The Ricotta Liberation
What is ricotta? Define it for me.
Betcha use the word “lasagna.”
Poor ricotta. It has no independent identity. It’s like one of the middle children in a family of 10 kids. Not that lasagna is lasagna without it, but no one ever really thinks about it. And, yeah, it goes into cannelloni and manicotti and baked ziti, but those are just sort of the poor country cousins of lasagna.
I first really discovered ricotta a few years ago while standing in the deli line clutching a little paper number at Westbrook Market. Memories of my intended purchase are gone, but as I stood there I noticed “fresh ricotta” sitting in a large plastic vat in the case. I’d never noticed it before. Why would someone buy it “fresh?” What makes it different? Curious, I added it to my order and took it home to make stuffed shells.
It was astonishing- creamy and dairyish and sweet and salty and just delicious. I’d had no idea ricotta could play a starring role. I’d never really even thought of it as having flavor before. Here I was thinking George Clooney was just Mrs. Garrett’s handyman and now I realized he’s GEORGE freakin’ CLOONEY!
This winter, I visited “Le Pain Quotidien,” a growing bakery/restaurant chain from Belgium. Not starving at the time, I ordered a pot of tea and a Ricotta Tartine- basically, a slice of whole grain boule, spread with creamy ricotta, drizzled with honey and finished with dried figs, fresh tomato and black pepper. Simple, beautiful and satisfying, it made my toes curl.
This has become my new favorite lunch. If I’m on the go, I’ll just make it as a sandwich. At home, I’ll enjoy it open-faced. The kids aren’t too keen on the figs, so they enjoy theirs with chopped dried apricots and cherries- whose colors add another layer of beauty.
Now for the part you’ll really love. Ricotta is really high in protein- a meatless, protein-rich, convenient food. A half-cup serving of whole milk ricotta offers 14g protein for only 216 calories. That’s not too far off of the vaunted skinless chicken breast at 20g protein for 150 calories. Compare that to low-fat cream cheese which offers only 9g protein at the cost of 400 calories.*
Why so high in protein? True ricotta is made from whey, a protein that separates and becomes a by-product of cheese making. You know that liquidy stuff you’ll sometimes find at the top of your yogurt? That’s whey. Ricotta makers simply cook that whey by-product until it curdles and produces ricotta. This also explains why “whole milk” ricotta is still low in calories. While made from milk with natural amounts of fat, not much of it separates out into the whey.
This takes me to my next, new favorite use for hand-packed ricotta: protein shakes. I’ve been loathe to add whey protein to fruit shakes. The ingredient lists are long and unpronounceable. It often leaves a funky, fishy flavor note. I’m distrustful. Ricotta has proven to be the perfect addition to dairy-based smoothies and shakes. Frozen fruit, a bit of yogurt, a bit of ricotta and some milk gives me a nutrient and protein rich power shake that’ll take me from breakfast, though a tough workout and into lunch without feeling starved. And it’s all natural.
Pick up some fresh, hand-packed ricotta at your deli and start playing. Mix it with herbs and garlic and spread it on a baguette. Take my lunch idea, spread it on baguette rounds and use it as a canapé. Put a dollop on fresh berries and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Stir some Microplaned lemon zest into some and use it on strawberries.
Just do not EVER use the vile factory-packed gunk. Ever.