I have a confession. I don't like to throw anything out. Once I've squeezed a lemon, I'll make sure I also use the rind. I'll even repurpose leftover ham hocks for soups. These precious jewels should not be wasted.
As some of us brave yet another lockdown, I'm on a mission to ensure we don't succumb to eating bland food during this time at home. Just because we can't dine out right now, doesn't mean we have to eat poorly, right?
However, before you think of splashing out at your local gourmet deli, how about looking for an ingredient at the back of your fridge to ramp up your lockdown cooking game.
To be specific, I'm talking about the rind of Parmigiano-Reggiano, Parmesan or any other hard cheese. For Italians, the king of cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano) is very much a treasured product, so much so that when the cheese comes to a sad end and the rind is all that's left, they happily add the rind to flavour stocks. Doing so ups the ante of the soup, providing it with an umami hit. Mark my words: If you do this, your family and friends will wonder how you became a genius cook overnight.
My friends in Italy tell me the cheese rinds can be used in many dishes. It can be put in minestrone or grated over carbonara and of course added to risotto. Leftover cheese rinds are also great battered and fried in oil or placed on toast and grilled as part of another classic Italian dish: fagioli on toast.
Martin Vitaloni, executive chef of historical Italian luxury hotel Grand Hotel Victoria, agrees that no rind should ever be left behind. Vitaloni tells SBS Food, "True, we Italians also use the [cheese] crusts in soups and broths for extra flavour. But I really like making chips with Parmigiano-Reggiano leftovers and serving it as an aperitif. It's very easy to make. Just cook the crusts in the microwave for a few minutes, they will become crunchy and delicious."
He says you can even use the rind to make a butter for risotto alla parmigiana. Just boil the leftover rinds in water and collect the fat that surfaces.
The secret ingredient in the pea, potato and pancetta soup of Silvia Colloca, the host of SBS Food program How to Cook Like an Italian, is discarded Parmesan rind. She tops this dish off with potato skins crisp from the oven.
Meanwhile, Nicola Dusi, the chef of Hardware Club in Melbourne, uses rinds to make liquor. "We dry the Parmesan rind uncovered in a cool room and then soak it in vodka for a few weeks. We just don't want to waste anything and it is a good conversation starter," she says.
"We dry the Parmesan rind uncovered in a cool room and then soak it in vodka for a few weeks. We just don't want to waste anything and it is a good conversation starter."
However, cheese rinds aren't the leftovers you can repurpose. Instead of walking away with my aunty from the fishmongers with beautiful fillets of fish, I would have to carry bags of fish heads which she'd make into a fish head stew for my uncle. This was one of his absolute favourite dishes when braised with miso paste and Chinese white cabbage, as well as Chinese turnip. A cross-cultural dish that I loved for the saltiness of the miso, sweetness of the cabbage and Omega-3-rich oils of the salmon and how they combined to make an indulgent, sweet broth that went well with rice.
In Japan, it's about "waste not want not". A simple dashi stock made from leftover bits of kelp (seaweed) and even dried fish and sardines ramp up a soup or stew.
For chef David Tsirekas, leftovers can be better than when a dish is freshly cooked.
"Leftovers are always good," Tsirekas says. "Greek cooking is about slow cooking and about extracting as much flavour from ingredients to impart, infuse and coalesce with each other to get the most bang for your buck. With leftovers, those flavours settle and improve with age."
So what do you think? Is it worth holding on to that cheese rind or making friends with your fishmonger for leftover fish heads? I think so.
Parmigiano-Reggiano image by Doug Davey.