When my friend Ben, who goes to the local high school, asked me to give him the test for his Boy Scout cooking merit badge, I figured it would be easy.
After all, Ben had been taking cooking classes with me since he was 12 years old, so I knew that he knew how to cook cool stuff like quesadillas and meatloaf and deviled eggs and vegetable sushi.
What I didn't expect is that I'd have to question him about botulism and E. coli, kitchen safety and serving sizes, or that as part of the test he would have to plan meals for six days of wilderness camping, with no refrigeration.
Six days without ice cream or fresh milk for morning coffee? I could handle that. But six days without Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese? Maybe not.
Parmigiano-Reggiano (known as "parm" in our house) finds its way into everything from egg dishes to pasta, to tapas, to salads. Though I didn't grow up in a parm household, I can't imagine cooking without it now. The rinds go into almost every vegetable soup I make, too.
When I wrote about parm a few years ago, I shared some advice about how to buy:
- Make sure the rind is stamped Parmigiano-Reggiano, in small dots like the ones in the photo. Anything else is not authentic parm.
- Don't buy cheese without the rind, unless you see the rind being cut off.
- Before you bring home a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano, find out its birthday. Each wheel is stamped with the month and year the cheese was made.
- 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.
What I didn't tell you is why you should buy real parm (there is no such thing as American Parmigiano-Reggiano, though there is parmesan cheese made in the US):
- It's an artisanal product, made with care and pride, in a limited geographic region of Italy.
- Sixteen liters of organic milk go into every kilo (2.2 pounds) of cheese. The average wheel weighs 80 kilos.
- Each wheel is turned and cleaned at least once a week, and is tested at 12 months; those that don't make the grade do not get stamped with the seal of the Consorzio. Wheels that pass the test typically will age a total of 24 to 36 months.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano tastes best. Nothing more to say.
By the way, Ben passed his test with flying colors, and earned his cooking merit badge. I couldn't be more proud.
Broccoli and cauliflower sformatino
Some of my long-time readers are probably shocked to find a cauliflower recipe on The Perfect Pantry! Not the first, but I admit that they are few and far between. Cauliflower is to me as beets are to President Obama -- not a favorite food -- but this recipe was so cheese-y and delicious that I couldn't resist a second, and third, bite. Very slightly adapted from Faith Heller Willinger's Adventures of an Italian Food Lover. Serves 6-8.
3/4 lb head of cauliflower, broken into bite-size florets
3/4 lb broccoli, cut into bite-size florets, stems peeled if necessary
3 Tbsp coarse sea salt
1 cup non-fat or 1% milk
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a stock pot, bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add 3 Tbsp coarse sea salt, and the cauliflower, and cook, uncovered, 10-12 minutes, until tender. Remove the cauliflower from the pot, place in a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, then drain and place in a large mixing bowl.
Add the broccoli to the same pot and cook, uncovered, for 10-12 minutes, until just tender. Remove broccoli from the pot, place in the ice water, then drain and combine with cauliflower in a large bowl. Reserve 1 cup of the vegetable cooking water.
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Heat the milk and vegetable-cooking water in a small pot. In another small pot, add the olive oil and flour, and stir over low heat for a few minutes (to make a roux), but don't let the mixture color. Add the hot milk and stir energetically with a whisk until smooth and creamy. Remove from heat, stir in the cheese, and season with salt and pepper.
Combine the cheese sauce with the broccoli and cauliflower, and transfer to a baking dish (I used a 9x13 ceramic baker), smoothing to a 2-inch layer. Bake 20-25 minutes, until bubbling. Cool for 5 minutes before serving.
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