Food & Drink

Feta cheese is Greek, but it’s so much more

Barley-pomegranate salad with feta.
Barley-pomegranate salad with feta.

Good fresh feta, the classic Greek cheese, should be moist and creamy when young. As it ages it becomes sharper and more complex with a clean, fresh, mouthwateringly tangy, salty flavor.

Feta has been around for centuries, and there is hardly a Greek meal that does not incorporate feta cheese in some manner — salads, stuffed into pies or crumbled on stews. It adds piquant flavor and texture to sweet and savory foods alike.

Many other countries produce forms of feta cheese, including Australia, France, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany and, of course, the United States. By Greek law, feta must contain a minimum of 70 percent sheep’s milk; the rest is goat’s milk. A European Economic Community ruling in 2001 mandates that no member nation can sell white brine cheese — inside the European Community or anywhere else — as “feta.”

Names like “white cheese” or “white brine cheese” are suggested alternatives. I particularly like French-style feta because it is creamier and milder than those imported from countries other than Greece. The Greek word feta means “slice”— the form in which the cheese is customarily served. It is normally sold in square cakes with no rind. I try to buy feta from a store that keeps it in its brine, which helps to preserve it. Mediterranean markets such as Daily Bread in Miami are good sources of brined feta.

After purchase, I keep it in the refrigerator, submerged in the brine. I often adjust the brine to fine-tune the flavor of the cheese — if it’s very salty I store it in plain water to temper the salinity; if it’s very sharp I add a little milk. Kept refrigerated and stored properly, feta cheese will last up to three months.

Feta is best served at room temperature. A drizzle of honey and a short time in a 450-degree oven transform a standard block of crumbly feta into a surprisingly succulent, creamy spread for pita and vegetables. Served with a chunk of crusty bread and a glass of chilled white wine, this is the perfect warm weather appetizer.

In general, feta cheese and goat cheese can be used interchangeably, such as when pairing with beets or roasted peppers, or for topping a pizza or crumbling into salads.

Carole Kotkin is manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school and co-host of Food & Wine Talk on southfloridagourmet.com.

How To Extract Pomegranate Seeds

Insert a paring knife into the top of the pomegranate, angling toward the middle. Cut a cone-shaped piece and gently remove it.

Score 4 lines from top to bottom to quarter the pomegranate.

Submerge the pomegranate in a bowl of water and pull apart the quarters, releasing the seeds with your hands.

The pith will float and the seeds will sink. Remove the pith and discard, and then drain the seeds well. Place on a paper towel to remove all excess water.

Barley and Pomegranate Salad

Adapted from “My Greek Family Table,” by Maria Bernardis, The Countryman Press ($29.99)

This striking dish can be served as a first course or as a perfect accompaniment to roast lamb, pork or chicken. A white wine with rich fruit flavors such as a 2014 Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch Single Vineyard Chardonnay ($22) balances the salty feta and herb flavors in this recipe.

1 1/4 cups pearl barley

7 ounces Greek feta

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds, plus extra to garnish

1/2 cup (2 ounces) walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped

3 tablespoons finely chopped mint, plus extra leaves to garnish

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus extra leaves to garnish

3 tablespoons finely chopped scallion

For the dressing

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

Sea salt and cracked pepper

Bring 3 cups of salted water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Rinse the pearl barley and add to the pan. Cook for 20-25 minutes or until the barley has softened. Drain, then place in a bowl and cool to room temperature.

Cut the feta into cubes and add to the barley with the remaining salad ingredients. Mix together well. Combine the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and pour over the barley salad. Toss gently. Sprinkle the extra mint and parsley leaves as well as pomegranate seeds on the salad.

Yield: Serves 4

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