I just want you to know that I toil all day in the cheese shop and read cheese books all night just so I have the answer to your cheese questions when I get home. AND I'm even going to throw in a couple cheese recommendations, AND a recipe. Three for the price of one, people!
Q: I buy chunks of Pecorino Romano and Parmegiano Reggiano and grate them as needed. I like to have some on hand since I never know when I will need them. When I wrap them in waxed paper they get dried out. But I have it on good authority that plastic is not the way to go. Help!!!
A: As a cheesemonger I have to reply with the standard answer: "You should only buy as much as you'll eat within a few days or a week." But I know that's not practical for a lot of people. So, if you can't "but little and often," there are a few answers to this question.
First off, the very hard cheeses like Parm and even Pecorino last much longer than softer ones, but they're still only really going to last for about 2-3 weeks before they get too dry - depending of course on how well the store took care of them. If the store kept the cheese too cold, or the pieces weren't cut to order, or they just weren't tended to properly, then they'll dry out even sooner once you get them home.
And you are right about the plastic wrap! Ever notice how when you leave certain kinds of cheese out, they start to sweat? Well, cheeses need to breathe, and wrapping them in plastic wrap will tend to suffocate them. However, the harder the cheese is, the more okay it is to keep it wrapped in plastic. The best way to store cheese at home is to wrap it in the paper we use in the shop - one side is wax paper and the other is parchment. As you might imagine, using just wax paper or parchment paper would be a good substitute. When re-wrapping, you should really use new paper each time, though re-using the paper once won't alert the Cheese Police. But be careful - they are watching!
As far as preventing the Pecorino and Parm from getting dry and cracked, there are a couple of steps you can take. The problems with the fridge are the low temperature and lack of humidity. The ideal temperature for your particular cheeses is between 55-60 degrees, and a good spot for any cheese in the fridge is in a drawer or a tupperware-type container (where its a bit warmer). Cheeses also like a bit more humidity than the fridge provides (Parm and Pecorino like about 80%), but keeping them near vegetables - even in the veggie drawer - keeps them happy and moist. An even better spot is in a basement or somewhere cold and dark with good air circulation (not drafts), but how many of us in one-bedroom apartments have a root cellar? Unless you're living in an English Basement, in which case the whole place basically qualifies. Heheheheh. Ohhhkay, I'm sorry... I know it's not nice to laugh at the DC newbies who fell for the whole "English Basement" thing.
So if the damage has already been done and it's too late for preventative measures, there are still a few options that may or may not work, depending on how far gone the cheese is. Try cutting off the outer 1/8 inch - not the rind, but the exposed edge of the cheese - and taste it. If it tastes good, eat it! If it's still too dry, you can throw the no-good cheese into the next soup or sauce you make. (Even just adding the rinds will add richness, as many chefs know!) And lastly, you can make fromage fort, which translates to "strong cheese," and is basically a thrifty recipe for using up all of the random cheese bits you have leftover. It's quite strong in flavor and makes a great snack when spread on bread and melted under the broiler for a quick minute. I'll include the recipe at the end of the post.
And if reading this has brought on a hankerin' for some of our aforementioned cheeses, here are some recommendations:
Pecorino is the general name for any sheep's milk from Italy, and Pecorino Romano (from Rome) is the most well-known type. Two of my favorite Pecorinos are Pecorino Ginepro and Pecorino Foglie di Noce. Pecorino Ginepro (Ginepro means "juniper") is washed with balsamic vinegar and juniper berries, and is fruity and slightly tangy. Pecorino Foglie di Noce (Foglie di Noce means "leaves of walnut") is wrapped in walnut leaves and is a little harder and saltier than Ginepro, and I find it a bit more more complex. Both of these cheeses pair well with soft, juicy reds (such as Tempranillo, Merlot, and fuller, fruitier Pinot Noir) and crisp, fruity whites (such as unoaked Sauvignon Blanc from both California and southern France).
As far as Parmigiano Reggiano, there is no cheese that can compare. It is often considered the queen of all cheese, because of its complex flavors yet subtle nature. Make sure you buy the real thing - the rind should be stamped with the full name in large, distinctive dotted letters, and never buy pre-grated Parm. Try eating small chunks of Parmigiano dipped in a well-aged balsamic (I'm talking aged 20+ years - not the stuff you use on salad). When aged for that long, balsamic is perfectly balanced between sweet and acidic, with the thickness of molasses. They make for an amazing and surprising flavor combination. Grana Padano is getting to be a very trendy cheese and is basically the poor man's Parmigiano. Grana is aged for a shorter time than Parm, and its flavors are similar but not nearly as layered. However, in a pinch it will suffice, and if you are on a budget and looking for a cheese solely to grate on pasta, its a nice alternative. Both Parm and Grana pair well with lush, fruity reds (such as Merlot, Malbec, and Barolo or other Nebbiolo) and not-too-dry sparkling white (such as Champagne, Prosecco or Cava).
And at long last, the recipe for Fromage Fort, with credit to Steven Jenkins and his Cheese Primer:
"Gather 1 pound of leftover cheese ends (3 kinds is enough, 6 or 7 will be even better). Trim off any mold or very dried out parts from the surface. Toss 3 or 4 peeled garlic cloves into a food processor and process for several seconds until coarsely chopped. Add the cheese to the garlic along with 1/2 cup dry white wine and at least 1 tsp of freshly ground pepper. Process until the mixture becomes soft and creamy, about 30 seconds. Remove the mixture from processor and transfer it to a crock or bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate."
Aaah, the one time no cheesemonger will give you a hard time about using plastic to wrap up cheese. *Sigh*. Thanks Mr. Jenkins, and I hope all ya cheese lovers enjoy!
And keep emailing your questions to me at email@example.com. I'll eventually answer them all, no matter what the subject matter. Cheese, restaurants, boys, ponies - I cover it all.