In many cases, what makes a great restaurant and its chef worth the price of admission comes down to a handful of critical things. Quality ingredients, the right equipment (and that doesn’t necessarily mean expensive), the talent to handle them with precision, and finally, the experience to teach others and duplicate that success repeatedly.
It also helps if you add some unique touches to your dishes…personal touches. Sometimes they’re flavorful, sometimes they’re visual. In the end, these small details set some chefs apart from their competitors. Occasionally, these small touches are both flavorful AND visual, like a couple of simple-but-delicious touches I’m going to tell you how to make for your salads or savory dishes.
If you really want to impress someone with your cooking prowess, here’s something you’ll want in your arsenal. Parmesan cheese is the ingredient, a quality non-stick fry pan (or silicone baking mat) is your equipment, and you’re about to get my experience as a qualified teacher to help you successfully (and repeatedly) make these attractive and delicious accompaniments.
First, let’s talk cheese.
You’ll need a fresh, high-quality Parmesan cheese. I typically use finely shredded, but you can use grated. Of course, we sell this at Nino’s. Do not use Parmesan cheese that comes in a green tube with a shaker top (I’ll just leave it there).
Regarding the equipment, you’ll need either a non-stick pan without any wear and tear (meaning deep scratches) on it. Alternatively, you can use a silicone baking mat (Sil-pat) resting on a cookie sheet or baking pan for rigidity and support.
If you’re using a pan, place it on the largest burner you have so that you get even heat from edge to edge, and set the temperature to medium. If you’re using a silicone baking sheet (which I prefer) set your oven to 375 F. What good Parmesan cheese will do, once heated, is melt and then, when cooled, crisp up to form a ridged crisp. If you carefully handle it while it cools, you can form it into a number of shapes.
The shapes I think you’ll find the most useful include: Bowls, Cannolis (tubes), Lolly Pops (for bar snacks) and Cork Screws, Shards and Sticks for garnishes. To make a crisp Parmesan salad bowl, first choose a small bowl to be your mold. It should be about 4 inches or so in diameter and have a flat bottom so that your Parmesan bowl will too.
You can choose to gently press your cooked Parmesan round within the well of your bowl mold, or you can turn your bowl upside down and mold the cheese over it. It’s your choice. Both can work. Begin with finely shredded cheese and sprinkle it over a diameter of about 6 inches in your pan or on a silicone baking mat. You’ll want to sprinkle it so that it looks lacy and so that when it melts, it forms a web-like disk shape with evenly spaced small speckles and spaces. If you use too much cheese, you’ll find the edges will burn before the middle is fully cooked and golden.
Place the pan over the heat, or if using a baking mat, place it into the oven and be patient while the cheese slowly melts and lightly browns. You’re looking for the cheese to stop bubbling and for it to turn a light golden brown. When the crisp is evenly browned, remove it from the heat and VERY carefully lift an edge of the crisp off the pan/mat with your fingers or a small spatula. Be careful. It’s hot. Shape it within or over your bowl mold. It will become cool and ridged in about 5 minutes or less if it’s in a cool place.
To make Parmesan cannolis, the procedure is exactly the same, except you’ll simply wrap the still-hot Parmesan disk around a 1-inch diameter dowel. Cones can be made in a similar way.
The Lolly Pops are perhaps the easiest, for these. You’ll need to purchase wooden Popsicle/craft sticks (tongue depressors can also work).
Whatever cheese you might need to make a 5-inch diameter, sprinkle only half of it into the pan/mat. Then, place the stick on top in a way that you’ll have a part of it in the cheese and the rest as a handle. Spread the remaining half over the stick and around within the disk’s shape, in effect sandwiching the stick between both Parmesan applications. Cook as you would otherwise, and then let the Lolly Pop cool lying flat.
Corkscrews are made by applying a straight line of cheese approximately ¾ inch wide by 6 inches to 8 inches long. You’ll want the cheese to be a bit heavier, so there is very little webbing. Once the cheese is cooked, wrap it over a ½-inch diameter dowel (at an angle) to create a corkscrew shape. Sticks are created the same way without wrapping them around a dowel. Just let them cool flat.
Lastly, chards are simply irregular 2-inch to 3-inch patches of cheese you can bake crisp and use for salad garnishes. Alternately, you can cook a large crisp and break it into pieces. Try one of these tasty garnishment ideas for your next important dinner and let me know how they work out for you. I hope you have great success.