March 26th, 2013

Little Lasagna Rolls, spinach-ricotta-speck filling, red pepper-tomato sauce

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The old saying for March, “in like a lion, out like a lamb,” isn’t faring well this year. It’s lion all the way: blustery cold, temperatures skirting the freeze point at night. The threat of snow might only manifest as a swirl of icy flakes, hardly worth mentioning. Except that there are competing signs of spring–pear and plum trees blooming; branches of forsythia fleck sunny yellow, tulips and hyacinths in varying purpled hues; Against the stark grey, they all glow.

So, the recipe that I’m sharing with you today is one of those that straddles the seasons. Like most members in the family of baked pastas, it is substantial, hearty. The kind of dish you’d want on a chilly March night, when that lion wind roars through the cracks of your doors and windows.

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At the same time, it is lightened. The sauce combines sweet red bell peppers and tomatoes, roasted together and pureed to a gorgeous vermilion. The ricotta is whipped with baby spoon spinach into a creamy pale green smear. Impossibly thin ripples of speck, that marvelous cured ham from northern Italy, impart smoky woodsy notes. Ash, juniper, pepper, laurel.

And, they are dainty rolls.

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While I do like squares and rectangles of beefy lasagna, and lush vegetable towers: layer upon layer spread with bechamel, ricotta, braised artichokes
I found that these small roll-ups had an endearing and easy way about them–

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and made a delicious presence on the potluck table.

True to the way of lasagna, the most time is spent working with each component—prior to assembly.

Sauce pureed, filling whipped, pasta cooked al dente: you are ready to spread, cut and roll.

Lay out your lasagna noodles like fat ribbons on the counter;
spoon and slather the spinach ricotta from end to end. A little palette knife, used for icing cakes, is especially handy.

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The slices of speck, almost transparent, seem custom made for the pasta roll, and fit neatly over the ricotta.

Make a cut through the center of each layered ribbon, creating two pieces to curl into clever spirals. I think you’ll like this smaller style roll-up, rather than the giant ones made from the entire piece.

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For potluck, I also made a vegetarian version with shiitake mushrooms. They have a meaty texture and flavor that works well with the other ingredients. The recipe I’ve given below makes enough sauce and filling to make 2 casseroles: one with speck (or prosciutto, if you can’t find speck at your market) and one with shiitakes.

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As I finish writing this post, this early spring snow has picked up: swirls of white past my windows, and a pretty dusting over the yard.
Lion March! It shouldn’t last.

And April, with the promise of balmier days, will be here soon. Memories of winter and cold will fade as we anticipate tilling and planting the garden, and dream of asparagus and sweet peas and strawberries.

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LITTLE SPINACH-RICOTTA-SPECK (OR SHIITAKE) LASAGNA ROLLS WITH
SWEET RED BELL PEPPER-TOMATO SAUCE

Red Bell Pepper-Tomato Sauce:
4 red bell peppers, cut in half, stemmed and seeded
1 large onion, cut into eighths
4 cloves garlic
1-28 oz can plum tomatoes
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper

Place red bell pepper halves onto one side of a baking sheet. Tuck onion pieces and garlic cloves underneath. Brush the tops with olive oil.

Pour remaining oil onto the other side of the baking sheet. Spoon the entire contents of the can of plum tomatoes and sauce over the oiled area.

Sprinkle tomatoes and red bell peppers with salt and black pepper.

Roast in a preheated 425 degree oven for 25 minutes until the skins of the peppers are blackened and blistered.

Remove from oven and allow to cool. Peel the blistered skins and discard.
Place roasted vegetables and juices into a bowl. Using an immersion blender, process the ingredients into a brilliant red-orange sauce. Taste for seasonings and adjust as needed.

Spinach-Ricotta-Speck Filling: (for vegetarian version, use shiitake mushrooms instead of speck)
8 oz. fresh baby spoon spinach
2 lb. ricotta
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon granulated garlic
2 eggs
1 ½ cups shredded or grated parmesan

4 oz. speck or prosciutto, very thinly sliced
-or-
4 oz shiitake mushroom, sliced and sauteed

1 box lasagna: 18 pieces, cooked according to package directions, drained and cooled
½ cup shredded pecorino romano to sprinkle over the top

Coat 2 9″by 13″ (or size thereabouts) casserole dishes with a little olive oil.

In a food processor fitted with the swivel blade, pulse the spinach until it’s chopped. Scrape into a mixing bowl and return the work bowl to the processor. Refit with swivel blade.

Add ricotta, eggs, salt, black pepper, and garlic and processor until well blended.

Stir the ricotta mixture into the spinach. Fold in the parmesan.

Lay out the lasagna in rows on your work counter. Dollop a few tablespoons of the ricotta mixture and spread it along the length, covering the pasta. Place slices of speck (or prosciutto) over the ricotta.

Cut the lasagna ribbons in half. Roll up each piece. You will have 36 nice lasagna roulades.

