Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

November 6, 2015

Making Ricotta at Home–Worth the Trouble?

Homemade ricotta had been on my “to do” list for awhile. Not a big deal: three ingredients and maybe 10 minutes of active attention. So I can’t explain why I didn’t get around to it. But one fine afternoon…ricotta making rose to the top of the list.

Ricotta means “recooked” and for a cheese maker, is a thrifty way of capturing remaining nutrients in whey, a byproduct of the process for more celebrated cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano. Whey isn’t exactly a supermarket staple, so homemade ricotta is usually made from milk and sometimes, for extra richness, with cream.  Instead of calling for rennet or a cheese culture, ricotta is formed by adding an acid, usually white vinegar or citric acid, to the heated liquid. Curds are separated from the whey, draining through cheesecloth to make the soft cheese.

How-tos are not to be found in the works of Pellegrino Artusi, the so-called “father of Italian cooking” or in a sampling the several hundred Italian cookbooks on my shelves. These sources assume that ricotta is a purchased ingredient unless you happen to own a cow or ewe.

Instead, I found advice by diving into Internet adventures of cheese making enthusiasts–some chefs or professional cheese makers but mostly hobbyists. Invariably they rave about the ease of making ricotta and urge the rest of us to get going. But even before heading for the kitchen, I picked up a pattern from the troubleshooting hints and reader comments. It seems that sometimes quantities of fluffy ricotta rise magically to the top of the hot milk, and sometimes they do not. The fact is that milk can behave in a temperamental way, presenting challenges even for a simple cheese such as ricotta.

For instance, it makes sense that you’d want to start with the best possible milk–perhaps your favorite organic brand. In my case that’s Organic Valley. But organic milk is typically ultra pasteurized and, uh oh, often doesn’t curdle properly. Ditto for heavy cream.

A second issue: The amount of acid needed to maximize curdling can vary. I discovered this on my first test, which happened to be with raw goat milk. The milk failed to curdle and, hesitant to add more vinegar for fear of creating an off taste, I discarded it.

Next I did several batches using pasteurized whole milk. These were my most successful, especially after I learned a trick for maximizing the quantity of ricotta formed. According to a cheesemaker’s site, keep adding vinegar until the liquid stops looking milky and becomes a watery whey with floating islands of curd. After straining the cheese, stir in a little baking soda to neutalize the acid and eliminate any off flavors. It sounded too chem lab to be true, but I have to say it works.

My last batch was made with the same brand of pasteurized milk, to which I added a little cream. That  mixture failed to curdle no matter how vinegar I added–which seemed to confirm the idea that ultra-pasteurized dairy products don’t take well to ricotta making.

After coming home, my husband was treated to a blind tasting of three ricotta samples. Two were ones I had made. They were received kindly but the winner was the third, which he described as “creamy and mild, with a nice milky finish.”

It came not from our kitchen but from Mazzaro’s, a local Italian specialty market.

So my personal answer to “Worth the trouble to make ricotta at home?” is no–although I do want to try goat milk one more time–because I have a good source of freshly made ricotta. If your only choice is a supermarket brand, bland tasting and laced with stabilizers, give homemade ricotta a try. I suggest you do it in small batches (say, two cups of milk) until you get the results you’re going for. Then ramp up to as much as 1 gallon of milk at a time.

There are a zillion things to do with good ricotta–I use it to make spinach-ricotta gnocchi, baked ricotta (a Sicilian dish), a layered zucchini casserole and, for dessert, a ricotta tart or fried ricotta fritters drizzled with honey. Whether you’ve made ricotta or bought it, be sure to eat some in a simple way. Spread it on crostini, finishing with sea salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Or place a generous dollop on pasta dressed with a fresh tomato sauce. The flavor is pure, comforting and always welcome in my kitchen.

