for seasoning, and adjust if needed.
Add small scoops of the mixture to the pan. (We use a #16 ice cream scoop.) Pan fry pancakes in hot oil on both sides until golden brown, then remove from pan. Can be kept warm in oven until ready to serve. Top with Feta crème fraiche.
Feta Crème Fraiche
6 oz Feta cheese
4 oz crème fraiche
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp minced fresh dill, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Crumble Feta and add to food processor. Add crème fraiche and olive oil, and blend until smooth. Stir in dill, salt and pepper to taste.
Click here for more recipes with Feta cheese.