Saturday, August 4, 2012

Fresh Ricotta Crostini with Roasted Vegetables

I posted this in July, last year, but there have been some changes, so I thought I would post it again since it's that time again when produce is at its very best.  

I must have been Italian in another lifetime.  How else can one explain my daily trips to the grocery store or my obsession with making things like fresh ricotta ; ) 

If you're like me,  summer is just the best time for food - farmer's markets abound, and fresh food is the order of the day.  

With local farmer's markets, you never know what you'll be able to get on the day you visit, but I was lucky to find that one of my favorite vendors had eggplant, zucchini, peppers and some of the best looking heirloom tomatoes you've ever seen.  

Here's some of the produce from  The Specialty Farmer (Waxhaw, NC

To make simple roasted vegetables,  preheat the oven to between 400 and 425 degrees F.  Line 1 or 2 rimmed cookie sheets with heavy-duty foil, and then lay on a sheet of non-stick foil.  Using the non-stick foil allows you to roast the vegetables with a minimum of oil.  

Pare and cut vegetables to the size you desire (quicker cooking vegetables should be cut larger and longer cooking smaller so that everything will be done at the same time).  I usually cut my veggies about 1/8-inch thick and 3/4-inch in diameter, but any size is fine, so long as you keep an eye out, so that the veggies don't overbrown or burn.  For each pound of vegetables, use 1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons fruity olive oil. Toss in a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar (I like one of the specialty balsamics, especially chocolate balsamic- that I get at Olive This, near Trader Joe's in Piper Glen, Charlotte) and a little mustard, if desired.  Lightly sprinkle with salt and some chopped herbs of your choice.  Make sure the veggies are all in one layer and not overlapping.  Cook for 20-30 minutes, turning halfway through, until the veggies are brown, but not dry.

I roasted one of those large round eggplants that you see in the picture (sliced as described), and it was just the most perfect vegetable - creamy and sweet, not like so many store-bought eggplants that are bitter.

The Specialty Farmer also carries the most magnificent "yellow" zucchini.  They taste great roasted but are so sweet and the texture so nice that we actually love to eat them raw, diced and put into salads.

Roasted vegetables are wonderful as an accompaniment to any grilled meats, in pasta or on crostini, as in the opening picture.  On the crostini pictured, the lower left one has homemade herbed ricotta, roasted eggplant and an oven-dried tomato.  The upper left has the herbed ricotta, diced fresh heirloom tomatoes, and mozzarella.  The upper right has ricotta, roasted tomatoes, parmesan and fresh basil, and the lower right has roasted yellow zucchini, roasted mushrooms and the oven roasted tomatoes.  There's no limit to the combinations you can do on the crostini.  I served them last week with the ricotta, roasted veggies, fresh heirloom tomatoes and a drizzle of chocolate balsamic vinegar.  Oh my!!  More on vinegar later.

To make crostini, line a sheet with foil, and turn the oven on to high broil, with the oven rack at its highest setting.  Buy a very good quality, crusty baguette (none of that white bready stuff, please!).  I bought mine at the farmers' market from Breadsmith.  

Slice the baguette on the diagonal into 1/8 inch or slightly thicker slices.  Brush the slices lightly with olive oil (I used basil-scented oil - recipe follows), and sprinkle lightly with salt.  Broil the bread until nicely browned - watching carefully as it only takes 10-20 seconds.  In my oven, at 30 seconds the bread caught fire!

Remove the tray, turn the slices, brush with oil, sprinkle with salt and toast the second side.  Put on the toppings of your choice, break out a great bottle of wine, relax and think of Italy! 

To make roasted tomatoes, please see my post: Slow Roasted Tomatoes.
To make basil oil heat 1/2 cup fruity olive oil on medium heat just until warm.  Add 20 basil leaves.  Let the mixture sit for 30 minutes to several hours.  The flavor intensifies as the mixture sits.  If you're going to use it for dipping, where there are few competing flavors, 30 minutes is plenty.  

