Grilled cheese sans sandwich

Incorporate an eastern Mediterranean favorite into your food for some variety.

Cheese salad 521 (photo credit: Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/MCT)
Cheese salad 521
(photo credit: Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/MCT)
To give summertime suppers a festive touch, I occasionally add grilled cheese. I’m not talking about the classic American grilled cheese sandwich. I mean cheese grilled on its own – on the barbecue, on a stovetop grill, on a flat grill pan or in a skillet. This might sound like the wacky creation of a carbophobe, but it’s actually a favorite item on the eastern Mediterranean meze table.
In the Mideast, the classic cheese to use is halloumi, which is grilled in slices until golden brown. I love the way grilling transforms the cheese’s character – it gains a pleasing brown crust and becomes seductively soft and smooth, not runny or stringy. Made with sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep’s and goats’ milk, halloumi comes packaged with a bit of brine and often is flavored with mint. Steven Jenkins, author of Cheese Primer, describes halloumi as semifirm though supple, and notes that it is popular in Cyprus and Turkey and throughout the Arab world.
Halloumi is recognized by many as a traditional cheese of Cyprus. The European Commission is expected to decide on whether to grant Cypriot halloumi cheese the status of Protected Designation of Origin by the end of 2013.
Similar cheeses made outside Cyprus often have other names. A delicious example of this type of cheese is Yanni grilling cheese, a semifirm cheese made with kosher rennet with a distinctive layered texture. It’s produced by Karoun Dairies of California.
The traditional way to serve halloumi in Cyprus, wrote Nearchos Nicolaou, author of Cooking from Cyprus, is cut in slices and grilled over charcoal as one of the hot mezedhes, the Cypriot word for meze. Mezedhes were originally foods served with wine or other alcoholic drinks and also include tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and pickles, as well as hot dishes like wild mushrooms cooked in butter and red wine with crushed coriander seeds.
A similar dish popular on the Greek meze table is saganaki, or cheese browned in olive oil in a skillet and sometimes seasoned with pepper.
Often it is made with kasseri cheese, a fairly firm, supple sheep’s milk cheese somewhat similar to kashkaval. Saganaki is traditionally served with lemon juice as one of several meze.
At some restaurants it is flamed with ouzo.
In the Alpine French region of Savoie, I enjoyed a different kind of grilled cheese, which has long been part of the culinary culture of the Swiss Alps. Called raclette, it is made by setting a large chunk of a cows’ milk cheese – also called raclette – near a charcoal grill so that the cut surface melts. The person serving the raclette scrapes off the part of the cheese that has liquefied onto hot plates.
Served with hot potatoes steamed in their skins, small raw onions and cornichons (small pickled cucumbers) and accompanied by dry white wine, it makes a rich supper dish. Today some people grill the cheese in slices on tabletop electric grills.
GOATS’ CHEESE can also be grilled and is wonderful when set on hearty greens seasoned with vinaigrette dressing. I first tasted this type of salad when I lived in France in the 1970s. Since then, these salads have become popular in other countries, too. Variations might include other vegetables or even fruit, like the salad made by Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, authors of American Brasserie, which calls for tossing the dressed greens with toasted almonds and poached dried apricots, cherries and raisins before the baked goats’ cheese is set on top. Elinoar Rabin, author of The Chef’s Kitchen (in Hebrew) makes a salad of warm goats’ cheese on a bed of arugula (rocket) mixed with other lettuces and dressed with garlic mustard vinaigrette; instead of being grilled, the cheese is dipped in seasoned flour and eggs and fried.
Creative chefs incorporate halloumi cheese into salads, too, and this is the way I enjoy using it at home. I like to mix my greens with tomatoes, green onion, fresh or grilled sweet red peppers and toasted walnuts, and to top my salad with the golden slices of grilled cheese.
A pan-grilled Italian cheese dish is the frico, or cheese crisp. To make it, wrote Fred Plotkin in La Terra Fortunata, a thin layer of coarsely grated cheese is heated in a well-seasoned or nonstick frying pan so it forms a cheese crepe.
Frico is made with aged Montasio cheese, a hard cows’ milk cheese related to Asiago.
When this crepe of cheese is firm, you remove it from the pan and bend it over a bottle so it becomes curved as it cools. Once cool, the crepe is crunchy and becomes “the most delicious and addictive snack to have while drinking a pre-meal glass of wine.”
The writer is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
When grilling halloumi-type cheese, Rostom Baghdassarian of Karoun Dairies recommends using a flat griddle, preferably nonstick, and not moving the cheese in the hot pan until it browns; it is the browning that releases the cheese so it won’t stick. Only then should you turn the cheese over to brown the other side.
1 sweet red pepper, or 1⁄2 red and 1⁄2 yellow
6 cups diced romaine or mixed baby greens
2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
11⁄2 to 2 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice
1 or 2 chopped green onions salt and freshly ground pepper
1 or 2 small diced tomatoes
1⁄4 cup walnuts, toasted
110 gr. (4 oz.) halloumi cheese, sliced
Cut pepper in thin strips; cut them in half if they are long. Combine pepper strips with greens in a large bowl. Add oil, lemon juice and green onions and mix well. Season with pepper and only a bit of salt. Add tomatoes and mix gently. Divide among 4 plates and top each portion with walnuts.
Just before serving, pan-grill the cheese: If you are not using a nonstick skillet, oil it lightly. Heat skillet until hot. Add the cheese slices in a single layer and cook over medium heat until brown on the bottom, without moving the cheese slices; this will take only 1 or 2 minutes. Flip the slices carefully using a pancake turner and cook the second side until brown and the cheese has softened. Set the cheese slices on the salads and serve.
Makes 4 servings
Choose goats’ cheese that is fairly firm. Instead of using spinach, you can make this salad with romaine. If you like, omit the olives and top each salad with a few roasted hazelnuts.
4 to 8 slices baguette
4 to 8 slices from a log-shaped goats’ cheese
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp. white or red wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper
cayenne pepper to taste
6 cups rinsed, well-drained spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
1⁄2 tsp. fresh or 1⁄4 tsp. dried thyme
2 or 3 small diced tomatoes
1⁄4 cup pitted black olives, halved
Set bread slices on a baking sheet and top each with a cheese slice.
Spoon a little olive oil over each cheese slice.
In a small cup, whisk remaining olive oil with vinegar, very little salt, and a pinch of pepper and cayenne.
Put the spinach in a large bowl and add the dressing and the thyme.
Mix well. Add the tomatoes and olives and mix gently. Taste and adjust seasoning. Arrange salad on 4 plates, leaving a space in the center of each to set the broiled cheese.
Just before serving, set the baking sheet under the broiler. Broil until the cheese is hot and slightly brown. Set 1 or 2 cheese-topped bread slices in the center of each plate and serve.
Makes 4 servings