Monday, July 29, 2019

Homemade Fresh Cheese (“Ricotta”)

I’m not sure when I first discovered that making fresh, ricotta-like cheese at home was not only possible—but actually doable for anyone with a stove, some milk, a coagulant (lemon juice, vinegar or buttermilk) and a cheesecloth-lined sieve.  It was Michael Chiarello’s recipe in his aptly named Casual Cooking that tipped me off to the fact that making a fresh cheese was a simple—even quick—process.  Once I discovered his recipe I immediately began making—and teaching—fresh cheese.

Unfortunately my results weren’t always very consistent.  Sometimes my cheese was light and spreadable.  And then on other occasions it was stiff and a bit sticky.  It always tasted good…but I was unhappy about the unevenness of the results from a textural standpoint.  As a professional cook, consistency is something I always strive for. Whenever I visited one of my favorite restaurants (for Kansas City Locals: Extra Virgin), I nibbled their fresh ricotta and grilled bread platter with a mixture of pleasure and envy.  What were they doing to get such a consistently light and spreadable result?

As I stated at the beginning, the basic method for making fresh cheese is very straight forward and simple.  Place the milk in a saucepan.  If using buttermilk as your coagulant, add that with the milk.  Heat the milk.  If using an acid (lemon juice or vinegar) for your coagulant, add it to the heated milk.  Stir and watch the curds form.  Let the mixture sit (off the heat) for a few minutes to allow the curds to firm up.  Drain through a cheese cloth.  That’s it.  But clearly I was missing something.

If you take the time to look around, you will discover that the method truly doesn’t vary too much from site to site and cook to cook.  Some cooks add a bit of cream to the milk (for added richness and a slightly higher yield).  The recipe from Chiarello that I had started out with used buttermilk to set the curds.  I found that most recipes use lemon juice or distilled white vinegar.  Since I always have lemons on hand…and rarely keep buttermilk around…I switched to lemon juice.  My results were about the same.

There seems to be a bit of disagreement about the temperature to which the milk should be heated before adding the acid.  Most recipes take it to at least 180°.  Many go a bit higher than this.  Some even tell you to bring the milk to the boil.  My impression is that somewhere in the range of 180° to 190° is optimal.

The greatest amount of variation among the recipes that I looked at centered around the draining process—how it was accomplished and how long the curds should be allowed to drain.  And in the end, this seems to have been the source of my difficulty.  I think I had been allowing too much of the whey to drain away.  No one tells you this, but the cheese when it is at the correct, soft consistency for serving as a light and fluffy spread, will still look like it is way too wet.  But if you can scoop some of the curd up with a fork or spoon and you are rewarded with a substance that sits on your utensil in a soft, delicate, trembly mound, you are done.  Depending on how you transfer the curd into the cheesecloth, the time it takes to reach this point could be anywhere from 2 or 3 minutes to about 15 minutes. 

At 15 minutes.  If you scrape a bit a the edge with a rubber spatula--or even just lift
 the cheesecloth around the edges--you can see that the cheese is holding a shape.
Most recipes recommend 15 minutes as the minimum draining time…and suggest draining anywhere from an hour and up to overnight.  The only reason to do allow it to drain for this length of time is if your goal is super firm cheese (to be used in gnocchi, for example).   If this is the case, you may let the cheese continue to drain for up to an hour.  I have never found the need to drain it for longer than this.  No matter how long you drain it, the cheese becomes much firmer as it sits…and even firmer still under refrigeration.  Cheese drained for an hour will, after chilling, be as firm as cream cheese.  (If you beat the chilled cheese with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, you will smooth out the curd to the point that you really will have something that is very much like cream cheese.)

There are several methods that I have seen for draining the curd.  Michael Chiarello tells you to gently push the raft of curds aside and to ladle the whey (which is underneath the curds) into your cheesecloth lined sieve, getting rid of as much of the whey as possible before spooning the curds themselves into the sieve along with any remaining whey.  Patricia Wells in The Provence Cookbook directs you to prepare two cheesecloth lined sieves…and to spoon the majority of the curds into the first sieve—and then pour the whey and remaining solids into the second.  The few curds from the second sieve can be moved to the first.  Almost every other method I have ever seen tells you to just ladle or pour everything into the cheesecloth lined sieve and let it drain. 

