The first time I tried halloumi was at Eat & Two Veg in London, England. In fact, this was my very first vegetarian restaurant experience. There was no researching of the restaurant; my brother, sister, dad, and I, serendipitously stumbled upon it because we were in the Marylebone area that afternoon. A few years later, I was back in the same location, this time with just my dad, and we were crushed to see that the restaurant was gone. (It’s awful when you’re anticipating a certain meal and then being denied the experience.)
When Eat & Two Veg was still going strong (the good old days… 2007), my brother and I ordered their caesar salad––but there was something on top that looked like seared chicken.
I asked, “what is that?”
Receiving a swift response from the server, “Halloumi.”
This didn’t help me at all. But, once I took a bite, I knew I’d found something special. After that transcendent cheese experience, it was as if I was seeing halloumi everywhere, noticing it was in a good number of my British cookbooks (my Jamie Oliver cookbook library additions were out of control a few years back––the man loves a good piece of halloumi), but not ones by North American authors.
So, thank you, British cookbook authors and chefs, for making halloumi mainstream where I live. I can now even find it at my local, smaller town grocery store (albeit about 8 years after I first tried it in London, but it has arrived nonetheless). A good rule of thumb for any of the ingredients I cook with: if my shop stocks it, yours will definitely stock it. Ask for it by name: “ha-loo-me.”
Since a trip to London can be a bit costly and Eat & Two Veg is no longer, I figured I should probably learn to cook halloumi myself. Sure, this seems reasonable, but I was apprehensive to attempt it at home, thinking the cheese would melt all over the place, turning into… The Blob.
Well, good news, it’s as easy as can be (and doesn’t turn into The Blob). You see, halloumi is a bit of a curious cheese as it doesn’t melt when it hits the heat like most do, making it the perfect pan-seared or grilled topper to just about anything. It’s briny and substantial, so a little goes a long way. Roasted fennel, vinegar-spiked lentils, and creamy sweet potato, all work harmoniously to create a dish that turned into one of the best things I’ve made in a long time, if I do say so myself. And, while I like lentils, I don’t love lentils (you heard it here first). I know lentils are good for me, being a great source of protein and all, but I’d choose a chickpea over a lentil any day––except in this dish––I can’t imagine anything else so perfectly fitted to the arrangement of flavours here. I have found the panacea to lentil fence sitting!
The aroma of cheese gently “frying” away on the stove is enough to make you salivate. My dog was also going mildly insane from the molten, crusted cheese redolence, and she’s generally very good about staying out of the kitchen when I cook. This dish, including the roasted vegetables, cooked lentils, halloumi, and dressing, all combine to create the hunger pang-inducing scent that hits you when you walk into a Williams Sonoma shop (cooks and kitchen gadget hoarders, you know exactly what I’m talking about).
Now, please take a moment to appreciate the golden brown halloumi crust. Nearly brings a tear to my eye.
If you’re up for a creating a unique vegetarian side dish for your Thanksgiving table this year (for those in the U.S.), this fits the bill. It’s hearty enough to be a main course, which is how I like it, but a side dish would work just as well. And, if you don’t eat dairy, get rid of the halloumi altogether, adding a bit more salt to the base recipe. If you do eat dairy, some thick yogurt, feta, or goat cheese would work in lieu of the halloumi.
Here’s to cooking and eating many more new foods in my own kitchen (after I get over my halloumi obsession, of course).
- 1 cup green or Du Puy lentils
- 1 bulb fennel, cored and thinly sliced; fronds finely chopped and set aside
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 2 small sweet potatoes, cut into cubes (peel intact or peel them if you like)
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1.5 tsp sea salt
- Ground pepper, to taste
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 package halloumi, cut into 1-inch pieces
- Roast the vegetables: Preheat oven to 400ºF. To a large rimmed baking sheet, add fennel (not fronds), onion, sweet potato, 1 tbsp olive oil, salt, and pepper; toss to combine. Roast for 45 to 55 minutes, until vegetables are softened and beginning to brown. Meanwhile, prepare the lentils.
- Cook the lentils: Place lentils in a large pot; cover with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cooking for 25 to 30 minutes until tender. Drain and rinse. Add to a large bowl along with chopped fennel fronds, balsamic vinegar, garlic, and remaining 1 tbsp olive oil. Follow with the roasted vegetables; toss to combine all ingredients.
- Pan-fry the halloumi: Heat a large non-stick skillet, over medium-high. Add halloumi, cooking for 2 minutes per side (it may take less time, keep an eye on it until it's the colour you want).
- To serve: To a large platter or individual shallow bowls, add lentils and vegetables; top with pan-fried halloumi and serve. Can be eaten warm, room temperature, or chilled.