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Getting to know the feta cheeses.

Getting to know the feta cheeses

The pungent, salty flavor of feta cheese is probably familiar to you. But this white, brine-pickled cheese comes in many styles and varies widely in taxture and flavor intensity, depending on where it's made and the kind of milk it's made from.

Each style has its advocates, and each works equally well in cooking. To find your favorite feta, sample several.

Where do they come from?

Though the name is of Greek origin, feta is made throughout the world. The types you're most likely to see are domestic, Bulgarian, and French. With a little sleuthing, you may also find fetas from Cyprus, Denmark, Hungary, New Zealand, Greece, and Rumania.

Why do fetas taste different?

All fetas are salty and pungent. Those made from cow's milk tend to be the mildest and have the least complex range of flavors. They also feel drier in the mouth, with a slightly granular texture.

Fetas made from goat's or sheep's milk have a greater range of tastes. Sheep's milk kinds, in particular, have a sharper, more intense flavor than cow's milk fetas. Both sheep's and goat's milk fetas are consistently smoother and creamier than those made from cow's milk.

In tastings, we found that cheeses vary as much from maker to maker as from country to country. Before buying, it's a good idea to ask for a taste.

Domestic and Danish fetas are made primarily with cow's milk. In comparative tastings, domestic fetas rated as livelier, Danish as blander.

Domestic goat's milk fetas are made in small quantities. Although hard to find, they have a very pleasing tang, creaminess, and salt level.

Most imported fetas are made of sheep's milk, and a few are made with goat's. Sheep's milk fetas range most widely in character, from mellow to full flavored, and from creamy soft to dry and crumbly.

Buying and storing fetas

You'll likely find domestic cow's milk fetas in most supermarkets, sold in plastic packages. Imported sheep's milk fetas are sold in larger groceries, delicatessens, Middle Eastern markets, and specialty cheese shops; look for packaged pieces or chunks in brine. Health food stores are a good source for domestic goat's milk fetas. Cheese prices range from $2.50 to $6.50 per pound.

When you purchase feta, it should have a sharp, fresh smell and taste pleasantly pungent. Sour- or barnyard-smelling cheeses, or ones with bitter or soapy flavors, are over the hill.

To keep feta at home, enclose in plastic wrap if you plan to use it within a week. For longer storage--up to 3 weeks--immerse in brine (3 tablespoons salt per 1 quart water) in a closed plastic container and keep in the refrigerator. Some stores will give you brine.

Can you control saltiness?

Brine-curing gives feta its distinct flavor, but some brands may be saltier than you want. To reduce saltiness appreciably, cover the piece of cheese with cold water and chill for 2 to 3 hours, then pat cheese dry. Once the cheese is desalted, use it within a day or two.

Salt acts as a preservative; when it's removed, the cheese's keeping quality is reduced. With longer soaking, more salt comes out, but so does a lot of the flavor.

Any kind of feta works well in these recipes. The hot pear tart and roasted pepper salad can be served as first courses or light entrees. For heartier appetites, try the chard, feta, and fila pie as a main dish with a tomato and cucumber salad.

Feta and Pear Appetizer Tart

About 3 medium-size firm-ripe pears

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Press-in pastry (recipe follows)

3/4 cup (about 1/4 lb.) 1/2-inch chunks feta cheese

3 tablespoons melted butter or margarine

3 tablespoons minced parsley

Peel and core pears. Cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices. In a bowl, mix slices gently with lemon juice to coat well and reduce darkening.

Lift pears from bowl and lay slightly overlapping in concentric circles in pastry shell. Bake on lowest rack of a 375| oven until pears look dry and liquid around them has evaporated, about 45 minutes.

Scatter feta over pears, or arrange cheese to form 6 spokes from center of pastry. Continue to bake until cheese is lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Stir together butter and parsley; spoon mixture evenly over pears. Serve warm, in wedges, to eat with knife and fork. Makes 6 appetizer servings.

Press-in pastry. In a food processor or with your fingers, whirl or rub 6 tablespoons butter or margarine with 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour until fine crumbs form.

Add 1 large egg; process until dough form a ball. Or stir with a fork until dough sticks together, then pat firmly into a ball. Press evenly in a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. If made ahead, cover and chill up to overnight.

Roasted Pepper and Feta Salad

2 jars or cans (7 oz. each) roasted red bell peppers or whole

pimientos, rinsed and drained

Orange vinaigrette (recipe follows)

2 cups lightly packed tender spinach leaves, stems removed, leaves washed and crisped

1 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves

1/2 pound feta cheese, sliced 1/4 inch thick

2 tablespoons pine nuts, optional Freshly ground pepper

In a bowl, gently mix peppers with vinaigrette; let stand, covered, at least 1 hour or up to overnight.

On each of 4 salad plates, arrange 1/4 of the spinach and basil. With a slotted spoon, lift peppers from dressing and arrange on plates. Top each serving with 1/4 of the feta. Pour the extra vinaigrette over the salads; sprinkle with pine nuts and pepper. Serves 4.

Orange vinaigrette. In a bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup olive oil or salad oil; 2 tablespoons frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed; 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar; and 1 tablespoon minced shallot or red onion.

Chard, Feta, and Fila Pie

Water

2 pounds Swiss chard (ends of stems trimmed), washed well

5 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 large onion, thinly sliced

4 large eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons each dry basil and dry oregano leaves

1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

2 cups crumbled (about 3/4 lb.) feta cheese

4 sheets (12 by 17 in.) fila dough

2 teaspoons fennel seed

Fill a 5- to 6-quart pan 3/4 full of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Push about 1/3 of the chard leaves at a time into water; cook, uncovered, until stems are limp, about 3 minutes. Lift leaves from pan with a slotted spoon and drain. Repeat with remaining leaves. Let cool, then coarsely chop.

Meanwhile, in a 10- to 12-inch pan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter; and onion and stir occasionally until limp, about 10 minutes.

In a bowl, lightly beat eggs to blend. Stir in chard, onion, basil, oregano, pepper, and feta. Spread evenly in a shallow 2-quart baking dish or pan (8- by 12-in. oval or rectangle, or 9-in. square).

Stack sheets of fila, then fold once so width fits or is slightly larger than narrow dimension of baking dish. Set baking dish on fila; cut around dish so fila will fit; discard the trimmings.

Melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter. Lay a sheet of fila on the chard; brush with butter. Repeat layers of fila, brushing each and the top with butter.

With a sharp knife, cut through fila to make about 6 equal diamonds (if made ahead, cover and chill up to overnight). Bake, uncovered, in a 375| oven until fila is well browned, 40 to 45 minutes. Sprinkle with fennel, then cut into diamonds to serve. Makes 6 servings.

Photo: Arrange feta in spoke pattern atop partially baked pear tart; bake until cheese is lightly browned

Photo: Roasted peppers, feta, spinach, and basil are topped with pine nuts and orange vinaigrette

Photo: Flaky layers of fila surround Swiss chard filling; chunks of feta add piquant taste
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Sep 1, 1986
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