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Ricotta can be so much more than the main ingredient in lasagna. Its fresh and creamy flavor can shine in many other recipes. The vegetables of spring — green peas, tender green beans, earthy beets — make companionable partners.The key to the best flavors is the same in any recipe – buy the best you can find. In the case of ricotta, look for a fresh aroma and taste and creamy texture. Traditionally, ricotta is made from whey leftover from making other cheeses, but it should still taste of milk. Hand-dipped is a good phrase to look for because it is handled more gently; a lightness to it that ricotta absolutely should have. It shouldn’t be dense. Traditional basket-drained ricotta almost quivers like panna cotta or a custard. If you have a cheese shop nearby, it might carry ricotta from an artisan maker. Italian grocery stores and supermarkets with a good cheese selection often have fresh, hand-dipped ricotta.

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

Line a large sieve with cheesecloth (about 4 or 5 large layers) or a thin kitchen towel and set it over a medium bowl.

To make about 1-1/2 pounds of cheese: pour 3 quarts, plus 3 cups whole milk into a stainless steel pot with 1 cup heavy cream (not ultra pasteurized). If possible make them both organic.

Bring the milk and cream to a very gentle simmer, stir in 2 teaspoons salt and 1/3 cup lemon juice (fresh squeezed). Simmer 1 or 2 minutes or until you have cloud-like clumps floating in almost clear liquid. Do not let the liquid boil and don’t let the clumps cook until they are hard.

Scoop them up with a slotted spoon and into the cheesecloth lined sieve. Gently pull together and twist the top of the cheesecloth so that it compacts the curds.Put the bowl in the refrigerator. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours and then your ricotta is ready to be used. Note: I do not throw away the liquid that remains. I use it for baking.

Some ways to serve ricotta cheese:

On fresh melon: Mix ricotta with a little sugar and a little milk to loosen it, then dollop it on melon slices along with fresh mint.

On pizza: Drop tablespoons on the top of the pizza. It will soften in the oven, spreading out, but won’t melt. Mix in fresh chopped herbs first, if you like. Basil is especially good.

On vegetables: Serve on top of roasted asparagus, with a little extra-virgin olive oil and pepper. Also zucchini, green beans or artichokes. Add another cheese for saltiness, if you like, such as Pecorino or Parmesan.

Stuff pancakes with ricotta or use it to replace some of the milk in your pancake recipe.

Crostini: Small slices of toasted bread are a great base for ricotta with some additional ingredients: ricotta with olives and pistachios or roasted cherry tomatoes with ricotta. Whip ricotta cheese with honey, spread on crostini and top with sliced fresh figs and toasted sliced almonds.

Dip: Place 1 cup drained ricotta in a bowl; stir in 2 tablespoons finely chopped herbs (a mix of any of these: basil, thyme, parsley, chives), 1 to 2 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil, and coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Allow to rest at least 30 minutes for the flavors to mingle. Serve with sliced vegetables, crackers or toasted bread.

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Sugar Snap Peas with Ricotta

Place 1/2 cup whole milk ricotta in a fine mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel; set over a bowl and refrigerate overnight. The ricotta will lose much of its water content and thicken.

Whisk the drained ricotta in a small bowl with 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil until smooth. Whisk in kosher salt and pepper, to taste. Continue to whisk until the ricotta is fluffy and creamy.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water.

Blanch 2 cups sugar snap peas (about ½ pound) in the boiling water until bright green, 30-40 seconds. Drain; immediately transfer peas to the ice bath. Let stand until chilled. Drain the peas; spread them on a clean dish towel to dry.

Combine the peas in a bowl with 2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions, 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley, 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped mint, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and pepper to taste.

Spread 2 tablespoons ricotta on each of four plates. Mound 1/2 cup of the peas on top of the ricotta. Drizzle with more olive oil and add a sprinkle of parsley.

Makes: 4 servings

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Baked Ricotta Pudding

Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Soak 1/2 cup yellow raisins in hot water (or sweet Marsala or rum) to cover until plumped, about 15 minutes.

Butter a 9-inch glass or ceramic pie plate with 1 tablespoon melted butter; spread 1 to 2 tablespoons fine cookie crumbs, such as amaretti, in the plate to coat.

Blend 1 2/3 cups whole-milk ricotta, 2 large eggs, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 3 tablespoons sugar in a blender until very smooth, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the drained raisins and 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped toasted pistachios. Pour the batter into the cookie lined pie plate.

Bake in middle of the oven until puffed, golden and just set, about 25 minutes. Cool pudding on a rack. Dust with powdered sugar, if desired.

