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Say Cheese: Pecorino fresco

It seems almost petty to complain, with all the wonderful cheese available, but the one cheese I miss more than any other and which I’ve had limited success in finding around here is a good-quality scamorza. I’m thinking specifically of the palm-size tear drop-shaped cow’s-milk cheese with a small top knot that is a specialty of Italy’s Abruzzo region (though scamorza is made in other regions of Italy as well).

Recipe Included

It is, essentially, a slightly aged version of mozzarella, ivory in color, buttery in texture and mild (but not boring) in flavor. Though I have found scamorza in cheese shops and well-stocked cheese sections of supermarkets around here, it is usually a much bigger tear-drop-shaped cheese, drier in texture, more pungent in flavor and much closer to provolone than mozzarella.

Patate Maritate With Pecorino Fresco, before and after baking. (Domenica Marchetti)

Scamorza is a great cheese for eating out of hand; I love it for its melting qualities, too. It is an essential ingredient in one of my favorite winter dishes: an ultra-rich baked dish of layered potatoes, seasoned bread crumbs, scamorza and Parmigiano-Reggiano (and an enormous quantity of olive oil, but I’ll get to that).

I had been craving patate maritate (which literally translates to "married potatoes," possibly because of the way the potatoes, cheeses and bread crumbs together achieve, IMHO, baked perfection) all winter but was reluctant to make it without the dish’s signature cheese.

That’s when pecorino fresco came to the rescue. The pecorino most of us are familiar with is pecorino Romano, an aged sheep’s-milk cheese: salty and sharp, crumbly and perfect for grating. Pecorino Sardo is similar, as is aged pecorino Toscano, although the latter is less dry and less salty than Romano or Sardo.

Pecorino fresco, however, is pecorino Toscano that is aged only 15 to 45 days. It has a hint of sheep's milk in its flavor, is nutty and mild and just a bit tangy, good for slicing and good for melting.

I came across a pillowy wedge of it at My Organic Market in Del Ray and scooped it up (it is also available at Dean & Deluca in Georgetown). The cheese is labled “Blue Daisy” and is produced by Fratelli Putzulu in Pienza. It proved to be a fine substitute for scamorza in my patate maritate. It wasn’t quite as stretchy, but I loved the subtle flavor it imparted to the potatoes.

Patate maritate is an Abruzzese specialty, and a signature dish at my favorite restaurant in the world, Plistia, which is tucked away in the National Park of Abruzzo. Laura Decina is the chef there (though she would probably call herself a cook), and during my most recent visit she very generously let me into her kitchen and showed me how to make it. It is by no means a fancy dish but it is luxurious all the same: thickly sliced potatoes are layered with scamorza (or, as I have adapted in the accompanying recipe, pecorino fresco), fresh bread crumbs seasoned with parsley and garlic, and Parmigiano, then doused with good olive oil.

And I mean doused. The large quantity of oil allows the potatoes to cook to buttery tenderness and at the same time creates a beautifully crisp golden-brown crust.

You can, of course, adapt the recipe and use less oil. I tend to use as much as the traditional recipe calls for, or close to it, and then pour out what is left in the pan once the potatoes are baked. Remember, you needn’t eat a large quantity: A small wedge will more than satisfy.

-- Domenica Marchetti is the author of "Big Night In." Follow her on Twitter.

Patate Maritate With Pecorino Fresco
12 servings

This is a great party dish, as it can be assembled in advance and feeds a lot of people. But the recipe can be cut in half easily.

Adapted from chef Laura Decina of Ristorante Plistia in Abruzzo, Italy.

4 cups fresh plain bread crumbs (see NOTE)
2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Whole leaves from 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley (1 cup)
3 pounds potatoes, such as Yukon Gold (preferably older potatoes)
1/2 to 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil (see headnote)
1/2 to 1 cup olive oil (not extra-virgin)
1 pound pecorino fresco, scamorza or supermarket mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have a 9-by-13-inch baking pan at hand.

Combine the bread crumbs, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, a generous grind of pepper and the parsley in a medium bowl and toss to incorporate. Let the mixture sit while you prepare the potatoes.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/4-inch-thick slices.

Combine the oils in a large liquid measuring cup.

Pour half the mixed oils into a large baking pan. Arrange one layer of potatoes in the bottom. Sprinkle them with a third of the remaining teaspoon of salt.

Remove the garlic from the bread crumbs (reserve for another use, if desired).

Scatter one-third of the bread-crumb mixture over the potatoes. Sprinkle with a third of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Top with half of the pecorino fresco. Arrange a second layer of potatoes over the pecorino; sprinkle with a third of the remaining salt. Top with a third of the bread-crumb mixture, a third of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and the remaining pecorino fresco. Make a third layer of potatoes; sprinkle with the remaining 1/3 teaspoon of salt. Top with the remaining bread-crumb mixture and the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano. Drizzle the remaining oil mixture over the potatoes.

Bake uncovered for 1 1/2 hours, or until the potatoes are very tender and the bread crumb topping is a deep golden-brown. Let it sit for 5 minutes.

At this point, you can drain some of the oil by carefully tipping the pan. Cut the potatoes into wedges and serve immediately.

NOTE: To make fresh bread crumbs, trim the crust off a one-pound oaf of country or peasant-style bread. Break the interior of the loaf into large chunks. Working in 2 batches, place them in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the bread chunks have broken into small crumbs.

Per serving (with 3/4 cup oil): 360 calories, 14 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 23 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 26 mg cholesterol, 774 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  January 19, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Pecorino fresco, Say Cheese, recipes  
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Cheese and potatoes, two of my favorite foods! Looks divine - I will definitely have to try this recipe.

Posted by: golda78 | January 19, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Golda78--the amount of oil is truly frightening. I wanted to stick close to the original recipe (it's one of the signature dishes at the restaurant where I had it)but you could probably easily halve the amount of oil with good results.

Posted by: Domenica1 | January 19, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Domenica - when you describe scamorza, I immediately think of caciacavallo (ivory in color, mild, teardrop-shaped). My cousin makes that in Abruzzo (the village is actually in the Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo). I still have some left from my trip last year and plan to make Patate Maritate with it. Grazie.

Posted by: socoblogboy | January 20, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

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