Sunday, October 6, 2013

Making Real Italian Food in the US

Stumble Upon ToolbarThis is a difficult subject for me because food quality in the US is so far below that of Italy.  I have resorted to the simplest dishes and even that can be a challenge. I researched Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano and found that so many of the stores do not state whether it is real. 

I only trust it if I can see the rind with the stamps embedded. I saw Whole Foods selling what looked like fake Parmigiano with a ton of the heal so you pay mostly for that instead of the heart of the cheese. I have truly ruined pasta dishes with grated "parmigiano" (what I thought was real) and come to find out when i got home that it was just imitation Italian hard cheese created here. This means, Parmigiano should not be used because that is a protected name and the fake stuff needs to fall under the all inclusive name of Parmeasan (does Kraft ring a bell, or is that Crap)?  It is impossible to re-create that cheese here in the States for numerous reasons and, it is not cheap in Italy but at least in Italy there is a choice of types (there also exists Grana Trentino) and aging. If you have ever had the chance to eat 12 month Parmigiano Reggiano,  fresh, tangy and just slightly grainy (amazing for a risotto al Parmigiano... )wow, it makes life difficult here in the land of Paramesans!

Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano emerged thanks to the monks who reclaimed the marshlands of the Pianura Padana maintaining herds of cattle that grazed the fertile meadows. These herds produced an abundance of milk so they used what they needed, and transformed the remainder into a hard cheese that aged very well and in times of need and poverty had a great shelf life.

In that era the cheese was all called Grana, after the cheese's fine grainy texture, though at some point most of the people in the provinces of Emilia Romagna split off from the main body of Grana production, calling their cheese Parmigiano Reggiano. 

Though the production techniques are similar, there are a couple of important differences. Both are made by combining the evening and morning milking in brass vats yet for the Grana Padano, both batches of milk are skimmed, whereas with the Parmigiano only one is skimmed. This makes Grana Padano a little less fatty than Parmigiano Reggiano, which in turn means that Grana Padano matures at a slightly faster rate than Parmigiano. Once the milk batches are combined they are heated to 33 C (about 88 F), the rennet is added and the curds are broken up to the size of a grain of rice. The curds are gathered into a mold (giving the cheese its classic flattened barrel shape) and this is then warmed to drive out some of the water. They are marked with the cheesemaker's marks and stamps, salted, dried and aged, with repeated inspections along the way using the hammer method.

In the end, it takes more than 1100 liters to make a 75-kilo form of cheese (15 liters of milk per kilo of cheese). Grana Padano can be marketed at 9 months, though most producers hold it for 16 or more, whereas Parmigiano can be marketed at 12 months, though most producers have held it for 24 or more.

I am sure you really did not want to read about this but it is critical to understanding why putting fake parmesan on pasta, for those who can discern the difference, makes the pasta experience hugely negative. In fact, one uses less real Parmigiano or Grana in the dishes because they flavor better. So it may cost more but you use less and, most important, it is all real! The regulations on milk production and cheese and cleanliness would knock the USDA health department on it's butt.

OK with that said, or vented, I can begin posting some recipes with American ingredients that might bring the flavor of the old country back to mind.  
Here is a link for buying the real thing. Order Parmigiano