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On this recent post I wrote for Foodists I shared a recipe for grilled polenta. There was a comment was that grilled polenta seemed like a wonderful way to include vegetarians at a barbecue, and, reading it I thought, well yes, and no. Grilled polenta, while fun to make and eat and absolutely delicious, isn’t really much of a source of protein.

For most of us protein deficiency is far from a problem. I’ve been vegetarian for nearly 20 years now, and one of the most common questions I get is about how I get my protein in. Truth? I don’t worry about it. The average North American diet exceeds the recommended daily intake of protein (0.8g of protein per kg of body weight for adults)* by several hundred percent, and what our body doesn’t need is simply excreted (read: those protein powders and bars mostly turn into really expensive pee). 

Of course this isn’t to say that when I arrive at a party and the only vegetarian food available is bread and leaves I don’t give a little sigh at the lack of vegetarian protein available (this is why I almost always arrive armed with a dish to share). I don’t worry about it, because I know that my body has complex systems in place to combine some of the amino acids from the incomplete protein in that bread with some amino acids from a seed or nut or legume I likely consumed earlier in the day or will likely consume later, and all will be well in protein land. I don’t worry about it, but it makes my heart (and stomach) swell with happiness when I arrive at a party and there is a protein source I’m willing to eat.

So make the grilled polenta, because it’s delish, and try this baked (or grilled) ricotta as well. Don’t let the thought of making your own ricotta intimidate you; it’s easy. On a recent visit to Calgary I showed my sister-in-law how to make ricotta (followed by a lesson in pasta dough, I’m pretty sure you can figure out where that ricotta went) and she said her favourite part of the visit was the moment I poured the acid into the boiling milk and she watched the curds and whey separate and realized that she’d never buy ricotta again. My favourite part of the visit (other than the bonding time with the Cutest Nephew Ever) was watching her eyes light up at that exact moment.

Making your own ricotta is as simple as boiling milk and adding acid. You also have to strain it once the curds and whey have separated. There are three whole steps. You can handle it. You’ll need a strainer, and something to line the strainer with. You could stop immediately after straining and you’d have fluffy ricotta that would be excellent in pasta or on top of a slice of crusty baguette, or, you could press more of the liquid out of it, as I have done here, and you’ll end up with a firm slab of pressed ricotta. Then, slice it up and eat it as is, sprinkled lightly with salt. Or, brush it with olive oil and bake (either in cubes or the entire slab) or grill it. I hope you’ll give it a try.

One year ago: Banana Spelt Weekend Muffins

Baked Ricotta Recipe:

Be sure you have an adequate liner to strain the ricotta through. If you’re using cheese cloth, you’ll want to use 3-4 layers to prevent the finer bits of curd from passing through the gauzy cloth. Here I have used a triangular bandage re-purposed from my days as a first aid instructor – the really good kind that only first aid instructors buy. An old sheet, washed and cut into squares would work well. I’ve also used 4 layers of paper towel when nothing better was available, and it worked okay, but I advise finding something sturdy and reusable. You’ll need to use a heavy bottomed pot large enough for the milk to foam and rise up without boiling over. I pressed the ricotta into a meat-loaf tin with holes in the bottom, but you can form a loaf with your hands and simply wrap the cheese cloth tightly around the ricotta.

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4 liters whole milk

1/2 cup white vinegar or lemon juice

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Rinse a large pot with cold water, and, ensuring the bottom is still quite wet, pour the milk in. Set the pot over medium heat, and slowly bring to a boil. This can take some time. You’ll want to be ready with your acid. When you see the milk starting to form a foam, you’re nearly there. Don’t walk away, the next part can happen quickly. When the foam starts to rise up, pour in the acid, and gently stir the pot. You should see the curds and whey separate. Turn off the heat, and let the ricotta stand for about 5 minutes to ensure separation has fully occurred. Carefully pour the mixture into a lined strainer. You can save the whey for something else (lots of good nutrients in there, put it in smoothies, or use it to water your garden) or discard it. Let the curds sit in the strainer about 5 minutes. Stop here for fluffy ricotta.

For pressed ricotta, carefully lift the cloth containing the curds out of the strainer and set it down on a plate, or in a tin if you’ve got something with holes in the bottom (I used a meat-loaf pan). Form the curds into the shape of a loaf, and wrap the cloth tightly around the top. If you’re using a plate, place another plate on top of the ricotta, and put something heavy on top of that plate. If you’re using a drainable loaf pan, top with another, slightly smaller loaf pan and fill with something heavy (cans work well). Place onto a large plate that will catch the whey as it is pressed out. Let sit for several hours, or overnight.

Un-mold the ricotta. Here you’ve got choices. You can leave the loaf whole, simply brush with olive oil and then bake or grill the entire thing. It would look pretty impressive on a platter as a starter or share plate. Or cut into cubes or strips, brush with oil, and bake, as I have done here. If you’re baking, use a parchment lined baking sheet, and brush the parchment with olive oil. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 F / 180 C. Turn the ricotta over after 10 minutes, then bake an additional 10 minutes.

Serve as an appetizer, toss cubes in salad, skewer cubes onto kebabs.

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* this number goes up for very active people (1.2 – 1.8g / kg), pregnant (RDA+30g)  and lactating  (RDA+20g) women, infants (2.2g /kg)  and toddlers (2.og/kg).

All text and photos © The Muffin Myth 2011

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