If you are a devotee of ancient Greek literature, you may remember that the Cyclops in Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, was a cheese maker. When Ulysses enters Polyphemus's cave, he discovers that the Cyclops has collected milk from his sheep in buckets, pails, and milking bowls and then "laid it away" to make cheese—feta, in fact.
The word "feta" comes from the Italian "fetta" or "slice," because the cheese is sliced before being cured in brining barrels for at least two months. That brining solution is what gives rich feta its distinctively salty, tangy, pickled taste. The popularity of feta soared in the 20th century, when Greek immigrants introduced the cheese to Australia, the United States, Canada and Germany.
The national cheese of Greece, true feta now has a protected designation of origin (PDO) label when it's made in specific regions of that country. You'll also find feta that's been made in other parts of the world, notably in France and Holland, without the PDO label. While authentic Greek feta is still made from unpasteurized sheep and/or goat's milk, feta made elsewhere, and feta exported from Greece, is usually pasteurized.
Feta is pure white, soft to semi-dry, with no rind. The taste varies from mild to sharp, and it's available plain or seasoned with herbs and spices. It's sold both crumbled and pressed into blocks and can be packed dry or in brine or olive oil.
A staple in Mediterranean cuisine, feta—often along with a dash of olive oil—gives most any food Mediterranean flair. For a Mediterranean pizza, for example, sprinkle feta over a spinach and tomato topping, along with a little Greek seasoning blend. Or try a Mediterranean spin on an American classic with this Gourmet Greek Burger peppered with crumbled feta.
Sprinkle feta over chilled soups and roasted veggies like asparagus and zucchini. For a delectable appetizer, crumble or slice feta on a baguette, then drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Include feta in casseroles, quiches and egg dishes. Use it to make spanakopita (spinach pie) and tyropita (cheese pie). It's delicious in croissants, phyllo dough (and its relative, puff pastry: try these Individual Puff Pastry Tarts with Parsley, Tomato and Feta) and on crackers. Use it to make a tangy cheese dip.
Leafy green salads of all types, from chard to arugula and kale, are transformed into delicacies with the addition of rich, flavorful feta. Even fresh fruits—like watermelon, cantaloupe, pears, apples and grapes—perk up when served with tangy feta, as in this Summer Melon Salad with Mint and Prosciutto.
In sides and casseroles, feta goes well with root vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, onions, mushrooms and artichokes. Serve it with chicken, beef, lamb, fish, seitan, tofu, and tempeh. Versatile feta is also delicious with chickpeas, lentils, pastas (like this Mediterranean Orzo Pasta) and grains—especially couscous, quinoa, rice and faro.
For seasoning, good choices include basil, oregano, marjoram, mint, garlic, black pepper, cayenne pepper, thyme, cumin, mustard and caraway. Olive oil, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar and honey are all good partners, too, as are robust foods like olives, pickled onions, anchovies, sundried tomatoes, capers, pickled peppers and dill pickles.
For beverages, white and red wines and wheat beers are good choices.
When purchasing feta, check the date. While it will keep in the refrigerator, stored in brine, for up to three months, it won't improve with age. Buying and storing blocks of feta in brine will help keep it from drying out.
To freshen the brine (or make your own if it comes without), combine one part water with one part kosher salt. Or simply cover with olive oil, water, or milk (or half water, half milk). Feta doesn't freeze well.
Cheese connoisseurs suggest letting feta come to room temperature before serving about 30 minutes should do it.
There aren't many savory dishes that won't be heightened by a generous sprinkle of salty, tangy feta.