I had a bit of a mad moment at Borough Market on Saturday. I had already visited the stall that sells only parma ham and buffalo mozzarella and bought some of each as the basis of a cold collation and then I went to Neals Yard. They had big balls of mozzarella half price - a bargain! As David was coming over for supper I thought I'd add that to the plate of nibbles to start but later I realised I already had olives and stuffed vine leaves and a small salami so it probably didn't need the addition of cheese for just the two of us before the main course. Which meant I had a little more mozzarella than was strictly necessary. I love the stuff but I needed to come up with a plan - to waste it would be criminal.
Mozzarella is a very simple cheese. There are two basic ways to make it: direct acidification of the milk to form the curds or the culture/rennet method. In both methods, raw milk is pasteurized and then coagulated to form curds. Once the curds reach a pH of 5.2 they are cut into small pieces and mixed with hot water and then "strung" or "spun" until long ropes of cheese form. This "stringing of the curd" is unique to cheeses in the "pasta filata" family, such as mozzarella, scamorza and provolone. When the proper smooth, elastic consistency is reached, the curds are formed by machine or hand into balls which are then tossed into cold water so that they maintain their shapes while they cool. They are then salted and packaged. It is a short making process, usually less than 8 hours from raw milk to finished cheese. The critical moment is determining exactly when the cheese is mature and ready to be strung...waiting too long can result in a mushy cheese, while stringing too early can result in a tough dry cheese.
The superior mozzarella I buy at Borough tastes fresh and reminiscent of milk. It is an extraordinarily delicate thing. It has a hint of sourness (if it tastes too tart or sour the cheese is past its prime) and is glowingly white to behold. All in all a thing of beauty to see and to taste. We had the first lot for lunch Sunday with Parma ham and a little salad. The big ball I bought at Neals Yard I served with zucchinis and pasta and basil from the garden for an easy summer supper.
Penne with Zucchini and Mozzarella
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 tbspns flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
2 dried chillis, crushed - discard the seeds if you don't want it too hot
400g tin tomatoes
2 tbspns olive oil
400g/1lb small zucchini, halved and cut into 2cm/1inch peices
2 tbspns basil oil or more olive oil
300g/3/4lb dried penne
1 large ball buffalo mozzarella, shredded
2 tbspns fresh basil, roughly torn
Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan and gently cook the garlic, chilli and parsley till fragrant. Add the tinned tomatoes and stir to break them up. Leave to simmer for 20-30 minutes. In a separate pan heat the basil oil and fry the zucchini over a medium heat till tinged with gold, softened but retaining a little bite.
Cook the penne according to the instructions on the packet. Add the zucchinis to the tomato pan. Drain the pasta when al dente and add to the vegetables. Add the mozzarella and basil and mix thoroughly. Check the seasoning and serve immediately.