Meet the Real Parmesan

More home cooks are opting for the real Parmesan cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, in place of the grated store-bought, knock-off, sawdust version shaken out of a cardboard canister.

Chefs, cooks, and food enthusiasts all sing the praises of this cheese, long steeped in tradition in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. Its flavor is irresistibly pungent, and it adds a wonderful punch to just about any salad or starch.

Cooking instructor Pamela Sheldon Johns devoted a cookbook to the beloved cheese, aptly titled "Parmigiana!" (Ten Speed Press, $17.95). She offers these tips:

"When buying in chunks, as most of us do, shop at a supplier with a high turnover. Ask for a cheese that has been freshly opened. Take a good look at it; it should not have holes or appear dried out, rubbery, or oily, and it should flake when chipped. Try to buy pieces with rind, not just for identification, but also because the rind helps to keep the cheese from drying out too fast. Never buy the cheese grated. Grating exposes cheese to the air, which robs it of flavor rather quickly. Grate only as you need it....

"Once a cheese is open, it will retain its best flavor for 1 month if stored properly. To do so, wrap the cheese in parchment paper, then in plastic or aluminum foil and refrigerate. If the cheese begins to dry out, wrap it in a moist towel for a day in the refrigerator, then remove the towel and rewrap the cheese in parchment and plastic. Do not freeze Parmigiano-Reggiano."


'As a table cheese, grated fresh over piping hot food, or simply wedged in jagged shards to nibble on, Parmigiano - Reggiano rules!'

1/2 pound asparagus (about 18 spears)

18 two-inch slivers of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

6 paper-thin slices prosciutto di Parma, chilled

Rinse the asparagus and cut off the root end. Trim the base lightly with a vegetable peeler. To blanch, drop in boiling salted water for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus, until crisp-tender. Drain and immediately immerse in ice water to stop the cooking. When cool, drain and pat dry.

With a very sharp knife, cut the chilled prosciutto into 1-inch-wide strips.

Bundle together a sliver of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a spear of asparagus and bind them with a strip of prosciutto. Repeat with remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano and asparagus. Arrange on a tray for passing.

Serves 6

- From 'Parmigiano!' by Pamela Sheldon Johns

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