Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style

If one ever needed a reason to (a) share a great bottle of wine with friends, (b) grow cherry tomatoes this summer, (c) nosh on appetizers so good you wouldn't care if dinner followed or not, or (d) any or all of the above, this Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style may be it. The concept behind this appetizer is so ingenious, so simple I don't know why it isn't one of those 'regulars' served at every cocktail party or gathering. Could it possibly have anything to do with lower than average membership in the feta cheese or kalamata olive fan clubs?  Anyone not already a proud card carrying member, of this club needs to make this Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style. One bite and all of your previously held (pre- and misconceived) notions about the taste of feta cheese and/or kalamata olives will be shattered. How can I possibly say this, considering not all tastes are the same? Well, it just so happened I asked the person who shall remain nameless  to tell me what he thought of this 'new' appetizer.  This would be same person who also happens to be the same person who is neither a big fan of feta cheese or olives of any kind. In an effort to avoid any bias before his first bite, I made certain not to tell him any of the ingredients (a cruel necessity). After his third or fourth crostini schmeared with the warm, softened feta cheese and topped with the baked tomato mixture, I was fairly certain he liked it. But of course, I needed the affirmation. Why? Because it's so much more gratifying hearing accolades or experiencing any other form of adoration, than it is assuming or mind reading someone's thoughts based on their actions. The rave reviews given did not disappoint.

The Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style literally is one of the easiest to prepare appetizers. If any of my friends who claim they don't cook made this for their family and/or friends, more than likely everyone would wonder why they had kept their Iron Chef persona under wraps for so long.

Beyond its' simplicity, the Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style doesn't require any unusual, hard to find, or overly expensive ingredients. Yes, this is the proverbial win-win appetizer.

Everything you need to make it may already be in your own garden or readily available at the grocery store. On a side note, the original recipe called for a quarter cup of thinly sliced red onions. I intentionally omitted them. Not because I don't like red onions (I do), but for some reason my palate was in the mood for an onion free Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style experience.

There were a variety of feta cheeses available in the deli section of my grocery store. While slightly more expensive (relatively speaking), use a good quality, fresh Greek Feta for this dish instead of any of the other feta options you find. Ask for an 8 to 10 ounce block of cheese. To ensure the feta stays fresh in my refrigerator I generally ask the person who cutting the cheese to pour some of the cheese brine into the container. When you are ready to put everything together, cut the block of feta in half crosswise, so each piece is no more than an inch thick.

If you can't find a pint of yellow, red, and orange cherry tomatoes, use whichever ones you can find or whatever tomato colors appeal to you. After that, all you to do is cut them in half lengthwise.

After starting to coarsely cut the kalamata olives with a knife, I thought the food processor would do it faster (and better). Feel free to cut them with a knife, but having the food processor do the work is worth having to wash up a few extra things when you are done.

In a medium sized bowl, the halved tomatoes, coarsely chopped olives, minced garlic, black pepper, oregano, olive oil and only one tablespoon of the chopped parsley are mixed together.

In an oven proof baking dish, one able to withstand a temperature of at least 400 degrees (F), the tomato mixture is spooned over the two slices of feta cheese.

In just 15 to 20 minutes, the cheese will have softened (but will not be runny or gooey) and the tomatoes will have blistered. If, by some chance, your cheese has not softened, continue baking, checking every 2 minutes. When the Baked Feta came out of the oven, I gave it an ever so light drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Because, why not.

I served the Baked Feta with some homemade crostini instead of crackers or pita chips. The baked cheese is soft and spreadable (versus runny or gooey like a baked goat cheese). So whatever you use, it needs to have some substance to it. Not only did the crostini hold the baked feta and tomato mixture well, it was the perfect choice to mop up any of the remaining incredibly flavorful juices.

This is one of those substantial appetizers. Depending on how much wine you are serving and drinking while enjoying this Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style, you might consider serving it with some grilled shrimp and/or the Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip. Suddenly your appetizer can turn into the perfect small plate dinner. And who knows, you might end up adding a few more members to the feta and kalamata olive loving fan club.

Baked Feta - Mediterranean Style (ever so minor changes to the Smitten Kitchen's Mediterranean Baked Feta with Tomatoes recipe)

1 pint of a colorful mixture cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced (if you love the flavor of garlic, use 2 cloves)
2 Tablespoons fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped and divided
1 generous teaspoon dried Greek oregano
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
Freshly ground black pepper (about 1/4 teaspoon)
An 8 to 10 ounce block of fresh Greek feta
Optional: 1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
Crostini, crackers, or pita chips for serving

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees (F).
2. In a medium sized bowl, mix together the tomatoes, olives, garlic, only 1 Tablespoon of parsley, oregano, olive oil and black pepper. Note: Mix in sliced red onion if using.
3. Cut the block of feta in half crosswise. Lay two halves on an oven proof baking dish. Spoon the tomato mixture over the top.
4. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Note: Feta should feel soft to the touch.
5. Garnish with remaining tablespoon of parsley, lightly drizzle with olive oil, and serve immediately with crostini (or baked pita chips, or crackers).

Notes: (1) The originating recipe came from "The Sprouted Kitchen Cookbook" written by Sara Forte. That recipe offered baked and grilled versions of the Baked Feta. If you don't buy the cookbook, you can find the grilling directions in the Smitten Kitchen link above. (2) Chopping the kalamata olives in the food processor worked perfectly and is much easier than chopping them with a knife. (3) If possible, buy your feta from the deli portion rather than in a pre-packaged container in the cheese section of your favorite grocery store. (4) The Baked Feta Mediterranean Style will cool quickly, so it's important to serve immediately. If becomes room temperature either return to the oven to warm or reheat in the microwave oven. (5) Toss any leftovers into some freshly cooked pasta for a mediterranean style pasta dish.

Barns in Door County, Wisconsin (April 2017)

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