One evening, as I passed the kitchen line of the Greek restaurant where I work, my chef asked me to do what he is always asking everyone within reach to do: run food. “Heat,” he likes to say,” is a garnish.”
On this particular occasion, I grabbed an order of sizzling-hot cheese by its cool, white underlining plate and walked it down the dining room hallway, through a brace of martini-swilling businessmen, around the nuisance of cougars caging drinks from fellows in expensive suits, and over to two middle-aged guys who sat at the far end of the bar. One of them caught my eye as I made my way closer through the crush of drinkers. He quickly created space on the countertop in front of him where I could place their appetizer, but bore an expression of mild confusion as I approached.
His look turned to one of disappointed when I set the plate down and said, “Your saganaki, gentlemen.” I squeezed half of a lemon over the golden, bubbling cheese. It made a delightful hissing sound as the juice hit the hot edges of the plate.
The tone of his voice matched the look on his face as he turned to me and asked, almost pitifully, “Aren’t you going to serve it flaming?“
The bartender overheard the question and shot me a purse-lipped, cocked eyebrow look, which I deciphered instantly. To me, saganaki is simply a plate of hot, salty, artery-clogging sheep’s milk cheese. To the bartender, it seemed like an opportunity for me to dabble in a bit of broad comedy. In the several years I’ve been serving this dish to people, it never once occurred to me that I should interpret “Aren’t you going to serve it flaming?” as an open invitation to deliver appetizers with dramatic hand gestures and an Ethel Merman vibrato.
“Oh, we don’t do that here,” I replied.” I mean, just imagine the insurance premiums” Then I added, “Besides, Greeks don’t like to waste good liquor,” and promptly left.
As I worked my way back through the crowd, I considered the look the bartender gave me and thought to myself, “Screw him. I don’t do flaming anything for anybody.”
Not on command, at any rate. I went back to waiting upon my tables, happy in the knowledge that the only fires burning there were tea lights flickering in amber-colored glass.
To Flame or Not To Flame?
When most Americans who understand the word “saganaki” hear it, they think “flaming cheese.” This leads me to think that most of these people hail from Chicago, since that is where this whole over-the-top business of setting it on fire began at The Parthenon restaurant in the city’s Greek Town in 1968. And this is as it should be. If there is any place in world where flaming Greek cheese should come from, it’s the Windy City because:
a.) A disproportionate amount of Greek people live there.
b.) It is world famous for its fires.
c.) It’s unconscionably cold in the winter, which leads one to think its citizens would be inclined to light just about anything on fire if they thought it might help to keep them warm.
It is, however, not authentically Greek.
If one happens to be in Greece and requests saganaki at a taverna, the waiter may have to ask you to be more specific, since the term “saganaki” means “little sagani”– a small, two-handled frying pan. It is also happens to be a generic term for a number of dishes made with cheese, especially prawns saganaki and mussels saganaki.
If you then clarify that you would like the simple fried cheese dish, do not ask for anyone to set it on fire unless you want the waiter to comment, as one did to me the only time I ever dared to ask, “You must be an American.” The only thing your waiter is going to light up is one of the several filterless cigarettes he will be smoking during your visit.
If you still insist upon taking your saganaki at full-blaze, I suggest you order your cheese un-flamed and ask for a round of ouzos*. When your waiter has disappeared to smoke his fourth or fifth cigarette, douse your hot cheese with booze and do your own lighting up.
Just make certain to order a glass of water with your alcohol to drown the conflagration should it flare up and engulf your face in anise-scented fire because, if you have to spend the rest of your holiday without the benefit of your God-given eyebrows, people may mistake you for an off-duty drag queen, your friends will have a field day with their endless jokes about flaming, and you’ll never want to look at another piece of Greek cheese for as long as you live.
I am not saying that happened to me, I am merely issuing a warning.
My cheese of choice is kefalotyri, a salty, tangy, sheep’s milk cheese, which is what we use at our restaurant, which also means that I am in the fortunate position of not having to schlep down to a Greek import store to seek it out. Besides the flavor and texture of kefalotyri, my favorite thing about it is its literal translation: “head cheese.”
If you cannot find kefalotyri, there are other cheeses traditionally used like kasseri, or (in Cyprus) haloumi, which may be easier to find. If all else fails, use Pecorino Romano, which has a similar flavor and texture to that of kefalotyri cheese, but with a much less graphic-sounding name.
This is perhaps the most straightforward way to prepare saganaki— no muss, no dredging in flour, no inflated fire insurance premiums, and a minimum of fuss.
Each slice serves 1 to 2 people who are decidedly not from Chicago.
1 slice of kefalotyri (or other as described above) cheese, cut to a ½- inch thickness and about 4 inches in width
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1/2 of a lemon (for squeezing)
A pinch of dried oregano (for sprinkling)
1. In a small, heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat olive oil over a medium-high flame until hot but not smoking. Center the cheese in the pan and cook until its bottom is brown and bubbly. Flip the cheese with a long, offset spatula and pray that it doesn’t fall to pieces. If this happens, keep going– you can reshape it again with the spatula as the other side is cooking. When the second side is equally bubbling and browned, it is ready to serve.
2. Place your pan on a trivet or towel-lined plate, squeeze lemon juice over the cheese, sprinkle with dried oregano, and enjoy with hunks of crusty bread.
Eat immediately. As hot as you can comfortably stand. When the cheese cools, it turns into what can be accurately described as “cheese gum”.
Serve with ouzo. To drink. If you still insist upon pouring it over your cheese and setting it on fire, I will leave you with one final word of warning: eyebrows.
* Although Greek brandy is the preferred fuel for Chicago-style cheese flaming, it may arouse your waiter’s suspicion and, in the highly objective opinion of the author, it is never worth the hangover it invariably delivers.