“Michael, this is for Bar seats 1 and 2,” was all he had to say.
I grabbed the plate and walked it down the hallway, through a brace of martini-drinking businessmen, around the cougars who plant themselves in the middle of everything and sit all night, and over to two middle-aged men who sat at the far end of the bar. One of them caught my eye as I made my way to them. He quickly made space between them where I could place their food. He looked a little confused as I approached.
And then the look turned to one of disappointed as I put the plate down and said, “Your saganaki, gentlemen.” I squeezed half of a lemon over the bubbling cheese for them; it made a delightful hissing sound.
The tone of his voice matched that look on his face when he turned around to ask me, “Aren’t you going to serve it flaming?”
The bartender gave me a look and a smirk which I deciphered instantly. To me, saganaki is simply a plate of delightful, artery-clogging hot cheese. To the bartender, it seemed like an opportunity for me to dabble in a bit of broad comedy. I’d didn’t dawn on me– as gay as I am and as long as I’ve been serving this dish to people– that I should interpret “Aren’t you going to serve it flaming?” as an open invitation to deliver appetizers with dramatic hand gestures and an Ethel Merman vibrato.
“Oh, we don’t do that here. I mean, just imagine the insurance premiums. Besides, Greeks don’t like to waste good liquor,” was all I felt like saying. I thought perhaps I should have been more specific with that first sentence. Instead of “Oh, we don’t do that here,” I should have said, “Oh, we don’t set our cheese on fire here,” but the opportunity was lost.
And then, as I considered that look the bartender gave (and I love this particular bartender– nothing is sacred with him), I thought to myself, “Well fuck that. I don’t do flaming anything for anybody. Not on command, at any rate.”
To Flame or Not To Flame?
When most Americans I encounter who actually know what saganaki is hear the word, they think, “flaming cheese.” It leads me to think that most of these people hail from Chicago, since that is where this whole over-the-top business of setting it on fire began. When one stops to think about it long enough (about 10 seconds will do), if there is any place in the world where flaming Greek cheese should come from, it’s Chicago because:
a.) There is a disproportionate amount of Greek people living in that city.
b.) Chicago is world famous for its fires.
c.) It’s unbelievably cold there in the winter, which leads me to believe that its citizens would be inclined to light their deep dish pizza on fire if it they thought it might help to keep them warm.
It is, however, not “authentically” Greek.
If one happens to be in Greece and one asks for saganaki at a taverna, the waiter may have to ask you to be more specific, since the term “saganaki” refers to a certain type of two-handled frying pan, the sagani. It is also a generic term for for a number of dishes made with cheese, especially prawns saganaki and mussels saganaki.
It would seem that a fondness for serving cheese with seafood is one of the few things the Romans did not steal from the Greeks.
If you then clarify that you would like the simple fried cheese dish, I suggest you do not ask for them to set it on fire unless you want the waiter to say, as one did to me the only time I ever dared to ask, “You must be an American.”
If you are from Chicago and insist that the cheese be presented afire, you will only be derided. The only thing your waiter is going to light on fire is one of the several filterless cigarettes he will be smoking during your visit.
What I suggest you do in this case is order your cheese un-flamed and ask for a round of ouzos. When your waiter has disappeared to smoke his fourth or fifth cigarette, douse your hot cheese with one of the shots of ouzo and do your own lighting up.
Just make sure you order a water back with your booze to drown the fire should it flare up and engulf your face in anise-scented fire because, if you have to spend the rest of your holiday without the benefit of your God-given eyebrows, everyone will mistake you for an off-duty drag queen, your friends will have a field day with their endless jokes about flaming, and you’ll never want to look at another piece of Greek cheese for as long as you live.
I’m not saying that that happened to me, I’m just saying.
My cheese of choice is kefalotyri, a salty, tangy, sheep’s milk cheese, which is what we use at our restaurant, which also means that I am in the fortunate position of not having to schlep down to the Greek import store in search of it. Besides the flavor and texture of kefalotyri, my favorite thing about it is that the name’s literal translation is “head cheese.” If anyone out there knows how this came to pass, please enlighten me, because I’d love to know.
If you cannot find kefalotyri, there are other cheeses traditionally used like kasseri, or (in Cyprus) haloumi, which may be easier to find. If all else fails, go ahead and use Pecorino Romano, which has a similar flavor and texture to that of kefalotyri cheese, but with a much less graphic-sounding name.
This is perhaps the most straightforward way to prepare saganaki– no muss, no dredging in flour, and a minimum of fuss.
Each slice serves 1 to 2 people who are decidedly not from Chicago.
1 slice of kefalotyri (or other as described above) cheese, cut to a 1/2 inch thickness and about 4 inches in width.
About 1 tablespoon of olive oil
1/2 of a lemon (for squeezing)
A pinch of dried oregano (for sprinkling)
1. In a small, heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat olive oil over a medium-high flame until hot but before it starts smoking. You may very well want to have a nice sit-down chat with your olive oil prior to cooking about the health risks involved. Place cheese into hot pan and cook until it’s bottom is brown and bubbly. Flip cheese with a long, offset spatula and pray that it doesn’t fall to pieces. If this happens, keep going, you can reshape it again with the spatula as the second side is cooking. When the second side is equally bubbling and browned, it is ready to serve.
2. Place your pan on a trivet or towel-lined plate, squeeze lemon juice over it, sprinkle it with dried oregano, and serve with hunks of crusty bread.
Eat this immediately. As hot as you can comfortable stand. When the cheese cools, it turns into what I unaffectionately call “cheese gum.” I warn people of this fact when they sit gabbing with each other in the restaurant and let the cheese just sit there. I heap the responsibility upon them.
Serve with ouzo. To drink. If you poured it over your cheese, it would make me think you weren’t paying attention to anything I just wrote.
And that would make me very, very sad.