When I was a mediocre (ok, bad) line cook in the ‘90s, frico was the hotness. If you somehow managed to avoid it then, frico (frici?) are traditional Italian cheese crisps that you make by just baking grated cheese. Hard cheeses, having hardly any moisture, will melt, brown, and crisp up all by themselves after a few minutes in a hot oven, which is, I admit, a pretty cool trick.
But then someone figured out that you can take your frici and bend them into cones or drape them over the bottoms of cups while they’re still warm and have them harden into shape. The limits of good sense and taste were bound to be trampled, and soon, sure enough, you had frico bowls for pasta, frico shards in salads, frico cigars, frico topped with stuff, frico on top of stuff, frico on top of other stuff at a slightly tilted angle to look like Arsenio Hall’s head.
We frico’d it all, dutifully, for our chefs in their baggy chile-pepper-patterned pants. (Don’t worry, we’re working on getting Gilt’s fashion stores to carry them.) But we knew, all along, that this madness had to end. It was just too much frico.
But at dinner a few months ago, decades later, at the veg-tastic ABC Kitchen, I had some fantastic roasted vegetables with a certain familiar savor, a salty tang, a deep umami. And a little bit of crackle. Chef Dan Kluger told me the secret and, sure enough, it was the return of my old friend frico. Only he used an ingenious method: Roasting the cheese and vegetables together.
So I took to my kitchen and tried to replicate his brilliance with some carrots. I confess that I haven’t come up with a carbon copy of Chef Kluger’s dish (You don’t get to be named the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant for nothing), but in my experiments, I found something just as interesting: If you lay cheese down on the pan right next to the vegetables, you’ll inevitably do it unevenly, which makes some bits crisp and some bits chewy, both lovely with the softness of cooked carrots. And the flavor is just gorgeous –vegetal sweetness balanced with the high tang of aged Parmesan, lengthened by the fat of olive oil and cheese. It was all pretty hot. I just might have to get some chile pepper pants.
Crisp, Chewy Parmesan-Roasted Carrots
Serves 4-6 as a side
1½ pounds sweet young carrots
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 ounces Parmesan cheese (for this, splurge and get really good Parmigiano Reggiano)
Salt, to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 375⁰F. Peel the carrots and cut into half-inch coins. Or, if you want to be cool, roll-cut them: Hold the carrot on the cutting board by the thick end. Start cutting from the thin end, pointing your knife at a 45-degree angle towards the thick end. Cut a 1” piece (measured on the long side). Roll the carrot towards you by a ¼ turn, then cut another 1” piece. Repeat over and over, until you have a pile of irregularly-shaped but evenly-sized chunks.
2. Grate cheese very fine, preferably with a microplane. Divide it into three even piles.
3. Toss carrots in a mixing bowl with olive oil and salt to taste. Toss again with one of the piles of cheese.
4. Evenly sprinkle a second pile of cheese all over a large baking sheet (see note below). Don’t just dump the bowl of carrots onto it – place them on the pan as evenly as you can (you don’t want to bunch all the cheese together) in one layer. Evenly sprinkle the remaining cheese all over pan, so it finds all the spaces in between the carrots.
5. Roast for 15-18 minutes, or until the carrots are tender, the cheese around edges of the pan is a rich brown, and the cheese in the middle is a nice golden brown.
7. Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool to room temperature; as it cools, the cheese will firm up; the browner stuff will be crisp, the lighter chewy. Scrape it up with spatula, somewhat gently to keep the cheese in shards. Serve at room temperature or slightly rewarmed.
Note: The size of the baking sheet and the amount and evenness of the cheese are key to what kind of texture you get. The smaller the sheet / the more bunched up the cheese, the chewier it will be; if the cheese is spread out thinly, it will brown more and get crisper. So you can adjust accordingly; if I’m in a severely crisp mood, I might even get drastic and use less cheese.