Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

Homemade Mediterranean, including cheeses

I’m in the kitchen at To Dine For, the new gourmet Mediterranean takeout shop in Hull, watching a large pot of scalded milk turn into cheese right before my eyes.
I can’t believe how quickly it happened. While a gallon of milk warmed on the stove, Rafca Cardoos, who co-owns the shop with Paula Cofman, mixed half a tablet of rennet in a little water. Minutes after stirring it into the hot milk, the liquid turned into a sea of floating solids: curds, and whey.
“That’s it,” said Cardoos. “The cheese is here.”

To finish the job, Cardoos adds some black sesame seeds to the pot, then scoops her fingers through the curds and whey lifting a palmful of solids into her hand. She pats the curds into a flattened round, much like you’d make a meatball, and the delicious fresh Syrian cheese is done. A gallon of milk yields two to three pounds.
As a coffee pot percs away on the stove, Cardoos makes a rollup with Syrian bread, tomatoes, mint (from her garden), olives, scallions, and homemade yogurt cheese. This cheese, which is made by draining yogurt for a couple days, has the texture of cream cheese (and the probiotics and active enzymes of yogurt!).
I totally love it. The women call the sandwich lebany. It is clean and delicious.
“Leban is Arabic for yogurt. We call it Lebany. My father and my cousins eat that for breakfast,” says Cofman.

“Our dream is to be everything homemade – fresh, from scratch,” said Cardoos, who grew up on a farm in Jbeil, Lebanon, learning to cook from her mother, grandmother, and aunts.
Although Cofman grew up in Worcester, she, too, was raised among a large extended Lebanese family (Cofman is half Lebanese, half Greek), and learned a very similar cuisine.
“You’d eat at my Aunt Adele’s house and you’d feel happy afterward. It was like medicine,” said Cofman. “If you didn’t feel good, you’d feel good after you ate her food. She’s the reason I cook. I wanted to make people feel with food the way she did.”
The women chose Hull for their business because both live in town and wanted to have a flexible work environment where they could be near their teen and ‘tween kids. Cofman came to the business after years as a personal chef and Cardoos recently sold her Quincy eatery, Blackboard Cafe.
As customers periodically interrupt their cooking, Cofman makes spanakopita and Cardoos starts some string cheese. For this, she begins with a block of mozzarella curd she warms in the microwave (a double boiler would also work). She then begins pulling the hot curd into a rope-like shape. After it has stretched out, she halves its length, and commences to stretch the now thicker, double strand. After 40 seconds of pulling and stretching, she folds its length in half again, and pulls some more.
She does this many times until finally her facile hands twist the cheese into a braid and somehow tuck it into a beautiful knot. The cheese will be ready to eat after it sits in brine overnight.
As they work, I wonder how they track all that has to be done. The refrigerator case must be filled with the shop’s 20-plus standard items and daily specials – tabouli, stuffed grape leaves (both vegetarian and meaty), moussaka, falafel, Mediterranean pizza.
They also have three upcoming catering events, items to be made for sale at the Hingham Farmer’s Market, and more. According to Cofman, they “just know what has to be done.”
I find the partners’ way of working powerfully instinctive and feminine. In the course of a few hours, each cooks independently, yet asks the other for help several times: to get an ingredient, to move something, to squeeze an extra lemon. This sharing feeds the heart and makes the work go easy.
When someone opens the front door, one or the other says, “I’ll go, your hands are full.” Both of them want to feed people the dishes they love, and they’re continually getting a kick over how good their food is.
As Cardoos puts the finishing touches on a batch of hummus with pepper puree, she asks Cofman to sample it.
“Paula, this one, it’s the best!” said Cardoos. “Isn’t it?”