Homemade Ricotta

Makes 1 cup (more if you’re lucky)

1 quart whole milk (pasteurized, NOT ultra pasteurized)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1 to 2 tablespoons vinegar, or more
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (optional)

1. Suspend a medium strainer over a bowl. Line it with a double layer of cheesecloth or paper towels.

2. Over medium-low heat, bring the milk and salt to a gentle simmer in a medium saucepan. Add vinegar and stir once or twice. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, and remove from the heat. Let rest for 10 minutes.

3. Scoop off curds with a skimmer and place in the strainer. If the liquid in the pan looks milky, reheat it gently and drizzle in vinegar until more curds form and the liquid turns a translucent yellow-green color. Transfer curds to the strainer (or pour mixture into the strainer).

4. When curds have drained to a consistency you like, spoon into a bowl. Taste and, if you have added extra vinegar or detect a sour flavor, stir in the baking soda. Refrigerate and use within three days.


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Eggs and Cheese, Italian delis, Italian food, Italian ingredients, Tampa Bay, Uncategorized » No Comments - Leave a comment...

September 29, 2015

Giardiniera: Vegetables, Lightly Pickled

Reading an article about the “farm to jar” pickles and jams made by Tampa Bay entrepreneur Illene Sofranko reminded me that I had squirreled away several jars of her delicious Urban Canning pickled okra and Brussels sprouts in my pantry. And also reminded me it’s time to make the Italian-style pickled vegetables known as giardiniera.

The tradition of putting up pickles goes back to pre-refrigeration days, when preserving seasonal produce was the goal. We don’t really need to do that now, any more than we need to kill and cure a pig every fall. I asked my 83-year-old aunt, our source of family history, whether our Oklahoma farmer forebears did this stuff?

Affirmative on killing a pig–my grandfather did that every year and my grandmother canned sausage made from it. Among the vegetables she canned, as Aunt Pattie remembers it, were cucumber pickles–the dill and bread-and-butter varieties.

My ancestors were from countries like Ireland and Germany. Italians know how to pickle cucumbers, too, but their vegetable mixtures are better known. My version of giardiniera (“from the garden”) consists of cauliflower, bell peppers, fennel and carrots. No fussing with cans steaming in a pressure cooker, like my grandma–I make just enough to fill a large jar for the fridge.

My vegetables are lightly pickled. When the vinegar brine is mixed with generous amounts of water, you can use less sugar for balance, resulting in a gently tangy taste I find more enjoyable than a mouth-puckering pickle.

What to serve pickled vegetables with? Something savory, in my opinion. In Emilia-Romagna bowls of giardiniera are sometimes served alongside platters of prosciutto and other locally cured salumi. Pickled vegetables, purchased or made at home, also make a refreshing side to a burger, pulled pork sandwich or grilled chicken.


(Adapted from Piatto Unico)

Makes 6 servings

1 small head cauliflower
1 large red, yellow or green bell pepper, trimmed and seeded
2 medium carrots, peeled
1 small fennel bulb
4 garlic cloves
1 1/2 cups white wine vinegar
3 to 4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 dried hot red pepper

1. Cut the cauliflower florets and stems in small pieces (about 4 cups). Cut pepper in square pieces about the same size. Angle cut the carrots in thin slices. Cut the fennel in thin wedges. Halve the garlic cloves.

2. Combine the vinegar with 4 cups water, the sugar, olive oil, salt, peppercorns, bay leaves and hot pepper in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil; simmer for 10 minutes. Add the vegetables, making sure they are covered; when the liquid returns to a boil, adjust the heat to a brisk simmer. Cook the vegetables until crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Remove from the heat and cool in the saucepan. Transfer vegetables and liquid to a jar or other container; refrigerate. Strain before serving.


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August 3, 2015

Belgian Chefs Who Know Their Veggies

Yes, I enjoyed sampling Belgium’s famous beers, chocolate and, of course, frites. But what really blew me away on a recent visit were the things Belgian chefs are doing with vegetables.

marinated herring with peas

zucchini and kohlrabi with dogfish










My education began at JEF, a small but acclaimed restaurant in Ghent. Marinated fresh herring, just coming into season, were heaped with peas and lovage.  Lovage?  The last time I had encountered this robustly flavored herb was in my New York garden. It grew well but I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Obviously, I could have done something like this.

