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On olive oil and cheese… and how to buy

Wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano from a trip to Parma.

I’ve mentioned before that I am from an Italian family that, as you might imagine, cares a LOT about food. Food to me is more than just fuel — I also want it to be an experience. I believe that creating the best dish possible also means using high quality ingredients. And while most all of the recipes here feature foods that are easy to find and relatively inexpensive, there are a couple ingredients that I’d encourage you to invest a bit more time and money into acquiring:

  1. Perhaps most importantly, use good quality extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) goes into so many of my recipes — and I promise you they will turn out better if you invest a bit in a high quality bottle. You don’t need to break the bank, but this isn’t an item that I recommend buying based on lowest available price.

    If the idea of sorting through the supermarket shelf for a great EVOO gives you a headache, you can narrow your search by choosing an oil that comes in a dark container that is not plastic. Dark containers are better because they prevent most light and heat from entering the bottle, which will keep the oil fresh for longer. Plastic can also react with the oil in a way that makes it goes rancid more quickly, so buy glass or tin if you can. (I learned this and many other things from Giada De Laurentiis.)

    Extra virgin olive oil is unrefined, meaning it’s not treated with chemicals or temperature. It has the most intense flavor and color of available olive oils, and is also incredibly heart-healthy. Some chefs recommend using a lower quality olive oil for high-heat cooking because EVOO can burn more easily than other oils and some of the flavor can be lost during an intense cooking process. But if you’re buying good but not insanely expensive EVOO (and not cooking in an industrial kitchen!), this consideration probably won’t come into play as much. Save any super fancy olive oil for topping and dressing, but don’t be afraid to cook with a good oil.

  2. When buying “parmesan” cheese, buy Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is the good stuff. Of course, it’s more expensive than a nondescript block of parmesan or a bottle of the pre-grated stuff in the green container, but it’s worth every cent. Parmigiano-Reggiano is made only in a select number of cities in Italy (including Parma and Reggio-Emilia, from where the name comes). The production method is far different from other cheeses that go by the similar name, “parmesan.” The technique results in the nutty, fruity, gritty cheese that tastes so good on top of your pasta at authentic Italian restaurants. On the other hand, generic parmesans often contain fillers and just don’t boast the same flavor or texture. There are a few exceptions to this rule. For example, if you’re making a pizza recipe that requires cheese in the dough, you probably don’t need to spring for the expensive stuff. But I still recommend keeping a block on hand!

    It can sometimes be hard to parse out the real deal among all the parmesans at the grocery store. The rind should be a dark tan color and will have “Parmigiano Reggiano” stamped all over it. (Once you’ve enjoyed and grated your Parmigiano down to the rind, save and freeze it! You can use the rind later on to flavor soup, broth, and sauce. Yum.)

I will now step off my soapbox and let you get back to cooking.

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