Cover the bottom of the casserole dishes with a layer of sauce. Arrange lasagna rolls in the dish. Spoon sauce over the tops. Sprinkle with pecorino romano.

Bake uncovered for 35 minutes in a 325 degree preheated oven. Serves 12-15

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Posted in Casseroles, Pastas, Recipes | 19 Comments »




July 28th, 2012

Ricotta-Making, Spiced Peach Salad and a Review

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A recipe can be deceiving. We’ve all experienced a seemingly daunting one with scrolls of ingredients, only to find that we can whip it up with panache. Conversely, there’s that recipe with, say, three ingredients that you’d think would be a breeze. And yet, it’s those simple ones that can be trickiest–and require practice. Like making pillowy-light gnocchi, or fluffy biscuits. Or creamy ricotta cheese.

I’d been wanting to make ricotta for a long time. Maggie and I researched and learned that it is, essentially, Whole Milk-Salt-Acid. Sometimes the milk is enriched with cream. The acid can be lemon juice, white vinegar or buttermilk, which is added to the milk-salt mixture after it is simmered to 180 degrees.

For our first foray into cheesemaking, we chose vinegar, as it is the most neutral in taste. We purchased a gallon of whole milk at our local Hatcher Dairy Farm.

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Low and slow, the milk came up to a froth at 180 degrees. We added the vinegar, and almost immediately, the curds formed in big clumps, separating from the whey. I scooped them out and let them drain in Maggie’s floursack-lined colander.

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The yield: 4 cups of cheese and 3 quarts of whey! (We saved the whey, which Maggie has since used in her breadbaking–with astonishing results. The flavors are enhanced Tenfold.)

Shortly thereafter, we spread the cheese onto toast topped with slices of Maggie’s garden tomatoes. The ricotta was a bit firmer than I had expected, but delicious nonetheless. It reminded us more of Paneer, that Indian cheese.

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However, it became almost rubbery in texture, as it cooled. Had we overcooked it somehow?

I decided to experiment again, this time–a smaller batch, with added cream, and lemon juice as the acidifier.

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As luck would have it, I had been asked to review a cookbook scheduled for release next month, JAM ON The Craft of Canning Fruit by Laena McCarthy. McCarthy is the founder of Anarchy in a Jar, making delectable, creative, and wildly popular artisanal jams, jellies, marmalades and preserves.

It’s a beautiful book. The photographs are stunning. Moreover, it is clear in guidance for novice and seasoned canners, and replete with fruit recipes in gorgeous combinations.

Tucked among her recipes for Grapefruit and Smoked Salt Marmalade, and Rhubarb Hibiscus Jam, I found her recipe for Homemade Ricotta. It was just as I had imagined: a small batch, made with whole milk and cream, salt, lemon juice. A-Ha!

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I followed her recipe, and to my surprise, the result was almost the opposite of our previous trial. Curds were slower to form, tiny in size. McCarthy writes that this can occur with organic milk that has been ultra-homogenized. (I didn’t use my local milk this time, but Organic Valley brand.)

I let my cooked-and-curdled pot sit and cool to allow the curds to better separate. Then, I poured into my cheesecloth lined strainer. It would take some time–about a half hour—for the whey to drain off.

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But what remained was lush ricotta cheese.

I cannot overstate the wonder of its texture and taste–like no other ricotta I have ever had. Rich and smooth, spreadable yet scoopable, as you can see on the spiced peach salad plate.

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HOMEMADE RICOTTA from JAM ON by Laena McCarthy
3 cups Whole Milk
1 cup Heavy Cream
1/2 t. Sea Salt

3 T. fresh squeezed Lemon Juice (about 1 1/2 lemons)

equipment:
non-reactive pan, candy thermometer
cheesecloth or floursack cloth, strainer or colander

In your non-reactive pan set on medium heat, bring milk, cream, and salt to a slow simmer. Stir so that the milk does not scorch or cook on the bottom. The temperature reading should be about 180 degrees F. Stir in lemon juice and reduce heat. Stir for about two minutes while cooking. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

When the mixture is cooled, you’ll notice a thickening. Pour into cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl to catch the whey. Let this drain for about an hour. Place ricotta into a clean container and refrigerate. Makes about one pint. Use within a few days.

There will be about 2 cups of whey, (much better ratio of cheese to whey than our first trial!) which some people discard. But it is terrific in breadbaking and soup making.

