MARKETS : Pulling Strings: Cheese From the East

At first glance, Karoun Dairies could pass for almost any other deli in east Hollywood, the oldest of Los Angeles' Armenian enclaves. But when you look behind its deli case full of Near Eastern cold cuts, you notice a glassed-off workroom in which white-clad women wearing latex gloves are stretching something that looks like oversized pieces of chewing gum.

As they do almost daily, Karoun's workers are performing the magical process of turning chunks of curd by hand into string cheese. They gradually work the curd into circles and then into loops the size of large cobras, which they hang on pegs. As the cooling cheese stretches (to about 20 times its original length), the women keep doubling it over the peg until it's twisted into thick skeins.

It's unlikely you've ever tasted a springy, pure white string cheese like this before, unless you had an Armenian grandmother who enjoyed making her own. As Karoun's co-owner, Anto Baghdassarian, likes to remind customers, his cheeses combine Old Country taste with state-of-the-art dairy technology.

Karoun, which is Armenian for "springtime," was the name of the family factory in Beirut, where Baghdassarian specialized in yogurt before he developed his cheese-making skills. Almost anyone from that part of the world will recognize the name. A name synonymous with "fresh" is fitting for the L.A. operation, which makes only uncured cheeses and a new line of yogurt products. It is the only Near Eastern cheese shop in Southern California that produces its own line of cheeses and yogurts.

Cheese is an everyday staple in the Near East, but before Baghdassarian and his partners--Harry, Vahan and Melkon Boulgourjian--opened for business about a year ago, cooks here were often forced to improvise. "I knew that Southern California had the largest Near Eastern expatriate population in the world," Baghdassarian says, "and I discovered many were using substitutes for the cheeses they loved."

Some, for example, would combine Jack and feta for their pastries. (For comparison, think of using Jack instead of mozzarella cheese on a pizza; it might work, but something gets lost in the translation.)

Now Baghdassarian stocks many varieties of Near Eastern cheese, and he loves to expound on their finer qualities.

"This Akkawi is so fantastic with melon after dinner," he says enthusiastically as he slices into a dense, white cheese.

"For breakfast, there's nothing like the Syrian cheese with sliced tomatoes," he tells me as we savor a little round uncured cheese with a clean, light flavor.

Then he pulls a chalk-white square labeled "frying cheese" from behind the glass.

"Look!" he says. "I've made this cheese for flaming saganaki or just to fry. It's beautiful! It softens but holds its shape and won't melt completely."

Talking faster and faster, he continues describing Karoun's lebne-- a thick yogurt dip--and his plain yogurt, which tastes wonderfully mellow.

Baghdassarian brings a scientific education as well as a lifetime of experience to the young company. Born into the dairy business in Lebanon, he worked from childhood in his family's yogurt and cheese factory, one of the largest in that country, but he wasn't content with the old-fashioned methods. He studied dairy science in Lebanon, graduating at the top of his class, and continued his training in Denmark under a scholarship from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

When he moved to Los Angeles two years ago, though, Baghdassarian had to start developing his cheeses from scratch. Making Near Eastern-style cheese with California milk, he says, was "like reinventing the wheel: The cultures and techniques had to be tailored to our milk."

Now that he's adjusted, Baghdassarian calls California-produced milk "a gift to cheese makers." He finds working with it a joy after dealing with poor-quality milk in other parts of the world. "In Beirut," he says, visibly cringing, "the milk was so unreliable, you would never know how the cheese and lebne would turn out. It had to be consumed within a day or two, and when the weather was hot we added extra salt as a preservative."

So he set about exploring every detail of the California cheese business--visiting small producers, talking to UC Davis technologists and familiarizing himself with California's dairy regulations. He also scoured markets and specialty shops to find out what cheeses were available, how they were marketed and what kinds of cheese customers settled for when they couldn't find the real thing.

