Parmigiano-Reggiano (parmesan) is a wonderful ingredient. Sprinkled on top of a pizza or pasta, or as a fully fledged pesto, it stands on its own two feet as a discernible component, bringing its own flavour to the mix. But I find that, much more than this in-your-face 'hi, I'm parmsesan!', it is most wonderfully used as a subtle, didn't-even-realise-it-was-there, addition to a meal.
The New Year's Eve dinner that I cooked for my wife and I is a prime example. I made a starter of scallops with chorizo and pea puree. Seems very simple enough, potentially just 3 main components. I've also made the pea puree many times, to varying degrees of success. But on this occasion I decided to add parmesan to the puree. Not much, just a few grates on the microplane. But boy, did it make all the difference. You could taste the puree 100 times and not know it was there. But the umami was obvious - the savory NEED to keep going back for more, to the point we had the puree with the main course as well - something we never do as we don't like repetition in our food!
This under-the-radar addition isn't enjoyed by parmesan alone, however. It is the reason we gently fry onions and then add garlic to many sauces and dishes. Anchovies - despite being a massive punch of flavour in their own right - can melt down in a pan and sit underneath many a fantastic dinner. It brings together a whole host of depth of flavour.
And maybe this is the key point of my ramblings. Depth of flavour. The many layers of a meal that keep you coming back again and again, as every mouthful offers something new and different. There is no one single one-size-fits-all way to bring depth of flavour, but being aware of them makes us better cooks. Sometimes it's using the Maillard reaction to caramelise amino acids. It may be aging your meat to remove moisture and concentrate flavour, or reducing down liquids in a pan. Even fermentation of foods, like kimchi, can bring about unique blend of oral delights. And sometimes it is simply adding an ingredient that won't be tasted, but will most certainly be sensed.