Monday, June 1, 2009

Feta cheese and other gripes

Now that I've been to Greece and tasted what real feta cheese tastes like, I can't eat the crumbly, oversalted crap that I've eaten happily for years. That place ruined feta for me. It also ruined olives, olive oil, tomatoes, yogurt and pita bread. Allow me to explain.

Feta: Greek feta isn't lip puckeringly salty like the affordable kind I buy at the Kroger. It's salty, but it also has a lemony back note to it and a creamy sweetness that lingers after you eat it. It's not grainy, either. I never would want to eat U.S. feta cheese by itself; the stuff is just too aggressive. But Greek feta? You betcha.

Olives: Did you know that olives actually taste like something besides salt? Me neither. Some olives I ate in Greece had a pleasant, kind of grassy flavor. Some had a citrusy thing going on. Others, especially the black ones, had a meaty know, that umami quality that is hard to explain but delicious nonetheless.

Olive oil: I've seen chefs on the Food Network drizzle olive oil over a finished dish and franky, I never understood why. Why add more fat? I guess I really didn't understand that some olive oils have flavor. The light, flavorless olive oil I use for cooking isn't the only game in town. The oil the Greeks drizzle over their grilled vegetables adds something--it's herbaceous and clever and somehow makes the vegetables more vegetabley, if that makes any sense.

Yogurt: Greek yogurt is thick, rich and subtly tangy. More like sour cream. Which makes it persona non grata with my husband, but he won't even eat American yogurt, so who cares? I've always had a soft spot for tzatziki , the sauce of garlic, yogurt and cucumbers that the Greeks drizzle on grilled meat and pita. But tzatziki made with Greek yogurt? Addictive. I ate it with a spoon (much to the disgust of my husband).

Tomatoes: Just take my word for it. Totally different. Actually, most vegetables there just taste better. They tell me it's the soil and the water. Whatever it is, it works. I mean, you walk down the street in Greece and stumble on markets that sell stuff like this:

Pita: Guess what? That crumbly, cardboard textured stuff you make your sandwich with? It's not pita. The Greeks make light, spongy, fluffy pita and they don't open it to make a "pocket." They lightly grill it, place a kebab and some tzatziki on it and fold it up, calzone-style. It's far less messy and the bread doesn't get soggy and break apart in little chunks. Brilliant!

So what's a land-locked, newly picky Westerner to do? Thanks, Greece, you asshole! You've made a snob out of me. A snob who is craving Greek food with annoying regularity now.

Luckily, I picked up a few bottles of olive oil in Greece and toted them back with me. The tomatoes, well, I know I'm screwed there so I'm not even going to try. Greek yogurt, bless it's heart, is now widely available--even my Kroger carries it. But you have to use at least the 2% kind, not the fat free glop.

The pita, the olives and the feta? Problematic. I did find imported Greek feta--one kind--lolling near the back of the cheese department in my hometown Kroger. It was 10 bucks for 6 ounces. Suckage!!! Of course I bought it anyways. Taste test pending.

Thank God for Google. I found a place in Wisconsin (Wisconsin? Of all places.) that ships products from Greece to spoiled shmucks like myself. So I ordered pita and a bunch of olives. And I threw in some Jordan almonds just for good measure, because they are scrumptious.

A Greek feast awaits us later this week, after the meat marinates in lemon, olive oil and oregano. But for now, I have a serious date with that pita and some homemade tzatziki. I might eat the whole batch myself. Shhhh, don't tell.


1 cup Greek yogurt, such as Fage (at least 2%)
1 shallot, minced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced (I always use me some garlic!)
1/2 of an English hothouse cucumber, grated (you can peel it if you want but I like the color of the skin)
1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped
dash of cayenne (NOT traditional at all, but I love the hint of heat it gives)
squeeze of lemon
salt and pepper to taste

If you have the time, place the shredded cucumber in a colander and sprinkle with a little salt. Let it rest for 20 minutes over a bowl to catch excess water. After 20 minutes, rinse the cucumber, pat dry and mix with the remaining ingredients. Let sit for at least a half hour in the refrigerator to let the flavors blend. Serve with grilled pita.

If you don't have the time or patience to salt the cucumber, it'll still be fine. Your tzatziki will be a little more watery, but unless you are a purist, it'll still be pretty good.


  1. Once you get a taste of the good stuff there's no going back... Can't wait to see how the mail order works out for you. I would love to know the source if it does. Thanks for sharing your Tzatziki recipe. I love that stuff!

  2. I hear you, I lived in Crete a long time ago and I still crave the tomatoes, olive oil and seafood. However I have a GREAT pita bread recipe if you eva want to try and make it. It is easy and friggin' delish!

  3. Camilla, do share! I need to face yeast some time or another, and pita might convince me to do so!

  4. so excited about this post. i miss good Greek food and even though i ate a big dinner tonight just reading this made me salivate. THANKS TWK. (can't wait to make that Tzatziki.)

  5. I'm totally laughing that you ordered your Greek food from Wisconsin.

    And am glad to hear that our pita isn't even close to what is supposed to be happening because our pita SUCKS. I try to get excited about it but (a) it sucks and (b) everything always falls out the bottom if you have one drop of moisture in there and (c) it sucks.

  6. Ink, I know!! Pita here is so depressing! I hate it.

    CK, it's 4am here, the cat woke me up (howling at the rain) and I just ate warm pita with tzatziki for breakfast! Jealous?

  7. You forgot to mention bread. The simple bread they serve at every restaurant. I still don't understand why Greek restaurants in the US give you pita. And yes, produce comes from a totally different world. There has to be a Greek neighborhood in your neck of the woods (I'm sure there's one in Denver), and they must have a good grocery store, where you can find all the goodies.

    Oh, and I would have never left that hotel room. Never.