The above cheese after lifting the cheesecloth all the way around.  It is still very soft.

Obviously getting rid of most of the whey (using either Chiarello’s or Wells’s methods) will shorten the amount of time the curds need to drain.  But even if you unceremoniously dump the whole mixture into the sieve, you should still not have to drain the curds for longer than about 15 minutes (unless—as already mentioned—you are specifically going for a dryer, firmer cheese).  Because I learned how to make fresh cheese with Chiarello’s recipe, I am in the habit of a sort of hybrid method: I ladle off as much of the whey as I have the patience for before I pour the curds and whey that remains into the sieve.  You should use whatever method works best for you.

I should mention that not everyone adds salt to the milk along with the acid.  I suspect that adding the salt at this point has an effect of some kind on the formation of the curds.  I don’t know if adding it at this point is detrimental or not.  What I do know is that adding salt to taste to the finished cheese requires some stirring of the curd—which I think can have a detrimental effect.  I have noticed that stirring the finished curds can give them a sticky quality that I find unpleasant.

When the cheese has drained to your liking, you may eat it right away.  And frankly, I dare you not to. It is at this point that it is at its most sublime…mounded onto a toast and topped with something tasty (marinated roasted peppers…balsamic roasted fresh figs…).  Or all by itself with nothing but a drizzle of good olive oil, some flaky salt and freshly ground pepper.  It also makes a fantastic addition to a meze platter.  Anything that might be left can be placed in the fridge and should last for about a week.

With crusty bread and melon for lunch....

With Zaalouk and olives as part of a Meze spread....

On bruschetta and topped with Marinated Roasted Sweet Peppers....

Homemade Fresh Cheese—"Ricotta"

This cheese is similar to—and can be used as you would—ricotta.  Most recipes that you will find for "Homemade Ricotta" look pretty much like this recipe—the type and amount of acid will vary from recipe to recipe...and methods will vary slightly...but the process (and end product) is pretty much the same.  But none of these are really ricotta.  Ricotta is traditionally not made from milk.  It is made instead with whey and is therefore a byproduct of the cheese making process (most often the Pecorino making process).  If I understand the process correctly, you could make fresh ricotta at home.  You just have to have access to a large quantity of whey.

1 quart whole milk
1/2 c. heavy cream
A scant teaspoon of kosher salt
3 to 4 T. fresh lemon juice

Pour the milk and cream (if using) into a non-reactive saucepan.  Place over high heat and bring to just under a simmer (180° to 190°F), stirring the mixture frequently with a rubber spatula and making sure to scrape the whole pan bottom to prevent scorching.  Remove from the heat.  Add  the salt and 3 T. of lemon juice and stir—you should almost immediately observe curds forming and separating from the translucent whey.   If this isn't happening, gradually add more lemon juice until it does.  Let the mixture sit undisturbed in a warm place for 10 to 20 minutes.

While the mixture sits, line a wide sieve or colander with several layers of cheesecloth and place over a deep bowl, or directly over the sink.

Working from the side of the pan, push aside some of the curd and gently ladle the whey into the prepared cheesecloth.  Try not to break up the curds too much as you work.  When you have removed as much of the whey as you can without pulverizing the curd, pour the remaining contents of the pan into the sieve.  Lift the sides of the cloth once or twice to help the liquid drain.  Don’t press on the curds.  Let the curds drain for 15 to 60 minutes, depending on how dry you want your cheese to be.  (I like to drain for 15 minutes and serve the cheese right away while it is still soft and warm. Draining it longer will produced something with a texture like cream cheese.  No matter how long you drain it, it will firm up considerably upon chilling. For this reason, I always save some of the whey to add back in if the chilled cheese is too firm.)  Taste and correct the salt.  The cheese will keep for several days in the refrigerator.  Makes 1 1/2 cups.  Less if it drains longer than 15 minutes.
Printable Version

On crostini and topped with Slow-Cooked Zucchini....

