Rack upon rack of golden wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the iconic images of Italy’s contribution to great food . The cheese, which originates from the region of Emilia Romagna, is rightly celebrated for its versatility – as a garnish when grated over a steaming bowl of pasta, as a star turn on an antipasto or cheese board, its salty sweetness more than holding its own against more robust meats or blue cheeses, or incorporated in a salad, its characteristics contrasting beautifully with summer fruits such as peach or pear.
Symbolic of the cheese is the stencilling around the circumference of the skin, line after line of the dotted vertical inscription ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ proclaiming it to be the authentic product emanating from the consorzio (manufacturers’ association), and protected under European law.
All too often it is this part of the cheese that ends up in the refuse, unwanted and unloved, sharing its final moments with the rest of the bin liner’s contents. But it doesn’t have to be this way because the skin, sometimes referred to as the rind, still has much to contribute to a great many dishes if only the thrifty cook would give it the chance to display its qualities.
Take, for example, a suitably comforting autumnal or winter braise. Along with whatever the cook adds in terms of herbs or spices and stock, the cooking liquor will need some seasoning to lift the dish to a new level. The obvious answer is to reach for the salt and pepper, but it should be remembered that there is plenty of sodium residing within the skin of the Parmigiano – and a milky, subtle dose of sodium at that, which cannot be achieved with a few simple twists of the grinder.
So what to do with it? Simple – just let the piece slip into the liquid, allowing it to bathe and release its unique qualities. The heat will suck up and absorb those qualities, and when the braise has reduced to perfection both in terms of texture and taste, it is then a simple case of fishing out what remains of the parmigiano skin.
The same approach can be used when making a sauce to accompany broccoli and orecchiette. One of the great aspects of the dish is that no part of the vegetable goes to waste. Once the florets have been removed and reserved for immersing in the boiling pasta water when the time comes to finish off the dish, the stalk is placed on the cutting board and finely chopped. The stalk is then combined with some chilli, anchovies and a clove or two of chopped garlic. This mix is then sautéed for a minute or two in a skillet before adding a half inch or so of water. This will help create a wonderful sauce that will bring the various elements of the dish together.
It is at this point that the parmesan skin comes into play – just sit it in the centre of the bubbling liquor and allow it to infuse its salty deliciousness into the rest of the sauce’s constituent parts. In these times of austerity, what can be better than humble ingredients such as Parmigiano rind and a broccoli stalk combining with such devastating effect? You will find that this is very much reflected on the palate when sampling the finished dish.
As well as having much to contribute in terms of taste, the Parmigiano skin can also contribute to the visual impact of a dish, simply by placing it in the centre of, say an antipasto or cheese course. The iconic stencilling will act as a signpost to the quality of the plated products on offer. It can literally be a conversation piece, providing any proud host with the opportunity to educate their guests to what those stencilled letters mean in terms of the Italian table and, thereby, helping spread the message as wide as possible as to the characteristics and qualities of the cheese.
Whatever use a cook puts their Parmigiano skin to, sadly at the end of the cooking process, it has to be consigned to the refuse. However, there should be no guilt attached to flipping open the pedal bin because the cook has utilised the product to the full. Remember, too, that the end of one piece of Parmigiano is the signal to go out and purchase another.
This investment, multiplied by thousands upon thousands of households around the world, is the lifeblood of the artisans whose job it is to produce the cheese and safeguard its integrity. It will also ensure that generations of food lovers to come will not be denied the opportunity to sample its sensational taste.