My grandma and I were talking recently about great things to eat when it’s just too hot to turn on the oven. She happened to mention something she ate as a child, made by her Russian immigrant grandmother, which was a cottage cheese salad. She said it was a family favorite in the hot summer months and could be adapted to whatever vegetables were on hand. I had never really thought to use cottage cheese in salad, but another friend told me that such salads are very popular in her mother’s native Israel, and that in Israel, cottage cheese is generally used in savory dishes. I had always had it with jelly, which was my family’s favorite way of eating it. So I looked around at the cottage cheese in my local stores.
The truth is that cottage cheese is not stylish these days. I think for most people, it conjures up some vaguely unappetizing dish from the 1950s. But I happen to really like cottage cheese, and I think it deserves just as much respect as its sexier Italian cousin, ricotta. Cottage cheese is actually a bit different from ricotta in that it is primarily made up of curds, or the milk proteins, whereas ricotta traditionally is made from the whey, the liquid left after the milk proteins have coagulated to make cheese. True relatives of cottage cheese would include farmer’s cheese (liquid has been removed), queso blanco (a dried version of cottage cheese), or quark.
And yet if we stick to cottage cheese there is really not much variety at the grocery store. Every day brings five new varieties of Greek yogurt (and 5 new illnesses that it supposedly cures!), and yet poor old cottage cheese never gets much attention. Apparently I am not the only one thinking about this. I came across this bit on NPR a couple weeks ago:
Apparently the cottage cheese-making process is a rather fickle one, and this is one of the reasons it is not as popular to produce as other cheeses or yogurts. It is also, as I suspected, considered a bit passé. But I find the variation in texture and the creamy saltiness quite appealing and I hope it comes back into style.
But until the cottage cheese revolution takes place, I would recommend a 4 % fat variety, small or large curd, depending on your preference. While the options in most grocery stores are not fantastic, my Israeli friend and I have decided that the best one is actually the Great Value 4 % cottage cheese, available at Walmart. If you like the idea of a drier cheese for a salad application, try rinsing and straining the curds with a mesh strainer, or look for queso blanco.
I found the idea to use za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice and herb blend) from a post on Kalyn’s Kitchen, and I thought it was a great one. See that post here:
The first time I had za’atar was at a Bedouin camp in Israel that charged tourists to come and try coffee and pita in the Bedouin style. A thyme-heavy blend, it was rubbed onto a crunchy, wood grilled pita dripping with olive oil, and the earthy fragrance was just wonderful. Here I added it, along with olive oil, into the cottage cheese, and served it surrounded by tomatoes and cucumbers from my garden. It was a perfect summer dish, and would be wonderful with a side of pita. You could also easily add peppers, olives, or other summer vegetables.
Israeli Salad with Cottage Cheese
- 1 cup regular cottage cheese
- 2 tsp za’atar, divided (often found with the Middle Eastern dry goods)
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
- 1 medium cucumber, chopped
- 1 green onion, chopped
- salt and pepper
In a large bowl, add the vegetables and salt generously. Set aside. In a small bowl, blend the cottage cheese with olive oil, 1 tsp za’atar, and a dash of pepper. Place the cottage cheese mixture in the center of the salad and sprinkle the remaining za’atar over the top of the salad. Add an extra drizzle of olive oil over the salad and serve.