Saturday, March 23, 2013

Great Tasting, Grate-able Cheese!

With the rapid approach of Easter, many of my Italian friends and family will be turning to a few culinary traditions to grace the holiday table.  The Italian Easter pie or a tray of everyone’s favorite lasagna, both bursting with the now easily accessible, grating cheeses known as Pamigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano, never fail to satiate one’s cravings for traditional Italian food.

Many home cooks cavalierly use these two cheeses interchangeably.  However, they are in fact two very different cheeses.  For starters, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a cow’s milk cheese, whereas Pecorino Romano is produced from sheep’s milk.  Parmigiano-Reggiano is the result of labor-intensive and attentive aging to acquire that pale golden straw hue and tiny little granular crispies and boast a symphony of subtle flavor sensations that include nutty, rich, wine, milky and simultaneously sweet and mildly sharp.  Pecorino Romano is salt-cured for eight months, not aged, and offers a sharper flavor than Parmigiano Reggiano.  The curing process renders a simpler, saltier tasting experience when sampling Pecorino Romano.

There have been numerous imitators of grated Italian cheese, from the dry, almost powder-like stuff contained in the glass shakers that can be found on tables in pizzerias across the nation to those unmentionable green cans of salty sawdust that infiltrated our supermarket shelves several decades ago.  Today, there is no excuse for using one of these flavorless products.  The proliferation of  the real thing now abounds in every full-service supermarket.  While Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano can be purchased in wedges or grated and packaged in those ubiquitous plastic tubs, the freshest flavor will be imparted into your dish and permeate your taste buds if you opt for the wedge and grate only what you need at the moment that you need it for your cooking needs.  Once grated and left in a container, the flavors fade quickly.

Both cheeses can be used in an extensive array of culinary presentations.  They may be grated and sprinkled over pasta dishes, risottos and soups.  They can be shaved into paper-thin curls to scatter over salads, gnocchi entrees and carpaccios.  They can be generously sprinkled over pizzas, gratins or other baked dishes to melt in the oven or broiler.  They can also be savored simply as part of a cheese course with a glass of red wine.  What to do with the rind?  It makes a perfect flavor booster when heaped into homemade soups to simmer along with the other ingredients.  So yes, when making your own culinary creation, you certainly can use the two interchangeably.  Both variations of your dish will be delicious, just understand that they are in fact two different styles of cheese and the flavor differences will vary the dish.

Need an appetizer for your Easter celebration dinner? Here’s an option that offers up several flavors of Italy, including a perfectly-matched couple from Parma: Prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Crostini with Prosciutto Arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano

1 loaf of ciabatta bread
Extra virgin olive oil
1 recipe pesto (see recipe here)
1 pound thinly sliced imported Prosciutto di Parma
1 large wedge Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 container baby arugula
Freshly cracked black pepper

Make the pesto and set aside. Preheat oven to 450-degrees.  Slice the ciabatta in half lengthwise horizontally, then cut the two halves crosswise into eight pieces.  Brush the cut sides liberally with the olive oil and place the bread on a baking sheet.  Place in the oven for ten minutes, or until the bread is crisp and the cut sides appear slightly toasted.  Remove from the oven. 
Spread a tablespoon of pesto over the cut side of each bread.  Loosely top each bread with a few slices of the pancetta, simply dropping the slices so that they fall into a ruffled appearance.  Scatter some arugula over each.  Thinly shave wide curl and slivers of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and sprinkle them on top of the arugula.  Finally, drizzle each crostini with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with freshly cracked black pepper and serve.  Makes 8 first-course servings or four lunch entrees.

Next time you feel like embarking on a cheese-tasting comparison, toss wedges of both cheeses on your cheese board, along with two other similar Italian cheeses: Asagio, a cow’s milk cheese that is also commonly grated for use in Italian cooking and can be purchased at various years of aging, and Grana Padano, another hard, grate-able cow’s milk cheese.  Pour a fine Italian red wine and enjoy!

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