Wednesday, October 13, 2010

ingredient: RICOTTA

Some of the best things in life are byproducts of other great things. Molasses. Cracklins. Jeff Bridges. My personal favorite may be ricotta, a fresh and ebullient cheese made from whey, the byproduct of regular cheese production.

Ricotta has a lot of things going for it. First of all, the texture. It is downright pillowy. I’d like to emphasize here that much of the ricotta you buy in the store (as opposed to fresh ricotta) is not pillowy. It is gummy and almost grainy, because instead of draining the liquid out of the ricotta, they add stabilizers like guar gum (weak). So read on with the knowledge that I am talking about real, delicious, light-as-air ricotta made from adding acid to heated whey, then draining.

So thanks to its fluffy texture, ricotta is the perfect filling for pastas. There is nothing like biting through a nice layer of al dente pasta and meeting a soft, flavorful filling. And in cassata, that crazy, sweeter than sweet cake made by the Sicilians, who I applaud for being on a constant national sugar high, ricotta tops layers of sponge cake and candied citrus peel and sometimes even chocolate or vanilla icing. The filling is then soaked in fruit juice or more likely a liquor, and then this whole mess is covered with a marzipan shell and decorative fruit. The crunch of marzipan shell giving way to soft ricotta is my equivalent of the tap of the spoon on crème brulée. But whether you're Sicilian or French or anything in between, I think we can all agree: textural contrast is the shit.

The second great thing about ricotta is the flavor. Ricotta can easily be sweet (as in cannoli, as in cheesecakes, as in drizzle it with honey and eat it for breakfast because that’s clearly what they’re doing in heaven, where I’ve heard the clouds are made out of ricotta.) Or it can be savory (talking about lasagna, ravioli, calzone, or drizzled with olive oil and salt and eaten for breakfast because that’s clearly what they’re doing in hell, where everyone is hung-over and needs a nice little savory snack.) In short, ricotta is an enabler; it just wants to help you out. Need a little moisture in those muffins? Ricotta. Sick of topping that bruschetta with tomatoes? Ricotta.

Another great thing about ricotta is that you can easily make a version of it at home using milk and vinegar and feel like Alton Brown.

Regardless of whether you eat ricotta fresh, use it in cooking, or add it to baked goods, this is perhaps the friendliest of all cheeses. So grab a tub and play around; Alton would approve.

Ricotta and Spinach Gnudi
with the Simplest Tomato Sauce Ever

I have eaten a lot of ricotta in my lifetime because my Grammy’s specialty is manicotti. Or as she says, “manicot” which is filled with “rigot” (hard g). Yeah. Good though her manicot may be, I needed a change, a new ricotta recipe. Bring on the gnudi. Pronounced nude-y, like the state you’re in after someone convinces you that really, that’s what Italians do at the beach.

Gnudi are basically ricotta dumplings. Have you ever eaten ravioli where the filling was delicious but there just wasn't enough and the flavor was lost under the pasta wrapping? Well rejoice: these are just the inside of a raviolo, broken free of its shell. The spinach here adds flavor and body, but it also turns the dumplings green. Don’t be alarmed. Do serve them at Christmas with the red sauce and be the theme-queen. Zing.


1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
2 cups baby spinach, or regular spinach with stems discarded
1 cup grated Parmesan
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus 1 cup for coating


*If you are making the tomato sauce as well, start that first (scroll down for recipe).*

Heat a medium skillet over medium high heat. Rinse off the spinach and then throw into the pan without drying it off. Stir the spinach until it has wilted down into a shockingly small pile. Place the spinach on a layer of paper towels or an old dishcloth and let it cool. Squeeze the spinach dry. A lot of liquid will come out. If you’ve ever made spanikopita you’ll know how important it is to get that spinach bone dry. If you leave liquid in your spinach, it will add too much moisture to the dumplings and they will fall apart and then you will be sad. Finely chop the spinach.

In a large bowl, mix the ricotta, spinach, Parmesan, eggs, and egg yolks. Then stir in the nutmeg, salt, pepper, and 5 tablespoons of flour. At this point, take a look at the dough. It should be sticky but definitely pliable. If it seems to wet or loose, add a little more flour. Put the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt like the sea.

Take the dough out of fridge. Using either your hands or a spoon, or two spoons if you’re familiar with shaping quenelles, form mixture into small footballs, around 1.5 to two inches long.

Dredge the gnudi in the extra flour to coat them lightly, like you would a schnitzel. Slide the formed gnudi into the boiling water. Be careful not to overcrowd the pan, so it’s better to work in batches if needed. The gnudi should take about four minutes to cook. You’ll know that they’re done because, like ravioli, they will have floated to the surface. Remove gnudi with a slotted spoon. Serve with tomato sauce.

Simplest Tomato Sauce Ever

Taken from Marcella Hazan

This recipe is shocking. Simplest sauce ever is no hyperbole. It’s almost unsettlingly easy. And tasty. Never buy store-bought again.


2 cups canned plum tomatoes (whole, peeled, chopped, with their juices about one 28-oz. can)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter (this may sound strange but do not use olive oil instead. The butter seems to be the magical key ingredient to this sauce’s silkiness)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
salt, to taste

Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter, and the onion halves in a medium saucepan.

Add a pinch or two of salt. Place the sauce over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, at a very slow but steady simmer, adjusting the heat as necessary, for about 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free from the tomato.

Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and salt as needed.
Discard the onion. Or do as I do and pull it aside, cover it in salt, and eat. Yum.

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