- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

When ancient men and women discovered the advantages of raising livestock, they found themselves pondering the not-so-insignificant issue of what to do with all that milk. They pickled it.

Well, not directly. First, they discovered how to make cheese by separating the whey from the curds. But the fresh curds didn’t keep long, so they put the curds in a brine of water and salt. Thus feta cheese was born.

The salty brine preserved the cheese just as it pickles cucumbers. That’s why feta fanciers often buy their cheese in a plastic container or a tin. The cheese keeps longer in a salty bath.

Brined cheese has long been popular in Greece, the Balkan countries and throughout the Middle East. In Turkey, I found that feta is called “beyaz peynir,” or white cheese. I enjoyed a similar cheese, called “Bulgarian cheese,” while living in Israel.

Ackawi, a soft, white cow’s-milk cheese native to Lebanon and Syria, is another feta-like cheese found in Middle Eastern stores in North America.

In North America, we’ve come a long way with feta. A cheese book from 1965 devotes only a few sentences to feta, but Steven Jenkins, author of “Cheese Primer” (Workman), gives it a few pages.

Feta is now widely available in supermarkets in chunk, crumbled or reduced-fat varieties or flavored with herbs or garlic, but the best selection is generally available at ethnic groceries. My local Middle Eastern market, for example, carries not only Greek but also Corsican, Bulgarian, Romanian and French feta.

Obviously, the type of milk used has a major effect on the flavor. Most of the feta from U.S. dairies is made from cow milk, a nod to the American preference for mild cheese. Yet feta made from sheep or goat milk is not necessarily sharp. At my neighborhood Persian market, sheep’s-milk French feta is prized for its delicacy of flavor and soft, moist texture.

Almost as famous a Greek export as feta is the Greek salad, in which feta is matched with tomatoes, Kalamata olives, greens, and a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice.

Unlike the French and Italians, the Greeks serve cheese with seafood, baking shrimp with tomato sauce and cubes of feta. They tuck feta into casseroles with eggplant and tomatoes and into herbed cheese breads, according to Rosemary Barron, author of “Flavors of Greece” (Interlink). It is also used to flavor polenta, Diane Kochilas writes in “The Greek Vegetarian” (St. Martin’s Press).

Turks like feta-type cheese for breakfast with bread and olives and in the fillings of phyllo pastries.

I think of feta as a seasoning that makes bland ingredients come alive. Feta perks up pasta, omelets and salads and makes cooked greens and all sorts of vegetables taste great. It’s also delicious cooked the same way that firm paneer cheese is used in India, by adding a few cubes to cooked spinach or mustard greens.

Unlike Parmesan, Gruyere and cheddar, feta is not used to give foods a brown topping in the oven. It isn’t grated. It is crumbled. So, for a different way to finish a dish, use feta in recipes that call for a last-minute sprinkling of parmesan.

It also works well in recipes that call for blue cheese, such as a country French salad of sturdy greens, Roquefort and walnuts.

At a cheese tasting at Splashes at the Surf and Sand Resort in Laguna Beach, Calif., chef Christopher Blobaum served beef tenderloin with baby savoy spinach and Point Reyes blue cheese. In my kitchen, I made a variation with feta, and it was delicious.

Also interesting is the way Iranians enjoy feta. It’s so simple that you don’t need a recipe.

Persians set out pieces of fresh lavash flatbread, slices of feta cheese and a tray of fresh herb sprigs tarragon, watercress, chives or whatever they have on hand.

Each person takes a piece of cheese and a few herb sprigs and rolls them up in a square of lavash.

Equally easy to fix is a Middle Eastern meze, described by Ghillie Basan, author of “The Middle Eastern Kitchen” (Hippocrene). Just drizzle the cheese with olive oil and sprinkle it with dried oregano and flaked Middle Eastern semi-hot red pepper, such as Aleppo pepper.

People from the Balkans and the Middle East are passionate about feta. Some prefer it moist and soft, others drier and saltier. Some like a mild cheese; others favor a more tangy one. It depends what it is used for. A low moisture content that won’t dampen dough can be perfect when the feta is a filling. A softer texture might be better for salads.

