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Culture

What My Noni Taught Me About Feta

My family has a tradition of putting the cheese on almost everything.

Illustration by Frances Murphy

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.

Noni’s Fila

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.

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Makes ~36 triangles

2 cups mashed potatoes (leftovers work great here)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1½ cups crumbled sheep’s-milk feta
1 cup finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 package frozen phyllo dough, thawed at room temp for 1 to 2 hours
1 stick butter, melted

In a medium bowl, mix together the potatoes, eggs, feta, half of the Parmesan, and the salt.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Unwrap phyllo dough, and remove from inside wrapping. Unfold, and lie on a work surface. Cover the dough with plastic wrap, and cover the plastic with a slightly damp towel, making sure none of the dough is exposed to the air (or it will dry out). Remove two sheets of dough from the stack, re-covering the rest of the dough. Brush each sheet with a layer of melted butter, and place one on top of the other, with the long side facing you. Cut the doubled sheets into eight strips from top to bottom.

Take a walnut-sized mound of the potato mixture and place it at the bottom of each strip. Fold up each strip over the filling, as you would fold a flag to form a triangle. Place finished triangles on a baking sheet, seam side down, and brush with a bit more butter. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan, and when each sheet is full, bake until lightly browned and crisp, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve warm.

To freeze, place baking sheet of wrapped fila in the freezer until frozen solid. Transfer pastries to a zip-top bag, seal tightly, and freeze up to one month. They can be transferred to a baking sheet and baked directly from the freezer; just add a few extra minutes of baking time.

Jodi Liano is the founder of the San Francisco Cooking School, a career-focused cooking institution that teaches students how to cultivate culinary intuition for contemporary, professional kitchens. Prior to launching the school, Jodi taught at Tante Maria’s Cooking School, worked in the test kitchen at Food Network, and authored four Williams-Sonoma cookbooks.