Feta and other brine-ripened white cheeses are the cheeses of choice in the Middle East, whether made from buffalo, cow, goat, or sheep’s milk. According to the FAO handbook on traditional foods, this cheese is believed to have originated in Egypt 2,400 years ago. Middle Easterners serve brined white cheese with watermelon for breakfast, cream it with olive oil and hot paprika for a dip with pita bread, bake it in a phyllo-type pastry for a
meze, and crumble it to sprinkle on all sorts of salads. In Turkey it’s called peynir beyaz; in Egypt, domiatt; in Jordan, nabulsi; and in Greece, feta.
Some fetas have strong flavors that can be adjusted simply by changing the brine. My friend Greek-born Daphne Zepos, a highly knowledgeable cheese expert, suggests: “If it’s too salty store it in plain water; if the salt level is perfect, keep it in the brine it came in; and if you want it creamier, then cut the liquid with 1 to 2 tablespoons of milk per pint of brine. A large chunk of feta kept in brine should last almost a month.”
Mozzarella is favored not only by Italians, but also by cooks in southern Turkey and parts of Syria where its oozy, wobbly texture is perfect for filling pastries. To avoid stringiness, freeze mozzarella, grate it, then use right away in pastry
Ricotta is a soft, rich, and moist by-product of mozzarella. You can now find good sweet, slightly grainy ricotta at most cheese counters. Ricotta is called
lor in Turkey and mizithra in Greece, where it turns up in pastries, casseroles, and stews. In Turkey it’s also used in pastries, and even as a binder in vegetable purees in place of yogurt. (See the Roast Eggplant and Walnut Dip.) On Crete, mizithra or ricotta is baked with squash and tomatoes for a delicious gratín. I use top-quality ricotta to replace Corsican brocciu in the recipe for my cheesecake callea fiadone. Though it’s easy enough to make your own ricotta, it’s widely available and so not necessary. Please remember to drain before using in the recipes in this book.
Try to find a good local source for quality cheese. Most large cities have cheese shops and upscale supermarkets with good cheese departments. An alternative is to order cheeses by mail through the Internet:
American téleme, crescenza, and crème fraîche are available at
www.cowgirlcreamery.com and www.mozzco.com (The Mozzarella Company). Spanish manchego, cabarales, Mahon, and Idiazabal are available at www.tablespan.com and www.tienda.com.
Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola, Taleggio, pecorino, Fontina from Valle d’Aosta, and Occelli butter from the Piedmont are available at