Tuesday 21 November 2017

Fabulous feta

Greece is getting stick in the headlines, but let's not forget its contribution to cuisine, says Rachel Allen, including its amazing cheese. Photography by Tony Gavin

Rachel Allen Greek Salad.
Photo: Tony Gavin 30/06/2015
Rachel Allen Greek Salad. Photo: Tony Gavin 30/06/2015

While sitting at my computer watching the rain lashing down outside, I'm thinking that if I could transport myself anywhere right now, it might just be to a little taverna on a sunny beach in the Greek islands. I'm imagining it right now: lamb chops cooking on the grill, puffy white pitta breads, intensely garlicky tzatziki, Greek salad, and loads of feta cheese with everything. White, crumbly and satisfyingly salty, feta is the cheese of choice for many Greek dishes. So much so that over 10 years ago, the EU awarded Greece (no financial jokes here, please!) exclusive rights to the name 'feta'. Because of this Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), any cheese that's labelled as feta cheese has to have been made in Greece to particular methods and standards.

Made from sheep's milk, and sometimes with a small bit of goat's milk, feta is matured in brine for anything from two to 12 months, which is what helps to give it its distinctively salty flavour and crumbly texture. It's superb in salads, pasta and on pizzas, and feta is also often used as a binding agent for Greek meatballs and lamb burgers.

The Greek salad recipe, opposite, is, of course, a staple on every Greek table, and any leftovers can be tossed gently with quinoa or couscous for a delicious packed lunch.

The lamb, bean, olive and feta salad, also opposite, is perfect for this time of year, and takes its inspiration from great Greek food. It's a wonderful way to use up leftover roast lamb or lamb chops. And the roasted wedges of butternut squash with feta and parsley pesto recipe is just great on its own or accompanying a summery Sunday roast, Grecian style.

Lamb, bean, olive and feta salad

Serves 6-8.

For the redcurrant dressing, you will need:

2 tablespoons redcurrant jelly

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

50ml (2fl oz) extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the salad, you will need:

Roughly 600g (1¼lb) leftover cooked lamb

1 x 400g (14oz) tin of cooked beans, such as cannellini, butter or haricot, drained

6-8 handfuls of salad leaves

Handful of fresh mint leaves

About 20-30 black olives, pitted and halved

400g (14oz) feta cheese, or Toons Bridge Greek-style cheese, or Knockalara sheep's milk cheese (see Rachel Recommends, far right), crumbled

First, make the redcurrant dressing. Put the redcurrant jelly in a bowl, add the red wine vinegar and the extra-virgin olive oil, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and whisk everything together until the dressing has emulsified.

Carve or tear the cooked lamb into thin slices, removing the fat. Toss the lamb slices lightly with the drained cooked beans and most of the redcurrant dressing.

Gently toss the dressed lamb and beans with the salad leaves and the fresh mint leaves and put the salad on one big serving plate or in individual bowls.

Scatter the pitted black-olive halves and the crumbled feta cheese, or Toons Bridge Greek-style cheese or Knockalara sheep's milk cheese, whichever you're using, over the top. Drizzle over any remaining redcurrant dressing and serve.

Roast wedges of butternut squash with feta and parsley pesto

Serves 4-6.

You will need:

1 butternut squash

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 handfuls of salad leaves

3 teaspoons of extra-virgin olive or walnut oil

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

125g (4½oz) feta or Toons Bridge Greek-style cheese, or Knockalara sheep's cheese, broken into 2cm (¾in) chunks

25g (1oz) walnuts, roughly chopped and toasted in a hot pan for a minute or two

For the parsley pesto, you will need:

25g (1oz) fresh parsley, chopped

25g (1oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese

25g (1oz) pine kernels

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

75ml (3fl oz) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for the top

Preheat the oven to 220°C, 425°F, Gas 7. Peel the butternut squash using a sharp knife, cut it in half lengthways and discard the seeds. Cut the butternut squash into wedges that are 1cm (less than ½in) at the thickest part.

