Last summer I was asked to judge an Iron Chef-inspired contest at the Durham Farmers Market. I was thrilled. It certainly validated my notion that perhaps I know a few things about food around hereuntil I learned what the not-so-secret ingredient would be: summer squash.
I have a very short list of foods I do not care for: scallops, black olives, peppers, zucchini and ricotta cheese. Peppers and zucchini are hard to avoid these summer months, but it helps narrow my options when dining out.
Something monumental happened that sweltering July morning: I, along with the other judges, chose a dish by Billy Cotter, chef-owner of Toast Paninoteca, as the overall winner. He made zucchini rollatini—thinly sliced squash that was salted, then rolled up around freshly made ricotta. There were also red pepper flakes involved, obviously a member of my foods-to-avoid list.
The squash was pretty tasty in that nearly raw, heavily seasoned format, and was refreshingly presented more like a cucumber. But for me, the ricotta was the star.
I had only ever liked the stuff inside a cannoli. I never put it in my own lasagna. I avoided stuffed shells. I felt it added nothing but a vague, disappointing flavor for a cheese, which is, after all, my favorite food group.
That sublime, salty, creamy ricotta has haunted me since last year. I had just one or two bites as a judge, but I wondered how something made during the one hour the chefs had to prepare their dishes could taste so much better than the store-bought ricotta I had long avoided.
I had to find out.
Graciously, Cotter and his wife, Kelli, agreed to take part of the one day they have off each week to show me how to make ricotta from scratch.
This has become quite in vogue, by the way. Celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, both published cookbooks in the last year with a fresh ricotta recipe. Actress and newly published cookbook author Gwyneth Paltrow recently featured Garten on her blog, GOOP, doing a ricotta demo.
The recipe is similar to others, though I trusted the casual interpretation the Cotters offered. No thermometer needed. No timers used.
Cotter swears by local milk and white vinegar, versus commercial milk and lemon juice, as some recipes call for. It was almost too simple. Bring two quarts of milk and two cups of half-and-half, with a few generous pinches of salt to the verge of a strong boil, turn off the heat and immediately add a quarter cup of white distilled vinegar and stir.
The milk mixture resembled the froth of a cappuccino when it was nearing the boil. I was also pleased to note there was virtually no stirring needed as we waited for the milk to reach the right boiling point. But don't be lazy.
"You really need to watch it, because it goes from hot to boiling over pretty quick," Cotter said.
Then leave it alone for about 10 minutes. This is where the magic happens and the curd separates from the whey. The floating curd, or ricotta, looked like a sea of perfectly poached egg whites, a bit glossy and the same slightly yellowed hue of white.
Some recipes call for pouring the whole mixture over a cheesecloth-lined strainer, but Cotter thinks it makes more sense to ladle the good stuff out so it drains faster. I'm with him. The thickness of the resulting ricotta depends on your taste as well as your patience. I am finding this difficult to wait for, and have mainly been eating this creamy goodness while it is still warm, spread on bread and drizzled with a bit of olive oil and coarse salt.
I made this on my own for the first time at my aunt's house, as she was in need of an appetizer for a party that night. In lieu of cheesecloth, we used paper towels. And we added some chopped chives when the ricotta had cooled. It was delicious, even though I was convinced I had let the milk boil too much and had stirred it a few times, influenced by my aunt's paranoia that it would scald if left alone.
Don't be afraid to profusely salt the milk mixture. It makes all the difference. A whole palmful would be fine, especially if you like to taste your cheese; otherwise this will be on the bland side.
My next project is to turn the homemade ri-GOT, as my people in New England call it, into the miracle that is cannoli filling. Just need to find some candied orange peel and I'll be on my way.
Billy Cotter's ricotta recipe
2 quarts whole milk
2 cups half-and-half
2 tbs. kosher salt (or more, if you like)
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
Cheesecloth and colander for straining
Bring the milk, half-and-half and salt to a near-boil over medium-high heat, and resist the urge to stir. If you have a good, thick-bottomed stainless steel pasta pot, it won't scald. Make sure the pot is nonreactive.
When the milk mixture is frothy and getting ready to really boil (past a simmer, before a raging boil), turn off the heat and immediately add the vinegar. Stir to incorporate, and then leave it alone for at least 10 minutes. I found that if the milk is really hot, you might need to poke a hole or two in the forming curd to release any steam underneath.
When the curd is done forming, ladle it into a cheesecloth-lined strainer and wait about 10 more minutes to eat, longer if you want thicker, cooler ricotta.
You can add herbs, additional salt, pepper or anything your palate desires before eating this homemade cheese.
Correction (June 25, 2011): Kelli Cotter's name was misspelled.