Tag Archives: Cheese

Pasta with mizithra and garlic

This is the story of the oddest pasta dish I’ve ever made.

Over the summer, Sam and I took a trip up to Portland and Seattle. While we were in Seattle, we went out to dinner with some friends at a Greek restaurant in the Ballard neighborhood, called Plaka Estiatorio. It was a stunning meal–perfectly plump dolmas, crisp and sprightly Greek salad, crunchy fried smelts with their fishy little heads still on, fat orange mussels as big as my thumb. But the dish that really blew us all away was something the menu called Yannis Makaronia.

It arrived piled high in a bowl, with little fuss and less explanation: a tangled mass of spaghetti, each strand lightly coated with crisp brown flecks. The flavors were quite subtle–it was as if the pasta itself were somehow caramelized–but whatever was clinging to the pasta gave it texture, a kind of prickly resistance that felt wonderful on the tongue. It was, as Sam said, “dusted” instead of sauced. We ate and ate until the bowl was empty, and then chattered at each other, trying to figure out exactly we’d just eaten.

As we finished eating, the owner–a twinkly-eyed, gray-haired fellow named Yannis–came over to our table. He sat with us, told jokes, explained where the ingredients in our meal had come from, gave us straws and passed around the mussel bowl so we could drink the aromatic broth. Finally one of us–I think it was our friend Hilary–got up the nerve to ask just what was in that extraordinary pasta. He grinned proudly, sat down, and told us a story.

mizithra pasta 2

He’d first eaten this pasta, he told us, at a restaurant in Athens. He was so impressed that he walked straight into the kitchen and persuaded the chef to show him how to make it. Once he returned to Seattle, he began making it for himself, for lunch, to eat while he was working. One day he brought his lunch out into the dining area and sat down at the bar to eat. A customer asked him about it, and then another, and then another, and before long he was offering tastes to all and sundry. It was a huge hit, and that day he added it to the menu as a special. He had no idea what to call it, so he immodestly named it after himself: Yannis Makaronia. Before long, it became so popular that he promoted it to the regular dinner menu.

Wow, we said. That’s amazing. But how on earth do you make it? He sighed indulgently, leaned forward in his chair as if preparing to give a lesson, and explained:

“You take olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, and burn it. Then you take mizithra–you know mizithra? It is a cheese, a Greek cheese. You take it, and you grate it very small. You put that in the pan, with garlic, and you cook it until it turns brown. Then you mix with pasta. That’s it.”

We hung on his every word. Somewhere in that beautifully odd description was the secret to Yannis Makaronia. It seemed to violate every basic cooking principle I knew–burn olive oil? brown garlic? cook grated cheese directly in a hot pan?–and yet he explained it so matter-of-factly, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. I had no idea how I might replicate his signature dish at home, but I suspected that it all hinged on the cheese: mizithra. And, as it turns out, I was right.

mizithra

As soon as I got home, I started researching. Mizithra (sometimes spelled myzithra) is an unpasteurized goat or sheep cheese. It’s made from whey and then aged with salt, becoming hard, white, and nearly as solid as styrofoam. The flavor is very similar to feta, sharp and salty and animal-funky. And mizithra also shares another quality with feta, a quality that makes Yannis Makaronia possible: it doesn’t melt. It browns. It caramelizes.

After a little searching, I found mizithra at Whole Foods, and also at a local specialty cheese shop. I brought home a hunk of cheese, and set about making the pasta just the way Yannis explained. I minced the garlic and grated the cheese, boiled water and cooked the spaghetti. I heated the oil just until the faintest plumes of smoke came off the surface, then dumped in the garlic and cheese and stirred like crazy. It felt so wrong. So weird. So completely counterintuitive. But it worked. It browned like he said it would. It coated the pasta like he said it would. The whole thing came together in less time than it took to grate the cheese. Doggone it, it worked.

In fact, that first time, I was too timid. I didn’t scorch the cheese enough, and the flavor was anemic. The next time I tried it, I made sure to cook the cheese to an even caramel-brown before adding the spaghetti. In less than 15 minutes, I had a bowl of glistening dark-flecked pasta, eerily reminiscent of the one we demolished in Seattle.

