Everyone – or almost everyone – who has been to Greece or even a good Greek restaurant, has seen the ubiquotous “Cheese Saganaki” on a menu. And those of us who have tried it are usually immediately and forever enslaved to the cult of the Fried Cheese (which is what ‘saganaki cheese’ means), and seek to repeat the divine eating experience over and over again like true addicts. I am no different from all of the others followers of the Holy Cheese on Fire. After having tried it in a Greek restaurant, and later again in Greece, I knew I needed to get my hands on a ready supply of this, for it is truly amazing: the crust is slightly crunchy and feels almost battered, and the inside is melted and soft and slightly gooey, at least until it cools. Among other cooked cheese dishes, this one truly belongs on the throne of cheese royalty.
The bad news about this is that the appropriate cheese is generally difficult to come by. In Scandinavia, good gourmet supermarkets and cheesemongers will have it, but most supermarkets (that do stock halloumi and feta on a regular basis) do not. And no, despite what wikipedia claims, halloumi doesn’t actually make for a good substitute here – frying halloumi gets you fried halloumi, which is lovely and delicious and nothing at all like the thing we are talking about here.
The good news is that if you get your hands on a suitable cheese – typically kasseri aka kassieri, although it’s often marketed in countries other than Greece as ‘Saganaki’ (after the dish), it’s incredibly easy and rewarding. Not only is it oh-my-god-what-is-this-give-me-more! good, it’s also a very easy and quick meal to prepare for those of us avoiding a heavy carbohydrate load. It takes no more than 15 minutes from arrival in the kitchen (provided that you don’t need to spend an hour cleaning it first), and most of the time does double duty. That’s for the cheese with a side of salad (100g of cheese makes a remarkably substantial lunch or dinner when paired with a bunch of fresh greenery and vegetables). If you should decide you want the asparagus with that, add in another five minutes to grill it – or whatever other vegetable you’d prefer hot rather than chopped and doused in olive oil. If you are making it as a special dinner entreé for a very special dinner, you could go as far as adding a splash of Metaxa liqueur into the mix. That obviously takes Metaxa, but it doesn’t really take time.
Similarly to many other Greek and Balkan cheeses, kassieri is pretty salty. I find that serving it with an otherwise-unsalted or very lightly salted salad balances the meal and (for those concerned with it) reduces the total sodium intake. However, I cannot in good faith recommend this dish as a staple for people who are on a very low-sodium diet for medical reasons (a little piece to taste certainly won’t hurt, of course – moderation is key).
Provided that you got your greedy paws on some of
my the cheese ( mine! It is ALL MINE!!! *cough*), what do you need to make the most of it?
You will need:
- A cast iron pan. (Sorry, people – nonstick just doesn’t compare. I imagine a good heavy stainless steel pan might work ok, but it has a higher chance of the cheese sticking than a well-seasoned cast iron.) If you are lucky enough to own single-serve cast-iron sizzle plates, the cheese should be prepared and eaten on those, if possible, to keep it warm for eating.
- A block of cheese (it usually is sold in 100-200g blocks, the latter of which you can cut in two for smaller portions).
- A lemon.
- A couple of tablespoons of Metaxa (optional but awesome).
- Whatever salad floats your cheese, enough for however many people are eating the cheese, drizzled with some good olive oil.
- A few spears of asparagus, washed and trimmed.
- A handful of basil and lemon balm leaves if you have them and like them. Any other salad herbs will do, though I’d stay away from really strong ones like celery greens or green (salad) onions.
What you do:
- Preheat dry, clean, unoiled cast iron pan on medium-high heat (closer to medium, we aren’t aiming to scorch anything here). Don’t worry, the cheese will let out enough of its own butter to oil the pan underneath it. I use setting 6/9 on my glass-ceramic IR stove.
- While pan is heaing, arrange salad on plates and cut lemon into wedges.
- Place dry asparagus spears on the pan and roast, flipping with tongs, until bright green and tender-crisp. Add to salad plates.
- Set a timer to count upwards and put your cheese directly onto the cast-iron pan. Do not fear, it won’t stick. Start timer.
- When timer hits about 1:30 (one minute thirty seconds), slide a thin spatula under the cheese, which should detach easily, and flip it.
- Cook for another 1:30 – 2:30 until both sides are golden and the inside of the cheese looks lusciously melted. If your blocks are thicker than mine, you may have to do 2×1:30 for each side of cheese (flipping it three times) for a total of about 6-7 minutes until the cheese is cooked through. Watch the entire time and do not allow the cheese to scorch – it isn’t prone to it, but this isn’t a walk-away-from sort of cooking method.
- If using Metaxa (make sure you are under open sky or with exhaust fully on), take the pan off stove and quickly toss the liqueur onto the cheese. It’ll hiss and create steam. This can be ignited for flambe fireball effect, and put out by squeezing the lemon wedge over it once the flames die down. (Note: Only do this if you are outdoor or have the facilities and know-how to do this safely! I take no responsibility for anyone setting anything in their kitchen on fire!)
- Transfer cheese to plates. Squeeze lemon over the cheese (if omitting previous step), and serve immediately – the cheese will begin to harden as it cools, and should be eaten while still warm, or preferably steaming hot.