Lessons Learned from Scratch

The first time I made and tasted whole-milk ricotta cheese I was a fan for life. With some buttermilk and one gallon of whole milk, I was on my way. Heating the mixture to 175 degrees and watching the separation of the curds and whey, and then the draining process and finally the packaging.

So simple, so fascinating, and I would judge all other whole-milk ricotta cheeses against this one. I haven’t made ricotta in a long time but every time I buy it, I know what I’m looking for — a light, almost creamy texture with a slight nutty flavor.

Long ago I worked for a chef, friend and mentor who encouraged me to learn how to prepare as many culinary products as I could before using the convenience of purchasing these items ready-made — learning to make phyllo dough, cream fondant, puff pastry dough, peanut butter, coffee extract, ice cream, sherbet and cheeses, to name a few. My mentor would say, “It’s fine to purchase these items, but have you made them at least once?”

Once a person goes through this culinary journey, one is much more appreciative and critical of the products being purchased, all at the same time. What are you doing this weekend? Prepare something for the first time. Have you ever tasted homemade marshmallows or yeast-raised doughnuts with a maple glaze, or possibly fresh made whole-milk ricotta cheese?

Whole Milk Ricotta:

Normally speaking, ricotta is made from the whey that was left over after cheesemaking and actually means re-cooked, or cooked again, in Italian. But in New England, it’s the whole-milk ricotta that has long been popular.

1 gallon whole milk
1 quart buttermilk
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Mise en place (everything in its place): Before you start, you need to rinse a large piece of cheese cloth with cold water and squeeze dry, now use the cheesecloth to line a colander or sieve to hold the cheese after cooking. You should layer the cheesecloth several times to hold the weight of the cheese while draining.

Next assemble the two milks and salt and place these ingredients in a stainless steel pot. Place over medium heat and stir with a heat-resistant spatula, making sure milk doesn’t scorch on the bottom of the pan. That’s why I start the fire on medium heat to help prevent the shock of a high fire on cold milk at the beginning. Once the milk has warmed, increase the heat to medium high and don’t stir anymore.

While the milk is heating, you will see the curds beginning to form. As this happens, stir the pan gently to release any particles on the bottom of the pan. When the mixture reaches 175 degrees and no more than 180 degrees, you can see the curds and whey separate. Now is the time to remove the pot from the heat. Working gently and carefully to not get burned and to not break up the curds, using a skimmer, remove all of the curds from the pot that have floated to the top and place in the cheesecloth-lined colander or sieve.

Let most of the whey drain from the cheesecloth and then tie the cloth into a loose bag and hang at room temperature for about an hour. How long you drain the cheese will depend on what you make with it. If you drain the cheese about 15 to 20 minutes, I might spread the creamy cheese onto a toasted baguette with a touch of honey or maple syrup drizzled over the top or maybe a few black olives on top with a touch of olive oil and herbs. But if I wanted to fill canollis, make a ricotta cheesecake or bake with it, I would drain the cheese a while longer to create an impasta ricotta, which is just a little drier due to less liquid. After draining, the cheese is ready to be packaged in airtight containers, kept refrigerated and used within one week.

Like I always say, if you made more than you can use in one week, then you made too much. That reminds me, this recipe will yield about 25 percent of what you started with, meaning you will have a little over two pounds of homemade whole-milk ricotta cheese. Like many procedures in the bakery, it’s all about time and temperature.

Steve James, Certified Master Baker
Managing Partner, Popovers on the Square, Portsmouth, Principal of SJ Culinary Consulting, bkr155@ncia.net

Cheap Eats By Rachel Forrest

Fiesta by the Lake

Bikers and boaters alike stop off at Crazy Gringos for Mexican fare and a good time, and now that the warm weather is here a stroll along the boardwalk followed by a margarita and some spicy sustenance makes for a great afternoon. Start off with a dip of refried beans, tangy salsa and meltingly gooey cheese for your toasted tortilla chips or build your own nachos with toppings like onions, mushrooms, cheese and plenty of jalapeño peppers.    

Tequila lime chicken fajitas are tender and sizzling with whatever toppings you want to roll in a soft flour tortilla, and continuing the create-your-own concept, fill a burrito with just about anything they have in the kitchen, including black olives, tomatillo salsa and steak tips. A must-try is the spicy fish taco basket with tortillas and a spicy haddock, and a north-of-the-border specialty, pulled pork with a smoky barbeque sauce.

While Gringos has the “little hole in the wall” vibe, it’s a favorite of locals and there is often a themed party going on with a lively crowd, especially during Laconia’s Bike Week in early June when the brews and margaritas flow and the tacos fly out of the kitchen — all with great prices and large portions that keep the fun going in any season.  

Find Crazy Gringo at 306 Lakeside Ave., Weirs Beach Boardwalk, Lake Winnipesaukee (603) 366-4411

Rachel Forrest’s Cheap Eats appears monthly. She is a former restaurant owner and now independent food writer who lives in Exeter. Hear her on “Wine Me Dine Me” — a radio show with co-host Susan Tuveson Fridays at 6 p.m. on WSCA-FM 106.1. She can be reached by e-mail at rachelforrest1@aol.com when she’s not on the road finding great Cheap Eats.

Cuisine Buzz

Swish, swish, bubble, bubble — your food is ready, with just a bit of trouble.
San Francisco Kitchen in Nashua has expanded their space and added seven or so shabu-shabu tables and a lengthy bar. And if you are a regular, you will really appreciate the new bathrooms on the same level.

The décor is similar to the older space next door. A collection of pendant lamps hangs from the ceiling. It’s like they loved all the designs so they bought one of each. The rich effect matches the colorful resin tabletops that boast built-in heating elements using induction technology. The elements heat only the metal pot, so the surrounding area stays cool.

The menu lists six or more variations, from just vegetables ($11) to ostrich ($15) to an array of seafood ($18). Thin slices of beef or chicken are also available, or you can order just the vegetables and add other ingredients à la carte.

The server brings out the pot with either a miso broth or a kim chee broth or both — the space is divided. An array of vegetables, meats or seafood of your choice, udon noodles and several sauces arrive on platters. Then the fun begins. Best to put the vegetables in first, they may take longer. You can use the chopsticks or the handy strainer. I found the strainer the easiest way to control the shrimp and seafood. Otherwise, it was go fish!

At times it seemed like a three-ring circus, something happening in every corner. But in the end, it was a relaxing way to enjoy a meal, slowly, bit by bit.
— Susan Laughlin

San Francisco Kitchen
133 Main St., Nashua
(603) 886-8833