The other Greek cheeses: Feta is best known, but the variety is endless


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ATHENS -- On a trip to Greece three years ago, my host proudly told me that Greeks ate more cheese than any other nation in the European Union.

He was right; in 2005 Greeks ate 58.7 pounds of cheese per capita, just above the French.

Who knew? I must admit that one of my favorite Greek foods is cheese, and not just feta. Whether it's kasseri fried golden and sprinkled with lemon juice, ricotta-like manouri atop fresh salad greens, or mint-spiked halloumi, Greek cheese's variety and versatility never fail to stoke my amazement -- or my appetite. This is no exaggeration: Greece has hundreds of cheeses; nearly every village produces its own fresco tiri (fresh cheese) or hard sheep's milk cheese. They're great with cold cuts for a light lunch, but when combined with meat dishes or grated in pasta, their flavors improve 10-fold. With feta's popularity worldwide, it's surprising that other Greek cheeses are rather unknown outside Greece. Actually, there are many Greek cheeses besides feta available at Giant Eagle stores around Pittsburgh, at Costco and at Stamoolis Brothers, a Greek food importer in the Strip District. I think it's time we take a cue from the world's most enthusiastic cheese lovers and include some of their favorites into our cooking repertoires.

Unlike most Western cheeses, Greek cheeses are made from goat's or sheep's milk or a combination. Cow's milk cheeses are rare since historically, Greece's hilly topography made raising large cattle herds difficult. Today, shepherds' herds still wander country hillsides, freely nibbling wild grasses. The uncultivated greens are largely responsible for Greek cheese's diversity in flavors and textures from region to region. Each area has its particular grasses; some are misted by the salty Mediterranean, others are hardier due to innate dryness. Depending on what greens the animal eats, a sharper or milder cheese is produced.

Also, many cheese producers in Greece are small-scale. Although there are numerous industrial cheese manufacturers throughout Greece, recently smaller enterprises are surfacing. Dairy farmers who once sold their milk to cheese manufacturers are making cheese themselves. With rising feed costs and other animal-keeping expenses, the farmers find producing their own cheese (which they always did for personal use) more profitable than selling the milk to cheese companies. They continue making cheese as they did for themselves and lucky friends, but they have modernized the process so that the products can be sold in the Greek and foreign markets. Some believe that these cheeses are the best in taste and quality. In any case, many of the Greek cheeses imported to the United States are produced by such businesses.

Some of the most common Greek cheeses imported to the U.S. are halloumi, manouri, kasseri, graviera and, of course, feta. Below are descriptions of each:

Halloumi is traditionally a Cypriot cheese, but it is eaten widely in Greece and included in many recipes considered classically Greek. Made from sheep's and goat's milk, mild, firm-textured halloumi can be heated to high temperatures without losing its shape, making it perfect for grilling. Descriptions often term halloumi the "squeaky cheese" because of the sound it makes when you chew it. It's true. In Athens, marinated halloumi along with a roasted pepper relish makes a great sandwich on ciabatta bread. I've also seen halloumi on the dessert menu, drizzled with honey and topped with toasted walnuts.

Kasseri is similar to provolone but milder and more buttery in flavor. It is a cooked hard cheese produced from fresh kefalotiri (another Greek cheese). Kasseri is quite versatile and is used in casseroles, fried to make saganaki, grated on pasta, or eaten plain.

Manouri is a fresh, semi-soft white cheese similar to ricotta in texture, but milkier in flavor and harder. It is made from the whey reserved from feta production and has no rind. Manouri makes a great addition to salads, sandwiches and appetizers. It's also delicious with fruit preserves or honey for dessert.

Graviera is the Greek version of Gruyere but harder and more piquant. Made from sheep's and a bit of goat's milk, it is aged at least five months before being sent to market. Graviera is a great melting cheese and adapts beautifully to casseroles, vegetable dishes and risottos. It's also a wonderful table cheese and a great accompaniment to cold cuts.

Feta, Greece's most famous cheese, is sold fresh, usually packed in brine to ensure longer preservation. Feta is a "protected destination of origin" product in the EU; it must contain at least 70 percent sheep's milk and be produced in certain regions of Greece. American cheese companies can bypass such EU regulations and market cow's milk feta made in the U.S. Don't be fooled: Even if the feta you find is not from Greece, be sure that it is at least made from sheep's and goat's milk. Your friends and family will thank you!



Chicken, Feta and Ouzo Pasta

PG tested

  • 1 cup ouzo or sambuca
  • 2 to 3 medium onions, thinly sliced
  • Pinch of crushed fennel seeds
  • 4 medium boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound shaped pasta, such as penne
  • 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 1 tablespoon flour, packed
  • 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 cup reserved pasta water
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large frying pan add 1/2 cup water, ouzo, onions, crushed fennel seeds and chicken. Bring to a simmer. When the liquids evaporate, add the butter and olive oil and brown the chicken, about 4 minutes.

Meanwhile, boil the pasta and drain, reserving 1 cup of pasta water. In a large saucepan over high heat, whisk together the milk and flour. Stir continuously until slightly thickened. Turn the heat to low and add the beaten egg yolks and a little salt. Stir in the feta, parsley and chicken mixture. Add the pasta carefully to the sauce, pouring in a little of the reserved pasta water if the sauce is too thick.

Season with salt and pepper; portion into pasta dishes.

Serve immediately.

-- Lauren Wadowsky




Greek Cheese Tart with Tomatoes

PG tested

For crust

  • 3/4 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1 1/4?cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon oregano
  • 1 tablespoon basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup water

For filling

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups lukewarm milk
  • 1/2 pound kasseri cheese
  • 1/2 pound graviera cheese
  • 1 large tomato, sliced

Mix the first 7 ingredients together in a large bowl. Add the butter and rub into the flour mixture by hand until well mixed. Then add the egg and the water. Knead and form the dough into a ball. Roll into a large circle and fit into a 10-inch-diameter tart pan. Prick sides and bottom with a fork and bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. Fill immediately.

For the filling:

In a deep saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the flour, stir and cook until golden and bubbly. Lower heat to medium, pour in the milk gradually and stir continuously until thickened into a bechamel sauce. Add the cheeses and stir until melted. Immediately, pour 2/3 of sauce into tart crust. Arrange tomato slices on top, then drizzle with remaining sauce. Bake in a 400-degree oven until browned.

-- Lauren Wadowsky




Salad with Grilled Manouri and Toasted Pine Nuts
  • PG tested
  • 8 tablespoons olive oil (divided)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 6-ounce round of manouri cheese
  • 4 cups mixed greens
  • 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup dried currants or raisins
  • 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped

To prepare the dressing, combine 6 tablespoons of the olive oil with the vinegar, honey and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

For the manouri, brush both sides of cheese round with remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill on a grill pan over high heat until browned, about 30 seconds on each side. Reserve.

In a large salad bowl, toss the mixed greens, toasted pine nuts, raisins and parsley with the dressing. Place the manouri on top of the salad and serve.

-- Lauren Wadowsky


Lauren Wadowsky of Cranberry has since last November been living in Greece, teaching English and, more recently, working for artisinal food company Ta Mylelia (mylelia.com.gr). She is a 2007 graduate of Allegheny College. She plans to return next fall to pursue a master's degree. First Published July 16, 2009 4:00 AM


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