Posted by: Rachel | February 5, 2012

the big cheese

This week I was lucky to, for once, be in the right place at the right time. Usually I’m just a little too late, and have heard, more times than I can tell you, oh you should have been here last year, five minutes ago, yesterday… but this once my stars aligned beautifully.

I got to meet Sarah, the “Cheese Lady”! Now professional ice carving is probably not unknown to most of you, soap carving as a hobby, perhaps, but I had never heard of cheese carving as a life calling until this week.

Sarah was tasked with carving a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano into a crown. Makes sense, as Mario will tell you it is the “undisputed king of cheese”. It was pure luck on my part that I just happened to be there.

Sarah carving

Queen of cheese

Now if you know me you know that I am not shy. My New York cousins say that I just talk to anybody. Yes, and this time it paid off – I got to meet a very interesting person and I got to “harvest” some scraps as well. Mmmm…

I was curious, when I was watching her go at it with her chisel, how she felt about chopping into that wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. “Well”, she told me, “its different. I usually work in cheddar… ”

If you have ever watched a wood carver in action you have some idea how her worktable looked. There were chucks of detritus (cheesy detritus, mind you) littering the work surface. She started removing rather large pieces to rough out the shape, then used finer tools and a more delicate touch to finish the job.

a crown of cheese

fit for a king

It was amazing to watch her work, but I was as curious about the cast off bits as I was about the final product. Again, being not shy I asked what was going to happen to it all. When she asked if I wanted some, believe me it was all I could do not to grab some scraps and run!

I have learned, over the years, to always keep a bandana, a plastic fork, and a couple of clean plastic bags about my person. Laugh, but this level of preparedness paid off handsomely!

So it is with complete delight that I find myself in the possession of quite a nice haul of Parmigiano-Reggiano! And, the appropriate corollary to “when life hands you lemons…” seems to be “when life hands you Parmigiano-Reggiano, make riostto”, so I did. Mmmm…

Now the thing about risotto is, you can add almost anything. Its just the sort of dish I love: not fiddly, very flexible, versatile, and oh sooooo good! There are a few tricks that I have learned, though, and I will happily share.

First, you really do have to use arborio or some equally sticky creamy rice. Plain long-grained will just give you rice and (fill in the blank) but not a proper risotto. When making risotto we are aiming for more of a rice pudding than a rice pilaf.

Figure roughly twice the amount of liquid to rice. That’s pretty normal in most rice cookery, and depending on what other ingredients you choose to add you may need even a bit more. You can use wine for part of the liquid or not, use chicken stock, vegetable stock, or even just water. You can add meat (I did this time) or not, seafood (shrimp is wonderful); see what’s in the fridge and go for it!

The only major caveat is, plan to hang by your cooktop. Risotto needs tending. It doesn’t take forever, and it isn’t fussy food (if you know me you know I have low tolerance for fussy) but you really do have to hang out and stir it often, and add the (warm) liquid incrementally. You can walk away for a minute or so, but not for more – it will stick and possibly scorch and you will be faced with a sad mess. So… you have been warned.

That doesn’t mean you can’t yack on the phone or read that book you’re in the middle of… it just means keep one eye on the pot! That said, what could be easier than:

Ham (or not) and Cheese Risotto

adding cheese to the risotto

nearly there... mmmmm...

1/4 pound pancetta or slab bacon (optional)
1/2 onion, chopped fairly fine
1 clove garlic, sliced very fine
2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine (optional)
small handful dried porcini mushrooms, chopped
4 cups chicken (or vegetable) stock, warmed
8 or 10 dried figs
a nice chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, some grated some shaved

If you are using bacon or pancetta, chop it into bits then render it in a heavy Dutch oven. Add the onions and sauté. If you are not using meat, use a few tablespoons of butter for sautéeing the onion. For a vegan version, use olive oil. Its all good. That said, once the onion is translucent, add the rice and stir it in until it is well coated with whatever fat you have in the pot. Add the wine if you are using it or a little of the stock/water to deglaze the pan.

Add the mushrooms and about 1 cup of the warm water/stock. It should just barely simmer. Add the figs. Stir until the rice has absorbed almost all the liquid and is almost dry, add another cup, repeat. Taste a bit every once in a while for doneness. How “done” is done is up to you. I like it creamy but with a little bite, sort of just past “al dente”.

The final step is to add the cheese. I do this off the heat but while the risotto is still good and hot. Add as much as you like and shave some for topping it when serving as well.

That’s it. Not hard, just a bit time consuming, but you’ll find things to do while you’re stirring it up, I’m sure! Or, if your children are old enough to conscript for this sort of task… well… just a thought!

You can add shaved fennel, fresh herbs, cooked asparagus, almost anything to a basic risotto. Enjoy it with a nice green salad (arugula and spinach would be swell) and let us know how you like it! Now what to do with the rest of that cheese…. mmmmm!



  1. Rachel, your risotto recipe sounds sooo good! I love your photo of the cheese crown. What an interesting visit and such fun story! Thanks!

  2. Lucky you, getting those offcuts of Parmesan! And the risotto sounds delicious. My sister lived in Italy years ago and I remember her telling me that there were restaurants where the number of minutes that the risotto had been stirred by hand was recorded on the menu – 20 minutes, the whole cooking time of the rice, was of course the best and most expensive.

  3. how lucky you were to find the cheese carving lady and what a gorgeous crown, lucky you indeed. I only make it when i am in the mood to stand and stir, it is such a calming dish! c

  4. When I started reading this the first thought that went through my mind was “but what happens to all the bits?”. Lucky you – being in the right place at the right time – the risotto you made is my favourite kind. Simple, not fussy and packed with gorgeous bacony and of course cheesy flavour!

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