As luck would have it, he eventually ran into a small Northern California cheese producer who had long suspected that Near Eastern cheeses had great marketing potential. The two joined forces (only the secondary process of stretching, folding and repackaging are done at the L.A. shop), and after months and months of feeding thousands of trial batches of cheese to the pigs, Karoun's line of cheeses was born.

You can almost hear drum rolls and the clash of cymbals when Baghdassarian points to the California Milk Advisory Board's "Real California Cheese" emblem on his packages. To attain it, products must meet rigid standards for purity--something not all small producers have accomplished.

Baghdassarian travels to Northern California twice a week to supervise the cheese-making operation. He maintains it still has to be watched every step of the way. "Good cheese," he says, "can never come automatically out of a machine."

SHOPPING LIST

SYRIAN CHEESE

A simple, unripened cheese made from fresh curds drained of their whey was probably the first kind known to man. Almost every cheese-eating region in the world, from Mexico to the Caucasus, has such a fresh cheese. The Mexican queso fresco or queso ranchero are familiar examples.

Karoun's version, Syrian cheese, is made in a 3 1/2-inch round. It is fairly low in fat, delicately flavored but not bland with a faint scent of freshly pressed curds, and its texture is slightly "squeaky" or chewy.

For sandwiches, slices of the cheese are topped with thinly sliced tomato and cucumber and eaten on lavash or crusty French-style bread. As mentioned, this cheese is also excellent for dessert with fresh summer fruit.

BALADI

Although the name means "village" or "country" cheese, baladi is often found in some fairly sophisticated surroundings. No Persian table is complete without nan-o-panir-o-sabzi-khordan : flat bread and a platter of fresh cheese garnished with raw vegetables and fresh herbs. Baladi is the cheese of choice for many Persians living in Los Angeles.

A close cousin of Syrian cheese, baladi has the same size and shape, with markings from the draining basket or hoop leaving a design on its outer surface. But it is slightly higher in fat than Syrian, and its texture is softer and creamier and less chewy. The flavor is richer and slightly saltier too.

Like Syrian, baladi is versatile: It shows up at breakfast with warm bread, in sandwiches and after the main course.

AKKAWI

This cheese, which takes its name from the city of Acre, is one of oldest and most popular in the Middle East, but supply has often been a problem--even in Lebanon. During the civil war, many of that country's dairy animals were slaughtered and the Lebanese had to import Akkawi (also spelled Ackawi) from Eastern Europe. In Los Angeles, many people used to make a substitute for Akkawi by soaking feta cheese in several changes of water to desalinate it. But Akkawi is now plentiful here, since Karoun distributes it to many Near Eastern grocery stores and even some supermarkets.

Akkawi's smooth, dense texture and fresh, yet fairly complex, flavor is a result of its specific culturing and from the way its curds and whey are kept together for a prolonged period--longer than for a simpler-tasting curd cheese or Syrian cheese, for example--as they are being transformed into cheese. Akkawi is hand-packed into square draining hoops and cured in a salted whey brine for two days. But unlike feta and other brine-cured cheeses, it has only a very slightly salty flavor.

Like Syrian, this is primarily a table cheese, eaten for breakfast and with fruit, as the final course of a meal and in sandwiches.

FRYING CHEESE

There's something wonderful about the way the flavor of cheese is transformed when it's heated, captivating almost every taste. Near Easterners cook cheeses in a variety of ways. They fry it in slices, thread it on skewers and grill it over a flame or set it ablaze with spirits.

In "A Book of Middle Eastern Food," Claudia Roden says fried cheese used to be served in Cairo cafes on two-handled frying pans straight from the fire. She also quotes Sidqi Effendi's Turkish cooking manual, written in the 19th Century, which advises cooks to heat cheese wrapped in silver paper: "This is good food which enhances sex for married men."