Fresh Ricotta
Fresh ricotta is easy to make but the recipe isn't precise.  That is, the amount of curdling agent is variable and you have to fiddle with the recipe to get the curds to form.  There are lots  of recipes on the Web for  ricotta.  It's basically a question of curdling milk, and then straining out the curds and flavoring them.   (and here we are talking about fresh milk ricotta, not whey ricotta). The recipes  are very similar, with the curdling agent being lemon juice, distilled white vinegar or buttermilk.  The first time I made it, I used buttermilk.  It worked beautifully and we loved the fresh, creamy and sweet taste.  After reading several posts online, I decided to try some of the other agents.   Using vinegar was the most intriguing recipe, so for my second attempt, that's what I used.  I made it 3 different ways - by adding the vinegar after the milk had been heated, by adding the vinegar to the milk and then heating the whole concoction, and by pouring the curds and whey through the strainer, rather than lifting the curds out of the whey and placing them into the strainer.  I really disliked the version made by adding the vinegar after the milk was heated, as the ricotta had a distinct vinegar taste.  Adding it  before, resulted in only a minor vinegar taste, but reduced volume.  When I poured all of the contents into the strainer, the texture was much more dense.  It was very good - just had a different texture, and that is a matter of personal taste.  

The mound in the front right was poured through the strainer.

For my final tries, I used lemon juice.  I must have tried this 6 times, but the only way I could get the milk to curdle was to add so much lemon juice that the ricotta tasted way too tart and lemony.  Needless to say, I would not recommend using lemon juice to curdle the milk.

You'll see a lot of discussion about whether you can make ricotta with ultra-pasteurized milk.  And the answer is YES.  In fact the trials I did with pasteurized milk (not ultra) did not work as well as the ultra pasteurized milk.  This was probably due to the kind of acid I used and the temperature I cooked it to, though.

The last issue is exactly what temperature the mixture needs to be heated to.  You'll see recipes that call for heating the milk anywhere between 160 degrees F. and 190 degrees F.  Although curds did form at 160 degrees,  the best results I got were with heating the milk to about 180 degrees but not much higher. When I let the mixture get up to 190 degrees, the ricotta was a little tough and stringy - not the creamy deliciousness that came from the buttermilk mixture heated to 180.

Fresh Milk Ricotta
1/2 gallon whole milk (I used organic ultra-pasteurized)
2-1/3 cups buttermilk, divided
1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

For herbed ricotta
2 tablespoons fresh minced herbs ( I used basil, thyme and sage)
1-1/2 teaspoons fruity olive oil, or basil oil
1 tablespoon  whole milk, if eating the ricotta after it has been chilled
1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar, optional

You'll need the following equipment:
5 quart pot
2 layers of cheesecloth lining a colander, set over a large pot or bowl
instant read or candy/oil thermometer
wooden spoon
slotted spoon

Wet the interior of the pot you are using (5 quart works well).  Add the whole milk. Heat on medium heat, stirring often until the temperature reaches 180 degrees F. (If using a candy/oil thermometer  leave it  in the pot, and if using an instant read thermometer stick it in periodically to test).  At this temperature the mixture will be starting to simmer.

Here's my whole setup:

When the mixture reaches 180 degrees F. add 2 cups of the buttermilk in a slow, steady stream, and the salt.  The mixture should be starting to curdle.  If not, add the remaining buttermilk in 2 tablespoon increments  until the mixture starts to curdle.  Do not stir, once you add the buttermilk.  You can gently move the curds to the center of the pot. Continue heating to bring the mixture back up to 180 degrees.  When the temperature is obtained, remove the pot from the heat and let the curds sit, undisturbed, for 15-30 minutes.  

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the curds to the cheesecloth-lined colander.  Once the majority of the curds have been transferred, pour the entire contents through the cheesecloth to capture the smaller curds.  let the curds drain for 15- 60 minutes, depending on how firm you want the ricotta to be.  If eating the ricotta cold, it will firm up dramatically upon refrigeration.

This ricotta has drained for about 25 minutes:

If making the herbed ricotta, add the oil, herbs and milk (if using) while the ricotta is  warm.  The ricotta is at its very best when freshly made and still warm.  Store the ricotta in the refrigerator, but bring it to room temperature before serving. 

Did I mention balsamic vinegar? I've been buying mine, locally from Olive This, in Charlotte, NC near Trader Joe's in Piper Glen. They don't have mail-order yet, but it's coming.  Another really good one comes from a small store in West Hartford, Connecticut.  You can find them at  I particularly like the Dark Chocolate and the Espresso Balsamic Vinegars, and find that these work great with desserts and savories alike.