The one thing I always have in the fridge (and if I'm honest, sometimes I have very little), is good-quality Parmesan cheese, because I know that, even if there is nothing in the larder other than olive oil, some dried pasta and chilli flakes, I can make myself a meal fit for a queen.
But Parmesan is much more than simply something to sprinkle over the top of pasta: it is a seasoning that stands alone, adding a depth that completes a dish. It responds to the ingredients it is paired with, without overpowering their flavours – and adds that indefinable something that makes a dish sing. This certain something is often known by the Japanese as umami, the fifth flavour, along with sweet, sour, salty and hot. It is the most magical of the flavours, as it is almost impossible to describe but when it is present, it makes you close your eyes with a deep sense of satisfaction.
As Parmesan ages – most is between 18 months and two years old – it develops monosodium glutamate (or MSG), giving it an even more gratifying flavour.
We use a three-year-old Parmesan at the restaurant that is beautiful to eat on its own, but next to almost every dish I cook, there is also a little bowl of freshly grated Parmesan which I liberally add at the end. For me, it's the final building block that turns a good dish into a great one.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627
Roast tomato sauce with black olives, Parmesan and polenta
Polenta is one of the most comforting foodstuffs I know – I often yearn for it when the weather turns cooler. It works beautifully with the sweet flavour of roasted tomatoes.
4 cups of water
1 cup of coarse yellow polenta
A pinch of sea salt
80g/3oz unsalted butter
150g/5oz freshly grated Parmesan
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
For the roast tomato and black olive sauce
2kg/4lb ripe tomatoes
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
1 dried red chilli, crumbled
1 bunch of sage, leaves only
60ml/21/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
20 small, good-quality, black olives – Ligurian, for example – pips removed
To make the polenta, place the water in a medium-sized, heavy-based pan and place over a medium heat. Bring to a rolling boil, add a good pinch of salt and add the polenta. Turn down the heat and cook, stirring occasionally until cooked through, which will take about 25 minutes; the polenta should no longer be grainy. Add the butter and Parmesan and stir well to combine the tastes. Adjust the seasoning as necessary, possibly adding a little more salt. You can keep the polenta warm in a bain-marie for up to two hours as long as it is covered with a lid.
To make the tomato and olive sauce, roughly chop the tomatoes and place in a baking tray along with the garlic, chilli, sage and olive oil. Season generously with sea salt and place on the middle shelf of a preheated oven at 200C/400F/Gas6, for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, scatter over the olives and stir well; adjust the seasoning if necessary, adding more salt or pepper.
Serve with the polenta in warm bowls and add some extra, grated Parmesan on top, to taste.
Pounded walnuts and Parmesan paste
Walnuts are beautiful at this time of year; creamy and sweet. I use them as often as I can, in tarts, cakes, salads and in this creamy delicious paste. I like it best on toast – it's a favourite snack of mine. All nuts spoil easily, so it is best to buy them in small quantities, in their shells, and then shell them as and when you need them.
1 clove of garlic, peeled
3 anchovy fillets
A good pinch of sea salt
20 young shelled nuts
2 tbsp good-quality red-wine vinegar
120ml/4fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
I make this paste with a pestle and mortar– I find the texture far nicer than if it's puréed in a blender. Place the garlic and anchovies into the mortar and pound until smooth. Add a pinch of salt and a third of the walnuts, then pound again until smooth. Add the remaining walnuts and Parmesan and pound until they are broken and textured. Add the vinegar and stir in the olive oil. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve.
These savoury little treats take only minutes to make and are perfect to have with drinks before dinner.
Makes 12 biscuits
300g/10oz Parmesan, grated
1 dried red chilli, deseeded, chopped finely
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6, andline a flat baking tray with baking paper. Place the grated Parmesan in a bowl, add the chilli and mix lightly with your fingers. Now place little mounds on the tray, leaving space between each mound for the biscuits to flatten, and cook no more than four at a time. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 6-7 minutes or until spread flat. Remove and cool on a wire rack. Continue in batches. Serve still warm or at room temperature – they're best eaten on the day.
Puntarelle with aged Parmesan
Puntarelle is a member of the chicory family that's a favourite in Italy. If you cannot find it, the white heart of celery finely sliced is a lovely substitute.
1 head of puntarelle (or celery)
200g/7oz aged Parmesan, finely sliced
For the dressing
1 bunch of mint, leaves only
3 tbsp good-quality red-wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
80ml/3fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
To make the dressing, place the mint in a blender and add the vinegar, a good pinch of sea salt and some pepper. Add the olive oil and blend until you have a vibrant green vinaigrette. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Set aside while you prepare the puntarelle.
Strip off all the bright green outer leaves, until you arrive at a pale-green oval core. Discard the outer leaves and slice the core into long thin shards. If not using right away, place in a bowl of cold water with a squeeze or two of lemon juice.
To serve, pat dry the puntarelle, place in a bowl and add the slices of Parmesan. Spoon over the dressing and toss together as lightly as possible. Divide among four plates and serve immediately.
The Forager by Wendy Fogarty
Petersham's food sourcer's top tips on buying and storing Parmigiano Reggiano...
Parmigiano Reggiano (above) is the correct name given to the cheese commonly (though not entirely correctly) referred to as Parmesan. The use of the correct Italian name is not food snobbery, but rather the legally correct name (protected by the EU) given by the consortium of producers which carefully manages and maintains the quality and integrity of the cheese.
Aged for a minimum of 12 months, the cheese develops telltale crystals as it ages. Parmigiano Reggiano produced from the original breed, Vacca Rossa Reggiana, is ideally suited to longer ageing.
When buying, check the colour of the rind – it should be golden-brown (often red in places), while the cheese should be pale and evenly yellow in colour.
Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano will have a serial number and date stamped into its rind (and the rind can be added to soups, such as the classic minestra, in order to add flavour while cooking). Avoid buying vacuum-packed – and never buy grated.
To store, do not wrap in clingfilm or plastic; instead place a slightly damp cloth (cheesecloth or linen) over the cut edges of the cheese.
Italians often eat aged Parmigiano Reggiano drizzled with honey or aged balsamic vinegar.
Stockists: London's La Fromagerie (020 7935 0341, www.lafromagerie.co.uk) hand-picks its three-year-minimum aged cheeses from a very small producer who uses only the milk from its own herd.
Savoria (020 7993 4170, www. savoria.co.uk) sells Parmigiano Reggiano of various degrees of ageing and from several producers, including a Vacca Rossa Reggiana, matured for 48 months.
Finally, online food retailer www. mediterraneandirect.co.uk (01227 261 909) sells Gaggio Montano's 24-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano.