Ricotta, like olive oil, parsley, parmesan and garlic, was basic in my Italian-American mother’s Queens kitchen.
When she’d spent a happy afternoon at the local auction house (where she once bought, for $1 on a dare from the auctioneer, a locked trunk filled with spectacular lace and beaded satin 1920’s evening dresses) her standard no time to cook supper was ricotta, grated parmesan and pasta with or without a quick tomato sauce. Occasionally, instead of tomatoes, some chopped zucchini and parsley went into the pot. Whatever, it was fast, it was good and it was cheap – what more could you want? *****
Sometimes, especially when her brother or sisters were visiting for Sunday lunch, my mother would make what for me was a favourite treat – baked ricotta. Now you can find baked ricotta recipes on the web in great variety, but my mother’s (or possibly my grandmother’s?) was very simple – fresh ricotta, fresh herbs (parsley, thyme or oregano, depending on which was at hand), grated parmesan – lightly mixed together in an oven dish, drizzled with olive oil and baked briefly. Sometimes she added the zest of a lemon and/or an egg for a slightly lighter, soufflé-like variation which I preferred. We ate it as a first course or appetiser spread on bread from the nearby Italian bakery.
This past June in New York, a lunch at MOMA was a disc of parmesan custard with a lush, mixed leaf salad. Back in London I replicated that treat, using Rowley Leigh’s amazing recipe from his (sadly now closed) Café Anglais. Completely wonderful.
And then I replicated it again, this time replacing the custard with my mother’s easy baked ricotta.
NOTE: this is really a no recipe recipe, meaning that you can add, subtract or include completely different ingredients as you like, for example: (1) a few chilli flakes; (2) chives/lemon/garlic (instead of herbs/parmesan); (3) stiffly beaten egg whites a la Nigella Lawson (instead of a whole egg); (4) pour a mixed of chopped herbs/garlic/chilli over the top of plain ricotta before baking a la The River Cafe. All are good. Have a look on the web for more ideas. (You might even try a good quality fresh farmer's or goat's cheese.)
ALL YOU NEED: for two making a lunch or a light supper
Individual oven proof ramekins, bottoms lined with baking parchment paper
12 ounces fresh ricotta
1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley (or 1 heaped tablespoon, to your taste, of fresh thyme or oregano)
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1 egg, beaten
Combine thoroughly and fill 2 (or 3, depending on size) ramekins. Bake in preheated 400F/200C fan oven for about 20 minutes or until puffed and slightly browned on top. Cool to room temperature, turn out onto a dish, remove the disc of baking parchment and serve surrounded with a mixed green salad.
Note: these can be kept in the refrigerator, covered with clingfilm, for a day or two.
***** Pasta With Ricotta
Again, this fast and easy dish really doesn't need a recipe, but the entirely wonderful Arthur Schwartz has provided one in his "The Southern Italian Table".
FOR EACH PORTION
2-3 ounces of any pasta you like
1/4 cup ricotta
1 heaping tablespoon of grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
METHOD - PER PERSON:
Boil the pasta in at least 1 quart of water with 2 teaspoonfuls of salt.
Spoon the ricotta into the pasta bowl and blend in the grated cheese
Just before the pasta is cooked to taste, stir 2 tablespoons of the pasta water into the ricotta mix so that it is a little runny.
Drain the pasta well, then toss with the ricotta. Add salt and pepper to taste and eat immediately.