You may well be familiar with the Welsh proverb which states that ‘a watched clock never tells the time’, yes? Well here is another - ‘an unwatched pan will almost certainly burn the halloumi.’ Which, OK, isn’t really an old wives’ tale proper. It is sort of obvious really, an unwatched pan will burn anything. Yet in my experience where halloumi is concerned, a family favourite, the degrees of crisping or browning is an intricate and precise process. Whenever I cook it at home, the level of concentration I have to apply is the equivalent to that of a Grandmaster chess champion planning their fiftieth move ahead. Because usually I have to take three different orders. And if I get them wrong, I am in big trouble.
My son’s request is the easiest to deal with as he could easily eat it raw. I’d like to think it was down to a textural thing but as he locks his teeth in, one bite seemingly transforms him into a mouse, such is the well-known sound that the cheese makes. I have since managed to convince him that the briefest of scorching is a good thing, just to harden up the halloumi a little. He still likes to jump around like a small woodland creature whenever it gets dished up though.
My daughter has a preference for smoke to go with her unripened, brined cheese and doesn’t quite understand why I can’t fire up the BBQ every time we have it. Nor can she understand that you can’t really bring a BBQ into the house without an adequate extraction system. Or that sometimes halloumi, a large flat mushroom and a drizzle of pesto is a speedy, vegetarian alternative to a burger. Especially when done in a pan. ‘Alright,’ she’ll sniff. ‘But I only want it cooked on one side.’
My wife, well, she likes her halloumi burnt. Why, I do not know. But having been caught out by the ol’ unwatched pan adage in the past, I have been stopped on the way to the bin before, holding a pan complete with smoldering slices of despair and asked ‘What are you doing? I’ll eat that.’ ‘I’ve burnt the halloumi though,’ I’ll reply, slightly flabbergasted but more often than not, she’ll take the pan and pop the remnants into her mouth for a charcoal fix.
Whether this was a game or some curious health kick, I am not sure but thankfully, all the incidents I’ve just described were actually one-offs from the past. Our little journey in developing a taste for certain Hellenic dairy if you will. And if my family had kept these little quirks up, like I said rustling up three contrasting preferences for halloumi, cooked like steak almost, would be a nightmare.
These days we all speak from the same page, all happy to eat halloumi fried to tanned and mottled perfection but just lately, I have been pushing the boat out by marinating it first. Given the salty kick that it often delivers, it might seem hard to believe you can infuse any sort of flavours into this much heralded cheese but you can with lemon, garlic and za'atar; that middle Eastern blend of oregano, thyme and savory.
The key to making sure that this works, is again to keep an eye on the time because if you let it steep for too long, the acids from the citrus will start to break the cheese down. So leave for an hour or two, tops. Tying in the mint, sweet red onion and pomegranate relish also helps cut through the brackish edge and adds some vibrant colour to the dish and when we tried this recently, I served it up with a handsome and filling bulgur wheat salad and some smoked chicken. But this would go down just as well, served up in some wraps, with some fresh herbs and some of that relish.
Just don’t burn your halloumi. Unless you also know someone weird, who likes to eat it that way.