The joys of bel paese and fontina are but a small part of my cheese memories. My long love affair with cheese stretches back to infancy and has only grown over the years. Along the way I have also found a soft spot for Mexican and French cheeses, but nothing compares to the way that Italian cheeses have been intertwined in my food memories.
Mozzarella is probably the most popular Italian cheese to have achieved mainstream culinary success in the U.S. My memories of mozzarella go back to sitting in a high chair, desperately trying to make myself understood to adults while snacking on sticky cubes of mozzarella, dropping a few to the dog. She understood.
When I started school, I was lactose intolerant for several years. Fortunately, that intolerance did not extend to cheese. My mother packed plastic wrapped packages of mozzarella string cheese and cream cheese and black olive sandwiches. String cheese was always highly coveted by the other kids at school -- who can resist playing with food? The tender, tasty threads of cheese always made a satisfying addition to my bag lunches.
String cheese was always highly coveted by the other kids at
school -- who can resist playing with food?
Hot lunches, on the other hand, required a suspense of disbelief and surrender of control over one's diet which I couldn't readily face. I hated hot dogs. One afternoon I was nearly in tears at the the thought of a hot dog in my hot lunch. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by my first "cheese zombie." This surreal concoction of California public school cafeterias looks like an unsliced hotdog bun with a chunk of mozzarella inside that was melted when the lunches are warmed. Warm bread and cheese was a definite step up from most public school lunches.
At the end of grade school, my family relocated to the midwest. I had the pleasure of attending and participating in the big parties my stepdad's Italian-American family loved to throw for holidays, birthdays, graduations, weddings or good weather.
Even the teenagers, hiding out in the far corners of the house to sneak cigarettes would show up
in time as enormous casseroles of homemade lasagna were extracted from the searing heat of the overworked oven.
These parties were big in every way -- lots of people,lots of food. Huge trays of thin slices of mozzarella, provolone, beef, turkey, and ham rolled into tubes were garnished with olives and gardinieri. Inevitably someone would return with freshly baked sheet pizzas -- dripping with red sauce and melted mozzarella.
Even the teenagers, hiding out in the far corners of the house or basement to sneak cigarettes would show up in time as enormous casseroles of homemade lasagna -- oozing ricotta and tomato sauce over the lip of the aluminium tray and curling up the edge of the wide noodles sprinkled with melting parmesan and bubbling mozzarella -- were extracted from the searing heat of the overworked oven.
The memories of homemade lasagna bring to mind an important lesson learned early about ricotta: NEVER substitute cottage cheese. No matter what your mother says about her sister's lasagna ("Really, it tastes better"), don't ever do that to your children. Or your dog.
I never really appreciated ricotta fully until I made lasagna in my own kitchen. Deriving the perfect balance of cheeses in this casserole is not as easy as it might seem -- the sauce and the mozzarella can easily overpower the delicate, creamy flavor of the ricotta. Ricotta provides an essential texture to the dish which has no substitute.
I will never forgive my parents for depriving me of the joy of the sharp taste of aged parmesan, substituting the crumbled, tasteless fluff that passes for "grated" parmesan. You know the culprit -- it's in a tall green paper can from Kraft. The "American" cheese company.
For a couple of years after I moved out of my parents' house, I suffered the inadequacies of mass packaged, powdery parmesan wanna-be cheese product. My departure from the Midwest, coincided with a rise in mass-packaged, shredded parmesan -- a fresher and more palatable option than the previously mentioned variety. In New Orleans grocery stores, in addition to crawfish and Tony Chachere's seasonings, I also discovered vacuum wrapped parmesan wedges. This stuff was infinitely better than what I had been eating and I found more and more uses for parmesan in my kitchen. Moving out to the West Coast -- a veritable cheese mecca -- I discovered better and tastier parmesan, facing heavy competition from other cheeses. My favorite restaurant selections are salads with flakes of thinly shaved parmesan on salads and room temperature wedges with fresh fruit.
I suffered the inadequacies of mass packaged,
powdery parmesan wanna-be cheese product.
Asiago was always my father's favorite treat. 25 years ago, the Olive Oil Factory in St. Helena was the only Italian import store in the Napa Valley, maybe even the Bay Area. There, we would provision for our family picnics at Jack London Park and Sugar Loaf. The dark, mysterious shop in an old barn smelled of cheeses, strung with dried salami and other meats, packed with pasta and wines.
...sources of good asiago are not as scarce as they were when I was a child in Napa.
I faithfully maintain this tradition. Thankfully sources of good asiago are not as scarce as they were when I was a child growing up in Napa. Nothing beats sitting in Jack London Park on a hill with some fresh sourdough bread, asiago, dried persimmons, and wine. My favorite lunch consists of nothing more than tender aged asiago, fresh baguette and dried apricots or peaches.
Provolone that I have bought in the U.S. often has a similar texture and flavor to mozzarella. Provolone available outside the U.S. is completely different.
I have yet to encounter my favorite preparation of provolone in the U.S. Five years ago, while I was living in Mexico, some friends took me to an Argentine restaurant. I protested -- I don't eat meat and this restaurant specialized in steaks, seared in a wood-burning oven. My friends prevailed and I was treated to "provoletta" -- a thick round of provolone smeared with olive oil and fresh herbs, seared in the same fashion as the steaks. The provoletta arrived at my table crispy-chewy on the outside and bubbling on the inside, with fresh baguette and vegetables.
I have yet to encounter my favorite preparation of provolone
Needless to say, I repeated this experience as frequently as I could afford. Who could resist such a rich and tasty indulgence? Juan Carlos, a veterinarian friend who made housecalls, claimed that the provoletta was too rich for one person to eat all by himself, especially at night. He claimed it gave him nightmares one night after he ate a whole provoletta by himself... eat at your own risk!
Returning to California after graduate school, I discovered my next love: gorgonzola. Ah, the joys of gorgonzola -- pungent, creamy blue-green veined crumbles to make any salad a special meal. Every menu in San Francisco seems to feature some sort of salad with the serendipitously combination of candied walnuts, gorgonzola and pears. Somehow this always ends up on my restaurant bill.
Another important restaurant discovery -- marscapone -- cheesecake to die for. I've never had marscapone in any other preparation and as long as I can occasionally have marscapone cheesecake, I don't care. The rich, creamy, incredibly satisfying fatteningness of this dessert is second to none. When I splurge -- I do it right.
The most recent Italian cheese to be added to my memories is pecorino. During a whirlwind trip to Italy last fall, I followed the advice in a guidebook and purchased some locally produced fresh pecorino. This soft, tender slab of creamy white cheese bore little, if any, resemblance to the dried, tasteless "pecorino romano" available in U.S. supermarkets. The etto of fresh pecorino we bought in Barberino Val d'Elsa was sweet, softer than mozzarella and gone in half an hour (along with most of the bread).
Later that warm September afternoon, we snacked on aged pecorino served covered with shredded romaine and drizzled with honey proved an unbeatable snack in a street cafe in Siena. The firm texture and nutty flavor was perfectly complemented by the honey and chianti.
I'm still learning more about quality differences cheeses. The best way to learn about cheese is to go to Italy. The second best way is to go to the a really good Italian import shop and taste them. Talk to someone who knows and pick the stuff you like!
. . .
Jennifer Accettola knows how to program her VCR and exercises 5 days a week to keep the formaggio from turning her legs into cottage cheese.