Big cheese of the month: Parmigiano Reggiano

Welcome to the start of a new series on one of my favourite foods…cheese. This month, in celebration of my trip in the summer to the wonderful Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, I’m starting with Parmesan.

In Parma and the surrounding area you’ll find Parmesan eaten as a starter, in a main course, and as dessert…it’s not just for grating over your pasta! And in some of the markets, the aroma of it is literally in the air! So amazing.

Parmigiano Reggiano (to use its full official name) was first made hundreds of years ago (around 1200) at the Benedictine monasteries in the area between the Po River and the Apennine mountains. It’s special because the milk is produced by cows fed according to strict regulations where certain foodstuffs are forbidden. The cows are milked twice a day and the milk is taken to the cheese house within two hours of each milking.

Then it becomes the responsibility of the cheesemaker – and it’s a serious business with techniques handed down through the centuries as a result of generations of experience.

And you need a lot of milk. 16 litres for 1kg of Parmigiano Reggiano. That’s 550 litres to make one of those big wheels you see. It’s made by hand and aged for a minimum of 12 months. The final result is delicious, creamy, crumbly Parmesan.

It’s a really versatile cheese – so why not be adventurous and try some of these lovely recipes.

Mouthwatering Parmigiano Reggiano

Parmigiano-Reggiano crisp canapés topped with lemon pepper cream and hot smoked salmon

Parmesan crisp canapes

Makes 10 canapés

15ml Crème fraiche

Finely grated zest of one lemon

Fennel seeds, chopped

Grated and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, to serve

½ small fennel bulb

75g Hot smoked salmon, flaked

Salt and black pepper

Crisps

50g Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

1 tbsp plain flour

Grease and line a large baking sheet with greaseproof paper

1 Mix Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and plain flour, along with a good pinch of black pepper.

2 Spoon teaspoon-sized rounds of this mixture onto the baking sheet and flatten slightly with the back of the spoon. The mixture should give 10 crisps, make sure there is plenty of space between each one, as the mixture will spread a little.

3 Place the rounds under a hot grill for 2-3 minutes until the cheese has melted to make a golden brown crisp.

4 Remove each crisp carefully using a pallet knife and leave to cool on greaseproof paper.

5 Mix crème fraiche together with lemon zest and season to taste.

6 To assemble,spoon a small amount of lemon crème fraiche on top of each crisp. Then sprinkle with a few fennel seeds, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese  and finely chopped fennel, before topping with flakes of hot smoked salmon and black pepper.

7 Finally, garnish with sprigs of fresh fennel and serve

Cook’s tip: Make things easy for yourself and prepare ahead. Both the crisps and lemon cream can be made in the morning, just keep the crisps in an air-tight container and refrigerate the cream

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and asparagus tart

Parmesan and asparagus tart

Serves 2

2 10x20cm puff pastry rectangles

1 egg, beaten

2 tbsp green pesto

30g shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus extra to serve

4 tbsp mascarpone cheese

6 asparagus spears

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

2tbsp grated Parmgiano-Reggiano cheese

Torn basil leaves, to serve

Salt and black pepper

1 Preheat the oven to 200°C.

2 Place the pastry rectangles on a greased baking sheet and carefully score lines 1cm away from the pastry edges with a sharp knife. Prick the inner rectangle with a fork and brush with beaten egg.

3 Spread a thin layer of pesto all over the base of the inner rectangle and top with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and small spoonfuls of mascarpone cheese.

4 Blanche the asparagus spears for 1 minute in boiling salted water, drain, and place 3 spears across each tart.

5 Sprinkle a little lemon zest and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano over each tart and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden brown and risen.

6 Serve the tarts with shaved Parmgiano-Reggiano and freshly torn basil leaves.

Open lasagne of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, prawns and baby squid with lemon and basil pesto dressing

Open lasagne with Parmesan and seafood

Serves 2

100g raw tiger prawns

150g calamari rings and tentacles

Zest and juice of ½ lemon

1 tbsp olive oil

6 x 10cm2 sheets fresh lasagne

½ fennel bulb, finely chopped

Salt and black pepper

White sauce

50g butter

1 tbsp plain flour

300ml milk

1 tbsp crème fraiche

50g Parmigano-Reggiano cheese, grated

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

Walnut and basil pesto dressing

2 tbsp roughly chopped basil

45g chopped walnuts

Finely grated zest of ½ lemon

4tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp roughly chopped parsley

1 garlic clove, crushed

25g grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 Marinate the seafood in the zest and juice of ½ lemon, 1 tbsp olive oil, salt and black pepper.

2 Meanwhile, blend together all the ingredients for the pesto and season well to taste.

3 For the sauce, melt the butter over a gentle heat and whisk in the flour. Gradually add the milk, whisking continuously until the sauce thickens. Whisk in the crème fraiche, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and lemon zest.  Season to taste.

4 Cook the lasagne sheets in boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes and then keep warm.

5 Place the seafood and fennel on a hot griddle for 2 minutes, or until cooked.

6 To assemble, spoon a little white sauce onto the centre of each plate and top with a sheet of lasagne. Add more white sauce and top with seafood and fennel, followed by some walnut pesto. Repeat this layering process with another sheet of lasagne. Finally, top with another sheet of lasagne and drizzle over more pesto and drizzle over a small amount of olive oil before serving

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