In Scout’s How to Cook Vancouver series, we will be striving to combine our addiction to dining out with our passion for cooking by challenging ourselves to make Vancouver’s best restaurant dishes in our own homes.
You either love halloumi or you don’t know about halloumi. Or maybe you know it exists but have never tried it, in which case you don’t know about halloumi. You don’t know about the golden-brown crispy exterior, the molten interior, the salty squeakiness… So get schooled!
I recommend starting by pulling up a seat at The Acorn’s beautiful bar and discovering (or re-discovering) your new favourite cheese along with some artfully prepared cocktails and losing yourself in the just-perfectly-dimmed, plant-bedecked surroundings. At first glance, the Acorn’s beer-battered halloumi seems untenably complicated as a home cooking dish. Nothing frightens home cooks away from their good intentions as quickly as the prospect of frying something in oil. I’m here to tell you to bite the bullet, as frying is made needlessly complicated through people’s unproven ideas regarding its difficulty: “Don’t you need a deep-fryer?” Certainly not, a deep heavy skillet is all I’ve ever fried with and I used to celebrate the arrival of every Friday by literally making it fry-day. Bonus points if you equip yourself with a cheap frying (or candy) thermometer.
“Isn’t disposing of oil a deeply stressful and time-consuming chore?” No, you just find an old empty plastic tub or lidded jug, let the oil cool after cooking, pour carefully into your vessel and leave it under your kitchen sink until it’s eventually full (from all your fun new frying adventures!), then do a ONE-TIME trip to an approved recycling depot. Accept that we’ve all gotten away with shoddy recycling habits until now and take this one for Team Earth. “Won’t I scald myself in the cauldron of boiling fat I’ve created, rendering myself incapable of ever approaching my stove without trepidation ever again?” Exercise common sense: place food in oil using tongs when possible and gently lay it away from you. If all else fails and you’re panicking, just gently transfer the skillet off the element, let it cool, and wait until you’ve collected yourself before re-attempting.
It helps to read through the full recipe before cooking then assembling all of your materials and equipment since the thing about frying recipes is that they do tend to move pretty quickly at a certain point in the directions, leading to more opportunities for panic and adrenaline-filled decisions.
You got this! And if you don’t, let’s just meet at the Acorn, okay? You can buy the first round of halloumi.
Note: You can find halloumi at many commercial grocery stores now, but I favour the particularly large blocks of it sold at Famous Foods, the understated but plentiful independent market that sells more hard-to-source ingredients than I could ever hope to find use for. Try to find halloumi that doesn’t have a particularly deep crack running through the middle as this will cause your cut slabs to split in half (which is not really a problem for anything other than aesthetics).
Source: This recipe is adapted from the meticulous genius known as J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the creator of my preferred go-to cooking tome, “The Food Lab”. It’s derived from his fish-and-chip batter, with adjustments to the ratios and liquid volume.
Serves 2-4, depending on how large a block of halloumi you buy
Mint Yogurt + Garnish:
1 cup plain yogurt, 2% fat or higher (use Greek if you want a thicker consistency, as the Acorn does)
8 fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1 tsp dried mint (optional, you can increase the fresh mint if not using, though I like the punchiness of using both)
Juice of ½ lemon + lemon wedges, to serve
Thinly sliced radishes, to serve
1 large block halloumi cheese
¼ cup cornstarch
1 cup all-purpose flour, divided (don’t pack it down when measuring)
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda (use half of the ¼ tsp measure if you don’t have a spoon this small)
2 tbsp vodka (trust me!)
¾ cup lager or similar style beer, ice-cold
Canola oil, for frying
Mix together the yogurt, fresh and dried mint, and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Cut the halloumi into ½-inch thick slabs and pat dry (try to avoid letting them split – cut slowly and cautiously). In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the cornstarch, ½ cup flour, salt, paprika, baking powder, and baking soda. Place the remaining ½ cup flour in a small shallow bowl.
For frying, you’re going to want a large, heavy skillet (cast-iron works well) with enough depth to hold ~1 inch of oil without reaching the brim. Pour oil into the pan to a 1-inch depth. Heat the oil over medium-high for at least 10 minutes (possibly 15); if using a thermometer, you’re waiting for it to hit 350 degrees F. While the oil heats, set a cooling rack over a baking sheet. Dredge each slab of halloumi in the plain flour and shake off any excess; set the dredged slabs on the prepared cooling rack. Mix together the cold beer and vodka then slowly whisk into the cornstarch mixture. Here’s where you get to exercise some creative freedom: if you prefer a thicker, fish-and-chip type batter, just whisk in about ¾ of the liquid, until the batter resembles heavy cream; for a thinner, flakier batter, use all of the liquid. My own preference is for the thinner batter as I like the “shattering” effect created once fried. Either way, avoid over-mixing the batter – a few lumps are good, total homogeneity is not. Dip the flour-dredged halloumi slabs into the batter and very gently lay the slices away from you into the hot oil (you will likely need to do this in 2+ batches, so don’t batter all the cheese quite yet). The first slab of cheese should immediately bubble and sizzle upon touching the oil – if not, give the oil a few more minutes to heat up. Cook for ~30-60 seconds per side, until deeply golden-brown (but not too dark – fried foods always pick up a bit more colour as they cool!)
Tongs are immensely helpful for flipping the cheese. While the cheese fries, line your cooling rack with a double layer of paper towel. Once the cheese is golden, transfer to the lined rack to drain excess oil. Finish battering and frying the remaining slabs, monitoring the temperature of the oil to ensure the cheese isn’t either blackening or languishing in tepid oil. If you opted for the thinner batter, you may want to brush the edges of the fried halloumi with your fingers to flake off any uneven edges that formed during cooking.
Immediately plate the cheese by serving with a dramatic swoosh of minty yogurt (or a puddle if you, like me, prefer a runnier, easier-to-dip yogurt) and a scattering of sliced radishes. Serve with lemon wedges for squeezing over the warm cheese, and something cold and palate-cleansing to drink.