Will the Real Grilled Cheese Please Stand Up?

Grilled cheese. Those two words conjure up melty, gooey images of gustatory comfort. A homey salve, the ultimate rainy day lunch, a perfect companion to a bowl of hot soup. But why is it "grilled" cheese and not "fried" or "toasted?"

Grilled halloumi
Halloumi: the real grilled cheese. (Kim O'Donnel)

The interesting use of the word didn't occur to me until this week, when I set out to grill cheese - on a grill. I had long heard about the uniquely cook-able qualities of halloumi, a cheese from Cyprus.

Made from a mixture of sheep's and goat's milk (and sometimes cow's milk), halloumi is made in similar fashion to mozzarella, in which curds are soaked in water. When eaten out of the package, it has the mouth feel of Armenian string cheese (remember that as a kid?) -- slightly salty, a little chewy and a fibrous/ropy texture. The flavor is mild but perhaps because of its texture, yields a bit more character than mozzarella. At times, I thought I was eating smoked provolone.

Unlike cheddar or gruyere (or whatever you like in your "grilled cheese" sandwich), halloumi doesn't melt into a pile of goo when heated. It gets nice and brown on the outside (in fact, it yields beautiful grill marks!), but stays solidly intact, resembling a boneless chicken breast or an egg-white omelette. In fact, in Cyprus, halloumi is a common breakfast item, often served with watermelon.

At last night's grillfest, we enjoyed it with a tomato-basil salad, grilled onions, olives and crusty bread to make an ad-hoc sandwich. A few drops of balsamic vinegar was thrown on one piece, a spritz of lemon on another. Fresh oregano was the perfect garnish.

Here's how to make real grilled cheese: Prepare grill and wait until it cools down to medium (not quite hot enough for cooking meat). Brush grill grate with oil, and brush a small amount on each side of slice of halloumi, about ½-inch thick. (Anything thinner will eventually melt down and stick.)

Ninety seconds is all the first side needs to earn beautiful grill marks. Turn over with tongs and allow to cook for another 2 minutes or so. Eat immediately, while still warm; otherwise the halloumi becomes almost plastic in texture.

This is a fun grilling adventure. Requiring little grill time and kitchen prep, halloumi is mild enough to marry with all kinds of accompaniments, from olives to roasted peppers. The grilled flavor really comes through and it's much lighter fare than a hunk of creamy brie.

One note of warning: When grilled, halloumi makes a squeaking noise while you chew, a jarring experience at first.

Where to find it? Try Meditteranean-friendly markets such as Lebanese Taverna Market in Arlington, Mediterranean Bakery and Café in Alexandria and Mediterranean Deli in Tenleytown. I've also found it at Whole Foods, and I think I might inquire at your local Trader Joe's.

Let me know what you think! Or share your favorite ways of eating and serving halloumi.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 21, 2006; 1:03 PM ET Flames
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Any hints on where to find this on long island, preferably suffolk county? I have been wanting to try it ever since my CSA posted a recipe, but can't find halloumi at any of my favorite suspects - Whole Foods, Wild By Nature, local Italian markets, Fairway (snazzy NY supermarket). Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Posted by: long island | July 21, 2006 2:57 PM

In Spain, they grill provolone. Here, I'll bake it in an earthenware dish. Very, very good...

Posted by: RK | July 21, 2006 3:23 PM

Long Island, do you have a Wegman's near you? It's the only place that I have found halloumi in the Baltimore area. Do you have a Balducci's near you? Or maybe Dean & Deluca?

Posted by: MECM | July 21, 2006 4:24 PM

I came across this a few months ago in my local COSTCO. Love it!!

Posted by: drewski | July 21, 2006 9:51 PM

Just a slightly off-topic note on the intro: In Vermont, we do indeed call it a "toasted cheese sandwich." (I gather this is what the Brits say as well.)

Posted by: db | July 21, 2006 10:00 PM

I've eaten grilled halloumi in Cyprus. Be warned - it tends to be rubbery. The best foods I had there - grilled cuttlefish, whole milk yogurt, and village wine.

Posted by: traveller | July 21, 2006 10:52 PM

Grilled halloumi also goes really well with Swedish redcurrant sauce. Or eggplants, or sundried tomatoes, or figs, or pomegranate seeds.

I'm drooling now. Mmmmm, halloumi.

Posted by: Liza | July 24, 2006 12:17 PM

FYI, I recently spotted halloumi at the Takoma Park Co-op.

Posted by: anon | July 24, 2006 1:53 PM

For the Long Islander,

I'm originally from Huntington.

I don't know where in Suffolk county you are, but i would ask at any local greek restaurant. I know some, like athenian greek taverna in commack, sell fresh feta and they might know where you can get some Haloumi.

Posted by: werecub | July 26, 2006 11:22 AM

halloumi cheese is eaten in the middle east too. it's great grilled or pan-fried with tomatoes, cucumbers, kalamata olives, or of course, watermelon. i find halloumi cheese in my local middle eastern grocery store. check there...

Posted by: dmt | July 27, 2006 3:11 AM

We have been making Halloumi kebobs all summer long, and it's been my favorite treat! (We live in Cleveland, where a local restaurant has this as an appetizer, and served as my inspiration.) We marinate grape/cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and red peppers in olive oil and vinegar and whatever herbs are around, then brush the halloumi with some olive oil and stick it all on the grill. Very good served with israeli (the big kind) couscous. mmmm. even though I spent a fortune at the grocery store this weekend, I may have to pick up some halloumi tonight!

Posted by: Liz | August 2, 2006 1:03 PM

My mom lived in Cyprus for quite some time. She told me that Cypriot likes to eat grilled cheese and tasted it once and it's really, really good! I wonder if Halloumi is the only cheese they use in grilling or is there any other cheese they can grill?

Posted by: Ernalyn | August 31, 2006 1:27 AM

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