Place the butternut squash wedges in a wide bowl and drizzle them with the 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Season them with a good pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper. Toss the wedges with your hands, then tip them into a roasting tin or baking tray, making sure to pour in all the extra-virgin olive oil and the seasoning. Spread the wedges out into a single layer and roast them in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the wedges are tender and a little crisp at the edges. Remove the tin from the oven and allow the wedges to cool slightly.

While the butternut squash is roasting, make the parsley pesto. In a food processor, whizz the chopped fresh parsley, the freshly grated Parmesan cheese, the pine kernels and the crushed garlic. Add the 75ml (3fl oz) of extra-virgin olive oil and a good pinch of salt and taste the pesto. If you're not using it straight away, pour the pesto into a sterilised jar, cover it with 1cm (less than ½in) of extra-virgin olive oil and store in the fridge. The pesto will keep for about two months.

To serve, dress the salad leaves in the extra-virgin olive oil or the walnut oil, whichever you're using, and the white wine vinegar. Place the dressed leaves on one large plate or on individual ones. Arrange the roasted butternut squash wedges on top, then add the chunks of feta cheese, or the Toons Bridge Greek-style cheese or the Knockalara sheep's cheese, whichever you're using, the roughly chopped toasted walnuts and a good drizzle of the parsley pesto, and serve.

Greek Salad

Serves 6.

Pictured.

To dress the cheese, you will need:

3oz (75g) feta cheese (I also like to use Toons Bridge Greek-style cheese or Knockalara sheep's milk cheese)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon marjoram leaves, roughly chopped

For the salad, you will need:

½-1 crisp fresh cucumber

6 very ripe tomatoes

1 red onion, or 6 scallions

15-20 black olives, pitted

Approximately 2 tablespoons of chopped marjoram

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground (coarsely ground if possible) black pepper

A small handful of flat-leaf parsley

Break the feta cheese into 2cm (¾in) chunks. Drizzle the feta chunks with the extra-virgin olive oil and scatter over the roughly chopped marjoram leaves. Set aside - the cheese can sit like this for hours, just make sure to take it out of the fridge (if you are refrigerating it) about 20 minutes before serving.

Just before serving, prepare the rest of the salad. Halve the cucumber lengthwise and cut it into chunks.

Core the tomatoes and cut them into wedges. Slice the red onions, or coarsely chop the scallions (the green and white parts), whichever you are using.

In a bowl, mix the cucumber chunks, the tomato wedges, the sliced red onion or the coarsely chopped scallions, whichever you're using, the pitted black olives and the chopped marjoram.

Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and the freshly squeezed lemon juice. Season with salt, some freshly ground black pepper and toss everything together gently. Sprinkle with the chunks of dressed feta cheese and the flat-leaf parsley. Serve.

Lamb chops are at their best right now - not so young that the flavour is almost too subtle, and not so old that it's too strong. They are my favourite meat to enjoy with a great Greek salad, taverna style. Any that are cooked and left over can be used in the lamb, bean, olive and feta salad recipe, below left.

Lamb

We have two fantastic Irish cheeses that would give Greece's very best feta a run for its money any day. Knockalara sheep's milk cheese has been around for a while now, and is made from the milk of the flock of ewes on the west Waterford farm. Knockalara Farmhouse Cheese, Knockalara, Cappoquin, Co Waterford, tel: (024) 96326. West Cork's Toons Bridge Greek-style cheese also has the crumbly, salty characters of feta, while being made from buffalo milk. Toons Bridge Dairy, Macroom, Co Cork, see therealoliveco.com

Both cheeses are available at farmers' markets around the country and from selected shops nationwide.

To dress up feta cheese taverna-style for scattering over couscous, salads or quinoa, just break up the feta into roughly 2cm (¾in) pieces and drizzle generously with extra-virgin olive oil, roughly chopped marjoram and lots of cracked black pepper.

Sunday Independent

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