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bulgur topped with a Medley of Marinated Cherry Tomatoes, Chickpeas, Fennel & Feta

Last Sunday I finally got around to looking through some of my summer food magazines.  I don’t get to them as often as I like, but they always provide inspiration when I do. This time, among other things, I noticed a pasta salad in the July/August issue of Martha Stewart Living, filled with things I love:  Cherry Tomatoes, Fresh Fennel, Chickpeas & Capers.  Since I had fresh fennel and cherry tomatoes on hand…and I’m always in the mood for pasta…I decided I would try it this week.

I finally got to it on Friday evening.  I had every intention of making the pasta exactly as written, but when dinner time rolled around, I wasn’t really in the mood for pasta (shocking… I know…).   I decided that what I really wanted was a grain salad…and that bulgur would be delicious with all the flavors of the “sauce” from the original recipe.

Then, as I was preparing the medley of marinated vegetables, I decided that they were so beautiful…and so tasty on their own…that I really didn’t want to fold them into the bulgur.  Instead, I decided to use the bulgur as a bed for a big pile of the marinated vegetables…sort of like a streamlined grain bowl.  It was delicious.  And just what I was hungry for.

Bulgur with a Medley of Marinated Cherry Tomatoes,
 Chickpeas, Fennel & Feta

2 T. olive oil
1 small red onion (4 to 5 oz.), finely diced (you will have about 1 c. diced onion)
kosher salt
1 fat clove garlic, minced
1 t. fennel seed, crushed with a mortar & pestle
2 t. dried oregano
1 c. (6 oz.) medium bulgur, rinsed and drained
1 1/4 c. boiling water

Marinated Vegetables:
1 pint (2/3 lb.) cherry tomatoes, quartered (halved, if small)
3 T. capers
1/2 c. pitted Kalamata olives (about 24), halved
2 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 c. flat leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1 can (15 oz.) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed, halved, cored & thinly sliced/shaved crosswise using a mandolin
4 oz. Feta, drained and cut into scant 1/2-inch cubes

Warm 2 T. olive oil in a medium saucepan with a tight fitting lid over moderate heat.  Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and sweat until tender and translucent.  Add the garlic, fennel & oregano and cook until fragrant—about a minute.  Increase the heat to medium high and add the drained bulgur along with a generous pinch of salt.  Continue to cook for a minute.  Add the water and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered until the bulgur is tender—12 to 15 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let stand (covered) for 5 minutes.  Scrape the finished bulgur onto a baking sheet and let cool to room temperature.

While the bulgur cooks and cools, make the medley of marinated vegetables.  Place all the ingredients in a bowl and fold together.  Season to taste with salt & pepper. 

To serve, spoon the room temperature bulgur onto a platter or individual plates, spreading out a bit and making a small divot in the center to hold the vegetables.  Mount the vegetables on top of the bulgur, making sure to get all of the liquid.  Drizzle with more olive oil, if you like.  Serves 4 as a light entrée.   

Notes & Suggestions:
  • If you like, you may of course just combine the vegetables and bulgur and serve as a bulgur salad. The bulgur will absorb the juices, making a delicious grain salad.
  • Even though I wasn’t in the mood for pasta when I made this, I’m sure that the vegetable mixture would be delicious on pasta for a pasta salad. Use 1 pound of gemelli, fusilli or cavatappi, cooked al dente and spread on a sheet pan to cool (rather than rinsing).

For those who might be preparing this for a household of one or two…and who only want to make half of a recipe (which is what I did), let me suggest a fantastic use for your remaining half can of chickpeas from Ottolenghi’s Simple: Chickpeas and Swiss Chard with Yogurt. If you like Mediterranean food and you shop at the farmer’s market or are a member of a CSA, it is likely you already have everything you need. I served it with Basmati Rice and warm flatbread. It was delicious. If you have the book, it’s on page 100. If not, the Guardian posted the recipe last year.