Monday, March 31, 2014

Halloumi, Meet Your Best Friend, Commandaria

Our Cookbook Challenge Continues with a Provocative Pairing . . .

by Paul Zablocki

Halloumi, a semihard Cypriot cheese, with dollops of white truffle honey and fig jam, pairs so well with a St. John Sour.

We can’t believe almost an entire year has gone by since we started our Cookbook Challenge, for which we take a collection of cookbooks and use one or more recipes for inspiration to develop our own dishes or small bites. For our last challenge, we were to use two Nigella Lawson cookbooks, Feast and Nigella Bites, as our sources. Perusing her easy, homespun recipes, we noticed that Ms. Lawson seems to love the semihard, brined cheese from Cyprus called halloumi: Grilled Halloumi with Oozing Egg and Mint (what a title!); Halloumi with Chilli (the picture is enough to send you to the store searching for this Mediterranean hard cheese). A decision was made; Steve and I decided halloumi would be the focus, but we agreed to go one step further: come up with a cocktail–party food pairing and make sure the cocktail is low in alcohol. (Who doesn’t want to have a second drink at a cocktail party without getting loopy?)

But first, some words on Mediterranean cuisine.

If asked to name their favorite Mediterranean cuisine, most Americans would answer Italian. With good reason, too. How many of us have begun our evenings with some antipasti, paired with an Americano or a less bitter Aperol and soda? Italian restaurants—or Italian-American, rather—inhabit every city in this nation. You’d be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t. Even Makawao on the island of Maui boasts a bistro that serves cioppino made with fresh local fish.

But putting Italian aside, let us look into less-explored Mediterranean cuisine, that of Cyprus in particular, and its treasured cheese, halloumi.

But first some words about Cyprus.

I was fascinated by Cyprus as a child. To me, this island nation looked like a fish, with a stingray-like tail. If you gaze at a map, you’ll notice that this “fish” has just broken free from the maw of Turkey’s Gulf of İskenderun and is now swimming freely in the clear blue waters of the eastern Mediterranean. While the average Cypriot eats about forty-eight pounds of fish annually, this staple does not make an appearance in this post’s appetizer. It’s mostly just halloumi. But what we do to it . . . .

For our purpose, we will talk about halloumi that is available prepackaged from the grocery store. Briny and sometimes flavored with a hint of mint, halloumi originated on the island of Cyprus, probably over a 1,000 to 1,500 years ago. It’s rubbery and behaves like cheese curds, so that when you bite into a slice, you can hear a little squeak emanating from your maw. Because it doesn’t melt when broiled, fried, or grilled, this block of semihard succulence delivers supreme satisfaction on both taste and texture counts. How? The Maillard reaction, the one created when heat hits proteins and their ilk, and whammo, countless new flavors are born, making your mouth and brain very happy.

If you slice the halloumi into 1/4-inch-thin rectangles (on the short side of the block), you can fry them over medium-high heat in a nonstick pan, à la Nigella, about 2–3 minutes per side. They should ooze their liquid and then brown a little. Check that they don’t get too brown and flip, browning the other side as well. Remove from heat and spread with a mixture of fig name and white-truffle honey. This pairs beautifully with the St. John Sour. If you don’t have white-truffle butter (and we don’t blame you if you don’t), you can use the fig jam alone, but it would benefit the pairing if you sprinkled on some chopped chives or a few thin slices of scallion greens. You can also make your own white truffle honey by mixing some white truffle oil into some thick honey, preferably natural, and combine thoroughly.

Halloumi with Fig Jam and White Truffle Honey
(adapted from recipes culled from Nigella Bites and Feast)

Ingredients
1 8-ounce package halloumi
2 tablespoons fig jam
1 tablespoon white truffle honey

Method
In a small bowl, mix the fig jam and white truffle honey thoroughly and set aside.

Heat a nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Remove halloumi from package and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rectangular slices (your rectangles should be about 1 x 2 inches, so make sure you slice along the shorter end). Add slices to frying pan, making sure not to crowd them (you may have to work in two or three batches depending on the size of your frying pan). Check your slices after 2–3 minutes. When they are golden brown in patches, flip and cook for another 2–3 minutes. remove from heat and arrange on a platter. With a spoon, add dollops of the jam mixture to the halloumi, or arrange the bowl next to the halloumi platter and allow your guests to take as much as they want. Serve with a St. John Sour or a St. John Paddy Sour, two cocktails we created using a very special Cypriot wine, commandaria.

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Commandaria is a nutty port-like dessert wine that originated on the island of Cyprus and is the oldest-named wine still in production. It’s made from two types of grapes, Mavro and Xynestri, which are picked when they have overripened on the vines so that the sugar levels are high. After fermentation and the addition of neutral spirits, commandaria’s alcohol content lies somewhere between 15–20%. That’s especially good for when you want a second drink. And it mixes beautifully with citrus and other bold flavors like ginger. The commandaria shines in these two drinks.


St. John Sour
(created by Cocktail Buzz)

Ingredients
1 1/2 ounces St. John Commandaria (Cypriot wine)
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce ginger syrup*
soda

Method
Shake first three ingredients in ice for 15 seconds. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Top with soda. Stir. Add a lemon twist, if you’d like.

*Ginger Syrup
(created by Cocktail Buzz)

Ingredients
1 piece of fresh ginger, about 8 inches
2 cups of sugar
2 cups of water

Method
Wash then mandolin or thinly slice the ginger (no need to peel). In a medium saucepan combine sugar, water, and ginger. Bring to a boil, stirring, until sugar has dissolved. Reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Be careful not to bring to a roiling boil at this point as this will cause the syrup to harden. Allow to cool with ginger in syrup. Strain into jar. Press down on ginger to get all the syrup out. This keeps for about 1–2 weeks, and longer if you add a tablespoon of vodka or other spirit.

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You might not think that Irish whiskey and Cypriot wine would go hand in hand, but when mixed with some lemon juice, this drink makes for a smooth ride.

St. John Paddy Sour
(created by Cocktail Buzz)

Ingredients
1 1/2 ounces St. John Commandaria
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce Irish whiskey (Jameson)
soda

Method
Shake first three ingredients in ice for 15 seconds. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Top with soda. Stir. Add a lemon twist, if you’d like.

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For our next cookbook challenge, we will explore Ina Garten’s The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (we love this one) and Robert Carrier’s Entertaining, from 1978 (this one should be fun).

photos ©Steve Schul, Cocktail Buzz

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