Today, My dear friend Lita Smith-Mines, Editor-in-Chief of BOATING TIMES LONG ISLAND MAGAZINE, informed me that today is National Cheese Lovers Day. Certain that if she went on my blog she would find a “cheesy” post to add to her Hungry Boater App page, she found a recipe for French onion soup topped with gooey melted cheese. If I only knew about this day—one so important to a person like myself—a self-proclaimed cheesaholic. So, in honor of this day—I give you saganaki. So what exactly is saganaki? Saga-what? It sounds Japanese, but it’s not, It’s a Greek appetizer made from pan-fried cheese.
The way to make this depends on where in Greece the cook is from or what restaurant you go to. My mother insisted her way was the authentic way. But that’s an Athenian for you. She took an inch thick slab of kasseri or kefaloteri cheese and dipped it in egg and flour. She would then fry it in a hot olive oil, just enough to coat the pan. When the first side was golden, she flipped it over and waited for that side to turn a golden color. Transferring it onto a plate, she squeezed fresh lemon on the cheese and sprinkled it with oregano. It’s quick, it’s simple, and it’s heaven.
Many years ago I went to a Greek restaurant and ordered the saganaki. When it arrived it didn’t look like the saganaki I was used to, but it was delicious. It was more like a dip or a casserole. I often make this when I entertain. It is easy to prep ahead and great to serve to a crowd. For this version thinly slice tomatoes and onions. Pat dry the tomatoes and set them aside while I parboil the onions. Drain and dry the onions. In the bottom of a baking or casserole dish place the onions and tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and oregano. Grate the kasseri or kefaloteri in shreds and generously lay over onions and tomatoes. Sprinkle lightly with oregano. Bake in oven at 400 degrees until the cheese bubbles and begins to turn golden. Serve immediately with crusty bread or pita. Some restaurants present this dish flambéed. It’s great for dramatic effect—shooting flames, a couple of shots of ouzo and maybe break a few plates for good luck.
At the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival participants can sample food from over thirty countries. Each country has a tiny building or kiosk to represent it. In “Greece,” I sampled a version of saganaki in a way I never had before. They simply griddled a slab of cheese until it crusted on both sides. To finish it, they drizzled honey and roasted pistachio nuts on top. That’s it! It tasted like a sweet and savory dessert. I replicated it at home and discovered it was still easier to egg and flour the cheese. I tried it without the egg and flour and the cheese just melted all over the pan.
Now for the real dilemma. How do I decide which way to prepare it when each way is equally delicious?