Italian Cheeses Part I
Asiago To Ricotta
Where would world's cuisine be without the luxurious and decadent cheeses of Italy? It has to be admitted that the world relies heavily on the artisan cheeses produced and imported from our country. Most of us are familiar with some of Italy's everyday cheeses, but there are other varieties of Italian cheese to be discovered, all with an abundance of culinary possibilities.
Made from cow's milk, the Asiago is a firm, cooked and pressed cheese that may be aged for up to two years. Many Asiago cheese makers produce the mild, yet pungent and light-colored delicacy in the valleys of the Dolomites (the eastern-most part of the Italian Alps), especially in the area of Cortina, Italy. Asiago is perfect for shredding, used as a table cheese to complement pasta, traditional risotto or soups, or thinly sliced and served atop a warm, crunchy baguette with fruit.
A semi-soft, almost flesh-colored cheese, this buttery gem is a slightly nutty and mild delight. Valle d'Aosta, located in the very top of north-west Italy, is where it hails from. Fontina is produced with the milk of cows grazing high altitude, Alpine grass. Known for inclusion in gourmet recipes, Fontina is excellent as part of a fondue, as a simple snack and is often used to make rich, creamy risottos and gnocchis.
Named from a town outside Milan where it was originally made, Gorgonzola is basically the Italian version of Blue Cheese. Normally, the Gorgonzola I find in Italy is much creamier than the one I find in the US, where a drier version is preferred. Gorgonzola goes well with pears and grapes, as shown in the image above; it is perfect for your wine and cheese parties and, as all varieties of blue cheese, can be used on salads.
Probably best known as the smooth and luscious highlight of tiramisù, Mascarpone is a triple cream, cow's milk cheese, with a texture often compared to American cream cheese. Mascarpone is a very tender and smooth, yet thick cheese but easy to spread. With a variety of serving possibilities, the traditional tiramisù of ladyfingers, liqueur and mascarpone (although you add eggs to the mascarpone to make the cream) is one of the most popular. This rich, velvety cheese is also excellent lightly sweetened and thinned with a little cream to adorn fresh summer fruit and berries.
Almost everyone has heard of Mozzarella. Yet another cow's milk cheese (although the original is made from water buffalo milk), this is one of a few cheeses that really have two forms of "fresh". True fresh Mozzarella is made from whole cow's milk, formed into balls and typically stored either in water, brine or whey to maintain its sharp white color and freshness. A delightful fresh Mozzarella tasting experience is insalata caprese - a simple combination of fresh Mozzarella, tomato, basil and olive oil. The second form is typically mass-produced as a soft cheese with greater elasticity than true fresh mozzarella. This form usually comes in a block form or pre-shredded.
Alongside Mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano is one of Italy's most famous cheeses. This cow's milk cheese is a subtle blend of many Italian provinces including Parma and Bologna. Typically aged anywhere from 6 to 36 months, Parmigiano Reggiano is superb over fresh pasta or as a snack. Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano will contain a stamp bearing its name on the outer rind of the cheese. It's best to purchase the cheese whole, not grated, to maintain peak freshness and flavor. Most people will toss the rind aside, but the rind contains abundant flavor and culinary options. The flavor of soups and stews can be greatly enhanced with a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano rind.
Cheese made from sheep's milk is known as Pecorino (Pecora means sheep in Italian). If it is aged can be used instead of Parmesan on pasta dishes and is sometimes preferable if a sharper taste is desidered. I use it often on plain fresh Tomato pasta - Costco offers some good grated Pecorino at an economical price. The best known is the Pecorino Romano, other popular Pecorinos are from Tuscany, Sardinia and Sicily. ( See image above )
This mildly smoky cheese is made from cow's milk. For Provolone, enhanced color and flavor come with age, although the cheese may be aged for as few as a month or two, or up to one year. The yellower the color, the riper and more flavorful. With a firm and slightly elastic texture, provolone is an excellent cheese for melting, or on sandwiches.
Used almost exclusively in classic Italian dishes such as lasagna and manicotti, ricotta (Italian for re-cooked) is actually not cheese, by a by-product of other Italian cheeses. The whey from these other cheeses are combined and re-cooked to create ricotta cheese. It has a grainy texture, but is very smooth when used in either savory or sweet dishes. Ricotta cheese is also used in classic Italian cheesecakes.
Take the time to explore the centuries-old creations by Italian cheese makers during your next culinary adventure. Plan a wine and cheese tasting party with your friends or experiment with some new recipes using these flavorful Italian delights, ultimately expanding and broadening your culinary palate.
By Melissa A. Tyson
Additions *** By Paolo Nascimbeni