~ Fun with Frico (Italian Parmesan Cheese Crisps) ~
With the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays fast approaching, we're all looking for fun and festive ideas for finger-food type snacks and hors d'oeuvres. Since pretty much everyone I've ever met enjoys a cheesy, crispy snack cracker, I thought I'd kick my holiday posts off with this easy-to-make Preschutti family favorite!
Having its origin in the Italian region of Friuli, "frico" are baked or fried, lacy-looking, wafer-like, delicate Italian cheese crisps. They are typically broken into pieces then sprinkled over a main dish or a salad for a flavorful crunch, or, are used to garnish soups or stews!
They are really easy to make and when they are hot out of the oven they are extremely pliable, making them easy to mold into small baskets or larger salad bowls. Here in the USA, frico is typically made with shredded, not grated, Parmigiano-Reggianno cheese. That being said, in Italy they are traditionally made with aged Montasio cheese, which is produced in the Friuli-Venezia Gulia region of Italy. About this region and cheese, Mario Batali artfully writes:
"It is the region of Italy that lies between two worlds. It is an unassuming region of thundering importance, offering an abundance of gastronomic treasures and stunning natural beauty, where all that is Italian collides with Central and Eastern Europe. Latin and Roman traditions meet and mingle with Austrian and Slovenian custom and culture, and from this heady mix comes some of Italy's finest and most precious products: incredible wines, the sweetest Proscuitto, and the noble, elder statesman of cheeses, Montasio." "Montasio is a wonderful table cheese, perfect for enjoying with one of Friuli-Venezia Gulia's excellent wines, a savory mostarda, or one of the luscious stone fruits that are grown in Friuli, such as peaches, plums, and cherries." "Montasio is also the cheese that is used to make frico, a beloved dish that is relatively unknown outside of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, but somewhat of an icon of Friulian cuisine."
Just reading that description made me get on-line and order a pound of this famed cheese, and, it arrived on my doorstep this morning. For the record, I did call around to my two local Happy Valley cheese sources first. No one had it, and, no one seemed familiar with it either. That is not a criticism, I mention it because, unless you live in the city, it is what I suspect you'll find if you go looking for Montasio too!
At first glance, its color is very similar to Parmigiano-Reggianno with its texture being just slightly softer, or, not quite as granular/crumbly. Price-wise, I paid $16.99 a pound for my Montasio on-line, vs. $12.39 a pound for my Parm-Regg in my local grocery store. That being said, the Parmigiano-Reggiano on-line was selling for $18.49 a pound, which leads me to believe the two are comparably priced. Now for the tasting: The Montasio is exquisitely nutty and slightly less tangy than the Parm-Regg. Just like the Parmigiano-Reggiano, I wouldn't hesitate to grate this cheese over hot pasta or melt it over hors d'oeuvres. As Mario mentioned, this cheese would be marvelous to serve just as at is, alongside some shaved Italian meats, marinated vegetables and or fresh buffalo milk mozzarella as "bar food" to munch on with cocktails. I'm taking that one step further today:
Whether you're making frico with Montasio or Parmigiano-Regianno cheese, you are going to need shredded, not finely grated cheese. You won't hear me say this very often, but if you're really pressed for time or don't have a microplane grater with the right size perforations or slits to produce shreds, store-bought, pre-packaged shredded cheese works fine too!
Line a 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan with a sheet of parchment paper. Evenly space and spoon 8, level tablespoon-sized mounds of the shredded cheese on the lined baking pan. Using your fingertips, spread each mound out to a thin, airy, lacy-looking thickness.
Bake on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven 5 1/2-6 minutes, or until cheese is melted and the bubbles have turned into a light golden brown crust. Do not over bake as over browning will cause the frico to taste bitter! Remove from oven and cool completely on the baking sheet, or, to make hors d'oeuvre-sized baskets:
Remove from oven, and, using a spatula, IMMEDIATELY transfer the still soft frico to a miniature muffin pan. Using a wooden tart tamper, gently press them into a basket shape. Allow frico to cool completely in the muffin pan.
Frico (of any shape) can be prepared several hours and up to a day or two in advance of serving. Place on a tray or in a basket and store lightly/semi-covered with plastic wrap until serving time.
To accompany every holiday cocktail you serve, place some edible muchies on a plate next to some frico crisps or into mini-frico baskets (my favorite combination is a slice of herbed or peppered salami, a tiny ball of fresh mozzarella, a garlic-y olive and a strip of roasted red pepper. What a happy start to the holiday season:
Special Equipment List: baking pan(s); parchment paper; wooden tart tamper (optional)
Cook's Note: To make edible salad baskets, the process is almost the same. Spread 4 tablespoons of shredded cheese onto a parchment-lined, 9" pie dish. Bake as directed above. Remove from oven, and, using a large spatula, remove from parchment and place on top of an inverted cereal-type bowl. Press down lightly and cool completely on bowl.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2011)