Pretty Dishes

Cooking Party, Part 2
August 20, 2010, 12:18 pm
Filed under: Recipes

Without further ado, here are the recipes us four gals enjoyed, along with some commentary on the process. Unfortunately there was so much going on that I failed to capture the end result of some preparations, and I also forgot entirely to snap a photo of the delicious, refreshing vodka and French Berry Lemonade (with muddled mint and strawberries) beverage Robin prepared for us in anticipation of serving it at her upcoming wedding.

First up was homemade ricotta cheese from Cook’s Illustrated (reprinted in full here). It was phenomenal. Even though there is a bit of upfront work, the softness and the fresh flavor far exceed store-bought ricotta. We used it in two dishes that evening.

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

Do not use ultra-pasteurized milk, as it will not curdle properly. This recipe works for 1 gallon or 1 1/2 gallons of milk. The important part is the ratio. It’s about 1/2 cup lemon juice per gallon of milk but can vary. The real key to good ricotta is to handle it as little as possible. Don’t stir too hard, and be very gentle with the curds once they form. This recipe yields 3 pounds ricotta.

1 1/2 gallons whole milk
1 teaspoon table salt
1/2 to 3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 6 or 7 lemons)

Heat the milk and salt in a 7-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat, stirring frequently with a rubber spatula to prevent scorching, until the milk registers 185 degrees F, about 15 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat. Using a rubber spatula, slowly stir in 1/2 cup lemon juice until fully incorporated, about 15 seconds. Allow the milk to stand undisturbed for 5 minutes. The milk should separate into white solid curds and translucent liquid whey. If after 5 minutes the whey is still milky and opaque, add 2 more tablespoons lemon juice, gently stir to combine, and let rest 5 minutes longer. Check separation again, and repeat with another 2 tablespoons juice until the whey is no longer opaque (depending on your milk, the whey may appear different shades of yellow or blue). Once the milk is separated into curds and whey, allow the pot to rest for 20 minutes.

Line a colander or large strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth and set over the sink. Using a large spoon, carefully spoon the curds into the colander. Discard the whey. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the curds over themselves until liquid no longer runs out of the colander and the curds have the texture of grainy cream cheese. Use immediately or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Robin’s comments: I added some of the leftover ricotta into some lightly sweetened whipped cream and ate it with fresh blueberries the next day and it was to die for! I think I would make it again just to serve that way with fresh summer berries and some mint leaves. Yum!

The next thing we made was fresh pasta, also using a recipe from a Cook’s Illustrated (though the information is quite standardized). Mastering the art of superb pasta is something I hope to be able to make a claim about sometime in my future. Fresh pasta is not all that difficult to make, it’s just something that takes practice, of which I need a lot more. I did, rather impulsively, purchase an Atlas pasta machine soon after our evening together to do just that.

Master Recipe for Pasta Dough

Makes about 1 pound fresh pasta

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 large eggs, beaten

Pulse the flour in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade to evenly distribute. Add the eggs; process until the dough forms a rough ball, about 30 seconds. (If the dough resembles small pebbles, add water, 1/2 teaspoon at a time; if the dough sticks to side of the bowl, add flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, and process until dough forms a rough ball.)

Turn the dough out onto a dry work surface [a pastry cloth is recommended, especially if you have tile countertops]; knead until the dough is smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

Cut about one quarter of the dough from the ball and flatten it into a disk; rewrap the remaining dough. Run the dough through the widest setting of a pasta machine. Bring the ends of the dough toward the middle and press down to seal. Run the dough, open end first, through the widest setting again. Fold, seal, and roll again. Without folding, run the dough through the  widest setting about two more times, until the dough is smooth. If at any point the dough is sticky, lightly dust with flour. Continue to run the dough through machine; narrow the setting each time, until you use last setting on the machine, and the outline of your hand is visible through dough sheet.

Follow instructions for cutting and shaping the pasta. After one sheet of pasta has been cut and set aside (covered with plastic wrap), roll out another quarter of the dough ball, along with the trimmings from the previous sheet.

With that fresh pasta we made ravioli. It was so delicious. I had never tried homemade ravioli, and even packaged ravioli tends to come apart during boiling, so I was curious about how well the squares would hold up. I think only one or two separated. Incredible.

For the filling, Robin combined a few recipes into her own. The measures below aren’t exact but provide a basic guideline. I can’t remember for sure, but I believe we made around thirty ravioli squares, and there was still filling left over.

Spinach, Artichoke, and Cheese Ravioli

1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1/2 package frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and finely chopped
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 cup ricotta
1 egg, lightly beaten
Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large pan over medium heat, sauté the onion and garlic until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the artichokes and cook until heated through. Squeeze any moisture out of the spinach, then stir into the mixture to combine. Remove the pan from the heat.

Once the mixure is room temperature, transfer it by hand to a large bowl, squeezing out excess moisture. Stir in the Parmesan, ricotta, and egg. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Using a small ice cream scoop, scoop the filling evenly onto fresh pasta sheets. Seal the top sheet by brushing on an egg wash and pressing the sheet around the filling. Use a ravioli or pastry cutter to separate the squares.

Robin’s comments: A few days later I made an amazing quiche out of the leftover filling. I recommend it highly!

Meanwhile, as the ravioli was being made, the simple tomato sauce was simmering away on the stove top. This recipe comes from Smitten Kitchen, although many others have featured a similar version on their websites; it was adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. We did find it to be extremely easy and delicious, though I’m a huge sucker for garlic, so I think I would infuse some cloves in the sauce as well when I make it next time. Perhaps that will ruin it, but I’m willing to take that chance.

Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion

This makes enough sauce for four servings or about a pound of pasta.

One 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano is the best)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved
5 tablespoons unsalted butter (best quality available)

Place the tomatoes, onion, and butter in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over medium heat. Bring the sauce to a full simmer, then lower the heat to maintain a slow, steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free of the tomatoes. Stir occasionally, crushing the tomatoes against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon. Remove the pan from the heat. Discard the onion. Season the sauce with salt to taste. Keep the sauce warm until serving. Serve with or without fresh basil and grated cheese as desired [we used both].

Are you still with me? I’m not even done yet! Are you wondering how we managed to accomplish all of this in one evening? Turns out when you have four people (well, three plus me as a minor helper) who love to cook working together to prepare their own incredibly fresh homemade meal, there is plenty of motivation to reach that end goal. That being said, it was no small task. We did eat after dark.

We also made a simple salad of fresh mixed greens and a vinaigrette dressing. There isn’t a recipe but there is a photo.

The final process was frying stuffed squash blossoms. This recipe comes from Gourmet (R.I.P.). I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard about the delicate deliciousness of squash blossoms, but I had yet to try them for myself. Wow, they do not disappoint. We only had enough blossoms for everyone to have one, but I definitely could have eaten half a dozen. I wonder if I can convince my husband to add squash to next year’s garden too . . .

Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Ricotta

1/2 cup whole-milk ricotta
1/2 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons finely chopped mint
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of freshly ground pepper
6 to 8 large zucchini squash blossoms
1/4 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon all-purpose flour [we used corn flour]
1/3 cup chilled seltzer or club soda
About 2 cups vegetable oil, for frying

Stir together the ricotta, egg yolk, mint, half of the Parmesan, 1/8 teaspoon of the salt, and pepper.

Carefully open each blossom and fill with about 2 teaspoons of the mixture, gently twisting the end of each blossom to enclose the filling. (You may have filling left over.)

Whisk together the flour, remaining Parmesan, remaining salt, and seltzer in a small bowl.

Heat 1/2 inch of oil to 375 degrees F in a 10-inch heavy skillet. Meanwhile, dip half of the blossoms in the batter to thinly coat. Fry the coated blossoms, turning once, until golden, 1 to 2 minutes total. Transfer with tongs to paper towels to drain. Coat and fry the remaining blossoms. (Return oil to 375 degrees F between batches.) Season with salt. Serve with tomato sauce, if desired.

So, as I was saying, it was after dark at this point, so the harsh kitchen lighting was not ideal and just really doesn’t do justice to the finished meal. Despite this, I promise you really should try it sometime.

It was a very memorable evening for so many reasons: the sense of reward from carefully crafting a meal from scratch (and pulling many items from Robin’s own garden), the consumption of said truly divine meal, but most of all, the bonding time and strengthened friendships that resulted from spending an entire evening in the kitchen together. Food brings people together in so many ways, and all of them are great. Bon appetit!


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Rachelle, what a lovely post–creative, colorful recipes and gorgeous pics. I’m going to have to give this a go.

Comment by Brook

Looking at your photos made my happy/hungry all over again! What a wonderful evening that was.

Comment by Christi

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