When you buy feta at a cheese counter, ask for some of the brine in which the feta is stored. Refrigerate the cheese in it, and it will last two weeks. Otherwise, it will keep for only a few days.

Whole-wheat pasta with feta, tomato salsa and green beans

Pasta tossed with feta and a spicy uncooked vegetable sauce makes a quick dish bursting with flavor. Whole-wheat pasta is perfect with these zesty ingredients, but you can substitute plain fettuccine.

1 pound ripe tomatoes, diced

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 jalapeno chili, fresh or canned, seeded, ribs removed, minced

Salt

3 tablespoons minced scallion

3 tablespoons minced fresh oregano leaves or 1 tablespoon dried

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

4 ounces green beans, broken in 2 or 3 pieces

4 ounces wax beans or additional green beans, broken in 2 or 3 pieces

8 ounces whole-wheat pasta

4 ounces (about 1 cup) feta cheese, crumbled

To make the tomato salsa, combine tomatoes, garlic, jalapeno, salt to taste, scallion, oregano and 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small bowl. Stir to combine.

Let stand for 30 minutes at room temperature or up to 4 hours in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Cook green and wax beans uncovered in a saucepan of boiling salted water over high heat for 4 minutes or until tender-crisp. Drain well.

Cook whole-wheat pasta uncovered in a large pot of salted boiling water over high heat, stirring occasionally, for 6 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet, add beans and keep warm over very low heat.

Drain whole-wheat pasta well and transfer to a large heated serving bowl. Toss with remaining 2 tablespoons oil, then with tomato salsa. Set aside 2 to 3 tablespoons feta for garnish. Add bean mixture and remaining cheese to pasta and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning. Top with reserved feta. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 3 to 4 servings as a light main course.

Pizza with feta, mushrooms and peppers

The easiest and fastest way to make this pizza is to pat the dough out on a baking sheet or pizza stone. The dough is a snap to make in a food processor, but if you’re in a rush, use prepared pizza dough or a ready-made pizza shell.

PIZZA DOUGH:

1 1/4-ounce envelope dry yeast or 1 cake fresh yeast

1½ cups flour, plus a little for sprinkling over dough

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

TOPPING:

1/4 cup olive oil, divided, plus a little for oiling hands

1 red bell pepper, halved lengthwise and cut in very thin strips

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 ounces mushrooms (about 6 small mushrooms), halved and cut in thin slices

½ teaspoon dried oregano

3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)

To make the dough, sprinkle dry yeast or crumble fresh yeast over 1/4 cup lukewarm water in a small bowl and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir until smooth. In a food processor, process flour and salt briefly to mix. Add 1/4 cup water and 1 tablespoon oil to yeast mixture.

With processor running, gradually pour yeast mixture into flour. If the dough is too dry to come together in a ball, add 1 tablespoon water and process again.

Process for 1 minute to knead the dough. Transfer dough to a clean bowl and sprinkle it with a little flour. Cover with a damp towel, and let rise for 45 to 60 minutes or until doubled in volume.

Oil a baking sheet. Knead dough again briefly and put it on baking sheet. With oiled hands, pat dough out to a 9- to 10-inch circle with a rim that is slightly higher than the center.

To make the topping, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet, add bell pepper and a little salt and pepper and cook over medium-low heat for 3 minutes or until barely tender. Remove to a plate.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and heat. Add mushrooms, oregano and a little salt and pepper and saute over medium-high heat for 2 minutes or until golden brown.

Sprinkle crumbled feta evenly over patted out dough. Arrange mushroom mixture in center of pizza. Arrange pepper strips around mushroom mixture. Sprinkle remaining 2 tablespoons oil over top, making sure to moisten rim.

Let pizza rise for about 15 minutes or, for a thinner crust, bake it immediately. Bake pizza in preheated 400-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until dough is golden brown and firm but not hard. Serve hot or warm. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Faye Levy is the author of “Feast from the Mideast” (HarperCollins).

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