My dad’s side of the family are Sephardic Jews with roots in Greece and Turkey. From a young age, food was a way for me to understand my heritage, but we never ate the Jewish foods you typically think of. There were no matzoh balls, latkes, brisket, or babka. Our dishes aren’t transcribed in any of the hip, new “bring back the deli” cookbooks. We pass our recipes on verbally from one generation to the next, be it how to master the homemade dough for spinach boyos or how to braise green beans in tomato sauce until they’re cooked just shy of falling apart.
But there is one cookbook from the Ladies Auxiliary at my Noni’s synagogue that has become my CliffsNotes guide to her cooking. You know the type: no proofreading, ten recipes for the same dish because they couldn’t say no to anyone, and God forbid there be an index. When I think of the foods found in this book or on my Noni’s table, — dishes like flaky pastries, slow-cooked veggies, braised meats, and lots of rice — it quickly becomes clear that there’s one thing that ties everything together: feta.
Growing up, feta was in and on everything. For breakfast, it was crumbled on toast and put under the broiler or tossed into scrambled eggs. For lunch, it was usually eaten on its own but occasionally in a Greek-style salad. For dinner or brunch, it was baked with spinach and eggs to make our version of a frittata, called quashado; rolled into boyos (a spinach-and-cheese biscuit of sorts); or sprinkled over braised beans. And for any time of day, it was stuffed into phyllo dough, pastries I’d inevitably eat by the dozen. The briny, salty tang of the cheese made everything pop in a way I thought was totally normal, until my friends would take a bite and make a face, saying, ”What kind of cheese is that?”
This wasn’t just any feta. Noni would drive across my hometown of Seattle to the one Middle Eastern market that carried the cheese in huge blocks. She’d buy pounds at a time, drive it home, cover it in her own brine (throwing out the one that it came in), and stash it in the fridge (yes, there was a lot of feta in her fridge). She spent her winters in Palm Springs and even made my grandpa drive her to Pasadena, where the closest Lebanese market with cheese that met her standards was located. Noni never bought pre-crumbled, dry supermarket feta. Ours was usually made with sheep’s milk, tangy in a pleasant, barnyard way, and creamy, too. As a kid, I loved it. It was part of my daily diet. But I did think her unwavering commitment to hauling pounds of the stuff across the city was, well, strange.
Twenty years ago, I started cooking professionally and caring meticulously about ingredients, and, yes, I even found myself driving all over the city to get exactly the right things, including my own feta. I don’t rebrine it when I get home, but the block sits proudly in my fridge and finds its way into dishes all day long. To this day, whenever I bite into feta, part of me feels transported to Noni’s kitchen. I can still hear her instructing me to eat the fila slower because they took so long to make.
These pastries, simply called fila, are much like a Greek tiropita, triangles of flaky dough filled with a mixture of mashed potatoes and feta. They freeze well unbaked, so do like the grandmas do and make a huge batch.