A Lotta Ricotta

The foods: Ricotta pasta, ricotta muffins

Last week, my husband E brought home about a pound of Monforte Dairy fresh sheep milk’s ricotta for us to eat at home, prepared in the style of New York’s Locanda Verde restaurant.

Several lunches of honeyed, herbed, salted and oiled fresh ricotta on toast later, we still had plenty left over, so I turned for inspiration to a book E had brought home from the library that same week: Food Network Favorites: Recipes from Our All-Star Chefs.

I looked at the cover, remembered that Giada De Laurentiis likes ricotta (she also likes to pronounce it in an authentically Italian way, as it’s done here), and turned to her chapter in the book. There I found two enticing ricotta-based recipes: one for stuffed pasta, one for a muffin/biscuit.

The Pasta Shells with Arrabiata Sauce recipe calls for jumbo dried pasta shells to be stuffed with a ricotta, egg and Parmesan cheese mixture enlivened with chopped mint, basil and parsley. It is then baked in a spicy marinara sauce mixed with cooked pancetta or bacon (I used bacon) and topped with mozzarella cheese. The result was rich, light (as light as something containing that much cheese can be) and luscious, to use a Food Network chef-type word.

I was dubious when the recipe promised 8-10 servings using only 36 jumbo pasta shells, but 3-4 stuffed shells were indeed enough for a dinner serving, to be paired with a green salad or some roasted root vegetables on the side.

Also light – and awesomely delectable – were the lemony, cakey, muffinish biscuits Giada calls Nonna’s Lemon Ricotta Biscuits.

Warm from the oven, or warmed up from room temperature a day later, these lemon-scented cakes were just right in texture – neither too sweet nor too dense – and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I will make them again. In fact, I might have to buy more fresh ricotta just to make these muffins. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

Fresh Ricotta at Locanda Verde, Fresh Ricotta at Home

The food: fresh sheep’s milk ricotta

Fresh ricotta with truffle honey and orange toast at Locanda Verde

The story:

During a recent visit to New York, E and I trekked down to Tribeca to Locanda Verde for breakfast (served from 8 – 11 am on weekdays), principally to sample the vaunted fresh sheep milk’s ricotta with truffle honey and burnt orange toast ($9 at breakfast).

We’d run into some snooty attitude in Tribeca restaurants before, but this room – located in Robert De Niro’s The Greenwich Hotel, no less – was casual and stylish, the service warm and welcoming, and though the restaurant was celebrity-free during our visit (I would have loved to have a sighting of past Locanda Verde patrons Bradley Cooper or Blake Lively, to be honest) the ricotta alone was worth the trip downtown. Maybe even worth the trip to New York.

It was creamy, tangy, and warm, and we loved the sweet, salty, earthy, herby combination of flavours that were brought to it with the addition of fresh thyme, sea salt, honey and truffle oil. Okay, not so much the truffle oil, but everything else about the dish was lovely and amazing.

We also tried the Uova Modernese ($15) – two poached eggs served on a cotechino (a delicious type of sausage, and I don’t even like sausages ordinarily) hash with spinach and tomato hollandaise. Also amazingly good, as if made from magical eggs.

As for the lemon ricotta pancakes with fresh blueberries and meyer lemon curd ($13): they were wonderful too. Perfect, I might even say – light, sweet, and creamy.

Back home in Toronto, I strove to recreate the ricotta experience. On a Saturday, while I attended an all-day rehearsal for an upcoming concert of the choir I’m in, I sent E to buy some fresh sheep’s milk ricotta from the Monforte Dairy stall at the Evergreen Brickworks Farmers’ Market. He came home with two (!) good-sized tubs of a fresh dry ricotta, which, though it lacked the creamy texture of the Locanda Verde variety, was nevertheless delicious when drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and honey, sprinkled with some flor de sal d’estrenc and fresh thyme leaves, and eaten with toasted slices of rustic baguette topped with fresh grated lemon rind.

Monforte Dairy ricotta served up in my kitchen

Locanda Verde on Urbanspoon

Flatiron Food: Bar Stuzzichini 1 – Eataly 0

The food: delicious authentic Italian

The story:

On a recent trip to New York, E and I stopped by Eataly, the buzzy, gigantic new food hall masterminded by Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and friends, and situated on 23rd Street in the Flatiron district. Eataly is full of high-end Italian groceries and contains several food stations/counters/’restaurants’ where food is prepared to order. It was also jam-packed – make that mobbed – with people at two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon in November.

We couldn’t imagine eating at Eataly, amid the chaos, noise and crowds – and at food court-style tables, yet.

Much more our scene was the tasty, authentic Italian food served around the corner on Broadway at the dark but calm Bar Stuzzichini, where the $19.95 prix fixe lunch (served from 12 – 4 pm) was an incredible deal for some lovely food.

We started with 2 stuzzichini (appetizers) each. As ever, we were drawn to the fried food on the menu, so we ordered the arancini, baby artichokes (in season!), panelle (chickpea fritters), and to round out the fat content of the meal, some mozzarella di bufala.

The baby artichokes were delicious – fried golden and crispy on the outside, green inside. The panelle – which I’d never eaten before – were crisp, light, savoury and a little oily, but in a good way. The arancini were also light and melt in your mouth, probably because they contained more cheese inside than risotto.

We were already almost full but our second courses awaited: for E, the spiced salmon with polenta, and for me, a plate of tagiolini with pistachios and lemon. Given that these items cost $23 and $17 when ordered a la carte, we expected small portions, but there was more food on the plates than we expected. More food that was good, creamy and rich.

We waddled out of Bar Stuzzichini feeling a few pounds heavier, but not before having our last course, a lemon ice that wasn’t creamy. Thank god.

Bar Stuzzichini on Urbanspoon


The food: oaty bannock bread

The story:

On a recent trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, I ate at McKelvie’s, a fish and seafood restaurant. I’m sorry to say that I found the fish entrées mediocre-tasting and overpriced, but the bread – a slightly sweet, cakey, oaty, raisin-studded variety that I could have eaten all night – was delicious:

McKelvie’s bread, photographed in situ

Back home in Toronto, I went online to try to find out more about that bread, and came across an unattributed recipe for bannock listed on several aggregate recipe sites, always with the same, rambling explanation about bannock’s origins (which are both Scottish and native North American, apparently), and a mention that the recipe in question produces a bread similar to that served at McKelvie’s in Halifax.

I decided to give it a whirl, but the simple instructions – basically mix, pat into pie tin, bake – made me wonder if a bread-like texture could possibly result, especially when the baked product came out looking like this:

So I hedged my bets and also tried a more complicated recipe for Oat Bannock that called for yeast, kneading, the leaving of dough to rise in a warm place, punching down, etc.

The complicated recipe produced a brioche-like bread with a beautiful browned crust and decent texture that looks like a cross between a panettone and something that I’ve come to understand is called Selkirk Bannock:

but I found it too yeasty tasting, no doubt because a) I ineptly handled the dough during the kneading stage, and b) it failed to rise the first time it was supposed to, after I failed to put it in a warm enough place.

The simpler recipe, meanwhile, yielded a bread that did taste much like the one at McKelvie’s (delicious slathered with butter), albeit with a denser texture and crumb.

Possible morals arising from this story (take your pick):

1) simplest is best
2) you CAN believe some of what you read on the internet
3) my hands do not work well with doughs that require handling
4) bread that tastes like cake is good

Oat Bannock, McKelvie’s Style

1 c Whole wheat flour
1/2c All purpose flour
1/2c Rolled oats
2 Tbsp. Sugar, granulated
2 tsp. Baking powder
1/2 tsp. Salt
2 Tbsp. Butter, melted
1/3c Raisins; optional
3/4c Water; approximately

Stir together flours, oats, sugar, baking powder and salt.
Add melted butter, raisins (if using) and water, adding more water if needed to make sticky dough.
With floured hands, pat into greased pie plate.
Bake in 400F oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until browned and tester comes out clean.
Cut into wedges.
VARIATIONS: In place of raisins add chopped dried apricots or fresh berries.