Chef Jasper Mirable, Jr. and I had just finished a live remote last Saturday at the Lenexa Hen House Market for our weekly radio food show, LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen.
By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
I busy myself, picking up notes and packing my computer, and Mirabile obliges a request from Tim France, Kansas City’s area market supervisor for Krispy Kreme, by autographing a Jasper’s Restaurant cookbook.
The proverbial multi-tasker, the chef also makes small talk with a couple of Hen House shoppers who stop by our KCMO table to say hello.
Suddenly, an overhead announcement catches Mirabile’s attention.
“This is Laura Connell, your Hen House Cheese Steward, and I’m getting ready to crack a fresh wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano in the cheese department,” the perky voice sang throughout the store’s aisles. “Come join me — you don’t want to miss this.”
Driven to find the source of this apparently irresistible proclamation, Jasper politely interrupts his conversation about the joys of a fresh-never-frozen Thanksgiving turkey and makes tracks toward the cheese department.
Never one to shy away from any adventure with the Cannoli King, I scurry behind him, eager to discover the reason for his excitement.
There, in the midst of cheese, cheese and more cheese, is a petite, chef-coated woman struggling to steady a massive wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano atop a table nearly dwarfed by the cheese’s girth.
It is the spritely Cheese Steward Connell, ready to crack open an authentic piece of Italy, right in the middle of Kansas.
Nearby sits a trio of shiny Boska knives, looking suspiciously like instruments a highly skilled surgeon might require to perform a delicate operation.
Unbeknownst to Connell is Chef Jasper’s intention to participate in the effort. Actually, she has no choice. By the time the 80-pound wheel of Parm is situated on the table, Mirabile has pulled on gloves and is fixated on the round of cheese filling the table’s circumference.
Mirabile, a bona fide cheese expert and aficionado, has shared his cheesy adventures with me many times.
The globetrotting chef has made Parmigiano-Reggiano in Parma, the Emilia-Romagna Region in northern Italy famous for its production of the so-called King of Cheeses, alongside cheese masters who make the celebrated cheese as it originated some eight centuries ago.
He’s tasted aged slivers of the stuff that made him quiver in delight; cooked fresh-made pasta in a hollowed-out round; and he’s served as Wisconsin’s Cheese Ambassador, yodeling about well-made, handcrafted varieties from across the country and world, including his beloved Italy.
So today, Mirabile considers the opportunity to crack a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano deemed authentic by the Consortium — established in 1928 to prevent fraud and protect the heritage of Grana Reggiano, or Regianno Hard Cheese — an honor.
Comprised of more than 380 artisanal cheese producers in Italy, the Consortium can read a wheel of real-deal Parmigiano-Reggiano like an archeologist deciphers hieroglyphics.
“These,” Mirabile explained, running his gloved fingers over the dotted inscriptions around the wheel’s rind, “mark the origin of the cheese and its acceptance by the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano.”
By now a small group of curious Hen House shoppers has gathered and we watch, as Mirabile in his red sweater and Connell in her green chef’s coat — looking much like a pair of mischievous elves — prepare to display their cheese-cracking skills.
With one of the Boska knives, Connell scores the cheese down the middle of its top and sides. She picks up a different knife and inserts it into the exact center of the top of the wheel and then Mirabile takes a wedge knife and sticks it into one side of the wheel.
“The cracking has begun,” said Connell as she labors to flip the wheel and score the bottom.
Mirabile and Connell work together like two cheese whisperers to divide the wheel in half, their gloved hands slippery from the cheese’s oils.
The exercise to coax the wheel into two equal halves is a physical workout, leaving both Mirabile and Connell red-faced — grinning like mice about to quiet a gnawing cheese addiction.
“Ah, this is inspiring,” said Mirabile.
In approximately seven minutes, the gigantic wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano falls away in two giant pieces, like a mighty iceberg in the Antarctic separating. The aromatic, nutty scent of the cheese wafts above the crowd, the shoppers breaking into spontaneous applause.
Connell and Mirabile shake hands, satisfied with the cheese theater they just provided. The Cheese Steward begins to dispense shavings of the prized Parmigiano-Reggiano.
“The center of the wheel, as history goes, was always reserved for royalty,” explained Mirabile to onlookers. “The non-royals got the outer portion of the cheese.”
Mirabile and I lock eyes.
“Here,” he said, handing me a generous wedge, “this is pure happiness. Buon appetito. Enjoy.”
And I do — nibbling on a divine chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, cut from the center of one of the cheese’s splits, a piece of Italy, straight from the cradle of centuries-old craftsmanship.
Chef Jasper Mirabile is Hen House Market’s spokesperson (who can forget Flat Jasper?) and develops recipes for the family-owned Kansas City supermarket chain. This simple yet show-stopping salad is a perfect accompaniment to holiday meals ahead on the calendar. Mirabile likes the pomegranate seeds color juxtaposed against the white cheese and vibrant greens.
Be sure to chill your salad plates and forks, just like Jasper’s Restaurant does, to enhance your enjoyment of the salad.
Holiday Pear, Pomegranate and Parmigiano-Reggiano Salad
1 cup Pomegranate seeds
4-6 ounces shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 cup Missouri pecans
1/4 cup Jasper’s Tuscan Salad Dressing
4 cups greens
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a sauté pan, add butter and heat. Add pecans and brown sugar and coat evenly. Lightly toast and set aside.
Thinly slice pears and drizzle with lemon juice. In a large salad bowl, mix greens, caramelized pecans, pomegranate seeds and shaved cheese. Drizzle with Jasper’s Tuscan Salad Dressing and toss. Sprinkle with salt and fresh cracked pepper. Serve on chilled plates with chilled forks.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.