I’ve been fascinated lately with the idea of making everything – including those ingredients we are accustomed to buying ready-made from the shops in convenient plastic tubs – from scratch. In this respect, of course, I’m about 30 years behind Alice Waters and 15 years behind most of Brooklyn. Also, although I’d like to try making my own goat cheese, for example, the unfortunate truth is that when all is said and done I’d probably prefer a nice Rocamadour or something equally French and delicious. Ricotta, however, is another story. It’s possible to find really good fresh ricotta in a supermarket, but more often than not good ricotta is the only thing you can’t find – everything else is laden with stabilizers and sugars and mystery additives. Also, everyone says making ricotta is really easy. What I’ve learned is that (1) making ricotta is easy, and (2) it really does taste better. Much, much better.
I largely followed the recipe and method in Smitten Kitchen, although I adjusted the proportions slightly. Also, while Deb recommends heating the milk/cream mixture to 190 degrees Fahrenheit (88 degrees Celsius) before adding lemon juice, I found that simmering for a couple of minutes at a slightly higher temperature (around 205, or 96 degrees Celsius) was necessary for the mixture to curdle. (This may also have been because I also followed the New York Times’ suggestion of combining all ingredients at the outset. Any cowboy will tell you that you can’t ride two horses at the same time.) However, I used the most beautiful milk I could find in outside of a farmer’s market (here, organic Ayrshire full cream milk) AND I used Jersey cream, so my ricotta is a lovely pale buttercup color, and the taste is, well, amazing.
Ricotta and roasted beetroot are a natural (some might say obvious) combination, but I love the naughtiness of adding bacon to what is traditionally a vegetarian dish. And it works; the bacon adds texture and delicious salty depth without overpowering the other flavours, and the rich fatty ricotta and bacon are cut by the clean sweet beetroot and grassy, aromatic basil. I should say one more thing. Of COURSE you can skip the laborious process of making your own ricotta from scratch and make this recipe with a really good fresh ricotta, or even with mascarpone. However if you do decide to go the whole hog (so to speak), be aware that while this is relatively easy, you need to get started a day in advance. Also, don’t throw away the whey! (Recipes will follow soon!)
For the Ricotta
750 ml whole milk
150 ml single cream (heavy cream)
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons lemon juice
For the Beets
2-3 whole beetroots, or about ½ kilo. I had only red but gold, or a mix, would be lovely.
2-3 strips streaky unsmoked bacon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon sugar
A handful of basil leaves, coarsely torn
Additional extra virgin olive oil, or basil infused olive oil for drizzling (I used the basil infused oil I was sent by the nice people at Seggiano, but a sweet grassy olive oil will work just as nicely).
Freshly ground pepper
For the ricotta:
Line a colander with four layers of cheesecloth and set over a bowl. At this point, you can follow the Smitten Kitchen method to a T (which involves adding lemon juice after the mixture has reached temperature and leaving it to stand until it curdles) or you can do what I did. (Not necessarily better, just what I did.) Whisk together milk, cream, salt, and lemon juice, and slowly heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until it reaches about 205 degrees Fahrenheit (96 degrees Celsius), being careful not to boil. Simmer gently until mixture starts to curdle, and then remove from heat. Leave to stand about five to ten minutes, then pour into your colander. Drain for an hour and a half, then transfer the ricotta to a storage container, reserving the whey (the liquid that’s dripped from your ricotta in the bowl) for another use. Chill overnight. You’ll have about a cup of ricotta – enough for this recipe and several others.
For the dish:
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius (about 350 degrees Fahrenheit). Wash but do not peel beetroots, and individually wrap in aluminium foil. Roast for two hours or until completely tender. Carefully open foil to let steam escape, then when beets are cool enough to handle peel and trim them. (The peel will come away easily.) Halve and slice the beets into crescent moons.
Combine the two tablespoons olive oil with the red wine vinegar and sugar and gently toss with the beetroots, and leave to stand for about 10-15 minutes.
While the beets are marinating, fry the bacon until crispy and golden, drain, and then chop with a sharp knife.
To assemble, arrange four to five slices of beetroot on a plate, sprinkle with bacon, and spoon on a few dollops of ricotta. Sprinkle with basil, coarse salt, and pepper, and drizzle with additional olive oil.
Makes four servings.