May it Please the Palate: Greek cheese tour Part II: grilled halloumi

Halloumi is from Cyprus. This island republic has been an object of dispute between Greeks and Turks for centuries. One thing we can all agree on is Cyprus' unique and delicious halloumi cheese, traditionally made with a blend of sheep and goat's milk. The cheese is heated and then brined, making it strong, salty, and firm.

The preparation process also accounts for the high melting point of halloumi, rendering it ideal for frying or grilling. Perhaps you've seen it in a specialty store or deli. Zingerman's sells a grilled halloumi salad. Cypriots like to eat it in the summer months with watermelon and mint; in fact the cheese is often wrapped in mint to help keep it fresher and more flavorful.

My yet-to-be-opened Greek restaurant will feature a grilled halloumi salad. There are two presentations I want to try. One is to serve the cheese on a bed of shredded arugula and romaine, served with cherry tomatoes and Kalamata olives, flavored with a citrus-cumin-garlic vinaigrette, perhaps with a bit of shaved red onion. The second, which I tried tonight, is a variation on the traditional matching of halloumi, watermelon, and mint. This ridiculously easy recipe is courtesy of Bon Appétít.

Grilled Halloumi with Watermelon and Basil-Mint Oil

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil

3 T coarsely chopped fresh mint, plus thinly sliced mint for garnish

1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup olive oil plus more for brushing

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3/4 pound cherry tomatoes on the vine

One 8-9-ounce package halloumi cheese, cut crosswise into 8 slices

6 small triangles thinly sliced watermelon, rind removed

1. Build a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill to high. Purée basil, 3 tablespoons mint, and garlic in a blender. With machine running, add 1/2 cup oil. Set a strainer over a small bowl; strain, pressing on solids. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Brush grill rack with oil. Drizzle 2 tablespoons basil-mint oil over tomatoes and cheese; season with salt and pepper. Grill tomatoes, turning occasionally, until charred and bursting, about 4 minutes. Grill cheese until nicely charred in spots and beginning to melt, about 45 seconds per side.

3. Arrange melon on a platter. Top with cheese and tomatoes. Drizzle remaining herb oil over; garnish with sliced mint. That's it - einai orea! (It's beautiful!)

This recipe was so quick I almost felt cheated out of the cooking experience. Three points learned:

First, I hesitated before straining the oil as recommended, but I got what they were doing, to flavor the oil, and it was super fast. You can even re-use the pesto that remains in your strainer.

Second, I used assorted heirloom cherry tomatoes, but you can use any kind you want, cherries or slicers. The recommended cherries-on-the-vine make for a rustic presentation - very cool contrast of shapes, not to mention taste.

Third, I cooked this on the grill attachment of my stovetop, over aluminum foil for easy cleaning.

I think this recipe will make the cut for my Greek restaurant. Yesterday I considered a creek side location that reminded me of a casual inn where my cousins live near Kalamata. You order at a counter and sit at outdoor picnic tables; the dishes are served family style. The kids play and the adults drink and socialize. Given the typical European late mornings and afternoon siesta, the weeknight family dinners are ridiculously late by American standards.

But there's something about the atmosphere that feels so comfortable. And the fantasy is so good, until I realize that no insurance company will ever allow a restaurant to have kids play by the creek, while the adults are drinking ouzo.

And that's why I still go to the office in the morning.

Published: Thu, Aug 9, 2012

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