Feta cheese is a rich and creamy soft cheese created in Greece, originally made of fresh, unpasteurized whole sheep’s milk. Nowadays, there are versions made with goat’s milk, cow’s milk or a mixture thereof. It’s been around for centuries, and hardly a Greek meal does not incorporate feta cheese in some manner. It is so popular in Greece that very little of the cheese produced there gets exported.
The word feta simply means “slice,” and probably refers to the original way of serving this cheese. While it is classified as a soft cheese, feta is firm enough to cut easily for attractive serving.
Many countries produce forms of feta cheese, including Australia, Denmark, Germany and, of course, the United States. Modern-day, less robust versions may be made from cow’s milk, skimmed milk, or partially-skimmed milk. In the United States it is unlawful to produce cheese from milk that has not been pasteurized, so all feta made or imported to the U.S. is pasteurized.
Feta is made of 45 to 60 percent fat whole sheep’s or goat’s milk. Good feta is aged four to six weeks and cured in a salty whey and brine. Known as a pickled cheese, the flavor of feta becomes sharper and saltier with age. It is creamy white in color with small holes, a crumbly texture, and is normally found in square cakes with no rind. Feta is used crumbled in salads and melted into filling for quiches and pies.
Pre-packaged should have some of the brine in the packaging to keep it moist. Feta cheese is best when eaten fresh, so always check the date. If you won’t be consuming it immediately, store feta cheese in the brine it came in or a milk bath. The milk bath will reduce the saltiness and help keep the cheese moist and mild in flavor. Properly stored in brine or milk and refrigerated, feta cheese will last up to three months. Do not freeze feta cheese.
If you are on a salt-restricted diet, feta should be avoided; even if you have soaked it in a milk bath it will still retain lots of salt.
Feta cheese is great in a salad, as its depth and tangy flavor complement vegetables. Try our classic Greek salad for supper tonight.
4 ripe but firm plum tomatoes
1 medium onion
1 seedless cucumber
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 package feta cheese
½ cup black olives, sliced
½ tsp. dried oregano
3 Tbs. olive oil
Cut the tomatoes, the onion and the cucumber in thin slices. Mix them in a medium bowl with the salt and add crumbled feta cheese, olives and oregano. Drizzle with olive oil and serve.
Roasted Eggplant, Tomato and Feta
2 lbs. eggplants
Light olive oil for drizzling
½ cup fresh basil, checked and chopped
5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 lb. ripe plum tomatoes, diced
½ lb. feta cheese, crumbled
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Wash the eggplants and remove stems. Cut lengthwise into ½-inch slices. Brush generously with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper and lay the slices in a 9”x13” baking pan.
Combine the tomatoes, basil, garlic, and additional salt and pepper to taste, in a bowl, and spoon the mixture over the eggplant. Top with crumbled feta cheese, and bake for 45 minutes.
Serve warm, or at room temperature.
In Greek cuisine, feta is often combined with spinach. This combination makes a wonderful filling in pastries and hors d’oeuvres. Our miniature version of spanakopita, a famous Greek spinach pie, makes a tasty addition to any dairy meal.
Spinach Phyllo Triangles
3 Tbs. light olive oil or canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
16 oz. frozen spinach, thawed
Salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs, lightly beaten
12 oz. crumbled feta cheese
½ tsp. nutmeg
1 stick butter, melted
1 package phyllo pastry sheets
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté onions for 3 minutes, until soft. Add garlic and continue to sauté a minute longer. Add the spinach, season with salt and pepper, and continue to sauté until the spinach is heated through (about 2 minutes). Remove from heat, place in a colander, and squeeze out excess liquid. Set aside to cool. The filling needs to be cool and dry to prevent the phyllo from becoming soggy.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with feta and nutmeg. Fold in the cooled spinach mixture until well blended.
Preheat oven to 375° F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat silicone mats. Unroll the phyllo dough and lay it flat on a work surface. Take care to keep the phyllo covered with a damp towel as you work to prevent it from drying out and becoming brittle. Take one sheet from the pile and place it on your work surface. Brush it with melted butter, and top with another sheet. Brush once again with butter. Repeat with two more sheets of phyllo, stacking one on top of another. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut the sheets lengthwise into thirds to form 2½-inch-wide strips.
Place a heaping teaspoon of filling near 1 corner of the layered phyllo strip. Fold the end at an angle over the filling to form a triangle. Continue to fold the triangle along the strip until you reach the end. Brush the top with butter and dust with Parmesan, place on prepared baking sheet, and cover while preparing the remaining pastries. Repeat until all the filling and phyllo strips are used up.
Bake for 15–20 minutes until the triangles are crisp and golden. Serve hot, warm or cold. These can also be frozen raw and baked as needed.