Today, we’re going to use the Homemade Feta Cheese we made last week to prepare two different appetizers. We know marinated feta, as well as fried cheese are staples in modern Greek food, but probably go back much further into the ancient world. Greeks have loved their cheese for a long time, especially those who had migrated to Sicily, known for its excellent quality dairy products.
Submerging fresh cheese in olive oil no doubt began as a preservation method, but by adding herbs and aromatics, we can create a really flavorful cheese salad.
As for fried cheese, there are few things far more delicious. Modern Greek restaurants in the US call the dish saganaki, after the name of the frying pan its cooked in. It’s usually doused in lemon juice and flambeed in distilled alcohol right at the table. “Opa!” shouts the waiter as flames whoosh high up into the air, and the next table says “Oo, I’d like to order that opa thing.”
Without lemon juice or distilled liquor in our Ancient Greek Pantry, we will have to get creative. Also, we’re using fresh feta cheese. If you want a Saganaki just like you get in a restaurant, substitute Kasseri or Kefalograviera cheese.
Both of these recipes call for more of that garos vinaigrette we made for Octopus Salad, using the brininess of fish sauce and vinegar with the olive oil to give us a dressing/sauce that works as an ancient substitute. Given the ancients fondness for fish sauce, and the Aegean fondness for olive oil and wine (turned to vinegar), I find it highly probably this must have happened.
To make it whisk together equal parts of fish sauce and vinegar, then drizzle in an equal part of extra virgin olive oil, incorporating slowly to emulsify. Don’t forget to season with some salt.
Now for our two recipes.
MARINATED FETA CHEESE
-1 thick slice of feta, homemade is fun but nothing wrong with feta from the store
-Half a red onion
-2 scallion, light green part only
-Small bunch of herbs (pictured coriander and oregano)
-1 tablespoon chopped walnuts
-1 cup garos vinaigrette (1/3 cup each E.V. olive oil, vinegar, fish sauce)
Lightly chop the herbs and slice the onion and scallions. Combine with walnuts and garos vinagrette. Cut the feta into narrower but still thick wedges and place in the mixture so it is submerged. Cover.
Let marinate at room temperature for 2 hours to serve immediately, or for much much longer in the fridge.
Crusty bread for sopping up all those pickly onions and herbs and the dressing their smothered in is a must. Putting marinated cheese in a sealed jar makes a great gift.
FRIED FETA CHEESE (Saganaki)
-1 large slice of feta, sliced an inch thick
-3-4 tablsepoons fine flour (all purpose, while inauthentic, works great)
-3/4 cup garos vinaigrette (1/4 cup each E.V. Olive oil, vinegar, and fish sauce)
-Olive oil for frying.
Get a cast iron pan or skillet over medium high heat, allowing time to get really hot so it’s starting to smoke.
Meanwhile, take the feta directly out of its whey and immediately dredge in the flour. If no whey is available, dip the cheese in milk first.
When the pan is hot, add a few tablespoons of olive oil to the pan, or enough to coat in a substantial layer. After only 10-15 seconds of heating the oil, add the cheese and appreciate the sizzle. To get a nice crispy crust, we’re going to cook this cheese mostly on the first side, so let it go a good 3-4 minutes, tilting the pan occasionally to send the olive oil washing around and beneath it.
Using a metal spatula with enough pressure to get a clean scrape of all the browned crust and flip over. Fry another minute or so, for a light brown on the other side. You want a nice crust, but you don’t want to overmelt the cheese. We have to strike a balance, as the Greeks so believed. Everything in moderation.
But it’s reeeeeal hard to practice moderation with saganaki on the table. Turn off the pan, and add the garos vinaigrette. There will be lots of smoke! Turn on a fan and open the window. Don’t forget to shout “Opa!” for all your neighbors to hear.
Don’t forget to shout “Opa!” for all your neighbors to hear.