I can't guarantee similar results with Karoun's frying cheese, but I can tell you that this lightly salted fresh cheese holds its shape when cooked and could be considered preferable to other cheeses used for the same purpose. Haloumi is much saltier, graviera more expensive, and cheeses such as kashkaval or kefalotiri ooze into a shapeless puddle when heated.

Simply cut the cheese into quarter-inch-thick slices and fry it in a non-stick skillet over medium-heat, turning once or twice; be careful to regulate the heat so you get a nice golden--but not dark brown--exterior. Use two slices for each appetizer serving and accompany them with lemon wedges. The cheese is also delicious topped with marinara sauce or Mediterranean-style Salsa.

BOEREK CHEESE

For stuffed pastries, whether sweet or savory, you need a cheese with good flavor that won't melt and leak out of the pastry crust. Cooks all over the Levant have, for centuries, been concocting their own blend of sharp and mild cheeses for their tyropittes or boereks . (In the store, you'll also find the word spelled beorek or beoreg .)

Baghdassarian has invented a cheese that has a nice tang yet holds its shape when cooked. He accomplishes this by gently cooking pieces of pressed curd until they float. The cheese is slightly saltier than his frying cheese, with a richer flavor and a creamier texture, but it can be used in the same ways as a frying cheese.

Baghdassarian's wife, who runs Karoun's deli, suggests blending chopped boerek cheese with minced green onion, parsley and a little ground black pepper for pastry filling. "Some people like to add hot red pepper if they're not feeding the boerek to children," Seta Baghdassarian adds. She also suggests brushing the top surface of the boereks with beaten egg before they are baked.

You can make a boerek by rolling out pastry or buttering multiple layers of filo dough, but an easier way is Claudia Roden's suggestion of putting cheese on the unfried side of a qataif (also spelled ataif-- a ready-made pancake available at some Near Eastern pastry shops), folding it in half, pinching it shut and deep-frying it. Even easier to make are thin sandwiches of soft lavash bread filled with thinly sliced cheese--along with other ingredients, if you like--and baked at 325 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until the cheese is soft.

Boerek cheese is also a fine table cheese. It has a softer, creamier texture than Akkawi or Syrian but is not as rich as baladi . This particular cheese is packaged under the label of Indo-European Foods, Karoun's distributor.

STRING CHEESE

The cream- or ivory-colored string cheese Americans know, really a cousin of mozzarella, bears little resemblance to the hand-pulled variety Karoun sells. Made from cheese curd produced in the company's Northern California factory, it is much chewier, and each rope-like strand comes apart in fine filaments. Having been heated with the spice mahleb , made from cherry pits, and packaged with charcoal-black (and even charcoal-flavored) nigella seeds gives the cheese a distinctive flavor. What do you do with it? Just pull and eat.

FOLDED CHEESE

Although haloumi -style sheep's milk cheeses are made in many parts of Greece, they are never exported, and most haloumi imported from Cyprus is quite salty. Karoun's cow's milk folded cheese is a fine alternative. It is made from a curd prepared expressly for this purpose at the Northern California facility and processed in Karoun's Los Angeles plant. The process begins with sprinkling mint between two layers of curd. Karoun has come up with anovel texture by heating it and then turning and folding it repeatedly (rather than stretching it like string cheese) until it cools. Like haloumi , it is dense and chewy. Many people like to fry folded cheese or use it for saganaki , the Greek flamed cheese appetizer. Some cooks fry it and top it with a fried egg.

CURD CHEESES

Karoun makes two styles of curd cheese primarily used in cooking. One, labeled Indo-European curd cheese, is a light, meltable soft cheese similar to mozzarella but with a softer, creamier feel. Old-fashioned Armenian cooks buy it for making their own string cheese at home, presumably because they prefer their own recipes. Because it melts so beautifully, it makes a wonderful cheese topping and is delicious on pizza.

