Monday, September 17, 2012

Mixed Plate: Food Mysteries and Homemade Ricotta

The world is full of wondrous things, my friends. The Aurora Borealis. The instinctive migratory patterns of birds. The ebb and flow of the ocean's tides. Neighbors refusing to put their garbage cans away days after trash day. Magnets. Yes, Horatio, there is plenty of totally wack stuff on earth, as it is in heaven, and making your own homemade fresh cheese is one of those wiggety-wack things.

Fresh ricotta and home-pickled beets with baby oregano - schmancy! - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Cheese isn't all that mysterious, but it's no less amazing when you taste something freshly made, like ricotta. It's probably one of the easiest fresh cheese to make at home because you likely have all the ingredients just sitting around in your kitchen: whole milk, salt and vinegar. That's it. I'm serious. No complicated aging process, no obscure equipment beyond a good fine-mesh metal strainer, and joy of joys, it's fast. I was inspired by the fresh ricotta and melon salad from a One Night Only dinner event last month. It was a reminder that I really needed to make my own ricotta because I knew it was so simple. After finding this recipe for making microwave ricotta from Serious Eats, it went from beyond simple to a flat-out crime that I haven't done this sooner. Yes, for reals -- microwave ricotta. The article makes a good argument for why it's a more effective means of evenly heating the milk as it goes through its curdling process from the vinegar. And yes, holy crap, it's super fast. You could easily make a batch of this in an hour and change. The recommendation for using paper towels versus cheesecloth was perfect, as I was down to one scrawny scrap of the stuff. Once it was drained and to the consistency I liked, I had a little taste and put the rest away to sprinkle on other foods for the next couple of days. Since it's a fresh cheese and there's no weirdo chemicals and preservatives in it like the store-bought stuff, use it fast. Although it's so good, I doubt it will last long enough to go bad.

My only complaint, and it's not with the recipe, is about the overall cheese-making process. You go through a lot of milk to get a decent amount of finished cheese. I know that's the nature of cheese; it's an ancient method designed to concentrate and potentially preserve a supply of milk, which is all well and good. I was just like, dang, now I gotta buy another carton of milk for our coffee. The recipe is for about maybe a scant quarter to half cup's worth of ricotta, depending on how long you let it drain and concentrate its texture. It's not a bad finished amount of cheese, especially if you're crumbling it over a salad or in my case, I paired it with some pickled beets with a drizzle of olive oil, oregano sprigs and fresh cracked pepper. I love fresh ricotta, the wonderful creamy, milky-sweet flavor, and it's ideal in a salad to appreciate it fully. If I were to make this for say, lasagne, I'd probably have to triple the recipe if you wanted it to be a ricotta-heavy dish. Although even in that case, I'd almost rather make a manicotti-style dish and use lighter ingredients like butternut squash, just so you can celebrate the fact you made fresh cheese and probably went through a gallon or two of milk to do it.

Food mysteries, from our kitchen to yours - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The process of making cheese, while perfectly explainable in scientific terms, still feels satisfyingly magical. Amazing that something we all love so much can be so simple to make at home, and why more people don't do it more often. Sure, it's not as easy as picking it up from the store, but at least when you're making something from scratch you gain a new appreciation for it. There's really no cooking involved beyond a quick spin in the microwave. It would actually be a nice little project to do with kids since there's no hot stoves or sharp objects involved, and the finished product can be eaten almost immediately.

While unraveling the mysteries of fresh cheese, I decided, why not share additional Kitchen Mysteries that I've been collecting? On my large wood cutting board, I swear there's an outline of a figure boldly standing with the words "Goo" written backwards on his chest. Cutting Board Wicker Man! Or maybe the letters spell "God" and after this post, I'll be host to a flock of fundamental revivalist nutjobs insisting my cutting board will heal the sick and make the lame walk. No snake handlers! And I remain firm in my belief that the outline of the Loch Ness Monster was in my beer when I was at Adam's Northwest Bistro a while back. You don't see her prehistoric shape floating in the beer foam?? I'm perfectly sober now and I still see Nessie in that beer. And why aren't more people wearing bacon scarves? The shape and wave pattern seem ideal for crafty types who knit and crochet to their heart's content -- we can't be the only ones out there with a bacon-knitted scarf. Maybe I'm just asking the universe for more answers than it's willing to provide. Or we've just run out of interesting things on Netflix so I'm rewatching old X-Files episodes again while pondering that celebrity rumor that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson hooked up in real life. I heard it's bunk, but still. The world remains, as it should be, full of tantalizing mysteries. Tah-tah for now, I'm off to eat a bowl of fresh ricotta...

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