Feta cheese is an important ingredient in Greek cooking. It’s used in salads, dressings, and stuffings as well as with chicken, fish, and seafood. In fact, it’s found in practically every category of Greek food. The Greek tradition of feta cheese dates back to the ancient Greeks, making feta one of the oldest cheeses produced. The Greek poet, Homer even mentions feta in his epic, the Odyssey.
How Feta is Made
Feta cheese is traditionally made from goat’s or sheep’s milk. To make feta, milk is heated until the curds and the whey separate. The curd is then hung and allowed to dry for several hours. After that, it is cut into cubes, salted, and packed in brine in large curing barrels. It is cured in brine for at least three months, often longer. Feta is an off-white color, is slightly salty, and can range in taste from somewhat mild to tangy. Since 2002, feta is a protected designation of Greece, similar to France’s Champagne and Cognac designations. Although similar cheeses are made in Bulgaria, France, and Romania, among other places, any cheese called feta must be made in Greece. This government control also set standards for feta production and has gone a long way to standardizing quality.
Feta is approximately 25 percent fat, of which about two-thirds is saturated fat. It is high in protein and also somewhat high in sodium. Most of the salt is in the brine and the feta’s sodium content can be reduced substantially by rinsing or soaking the cheese in water. Feta is a good source of calcium and vitamin B12. A 1.25 oz cube of feta has about 100 calories.
Where to Find Feta
Feta cheese is reasonably easy to find in most areas, but the quality varies. If you are lucky enough to have a Greek or Mediterranean market in your area, it’s worth the extra trip to get fresh feta. It’s not usually much more expensive than the prepackaged grocery-store variety, since you aren’t paying for all that packaging. If you’re not able to find feta in your area, iGourmet has a large selection of feta and other Greek cheeses available online. Feta cheese will keep for several months in its brine, stored in the refrigerator.
Cooking with Feta
Feta cheese is traditional cut in cubes atop a classic Greek salad or melted on top of baked chicken or shrimp. See a recipe for Shrimp with Feta below. It can also be served by itself, cut in cubes with Kalamata olives and pita wedges as an appetizer, or used to spice up sauces and salad dressings.
Baked Shrimp with Feta
The salty tang of feta cheese is a natural accompaniment to the delicate shrimp in this dish. The tomatoes add color and a warm, fresh-from-the-garden taste. Called Garithes Youvetsi in Greek, most sources say that this dish became popular in the 1960s with the advent of widespread tourism to the Greek islands. It was an instant hit, and is now favored by locals and tourists alike. Serve this dish with a loaf of crusty Greek bread. Serves 4.
Ã?Â· 2 Medium Onions, Thinly Sliced
Ã?Â· 1/2 C. Olive Oil
Ã?Â· 2 lbs. Tomatoes, Coarsely Chopped
Ã?Â· 1/2 C. Dry White Wine
Ã?Â· 2 tsp. Freshly Ground Sea Salt
Ã?Â· 1/4 tsp. Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Ã?Â· 2 Garlic Cloves, Minced
Ã?Â· 2 lbs. Raw Shrimp, Shelled and Deveined
Ã?Â· 1/2 lb. Feta Cheese
Ã?Â· Chopped Broad-Leafed Parsley
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
While the oven is heating, heat the olive oil in a medium oven-proof casserole over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute until the onion is translucent, about 5-7 minutes
Stir in the tomatoes and cook until they are soft, about 5 more minutes. Stir in the wine and season with salt and pepper. Cook gently for another 10 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook until the shrimp turns pink, about another 2 minutes.
Crumble the feta cheese on top of the mixture. Place the casserole in the oven and bake for about 3 minutes, or until the cheese has melted. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately.
This dish can also be made in individual ramekins for an elegant dinner party presentation.