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Monday, August 9, 2010

A Cheese Odyssey

 It's been a busy summer.

My 'project' as I call it, got its start back in May when my sister-in-law was describing her plans for summer activities with my niece and nephew.  Her plan for their summer vacation sounded impressive and would provide more than enough fodder for the standard How I Spent My Summer Vacation report come September.  (That's so retro, right?  I'm sure that now, instead of a quaint report, fourth graders prepare short films which they then post on YouTube.)  There were to be hikes in and around some of the local prairies and woods...visits to farms to learn about sustainability (they've been particularly interested in learning about where their food comes from...sniff...I am so proud!) and ongoing music lessons.  Not to be dorky, but it sounded kind of fun.  I wanted to hang out and tag along on some of the field trips they had planned. 

On the plane ride home I thought about their summer plans and wished for my own summer program.  And that was when the light bulb went on.  (Yep...a cartoon-like light bulb idea bubble pretty much popped up over my head.) Why not create my own summer program?   I would make up a syllabus of on my own terms and take field trips whenever I wanted.  There would be some light reading (to balance out my usual summer diet of trashy beach books) as well as some hands-on practical experience...and I had the perfect field of study in mind:  cheese.

Cheese is a wonder and,'s always been there for me.  Even as a fussy child, cheese was the one thing I could be counted on to eat, and it didn't have to be mild--in fact, the stinkier, the better.  As a teen, a grilled cheese sandwich was my go-to snack (with the obligatory bowl of Campbell's tomato soup).  As an adult, the joy of discovering locally made artisanal cheeses to rival the best France has to offer has been a thrill and a source of pride.  (Yes, we do make things in America!) 

It was time to learn more.

J., a friend at work who loves cheese probably as much as I do, discovered The Cheese School...right here in San Francisco.  Imagine that.  We took our first class together -- Basic Cheese Primer -- in the school's pleasant teaching area set with long dining tables. 

There were place cards and Cheese School pencils and at each place a lovely plate holding twelve samples of cheese, arranged like the face of a clock.  White and red wine was served and the instructor, a very knowledgeable former cheese shop owner and local Bay Area cheese competition judge, took us on a tour through the ancient art of cheese making.  What took me by surprise was how similar making cheese is to making wine.  How the essence of the earth, the animal and its environment is captured in the flavor of each cheese -- the very idea of terroir as applied in wine is the same for cheese.

An even bigger surprise was the very first cheese featured in our discussion...parked on the plate at twelve o'clock -- ricotta.  It was sitting there in a little ramekin, minding its own business, looking very unassuming as I sighed.  Seriously?  Ricotta?  I'm going to be tasting, ricotta?  I admit to having serious doubts about The Cheese School in those first few minutes, because, people...ricotta is that chalky stuff that hangs out in lasagne.  For crying out's the nondescript blah cheese that fills cannoli.  I sat there thinking, what the hell is ricotta doing on my plate? 

The instructor told us how all the cheeses we would be tasting were at room temperature.  Very Important Note.  Cold Cheese is Tasteless Cheese. But I already knew that.  What I did not know was that this little blob of ricotta -- sheep's milk ricotta, actually...from Sonoma County...was about to rock my world.  Oh heavens.  This was not my mother's ricotta.  That stuff comes in plastic tubs and squeezes out, retaining the shape of said tub, with a sucking sound before plopping into your bowl with a bland, watery thunk.

This cheese...sheepsmilk ricotta from Bellwether Farms...was not like any ricotta I'd ever tasted.  It was tangy.  It was creamy.  It was, in a word...luscious.  I did not want to stop eating it.  With one delicious spoonful, it crushed my dismissive perception of ricotta and established itself as unique and unforgettable.
Cheese as art form.  

Each cheese we tasted that night confirmed this idea...embodying all the subtleties and beauty of food made with care and integrity and often using methods that have been around for ages. 

But the ricotta in particular was a stunner.  I couldn't stop thinking about it.  Last month I stopped by one of my favorite cheese shops, Cowgirl Creamery, and bought the same ricotta.  The goal:  to recreate an appetizer we had in Sicily last year -- a kind of ricotta fritter.  A recipe in one of Jamie Oliver's books seemed to have the right mix of ingredients, the way I remembered it, and I mixed up a batch before dinner that Saturday night.

It's nothing complicated really...a little flour, egg and grated parmesan are mixed with the ricotta and then fried up in a non-stick pan coated with a slick of hot olive oil.  As you're frying up these golden little cakes of cheese, you will be reminded that often, the simplest things are the best.  The ricotta is transformed into something golden and crisp on the outside and meltingly silky and wonderful when you take a bite.  With tomato season in full swing, I followed Jamie's suggestion to serve the fritters with a little tomato salad -- chopped summer tomatoes, fresh basil and a fresh red chili tossed with some good olive oil and red wine vinegar -- and it made the perfect tangy, summery complement. 

So I'm thinking now that The Cheese Odyssey should continue past summer.  I mean, who knew?!  Ricotta...a revelation?  Fried cheese...a complete delight!  There is so much more to discover. 

Next up, I'm going to try Home Cheesemaking. 
And, I'll start with a ricotta. 
Imagine that.

*          *          *

Ricotta Fritta con Piccola Insalata di Pomodori
  aka Fried Ricotta with a Little Tomato Salad
adapted from Jamie Oliver's  Jamie's Italy
(this full recipe serves 6, but it worked well when I halved it)

For the cakes:

1 lb. good ricotta cheese
(Here's where I beg you...mail order...or, ask at your favorite cheese shop...just do your damnedest to    find some good, locally made ricotta.) 

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg

For the salad:
1 cup of summer cherry tomatoes -- sweet 100s are my favorite
2 sprigs fresh basil -- use both stems and leaves!
1 fresh red chili, deseeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons of red wine vinegar, or to taste

For the fritters:
Mix the ricotta with the Parmesan, flour, a good pinch of salt and the egg.  Season with a little freshly ground black pepper and place in the fridge -- it helps firm up the batter.  (Ridiculously easy, no?)

Make the salad:
If you're using cherry tomatoes, cut them in half and toss into a mixing bowl.  (If you're using regular size tomatoes, you'll want to get ride of the seeds and chop the tomatoes into small chunks.)
Finely chop the stems of the basil and tear the leaves up roughly.  Mix them in with the tomatoes and then toss in your chopped chili pepper.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and toss with the olive oil and vinegar.  Set aside until you're ready to serve -- the mixture will just get more lovely and juicy.

Heat your nonstick pan over medium heat and add a small splash of olive oil.  Drop spoonfuls of the ricotta mixture into the pan -- don't overcrowd -- you want to get some nice golden color to the cakes.
Fry the ricotta cakes for a couple minutes and then carefully turn them over when you see they're turning a golden brown.  (I found a flexible silicone spatula did the job well here.)
Fry on the other side for another minute or so.

Serve right away -- everyone will be loitering in the general vicinity as you are frying these up because the smell is simply heaven!

Sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt and a tiny grating of fresh nutmeg.  (Yes, I said fresh nutmeg.  It's not that big a deal.  Get a couple real nutmeg pods, or whatever they're called, and keep them in a little airtight spice container.  Couple swipes on the old microplaner and you're talking indescribably delicious addition to many Italian dishes.)

Serve with a spoonful of the tomato mixture on the side.  Drizzle with a little of your fanciest, peppery olive oil and grate a bit of Parmesan over the top. 

Prepare to be amazed.

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