I had the good fortune to have lunch with Lidia Bastianich yesterday, as she hosted an afternoon of nibbling on Grana Padano cheese and dishes made with it.
Before I wax poetic about this amazing cheese and give you some pointers on how to use it, a quick quiz:
The answer is "A sweet hard cheese made with milk from the Po Valley of Northern Italy." It is not Parmesan. It's like Parmesan in the sense that it is a hard Italian cheese made from cow's milk, but Grana Padano is specifically made from milk from Northern Italy's Po River Valley following a tradition created by monks in 1000 AD. It was originally produced as a way of using up leftover milk and to this day is made with skimmed milk. It has a more subtle and less salty flavor than Parmesan. It also tends to be less expensive.
Today's Grana is aged between nine and 20-30 months. The youngest is lends itself best to cooking, although never physically cook the cheese because it will separate unless it is sealed inside something like a ravioli or breast of chicken. The more mature cheese (Riseva is a variety aged 20 months or more), has a very grainy, flaky texture. It's best enjoyed on its own or grated over a dish.
Lidia's chef, Fortunato Nicotra, made some amazing dishes, including a farro and pear risotto that I'm going to try to make. If all goes well, you'll be seeing the recipe here soon.
Nutritionally, speaking, Grana is about equal to Parmesan in calories, protein and fat, but is lower in sodium and cholesterol and higher in calcium. Compared to good old cheddar, it is lower in fat, cholesterol and higher in protein and calcium. It's no wonder Lidia went on and on about giving her grand babies nibbles of Grana. Wonder what my little girl ate as an afternoon snack? Take a guess.
Grana Padano is pretty easy to find in local gourmet shops and even some grocery stores. If you can't find it in your neighborhood, you can definitely get some online. Look for the Grana Padano logo on the rind to ensure you're getting the real deal.
In New York, check out Lou DiPalo's shop, DiPalo Fine Foods (right around the corner from Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn headquarters!) at 200 Grand Street. I met Lou, a passionate Grana enthusiast, at the lunch and I'm confident that he can guide you on a Grana tasting or cooking adventure.
• Buy Grana Padano online from DiPalo Selects (aged 16-20 months, $13.99/lb and Riserva aged at least 20 months, $14.99/lb) and iGourmet.com ($9.99/lb and up)
Related: Recipe: Poor Man's Parmesan