Last week at the Napa farmers’ market, I stared for a long time at a pint basket of figs. They looked so plump and luscious, like the fruit in a Dutch still life, but I couldn’t handle the price. Dumb. Next time I’m caving, and I’m making a favorite summer dessert: whipped ricotta, halved figs, honey and poppy seeds. Adding raspberries, blackberries, apricots or peaches—all abundant right now—would only make the dessert more inviting. You can arrange everything on a platter—ricotta on the bottom, fruit, honey and poppy seeds on top—or assemble in a martini glass or footed compote.
In hot weather, I can lose my enthusiasm for a cheese board but still find an appetite for ricotta and fruit. Typically, I’ll whip the ricotta in a food processor until fluffy, sweetening it with sugar or honey. Sometimes I’ll leave the ricotta unsweetened and spoon the sugar or honey on top. Next, the fresh fruit, then the poppy seeds or toasted sliced almonds. For ricotta and raspberries, I might top the dessert with grated bittersweet chocolate. With ricotta and peaches or apricots, the topping might be toasted pistachios. You get the idea. Sometimes I put fruit on the bottom and whipped ricotta on top.
Summer fruit isn’t the only reason I often have ricotta on my grocery list these days. The season’s vegetables make me crave ricotta, too:
- Zucchini stuffed with breadcrumbs, zucchini flesh, ricotta and onions (recipe follows)
- Ricotta-filled eggplant “cannelloni” baked in tomato sauce
- Rigatoni tossed with tomato sauce and a dollop of ricotta
- Bruschetta topped with ricotta and warm sautéed cherry tomatoes
Freshness matters with ricotta. An unopened package has a decent shelf life, but once you break the seal, use the cheese that day or the next. It sours quickly.
My favorite brand is Bellwether Farm’s whole Jersey milk ricotta, sold in its draining basket. Made in Sonoma County and sold at many Whole Foods and quality cheese counters, it has a tender texture and sour-cream aroma. The Calabro hand-dipped ricotta from Connecticut, sold in perforated tins, is a close second. It’s a wonderful product, with moist, fluffy, delicate curds and a sweet flavor.
Get out your Italian cookbooks and you’ll find many recipes—both sweet and savory—that rely on ricotta. And, finally, America has Italian-style ricotta that will produce the desired results.
Baked Ricotta-Stuffed Zucchini
From My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher (W. W. Norton).
- 6 small, tender zucchini, about 6 inches long
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 6 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs
- 3 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
- 1 cup ricotta, drained in a sieve for 1 hour
- 3 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino cheese
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise. With a teaspoon or melon baller, scoop out the pulp, leaving a shell. Be careful not to tear the sides or bottom. Finely chop the pulp.
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion and garlic. Sauté until the onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the zucchini pulp and cook until tender. Add the breadcrumbs and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes to blend.
Remove from the heat and add the parsley, ricotta, 2 tablespoons of the pecorino, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the egg and mix well.
Lightly salt the interior of the zucchini shells and fill them with the stuffing. Place the twelve filled shells on an oiled 12- by 17-inch baking sheet. Top each with a light sprinkle of the remaining pecorino cheese and drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil.
Bake for 20 minutes. The top of the filling should be golden brown. If not, place the baking dish under a broiler briefly to complete the browning. Serve warm.