25 August 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Italians Do It Whey Better

SARONNO, Italy - Any cook worth his or her salt will tell you that in the culinary world you don’t throw anything away. Take ricotta for example. Ricotta is made from what is left over after making other cheeses. In truth, ricotta isn’t a cheese at all but a latticino, a dairy by-product. Cow and buffalo milk mozzarellas are also considered latticini.

Creamy Ricotta

Ricotta is made from whey, the same stuff Little Miss Muffet was eating as she sat on her tuffet. Simply speaking whey is the watery liquid that is left after cow, sheep or goat cheese is made. Italians love ricotta and while you may look at it and say, 'what's the big deal?' there's a lot of story behind ricotta. It's   been part of the Italian cucina for centuries.

During the days of the Roman empire ricotta production was regulated by Cato the Elder (234 to 149 BC). He introduced laws regarding sheep farming and agriculture. In those days, sheep’s milk was used for many things: as part of sacrificial rites, as a beverage, for the production of pecorino cheese – and ricotta. Even back then they used the whey instead of throwing it out.

Variations on a Ricotta Theme

It is fairly easy to make ricotta. The name ricotta means “recooked” in Italian and recooking is the basic idea behind this product. What happens is whey is allowed to ferment for one or two days in tepid temperatures until it becomes more acidic. After the fermentation is complete the whey is cooked to almost boiling; then the left over proteins solidify into curds which are then filtered through a cloth. The result is a product that is a lot like cottage cheese but with a sweeter taste.

There are many forms of ricotta but the most common types are: ricotta di mucca (cow milk ricotta), ricotta di pecora (sheep milk ricotta) and ricotta di bufala, (buffalo milk ricotta). The best ricotta is that which comes straight from the farm, but even here in Italy, at least in the towns around Milan, it can be hard to find.

I’ve heard that in some areas of Italy you can also find ricotta di mucca e pecora, a mix of cow and sheep milk and ricotta di capra, goat milk ricotta. And more recently they have started selling buffalo milk ricotta in the southern regions of Campania and Puglia where buffalo mozzarella is produced.

For ravioli, tortelloni, agnolotti, stuffed crepes and cakes and pastries, the most common ricotta to use is cow milk ricotta. But in areas where sheep herding is more widespread, like Tuscany, Lazio, Abruzzi, Campania, Puglia and Sardinia, sheep milk ricotta is the most popular, particularly for regional specialties. Each region produces a slightly different tasting milk and cheese, but generally speaking sheep milk ricotta is a little richer than cow milk ricotta.

Zucchini and Ricotta Quiche

Ricotta di pecora is most often used in sauces and pasta recipes, particularly those that include eggplant, peppers, zucchini and spinach. It is also very good for pasta al forno, baked pasta, especially the type prepared in the central southern regions of Italy, and deserts like Sicilian cannoli and cassata.

Ricotta Romana DOP is one of the better known ricottas in Italy. The DOP designation says that it is produced in the region of Lazio and classic production methods have been followed. One of the most renowned ricotta in Italy is the sheep milk Ricotta Romana (D.O.P.), which has a protected designation of origin. This certifies that it is produced only in the region of Lazio and that strict requirements regarding its method of production are followed.

Sicilian Cannoli

Ricotta producers in Campania recently applied for a DOP designation for their ricotta di buffalo and there is every indication that they will get it. There are a few other special types of ricotta too, like ricotta salata, a hard, seasoned cheese that is often used in place of pecorino and grated over pasta. Ricotta al forno or infornato, is a baked ricotta that can be eaten as in or added to pasta dishes. Ricotta affumicata, or smoked ricotta has a delicious taste of charred oak and chestnut. But the most unique ricotta is ricotta scanta which you will only find in Puglia. It is a pungent, aromatic, beige-colored and creamy ricotta that the Pugliese spread on bread or on vegetables. 

And for a change of pace, and a lighter calorie count, you might want to try using ricotta the next time you make a vegetable (maybe zucchini) quiche.
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