Hooked On Cheese: Halloumi

This is the first Hooked on Cheese column in a new multi-part series focusing on "grocery store cheeses." Great cheese doesn't have to be pricey and difficult to obtain; there are many excellent options that can be found at your run-of-the-mill grocery store. Raymond will be featuring his favorite cheeses that are readily accessible no matter where you are or what your budget.

The other day I was shopping at a regular grocery store — you know, the kind where you can pick up paper towels, soda pop and cat chow. The kind of grocery store we all shop at, one without a fancy-shmancy cheese counter or a salumeria. As I cruised the dairy isle and checked out their cheese selection, I found myself thinking: I write about some of the greatest cheeses in the world, but most are expensive, rare and unavailable to many folks. How hard would it be to feature some noteworthy cheeses that can be found in your average grocery store? My cheese-column criteria are pretty simple: the cheese has to taste good, be wholesome and be cleanly produced. Keeping only those few basic standards in mind, I was pleasantly surprised at how many choices were right in front of me. Straightaway I spotted Halloumi, a cheese I have always liked, but hadn't tasted in a while. I grabbed some, dropped it into my basket (next to those paper towels) and quickly brought it home to eat.

The cheese that grills: this has long been the catch phrase for Halloumi, a semi-firm, unripened cheese that originated in Cyprus around 400 CE. The grilling process changes this somewhat-bland cheese into a marvelously tasty treat. For my money, the most delicious versions are made from sheep's milk, but it can be made from cow and goat's milk as well (there are even mixed-milk versions). The cheese has a very high melting point and, when grilled, develops a nice, crispy brown crust. It is sold packed in brine — the salted water it is made in — and can be pulled apart in layers, like mozzarella.

Over the years, I have had Halloumi served to me in many ways. The traditional Saganaki preparation involves browning the cheese on both sides, squeezing a lemon over it, and (in my favorite version) adding a splash of Ouzo liquor and setting it aflame for a dramatic finish. It is equally delicious paired with a perfectly ripe watermelon in a cold salad; just grill the cheese, let it cool and toss with watermelon cubes drizzled with a little olive oil and garnished with julienned mint leaves.

Madeleine James, my co-writer, enjoys it in a salad of fresh veggies with a simple herbed lemon and extra virgin olive oil vinaigrette.  In this fresh, healthy dish, the firm texture of the cheese is an excellent contrast to the crispy lettuce, crunchy radishes and delicate asparagus. Personally, I prefer it prepared in a country-boy style: fry it up on one side, flip it over, brush the cooked side with your favorite barbeque sauce, and serve it on a butter-grilled bun with mustard, thin sliced red onions and dill pickles. Wow; I just made myself hungry...I might run back to that very same grocery store and pick up some more Halloumi today.

Additional reporting by Madeleine James.