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MARKETS : Pulling Strings: Cheese From the East

January 28, 1993|LINDA BURUM

You can almost hear drum rolls and the clash of cymbals when Baghdassarian points to the California Milk Advisory Board's "Real California Cheese" emblem on his packages. To attain it, products must meet rigid standards for purity--something not all small producers have accomplished.

Baghdassarian travels to Northern California twice a week to supervise the cheese-making operation. He maintains it still has to be watched every step of the way. "Good cheese," he says, "can never come automatically out of a machine."

SHOPPING LIST

SYRIAN CHEESE

A simple, unripened cheese made from fresh curds drained of their whey was probably the first kind known to man. Almost every cheese-eating region in the world, from Mexico to the Caucasus, has such a fresh cheese. The Mexican queso fresco or queso ranchero are familiar examples.

Karoun's version, Syrian cheese, is made in a 3 1/2-inch round. It is fairly low in fat, delicately flavored but not bland with a faint scent of freshly pressed curds, and its texture is slightly "squeaky" or chewy.

For sandwiches, slices of the cheese are topped with thinly sliced tomato and cucumber and eaten on lavash or crusty French-style bread. As mentioned, this cheese is also excellent for dessert with fresh summer fruit.

BALADI

Although the name means "village" or "country" cheese, baladi is often found in some fairly sophisticated surroundings. No Persian table is complete without nan-o-panir-o-sabzi-khordan : flat bread and a platter of fresh cheese garnished with raw vegetables and fresh herbs. Baladi is the cheese of choice for many Persians living in Los Angeles.

A close cousin of Syrian cheese, baladi has the same size and shape, with markings from the draining basket or hoop leaving a design on its outer surface. But it is slightly higher in fat than Syrian, and its texture is softer and creamier and less chewy. The flavor is richer and slightly saltier too.

Like Syrian, baladi is versatile: It shows up at breakfast with warm bread, in sandwiches and after the main course.

AKKAWI

This cheese, which takes its name from the city of Acre, is one of oldest and most popular in the Middle East, but supply has often been a problem--even in Lebanon. During the civil war, many of that country's dairy animals were slaughtered and the Lebanese had to import Akkawi (also spelled Ackawi) from Eastern Europe. In Los Angeles, many people used to make a substitute for Akkawi by soaking feta cheese in several changes of water to desalinate it. But Akkawi is now plentiful here, since Karoun distributes it to many Near Eastern grocery stores and even some supermarkets.

Akkawi's smooth, dense texture and fresh, yet fairly complex, flavor is a result of its specific culturing and from the way its curds and whey are kept together for a prolonged period--longer than for a simpler-tasting curd cheese or Syrian cheese, for example--as they are being transformed into cheese. Akkawi is hand-packed into square draining hoops and cured in a salted whey brine for two days. But unlike feta and other brine-cured cheeses, it has only a very slightly salty flavor.

Like Syrian, this is primarily a table cheese, eaten for breakfast and with fruit, as the final course of a meal and in sandwiches.

FRYING CHEESE

There's something wonderful about the way the flavor of cheese is transformed when it's heated, captivating almost every taste. Near Easterners cook cheeses in a variety of ways. They fry it in slices, thread it on skewers and grill it over a flame or set it ablaze with spirits.

In "A Book of Middle Eastern Food," Claudia Roden says fried cheese used to be served in Cairo cafes on two-handled frying pans straight from the fire. She also quotes Sidqi Effendi's Turkish cooking manual, written in the 19th Century, which advises cooks to heat cheese wrapped in silver paper: "This is good food which enhances sex for married men."

I can't guarantee similar results with Karoun's frying cheese, but I can tell you that this lightly salted fresh cheese holds its shape when cooked and could be considered preferable to other cheeses used for the same purpose. Haloumi is much saltier, graviera more expensive, and cheeses such as kashkaval or kefalotiri ooze into a shapeless puddle when heated.

Simply cut the cheese into quarter-inch-thick slices and fry it in a non-stick skillet over medium-heat, turning once or twice; be careful to regulate the heat so you get a nice golden--but not dark brown--exterior. Use two slices for each appetizer serving and accompany them with lemon wedges. The cheese is also delicious topped with marinara sauce or Mediterranean-style Salsa.

BOEREK CHEESE

For stuffed pastries, whether sweet or savory, you need a cheese with good flavor that won't melt and leak out of the pastry crust. Cooks all over the Levant have, for centuries, been concocting their own blend of sharp and mild cheeses for their tyropittes or boereks . (In the store, you'll also find the word spelled beorek or beoreg .)

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