Friday, April 24, 2009
It feels good to be back. Comfortable. Like home. And to celebrate my return to the blog after a too-long two-week hiatus, I come bearing ricotta forte. A cheese unknown to me until yesterday. That's right. Yesterday. This is a bit shocking, I have to say, for I am obsessed with cheese to the point that I actually took a semester-long class in it, and am, as a result, certified in Cheese Studies. Add to that, I am even more obsessed with all comestibles Italian than I am with cheese in general.
Perhaps the fact that this cheese is barely known outside of its native region of Puglia, even within Italy, helps to explain my ignorance, and perhaps the fact that my favorite local Italian market stocks it expressly for a Pugliese contingent living in a city 40 miles away, and, perhaps because they are Adriatic Italians, and generally we of Mediterranean Italian descent are predisposed to eat that which we and our forebears knew, never the twain had met. Perhaps.
I was prepared to purchase the cheese without so much as a taste, and as the cheesemonger, Tonie, reached for a nice wedge of Red Cow Parmigiano-Reggiano for me, I informed her that I had picked up a container of ricotta forte and was prepared to purchase it. "Have you tasted it?," she asked. "No." "Well, it's a very strong flavor. It's fermented." "Yes, I saw that." "Everyone here wonders why I like it," she confided (shhhhh - don't tell anyone - she confided, after all). She then pulled a container of the cheese from the display and handed me a spoonful with a small - no bigger than a ladybug - bite of the cheese. At first it was smooth and creamy, and then, at the very end, it lit my mouth on fire and then bit my tongue. And I liked it. Which is saying something pretty disturbing about me, I think, but I'd prefer not to dwell on that if you don't mind. And so I brought the mouth-burning tongue-biter home and served it to JR. And he liked it as well, "Oooh. That's got a kick to it, huh?" Yes. Yes, it does.
Tonie informed me that her forty-mile-commuting Pugliese customers use it in pasta dishes as well as in stuffed pizzas, which she speculated are likely what we Mediterranean-types call calzones. I decided that the cheese, while really quite delicious despite its mega-tang, could use some sweetness to cut it back a bit, and so decided to make a caramelized onion tart with ricotta forte. And holy smokes, is it good. JR is already requesting that another be made. If you are unable to find ricotta forte, you can substitute goat cheese, but, you'd really be missing out on an esperienza nuova (new experience for those of you unable to decipher cognates).
Caramelized Onion Tart with Ricotta Forte:
Ingredients:1 sheet puff pastry (1/2 of a package of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry)
unsalted butter for greasing the tart pan
2 pounds yellow onions, peeled and sliced in half, then cut across the grain into half circles
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons ricotta forte, depending upon your fortitude as regards fermented cheese that bites back
1 1/2 tablespoons grated Pecorino-Romano
Defrost the puff pastry according to the package directions. Grease an 9-inch tart pan (the tart pan should have removable bottom). Once defrosted, roll the dough out to 12 inches. I find that rolling the dough out on a lightly floured sheet of parchment paper makes the transfer-to-tart-pan task much easier - easier even than the wrap-around-rolling-pin transfer method. Transfer the dough to the tart pan and tuck the dough in such that it fits snugly into the pan. Trim overhanging dough corners such that a half inch or so of dough overhangs, and gently press that overhanging dough into a small ledge around the perimeter of the pan. Using a fork, stab the dough on the bottom of the tart pan all over and many, many times so as to allow steam to escape during cooking. Otherwise, your onions will be aloft on a puff pastry balloon, and that is not the desired result.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Melt the butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent, 7 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle the sugar over top and stir to incorporate. Cook until the sugar begins to caramelize, turning a light golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the onions from the heat. Using a slotted spoon or tongs so that excess liquid is left behind, lest you serve forth a soggy tart, remove the onions from the saute pan to the tart pan. Strew them about so that they are spread evenly atop the dough.
Now, here is the important part: distribution of the ricotta forte. Be sure to taste it before distributing it, but know that once paired with sugar-sweetened onions, it will be tamed and no longer seeking to attack your taste buds. Use this prior-to-the-taming taste to determine whether you need 2 tablespoons or will be content with just one. Now spread little pieces of the cheese, approximately the size of two or three ladybugs together, over top of the onions. And, yes, ladybugs are a theme, quite possibly as a result of the ladybug infestation in my upstairs bathroom, but no scientific study has yet been undertaken to determine whether this is, in fact, the cause of the theme. So put those bits of ricotta forte all over the top of the onions, then sprinkle with the Pecorino-Romano, and salt and pepper to taste. For the record, I like ladybugs, and think "infestation" might be too harsh a term. For ladybugs.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the pastry crust and the onions are golden brown. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, cut into 6 or 8 wedges, and serve it forth, celebrating your willingness to try the nuovo (new, people, new).
And please, if you have recipes for, or stories of, ricotta forte, do share. I found this great post from a native Pugliese and this (surprisingly timely as it was posted a mere two days ago) article on Serious Eats, both about ricotta forte, which I highly recommend if your curiosity is piqued by the thought of cheese that bites back.
Dinner tonight: Sirloin Strip Tacos with Avocado and Tomato, and Black Bean Salsa. Estimated cost for two: $9.14. The Sirloin Strips were on sale for $4.99 per pound at Whole Foods. I bought 3/4 pound, and, of course, it was slightly over, so it cost $3.84 for the meat. The tortillas are Whole Foods store brand - I like the homestyle variety myself - and those cost $1.99 for 6. We'll use 4, and that's $1.33 if you round up as I do. The avocado was also on sale and cost $1.00. We're eating all of that, I can assure you. The tomato was locally-grown, though obviously hot house as I live in New England, and it cost 83-cents. The black beans were 99-cents for the can. I used one cup of frozen corn that cost $1.29 for 3 1/3 cups; we'll call that 40-cents. I also used one medium shallot that cost approximately 25-cents, and the juice of one lime, which was 50-cents. I can't guarantee that we won't eat all of the salsa, so I'll count it all in the tally. Nine dollars and 14-cents for two is a bit expensive by my normal standards, but we're treating this as though it is a substitute for a great, fresh food Mexican restaurant, so the savings are humongous. Humongous, I say.