Hot Cheeses

Recently I dropped in on a wine and cheese festival in Wisconsin. Several cheese producers were exhibiting their wares, so (naturally) I did some sampling, and chatted a bit with those manning the booths. I asked about a particular pizza cheese that is becoming quite popular in restaurants that are doing classic pizzas in the style of Naples (Pizza Napoletana). The cheese in question is provola. Provola is a cousin to Provolone (a large provola is provolone). To put it another way, provola is smoked mozzarella (provola affumicato). Mozzarella is a pasta filata cheese, as is provolone, so the processing steps are similar.

Provola is one hot cheese and it is gaining status fast, so I was amazed when neither of the gentlemen manning that cheese booth ever heard of this great cheese. Great? I predict that provola will be THE hot cheese in the coming months. I have been using provola in a number of ways, but no way is better than when I use it in conjunction with fresh mozzarella to fashion an authentic Margherita pizza. In fact, provola is used extensively in pizzerias in Naples. Take my word for it. So what if you can’t find provola? Answer: use aged provolone. It will boost the flavor of your pizza by leaps and bounds. Caution: a little bit of aged provolone goes a long way, and it is not to everyone’s taste, so use it judiciously.

Gorgonzola is my choice for the next-in-line hot cheese in the year ahead. Widely distributed from coast to coast (most of the domestic Gorgonzola production comes from Wisconsin and California), I can tout Gorgonzola as a pizza cheese (blended with, say, mozzarella) — but a stronger application is to use it as an add-on in a salad along with ripe pears (see recipe below). The earthy and tangy flavor of this blue cheese offers a pleasing taste counterpoint to the pears. Some cheese processors are packaging Gorgonzola crumbles, which makes it quite easy to sprinkle it over a salad.

Gorgonzola also steps up to the plate and hits it off with customers when used as part of an antipasto plate. I like to pair it with roasted red peppers, olives, capers, and anchovies, along with a light drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Next, lets take a look at mascarpone (mahs-kar-POH-neh). There are countless ways to use this outstanding cow’s milk cheese (actually mascarpone is not a cheese in the sense that no starter or rennet is used in its production), which is the guiding taste ingredient in a properly made tiramisu. Though similar to cream cheese in texture (and often mascarpone is referred to as a cream cheese) it is worlds apart in taste. Mascarpone has a fat content that ranges from 70 to 75 percent, so count the riches of this great cheese.

Other than its proper place in tiramisu, I like to use mascarpone in pasta dishes. For example, swirl just a tablespoon of mascarpone in a marinara sauce and you will be amazed at how beautifully it cuts some of the acidity in the tomatoes. Mascarpone is one of the “secret” ingredients in penne alla vodka (again, just a small amount worked into the pasta and sauce in a sauté pan works wonders).

Another delicious way in which to use mascarpone is to serve it with fresh fruit for a light dessert. Combine equal amounts of mascarpone, ricotta (make sure the ricotta is drained of any excess water) and sugar, to taste. Whip the mixture gently to a cream smoothness. Layer the mascarpone with sliced fresh strawberries or fresh blueberries in a sundae glass. Add a sprig of fresh mint on top, and you have a fine looking, fine-tasting dessert.

Two more cheeses that I see in the hot bin for this year are Asiago and fontina. I have been touting these two cheeses for years. Either cheese can be blended with mozzarella for pizza, or as part of a four-cheese pasta dish; however, because these two cheeses are so unique, I like to use them as part of a cheese or antipasto tray. I am not high on either one for blending for pizza cheeses, but when it comes to straight out eating both of these cheeses are excellent. That said, I lean in favor of fontina, which can be used as a panini cheese with great effect. Another way that I use fontina is to sandwich it between two lightly pounded boneless chicken breasts, followed by a quick sauté in butter and olive oil.

Classic Pizza Margherita
Yield: One 14-inch pizza

14-inch pizza shell
6 ounces all-purpose ground tomatoes or tomato puree
6 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced
2 ounces grated provola or mild provolone
Fresh basil leaves

Ladle the tomatoes over the stretched pizza shell. Evenly distribute the mozzarella slices over the tomatoes. Sprinkle the grated provola evenly over the mozzarella. After the pizza has been baked, arrange the fresh basil leaves over the melted cheeses. Serve at once.

Insalata con Gorgonzola e Pere
Yield: 6 servings (Scale up in direct proportion)

Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ (one-fourth) cup balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, peeled, chopped
¼ teaspoon salt

Combine the ingredients in a glass jar and shake to combine. Let set while assembling the salads. Strain the dressing to get rid of the garlic.

12 ounces young salad greens (mesclun)
3 cups peeled, diced pears (Comice would be a good choice)
6 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
1 cup pine nuts, toasted
Balsamic vinaigrette dressing

Arrange the salad greens on six chilled plates. Distribute an equal amount of the pear and the Gorgonzola over the greens. Sprinkle an equal amount of the pine nuts over each serving. Drizzle an equal amount of the dressing over each salad.

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