Do you know the secret to making much of your food taste better almost instantly?
Just add Parmesan.
But not just any Parmesan cheese will do — for the optimum effect, go for the King of all Dried Cheeses.
Most of use domestic Parmesan on a regular basis, but I’d venture a guess that few of use Reggiano all that often (if at all).
That’s a crying shame — a lot of meals could be that much better with just a shaving or two of this nutty, nuanced and incredibly flavorful cheese.
Allow me a minute to argue for its must-have presence in your kitchen.
Let’s start with its provenance.
Named after the area that it comes from (Wikipedia says that’s Parma, Reggiao Emilia, Bologna, Modena and Mantova), Parmigiano-Reggiano starts with unpasteurized cow’s milk, the result of a diet of only hay and grass (no feed or random foods allowable here).
The milk is heated, separating curds from whey; the former is put into the molds which will ultimately become P-R (as I will refer to it), the latter of which is used to feed the pigs that will later become Prosciutto de Parma.
The whey is put into cheese molds and then a long salt brine follows. After that, these wheels are scrupulously tended to in a protracted and careful aging process; it’s this that allows the flavors of the cheese to deepen and those trademark crystals to form (amino acids among other ingredients).
By the end of this process (now years long in the making), these giant wheels will weigh nearly one hundred pounds apiece and only the very best ones will bear their trademarked sign of approval.
There’s a reason why cooks the world over reach for this grating cheese — it’s apparently got the second highest concentration of glutamates, resulting in crazy high levels of umami (commonly referred to the fifth taste, it combines with sweet, sour, salt and bitter).
My brain doesn’t do science well, but I get this much.
Umami is why food tastes good. Umami comes from glutamates, and Parmigiano-Reggiano is packed with these, hence this cheese is why so much of your P-R graced food tastes so darn good.
Apparently only Roquefort cheese has more umami — and ask yourself this — which one is going to give you the biggest bang for your buck on a day to day basis: Roquefort or Parmigiano?
Okay, so you’ve probably had this cheese out and about and occasionally in your own kitchen.
Why not more often? Because it’s expensive, right?
Here’s a tip.
Get your Costco card or hit up your big-box going pal — you’re about to get a steal.
At Costco you can buy a good sized chunk for just under ten dollars a pound (I’ve seen it almost double that at stores) and it’s vacuum packed for freshness. Most chunks range between one and a quarter and one and three-quarters pound, meaning for an average of fifteen dollars you’ve made a new friend.
And remember this –your friend has been improving over the last three years (wish I could say the same for myself).
And if you think of this cheese as primarily a condiment used sparingly for maximum affect (and so little is needed to make a quantum difference in a dish), it’s actually quite a bargain for such a premium ingredient.
As such, a good sized piece will last you for weeks if not months — and the leftover rind is fantastic simmered in soups or stews.
Look at what you can do with one chunk — there’s a world of grating options awaiting you.
Obviously the first one came from my microplane zester (perhaps my favorite tool ever); this results in a grated cheese that is feathery, subtle and will melt on contact with even just warm food.
I love this fine grate atop roasted vegetables (it’s obscenely good atop asparagus or broccoli) or on one of my favorite salads.
With a vegetable peeler or very sharp knife you can go for different widths and thicknesses of cheese.
I like these thin flat shavings (as seen on the left) for hearty salads in which I want the cheese to be more noticeable but not overtake the show.
Here’s how I celebrated a new chunk of this Parmigiano at lunch today– atop a white bean, tomato and celery salad (finished off with a Meyer Lemon and White Truffle vinaigrette).
Man it was delicious!
And the last variety of grate (the thick shards on the right) would be the one I’d go for when I wanted this cheese to play a really active, vocal role in a production –as in this baguette sandwich with prosciutto and fig jam.
The nutty flavor of the P-R (enhanced with a bit of St. Andre for added creaminess) works beautifully with the deliciously salty and sweet flavors of the sandwich.
See what I mean?