Spicy Cheese Dip & Fried Cheese Balls
Since ancient times, Greeks have cherished cheese. The earliest cheesemaking in Greece was described in Homer’s Odyssey, with the cyclops producing and storing cheese from sheep and goat milk—yes, it was the beginning of feta, the briny and tangy cheese found atop traditional Greek salads.
Cheese finds its way onto tables at nearly every meal, to be eaten plain or with olives as an appetizer, baked in pies, pureed in dips or fried and set aflame. Feta has earned its place in the culinary world and is the most well-known cheese of Greece, but let’s not forget other stand outs like kasseri (springy in texture), halloumi (squeaky cheese), graviera (slightly sweet) and anthotyro (one of the oldest but lesser-known cheeses, but is cream heaven). You can find all but anthotyro in local markets such as Caputo’s, Black Cherry and Mediterranean Market. But since feta is the most popular and commonly available, here are two recipes that incorporate the beloved cheese.
Tirokafteri (Spicy Cheese Dip)
Makes about 2 cups
Tirokafteri, meaning “hot cheese,” can be whipped up in minutes. The cheese itself isn’t what’s hot in this dish, it’s the other ingredients that pack a punch. For tirokafteri, sweet and spicy peppers are sautéed along with chili flakes (add more if you dare) and whipped together with feta cheese and Greek yogurt. The creamy dip can be served with grilled meats or vegetables, or as an appetizer with some chips or bread. Keep it spicy, as the name suggests.
3 to 4 sweet red peppers, seeded and chopped
1 pepperoncini or banana pepper, seeded and chopped
1 to 2 spicy red peppers, seeded and chopped*
2-3 sprinkles of chili flakes—use more for more heat
1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil
16 ounces soft feta cheese
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
3 heaping tablespoons Greek yogurt
*Hot red peppers are optional. Use 1 or 2 or none at all, depending on how hot you want the dip. The chili flakes alone are just enough kick for many people.
Add half the olive oil to a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add all of the chopped peppers and chili flakes and sauté. Once the peppers have softened, take them off the heat and let them cool for about 10 minutes.
Cut the feta into chunks and place into food processor or mixer. Add the yogurt, vinegar, and the grilled peppers, along with the oil accumulated from the pan.
Mix everything together in the food processor until you have a smooth texture. With the mixer on medium speed, gradually add the remaining olive oil. Check for flavor and add more chili flakes for more spice, or more yogurt if it seems too salty.
Empty into a bowl, garnish with chives or parsley, and serve with pita bread or vegetables.
Tirokroketes (Fried Cheese Balls)
Makes about 14-16 cheese balls
Gooey on the inside, crunchy on the outside, tirokroketes are an easy way to utilize cheese. With three types of cheese: feta, graviera plus Gouda, this appetizer is sure to be a hit. Eat plain or dunk in your favorite dipping sauce—or even tirokafteri for cheese on cheese!
3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
3 ounces graviera cheese, grated*
3 ounces gouda, grated
1 egg and 1 egg white
¼ cup milk
½ teaspoon paprika
Pepper, to taste
All-purpose flour, for dredging
Vegetable oil, for frying
*If you cannot find graviera cheese, you can use pecorino Romano, Parmesan, or Gruyere.
In a mixing bowl, add the feta, graviera, gouda, eggs and milk. Combine mixture well and season with pepper and paprika.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, to allow the mixture to firm up.
When the cheese mixture is ready, add some flour to a bowl or plate. Form the mixture and roll into balls, about golf-ball size. Then, roll the balls into flour and set aside.
Heat the vegetable oil in a deep fry pan, to 350 degrees. Once hot enough, drop the cheese balls in batches so the pan isn’t overcrowded. Fry cheese balls until nicely colored and golden on all sides, about 2-3 minutes.
Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place them on a plate lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil.
Serve warm and enjoy!