Today’s Special

Parmigiano-Reggiano earns its reign as king of cheeses

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Crunch: </span>Oven-baked Parmesan adds a salty bite to salad.
Crunch: Oven-baked Parmesan adds a salty bite to salad.
James Ingram / Jive Photographic

Side dish

Italian Basil Salad with Crispy Parmesan

Serve this as a side dish to sautéed chicken breasts or veal scallopini, or turn it into a complete meal by blending in diced cooked chicken, ham or seafood. Allow half a cup per person. A lighter-acid style wine such as Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc Charlotte’s Home 2013 ($16) can easily match the acid in the vinaigrette dressing and creates a good balance with the basil, tomatoes, greens and cheese.

4 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon dried oregano

6 ounces mixed baby greens

2 cups halved cherry tomatoes

1 cup or more whole fresh basil leaves

1 cup or more fresh Italian parsley leaves and tender stems

2 green onions, thinly sliced

A sprinkle or two of salt and lots of freshly ground pepper

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a baking sheet, then evenly sprinkle on a thin layer of the Parmesan cheese, forming a circle 8 inches or so wide. Bake until golden brown and crispy, about 10 minutes. Set the baking sheet on a rack to cool. Break the cheese into large chunks. (You can crisp the cheese several days in advance and store in an airtight container at room temperature.)

Just before serving, in a festive salad bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, mustard, honey and oregano until they form a smooth vinaigrette. Add the greens, tomatoes, basil, parsley and green. Season to your taste with salt and pepper. Toss everything together and top with the crispy Parmesan. Serves 4.

Per serving: 190 calories, 15 g fat (5.9 g saturated fat, 7.4 g monounsaturated fat), 25 mg cholesterol, 12.8 g protein, 11.3 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 533 mg sodium.

Source: Adapted from “Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen” ( $25, Pintail-Penguin Group).

I love Italian cheeses, everything from Gorgonzola, mozzarella and burrata to pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano, the King of Cheeses.

The idea that a simple food like milk can produce such a variety of styles and flavor sensations is one that has intrigued me for a long time. The late author Clifton Fadiman once called cheese “milk’s leap toward immortality.”

True Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has a distinctly flaky, slightly grainy texture that occurs during aging when amino acids in the milk crystallize. Parmigiano-Reggiano has been produced since at least the 13th century in a region of northern Italy that consists of the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia. The only ingredients in the cheese are milk, rennet and salt.

The entire rind of each wheel of authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano is imprinted with the name as well as the month and the year the cheese has being shaped. Within the European Union, Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano are the same cheese, but in the United States, “Parmesan” is not regulated.

Look for the stamped rind to make sure you are buying the real deal — a cheese that is intense and complex, with nutty, sweet, grassy, creamy and fruity flavors. Eat chunks of this cheese out of hand or use it in some of your favorite recipes.

• Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano adds salty flavor to risottos, pastas and salads. Never buy grated Parmigiano-Reggiano because it loses its flavor after grating. Don’t ever buy it in a green can! Grate small amounts yourself with a rasp grater, or in a food processor for larger amounts.

• Buy cheese that has been cracked into wedges, rather than cut, which changes the texture.

• At home, rewrap with plastic film and cover with parchment paper or cheese wrapping paper (available at gourmet stores). Change the wrap every time the cheese is used, or at least once a week.

• Store Parmesan in the refrigerator. It will keep its best flavor for about a month.

• Use rinds to add flavor to soups or pasta sauces.

• Shave curls with a vegetable peeler to garnish vegetables.

• Make crisp wafers called “frico” with grated cheese (see recipe).

Carole Kotkin is manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school .

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