I don’t diet, but if I did, I feel like I would be a low-carb type of dieter. It’s not that I don’t love bread, pasta, and french fries; it’s that I love dairy more. I’ll never try Atkins (like my parents) or go Keto (like some sort of cross-fitter), but I will appreciate every new and creative cheese-based substitute I see at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. (A tortilla, but make it cheese? Brilliant!) Cheese can take many forms, and one of my favourites is “crouton.”
I love expanding the concept of what a crouton can “be.” Pizza is a crouton. Tater tots are croutons. And yes, cheese is a crouton. I’m not talking about limp shreds of cheddar you get from a bag — though that certainly makes good starting material — I’m talking about grilled halloumi, frico, and the pre-packaged store-bought cheese crisps I’m seeing all over the the place.
I honestly have the weakest argument for halloumi, as it doesn’t get super crispy. It does, however, provide a charred, browned flavour, with a little bit of crispy texture and a lot of salt (croutons should be very salty). You can also the cut it into cubes, which is the shape of croutons. Making halloumi (or bread cheese, which is quite similar) croutons is easy: Cut it into cubes, then cook it in a nonstick pan until it’s deeply browned on all sides. You can also cut the halloumi into thick planks and grill until browned, then cut the planks into cubes, if you’d rather cook your cheese outside. Sprinkle the cubes over a salad like you would any other crouton.
You know I love a cheese crispy, and this is where the bag of pre-shredded cheddar comes into play. Most shredded cheese is tossed with a little starch, to keep it from clumping, and that starch actually results in a tastier, crispier disc of fried cheese:
As you probably know, bagged, already shredded cheese is usually coated with some sort of anti-caking agent, usually potato starch or the like. Such was the case with a bag of Tillamook sharp cheddar, and it made the best cheese crisp of my life. Though I had initially started my batch of crisps by shredding some sharp cheddar straight from the block (also Tillamook sharp, to be honest) I had grown tired of grating and grabbed the pre-shredded stuff out of laziness. I had no idea what effect the extra starch would have on the frico, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it resulted in a crispier crisp that browned much more quickly without a trace of bitterness. Getting the same amount of browning with the plain cheese took twice as long, and the resulting wafer of dairy was so bitter it was inedible.
Once you have your cheese, you’re ready to make frico. You can make it plain, or you can put stuff in it, to make a sort of cheese bark. You can make it on a silicone baking sheet in the oven, but I usually make mine in a nonstick pan. To make cheese crisps, fry shredded mounds of cheese over medium heat until they just begin to brown. (They’ll look quite greasy at first; this is what you want.)
If you wish to get next-level, you can mix in ½ a teaspoon of your favourite spice or seasoning (cumin, fennel, paprika, or chilli powder — it’s all very good). If you wish to cut down on your labour, you can make a make one giant piece of frico; just add enough cheese to the pan to create an even, lacy layer — then break it up into crispy shards before sprinkling it over your salad.
The proliferation of pre-packaged frico is, in my opinion, a good thing. Instead of thin, lacy cheese shards, you can get little nuggets of fried cheese, which feel like true croutons in your mouth. There’s no prep-work on your part — just buy them and put them on a salad. Done. (You can also eat them straight out of the bag, as a snack, which is what I do with most croutons anyway.)