Saturday, June 15, 2024

Smooth, tangy feta takes even everyday recipes to the next level

Regular readers may have noticed that I write about everything from tomatillos, poblano peppers and arroz con leche to salmon, potatoes and broccoli. While those last three don’t seem very “tropical,” my intent is to share recipes and food topics relevant to living in Mexico. This doesn’t necessarily mean traditional Mexican ingredients (although they’re included!) but rather what can be found in Mexico and may end up on your table, in your grocery bag or in your cupboards.

As I started looking for interesting recipes this week, one in particular came at me from every direction: Baked Feta Pasta, trending on the online social media platform TikTok, being made on talk shows and raved about by celebrities. Since January, #fetapasta has had more than 600 million views worldwide!

Before we look at the recipe, though, it behooves us to understand a little more about what feta is. Like its Italian cousin Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan for short) or its French cousin champagne, in Europe feta is a “protected designation of origin” (PDO) item. That means it must be made in certain regions of Greece from local sheep and goat’s milk.

Cow’s milk feta does exist, but it lacks the sharp tanginess and smoothness of that made from sheep or goat’s milk. In other parts of the world, any compact, white brined cheese can be called feta. For the best flavor, though, look for real Greek feta, or at least feta made from sheep and goat’s milk. I’ve found it in the deli cases in Soriana, La Comer and even sometimes at smaller regional grocery stores.

So what is this extremely easy and delicious dish that it seems everyone loves? Like a recipe we previously ran, cherry tomatoes drizzled with olive oil are baked to bursting in the oven and then mixed with pasta. The difference is that a block of feta cheese is baked along with the tomatoes, and then the whole mixture is stirred into hot pasta to form a smooth, creamy sauce. The tomatoes caramelize and release their sugars and juices, the feta softens, flavors merge and, well, voilà!

The secret to this pasta sauce is caramelizing the tomatoes.
The secret to this pasta sauce is caramelizing the tomatoes.

TikTok Baked Feta Pasta

If you can’t find a block of feta, chunks will work too.

  • 2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 4 cloves garlic, halved lengthwise
  • ½ cup olive oil, divided
  • Salt
  • 1 block (7 oz.) Greek feta cheese
  • ½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 12 oz. medium-length dried pasta (bow ties, rigatoni or rotini)
  • Garnish: Fresh basil leaves

Preheat to 400 F. In a 9×13-inch baking dish, combine tomatoes, garlic and ¼ cup olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and toss to coat. Place feta in the center of tomatoes, top with remaining olive oil. Sprinkle with red pepper flakes and black pepper. Bake, uncovered, about 40 minutes until tomatoes burst.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water, then drain the pasta. Mash feta and tomatoes with a fork and mix until combined.

Combine sauce with pasta, adding the reserved pasta water as needed. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Top with basil leaves and serve.

Whipped feta is an innovative take on typical dips and spreads.
Whipped feta is an innovative take on typical dips and spreads.

Whipped Feta Dip

Guaranteed to become one of your go-to recipes, use this as a dip or as a spread on toast or sandwiches. Or add a dollop to soup.

  • 8 oz. feta cheese
  • ¾ cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

In a food processor or blender, combine feta, yogurt and garlic; process until very smooth. Add olive oil and blend well. For silky-smooth texture, pass through a fine-mesh strainer. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spicy Chicken Tacos with Corn & Feta Salsa

  • 1½ lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 jalapeño, stemmed, seeded, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp. ground cumin
  • 1 Tbsp. oregano
  • 2 chipotles in adobo, plus 1 Tbsp. of sauce
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 2 ears of corn, kernels sliced off OR ½ cup frozen corn kernels
  • ½ cup crumbled feta
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • For serving: 8 corn tortillas, warmed; ½ cup cilantro leaves; 2 ripe avocados, pitted and sliced; lime wedges, sliced scallions

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add chicken and brown on both sides, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate; set aside.

In same pot over medium heat, add onion and jalapeño and cook, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in cumin and oregano, chipotles and their sauce. Stir to combine, cook 1 minute. Add broth; put chicken back in pot. Adjust heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until chicken is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer chicken to a clean plate. Allow cooking liquid to reduce slightly.

Shred chicken with two forks. Return chicken and any juices to pot and cook until warmed through, about 3 minutes.

For corn salsa: combine feta, corn, 1 Tbsp. lime juice and pepper in a small bowl. Stir remaining lime juice into chicken; spoon onto tortillas.

Serve with corn salsa, cilantro, avocado, lime wedges and scallions.

Corn and feta salsa make these chicken tacos out of this world.
Corn and feta salsa make these chicken tacos out of this world.

Baked Stuffed Tomatoes with Feta & Roasted Peppers

Classic Greek flavors combine in this spicy, salty mix of simple ingredients. Use Greek feta cheese if you can find it.

  • 4 ripe but firm medium tomatoes
  • 4 oz. crumbled feta cheese
  • 2 roasted red peppers from a can or jar, chopped
  • 2-4 Tbsp. chopped pickled jalapenos or other hot peppers
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ tsp. oregano
  • ¼ tsp. crushed red pepper
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil

Core and hollow out tomatoes. Allow to drain upside down on paper towels. Combine feta, both peppers, garlic, oregano, black pepper and crushed red pepper in a medium bowl. Fill tomatoes with feta mixture. Nestle stuffed tomatoes, right side up, in an 8×8-inch baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil.

Bake at 350 F until tomatoes are tender and slightly wrinkled and filling is warm, about 25 minutes. Serve immediately.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. A retired journalist, she has lived in Mexico since 2006.

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