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December 25, 2006

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (Recipe: risotto with grapefruit)

Parm

Just when we've all gotten our heads around the notion of eating locally, I'm here to tell you not to do it.

Not when it comes to cheese.

Not unless you live in Italy, in the small towns around Modena, Parma, Reggio-Emilia, and parts of Bologna and Mantova — the only part of the world where authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is produced by the 482 members of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano.

Founded in 1934, the Consorzio developed high standards for the cheese produced under its auspices, and every wheel of cheese that bears the Consorzio's seal of approval has been inspected several times to ensure that the cheese is of the highest quality. The cheesemaking process is fascinating, labor-intensive, and exacting.

From Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating, I learned that for centuries what we know as Parmigiano-Reggiano was simply the local cheese. In Parma it was known as "Parmigiano", in Reggio "Reggiano", and in Lodi, "Lodigiano". When cooks in Parma would go into a store to buy a couple of pounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano, they'd just order "a kilo of cheese". (No need to ask which cheese!)

The Consorzio has kept production small, yet economically viable. It takes 16 liters of milk to make one kilo of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and the average Parmigiano-Reggiano dairy makes only eight wheels of cheese a day. Even at 60 pounds a wheel, that's less than 500 pounds of cheese per day, about the same level of production as a small American cheesemaking farm.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is a medium-fat, dry cheese with a rich, sharp flavor. Made from skimmed or partially skimmed cow's milk, it has a hard, pale-golden rind and a straw-colored, somewhat grainy interior. Don't buy cheese without the rind, unless you see it hand-cut off a wheel that's stamped with the telltale dotted Parmigiano-Reggiano seal of identification.

Before you bring home a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano, find out its birthday. No kidding: each wheel is stamped with the month and year the cheese was made, and timing is everything; each season creates cheese with different qualities.

Summer cheese is more golden, because the cows are eating fresh grass, and it's said to be best for making pesto because it is the most sharp in flavor; spring cheese is drier because the milk at that time of year has less butterfat, and the cheese is harder to cut. Autumn cheese, the most balanced in flavor with a higher butterfat content, is the best for eating as is. Ask for cheese that's been aged through at least two summers. In summer, the cheese sweats, expelling excess moisture and concentrating the flavor.

When you do get your cheese home, you'll find a thousand uses for it, from shaving it on top of salads, to drizzling bite-sized chunks with honey for dessert — and don't forget indispensable pesto, fabulous lasagna, and soup made with the parm rind.

Risotto ai pompelmo (risotto with grapefruit)

Sounds weird, I know, but this is truly delicious. As always with risotti, make sure each individual ingredient is the best you can find. Adapted from Risotto, by Judith Barrett. Serves 4 as a first course.

Ingredients

7 cups chicken or vegetable stock, homemade or low-sodium storebought
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 small leek, white part only, finely chopped (approx. 1/2 cup)
3 Tbsp finely chopped celery
2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1-1/3 cups grapefruit juice, warmed (juice of 1 whole grapefruit)
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1-1/2 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
8 grapefruit sections, diced

Directions

Bring broth to a steady simmer. Warm grapefruit juice in the microwave. In a heavy casserole, heat butter and oil over moderate heat. Add leek and celery, and sauté 1-2 minutes, until the leek begins to soften but not brown. Add rice and stir, using a wooden spoon, for a minute to coat all the grains with the oil. Add the grapefruit juice and stir until completely absorbed. Begin to add the simmering broth, 1/2 cup at a time, reserving 1/4 cup to add at the end. After approximately 18 minutes, when the rice is tender but still firm, add reserved broth. Turn off the heat and immediately add remaining butter, cheese and parsley, and stir vigorously to combine with the rice. Serve immediately, garnished with diced grapefruit.

Comments

I think we might have that cookbook...and yet I have to admit I totally missed any mention of using grapefruit juice in the risotto! Sounds fabulous...must...try...

Hope you're having a fabulous holiday!

Genie

Hate grapefruit, unfortunately, but might try it anyway.

More interestingly - from my angle anyway - when you cook with cheese rind (I think any strong cheese will do interesting things, not just parmiggiano etc.) - do you take it out or not?... your turkey/escarole soup didn't seem to include instruction to take it out!...

Genie, happy holidays to you! The grapefruit is a real surprise, and adding the uncooked segments at the end gives the whole dish a lift.

Paul, I never remove the rind. Then again, I never take the tags off mattresses, either.... By the way, you could try this recipe with lemon juice and zest, instead of the grapefruit. Happy holidays!

I've lost count of the number of times I've thrown out grocery store cheese that I've purchased in a pinch to substitute for Parmigiano-Reggiano. There's nothing like it !

Recently we had some so-called cheese that was so bad that we had to double-wrap it in plastic bags to put it in the trash.

Amen.

I can't imagine life without parmigiano reggiano!!!

Could not agree with you more, and thankfully now it's at least semi-affordable at Costco. Hope you're having a great holiday. I'm taking a week off so I can read my favorite blogs and not worry about what I'm posting myself.

It does sound weird, but I will take your word for it that it is tasty, Lydia. The photo of the cheese is to die for!

Hmm. I think the acidity of the grapefruit would balance the salty and fattiness of the cheese. Grapefruit pairs well with avocado, so I could see this too.

Mary, I've had to toss cheese, too. Once you get used to the taste of the real Parmigiano-Reggiano, it's hard to cook with an inferior cheese. Sometimes I'm at the mercy of folks in my cooking groups who bring ingredients that aren't what I would buy if I were doing the shopping. At those times, I'm reminded of how much I love the real parm!

Ivonne, I agree 100%.

Kalyn, I've scored some good parm at Costco, too. Wish we had one in Rhode Island; I have to drive an hour to get to a Costco near Boston.

Mimi, trust me, this recipe is a total surprise. A couple of years ago, I put together a cooking group session called "Weirdo Risotto", and this was one of the recipes. After we made it, we realized there was nothing weirdo about it!

Elise, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. Your blog inspires me!

that sounds fantastic! i've become a huge fan of risotto (even though i like to tease my italians 'you guys don't know how to cook rice, it shouldn't be crunchy! ;) and have been looking for a new recipe. the ones at migros come in a bag with flavoring but i'd prefer to do it from scratch. since i AM in europe and have easy access to good cheese ;)

Rai, welcome to The Perfect Pantry, and greetings from RI. Risotto is so easy to make from scratch, though using great ingredients is critical to success, but you're lucky to be living in a place where you can get good cheese, and good rice. Rhode Island, with its large Italian population, is one of those places, too; the shops on Federal Hill offer great variety and quality.

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my log house kitchen in rural northwest Rhode Island, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives.

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