Sunday, 6 November 2011

Fried cheese

I have spent the weekend being self-indulgent. For me, that means not getting out of bed until 11am, drinking cups of black coffee with sugar, with chunks of Montezuma’s Orange and Geranium dark chocolate. Taking my time doing the shopping and dreaming up what to make for Saturday night dinner, pottering through our local wholefoods shop, Mediterranean food hall, and wonderful organic butcher and fishmonger, Harrys Fine Food. Then, once home, spending the afternoon slow-cooking lamb tagine, while reading my book on the couch. And Sunday, I have managed to finish off my book, pop some lemon slice into the oven, and only had to leave the house once to get some ingredients, but otherwise have been selfish enough to keep the day entirely to myself, and not share it with anyone. Completely self-indulgent. I adore weekends like these.

Speaking of indulgent things, what can possibly be more indulgent than fried cheese? The Greek fry haloumi, according to Wikipedia the Slovaks and Czechs each have a version, and I am pretty sure the Americans will have some kind of deep-fried cheese dish.

When I was in Sicily, a couple of months ago, in celebration of my imminent birthday, we had an exceptional and memorable meal at Torre Bennistra, a hotel-ristorante in Scopello. This place may not look amazing when you first walk in, but go down the stairs to the restaurant, and sneak outside to tables perched virtually on the clifftop overlooking the Mediterranean below. The tables had reserved signs on them, but someone in our party managed to remember the Italian word for birthday, il compleanno, which she casually dropped into the stilted Italian-English conversation with the waitress. This was a smart move, we were given the best table in the house and attended to beautifully and warmly for the rest of the evening.

As the sky darkened from pale blue to dusky pink, we started our meal with a bottle of prosecco (or was it two?) and a dish of fried cheese, that we shared amongst the four of us, with freshly made bread. This cheese was one of those rare and unexpected dishes that is unforgettable. It was utterly divine. Slightly crispy on the edges, melted in the middle, chewy, sharp and tasty, in a pool of garlicky oil. Torre Benistra is a lovely, family-run hotel with a fantastic restaurant that is definitely worth visiting, but I would recommend going just to experience their fried cheese.

The lovely travel companion who mentioned the Italian word for birthday, also managed to ask the waitress what type of cheese was used in the dish, and we were told it was a local pecorino. The next day, we wondered whether we should try making this spectacular fried cheese ourselves. We were staying in a small villa with a well-equipped kitchen in Visicari, so had everything we needed to try and fry cheese. We took a trip to the local market down at the bottom of the hill, where they have a wonderful display of all sorts of meat, fresh and cured, olives, pickled artichokes and aubergines, peppers, capers and of course, lots of cheese.

At these markets you take a little ticket and wait for your number to come up to be served. We waited, practicing our non-existent Italian in our heads. I explained to the man that we wanted formaggio. He swept his hand in front of a huge array of cheeses and said “Sheep, goat, cow, what you like?” I further explained that we wanted pecorino, which is sheep’s milk cheese. “Okay, zis one, zis one, zis one, or zis one.” I stared blankly, and then tried to explain that I wanted to fry the cheese. I tried English words – fry, cook – but he didn’t understand. I desperately tried to think of the Italian word for fry, but could only think of the word for kitchen – cucina

The gathering group of men behind the counter were still giving me puzzled expressions. I gave a demonstration of frying cheese in a pan, giving it a little shake, and made sizzling, frying noises, but still the puzzled expressions. One of the men went off to get a young man from the other end of the shop who spoke more English. I told him what we wanted to do. He looked at me, confused, “You want to cook the cheese?” They all laughed; apparently it was pretty unheard of to cook cheese; it simply wasn’t done. But, whatever I wanted to do was my own business, so they suggested some pecorino and finally, a while later, we had our ingredients.

We cut the rind from the cheese, sliced a few cloves of garlic, and heated up a pan with plenty of local olive oil. We added the garlic to flavor the oil, and fried the cheese, a few minutes each side until it was almost golden. We served it with fresh bread, tomatoes and basil from the market, and figs from the garden. It wasn’t quite as good as Torre Bennistra, but it worked. The texture was right – soft and chewy – and the flavor was good. We thought perhaps a sprinkling of lemon or white balsamic vinegar would have made it perfect. I wonder if my local Mediterranean food hall stocks a good pecorino?

I recommend giving this a try, let me know if it works for you.

Pecorino fried with garlic and oil
Heat up a generous amount of good quality olive oil (around 3 tablespoons) in a pan. Add 2 cloves sliced garlic and stir until you can smell the garlic. Add a slab of hard pecorino cheese, around 1cm thick, and fry until almost golden on both sides. Serve on a plate, with all the oil and garlic, a sprinkling of chopped flat-leaf parsley, and a bit of ground black pepper. Add lemon or white balsamic vinegar to taste if you like. Eat warm with fresh bread. 

1 comment:

  1. I love haloumi, but mostly in summer. In France in the winter (and only in the winter - things are every seasonal there) one can buy special cheeses in wooden boxes to bake in the oven - serve with crusty bread and crudités. That's when big packs of raclette (melt and serve over small boiled potatoes with a green salad) and fondue cheese are available too. Good warming food!


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