Nope, you're not looking at a kitchen accident. This is my documentation of last night's attempt to recreate one of my favorite (anti)culinary memories.
When I was 18 and living away from home for the first time, I had an apartment in downtown Chicago, not far from Greek Town. My cadre of art school friends – mostly slightly older, mostly painters, mostly boys – would often end up at my place at the end of a long night full of bad-wine drinking and bad-gallery crawling. Such activities seem to guarantee starvation at 3 in the morning, and, because I'm chronically lazy about grocery shopping, in those days usually a field trip was in order. I don't know who's idea it was to start walking into Greek Town, but it soon became a tradition. I was hooked from the first thanks to the saganaki - or, as we were calling it then, flaming cheese.
Saganaki is a Greek appetizer that involves the grilling and eventual flambe of sheep's milk cheese (usually Kasseri). Some people dip it in egg and fry it, but in American restaurants it's usually cooked in a small iron skillet, right in front of your eyes. I have the distinct memory of sitting at a large round table with about six other people at Mama's, a diner in Chicago's Greek Town. A conversation about the Gerhard Richter painting on the cover of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation was suddenly interrupted by rising flames and the sound of a very large woman shouting, "Opa!" She'd doused a brick of Kasseri with brandy and lit with a match when I wasn't looking. As I'd soon come to realise, she'd often flambe the cheese twice, just for those who weren't initially paying attention. Saganaki at Mama's cost $3 and came with a plate full of warm pita and unlimited Kalamatas. Considering how much of it I ate my freshman year of college, I have no idea why I lost weight that year (actually, I probably couldn't afford to eat much of anything else).
I haven't eaten the stuff since roughly 1999, but I've never forgotten the way it tasted. Last night I tried to recreate it, to mixed results.
The first stumbling block came in just trying to procure Kasseri. I didn't have time to go up to Astoria, and no one in Williamsburg or the East Village had it. I substituted Halumi, another Greek cheese (a goat -and-sheep blend) known for its grilling capabilities. Similar in taste and texture to paneer, it's often used as a substitute for tofu or meat. Here it is, marinating in brandy.
Meanwhile, I prepared a side salad of diced Roma tomatoes, red onion, Portugeuse sea salt (brighter and brinier than my usual fleur de sel, Brittany Grey Salt), dried parsley and pitted gaeta olives. This is quite a step up from the side dishes I enjoyed in those Greek diners in Chicago, i.e. cigarettes and black coffee. I figured, if you're going to eat saganaki for a meal, you either want to play up the dirty elements (nothing cuts a brandy marinade like tobacco) or the clean (the sheeps milk has a slight fruitiness to it that a side of tomatoes and sea salt can't really beat).
After two hours, I removed the cheese from the brandy and doused it in a blend of flour, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. I had forgotten to season the cheese before marinating it, and I think it suffered in the end. I heated a tablespoon of French butter in a cast iron skillet, and browned the cheese on all sides. In total, this took about ten minutes. I wanted to give it a crust before adding the brandy, and, to that end, I think I could have seared it longer – once I did add the alcohol, it seemed to wash away a good deal of that work.
So: One, Two, Three ... OPA!
I let the alcohol burn for a while, and then squeezed half a lemon directly on the cheese. I then flipped it onto a warm pita, folded the bread and pressed down to make a sandwich.
All in all, the saganaki wasn't what I remembered. I'm sure this has something to do with the fact that I used Halumi instead of Kasseri; if I had to wager a guess, I'd also chalk it up to the fact that last time I had saganaki, I was 19 and hanging out with boys with early-Beatles haircuts who were convinced their woefully-outdated minimalist painting was going to change the world; at that point, it was part of formative experience. Six years later, I was eating it alone in front of the TV, and it was just dinner.
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