Lovage was apparently in season because it showed up–unapologetically–in another JEF dish, over a tumble of zucchini almost obscuring the dogfish beneath. A crisp, translucent slice of kohlrabi adorned the plate. Another aha moment–such a delicious and elegant thing to do with a vegetable that, like most people, I totally ignore.

braised kohlrabi with snails

raspberry-dill sorbet with cucumber











At De Vitrine, another trendy Ghent restaurant, kohlrabi was braised until almost caramelized and so delicious it almost overshadowed the delicate-tasting snails also on the plate (that cloud on top is buttermilk foam). Vegetables appeared in every tasting menu course, including dessert:  raspberry-dill sorbet with cucumbers and gooseberry puree.

carrots with chicken


slow roasted tomato with eggplant puree









Chef Vilhjalmur Sigurdarson of Souvenir, in Ieper (also known as Ypres), is passionate about finding creative uses for vegetables that grow in Belgium’s fertile polders. Apparently, Belgium grows at least a dozen varieties of carrots. For one dish on that day’s menu, he halved carrots to show off a beautiful demarcation between maroon and orange, cooking them al dente. Requiring a knife, they commanded as much attention from the eater as the chicken they were paired with.  Tomatoes, on the other hand, were slow roasted until they could barely hold their shape, then garnished with dollops of eggplant puree and delectable whole-grain croutons.

Belgian mussels with celery and carrots

Some of my take-aways from this experience: Figure out what grows well and what’s in season where you are. Think of more ways to prepare vegetables. Don’t stop with steaming, roasting, sautéing. Make vegetables jus and purees, such as the white and green garlic sauces I saw served with roast pork. Get out the mandoline and cut thin, crisp sheets and sprightly tendrils. Braise to bring out deep, primal flavors. Lavish vegetables with herbs, seasonings, crisp crumbs, tart dollops of good yogurt or sour cream. Instead of being generous with the protein component of the plate and stingy with vegetables, switch the ratio.

How successful I am with incorporating these techniques into my cooking remains to be seen. But one thing I plan to try right away. We ate mussels several times and one place stood out. Same plump delicious mussels as everywhere else but they had taken the trouble to cut the celery and carrots steamed with them into paper-thin slices. Sublime and so crazy simple I can do it tonight.

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June 7, 2015

Ricotta Fritters with Maple Syrup

Corner of Vermont is a store that sells maple syrup, maple sugar and maple candies. Also, the state’s maple-flavored creemees, which look like soft-serve ice cream but have more butterfat and therefore taste better.

Nothing too surprising, except what’s a store named Corner of Vermont doing in the heart of Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood?

“I got tired of losing money as a Vermont farmer,” says Mark Hastings. He noticed that many customers at his seasonal roadside stand were from Brooklyn. So he followed them, setting up shop in Park Slope to sell products from the 250-acre Guilford Farm.

Another question: Why’s his single-estate maple syrup better than the 100% Vermont maple syrup found in any supermarket? Seems that, as with wine or olive oil, terroir can make a difference. Maple syrup is a living thing whose flavor and color vary according to the soil, climate and advancing season. So maple syrup from a single farm is likely to have distinctive properties lacked by supermarket syrup, which might be made with sap from 5,000 farmers. The bottle I chose was a dark amber that Hastings promised would deliver “straight-ahead maple flavor.”

Just then a stream of middle-schoolers charged into the store, demanding creemees and other after-school treats. I stopped asking questions and left.

And started thinking about what to do with my maple syrup. The usual, of course–pancakes, French toast, the occasional marinade. But this blog is about “cooking Italian anywhere” and therein lies the challenge. Italians don’t typically consume maple syrup. Or even like it, which may disappoint the proud Americans who give it to Italian friends as a gourmet gift.

Still, there had to be some good use for maple syrup in the Italian cooking canon. And then it came to me: the sweet ricotta fritters known as bombolette or, in Tuscany, as cenci. If honey is drizzled over them (and it is), why not maple syrup? I whipped up some fritters, and–oh yes!  Maple syrup, right at home in Italy.

Ricotta Fritters with Maple Syrup

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking

Makes 4 servings

2 eggs
8 ounces best-quality ricotta
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup flour
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 pinch sea salt
Vegetable oil
1/2 cup maple syrup

1. Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl until light and foamy. Add the ricotta and butter. Continue whisking until creamy. Add the flour a little at a time until incorporated. Beat in the zest and salt. Let stand at room temperature for at least 1 hour but no more than 3.

2. Fill a small skillet or wide saucepan with enough oil to come 1/2 inch up the sides. Heat over medium high heat until the oil shimmers. Working in batches, add the batter 1 tablespoon at a time, pushing it off with another spoon. The batter will sink, then rise to the top and puff up a little. When golden brown, turn and cook on the other side. Drain on paper towels.

3. Place the fritters on a platter or individual plates and drizzle with maple syrup. Serve hot.


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April 6, 2015

Calamondin Marmalade. Huh?

I didn’t know and on the chance you don’t either: Calamondins are tart little citrus fruits related to kumquats.  More often than not, they end up in marmalade.

Calamondins fall into the category of obscure Florida fruits you’ll encounter only if lucky enough to know someone with a tree. We do, as it happens. After lunch with friends in Cedar Key, our host stripped their branches bare and sent us home with a good six pounds to play with.

When I shared some at a meeting, most participants politely took a calamondin to sample. But one declined. “Thank you, but I have a whole orchard of sour oranges,” she said sourly, alluding to the citrus greening problem that is afflicting Florida growers.

By then I had already had a go at making marmalade, collating advice from our friends and a surprisingly large number of Web sites that knew about calamondins. They all called for removing seeds and slicing the fruit, skin and all. After adding water and bringing to a boil, you add sugar. And then let the mixture sit for up to a day. I don’t know much about putting up preserves, so this step puzzled me until I read somewhere that the waiting period allows more natural pectin to be extracted from the fruit. Then you boil the fruit until thick. Simple.

All went well until I left the kitchen and forgot about the saucepan boiling on the stove. “What’s that funky smell?” demanded my husband as he arrived home. It was my calamondin marmalade, thoroughly blackened and welded to the bottom and sides of the pan.

A couple of days later I tried again with the remaining calamondins–setting the kitchen timer at intervals to jolt my aging brain into checking the marmalade. This time, success.  Hours later, I had a Little House on the Prairie moment as I spooned the glossy umber-colored mixture into jars. We’d harvested fruit and put it up for the winter!

Well, not exactly. At the last minute, I stirred bits of candied ginger into the marmalade–I’m betting Ma didn’t have that in her pantry on the big prairie. Also, rather than going through the canning rigmarole, I just shoved the jars into the refrigerator. The marmalade will be long gone by next winter when–given that we live in Florida–the calamondin trees will be laden again.

Calamondin (or Kumquat) Marmalade

Makes about 3 cups

1 1/2 pounds calamondins or kumquats
2 cups sugar, or more
1/4 cup chopped candied ginger (optional)

1. Cut the calamondins in half and flick out seeds with the tip of a knife. Cut fruit (peel and all) in thin slices and place in a medium saucepan. Stir in 4 cups water and bring to a boil. Add 2 cups sugar, stirring until dissolved. Taste and add more if you like–the amount depends on how sour the fruit is and your preferences.

2. Let the fruit mixture stand for several hours or up to 1 day at room temperature.

3. Bring the calamondin mixture to a boil again. Reduce the heat and simmer briskly until it thickens a little (this will take an hour or more). From this point on, keep a close eye on the marmalade, stirring often as it thickens and darkens in color. Cook to 220°F if you have a candy thermometer, or just go by looks (my method). To see if it will set up, spoon a bit onto a plate and refrigerate for a few minutes.

4. Stir in the candied ginger, if using. Cool until warm and spoon into clean jars. Refrigerate.


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