Sam says he could eat nothing but this pasta, all day long. I actually like it better as a side dish, served with an assortment of brightly-flavored Greek dishes, the way we ate it in Seattle. And here’s another unexpected and un-pasta-like thing about it: it tastes better at room temperature than it does warm. Every time I make it, I taste it straight from the pan, and am underwhelmed; but after 5 or 10 minutes on a plate, it’s difficult to stop eating it.

So if you’re in Seattle, go visit Yannis and eat his Makaronia. If you’re not, get some mizithra and make it at home. Either way, you’ll never look at a bag of spaghetti the same way again.

mizithra pasta

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Cheesy mushroom lasagna

I made this lasagna as dinner for our New Year’s party. And it made my boyfriend believe in lasagna again. His exact words? “I used to think that lasagna was gross. But this is, like…actually good.” Followed by, “I think this is the best lasagna I’ve eaten in maybe…ever.”

This, my friends, is a lasagna to be reckoned with: decadent, woodsy, gooey, salty, cheesy, meaty, dense. It’s also an elaborate project. There are noodles to prepare (more on that in a minute); a head of radicchio, sliced and roasted; a pile of mushrooms, sauteed to golden-edged limpness and doused with white wine; a pungent, garlicky white sauce; and four–count ’em, four–different cheeses. This is an all-afternoon Sunday kind of meal, for showing lots of love or making a great impression. And if you persevere, you will be rewarded with the richest, tangiest, most profoundly savory mushroom lasagna you’ve ever tasted.

Because this is a special-occasion dish, the mushrooms matter. You could use a jumble of fresh wild mushrooms, if they’re available and affordable. They weren’t when I went shopping, so I cheated. I used a mixture of fresh and dried mushrooms–in this case, a pound of creminis and an ounce each of dried shiitakes and dried oyster mushrooms, soaked in hot water until pliable. The dried mushrooms are damply intense, the fresh ones are meaty, and together they’re dark and murky and altogether perfect.

Oh, and about those lasagna noodles: I know you’re supposed to boil them first. But I don’t like the slippery wateriness that sneaks into many lasagnas that way, and besides, I don’t have a pot big enough to fit the noodles without cracking them. So this time, I took a cue from my dried mushrooms: I laid the lasagna noodles flat in a pan, covered them with boiling water, and let them soak while I prepped the other ingredients. The result? Supple, completely intact noodles that reached the perfect al dente texture in the oven. I’ll never boil a lasagna noodle again.

cheesy mushroom lasagna

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Stovetop mac and cheese

Well. That was interesting.

Thanskgiving, I mean. And the days surrounding it. Over the past week and a half, I:

  • found out my grandmother passed away, after several years of painful decline
  • masterminded and cooked an entire Thanksgiving meal for the first time
  • served said meal to family and friends
  • came down with about a two-minute cold
  • drove down to San Diego with my family for my grandmother’s funeral
  • drove back from San Diego
  • found out my bike was stolen while I was gone
  • strained my back somehow in the car, and am just now recovering

In this season of blessing-counting, it feels strange to be so scattered. I’ve spent the past few days marinating in a bath of gratitude and grief and low-level physical pain. None of it is particularly heavy or dark, but it’s all there, and occasionally some part of it bubbles up to the surface and bursts.

I feel so lucky for what I have. And so fortunate to have the luxury of nursing myself back to normal on my own time. I’ve been dosing myself liberally with homemade macaroni and cheese, made on the stovetop in about 20 minutes. I love this stuff, as simple and almost-healthy as it is: no butter, no cream, no breadcrumbs, no oven. No parboiling the noodles, even. Just whole-wheat pasta cooked slowly in milk until its own starch thickens the liquid into a sauce, and then a pile of cheese stirred in at the end. The familiar squish, sqush, squidge of the cheese and noodles against the spoon is almost therapy in itself.

I wish I could write more. But I’m still marinating. In the meantime, I have a bowl of comfort food and a lot to be thankful for.

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Savory cheese-herb granola

Let me introduce you to the most addictive snack to come out of my kitchen thus far: savory granola. Sounds funky, looks goofy, tastes like a cheese-and-herb cracker with the volume turned to 11. For a salty-crunch addict like me, this is daydreamy stuff.

