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Recipe-phile: Say 'cheese' in the coming year

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entertainment Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

I've been on weird cooking jags before, but I never thought I'd be making my own cheese on such a regular basis. (Well, maybe I did have some cheesemaking fantasties, but they were just that - daydreams - propped with a fieldstone cave for aging, some sheep for milking and Heidi-of-the-Mountain-era hewn buckets, that sort of thing.)

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But now I find myself making fresh ricotta in an old black-bottomed pot in my own kitchen, at least once a week, in about the time it takes to make a pot of coffee.

I'm not talking about making a complex cheese, such as cheddar or blue. This fresh cheese - also called pot cheese, or ricotta, all the same as far as I can tell - is surprisingly easy. Comprised of just whole milk and buttermilk, it takes just five minutes, not five months, to yield a batch of snowy fresh curds. It's cheap, fairly healthy and will impress your family and friends to no end.

This is what you do: Measure out four cups of milk into a large pot. (I like to use Minnesota-produced whole milk because it has better flavor.) Add a cup of buttermilk and salt to taste. (I use about a teaspoon, but you can use more if you want to make a tangier, bolder cheese along the lines of ricotta salata.) Bring to a rapid boil, clearing the bottom of the pot with a whisk now and then. As it boils, a fluffy raft of white curds will rise up. Turn off the heat and pour everything through a sieve which you have lined with a few layers of cheesecloth. Let it drain until it looks and feels like a dry cottage cheese, then wrap the cheesecloth around the bundle, twist the top, and store in a dry container in the refrigerator.

The whey dripping down has value, too. That's good, because you'll have a lot of it. I've mostly used it as a substitute for stock in my potato soup. You can add it to any soup, but its lightly cheesy flavor adds unbelievable depth to the vegetarian ones.

Having fresh ricotta on hand has improved many a dinner. Mexican food, for example, which usually calls for a some kind of fresh cheese, or queso fresco, tastes so much better, and more authentic, with a little five-minute ricotta.

It's also wonderful crumbled over any pasta (even spaghetti and meatballs), in green salads, in soups, or just smeared thickly on toast for breakfast (ham coverlet optional).

And those are just the sideshows. If you're really into fresh ricotta, you should try ricotta dumpings. Also known as ricotta gnocchi (dumplings) or gnudi (nude ravioli), they're made almost entirely of fresh cheese, with a little egg and browned butter in there for structure. You form the cheese into mini torpedos (or little round balls if you like) and then roll them in a bath of flour before gently poaching. The flour attaches itself to the moist gnudi, forming an ersatz layer of dough, so that they emerge from the water enclosed in miraculous, whisper-thin skins of pasta.

They're well worth the little bit of work they take to make. (They freeze well, too). I serve them with a rotating cast of garnishes, but usually a quick roasted cherry tomato sauce. But for a solo meal, I would probably just toss them with browned butter and fresh sage.

Ricotta

4 cups whole milk

1 cup buttermilk

salt

Cut a 2-foot piece of fine cheesecloth, rinse it well and squeeze it dry. Unfold it and refold it into a square three-layers thick. Lay it out in a sieve.

Combine milk and buttermilk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk in a pinch of salt. Heat over high heat, stirring once in a while, until it boils and the curds separate from the whey. Pour everything through the cheesecloth-lined sieve. Leave to drip all excess moisture. For a moister ricotta, double or triple the cheesecloth; for a drier ricotta, fold the cheesecloth into just two layers.

Old-fashioned Cottage Cheese

4 cups whole milk

¼ cup heavy cream

salt to taste

Cut a 2-foot piece of fine cheesecloth, rinse it well and squeeze it dry. Unfold it and refold it into a square three-layers thick. Lay it out in a sieve.

Combine milk and buttermilk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk in a hefty pinch of salt. Heat over high heat, stirring once in a while, until it reaches 190 degrees, and the curds separate from the whey.

Pour everything through the cheesecloth-lined sieve. Leave to drip for one hour. Move the curds to a bowl and mix with the cream and salt to taste.

Ricotta Gnocchi with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Gnocchi

1 pound (2 cups) ricotta cheese, preferably homemade

2 eggs

1 tablespoon butter

3 sage leaves, minced

1/2 teaspoons salt + to taste

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

3 cups all-purpose flour

Roasted cherry tomatoes

3 10-ounce packs of cherry tomatoes

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 turns pepper

4 basil leaves, torn

3 cloves garlic, sliced

2 sprigs rosemary (optional)

3 tablespoons fine bread crumbs

Pan-sauce

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Fine sea salt to taste

freshly ground black pepper to taste

½ cup pasta cooking water

3 tablespoons butter

6 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss the tomatoes with 3 tablespoons olive oil, salt, pepper, basil leaves, sliced garlic and thyme and pour out onto a sheet tray. Spread out thinly, so that they have enough space to roast, and sprinkle the toasted bread crumbs evenly over the top. Pop into the oven and roast until the skins have split and the tomatoes have shrunk, about 35 minutes. Remove the basil and thyme, and scrape the contents of the pan--including juice--into a casserole and keep warm.

For the gnocchi, heat the butter and sage in a small sauté pan and cook until the butter has browned. Cool. Combine the ricotta cheese, egg, half of the grated parmesan and brown butter in a large bowl and mix to combine, beating with a wooden spoon until fluffy. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drop 2 teaspoons of filling from a spoon into the bowl of flour and then form with your hands into an ovoid shape, rolling in the flour to make sure it's thickly coated. (You can keep the gnocchi in the flour, refrigerated, for about 30 hours (a day and a half) if you want.)

Otherwise, you can cook them fresh. Shake the excess flour from the gnocchi and line them up on a sheet tray. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and season it well with salt, until it tastes like seawater. When it returns to the boil, add the gnocchi, in three batches, and cook until they float on the surface for 30 seconds. Remove to a sieve to drain.

In a sauté pan large enough to later hold the gnocchi, heat the 1/4 cup olive oil and add the minced garlic. Cook until fragrant, then add the pasta cooking water and butter and remaining 1/4 cup olive oil. Reduce until the sauce lightly naps the back of a spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and reserve.

When all of the gnocchi are done, add them to the pan sauce. Heat and gently swirl the pan until the sauce coats the gnocchi. Add the remaining grated cheese, toss to coat, and plate 5 or 6 ricotta dumplings per portion. Top with a spoonful of roasted tomatoes and serve immediately.

Liptauer

This is an Austrian cheese spread traditionally made with quark, a fresh cheese. Tangy and fresh, it's great for the holidays.

1 cup fresh ricotta cheese

1 small (3 ounce) log of goat cheese

1/4 cup sour cream

1/4 cup grated parmesan or pecorino

1 tablespoon capers, chopped finely

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme

1 tablespon finely chopped parsley

1 ½ teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika + more for garnish

pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

2 teaspoons lemon juice

½ clove garlic, finely grated and mashed to a paste

salt and pepper to taste

Bring all cheeses to room temperature. Add the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly with a rubber spatula. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve in a bowl with a sprinkle of paprika for color, alongside bread, crackers and ham.

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