Will the Real Grilled Cheese Please Stand Up?
Grilled cheese. Those two words conjure up melty, gooey images of gustatory comfort. A homey salve, the ultimate rainy day lunch, a perfect companion to a bowl of hot soup. But why is it "grilled" cheese and not "fried" or "toasted?"
The interesting use of the word didn't occur to me until this week, when I set out to grill cheese - on a grill. I had long heard about the uniquely cook-able qualities of halloumi, a cheese from Cyprus.
Made from a mixture of sheep's and goat's milk (and sometimes cow's milk), halloumi is made in similar fashion to mozzarella, in which curds are soaked in water. When eaten out of the package, it has the mouth feel of Armenian string cheese (remember that as a kid?) -- slightly salty, a little chewy and a fibrous/ropy texture. The flavor is mild but perhaps because of its texture, yields a bit more character than mozzarella. At times, I thought I was eating smoked provolone.
Unlike cheddar or gruyere (or whatever you like in your "grilled cheese" sandwich), halloumi doesn't melt into a pile of goo when heated. It gets nice and brown on the outside (in fact, it yields beautiful grill marks!), but stays solidly intact, resembling a boneless chicken breast or an egg-white omelette. In fact, in Cyprus, halloumi is a common breakfast item, often served with watermelon.
At last night's grillfest, we enjoyed it with a tomato-basil salad, grilled onions, olives and crusty bread to make an ad-hoc sandwich. A few drops of balsamic vinegar was thrown on one piece, a spritz of lemon on another. Fresh oregano was the perfect garnish.
Here's how to make real grilled cheese: Prepare grill and wait until it cools down to medium (not quite hot enough for cooking meat). Brush grill grate with oil, and brush a small amount on each side of slice of halloumi, about ½-inch thick. (Anything thinner will eventually melt down and stick.)
Ninety seconds is all the first side needs to earn beautiful grill marks. Turn over with tongs and allow to cook for another 2 minutes or so. Eat immediately, while still warm; otherwise the halloumi becomes almost plastic in texture.
This is a fun grilling adventure. Requiring little grill time and kitchen prep, halloumi is mild enough to marry with all kinds of accompaniments, from olives to roasted peppers. The grilled flavor really comes through and it's much lighter fare than a hunk of creamy brie.
One note of warning: When grilled, halloumi makes a squeaking noise while you chew, a jarring experience at first.
Where to find it? Try Meditteranean-friendly markets such as Lebanese Taverna Market in Arlington, Mediterranean Bakery and Café in Alexandria and Mediterranean Deli in Tenleytown. I've also found it at Whole Foods, and I think I might inquire at your local Trader Joe's.
Let me know what you think! Or share your favorite ways of eating and serving halloumi.
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