men.jpg In 1349 A.D., Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio described the land of plenty as a mountain of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese whose inhabitants' sole purpose was to make macaroni and ravioli and toss the pasta down to the villagers below. The more pasta a man caught, the more fortunate he would be in life. Today, Europeans still seek the benefits of Parmigiano-Reggiano, although the good fortune they seek is more health-related. For example, skiers, mountain climbers and cyclists often carry the cheese when training because it keeps well and is packed with protein and nutrients. Italian doctors even prescribe the cheese for the elderly and infants because it is easily digested and lactose-free.

"It's difficult to find another cheese as healthy as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese," says Mario Zannoni, Ph.D., a sensory analyst for the standards and regulatory agency for Parmigiano-Reggiano in Parma, Italy. When compared to other cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano is lower in fat and sodium and higher in vitamins and minerals. It contains 19 of 21 amino acids the body needs, and a 1-ounce serving provides as much as 30 percent of a person's RDA for calcium.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is aged naturally for up to two years, allowing for the cool temperatures of the Emelia-Romagna region of northern Italy to impart a granular texture and rich flavor. After one year of aging, the cheese goes through scrupulous testing by Zannoni or one of the other eight inspectors. Zannoni punctures the rind to release the aroma of the cheese and evaluates a small sample for color, consistency and texture. The 75-pound wheels that pass muster are then branded to carry the exclusive oval brand name and are left to age further. By law, no other cheese can display this signature marking.

It is this type of attention to detail and the health benefits that make Parmigiano-Reggiano one of the perfect natural foods of our time. Although electricity has replaced fire pits for heating the milk in copper vats and the pampered dairy cows now wear microchips to maintain their feeding schedules, the 800-year-old method of manufacturing the cheese has not otherwise changed since the time of armored knights and revered Italian saints.

Parmigiano-Reggiano Flan

Serves 8

Like all recipes in northern Italy, this flan was once richly robed in butter and cream. Jeanne Jones, a syndicated food columnist, created this healthier, lighter version.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes

2 cups low-fat milk
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose organic flour
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
2 whole eggs
2 egg whites
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. Preheat oven to 300º. Spray eight half-cup ramekins with cooking spray.

2. In a medium saucepan, bring milk to a boil over medium-high heat.

3. In a 2-quart saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and nutmeg and stir constantly for 3 minutes. Do not brown. Add the boiling milk all at once, stirring constantly with a whisk. Continue to cook and stir for two more minutes. Remove from the heat and cool slightly.

4. Pour the mixture into a blender and mix until satin smooth. Pour this into a large bowl. Add the whole eggs one at a time, stirring well after each addition. Add the egg whites, a little at a time, again stirring constantly after each addition. Add the grated cheese and mix until smooth.

5. Spoon about 1/2 cup of the cheese mixture into each prepared ramekin. Place the filled ramekins in a large baking pan. Add hot water to a depth of 1 inch. Place the pan in the preheated oven and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the flan is set and lightly browned.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 185 Fat: 11g % fat calories: 51 Cholesterol: 95 mg Carbohydrate: 10 g Protein: 12 g

soup.jpgPasta & Chickpea Soup
Pasta E Ceci

Serves 6

This soup not only uses freshly grated cheese but the rind, as well. The rinds, similar to a vegetarian soupbone, are perfectly safe to eat and add flavor without the extra expense of using freshly grated cheese; they are available at many natural foods stores.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 40 minutes

1 small red onion
1 medium carrot
1 stalk celery
1 large clove garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 28-ounce can diced organic
tomatoes, undrained
1 15-ounce can drained chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
4 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 4-inch square Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
1 cup small pasta tubes (such as ditalini)
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Finely chop the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and rosemary. Set a 3-quart pan over medium heat. Add olive oil and the chopped vegetables and cook 10 minutes until the vegetables are soft.

2. Pour in tomatoes, chickpeas, broth, tomato paste, bay leaf and cheese rind. Add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Simmer soup for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the softened cheese rinds and set aside. Add pasta and cook for another 5­8 minutes. Peel the hard outer layer off the rind and cut the cheese into 1/4-inch cubes and return to the soup. Ladle into bowls and serve with extra Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 305 Fat: 9 g % fat calories: 26 Cholesterol: 10 mg Carbohydrate: 42 g Protein: 16 g

Baked Asparagus
Asparagi Al Forno

Serves 6

The simplicity of this dish brings out the best in asparagus. Serve it as an appetizer or as a side dish.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 15-30 minutes

1 pound asparagus, washed and ends trimmed
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano
Balsamic vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 400º. Place asparagus in a large baking dish and sprinkle with olive oil. Arrange in a single layer and roll to evenly coat. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Cover with foil and bake for 12­15 minutes until asparagus is tender when pierced with a knife. Remove from oven.

3. With a vegetable peeler, shave Parmigiano-Reggiano into slivers. Scatter the cheese over the asparagus and return the dish to the oven. Continue baking just until the cheese softens, about 2­3 minutes.

4. Place the asparagus on warmed plates and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Serve.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 55 Fat: 4 g % fat calories: 53 Cholesterol: 4 mg Carbohydrate: 3 g Protein: 4 g

chicken.jpgGilded Chicken Breasts
Petti Di Pollo Dorati

Serves 8

This chicken dish is an easy but elegant entrée to serve when unexpected guests arrive. Thyme may be substituted for dried rosemary.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes

3/4 cup pine nuts
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup packed, chopped parsley
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
8 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, trimmed of all fat
8 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon olive oil

1. Toast the pine nuts in a 300º oven until golden, about 5 minutes. Combine nuts and next four ingredients in a food processor and chop coarsely, or by hand. Place in a large flat pan.

2. Brush the top side of each chicken breast with 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Spread nut topping onto mustard coating, distributing the topping evenly among the eight chicken breasts.

3. Arrange the breasts, coated-side up, on an olive oil-greased baking sheet. Cover with remaining topping. If desired, sprinkle each chicken piece with a bit more olive oil. Bake at 375º for 25­30 minutes, until golden brown.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 275 Fat: 15 g % fat calories: 48 Cholesterol: 79 mg Carbohydrate: 3 g Protein: 34 g

Penne with Raw Tomato Sauce
Penne Alla Salsa Cruda Di Pomodoro

Serves 6

This is a great summer dish, when tomatoes and basil are at their ripest.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 10 minutes

1 pound fresh Italian plum tomatoes
3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 ounces arugula
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
16 leaves fresh basil, torn
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon aged balsamic vinegar
1 pound penne pasta
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring 2 gallons of salted water to a boil for the pasta. Cut the tomatoes into 1/2-inch pieces and place them in a large pasta serving bowl. With a vegetable peeler, shave thick slices of cheese into the bowl; grate the cheese that is too small to shave.

2. Wash and stem arugula leaves. Dry and tear into small pieces. Add to the bowl with remaining ingredients, except the pasta. Toss well.

3. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain and immediately toss pasta with the sauce until well coated. Serve in individual pasta bowls and sprinkle with extra Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and freshly ground pepper.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 412 Fat: 12 g % fat calories: 26 Cholesterol: 10 mg Carbohydrate: 61 g Protein: 16 g

Kim Stewart is the director of Internet content for

Recipes and cheese photos courtesy of The Consorzio del Fromaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano