The Local Ingredient: Feta

Farmhouse feta made in Chilmark.

Everything's "betta with feta." — Jess Miller

There’s a saying in my kitchen, “Everything’s betta with feta.”

Feta, the creamy, crumbly Greek specialty cheese, improves most salads, not just Greek ones, adding a slightly salty, tangy accent to blander greens and veggies. But beyond salads, try adding crumbled feta to sautéed greens, roasted vegetables — especially potatoes or carrots — eggs, grain dishes, pasta or bean salads, and dips for additional flavor.

On the Island, there’s one place that makes handmade local feta, Mermaid Farm and Dairy on Middle Road, a small family farm with about 25 cows. When the farm skipped making feta last year, people kept asking, “Where’s the feta?”

“Restaurants were after it; everyone was after it,” says Jess Miller, Mermaid’s new cheesemaker and dairy manager. When Miller left her post at 7a Foods in West Tisbury and joined the farm last fall, she started making the feta again.

It’s a two-day process, filled with subtle challenges, and includes pasteurizing, cutting, stirring (a lot of stirring), hooping, flipping, and brining — not to mention cleaning and sanitizing 100 or so cheese molds, and the entire workspace, between batches.

In general, feta, a word derived from the Italian word fetta, or “slice,” can vary in flavor, salt levels, and textures depending on whether it’s made from sheep, goat, or cow’s milk.

Each batch of Mermaid’s feta starts with about 45 to 55 gallons of their cow’s milk pasteurized to 144° or 145° in a 55-gallon vat pasteurizer in the yogurt and cheesemaking room at the farm. After it cools to about 93°, a small amount of culture which is a bacteria added to develop the lactic acid for flavor as well as for food safety, is added. The only other ingredient added besides salt is rennet, an enzyme used for coagulation.

The added rennet turns the mixture to the consistency of gel. Ms. Miller cuts the gel — now called curd — with a vertical cheese cutter (picture a small cheese wire cutter, only larger), then with a horizontal cheese cutter, gently breaking up the chunks of curd. This starts the process of releasing the whey (a liquid). Miller then stirs the batch, still in the vat pasteurizer, by hand nonstop for 30 to 45 minutes, until the curds are fully formed and springy to the touch.

The whey is scooped off, leaving the feta to be loaded into ½-pound molds that sit on a draining table overnight. The next day the cheese is unmolded and put in large buckets filled with a saturated brine (25 to 27 percent salt), which gives feta its characteristic slightly salty flavor. The buckets are transferred to the cheese cave, where flavors further develop over the next four hours. Finally, the feta goes into a storage brine (8 to 10 percent salt), and then is packaged in the final brine (only 3 percent) for sale.

The scientific and precise nature of cheesemaking often meets the imprecise nature of the cows and farming. Miller says where the cows munch their grass and what stage they are at in lactation all can affect the taste. “We don’t standardize our milk; that’s another thing that makes our product unique. I think you can get more interesting and more complex flavors from things that aren’t standardized.”

This batch of 45 to 55 gallons of milk becomes about 50 pounds of feta, sold in half-pound containers ready for kitchen use. The fresh nature of this local feta means that once opened, it will last for weeks. Keeping the cheese in the brine helps.

“I crumble it on everything,” says Ms. Miller. Her current favorite dish: a farro or wheat berry salad with greens, roasted squash, dried cranberry, almonds, and a maple dressing — topped with feta. “I think our products are so delicious because the milk is such high quality,” she adds.

A very simple, delicious use for feta (aside from salads of course) is Roxanne Kapitan’s Mediterranean Feta Spread, below. Another easy recipe is crumbling feta on roasted potatoes, also below, perfect to accompany a grilled steak, hamburger, or roasted chicken. For additional recipes using feta, look in your kitchen to either my kale or my salad book; you’ll have another 18 recipes. (I’m a feta fanatic.) You, too, might be mumbling my favorite saying before you are done with a container.

(Besides finding feta at the Mermaid’s self-serve stand, located on Middle Road in Chilmark, the feta can be purchased at Morning Glory Farm, the Scottish Bakehouse, and Ghost Island Farm. Mermaid Farm sells other cheeses as well.)

Roxanne’s Mediterranean Feta Spread

1 Mermaid Farm feta cake (8 oz. drained)
¼ cup good-quality olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
5 turns black pepper grinder
3 lavender flowers, dried or fresh; no stems (or 2 Tbsp. of chopped fresh parsley or cilantro)

Combine ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Serve with fresh warm bread.

Roasted Potatoes and Kale and Feta

Recipe by Catherine Walthers
Serves 6
Crispy oven-baked potatoes are topped with cooked kale and flavored with a layer of feta. Try this with a grilled steak or hamburgers.”

2 lbs. of red potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾-inch dice (about 5 medium-size)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt
1 bunch kale, stalks removed, chopped into bite-size pieces (about 5 cups)
¾ cup Mermaid Farm feta

Preheat oven to 375°F (using convection if you have it). Place potatoes into an ovenproof serving dish such as a lasagna pan; potatoes should fill the container in one layer, but not be overcrowded. Add the olive oil and mix well, sprinkle with salt. Bake, flipping over a few times, until potatoes are golden and easily pierced with a fork, 40 to 50 minutes, depending on the dice size.

While the potatoes are baking, bring 4 or 5 cups of water to a boil in a wide pot with a lid. Boil the kale for 5 or 6 minutes until tender, covered, stirring once. Pour into a strainer; shake the strainer several times to release all the steam and moisture. When cool, squeeze out any excess water and set aside.

When the potatoes are done, spread the kale over the potatoes and add a pinch or two of salt over the top of the kale. Distribute the cheese over the top, and place back in the oven for 10 minutes, until kale is reheated.