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SIMPLE SPICED PEACHES
The Syrup:
1 c. Cider Vinegar
1 c. Turbinado Sugar
1 inch length Cinnamon Stick
Strip of fresh Ginger
2-3 whole Allspice
3-4 whole Cloves
1/2 t. Kosher Salt

3 or more Fresh, Ripe but Firm Peaches–cut in half, pit removed
Bowl of Ice Water

Place all ingredients into a nonreactive saucepan set on medium heat. Stir well to dissolve sugar. Bring to a simmer.
Place peaches into mixture and allow to poach for about 4 minutes.
Remove peaches and plunge into ice water. The skins will come off very easily.
Drain peaches and refrigerate.
Continue cooking spiced vinegar solution until reduced by almost half. It will be syrupy.
Pour into a bowl and cool.
Place peach halves into syrup. Over the next several hours, refrigerated, they will absorb more of the sweet-sour taste. If you can wait, and let them soak overnight, they will taste even better!
(You could also make this in large quantities, put spiced peaches and syrup into mason jars and process in a hot water bath to preserve them.)
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SPICED PEACH-RICOTTA SALAD (makes 4 individual salads)
4 oz. Fresh Arugula
4 oz. (or more!) fresh Ricotta
4 Spiced Peach Halves and syrup
handful of Marcona Almonds
Fresh Ground Black Pepper

Assemble Salad:
Mound arugula on plates.
Scoop ricotta and place onto plates.
Slice each peach halve and arrange on plate, encircling the ricotta.
Drizzle syrup over the peaches, greens, and ricotta.
Scatter almonds over the salad
Season with black pepper.

Serve with a sliced of toasted crusty bread, if you like.

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Posted in Articles, Egg/Cheese Dishes, Fruit, Recipes, Salads | 28 Comments »




January 18th, 2012

Ricotta Gnocchi, Dressed in Red

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Post-holiday drab winter funk settled in my kitchen…with an unsettling inertia. I’ve had as much resistance to picking up a knife and a whisk, as my market shopping bags. It’s been an odd feeling, uncharacteristic of my general passionate-about-food ways, but December left me shopped and cooked out. I’ve tried ignoring it, hoping that the malaise would lift. Now I’ve decided just to chop through it, and play my “use what you’ve got” game.

In my refrigerator, I found a container of ricotta, still in date. Part of a can of whole plum tomatoes in juice. Eggs. A stray scallion. A small wedge of parmegiano-reggiano.
A sealed bag of all purpose flour.

Could dinner lurk in some combination of these?

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Indeed it could. Ricotta Gnocchi.

And, those creamy pillow-like dumplings couldn’t be easier to make.

Unlike other versions that use potatoes (also delicious, but have an extra step–cooking the spuds) the dough can be whipped up in a manner of minutes. In their purest form, ricotta gnocchi are simply ricotta-egg-flour. That’s a plain canvas, rife with possibilities. How you want to season them–herbs, bitter greens, nutmeg, other pungent cheese—
or sauce them—smoky beurre blanc with bits of pancetta, chunky pesto, rosy red pepper puree–is up to you.

Or what you’ve got on hand.

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You’ve got plenty of time to make that decision! Mixing the soft dough takes moments. Then, you hand-roll pieces of the dough into long logs, dusting with more flour, and cutting into 1/2″ lengths. Or smaller, if you like.

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The shapes are imprecise, rustic; the rolling and handling of them feels like child’s play, a delightful aspect to combat any kitchen inertia.

Line them up on a pan lined with parchment and place the pillows into the freezer to get firm. (If you double this recipe, you can keep the unused gnocchi sealed and frozen for up to 6 weeks—ready to use at a given moment.)

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While the gnocchi are tucked into the freezer (or fridge) you can turn your attention to the sauce.

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Based on my modest assembly of on-hand ingredients, I chose to cloak mine in a brilliant winter red sauce–little more than plum tomatoes cooked with onion and garlic in olive oil, and pureed. I do like to plunge in a sprig or two of fresh rosemary and thyme, snipped from yard, where they vigorously hang on through the cold weather months. They impart just enough piney aromatics to give the sauce a little herbaceous lift, plucked out before the immersion blender descends into the pot.

While the sauce simmers, bring a big pot of salted water to boil. Drop the gnocchi in. Very quickly, they’ll rise to the surface–indicating that they are almost done. Let them cook another minute. Remove them with a slotted spoon, and place the tender bites into a pool of red.

The color–a knockout that reminds you of summer—is vibrant and full-flavored dress for the gnocchi, enough to jar the drab winter funk out the door.

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RICOTTA GNOCCHI
1 cup whole milk Ricotta
1 Egg
3/4 cup All Purpose Flour (divided)
1/2 c. grated Parmegiano-Reggiano (Pecorino Romano would be terrific, too)
1 Green Onion, sliced thin (optional)
1/2 t. Kosher Salt
fresh ground Black Pepper

Place ricotta, egg, cheese, scallion, and Half of the flour into a bowl. Season with salt and pepper and mix until a soft dough forms. Dust remaining flour on your work counter, and divide dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into 1/2″ thick log. Cut into pillow shaped pieces, placing each gnocchi on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Place the gnocchi in the freezer for about 15 minutes–long enough to set up and be firm.

Bring a pasta pot full of water to a boil. Season with salt. Drop in gnocchi. Cook over medium heat until they float to the surface. Cook for a about one minute more. Remove with a slotted spoon. Gently coat with sauce.

Serves 2 generous, or 4 first course plates

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Posted in Egg/Cheese Dishes, Pastas, Recipes, Sauces, Vegetarian Dishes | 35 Comments »