Most of the cheeses we eat become runny and gooey and bubbly when heated, and turn into a perfect topping for pizza, filling for bread, or sauce for pasta. Others have high melting temperatures or textures that prevent them from melting so they remain intact; it's even possible to eat them with a fork and knife.
You may already be familiar with halloumi, kasseri, manouri, queso blanco, and paneer. These varieties soften when heated, become a tad creamier, but don't melt the way cheddar, Swiss, and Gruyere do. Chefs serve the non-melters sauteed or pan-fried, even grilled, where they turn golden but keep their shape. They might be cut into slabs or wedges and coated with flour or bread crumbs before browning so the crust turns crisp.
Perhaps the most well-known cooked cheese is Greek saganaki, the so-called flaming cheese delivered with much fanfare and shouts of "Opa!" To make the dish, a firm sheep's milk cheese, such as kasseri, kefalograviera, or kefalotyri, is used. At Kouzina Estiatorio in Dedham, co-owner Xenofon Sountoulidis prefers kefalograviera, and the golden, bubbling slabs are set aflame within the safe confines of the kitchen. "The key is to get the pan really hot," says the restaurateur, who recommends cast-iron or another thick, heavy skillet that conducts heat well. When crisp on the outside, tender and creamy inside, the rich, salty cheese benefits from a splash of lemon juice.
Chef Dave Becker accomplishes a similar effect (sans flames) with Manchego. At Juniper in Wellesley, he uses a thick slice of the Spanish sheep's milk cheese (aged 6 to 9 months), dusts it with rice flour seasoned with ground fennel seed. "It's a rip-off of saganaki," says the restaurateur, who uses fennel as "an homage to ouzo," the Greek anise-flavored liqueur often served with the appetizer. "The darker the color on the outside of the cheese, the more flavor you get," he says.
Cypriot halloumi, traditionally made from sheep's milk (or a mixture of sheep and goat), is a brined, firm-springy textured cheese that is slightly rubbery when eaten plain, but develops a golden crust when pan-fried or grilled. It pairs nicely with salad greens, vegetables, and fruits, such as watermelon, grapes, and apples.
Many fresh cheeses (some as young as one-day old), drained of excess liquid or pressed into cylinders or blocks, can be heated successfully. Giuseppe Argentieri, owner of Mozzarella House in Peabody, says that his mother breads and fries a fresh Italian cow's milk cheese called "primo sale vaccino" in their native Puglia. "The beauty is the saltiness of the outer layer and the sweetness of the cheese itself," he says.
The whey drained off from Greek feta production is called manouri. It's a mild and smooth fresh cheese formed into large cylinders. Cut into wedges and pan-fried in olive oil until golden, manouri is delightful with savory or sweet accompaniments. Feta becomes softer and creamier when baked, and like the others, also doesn't melt, even inside savory Greek phyllo dishes such as spanakopita.
Paneer, the cheese in Indian and other South Asian vegetarian dishes, is typically cubed and pan-fried — the texture and rather nondescript flavor is reminiscent of extra-firm tofu — and added to curries and served with rice or bread.
In the same category is queso blanco, a Latin American mild cheese, also often fried, or diced or crumbled over rice and beans, and used in enchiladas and chile rellenos because it turns soft when cooked, but doesn't lose its shape.
You won't necessarily want to sandwich these cheeses between two slices of bread. They're appealing for exactly what they are — and aren't.
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.