Spring is a season of heightened sensory experience. Delicate fragrances, sounds that bring back memories, colors I forgot even existed and of course, fresh tastes found only at this time of year. You can make ricotta anytime but its light subtlety reminds me of a quintessential spring food. Ricotta is like my perfect pillow — soft, sweet and silky. It can stand up to stronger flavors by blending in but not getting lost.
You can easily make it by hand. I gave you a recipe last year using buttermilk. I have a new one this year that uses lemon instead. Both work well, although the buttermilk version may be slightly softer and sweeter. The lemon recipe doesn’t require the use of a thermometer and I have a video from Gourmet. com that shows you exactly how to make it.
Gnocchi, gnudi, manicotti, cannoli, lasagna — all are made even more luscious with homemade ricotta. But when the weather’s nice I’d rather be outdoors as much as I can, enjoying the sensory circus. Having a tub of ricotta makes fixing a fast treat to savor with a cup of tea while soaking up some sunshine so much easier. Simply toast some walnuts, mix with a handful of dried cherries ( try Chukar’s Totally Tart , a local brand I’ve used as excellent drunken cherries for cocktails). Add a spoonful or two of local honey from Rockridge Orchards and slather it all on a slice of whole grain bread or a bagel. If you have some mint, tear a leaf and sprinkle on top. Find a sunny spot, sit back and enjoy the spring show.
Making a quick uncooked pasta sauce is another way to give yourself plenty of time in the garden. This recipe reminds me of the Straight-from-the Garden pasta I make later in the summer. The heat of the pasta is all the “cooking” the sauce requires. After boiling the pasta and cooking the asparagus in the same pot for the last couple of minutes, you mix it all together with ricotta, fresh herbs, parmesan cheese and lemon zest. Adding some of the reserved pasta water, you can take it to any level of creaminess you desire. I found inspiration for these recipes in a beautiful book, Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes, Recipes from a Modern Kitchen Garden. Jeanne Kelley, a 20 year contributor to Bon Appetit magazine, uses her own backyard garden as the basis for this collection of recipes and gardening advice. She also includes a “Chicken Keeper’s Guide” for those interested in raising a couple of laying hens.
Homemade Fresh Ricotta
2 qts whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 t salt
3 T fresh lemon juice
Line a large sieve with several layers of cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl.
Slowly bring the milk, cream & salt to a rolling boil in a large heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring to prevent scorching. Add lemon juice. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes, while the mixture curdles.
Pour into the lined sieve and let it drain 1 hour. Discard the liquid in the bowl and chill the ricotta in a covered container. It will keep in the fridge for only a couple of days so make it right before you plan to use it. This recipe is by Richard Ferretti on Gourmet.com. Also check out the ricotta video.
Spring Pasta with Fresh Ricotta & Herbs
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1 lb penne pasta
1 lb. thin asparagus cut diagonally in 2″ pieces
3 T minced green garlic or 2 large garlic cloves, minced
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese, plus more for the top
1 T melted butter
Finely minced herbs — tarragon, chervil, basil, chives, parsley about 2 T of each
Salt & Pepper
Mix the ricotta, green garlic, lemon zest, parmesan, melted butter & herbs in a large serving bowl.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for about 10 minutes. Just before it is done, add asparagus to the boiling water. Cook 2-3 more minutes until the asparagus is tender and pasta is done. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
Immediately add the pasta and asparagus to the ricotta mixture along with the cooking water. Toss to coat. Salt & pepper to taste and grate some parmesan cheese on top.
Enjoy spring through all your senses.