A cook-along with Parmigiano Reggiano brings fun to the kitchen
A cook-along with renowned Italian chef, Gennaro Contaldo, had all the makings of a good evening. Hosted by Parmigiano Reggiano and with Contaldo, the UK brand ambassador at the stove, the evening was to begin with a cheese tasting followed by the cooking of two dishes. The ingredients arrived the day before along with recipe notes. So far, it looked to be very similar to many other cook-alongs now bursting onto our laptops as we cook our way through the pandemic with a multitude of chefs.
Gennaro Contaldo describes himself as a cook not a chef, a cook being someone who brings pleasure to people through food. It is this passion for bringing pleasure that made this cook-along stand out from the crowd. Most of these evenings I have attended over the past months last an hour, some are screened from TV studio kitchens which are sterile places in my view, however styled they are. Not all chefs or food writers know how to engage via camera, they are also learning. Some cook-alongs take place in a restaurant kitchen and once again a chef in whites and gleaming pans does not always make for an inspiring time even though it might if one were sat at a chef’s table dinner.
Contaldo donned a Parmigiano Reggiano apron over his daywear – he looked as if he had just come in from a day in the office – and busied himself in his own home kitchen, filmed by his daughter Chloe. His warmth was infectious and by the end of two and a half hours, I could happily have stayed online watching him peel a sack of potatoes. Contaldo’s cook-along is a masterclass in how to engage viewers in the most natural and engaging way. He chatted, encouraged, waited for people to chop their onions or fix their sage leaves to chicken breasts with a toothpick. He was in no hurry, he enjoyed conversing with his viewers, encouraging us to ask questions. He enjoyed his food with so much gusto, eating spaghetti hungrily in front of the camera, at one point holding his head in his hands from pure pleasure after tasting the sauce. One of the participants wrote in the chat that this was the first time she had eaten a meal with anyone for months. That is the atmosphere that Contaldo brought to our tables, it felt as if we were meeting up with others. By the end of the evening, as I reluctantly clicked on Leave Meeting, I wished I could bubble with the Contaldo family for Christmas.
The atmosphere is only one aspect of a cook-along, after all, we are there to cook too so the food should be good. And it was. We began with a guided tasting of three ages of Parmigiano Reggiano – 18, 24 and 36 months. Our instructor was Simone Ficarelli from the Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano, the body that individually inspects and quality checks every wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano before the rind is given its distinctive, dotted stamp. We were first shown how to cut the cheese which may sound simple, but I realised that I have been doing it the wrong way my whole life. I usually just cut it with a knife if I want a piece to eat with a pear, for example, or grate it if I am cooking. I now realise that Parmigiano Reggiano is supposed to be chunked, bits chiselled off with a specially shaped little knife with which we were provided. This is to enable irregular chunks to reveal the granularity of the cheese. The second mistake I have been making is eating the cheese straight out of the fridge rather than removing it an hour beforehand as it tastes at its best at room temperature.
We were taken through the stages of evaluating Parmigiano Reggiano for colour, texture, smell and finally taste. At 36 months, one can hear the crunch of the salt crystals as one chews. These are formed when the protein in the cheese breaks down into amino acids which crystalise into the white crystals one finds proliferating as the cheese matures. Bubbles go well with the 18-month cheese while a sweet wine like port or vermouth suits the 36-month-old. The latter is a cheese to eat rather than to cook with, it is intensely flavoured, not too salty and very long-lasting in the mouth. I am planning a Parmigiano Reggiano tasting for my Christmas guests this year, by which of course I mean my immediate family.
Once we were up to date with the cheese we had before us it was time to cook. I was fortunate previously to have the opportunity to savour these wonderful cheeses and, during the summer, I baked cheese biscuits with grated Parmigiano Reggiano. It now being autumn, it was a great time to learn to cook two warming dishes.
We began with pasta e fagioli which is a hearty bean and pasta soup made throughout Italy and one of those dishes for which everyone believes that their family has the best recipe. It is also very versatile with the basic beans and pasta welcoming additions of prosciutto, cavalo nero and a range of other bits and pieces you may have in the fridge. It even uses up those rinds of Parmigiano Reggiano that I keep in the freezer to add to soups. Usually, I add them whole which gives a wonderful extra layer of flavour. But here, Contaldo had us cutting them up into small squares. Pasta e fagioli is a bowl of simple nourishment which is so quick to put together that within a half-hour you will be sitting down to a deeply tasty bowl. At the end of the cook-along, Contaldo showed us how to slice a red onion very thinly, temper it briefly in vinegar and place on top of the leftover soup when eating the leftovers. I can’t wait for my lunch hour. One of the benefits of working from home, is having a decent lunch and pasta e fagioli is just the ticket. You can find the recipe at the end of this article. I heartily recommend that you give it a go.
The second dish we cooked is one I have eaten in Italian restaurants, usually made with veal, but never attempted at home. Saltimbocca, meaning ‘jump in the mouth’, is a thin fillet of veal, pork or chicken topped with shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano, a slice of prosciutto and then finally, with sage leaves. A toothpick holds it all in place while the chicken is dipped lightly in flour and then fried briefly in foaming butter.
White wine is added to the sauce, a final knob of butter and all is ready. What jumps into the mouth is a tender fillet with the umami notes of the Parmigiano and the prosciutto, the sweetness of the buttery sauce and the distinctive herbiness of the sage. It is gorgeous and, I now realise, very easy to prepare. Contaldo showed us how to slice a chicken breast into thin fillets and, once I had sharpened my Sabatier, I discovered I could do it too. New skills mastered. What I so appreciated about Contaldo was how down to earth he was. I have no meat mallet so made do with giving my chicken fillets a bash with my rolling pin so as to thin them out. I was amused to see that he did just the same.
After we ate, Contaldo went on to prepare a pasta and prawn recipe for the three pescatarians in the group. I will certainly be giving this a try over the next weeks. In the meantime he chatted away like an old friend with the participants who were all having a great time, eating and drinking glasses of wine in their own kitchens. My reluctance to leave was eased when my husband set out a bottle of port and chunks of 36-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano, allowing our party to continue a little longer. It is starting to feel like Christmas.
Quick pasta and bean soup with Parmigiano Reggiano
- 4 tbsp olive oil extra virgin
- 1/2 red onion finely chopped
- 1 stick celery finely chopped
- 1 medium carrot finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic crushed
- 400 grams Borlotti beans cooked. I used a jar of cooked beans
- 1 litre vegetable stock
- 5 cherry tomatoes halved
- 200 grams mixed pasta shapes I used mini macaroni
- 70 grams Parmigiano Reggiano rinds cut into small cubes
- 25 grams Fresella this is a crispy bread
- 6 thyme sprigs pick off the leaves
Heat the olive oil in a large pot and add the chopped onion, carrot, celery and garlic. Sweat for about 4 minutes.
Stir in the beans - either soaked overnight and pre-cooked or use a jar of cooked beans.
Add stock and tomatoes and bring to the boil, then reduce heat to a simmer for 10 minutes
Increase the heat and add the pasta, then reduce the heat to medium and cook until the pasta is ready.
Remove from the heat and stir in the cubes parmesan rinds and leave to rest for 5 minutes.
In the meantime, combine the crispy bread with the thyme leaves and a drizzle of olive oil.
Ladle the soup into bowls and sprinkle with the crispy bread mixture
For other ideas with Parmesan, check my recipe for Parmesan Biscuits