Monday, July 14, 2008

Bread & Cheese

Now it is true that my approach to food may be a little more intense than most. When I want to research a dish or develop a new recipe, I want to know the history of the food I’m preparing, where its ingredients come from, and how I can make it as close to the original as possible, at least the first time I prepare it. (This gives me a benchmark for future preparations, particularly if I decide to make some changes, which I often do.) My current thinking also encompasses the seasonality of the ingredients and their availability from local sources.

Those that have followed this column over the past few months will have noted that some of the recipes I’ve published are perhaps a little more labor intensive or ingredient rich than they are accustomed to preparing at home. These are my weekend recipes. I prepare a lot of easy meals during the work week as we tend to eat simply prepared meats or fish with a salad most nights, or a pasta with vegetables and/or a protein, a side salad and a piece of fruit, or a soup with salad and some good bread. Really good bread can make a meal!

Rosemary and I are fortunate as our son Asa, a very accomplished chef and baker in his own right, works at Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex, Vt. Asa brings us Red Hen’s artisan, hand-crafted, organic breads when he visits, which is frequently as his clothes need washing every couple of weeks and we have high speed internet access, two essentials for our young man. Red Hen produces what I believe are some of the finest breads in the State of Vermont. We’ve purchased them at the Hanover Coop for many years, so we were delighted when Asa was employed by Red Hen and has quickly moved up to mixing and baking their many varied loaves.

Bread of the quality produced by Red Hen can easily be a focal point of a light dinner. I toast the bread for bruschetta, an appetizer originally developed in Tuscany as a showcase for the new olive oil pressed in the fall. The bread can be toasted on the grill, fried in oil in a sauté pan, or baked in a hot oven until golden brown. While still warm, it is rubbed with a slightly crushed clove of garlic, drizzled with good extra virgin olive oil, and perhaps sprinkled with some coarse salt. Simple and delicious, but the bread is a key factor. Wonder Bread won’t cut it for this dish!

We also like to top bruschetta was Long Wind Farm tomatoes (East Thetford), chopped and seasoned with extra virgin olive oil, chiffonade of fresh basil, salt and pepper. (To chiffonade basil, take the individual leaves, pile them up together, roll up tightly and shred on a diagonal with a chef’s knife. You’ll produce thin slivers of basil for garnish.) A third topping we like is made with white beans (I use cannellini beans, but Great Northern are also good), which have to be soaked overnight and then simmered for about an hour in unsalted water with a clove of garlic until they are soft, but not mushy. I add salt the last few minutes of cooking to season the beans, but adding salt earlier will slow down the beans’ cooking and toughen their skin. After the beans are cooked, I sauté them in olive oil with minced garlic and season them with chopped fresh sage and Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Now a note on the Italian cheeses I use. Parmigianno-Reggiano cheese is the “undisputed king of cheeses,” as Mario Batali is fond of saying. It is nutty, piquant and slightly salty, produced from cows’ milk. It is usually grated, but is delicious in small shards with a drop of aged balsamic vinegar. It is wickedly expensive as it is produced in Parma in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, and is aged from 18 months to 3 years. The cost of transportation to the US, and the current weakness of the American dollar against the euro have increased the domestic price to over $20. a pound. A cheaper alternative is Grana Podano, a Parmigianno-like cheese made outside of Parma but still in Emilia-Romagna. It is also a cows’ milk cheese, but somewhat more muted in flavor than it more famous counterpart as it is usually not aged as long. However, it sells for one half to one third less than Parmigianno-Reggiano, so it is much more affordable. There is also a Argentine produced “parmesan” cheese known as Reggianito which is somewhat salty and no where as nutty as true Parmigianno-Reggianno, but still can be used in dishes where the cheese is incorporated with other ingredients. I prefer the real stuff if I’m grating over pasta, gnocchi or the like. And lastly, Blythedale Farm in Corinth makes their Cookeville Grana in the style of Parmigianno-Reggiano cheese. It is best freshly grated, and is a very acceptable local alternative to the pricier imports. We love Parmigianno-Regianno, but we love local even more.

I also like Pecorino Romano, a sheeps’ milk cheese from Italy, which is salty and sharp in taste, but is a lot less expensive than other imported Italian cheeses. Try a small piece out next time you’re browsing the cheese counter. I think you’ll like it.

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