You Should Probably Get To Cooking With Feta

Since 1926 feta has officially been recognized as a food of Greece, and you can find it throughout the Mediterranean served plain, with olives, baked into phyllo or mixed with spinach. Chefs love working with this fresh, sheep's milk cheese because it breaks apart nicely, softens when cooking while keeping shape and adds a sharp saltiness to any dish. Today, feta remains the most popular cheese in Greece, and is one of the country's top exports. In fact, feta is so important to the country, that in 2002 the European Commission gave it the classification of a P.D.O., Protected Designation of Origin. Take that, wine, cognac and scotch!

Also see: Everything You Need To Know About Feta

Where it's from: The first person to make feta wasn't a person at all, but a cyclops. At least, that's according to Homer's Odyssey, which gives the man-eating (and feta-eating) giant Polyphemus the credit for discovering this fresh and crumbly sheep's milk cheese. As the tale goes, he discovered this substance after some milk curdled in his lambskin flask, the product Odysseus later witnessed when he visited. "As for his dairy, all the vessels, bowls and milk pails into which he milked, were swimming with whey," the poet wrote in his epic tale. While this narrative may be myth, whey-soaked feta does originate in the time of the ancient Greeks, and was first recorded in the Byzantine Empire, where it comes under the name prosphatos, a word that simply means recent or fresh. Feta, as we know it today, comes from the Greek word for slice, and became the vernacular for this cheese around the 17th century. The reason for this? Researchers speculate it refers to the practice of cutting the cheese and serving it on a plate.

When it's in season: Normally one doesn't think of feta as having a better time period, but because it's a fresh cheese made from sheep's milk, it follows the season of the ewe. This means summer, after the lambs have been weaned and the mother has benefited from a diet of succulent grasses. Of course, you can get feta any time of year, sheep's milk freezes exceptionally well and curds can be made from that.

What to look for: You want feta that's stored in a brine and looks bright white or has a slight yellow hue. It must be solid enough to slice, yet crumble when you put pressure on it. Lucky for feta lovers, this is a hearty cheese and firm samples are easy to come by.

How to store it: Keep feta in an airtight container, simmering in the brine it comes in. That will guarantee it stays moist and fresh.

How to prepare it: Cava Grill's executive chef and co-owner Dimitri Moshovitis makes his feta in-house, a product so good he has branched out and created Crazy Feta™. This jalapeño-infused cheese mousse combines his Greek sensibilities and American ingredients, marrying the two in a creative and tasty spread that's found at Whole Foods. That's just one example of all the cool things you can do with this cheese. It's great on just about any salad, paired with olives, stuffed into a sandwich, melted with roasted veggies or just plain, spread on a cracker.

This post is brought to you by our friends at Whole Foods Market

Read more Eat Globally columns on Food Republic: