I've had a hankering to make fresh ricotta cheese. Not authentic ricotta cheese made by recooking leftover scalded whey, but a cozier version made by adding a form of acid to heated whole milk. Fresh. Light. Creamy.
Last Saturday, Michael and I joined dear friends at a lovely hilltop home out in the countryside to celebrate a few of their Polish culinary traditions. With crisp champaigne flowing freely, we had a blast cavorting around the kitchen.
Leading up to the big day, I mulled over snack options to take for everyone to nibble on while we cooked, drank, and made merry. While doing so, I stumbled across a simple method for making a Polish curd cheese called tvarog or farmer's cheese. Farmer's cheese, an unripened white curd cheese with a delicate mild flavor and soft texture similar to cottage cheese or cream cheese, is simple to make at home.. When thinned with cream, it's sometimes sweetened with sugar and served with jam or seasoned with herbs and served with toasted bread. Bingo. The perfect snack.
Bonus. Because the method for making farmer's cheese was similar to the method for fresh ricotta, my cheesemaking hankering was sated.
Patience was key. Working over a low flame, I slowly warmed 2 quarts of Channey's whole pastuerized milk until it reached a temperature of 185 degrees, about 45 minutes. When the steaming milk hit the mark, I pulled it from the heat before adding 2 cups of buttermilk, 1 1/2 teaspoons of kosher salt, and a tablespoon of distilled white vinegar. Using a wooden spoon, I carefully and slowly stirred the milk until the curds gently separated from the whey. I set the floating curds aside to rest (undisturbed) and joined Michael in the parlor for several glasses of wine.
After 35 minutes, I lined a colander with 2 layers of damp cheesecloth, placed it over a larger mixing bowl, and ladled the curds into the soft net. I let the whey fall from the curds for 10 minutes before gathering the cheesecloth into a bundle and squeezing out additonal whey. After hanging the cheese ball from a makeshift contraption to drip dry, I tumbled the finished farmer's cheese into a bowl, formed it into a mound, wrapped it in plastic, and slid it into the refrigerator.
The day of the polka party, I brought the farmer's cheese to room temperature and thinned it with cream. After blending the cheese with snipped chives, chopped parsley, garlic, minced radishes, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, and cracked pepper, I spooned the spread into a raddichio-lined serving bowl before drizzling extra virgin olive oil over the silky cheese.
For texture and bite, I scattered additional minced radishes over the top and surrounded the creamy herb-flecked farmer's cheese spread with rustic rye toast points.
Bring on the fresh air, barking dogs, jugglers, musicians, strollers, vendors, local produce, fresh baked breads, and artisinal cheeses! For the past few weeks, I've been perfectly content waiting for the Lexington Farmers' Market to relocate outdoors under crisp blue skies and budding trees. Although the indoor market has been great, I'd decided to take a break, lie low, sit back, and wait for the big move. That was my intent... until I found myself smack dab in the middle of it while walking to work ( knife kit in tow) to finish up food prep for an event. I tried to swoop through the market without stopping, but got blindsided by billowly bags of curly Savoy spinach. Whiplashed. Hooked. I couldn't help myself. The surprizing pillows of spinach hijacked my sensibilities. Sold.
Last Friday, I turned to Michael and happily announced that we were having wilted spinach salads for supper. "With a warm bacon dressing on meatless Friday?", he asked.
"Without bacon.", I mumbled, coyly. Lent.
Most wilted spinach salads contain similar components; spinach, mushrooms, onions, hard boiled eggs, bacon, and warm bacon dressing. I omitted the bacon while adding other unexpected ingredients. With little cooking involved, it was fast and fun to throw together.
I'm not a huge fan of hard boiled eggs. I wanted jiggly runny eggs, so I simmered 2 large organic eggs for 5 minutes before carefully plunging them into cold water to stop the cooking process, peeling them, and setting them aside. After pulling the tough stems from the hardy spinach, I tossed the leaves with vibrant torn radicchio leaves, washed them, and slid them into the refrigerator to crisp.
Warm un-bacon dressing. I sauteed a small minced shallot in 4 tablespoons of olive oil. To mimic the slight smokiness of the absent bacon, I seasoned the shallots with chardonnay-infused oak smoked sea salt. When the smoked salt melted into the oil and the shallots were a bit caramelized, I deglazed the pan with 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar, added 1 tablespoon of dijon mustard, black pepper, and 3 tablespoons of pure maple syrup. Yep. After pulling the warm dressing from the heat, I emulsified it with a small whisk before pouring the sweet tart dressing over the spinach and radicchio leaves.
After a few turns with a pair of tongs, the salad gently wilted from the warm dressing. I swirled the glistening leaves into large pasta bowls, topping them with the dreamy soft boiled eggs, julienned red bell peppers, and thinly sliced snow peas before finishing with halved kiwiberries for unexpected tiny bursts of freshness.
With layers of flavor, the whacked out salad totally worked. The earthy bitterness of the spinach and radicchio combination punched through the tart sweet sticky warm dressing. Soft egg yolks dripped through the wilted leaves, covering them with an unctuous essence usually provided by bacon fat. While the snow peas and red bell peppers added crispy wet bites, the jeweled sweet kiwiberries popped like juicy flavor bombs.
I was floored the moment I split open a small bulbous farmers' market butternut squash. The splayed creamy pale skin exposed glistening vivid orange colored flesh. Unlike pallid supermarket squash, the flesh glowed like an ultra ripe midsummer Casey County cantalope. It was gorgeous.
Typically, I puree roasted butternut squash before thinning it with stock and transforming it into a hearty velvety soup. Problem: One small squash would have yielded two tiny demitasse cups of soup. Amuse-bouche? Nope. I decided to roast it, puree it, and serve it alongside pan seared chicken.
Recently, I ran across a recipe in Bon Apetit featuring an asian spin on twice baked sweet potatoes spiked with miso and topped with sesame bacon brittle. Bacon brittle? Uh. Hell, yeah. While fascinated with the notion of bacon brittle as a crackling topping for whipped butternut squash, I wanted a different flavor profile, so I used the method as a base and changed things up a bit.
I brushed the halved squash flesh with olive oil, seasoned it, and placed it cut side down on a sheet pan before sliding it into a 350 degree oven to roast for 45 minutes.
While the squash bubbled away, I sliced three pieces of thick-cut applewood smoked bacon into 1/4 inch lardons before frying them in a cast iron skillet until they crisped and caramelized. I scooped the bacon onto paper towels to drain and discarded the rendered bacon fat. After wiping the skillet clean, I placed it back over a medium flame and added 1 cup of sugar, 1/2 cup corn syrup, and 1/4 cup water.
Without using a candy thermometer, I cooked the mixture until it was the color of milk chocolate. Working quickly, I added 1 tablespoon of butter, a few fresh rosemary leaves, and the reserved bacon. With a frenzied desperate purpose, I carefully poured the molten mess onto a sil pat to harden. It was rock hard within seconds. Wow.
When the butternut squash collapsed from the heat, I pulled it from the oven, scooped out the soft flesh, and pureed it in a blender with salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons of butter. I spooned the buttery squash into small ramekins before topping it with broken chards of rosemary-flecked bacon brittle and fresh rosemary leaves.
Ok, so here's the deal. The bacon brittle slowly melted from the steaming wetness of the warm whipped squash, oozing and puddling between bites. The crazy combination of salty sweet brittle, aromatic rosemary, and pillowy squash had the luxurious mouthfeel and texture of a desconstructed savory butternut squash creme brulee.
This is the time of year I start thinking about pulling my peat pots from the garage and buying seeds. Summer dreams with endless possibilties. I plant my herbs in makeshift plastic tabletop greenhouses before placing them under the only windows in the dining room alcove. That trick usually works for a day or two before I eventually end up moving them around the house chasing scarce available sunlight. After pampering the herbs until they peek through the peat, unfurl, and reach toward the light, I harden them off before transplanting them into giant herb pots on the back deck.
This year, most of my herbs survived our incredibly mild winter. It still blows me away that delicate chervil, parsley, and thyme made it through bouts of snow and freezing temperatures. Although weathered a bit, they poke through dead leaves and acorn shoots like proud warriors. Fresh, strong, and happy.
With most of my herbs in place for the season, I guess I won't need the peat pots this year.....until I start thinking about tomatoes and fresh basil.
A couple of nights ago, I celebrated my urban herbal survival with a riff on omelettes aux fines herbes. Classically, an omelette aux fines herbes is made with a combination of herbs and beaten eggs cooked in a very hot omelette pan with clarified butter. Without browning the eggs, the omelette is stirred until it's almost set, folded, and rolled from the pan. I've never grasped that method. . Even after classes in school dedicated to the art of perfectly cooked, folded, and rolled French omelettes, I still can't (or don't want to) master the technique. It's a little too fiddly and fussy, anyway. I cook my omelettes in an omelette pan with unsalted non-clarified butter and fill them with whatever suits me. I briefly cover them before sliding and folding them out of the pan. They're big, bold, and fluffy. No apologies.
That being said, I used the idea of omelette aux fines herbes as a starting point for a playful take on green eggs and ham. We had gorgeous bluish/green tinted organic eggs that MIchael picked up during one of his weekly Fresh Market runs. I cracked two eggs into two individual ramekins before adding minced fresh chives, parsley, thyme, nutmeg, salt, and pepper to each egg-filled ramekin. I whisked the eggs and herbs until they were well blended and set them aside.
I had a huge chunk of prosciutto de parma. Really. Huge. I didn't have the patience (or a meat slicer) to shave the prosciutto into delicate paper thin slices, so I decided to treat it like country ham. Big, chewy hunks of salty ham. Yep. I sliced thick strips of prosciutto from a halved wheel of cured pork, cranked a cast iron skillet over a medium high flame, and drizzled it with oil before carefully added the prosciutto. I knew I was committing prosciutto purist sacrilege. Hell, I didn't care.
I pan seared the prosciutto until it caramelized into beautifully browned pork candy and tossed sliced navel oranges into the skillet before deglazing the pan with 1/2 cup of fresh squeezed orange juice until the juice bubbled and reduced, napping the ham with a glistening glaze. Rule breaking heretic.
After sliding the glazed prosciutto into the oven to keep warm, I heated an omelette pan and added 2 tablespoons of butter. When the butter sizzled, I poured the herb-flecked beaten eggs into the pan and cooked them until they were almost set before topping them with creme fraiche, fresh spinach, and grated fontina cheese. I briefly covered the eggs to melt the cheese, removed the lid, and folded the omlettes onto our plates.
Glazed ham candy. Soft airy omelettes. Earthy spinach. Oozing fontina cheese. Fresh garden herbs.
Say! I like green eggs and ham! I do! I like them, Sam-I-am! ...So I will eat them in a box. And I will eat them with a fox. And I will eat them in a house. And I will eat them with a mouse. And I will eat them here and there. Say! I will eat them EVERYWHERE!