Recipes: Three dishes using Parmesan cheese

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Ten years ago I would not have written about Parmesan cheese. Back then, I would only have been able to buy good, proper Parmesan at Valvona & Crolla in Edinburgh, or in one or two other select delis in Scotland.

The Parmesan obtainable in less urban and more rural areas of Scotland was borderline disgusting. The only apparent connection with Italy were the colours of the Italian flag on the thick cardboard containers, whose swivel tops released a grated substance which must have ruined forever the very thought of Parmesan for many people.

Real, delicious Parmigiano Reggiano, or its close cousin, Padano, is a wonderful cheese. These days it is easy to buy either grated, in vacuum-sealed containers to preserve the flavour, or in pieces to grate at home (or to shave – I use a potato peeler to shave Parmesan because bought shaved Parmesan tends to be too thick) and the flavour is superb.

While I love all cheese, cooking with Parmesan is so easy. For example, when using cheddar, I add mustard, or balsamic vinegar to enhance the flavour of the cheddar, yet with Parmesan its flavour stands alone. Scotland is rich in its Italian diaspora, and it is from these wonderful people, nearly always involved in the food and wine industry, that we have learned about recipes and ingredients which are as delicious made and eaten in Scotland as they are in Italy. While the following recipes involve some cooking, Parmesan is probably best recognised as the cheese for serving with pasta – with the exception of fish sauces.

A small amount of grated Parmesan goes a long way – which is why it only rates one Weight Watchers point per teaspoon. And when you next make a vegetable soup, if you have a chunk of Parmesan rind, add that to the soup as it simmers. The flavour and richness is surprising from a small amount of what would usually be chucked in the bin.

Parmesan and walnut pastry tart with caramelised onion filling

Serves 6

For the pastry

3oz/85g butter, hard from the fridge and cut into bits

1 fairly level tablespoon icing sugar

5oz/140g plain flour

1 teaspoon salt, about 10 grinds of black pepper

2oz/55g grated Parmesan

3oz/85g walnuts – take care not to add these to the above ingredients until the recipe asks you to

Put all the pastry ingredients except the walnuts into a food processor and whizz to the consistency of fine crumbs. Then add the walnuts and whizz briefly – you want them fairly coarse in texture, not crumbs.

Press this mixture firmly over the base and up the sides of a metal flan dish measuring 9in/22cm in diameter.

Put the dish into the fridge for at least an hour, then bake straight from the fridge in a moderate heat, 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4 for 20 minutes – the sides will slip a bit, towards the base, during cooking. With a metal spoon scrape them firmly back into place and bake for a further 2-3 minutes. Cool the pastry.

Meanwhile, for the filling

6 onions, each skinned, halved and finely sliced

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons Demerara sugar

1 teaspoon salt, about 15 grinds of black pepper

2 large eggs beaten with

2 yolks and

½ pint/285ml whole milk or, if you prefer, single cream

Heat the olive oil in a wide sauté pan over a moderate heat and fry the finely sliced onions, stirring occasionally to be sure of even cooking, for about 20 minutes. Then stir in the Demerara sugar, salt and black pepper, and cook for a further 30 minutes or so. The amount of onion seems enormous, but as they cook they wilt down.

Spoon the onion mixture in an even layer over the base of the cooled Parmesan and walnut pastry. Pour the beaten eggs, yolks and milk over the onions and, with a fork, mix it through the onion mixture.

Bake in the same moderate heat as for the pastry, for 25-30 minutes, or until the filling no longer wobbles in the centre when the flan dish is gently shaken. Serve warm, with a mixed leaf salad.

Spicy spinach with Parmesan

Serves 6 as a first course

2 onions, each skinned, halved and finely diced

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 rounded teaspoon cumin seeds, pounded in a pestle and mortar – or bashed, in a deep bowl with the end of a rolling pin (the seeds have vastly more flavour than ready-ground cumin)

1½ lb/675g young spinach leaves – this seems a vast amount, until cooked, when it wilts down to almost nothing

6oz/170g grated Parmesan

½ pint/285ml double cream

10 grinds of black pepper

Stab each bag of spinach several times and put a bag into the microwave for 2 minutes on high. When “pinged” tip the contents of each bag into a sieve over a measuring jug or bowl. Chop, in the sieve, with a sharp knife. When cooled, press as much liquid as you can from the chopped spinach. If you do not have a microwave oven, tip the spinach into a saucepan containing a small amount of boiling water, clamp the lid on the pan and cook for barely 1 minute, then drain into the sieve. You will need to cook the spinach in 2-3 relays.

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan and fry the diced onions, stirring occasionally, for 4-5 minutes. Stir in the pounded cumin, salt and black pepper, and cook for a further minute before stirring in the well-drained spinach. Stir all together well, take the pan off the heat, and either spoon the spinach mixture into an ovenproof dish, or divide it evenly between 6 small ovenproof dishes. Divide the seasoned Parmesan cream between the dishes, and bake in a fairly high heat, 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6 for 20-25 minutes – there should be a bubbling crust on top.

Baked aubergines, tomatoes and Parmesan

Serves 6 as a main course

The success of this delicious dish depends entirely on the sliced aubergines being cooked to complete softness.

Olive oil – for brushing the aubergine slices

3 aubergines – the very best are the rounded, pale violet-hued ones. Slice the tops and ends off each, and slice them as thinly as you can, across, as opposed to lengthways. Line a baking tray or two with baking parchment. Brush each slice of aubergine on either side with olive oil and lay them on the baking parchment. Season with salt and black pepper – and, if you like, with dried chilli, and roast in a hot oven, 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6 for 30-35 minutes. If the slices are a bit thick, they will need a longer roasting time – when cooked, they should be completely soft.

1 pint/570ml good tomato sauce – you can make your own or buy a good one ready made

8oz/225g grated Parmesan

In a wide ovenproof dish spoon a layer of tomato sauce over the base, cover with a layer of roasted sliced aubergines, then a fairly modest sprinkling of grated Parmesan. Repeat the layers until the ingredients are used up, ending with grated Parmesan all over the surface – if it looks as if the Parmesan is going to be a bit thin on the top, use less in the layering.

Bake in a moderate heat, 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4, for 40-45 minutes.

Serve with a mixed leaf salad.