Toto, I don’t think we’re in OZ anymore…

As I was out for a walk the other day I came upon the semi-annual Barney’s Warehouse Sale. For those of you not familiar with this twice a year event, it is the world series of designer at a discount sales. And the shoes…OH THE SHOES! There are those out there who celebrate this ‘holiday’ over any other, and I used to be one of the observant — probably half the shoes in my closet followed me home from this mecca of fabulous 50%-off foot ware. But alas, since this Dorothy has left the land of disposable-income OZ for the time being, I was left out in the cold, my nose pressed against the glass like a starving waif peering hungrily through the bakery window. I just stood there, holding back a tear as the muffled cries of “FAAAABULOUS! And just look at the price…for MANOLOS” gently wafted through the late summer air. SIGH… So, it’s ciao Choo, farewell Ferragamo, bye-bye Blahnik, perhaps next year Prada. (You notice nowhere do I say “I have enough shoes already.” That’s just crazy talk and you wouldn’t believe me anyway.)

Gone are the heady days of my ample disposable income. Hell, gone are the days of ANY income (for now.) So it’s time to comb the file cabinets in my brain for all those clever tricks used back before my salad days of Barneys, Bloomingdales and Saks. You know, things like knowing exactly where and when they give away the free food in the market. Find that and lunch is covered my friend! Of course, we are probably not talking about the healthiest of menus, but it’s tasty, filling and most important — free! Luckily they don’t do it everyday in Whole Foods, and I live too far away from Costco to be on their frequent sampler plan. Looking for something healthy? Peruse the local farmer’s market. Depending on the season you can have your fill of slices of apples, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, berries, peaches, or those little fried mild peppers no one seems to buy. Pay no attention to the hairy fish eye you’re getting from the “haves” as they shop. They just forgot they used to do it too. Feeling thirsty? Head on down to the gallery district, where for the price of a few “ooos”, “ahhs”, and “interesting use of; materials; light; texture; dryer lint?” you get a free glass of chardonnay or merlot. So what if it’s served in elegant plastic…it’s FREE! You may even get lucky and get some cheese. Don’t think of it as mooching. It’s a walk down the memory lane of your younger days. And don’t forget to bring the ziplocs…

Before I discovered heirloom tomatoes, imported fresh cheese, and all the swanky ingredients that go with a budget that affords a steady diet of fashionable new shoes, I cooked great meals with ‘humbler’ ingredients.  Know what? They tasted pretty damn good — go figure!  So now that I’m back to being a woman of far more ‘modest’ means, I’ve gone back to the basics.  The following recipes are some of my favorites.  They may take a little extra time, but the end results will NOT disappoint even your most well heeled friends. Hey — artisan is’ll be the height of fashion!

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

If you too cringe at the cost of ‘farmer’s market’ tomatoes, do what I do. Buy the cheaper ones in the supermarket and roast them! This is a great recipe when cherry tomatoes are in season, and is even better in colder weather when the only passable tomatoes you can get are these little babies.

  • 1 lb cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 6-8 branches of fresh thyme
  • 2-3 TBSP of olive oil
  • salt & pepper

Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Put the tomatoes on a sided cookie sheet or shallow baking pan so they are in one layer and not crowded. Drizzle with 2-3 TBSP olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper and toss in the thyme (you don’t need to strip the leaves from the stems – they will come off as they roast). Toss everything thoroughly so the oil and seasonings are well-distributed over all the tomatoes. Roast for 20-25 minutes or until the tomato skins burst and the tomatoes wilt a bit.  Remove the stems from the thyme (most of the leaves should have fallen off during the roasting) and pour the tomatoes and juices into a bowl or jar. If you aren’t using them right away, they’ll keep well for a few of days in the refrigerator. You can use them with fresh ricotta over pasta (see recipe below) , as a side dish, a topping for bruschetta, on sandwiches, burgers, or however you like. They are delicious! Calories: 440 calories per pound of tomatoes, or 110 calories per serving for 4.

