Say Cheese, With Good Strings Attached
There is string cheese: those small logs of faux mozzarella available in packs at the supermarket. And then there is Armenian string cheese: pure white, beautifully twisted and knotted, studded with tiny, bitter black seeds. Other than the fact that both kinds can be pulled apart into long, thin strips with your fingers, they have nothing in common.
Armenian string cheese is the real stuff. It is reminiscent of good mozzarella: fresh-tasting, milky and mildly tangy, but drier in texture and saltier. The first time I had it was in the late 1980s, when I lived in Detroit. My friend Michelle Andonian, a photographer by profession who also happens to know a thing or two about great food, would put it out as a snack or an appetizer, accompanied by olives and a compote bowl filled with homemade hummus.
The cheese did not linger on the plate. One by one, we would start by daintily cutting the semi-separated strands with a sharp knife. But soon enough we would resort to yanking them with our fingers, manners be damned, as the cheese unraveled and, before we knew it, disappeared.
Armenian string cheese is not a cheese with which to stand on ceremony. It is finger food at its best; I think of it as a social cheese, one that is meant to be shared with those you love and with whom you don’t mind exchanging cooties.
In Armenia, string cheese traditionally is made with goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. In the United States, whole cow’s milk is used, with good results. The two brands you are most likely to see are Gharibian Farm, in Carlstadt, N.J., and Sun-NI Cheese Co., in Broomall, Pa.
Like mozzarella, Armenian string cheese is a pasta filata; that is, the fresh, soft curd is pulled to create long strands. For string cheese, the curd is seasoned with mahleb, a Middle Eastern spice made from ground sour cherry pits, and nigella seeds (also known as black cumin or black caraway), which impart a peppery, slightly bitter flavor. The curd is pulled into a long loop, twisted and stretched numerous times to create the stringy texture. The loop is then twisted tightly and knotted to form a compact shape called a braid, though the cheese is not actually braided.
Armenian string cheese goes great with summer flavors: grilled squash and eggplant, roasted peppers, fresh sliced tomatoes drizzled with good olive oil. But it’s also a good melting cheese. I make a sort of Mediterranean quesadilla with string cheese, chopped kalamata olives, roasted peppers and a bit of chopped sun-dried tomato. When I asked Michelle how she uses the cheese, her immediate response was, “my Grandma’s favorite: cheese, eggs and parsley.”
The following recipe is simple: Beat eggs together with diced string cheese and lots of parsley, then cook as you would a frittata. Michelle said her grandmother often added basturma, a dry-cured beef sausage. I didn’t have any of that on hand, but by some small miracle I happened to have a jar of soujouk spice, a lovely mix of cinnamon, cloves, cumin and other spices used to make a similar type of Armenian dry-cured sausage known as soujouk. Served with a tossed salad, sliced tomatoes or even stuffed grape leaves and some warm pita bread, this frittata makes a perfect summer supper centerpiece.
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon half-and-half or whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons soujouk spice (optional; see NOTE)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
5 ounces (1/2 of a full knotted twist) Armenian string cheese
Leaves from 4 to 6 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped (1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Whisk together the eggs and the milk or half-and-half in a large bowl. Add the soujouk spice or other optional spices, if using, and the salt and the pepper to taste; whisk to combine.
Use your fingers to pull apart the half-twist of string cheese into strands, then cut the strands into approximately 1-inch lengths. Add the cheese and chopped parsley to the eggs and whisk everything together.
Position an oven rack 4 inches from the broiler element and preheat the broiler.
Melt the butter in a 10-inch ovenproof skillet (preferably nonstick) placed over medium heat. When the butter is melted and has begun to sizzle, swirl it around to thoroughly coat the bottom of the skillet, then pour in the egg-cheese mixture.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and let the eggs cook undisturbed for 8 minutes or until the bottom is nicely browned and top is almost, but not quite, set. (Use an angled spatula to lift the edge of the frittata in the last few minutes of cooking to check the bottom.)
Transfer the skillet to the top oven rack. Broil for 1 minute or just until the top of the frittata is set and golden brown. Slide the frittata onto a serving platter; let it sit for a minute or two before serving.
NOTE: Soujouk is a mix of spices used to make a dry-cured Armenian beef sausage of the same name. Typically the spices include cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, paprika and black pepper. Locally, it is available at Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria. Soujouk spice is not traditionally used in this recipe, but I had bought some on a whim during my last visit to Mediterranean Bakery and was looking for something to do with it. If you don’t have soujouk spice on hand (and really, why should you?), just substitute a small amount of any of the spices listed, in any combination you like.
Per serving (using whole milk): 265 calories, 19 g protein, 3 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 358 mg cholesterol, 532 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar
The Food Section
June 23, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Recipes , Say Cheese | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, cheese
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