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 .