Ali Slagle, The Washington Post
This holiday season, you could fashion a cheese plate with a curated selection of pricey items you deliberated long and hard on. Or you could take the safer but no less dazzling route: Grab an everyday cheese you know you like and transform it into a stand-alone centerpiece. With a few drizzles of olive oil, some aromatics, and a sweet and savoury companion, feta is just the cheese to morph into a sultry, molten appetizer.
This roasted feta with grapes and olives is an oven-to-table affair: In the pan it's baked in, lop up a jagged piece of feta, crisp on top and silky-warm inside; a juicy grape; and a meaty olive, all draped in a spiced oil. You could embellish further with nuts or honey or lemon zest, or dig in just as it is, friends hovering nearby for their turn. Even better yet, it's amenable to your whims and pantry. If you don't like feta, there are options for you.
Feta, a bright, sharp cheese, has acidity that makes it reluctant to melting. When it hits high heat, whether pan-fried, grilled or roasted, it will mostly maintain its shape, but the outsides will blister to a crisp while the insides slump. Similarly, you could use halloumi, manouri, sliced wheels of goat cheese or even dollops of ricotta. But feta needs friends. It's salty.
Taking inspiration from that festooned cheese board you no longer have to make, we add briny olives and grapes to roast alongside the feta. When roasted, grapes go from sweet to candylike, their outsides caramelize, and their insides turn jammy. Swap in cherries, tomatoes, plums, apricots or pears as you wish - any fruit that will emit juices into the baking dish. The brininess and intense punch of Kalamata olives are a good contrast to the grapes (and we know from Greek salad that feta and olives get along). If you don't like olives, use capers, shallot wedges, radish halves, chopped preserved lemon or even cubes of dry-cured chorizo - something aggressively flavored to shake up the bite. The bonus to Kalamata olives, though, is that they kind of look like grapes, so you're never really sure what's in each bite. Surprise!
The last part of this choose-your-own-adventure warm cheese snack is the aromatics, which help bridge the sweet and salty bookends. Fennel seeds and red pepper flakes infuse the oil with sweet heat, though you could throw in or swap in a hard-stem herb like bay, rosemary, or thyme, or another spice: coriander, cumin or caraway. They all toast in the oven while gently flavoring the oil. Plus, using crushed whole spices adds a little crunch here and there.
While the recipe's written for just one block of cheese, enough for a small dinner party, it's easily scaled up: Just find a dish that fits all the ingredients snugly and toss them together. The dish can be assembled ahead and then roasted alongside whatever else is in your oven. If the oven is a little hotter or cooler than the suggested 425 degrees, the elements will still heat up into a great treat. (Just watch to make sure nothing's burning, and if it is, cover with foil until all the elements are warmed, or move it further from the heat source.) Could you broil it? Yes. Grill it? You bet! With the appetizer handled, you can think about other things, like what's for dinner.
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ROASTED FETA WITH GRAPES AND OLIVES
Active: 10 minutes | Total: 35 minutes
This baked cheese appetizer has all the glitz of an elaborate cheese board, with a more restrained shopping list and a guarantee that it'll be good. From the pan it's cooked in, lop up a jagged piece of feta, crisp on top and silky-warm inside, a juicy grape and a meaty olive, all draped in a spiced oil. You could also embellish further with nuts or honey or lemon zest, or dig in just as it is.
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
1/2 cup (2 3/4 ounces) seedless red grapes
1/3 cup (1 1/2 ounces) pitted and halved Kalamata olives
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
8 to 10 ounces feta cheese (in a block)
Good, crusty bread slices, for serving
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees with the rack in the middle. Oil a small, ovenproof casserole dish or cast-iron pan. Add the grapes, olives, 1 tablespoon olive oil, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes and a few grinds of black pepper, and stir to combine.
Break the block of feta into four irregular pieces, then nestle them among the grapes and olives. Drizzle with more olive oil, then bake, 20 to 25 minutes, until the grapes are softened and the feta is browned in spots.
Serve right away with crusty bread.
(From recipe developer Ali Slagle.)
Feature Image: Tom McCorkle