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Real-Life Kitchen

Holy Haloumi

By Sara Bir

Every now and then, one silly incidental thing that we've never heard of before suddenly starts popping up everywhere. It could be a defunct underground band, an unusual word or an obscure novel or . . . a cheese?

Such is the case with haloumi. My husband is obsessed with it. Last summer, we went to a backyard cookout and our hosts offered us grilled vegetable kabobs threaded with white cubes. "Is that chicken?" asked Mr. Bir Toujour. "No," said our host, "it's haloumi. They call it the grilling cheese."

The grilled haloumi chunks, charred with stripes from their contact with the grill, offered a wealth of textural entertainment. Squeaky on the outside and slippery on the inside, the salty stuff didn't melt into gooey strings like other cheeses do; it merely puffed up slightly and oozed a delightful gloss of grease. Mr. Bir Toujour was captivated. "Can we have some of that haloumi stuff sometime?" he asked as we drove home.

Haloumi, a semisoft cheese usually made from sheep's milk, originated in Cyprus. It's often made with tiny flecks of mint. While haloumi is indeed a grilling cheese, it has many other uses: eat uncooked slices as part of a mezze platter or grate it on salads and pasta. However, haloumi can be tricky to find, as Mr. Bir Toujour and I quickly discovered. Posts on the Internet suggested Middle Eastern markets, but the one in our neighborhood is closed for renovations. When I finally did locate haloumi at specialty grocer, it ran around 16 bucks a pound, and I was stuck in a moral quandary about paying top dollar for mild cheese we planned on cooking, not savoring.

Well, I got over it. Delightfully rubbery haloumi is a special treat, and its most beguiling qualities are best showcased when cooked. We don't own a grill or even a grill pan, but haloumi takes to sizzling just as well as grilling. Cut it into slices about one-half- to one-quarter-inch thick and cook it in a dry skillet over medium-high heat until golden brown, about two minutes per side. Haloumi prepared this way makes a great sandwich filling when paired as a bite of summer with grilled zucchini or roasted red bell peppers, but you can also do as Nigella Lawson suggests in her book Nigella Bites and serve it drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkling of minced fresh red chilies. Just get over the sticker shock and have fun experimenting.

The miracle of the telephone reveals that haloumi is available at Oliver's Market (546 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati, 707.795.9501; 560 Montecito Center, Santa Rosa, 707.537.7123); Whole Foods (locations include 1181 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa, 707575.7915; 340 Third St., San Rafael, 415.451.6333); and Dean & Deluca (607 S. St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena, 707.967.9980). Mill Valley Market (12 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley, 415.388.3222) reports that haloumi is not currently glaring from their cheese case but that they'd be glad to order it, as would most specialty grocers.

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From the February 15-21, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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