I love finding out that sweet foods don’t have to be sweet. I held off on making granola for a long time, because the sheer amount of liquid sweetener needed to bind it together made my gut tangle uneasily. Then the all-knowing internet offered up the suggestion to replace the sweetener with egg white, and the sugary-chewy notes with cheesy-herbal ones. I gave it a whirl, and came away with a cookie sheet full of crisp, fragrant, salty-savory oats and nuts, coated oh-so-delicately with Italian seasoning and Parmesan cheese. The smell alone made my chilly little apartment a little cuddlier and warmer.

Of course, I stuck my paws in as soon as it came out of the oven. At first, there was a shiver of cognitive dissonance, as I teased out the flavors of hazelnut and pecan and almond and oat from the cracker-like seasoning. But it didn’t take long for my brain to register something good, and I was hooked. It’s a little hard to believe how healthy this stuff is, because it tastes like a total cheesy-snack indulgence.

This granola is looser and crumblier than its sweet cousins, making it more like confetti than clusters. I imagine it would be a terrific addition to a cheese board or an hors d’oeuvres spread. It makes a glorious gluten-free alternative to croutons, especially on top of a rich, creamy soup. I haven’t tried it with tomato soup yet, but I expect the clouds will open and beams of light will descend. You could use this instead of seasoned breadcrumbs on top of a gratin or casserole; for breakfast, you could sprinkle it over baked or fried eggs, or mix it with yogurt. And when it comes to out-of-hand nibbling, it might be the best secret office snack in existence. I can slip a jar into a desk drawer, shake out a handful or two of granola in the morning, and go happily for hours without a rumble of hunger. That’s pretty special.

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Cheese-stuffed dates

One of my favorite stands at the local farmer’s market sells Medjool dates. They’re enormous, plush and sticky and sweet as candy, so rich that you can’t eat more than one or two at a time. The most popular dates at the stand are the freshest ones: soft, pillowy and priced for a splurge. But I prefer the older, firmer dates–not just because they’re cheaper, but because they’re ideal for stuffing with cheese and wrapping in prosciutto.

I’m a sucker for salty-sweet things, and these scratch my itch every time. There’s nothing quite like tangy cheese, sugary fruit and fatty, salty ham all mashed into one perfectly-sized bite. They’re quick to put together–if you don’t mind a bit of assembly-line work–and make the perfect entrance at a party. Give me one or two of these morsels and a glass of dry rose wine, and I’m a happy girl.

Most stuffed dates in the world have goat cheese inside them. This is where I push away from tradition. I adore goat cheese, but it’s just not my favorite date filling–it’s too soft and malleable, no contrast at all against the gooey stickiness of the fruit. Instead, I like to use cubes of Parmesan or another firm, aged cheese: the sharpness cuts right through through the sweetness of the dates, but the cheese still has enough chew to stand up to the fruit around it. And then, of course, aged cheese is a natural partner for the thin layer of prosciutto holding everything together.

These are delicious just-assembled, at room temperature. In the sweltering height of summer, there’s no need to do anything more. But if you can stand to, try running them under the broiler until the cheese melts and the ham starts to shrink in on itself. At room temperature, the dates are subtle and layered; warmed through, they’re butter-rich and decadent. Your call.

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Red(dish) velvet cake

And the cakes just keep on coming.  Don’t judge; it was my birthday this weekend.

I had a conundrum when planning my birthday cake this year.  I was throwing a Communist Party–vodka drinks, red paper plates, Russian snacks and a 1960’s Cold War movie–and wanted to make a red velvet cake.  (Get it? Get it?) But the red in red velvet cake almost always comes from food coloring, and the quantity of red food coloring used tends to make cake taste metallic and sharp, like licking the side of a flagpole.  At least, it does to me.

So I wanted to try a dye-free cake.  I poked around for an alternative, and found a recipe for a cake infused with red wine.  Yum.

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Cacio e pepe

Whenever I read another food blogger’s take on cacio e pepe–that is, spaghetti with cheese and black pepper–the rhythm is always the same.  It’s always about how sometimes the simplest dish is the best measure of a cook’s ability.  It’s about how the simplicity of the sauce lets you taste the pasta more fully.  It’s about how the simple ingredients and simple preparation combine to make a lovely, thoroughly Italian plate of pasta.

In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a simple dish.

It’s also, at least in my world, the classic example of a sometimes food: a little guilt-inducing, best taken in small doses.

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