I love pecorino–not the salty aged variety from southern Italy, but the young raw sheep’s milk cheese for whichTuscany and Sardinia are known. When I’m in Italy, I eat this semi-soft to firm table cheese in all the usual ways: with bread, prosciutto, fruit, or in the spring, with young raw fava beans (bacelli), or all by itself at the end of a meal.
A few years ago I ran into grilled pecorino at Ristorante La Mencia in Asciano, a town in the lovely Crete Senesi area south of Siena. Thick slices of Tuscan pecorino arrived with crusty golden-brown cross hatches hiding the oozy, deliciously sheepy tasting cheese underneath. The dish was so thrilling that I started looking for grilled pecorino on other menus.
One place that served pecorino alla griglia was Bevivino, a bar-ristorante in Florence that sizzles at night but offers a dim and relaxing retreat on a hot summer day. The cheese was good, though the server confessed it had been broiled–not grilled–and that sometimes the cook resorts to a microwave!
Back in New York, I found the right kind of pecorino (its names include pecorino toscano, pecorino sardo, fiore sardo) at Murray’s and Di Palo’s–and I’m sure Eataly has it now. But who can shop at those elite emporiums all the time? So I branched out, successfully, to other flavorful young Italian cheeses, including Fontina Valle d’Aosta and imported provolone.
I tried the techniques I’d seen, with the goal of crisping the cheese on the outside while rendering the inside meltingly delicious. Grilling was tricky–great when my timing was on the mark, but too much of a stick- or drip-through-the grate risk. With microwaving, you can’t get a golden-brown crust.
I settled on frying as the most reliable method. Lightly bread the cheese and give it a quick browning in olive oil. When it looks good, it will be good. Transfer the warm slices to plates along with roasted eggplant and peppers. Add crusty bread, of course. Basta–a tavola!
Fried Pecorino with Spicy Eggplant and Peppers
(from Piatto Unico: When One Course Makes a Real Italian Meal)
Makes 3 servings
3 or 4 small purple or lavender eggplants (about 1 pound), trimmed
1 large yellow or red bell pepper
1 large onion, trimmed
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt or kosher salt
Hot red pepper flakes
1 ripe large tomato, diced
1 large egg
2/3 cup unflavored dried fine breadcrumbs, or as needed
8 ounces young (semi-soft), flavorful cheese such as Tuscan pecorino, Fontina Valle d’Aosta or imported provolone
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Peel the eggplants only if the skins are thick or tough; cut in 1/4-inch slices. Cut the peppers in short strips; slice the onion pole to pole in thin wedges.
2. Divide the vegetables between 2 rimmed baking sheets. Drizzle generously with olive oil (about 1/4 cup); sprinkle with salt and, more cautiously, with red pepper flakes. Mix well with your hands and spread out the vegetables. Roast for about 20 minutes, or until soft and lightly browned. Stir in the tomato; turn off the heat, leaving the pans in the oven.
3. Meanwhile, whisk the egg in a shallow bowl. Place the bread crumbs in a similar-sized bowl. Cut the cheese in 6 wedges or rectangles (a larger cheese could be cut in 3 equal wedges). Coat the top and bottom surfaces first with egg, and then breadcrumbs. Repeat these steps to form a fairly thick crust.
4. Meanwhile, in a skillet just large enough to hold the cheese wedges, heat a generous quantity of olive oil (about 1/4 cup) over medium heat. After testing the oil with a pinch of breadcrumbs to make sure it is hot enough, fry the cheese wedges until well browned, about 20 seconds; turn and brown on the other side (do not cook to the point that the cheese begins to melt or you will have a mess on your hands!). Remove to a platter.
5. For each serving: Arrange 2 fried cheese wedges in a wide, shallow bowl or dinner plate; surround with the roasted vegetables.
- Add 2 tablespoons ground toasted almonds or pine nuts to the breadcrumbs before coating the cheese. Alternatively, flavor the breadcrumbs with ¼ teaspoon dried thyme or an Italian herb blend (do not use one that contains salt and other seasonings).