Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Zorba Lives! Halloumi Cheese w/Cucumber & Lentil Salad

Halloumi Cheese salad against backdrop of black mulch
Yesterday I posted an entry that featured no dish wrought by my novice hands. Today I cheated and used McCann's Irish oatmeal for breakfast. Cheating, meaning, I didn't cook breakfast from scratch. (This was not from lack of amateur cooking enthusiasm. Don't worry! I simply wanted a break from heavier pancakes and egg dishes). Let me make it up to you by sharing what I'm chowing down on right now for lunch:  halloumi cheese salad w/Persian cucumbers, beluga lentils and other zestful stuff. Here's the recipe from Maili's Files:  Halloumi Cheese w/Cucumber Lentil Salad
You know how in Hollywood people cast movies by F*ckability Quotient? Well, I hereby create Slurpability Quotient. If I make a dish which induces slurping -- diner unconsciously swoops head toward dish, licks plate, slurps last bite off said plate, all with complete orgiastic abandon -- then it's a success. Fair enough?
Cavaretta's (#1 Since 1959) Deli, Canoga Park
That's what happened with this dish for me today, which I've now prepared for -- I'm not sure how many times. A few. Though finding halloumi cheese the first time turned into a search as challenging and circuitous as hunting the Holy Grail in a godless era. (I finally found the cheese at Bristol Farms in West Hills. I went an hour out of my way to get it, after having already pit-stopped at Costco, Trader Joe's, Ralph's, Whole Foods and Cavaretta's Italian Grocery for one planned meal.
Can you spell fanatic? Obsessive? Actually, the elusiveness of a necessary and unusual ingredient turns me on. Usually Whole Foods carries it, but this Woodland Hills one didn't. So off to Bristol Farms I drove. There it cost $8.99 v. $9.99 at Whole Foods...Btw, if you haven't visited Bristol Farms, you should. Great place for harder-to-find items and just to adventure. I think they have a hundred cheeses, for example. I also picked up both a rosemary and mint plant so I could pluck my herbs, and avoid buying those expensive packets that always ruin because I don't use them all. Tip:  remember to water these herbs frequently, like every other day, because they're in small pots. They were all drooping 'til a friend told me that).
How did I come to this recipe? Because Chef Maili was the person who catalyzed this cooking adventure. Blame her!
Uh oh
Not only did she inspire me with that first cooking lesson on June 10th, but she's also the one who planted the initial seed for this project by writing and saying something like, You ask the best questions. They're so funny and basic [read:  stupid and ignorant!] it makes my head spin. You ask things I'd never think of having grown up cooking. I should gather up all your questions. You make me laugh in the cooking classes! Or better yet, maybe you should write a book about your journey...).
My heart, which had been heavy for some time, leapt. The newborn passion for cooking was so sudden, so out-of-the-blue -- like a reawakening -- I hadn't even thought about the possibilities for writing. I'd just come through the lengthy and demanding promotional tunnel for my last book and was feeling deflated about my own literary career and the publishing industry in general. Sap that I am (especially in therapy and recovery when emotions are close to the epidermis), just remembering this suggestion of hers brings tears to my eyes. Why? Because I was in the midst of, if not a midlife crisis, then a middle passage. A crossroads ala Sonny Boy Williamson. Filled with despair and lack of clear direction. But I digress. More on that another time.
Today I am gleefully living in Beginner's Mindset, looking to my first cooking guru as my expert guide and curator to all things cookable. So I was cruising Maili's recipes the other day, seeking groovy summer salads -- and found this. It turns out it's prepared by a duo of female chefs who cater to Jennifer Aniston. You may have heard of her. Seems Aniston used to worry so much about her weight and looking fine that she forgot the joy of eating and survived only on food bars. Until she met these chefs, who assured her you could eat well, and tastily -- and still be fit and get naked on the cover of GQ & Vanity Fair. This is their recipe. If this dish is any indication of what they cook for Aniston, it stands to reason she's not only still lean but wears a bigger smile than she used to -- even though I think Aniston's a love junkie, which means I'm not not sure if fixing her eating habits is addressing the something deeper going on there. Interestingly, she has Greek roots.
Melina Mercouri, "Never On Sunday"
Because eating this salad transports me back to Greece, to its crooked olive trees with their shifting silver/green leaves, the stark white buildings sculpted perfectly against the blue-blue sky, jealous women with their slicing dark eyes, the young seductive "harpoonists" on the beaches staking out tourist girls, fresh fish eyes that pop in the mouth, pastries dripping with honey, komboloi praying beads clicking in old men's hands, the mournful, sexy sound of rembetiko (Greek blues), Melina Mercouri...
When I enrolled in a Masters of Fine Arts in Writing program in 1991 at the urging of Lou Mathews whom you met in the previous post, I met a Greek-American man with whom I began a tempestuous yet often lovely three-year relationship. The relationship featured lots of traveling back and forth to Greece, including some stays as long as half a year. This man is a fascinating character in himself, a soulful writer who hails from a Greek political dynasty. More on that another time. For now, let us concentrate on food. On cooking. On sights, sounds, smells, taste, touch, and other senses activated by that special time spent in the honeyed Attic light. And how this salad provides a portal...
I bite into the cheese which I cooked in olive oil and the odd texture -- somewhere between mozzarella and feta -- startles. Titillates. The saltiness makes me feel as if I've just risen from the Aegean for a morning swim, the salt coarse and blustery on my tongue. I remember the house where we stayed on Hydra, the one rising up out of the sea, with waves lapping at the kitchen windows, and how the floor beneath where we lay tangled together had shapes cut into the floor so with the light rising from below, it seemed we slept on a carpet of stars.
When I chew crisp sweet Persian cucumber slices along with heirloom tomato and those tiny Beluga lentils, I experience the perfect crunchy-fried/cool collision of taste and texture. (The Beluga lentils look like Beluga caviar to Maili. To me, they look like squirrel scat. Either way, they taste delicious. You can buy them in packets at Trader Joe's -- pre-cooked and ready to drop into boiling water for a mere 5 minutes. Trader Joe's also stocks great Persian cucumbers).
Anthony Quinn & Alan Bates in "Zorba the Greek"
There's a peasant simplicity to the dish. A summer coarseness that recalls famous Attic light, the lazy dance of silver olive tree leaves, scent of eucalyptus, sound of goat bells jangling, and the sensation of a kiss if you're lucky. Though to my mind, a dish prepared with care and sensuality can deliver a mouthful of food that lingers like a kiss, and satisfies like one bestowed with passionate intent.
Sotiria Leonardu, movie still from "Rembetiko"
So many more memories of Greece come flooding back, but perhaps I'll save them for another post. For now, let me leave you with a haunting performance of a song from the 1983 film "Rembetiko" followed by the lyrics translated into English. The singer digs deep into her memory to flavor her heart-wrenching singing. Perhaps that is one of the secrets to cooking, and to living passionately.

"Kaigomai" from the 1983 movie "Rembetiko" by Costas Ferris

Lyrics: Nikos Gatsos
Music: Stavros Xarhakos
Performed by: Sotiria Leonardou
Kaigomai – Sotiria Leonardou – English Lyrics

When the man is born
a pain is born
when the war flares up
blood is uncountable
I’m burning, I’m burning
throw more oil on the fire
I’m drowning, I’m drowning
throw me into a deep sea
I swore on your eyes
that I considered them a gospel
to turn the stab that you gave me
into laughter
I’m burning, I’m burning
throw more oil on the fire
I’m drowning, I’m drowning
throw me into a deep sea
But you, deep in hell,
break the chain
and if you drag me by your side
may you be blessed
I’m burning, I’m burning
throw more oil on the fire
I’m drowning, I’m drowning
throw me into a deep sea

Opa! Remember, if I can cook, anyone can.



  1. Amazing read! And In a 'cooking blog' no less. Love your words and wit,woes and wisdom. Look forward to the next Installment. xo

  2. Opa! indeed! Gorgeous post. This sentence left me breathless:

    Though to my mind, a dish prepared with care and sensuality can deliver a mouthful of food that lingers like a kiss, and satisfies like one bestowed with passionate intent.

  3. Jewels and Jill are amazing!! Their lentil salad with the halloumi is one of the best things I've ever eaten! Their cookbook, The Family Chef, is terrific.

    Another great post Rachel!