Ingredient Swaps: Parmesan

5 minutes

November 1985. We’re in a small suburb about 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh, PA. There’s a cold rain falling and it’s already dark at 5 PM. That’s OK, though, because it’s Wednesday, and that can only mean one thing. It’s spaghetti night.

The menu for this weekly festivity includes a jar of name brand “spaghetti sauce,” a box of dried noodles, and … the pièce de résistance … grated parmesan cheese. We’re talking here about the old-school cardboard canister with the aluminum ring on the bottom that clinked when it hit the table. Remember that? Oh right, and buttered white sandwich bread bread for dunking in the sauce.

Not the same fare as you’d find at the trendy Osteria in your city, you say? Touché. But let’s be clear on three key contextual points:

1. I come from a cultural melange of English, German, Dutch and Irish ancestry. 23andMe tells me that I’m about one percent Italian, and that fact, at least in my childhood, did not equate to Nonna showing me how to twist gnocchi during afternoons in her sun-drenched kitchen;

2. This particular dinner scenario takes place in the age of processed food, when there was universally very little understanding of the repercussions of a manufactured diet. The convenience dining phenomenon that came on the scene with the oven ding of a TV dinner when my folks were kids had by the mid-80s blossomed into a full-blown culinary norm, taking up its mantle as the standard American diet of the time;

3. We’re looking here at a weeknight dinner in a home with two working parents and three growing kids. For my hardworking mom, these dinners were quick, inexpensive, and most importantly to her, kept our little bellies full and little bodies nourished.

In the light of current nutritional knowledge, we could talk a lot about each one of these Spaghetti Night components (not to mention the beef that went into the occasional indulgence of meatballs), but today I’m focusing on the cheese. And why? Because there’s are big, big differences between that can of cheese food and the real thing.

What kinds of differences, you ask? How about wood pulp? Yep. According to a 2016 independent report by Bloomberg, which incorporated findings from FDA research on the topic, wood pulp and cellulose have been incorporated by several well-known brands as fillers into their Parmesan cheese products. Now, to be clear, use of cellulose is legal in the U.S., and it is commonly used as an anti-clumping agent, among other things. However, ratios of wood to cheese have come into question, and litigation has spawned due to manufacturers’ advertising of these products as 100% cheese. Not for nothing, if 2% of the content of my cheese is wood, it ain’t 100% cheese. And we haven’t even broached the topic of preservatives.

And even if the product in your pantry or fridge is 100% cheese, it’s not necessarily all parmesan cheese. The FDA also found that some brands advertised as parmesan contained Swiss, mozzarella, cheddar and other varieties in the mix. Regardless of whether or not you’re a “wood chip in your cheese” aficionado, not all of us have a relationship with dairy that gives equal affection to both hard and soft cheeses. They act on the body in different ways, and we should know what we’re getting.

So what’s a ravenous pasta fan supposed to do? This is where the mantra I love, courtesy of Michael Pollan, again comes into play: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In this case, the focal point is that first sentence. Eat food. The closer it is to its natural elements, the better. For Parmigiano Reggiano, the noble namesake of this cheese varietal, that means we seek out just the cheese–the product of a millennium-old process involving cow’s milk, whey, rennet (which is a whole ‘nother conversation, I realize), salt, and time. No preservatives, no extraneous cheese subtypes, and no tree parts.

Yes, natural parmigiano comes in a wedge versus a ready to shake canister. But it’s easy enough to shred with a hand grater at dinner time, bulk shred in a food processor, or, for a little bit more out of the change purse, purchase pre-shredded in the deli section of your grocery store. Yes, you will pay more for a wedge of good natural parmagiano than you will for the canister or shaker-bound stuff, but keep in mind that you get a heck of a lot of grated cheese out of that hunk without a hefty canister to recycle afterward, plus you get the glorious parmesan rinds that make minestrone soup into a rhapsodic experience (props to the cheesemonger at Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Macaroni Company for that jewel of a tip).

Finally, and not unimportantly, there’s the beauty of a natural parmigiano. I mean, just look at it. Flaky and delicate, those little crystals sparkling and beckoning you to crunch down on them. And the taste, that experience of fresh-grated cheese on the tongue–a light, rich, nutty, slightly salty umami carnival. Now imagine THAT topping your Wednesday night spaghetti. With such a rockstar on your sauce, who even needs the meatball?

Photos courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

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