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Rice and Ricotta Cakes

Serves 2 as a main course; 4 as an appetizer

  • 1 and 1/3 cups cooked wild rice or any leftover rice, cooled to room temperature
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 shallots or 6 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
  • 2/3 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Directions

In a bowl, combine the cooked rice with the egg, shallots, ricotta, salt, pepper and flour. Mix thoroughly.

Heat a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add half the olive oil. After 1 minute, spoon in half of the rice mixture in small mounds, making 4 fritters. Flatten with a spatula. Cook until golden on the bottom, about 3 minutes, then turn and cook until the other side is also golden and the fritters are set. Remove to a plate.

Repeat with the remaining wild rice mixture and olive oil. Serve hot.

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Ricotta, Broccoli Rabe and Mushroom Pizza

Ingredients

  • 1 pound broccoli rabe, tough stems removed
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 6 kalamata olives, pitted and finely chopped
  • 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced (about 3 cups)
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 crust (half a recipe) Pizza Dough, see below
  • 3/4 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese

Directions

Place a baking stone in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. If you don’t have a baking stone, use a large inverted baking sheet placed on an oven rack. Fill a large bowl with ice water.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boiling. Add broccoli rabe and cook for 4 minutes. Using tongs, remove broccoli rabe from the boiling water and quickly plunge it into the bowl of ice water to cool it and stop the cooking process. Transfer broccoli rabe to a colander set in the sink; drain well. Chop broccoli rabe into bite-size pieces. Set aside. (This can be done up to 24 hours ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.)

In a small bowl pour enough hot water over raisins to cover; set aside.

In a large skillet heat oil over low heat. Add garlic; cook about 2 minutes or just until garlic is light golden brown, stirring occasionally. Add olives. Increase heat to medium-high. Add mushrooms and crushed red pepper. Cook about 3 minutes or just until mushrooms soften. Remove from the heat; stir in broccoli rabe.

Drain raisins in a colander set in the sink, pressing to remove excess water. Add raisins to broccoli rabe mixture; toss to mix well.

Using a slotted spoon, place broccoli rabe mixture onto the pizza crust. Drop small dollops of the ricotta cheese onto the pizza. Sprinkle with the Pecorino-Romano cheese.

Bake on the pizza stone or inverted baking sheet for 15 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and ingredients hot.

Pizza Dough

Ingredients

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 2 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 ½ cups warm water (105 degrees F to 115 degrees F)
  • Cornmeal

Directions

Brush a large bowl with olive oil; set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook or in a food processor, combine flour, yeast and salt. Combine the honey, olive oil and warm water in a measuring cup.

With the mixer on low-speed or the food processor running, pour in the olive oil, honey and warm water. Mix or process until all of the ingredients are combined. If using a mixer, increase the speed to medium and continue to knead about 2 minutes or until a soft dough forms. If using a food processor, continue to process until dough forms a wet ball.

Place dough in the prepared bowl; turn once to coat dough surface. Cover with plastic wrap, making sure the dough does not touch plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature for 1 hour and 30 minutes until nearly doubled in size.

Lightly coat a baking sheet with olive oil. Cut dough into two portions. On a lightly floured surface, use floured hands to stretch one ball of dough into a circle 10 to 12 inches in diameter (1/4 to 1/2-inch thick). Sprinkle a baking peel with cornmeal; place dough circle on the peel. Reserve the remaining dough portion for another pizza. Follow directions above for toppings and baking.

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Ricotta Omelets

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 4 large eggs, divided
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 4 tablespoons ricotta, divided
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan, divided
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, divided
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives, divided
  • Cherry Tomato Vinaigrette, recipe below

Directions

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in an 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat.

Season 2 eggs with salt and pepper and blend. Add to the skillet. Cook eggs, stirring gently with a heat proof spatula, until eggs are lightly scrambled and almost cooked, about 3 minutes. Spread eggs out to evenly cover the bottom of the skillet.

Top eggs with half of the ricotta, Parmesan, basil and chives. Using the spatula, fold up one-third of the omelet. Roll omelet over onto itself, then slide omelet onto a plate.

Repeat with remaining ingredients to make a second omelet. Top with Cherry Tomato Vinaigrette.

Cherry Tomato Vinaigrette

Ingredients

  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Directions

Cut half of the cherry tomatoes in half. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 4 minutes.

Add halved and whole tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until they  begin to release juices, 4–6 minutes. Mash some of the tomatoes with a spoon.

Add 1 tablespoon vinegar and the remaining 2 tablespoons oil; season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or room temperature; add chives just before serving.

DO AHEAD: Vinaigrette can be made (without chives) 2 days ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature and stir in chives.

 

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