Ricotta Cheese: Super Ingredient

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I recently found myself holding a surplus of ricotta cheese in the fridge. My daughter had come home for fall break and requested a laundry list of local and homemade foods that she had been missing over the last six weeks.

In addition to Dizengoff hummus and laffa bread, my version of Zahav’s pomegranate braised lamb, La Colombe draft latte, her own scrambled eggs, and my bagali polo, she asked me to create a creamy, moussey, custardy vanilla dessert.

Her description was vague, but it seemed like fresh ricotta cheese was a good place to start. I bought 3 pounds, used one, and needed to find some ways to avoid wasting the other two.

In addition to the vanilla mousse, I managed to assemble two lasagnes (ate one, froze one), and a really good dip for crudité or crackers.

Ricotta Herb Dip/ Pasta Sauce

This dip is versatile and offers a nice change from hummus or yogurt dips. You can flavor it with just about anything you have on hand — if you don’t have fresh herbs, use lemon zest and juice, a teaspoon of dried oregano (or your favorite herb), or cumin and lime juice. Drizzle it with some olive oil and serve with fresh crudité, crackers, chips or crusty bread. In a pinch, this can be tossed over pasta with ½ cup of the pasta cooking water for a light, quick, simple dinner.

A note on the herb selections: Parsley and chives go with everything and can be combined with the other suggestions. Cilantro and mint do best on their own. Basil is somewhere in between; it plays well enough with others, but I prefer to let it shine and allow its flavor to dominate if that is the direction I’m taking the dish.

1 cup fresh ricotta cheese

1 clove garlic, finely minced

¼ cup chopped fresh herbs: parsley/basil/cilantro/mint/chives

¼ or ½ teaspoon salt, to taste

Generous spritz of fresh ground pepper

Mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Serve as desired.

Ricotta Basil Lasagna

Serves four

This recipe fills a square pan, 8-by-8 or 9-by-9. It could easily be doubled or tripled as needed. This is a simple, straightforward cheese lasagna.

Creative cooks are free to layer in various cooked vegetables (drained spinach or other greens, mushrooms, onions, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, zucchini, pureed butternut squash or pumpkin).

You can also mix up the cheeses; try provolone or asiago in place of the mozzarella. Or season the ricotta with garlic, fresh or dried herbs, or minced onion. Ditch the fresh basil and add another herb. Substitute pesto for one of the marinara layers. The possibilities are nearly endless.

3-4 sheets fresh lasagna

2 cups marinara sauce

1 pound fresh ricotta cheese

20 basil leaves

cups shredded

mozzarella cheese

½ cup ground Locatelli or Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

In a thin layer, coat the bottom of a square pan with marinara sauce. Lay one lasagna sheet in the sauce. (Note: You may need to cut the sheet with kitchen scissors to fit; save cuttings for additional layers.)

Using a tablespoon, drop the ricotta cheese in small mounds on top of the noodle sheet, pressing down to flatten and spread the cheese out. The cheese layer should be about ¼-inch thick. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add ½ cup of mozzarella cheese. Take about seven basil leaves and rip them with your hands, sprinkling over the top of the cheese.

Cover this layer with another lasagna sheet, top it with marinara and repeat the process until you have reached the rim of the pan. You should end with a noodle layer coated with marinara sauce and a sprinkle of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees until cooked through, about 30 minutes.

Vanilla Ricotta Mousse

Serves eight

This dessert was simple, delicious and decadent. I will definitely add this to the regular rotation. I had intended to serve it over fresh berries, and did, but there were several other desserts on the table that night.

In addition to the berry accompaniment, this vanilla stuff was used as a topping for a latticed apple pie, a peach crumb pie and a dip for shortbread cookies. And the mousse stands quite well on its own, served in a pretty dessert dish for company, or a coffee mug for no one but you. It was truly scrumptious.

1 pound fresh, whole milk ricotta cheese

cups heavy cream

½ cup mascarpone cheese

cup confectioners’ sugar

2 tablespoons vanilla (yes, this is a lot — the vanilla flavor shines)

Whip the cream until it is just sort of stiff.

Beat in all the remaining ingredients together in a large bowl until thoroughly blended.

Refrigerate for at least an hour. This keeps in the fridge, sealed, for several days, but it probably won’t last that long.

Some Other Ways to Enjoy Ricotta Cheese

As I was poring through my cookbooks and roaming around culinary cyberspace seeking uses for ricotta cheese, I discovered a rather fantastic food fact: Ricotta is a nutritional powerhouse in terms of calcium content.

OK, OK, it does contain a fair amount of fat, but as someone who struggles to ingest the recommended dietary allowance of calcium, this figure caught my eye: An 8-ounce serving of ricotta cheese, (yes that is a big scoop) delivers a whopping 51 percent of our calcium needs. Even a half-cup makes a dent in the requisite dose.

Further research revealed to me that somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of Americans are calcium deficient, and some 10 percent are at risk for developing osteoporosis or other bone diseases. Additionally, calcium deficiency is associated with numerous other health problems that affect cardiovascular, intestinal and brain function.

With these facts in mind, I am enthusiastically embracing and consuming ricotta cheese.

Here are a few simple ways to enjoy ricotta and pull more calcium into your diet.

Toasts:

Toast a nice slab of whole grain bread. Slather it generously with ricotta cheese. Then grate a little bit of lemon zest over the top, drizzle with honey and sprinkle with cinnamon.

  • Top with sliced fresh tomatoes, torn basil leaves, fresh ground pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
  • Top with pitted, sliced oil cured olives or green olives.

Bowls:

Spoon a serving of ricotta cheese into a bowl. Top with:

  • Pecans, raisins, wheat germ — or a combo of your favorite dried fruit, nuts and grains.
  • Granola and seasonal fresh fruit.
  • Oatmeal, maple syrup, dried fruit and chopped nuts.
  • Rice or quinoa, chopped raw or cooked vegetables, your favorite salad dressing.

Salads:

Remember those retro side salads that involved a scoop of cottage cheese on a lettuce leaf with some canned pineapple or fruit cocktail? (Shudder.) Thankfully, those are no longer de rigueur, but we can update them a bit and create something both delicious and nutritious:

  • A bed of iceberg lettuce, a scoop of ricotta, a handful of clementine sections and a sprinkle of pistachios.
  • A bed of arugula, a scoop of ricotta and a dousing of sun-dried tomatoes in their oil.
  • A bed of spinach, a layer of cooked vegetables — ideally leftover from last night’s dinner, a scoop of ricotta and a spritz of aged balsamic.