Mozzarella

Fresh mozzarella is hot. Restaurants from coast to coast are featuring fresh mozzarella in just about every way you can imagine. Some restaurants are going so far as to set up mozzarella bars or stations, which allows them to make fresh mozzarella from scratch throughout the dinner hour. That freshly made mozzarella is then used in various ways on pizza, pasta and in salads.

Those restaurants not making mozzarella from scratch are buying quality mozzarella that is ready to go, and using it in the similar ways. The versatility of this cheese knows no bounds.

Mozzarella is made from either cow’s milk (in this country) or from water buffalo milk (mozzarella di bufala) in Italy. Mozzarella is known as a pasta filata cheese (cheese made by stretching the curds into strands or ropes, then molding them; hence the name, since the Italian verb “mozzare” means to tear off or twist). Small balls are called either bocconcini or cilegine (little cherries).

Once you get the hang of it, making your own fresh mozzarella from curds is rather simple. The basic ingredients are fresh mozzarella curds, salt, hot water and ice water. The process goes something like this

• Cube the curds and put them in a large bowl.

• Bring salted water to a simmer (about 160 F)

• Gradually pour the salted water over curds.

• Allow the curds to sit in the water for about 5 minutes. Now start kneading the curds (the water is hot, so rubber gloves are needed), pulling and stretching it as you go.

• Add more hot water as the water cools down. Form the cheese into balls or logs or various shapes.

• Immerse the balls of cheese into ice water. Drain that water. Store the finished cheese in fresh, cool salted water in the cooler. The cheese will keep up to two weeks.

Not everybody wants to go through this process (though it is very exciting to make your own mozzarella), so using fresh mozzarella from a quality maker gives you the same opportunity for featuring this versatile cheese in any number of ways on your menu.

One of the finest and most flavorful uses for fresh mozzarella is in a classic salad known as insalata alla Caprese (in the style of Capri). A ball of mozzarella is sliced into rounds (each round is about 1/2-inch thick). Layer the rounds of cheese on a plate with a slice of dead ripe beefsteak tomato between each slice of cheese, overlapping the slices. Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over the cheese and tomatoes. Next sprinkle a chiffonade of fresh basil over the plate.

When using fresh mozzarella on pizza, go easy. If you put too much cheese on the pizza it will cause the pizza to be soupy (fresh mozzarella melts quite a bit differently from regular mozzarella).

Use fresh mozzarella in a pasta dish. Here is a tasty and easy recipe:

Yield: 4 servings.

Cook 1 pound of rigatoni until al dente. Drain and set aside. Render about 1/4 pound of finely chopped pancetta in a large sauté pan. Add extra-virgin olive oil and crushed garlic to the pan. Cook and stir for 2 minutes. Add 3 cups chopped and crushed plum tomatoes to the pan. Simmer until the sauce has reduced (about 25 minutes). Add the cooked pasta to the sauce, followed by 1/2 pound finely chopped fresh mozzarella. Toss to melt the mozzarella just slightly (the cheese will take on an elegant stringiness). Serve at once.

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