Plastic Cheese

Oh, the joys of plastic cheese.

I am speaking, of course, of Haloumi, that squeeky, chewy, salty, unmeltable Greek cheese that I have never encountered in a restaurant, but only in grocery stores.  

I first learned about haloumi from Nigella Lawson; I was intrigued by the idea of a cheese that could be seared–even grilled–without melting, but I refrained from trying it out.  I had been burned (literally) attempting a recipe for provoleta (that is, a naked slab of provolone cheese, grilled) a week previously, and I was disinclined to believe anyone’s claims about a cheese that didn’t melt.  (The provolone, in case you are interested, instantly liquified into a molten cheese-lava that adhered firmly to my grill pan and never released its grip.  After about five days of repeated soaking, scraping and washing, I finally threw the pan away).

A few years later I saw haloumi at the grocery, packaged with little line-drawing-instructions on how to grill it, and finally bit the bullet, buying a small amount.  At first I just ate it (very good, but arresting if one isn’t expecting the normal brininess of a Greek cheese in what looks like mozzarella), then I tried grilling it inside other things (wrapped in grape leaves, cubed and stuffed into bell peppers) and finally searing it in a blazing-hot pan. 

Exactly as the recipes and package instructions claim, high heat really brings out the interesting properties of the cheese.  The outside blisters and caramelizes, the inside becomes gooey and yielding, but never does the cheese lose its shape.   I’ve used haloumi as a substitute for paneer in Indian dishes, but it’s best by itself, seared and served with some kind of sauce to dab on at will. 

For lunch on Memorial Day I meant to grill long fingers of haloumi on our outdoor grill, hoping for a crust that cannot be achieved in a saute pan.  Events conspired against me, alas (the grill was out of gas), and a saute pan it had to be.  In an effort to make up for my disappointment, however, I cranked up the heat under the non-stick pan as high as it would go, opened all the windows and turned on the exhaust fan. 

Instant, miraculous, blackened cheese.  I served it with a simple salsa verde (the European parsley-anchovy-caper variety, not the Mexican tomatillo-green chile salsa) and a few other salady things.  A guest, who had never had it before, was astounded at the flavor and the novelty.  I’m sure he could have eaten an entire second package, had we one to offer.

As is so often the case, the simplest thing about the meal was the most impressive.  I ought to remember this for the future, but it’s such a hard message to absorb.  I can’t begrudge anyone the love of haloumi, though; even though I have just finished a bountiful meal, I wouldn’t be unhappy if I had a plate of that cheese next to me right now, hot out of the pan, to be eaten with burning fingers and sated sighs.

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Published in: on May 30, 2007 at 8:39 am  Leave a Comment  

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