Ricotta tends to provide texture rather than flavour to a dish, and is often seen as a filler for bolder ingredients. But are we underestimating this semi-soft cheese? Giorgio Locatelli shows Michael Raffael how it can play more of a main part
Ricotta is a basic ingredient of various Italian cuisines. Perhaps it's identified more with the poorer South, where peasant farmers once sold their cheese in the market but kept for themselves the ricotta they made from left-over whey.
However, this medium-soft cheese is equally popular in the North. Ligurians bake it with rosemary, pine kernels and pasta, while in Lombardy it's part of the stuffing with nuts and cheese that goes into the Christmas capon. Ricotta provides body for spinach gnocchi, is fried as sweet or savoury croquettes, and carries the flavour of most any ingredient from roasted coffee beans to amaretti. It's essential to the texture of Sicilian cassata and canoli.
So what exactly is this cheese? Well, first and foremost, it's a by-product of cheesemaking, produced by heating and curdling whey. Eaten fresh, it's moist, smooth and creamy. The solids are made up almost half-and-half by protein and fats, with 90% being water.
From a cook's point of view, ricotta gives body without heaviness, and without the richness of, say, cream or butter. Fresh ricotta tends to be bland rather than sour, so it carries other, stronger tastes, softening or helping to blend them. The best artisan ricotta, however, has a subtle taste that's like a signature. One made from ewes' milk will differ from another produced from cows' or goats' milk.
At Olivo, his first restaurant, a block away from London's Victoria Station, Locatelli dished up simple Italian food that tasted fresh and authentic.
Twenty years on, at Locanda Locatelli, he's doing the same thing. The difference is that he has a staff of more than 70 and the customers have names such as Blair, Clinton and Mandela. And, incidentally, his pot-washers probably take home more than he ever earned at Olivo.
Between times, Locatelli was a partner in Zafferano, a Belgravia restaurant which was one of the first Italians in the capital to win a Michelin star. He writes a column in The Guardian and his multi-award-winning book Made in Italy took him five years to write and was Nigel Slater's Book of the Year.
Locatelli has also won recognition in his native Italy, earning the prestigious Diploma di Cucina Eccellente in 2003 from the Accademia Italiana della Cucina.
Giorgio Locatelli's ricotta recipes
Smoked ricotta salad
1 roasted Tropea red onion
1tbs olive oil
1 handful baby spinach leaves
1-2tbs sharp vinaigrette (2 parts vinegar, 3 parts oil, 1 part water, salt)
60-70g oak-smoked ricotta (2 slices)
1tbs skinned walnuts
Peel the skin off the roasted onion. Mix it with vincotto and oil. Toss the spinach leaves in vinaigrette until well coated.
Arrange the spinach roughly on the plate. Pile about 50g of red onion on top. Lay slices of smoked ricotta over the onion. Sprinkle the walnuts around the plate.
Note on preparing ingredients
Roast the onions in a hot oven for about 40 minutes till they start to collapse. Bake the walnuts in a moderate oven until the skins are brittle enough to flake off.
Ravioli malfatti with ricotta and aubergines
This name may mean "badly made", but the process requires dexterity and practice. At Locanda Locatelli, the pasta is prepared and cooked to order. In the traditional Lombard recipe, ricotta is mixed with spinach, but here the filling is a blend of cooked aubergines, ricotta and walnuts.
200g pasta dough (1 egg to 100g 00 flour, approx) - allow for trimmings
150g ricotta filling (see note)
Boiling salted water for pasta
80g slowly reduced tomato pulp
20ml olive oil
Roll out a sheet of dough. Machines have different settings but start at the largest, typically "10", and work down to the thinnest, "1". If the dough is made well, you won't need extra flour for rolling. Always pass the final sheet twice through the machine (1).
The band will be about 15cm wide. Cut it in two, lengthways. Very lightly eggwash one band. Pipe small piles, about 1tbs each, of filling along the other pasta band at well-spaced intervals (2).
Lay the other band on top and seal (3). Cut each raviolo into a triangle (4). Tamp down to ensure that no air is trapped between the two layers of pasta (5). Brush a corner of each triangle with eggwash and fold one point back on to the raviolo (6).
Warm the reduced tomato pulp. (At Locanda Locatelli, canned tomatoes are cooked gently for up to four hours.)
In a frying pan, melt the butter and add a similar amount of boiling salted water to make a butter emulsion.
Drop the ravioli malfatti into a pan of boiling salted water and cook for a little more than a minute. Drain with a spider and transfer to the frying pan containing the water and butter emulsion. Coat thoroughly.
Pile three-quarters of the tomato in the centre of the plate. Arrange the ravioli on top, then the rest of the tomato. Finish with a little oil and the parmigiano reggiano.
Note on the filling
For a ricotta filling, add one beaten egg to 250g fresh ricotta. Combine with cooked aubergine purée, hand-chopped walnuts and parmigiano reggiano to taste. The mixture should have a stiff piping consistency.
Ravioli with roasted red onions and ricotta salata
200g pasta dough (1 egg to 100g 00 flour, approx) - allow for trimmings
150g red onion filling (see note)
Boiling salted water
400ml red wine, reduced to 80ml
80ml brown veal stock
30g (approx) ricotta salata
Roll out the pasta dough as for the ravioli malfatti recipe. Very lightly eggwash one half of the band. Pipe small piles, about 1tbs each, of filling along one side of the pasta band at well-spaced intervals. Fold the other side back over it and seal. Use a 50mm cutter to cut out round ravioli (7). Tamp each one down by hand to ensure there's no trapped air.
Boil for just over a minute in salted water. Boil the reduced red wine and stock together. Drain the ravioli with a spider (8). Finish cooking in the wine and stock sauce (9). Spoon on to a plate. Grate the ricotta salata over the ravioli and serve (10).
Note on the filling Puréed roasted onions and breadcrumbs are combined with ricotta, egg and a little parmigiano reggiano to obtain a stiff piping consistency.
(Makes about 1.5 litres)
534ml full-fat milk
84g milk powder
100g caster sugar
52g invert sugar
60g ricotta cheese
Combine the cold milk, cream, milk powder and dextrose. Heat to 40°C and add the caster sugar, stabiliser and invert sugar. Leave to ripen in the fridge overnight. Blend in the fresh ricotta and churn in the ice-cream machine.
At Locanda Locatelli, ricotta ice-cream is served with Sardinian wild lime honey and wafers of dried honey (12).
This is one classic version of a ricotta cake.
Ingredients (Serves six)
300g caster sugar
175g candied orange peel, chopped
100g crème pâtissière
6ml orange blossom water
Seeds from 1 vanilla pod
400g sugar crust pastry
Blend 250g flour and ricotta in a Robot Coupe. Add the rest of the flour, sugar, beaten eggs, candied peel, crème pâtissière and flavourings.
Roll out three-quarters of the pastry. Butter a 20cm steep-sided pastry ring. Line with the pastry. Pour in the filling. Cover with a lattice made from the rest of the pastry. Brush with eggwash. Bake at 180°C until set, about 30 minutes. Cool and dust with icing sugar (11).
Wine suggestions (13)
- With the smoked ricotta salad Tocai Friulano, Villa Russiz 2006, A Cerruti
- With the ravioli and ricotta salata Chianti Colli Senesi, 2006, Salcheto
- With the ravioli malfatti Pignolo Castello di Butrio 2003
- With Dolce Passito di Pantelleria 2005
Ricotta - what is it?
Ricotta is a "whey cheese", a by-product of the cheesemaking process. After separating curds from the whey, the latter still retains some protein and fat. By heating it to between 80° and 90° and adding a curdling agent, such as vinegar, these solids can be skimmed off and drained, and become ricotta.
In Italy, ricotta may be produced from cows', ewes', goats' or buffalo milk. It will vary in taste and texture according to the region.
Most ricotta sold in the UK has been heat-treated to extend shelf-life and lacks the finesse of the best-quality product.
Which ricotta? (14)
Fresh ricotta sometimes has the added tag of "Gentile" or "Romana". This is produced as a by-product of making pecorino romano, using ewes' milk. However, the majority of commercial ricotta derives from cows' milk.
Ricotta may be flavoured by smoking with oak or juniper. For his salad, Georgio Locatelli chose an oak-smoked ricotta from Trento that was still oozing whey.
Staff at Locanda Locatelli buy ricotta from La Credenza. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel: 020 7070 5070
Photography by Lisa Barber (www.lisabarber.co.uk)