Homemade Ricotta

Freshly made ricotta is truly a treat. But paying the steep prices for it is not. The first time I read a recipe for homemade ricotta I’ll admit, I was a bit intimidated. Then I gave it a try and discovered it’s not difficult at all. In fact, it pretty much makes itself. Take milk, add in something to curdle it, heat, and you’ve got ricotta! Some recipes call for lemon juice or vinegar to create the curds but I found buttermilk does a great job and I like the flavor of the end product better.  I’ve use whole milk, 2%, whatever I have at hand, and if I’m feeling particularly decadent, a 3-1 combination of milk and half & half or cream is a lovely treat.

The only equipment you really need for this is some cheesecloth, a fine mesh sieve and a saucepan. Some use a high heat thermometer to test the temperature of the liquids, but it’s really not necessary. You’ll know when it’s right – the curds will form, separate from the whey, and when the liquid boils, you’re done. Once you’ve strained the curds out, don’t throw away the whey (the liquid part left over).  It’s terrific for baking – I use it in place of water in yeast breads and in scones, muffins or other baking that calls for buttermilk.

The basic ratio for ricotta is 4-1: 4 parts milk (or a combination of milk & cream) to 1 part buttermilk. Since the finished product doesn’t last more than a few days, I usually make small ½-1 cup batches to use that day in a recipe. That’s actually how I got into making it in the first place – a recipe called for it, the wallet was thin, and I didn’t feel like running out to the market in the rain.

For about 3/4 cup ricotta

  • 4 cups milk (whole, 2% or a combination of either with half & half or cream)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Optional: 2-3 TBSP half & half or heavy cream

Place a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl. Line the strainer with 3 layers of cheesecloth.

Heat the milk and buttermilk over medium heat in a saucepan. Stir it frequently so the milk doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pan.  Keep an eye on it –this isn’t something to walk away from. Just pour yourself a glass of wine or whatever and hang out in the kitchen for a while.

As the mixture gets up to heat (around 175-180F if you want to use a thermometer – you don’t have to), you’ll start to see curds forming. Stir with a heatproof spatula, gently scraping curds off sides and bottom. When the milk starts to boil, turn off the heat.  The curds should be fully formed, and will separate from the whey (which now looks like milky water). Skim the curds with a slotted spoon or skimmer into the cheesecloth lined strainer. When you’ve skimmed most off, slowly pour the remaining curds and whey through the strainer. Remove the curds to a bowl, pour the whey into a jar and store in the refrigerator until you feel like baking some bread. It keeps for quite a while.

The curds will probably look a little dry. I usually add back in a tablespoon or two of cream and mix well to get a creamier consistency. Calories: 150 per ¼ cup.

There’s a ton of good things you can do with fresh ricotta:

  • To 1/2 cup ricotta, add 1 tsp good olive oil, 1 tsp chopped herbs, 1 tsp lemon zest, 1 tsp cream and a pinch of salt & pepper for a great spread on toast. Add a slice fresh tomato or some of the roasted tomatoes on top.
  • Blind bake 3″ circles of frozen puff pastry to make tartlet shells (remember to prick well all over so they don’t puff up too much, or bake with another cookie sheet on top to keep them flat). Add 2 TBSP soft goat cheese to the herbed ricotta above, mix well (you may need to add a little milk or cream to make it more spreadable). Spread on the cooled tartlets. Top with a few cool roasted tomatoes and a few thyme leaves – makes a great breakfast, first course, lunch with a green salad, or if you make smaller pastry rounds, very swanky cocktail nibbles!
  • Drizzle with honey and cinnamon, and add raisins or fresh berries for a terrific breakfast
  • Boil some pasta and top with fresh ricotta,  warm roasted tomatoes, 1 TBSP good olive oil, some lemon zest and a sprinkling of parmesan for a wonderful bowl of pasta.
Article first published as Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Homemade Ricotta on Blogcritics.

2 thoughts on “Toto, I don’t think we’re in OZ anymore…

  1. I have been playing with homemade ricotta, too – so many different methods, and all really easy and DEFINITELY worth doing. Had lovely crespelle (eggy crepes) in Rome filled with ricotta and with a light tomato sauce. Yum. Plan to recreate for C&L soon!

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