This cheese can also be used in desserts. Rolled inside buttered kadayif dough (which looks like raw shredded wheat) and baked, it becomes kunafa bi-jibn. In halawa bi-jibn-- the world's most complex comfort food--the cheese adds richness to a cream filling rolled inside a thin layer of cooked semolina, which is drizzled with rose water-flavored syrup and sprinkled with chopped pistachios. According to Baghdassarian, you can keep these pastries at room temperature for several days, and they won't develop a sour taste the way they might with some Near Eastern curd cheeses.

The other curd cheese, labeled Karoun curd cheese, is the one the store uses for making string cheese. It is a very mild, low-moisture fresh cheese made with very little salt.

"Sometimes we put it into children's sandwiches," Seta advises. Some cooks also use this cheese in sweet pastries.

LEBNE

Lebne is something like a sour cream cheese, made by draining the whey from lightly salted yogurt. At its most basic, it is simply put out as a dip for bread, garnished with a small pool of olive oil in the middle and sprinkled with a little hot dry red pepper and crushed dried mint. Arabs eat it with bread and olives for a snack. Iranians like to spread it on toast or mix it with shallots or spinach to eat as a side dish. It tenderizes meat when added to stews, and it adds creaminess with a tart kick to soups.

TAHN

Also called ayran or doogh , this is usually described as a drink made from yogurt blended with ice and water. But yogurt wizard Baghdassarian has his own formula for this refreshing yogurt drink.

FRYING CHEESE WITH MEDITERRANEAN SALSA 3 teaspoons olive oil 1 medium clove garlic, minced or pressed 1/4 teaspoon crushed, dried oregano or 2 teaspoons fresh, or 1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh basil 1/2 cup seeded, coarsely chopped or diced tomato 4 slices frying cheese or boerek cheese (3 1/4x1 1/2-inch strip, 1/4-inch thick)

Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in medium non-stick skillet. Add garlic and dried oregano (if using fresh, add garlic only). Cook about 30 seconds. Stir in tomato and cook, stirring, about 1 minute, or until tomato is tender but still holds shape. Remove tomato mixture and set aside.

Wipe out skillet, then brush with remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil. Heat over medium heat. Add and grill cheese slices 1 minute. (If doubling or tripling recipe, cook only 4 cheese slices at time.) Turn each cheese slice over, keeping cheese intact. (It should resume its original shape when cooled slightly.) Cook other side until cheese is soft and exterior is golden.

Remove cheese slices to serving plates. Heat tomato mixture in pan, add fresh oregano at this time, if using, and cook briefly. Top cheese with tomato mixture. Serve warm. Makes 2 servings.

Note : If making more than 2 servings, cheese may be kept warm in barely hot oven.

ASSYRIAN CHICKEN WITH LEBNE (Adapted from Arto Der Haroutunian's "Middle Eastern Cookery") 1/4 cup butter or vegetable oil 1 onion, finely chopped 1 green pepper, thinly sliced 1 (3-pound) chicken, cut into serving pieces 2 1/2 cups chicken broth 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1 tablespoon crushed sumac 1 tablespoon ground almonds 2 cups lebne mixed with 2 teaspoons flour Salt 1 teaspoon ground cayenne or Aleppo pepper 1 teaspoon ground cumin

Heat 1/8 cup butter in large soup pan over medium heat. Add and saute onion and green pepper until tender. Set aside.

Heat remaining 1/8 cup butter and saute chicken until browned on all sides. Add chicken broth, pepper and sumac and bring to boil. Add chicken-onion mixture. Cover pan and lower heat to simmer. Cook until chicken is tender, about 50 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove chicken with slotted spoon. Add 2 tablespoons water to ground almonds and stir until smooth paste is formed. Stir into chicken broth and raise heat to boil. Remove pan from heat and stir in lebne-flour mixture and salt to taste. Return chicken to pan over very low heat and cook until chicken is cooked through. Place chicken on serving dish or platter and sprinkle with cayenne pepper and cumin. Makes 6 servings.

Karoun Dairies, 5117 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 666-6296 or 666-6222. Open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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