Friday, June 3, 2011

Italian Cheeses

In Italy, food is culture. It is part of the history of the Country as well as the Italian lifestyle. Italy is a place with sophisticated taste. One of the most famous types of food in Italy is fresh Italian cheeses. There is nothing like an authentic savory Italian cheese, paired with some sweet juicy fruit and a glass of Chianti wine. If you try Italian cheeses just once, I promise that you will fall in love forever.

My Grandfather Julius
my Dad's father
Some of my readers will remember that in a past story, I talked about my Dad and when he owned the Italian Deli in Astoria, NY. When I was young I would go to the deli on weekends and help my father. Remember, I was young maybe about 12 or so. It was always fun to help stock some of the shelves and whatever I could do to help out at my young age. My grandfather was also part owner and I enjoyed going to the “store” to be with him as well. My grandfather Julius (my Dad’s father) was a very gentle and loving gentleman. He always tried to make you laugh and was a very handsome man. He sported a small thin pencil like mustache and his dark hair was slicked back. He was quiet but if you asked him a question about sports or the weather he was your man. My grandpa would always listen to his transistor radio with earplugs in his ears not to disturb anyone and was never without a newspaper. He worked behind the counter and never really used the cash register. My grandfather would add up all the items as he wrote them on a paper bag, (no plastic bags, only paper at that time) and would come up with the exact figure. My Dad was also a math wiz and would amaze me when he added the total amount of the customers order. Sometimes there might be about 15-20 items or more and they would just use their heads, no calculator just great math skills. I always envied them. Now, as you walked in the Italian Deli, you can’t help smell the aromas of all the Italian cheeses hanging from the ceiling. Big round ones, long ones and small ones were all hanging on hooks with ropes next to the salami’s and prosciutto's. It was a wonderful sight and as you looked all around some of the cheeses were opened in the window cases so you can see the inside and possibly ask for a sample of these mouth-watering tasty cheeses. So, as you can see I grew up with these cheeses and I am very proud to have been in a family that enjoys this culture and celebrates its tradition. The month of June is National Cheese month, and June 4, 2011 is National Cheese Day, so let’s travel together to Italy and explore the many types of truly authentic Italian Cheeses that are indispensable for adding delicious flavors to the many dishes of the Italian culture.
My Grandfather Julius and myself at
my grandfathers' 75th Birthday
There are about 400 types of Italian cheeses, too many to mention so I would love to share with you 5 of the more popular Italian cheeses that are used today.

Mozzarella: is made from Buffalo milk in southern Italy (Campania region) and has a taste that is mild and delicate. It is now made world wide from cow’s milk. Its texture is soft and chewy. Mozzarella is the key ingredient in Italian pizza and lasagna, it can also be fried in a stick shape which is a popular appietizer in some restaurants.

Ricotta: is a traditional, creamy mild whey cheese made from cow’s or sheep’s milk. It is white and moist but not sticky. Ricotta should be firm, but not solid. It is primarily used in lasagna, can be used as a white pizza and is widely used in many other Italian specialty dishes. (I love it just plain on a slice of toast)

Mascarpone: is a soft, white, fresh, vegetarian, cream cheese made in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy. In fact, it really is not considered a cheese at all, but rather the result of a culture being added to the cream skimmed off the milk, used in the production of Parmesan. It has a mild flavor and it is used as a substitute for whipped cream. It is spreadable and it is added to famous Italian desserts, sometimes accompanied by cognac. Mascarpone is the secret of a good Tiramisu recipe.

Parmesan: is named after the town of Parma in Northern Italy. Parmesan or Parmigiano Reggiano is one of the world’s most popular and widely enjoyed cheeses, also known as the King of undisputed cheeses. It is a traditional, unpasteurized, hard cheese made from cow’s skimmed milk. It is generally aged for 2-3 years. It has a sharp, salty, and full flavor. It comes in the shape of a drum with a sticky hard, yellow rind. The aroma is sweet and fruity, and it is ivory or pale yellow in color. Parmigiano Reggiano is primarily a grating cheese used as toppings for soups, pasta dishes, salads and also can be used for chicken or veal. This cheese is sold in chunks or wedges and then can be grated or shaved.

Pecorino: is the name given to all Italian cheeses made from sheep’s milk. Pecora in Italian means sheep and it is one of Italy’s oldest cheeses. Pecorino Romano is the name given to cheeses from the Rome area, Pecorino Sardo is from Sardinia, Pecorino Siciliano is from Sicily. Also known as Locatelli which is the brand name of Pecorino Romano. It is a traditional creamery, hard, drum cheese made from sheep’s milk. The smooth hard rind is pale straw to dark brown in color. The interior color is white to pale yellow. It takes 8 to 12 months to mature, during which time it develops its characteristic flavor which is salty, with a fruity tang that becomes steadily more robust. Pecorino is a very tasty product and it is used in recipes like baked ravioli, grated or shaved in sauces and on pasta dishes.
As I mentioned above, these cheeses can be paired with a wonderful Chianti wine. Chianti Classicos (Riserva) is best when accompanied by food, with a tomato base such as spaghetti and meatballs to chicken cacciatore or even osso bucco. This wine has become much more popular and available in wine stores and restaurants. Chianti has an aroma of cherries and plums and some even say violets. The best wines have a slight spiciness and even a touch of saltiness. If you haven’t tried Chianti for a while or never have had the pleasure of tasting a glass please go to your favorite wine store and savor this complex, Italian red wine. Find a place for Chianti at your table and you’ll be glad that you did!

So enjoy your cheeses with your bottle of Chianti wine and as we say in Italian,
“Gustare il formaggio e il vino” (enjoy your cheese and wine)

This weekend’s recipe celebrates a lovely refreshing dish made with Mozzarella Cheese, called:

Insalata Caprese (salad in the style of Capri)

Ingredients:1 pound of fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced ¼ inch thick
2-3 large vine-ripened tomatoes, sliced ¼ inch thick
Fresh basil leaves (about 10)
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons of drained capers (optional)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Directions:In a circular design around the side of a serving plate, alternate fresh mozzarella slices on a large platter with sliced tomatoes, overlapping for effect. Tear fresh basil leaves and sprinkle liberally over the slices. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Sprinkle capers over the top if using them. Just before serving
Drizzle on top with quality extra-virgin olive oil.

Note: Insalata Caprese should never be allowed to sit in oil for any length of time and become soggy, and no vinegar of any kind goes on true Insalata Caprese!
Can be served with Italian bread and an array of other appetizers. Enjoy !!!

Till next time……..
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