Hello and Welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes Better Ingredients series, a series I have claimed, like a fiddler crab stealing the leg from a seagull carcass, in the absence of Alan’s ongoing inputs into it! LET MY MASSIZE RIGHT CLAW GIVE ME DOMINANCE ON THE MEAT-MAGIC
I will fuck you up, son.
That weirdness out of the way, what is this series about? Well, Alan used it to talk about the many healthy ingredients he was trying out in pursuing a new fitness goal. My fitness goals tend to be “Don’t be ashamed when you look in the mirror”, which I meet roughly half the time, and “Try not to audibly wheeze at the top of staircases”, so I decided to immediately scrap that pathway for something else.
What else? Do we really need a name for it? I mean, I don’t see why we’re all so ready to label things so much, baby. I mean, you’re here; I’m here, why we gotta complicate things just trying to make definitions for people who don’t get what we have? Isn’t the truth of our relationship strong enough that we don’t need to give it a name? And doesn’t that make it stronger, in the end? Come back to bed.
I, too, seek to entice you You know what they say about guys with big claws! (Their burrows are wider, and therefore provide better incubating temperatures.)
Thank you, Fiddley-Dee. (What? You gotta better name for a Fiddler crab?) But, average response from your stoner fuck-buddy aside: Yeah, I thought broadening the series to simply “a focused post on a single ingredient” would be cool, and allow me to cover different ones for different reasons. Cover healthy ones, exotic ones, ones you can make at home easily, just, really, any kind of “better” ingredient.
I’ve got big plans for the series. (That’s a lie. I have moderate plans at best. 3-5 posts, mostly about how I can’t stop eating homemade croutons.) So let’s start with one hot off the presses: Ricotta cheese.
Ricotta Lotta Nerve, coming around here
Now, let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: what I make today isn’t, by strictest definition, actually ricotta. Ricotta comes from the Italian “Re-cooked”. It’s called that because original ricotta (which dates back at least as far as Ancient Rome) wasn’t made, as I will make it, with whole milk. It was made with whey, the liquid left after making cheese curds. Ricotta was literally recycled cheese water made into another, softer cheese. It was a way for shepherds to feed themselves while selling to the wealthy aristocrats.
"You there, peasant! I have fed my children on your sheep! I shall pay you for the milk."
"That's a wolf, sir."
"Is wolf milk more or less expensive than sheep's milk?"
But, while ancient practice uses whey and a little milk, many modern cooks find you can get equally useful results by just using whole milk. And this is where I came in. Recently, my father saw an episode of a cooking show where they made Ricotta. He mentioned it to my mother, who mentioned it to me, and I said “Oh, yeah, it’s really simple. Just takes like, 30-40 minutes and a couple ingredients”.
“Uhhh…I think like, Lemon Juice, Whole Milk, and salt?”
“Oh, that is real easy. So if we bought whole milk, you could make it?”
It was at this juncture I realized, seconds too late, that my blasé attitude of before was going to get me more work. Damn you, Past Jon!
“Uhh, yeah. I guess. I mean, I’d have to check the recipes, make sure I get it all. You know.”
“Great! Whole Milk is 99 cents for a half-gallon this weekend.”
So, that’s how I ended up in my kitchen this afternoon, a motley crew of ingredients before me.
I feel like this is a misuse of the word motley.
A Whole Messa Milk
Yeah, it turns out I was exactly right on 3 of the ingredients, only forgetting the 4th: white vinegar. The process is quite simple: First, dump the half-gallon of milk and 1 tsp salt into a pot. Turn the heat to medium high, and bring the temp to 185. This took my oven about 20 minutes. You’ll want to stir frequently, since this is, you know, milk, and you don’t want it to scorch. I averaged once every 90 seconds to 2 minutes, and did fine. (Well, THIS part went fine, we’ll…get to it.) Since I was constantly stirring, I ended up deciding to grab a snack, so I snatched a whole pickle out of the fridge, and ate it.
Thanks to my friend Jared for introducing me to these. They're quite nice.
Once the milk reached temperature, I followed the instructions, and removed it from the heat. I added a mixture of 1/8 cup white vinegar, and 1/6 cup lemon juice. And before you ask, yes, as those weird measurements imply, I was working from a half-recipe. Anyhow, I stirred those two in for a couple seconds, and then walked away for 10. At this point, the instructions became mildly unhelpful. “If the curds do not fully separate and there is still milky whey in pot”, you’re supposed to act. Except the next step is to DRAIN THE WHEY, so of course there’s still goddamn whey in the pot. Mine definitely seemed more liquid than solid, but maybe that was just the flowing nature of soft curds? I ended up adding 2 tablespoons of vinegar, and waiting 15 more minutes.
