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Flavoring Food with Parmesan

Italy's most famous cheese dresses up a wide range of foods

Fine Cooking Issue 39
Photo: Judi Rutz
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Parmesan cheese, more specifically Parmigiano-Reggiano—the real deal from Italy—is undeniably one of the world’s great cheeses. It not only provides delicious, nutty chunks for nibbling, but it also fills an incomparable role as one of the most precious seasonings.

Think I’ve gone too far with that statement? Well, imagine your anticipation as you sit down to a plate of steaming, fragrant wild mushroom risotto. After taking your first bite, it’s obvious something is wrong: the potent flavor of the mushrooms overwhelms the dish. Why? Someone forgot to add the essential finishing handful of grated Parmesan, which would have melded the flavors of the rice dish together and rounded out the earthiness of the mushrooms. Without the accent of this amazing cheese, many rice and pasta dishes fall flat.

Beyond risotto and pasta, however, Parmesan contributes its nutty-sweet, gently salty, slightly spicy character to dishes across the menu map (see “Experiment with Parmigiano-Reggiano,” below). Simple side dishes such as mashed potatoes and cooked grains are more richly delicious when grated Parmesan is stirred in at the end. A bread stuffing benefits from a sprinkle of Parmesan, and a bit stirred into sautéed cauliflower or broccoli before serving acts as salt can, bringing out the vegetable’s flavor without calling attention to itself.

Experiment with Parmigiano-Reggiano

Thicken cooked corn with grated Parmesan. Toss fresh corn kernels and the milk scraped from the cobs in melted butter, add a small amount of chicken broth, simmer briefly, and then lightly thicken and flavor the mixture with grated parmigiano reggiano. Garnish with fresh basil, if you like.

Top a baked potato with a generous amount of grated Parmesan, a little olive oil, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, basil, and fresh pepper.

Substitute a little Parmesan in recipes calling for other cheeses. A little added to the Cheddar in macaroni and cheese or mixed with the Gruyère for an onion soup gratin gives the dish a more interesting flavor.

Add a piece of rind to a hearty bean soup as it cooks. At the end, fish it out and cut the softened rind—it’s edible—into tiny strips to serve in the soup, if you like.

Choosing the best cheese

You’ll have no idea why this cheese excites me so if you are not using authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano. Most supermarkets these days carry true Parmigiano-Reggiano, and though it costs more, its superior flavor is worth the extra few bucks.

To tell if you’ve got the real thing, look at the rind. An authentic wheel has the words “Parmigiano Reggiano” stenciled closely and repeatedly around the rind of the entire wheel so that every piece of rind will bear part of these markings. The label signifies that certain standards have been met in the production of the cheese.

Look for the freshest chunk you can find. Parmigiano-Reggiano must be aged at least 18 months. As it ages, it develops a more complex flavor and flinty texture. But that productive aging happens only when the cheese is still a large wheel completely protected by rind. Once the wheel is cut, the cheese should be used as quickly as possible.

The best scenario, and usually a rare one, is to buy a piece cut right from the wheel as you wait. More likely, you’ll be buying a prepackaged chunk. Choose one that’s tightly wrapped, preferably with the rind still attached on one side; the rind helps keep the cheese moist. Pieces that seem almost white are way past their prime and will be closer to rock than cheese. Also avoid any cheese that has holes or looks oily.

Parmesan will keep up to a month in the refrigerator, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. Rewrap it in fresh plastic wrap every time you use it.

A flavorful thickener

Aside from flavor, Parmesan can help thicken a dish and bind ingredients. I like to mix some into the raw ingredients for meatloaf and meatballs, for example, because it lightly binds the meat while adding a subtle, nutty flavor. In small doses, it gently melds the flavors—the herbs and spices I use—without making the meatloaf taste cheesy.

Boost the flavor of bread coatings. I almost always add a little finely grated parmigiano reggiano to my breadcrumb mixtures. Whether used on chicken, lamb, or pork, it creates a pleasingly nubby coating while helping to turn the coating golden and crisp. Or use the mixture to add a crisp, brown topping to casseroles, gratins, and baked pastas.

Finally, when you think there isn’t a shred left to use, the rind can be saved or frozen and added at the beginning to a simmering pot of soup or stew to contribute long-cooked, mellow, earthy flavor.

Grating or shaving to affect flavor

Like many hard cheeses, Parmigiano-Reggiano changes personality depending on how it’s cut. This is something to keep in mind when using it as a flavoring.

For most pastas and risotti, I grate the cheese coarsely for shreds that are discernible but don’t that overwhelm. I use the fine holes on the shredder when I’m adding some of the cheese to a stew or soup. A spoonful or two of finely grated cheese added just before serving slightly thickens and enriches the soup, teasing the taste buds with just a hint of its source.

I also like to shave Parmesan into paper-thin curls with a vegetable peeler. Scattered over a plate of prosciutto drizzled with fruity olive oil, the Parmesan slivers awaken the flavor of each ingredient and connect them to one another in a memorable way while continuing to project their own subtle personality. If I were to sprinkle the same dish with grated cheese, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting: the silken texture of the thinly sliced cheese, as well the crescendos of flavor that come when you bite into the discernible pieces, would be lost.

If you want to experiment with this notion, have ready three bowls of pasta tossed with a light tomato and fresh basil sauce. Sprinkle finely grated parmigiano reggiano on one, coarsely grated on another, and paper-thin slices on the third, and then taste each.

Only grate what you need when you need it. There’s a big difference between Parmesan that’s freshly grated and Parmesan that’s been grated even hours before. For this reason, grate the cheese as close to using it as possible.

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