At this juncture, another issue popped up. The recipe suggests straining the milk through butter muslin, a product I had literally NEVER heard of before today. Now, of course, being familiar with what muslin is, I immediately understood it, I just wanted it noted that it’s weird that you act like everyone has that. (If you don’t know, Muslin is a fine, white cotton cloth. I actually know it as a gauzy theatre curtain.) They then immediately say if you don’t have that, a triple layer of cheesecloth is fine. Now, I don’t work with cheesecloth often, so I was a little worried by this. See, my cheesecloth came off the roll in a sheet that could be unfolded in to a wider, thinner sheet. So I what’s coming off the roll one layer, or two? I opted for the safest course, and counted it as one. I filled a colander with three sheets of the cheesecloth, and poured in the curds and whey.
White on white on white on white.
Then, I waited 10 minutes for the whey to drain out. Or, rather, I wandered off for 10 minutes to watch people make meatloaf on a stick for the Minnesota state fair, and eat Oriental flavored Ramen, because I have better things to do than watch cheese dry.
I returned 10 minutes later to discover almost nothing had changed.
On closer inspection, shit's still white.
What followed was…distressing, and shameful. Clearly, I reasoned, the cheesecloth WAS over-folded. I just needed to pick it up, and squeeze it, and…shit, this is really unwieldy. I need both of my hands to hold this. How will I squeeze? Hmmm. Maybe I’m panicking for nothing. The recipe says “The middle will be very moist.” Maybe…maybe this is very moist? I mean “basically liquid” is certainly quite damp, at least.
So, resigned to present my flailing failures as the preliminary results, I attempted to move the mixture to a smaller bowl. Then, incensed that the cheesecloth was holding all of my valuable curd, I had to squeeze the cloth clean. While doing so, at least twice the slippery sheets slid from my hand, plopping into the new bowl, and splattering whey all the way around the sink. In the end, my efforts had produced too-soggy cheese water, and one hell of a mess.
Our only saving grace is we did it in the sink. So we sprayed it all away like, 20 seconds later.
Later that evening, my mother and I attempted another round of straining, to improved results. My mother made quite the mess herself trying to clear the matter, which made me feel remarkably happy indeed. We ended up storing the mixture suspended in cheesecloth in a Tupperware container, letting it drain overnight. And I’ll be damned if the results weren’t mildly astonishing.
We made milk-paste!
Holy crap, we did it! Yes, through the wild flailings of our confused efforts, we achieved success. Well, paritial success. This recipe should have produced about 2 cups of ricotta, and this is definitely closer to 1. But! That’s still actually pretty close to the cost of store-bought ricotta. (Walmart’s brand of ricotta cheese runs about $1.80 for 15 oz. Ours would cost somewhere around $2.15 for that much, even WITH getting half the expected results. If we work it out and get the actual returns we’re supposed to, we should be getting it for half-off of Store-brand!)
So what can you use this ricotta for? There’s the obvious answer of Lasagna, of course. You can also make cannolis as you can see in…holy crap. Did I really not make a Catastrophe for the time I made Turkey Tetrazzini with Cannoli? That day was a goddamn shit-show! I had to use a BROOM as a cooking instrument! We-hel-hell. I think I know what I’m doing soon. But, yeah, there’s a bunch of recipes that can use ricotta. You can mix it into pancake batter, fill ravioli with it, or even just spread it on toast, like I did.
I just copied what I'd seen others do. This isn't real invention.
It’s got a much creamier texture than butter, with a different, grassy kind of richness. There’s dozens of ricotta toast combinations, if you want to look into it.
But if you can make it at home just as cheaply as you get it in the store, with only a moderate mess (and one you can wash away in a matter of seconds), and it drives you to make something cool and new, I think it’s definitely a Better Ingredient.
NEXT TIME: JON MESSES WITH PERFECTION, TRYING A RECIPE FROM ONE OF NEW YORK’S HOTTEST RESTAURANTS OF A DECADE AGO.
Here's a quick recap of the recipe:
1/2 gallon whole milk
1 tsp salt
1/6 cup lemon juice
1/8th cup white vinegar.
1. Mix the lemon juice and vinegar in a small container. Pour milk into a pot, stir in salt. Heat to 185 degrees over medium high heat, stirring frequently. Line colander with cheesecloth/butter muslin.
2. Remove milk from heat, and slowly stir in lemon-vinegar for roughy 20 seconds. Let sit 5-10 minutes, until curds separate. If not fully separating, add 1 tbsp vinegar and wait another 2-3 minutes. Repeat until satisfied.
3. Pour curds and whey into cheese-cloth lined colander, and let drain for 10-15 minutes. Move to a smaller container for storage. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Ricotta will keep for 5 days.