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Fresh Ricotta Pasta

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One of the things I’ve realized over time, is that a lot of the commercial ready-made products that we buy are a poor imitation of the real thing. What do I mean by real thing? Something that was made by hand, in small batches (artisanal if you will, although these days, I find that word to be a bit trite) and eaten within days of being made.

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The grocery store where I regularly shop has a wonderful deli section, and I’ve always noticed that they sell fresh ricotta cheese by the pound. I’ve only ever used commercial ricotta and I’ve been wanting to try the real thing to see how it compares. My children typically don’t like ricotta. I think it has something to do with the grainy texture. Honestly, I am not a huge fan of the grainy texture either and was curious to see what fresh ricotta was like.

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I decided to make a pasta recipe I’ve tried long ago. The recipe is from a great cookbook called Italian Two Easy: Simple Recipes from the London River Cafe by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. This cookbook, the second by these chefs, is aptly named and has a lot of simple and delicious recipes.

I started by putting a large pot of water to boil on the stove.  While waiting for the water to boil, I enlisted my children to help me cut a pint of cherry tomatoes in half and squeeze out the juice and seeds. I figured if they helped me with cooking the pasta, they’d be more willing to try ricotta cheese again.

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We found using your thumb to push the seeds and juice out was the easiest method, and also prevented them from spraying everywhere. I then finely chopped a clove of garlic and combined it with the tomatoes, seasoning the mixture with salt and pepper and then allowing it to marinate about 15 minutes or so.

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I also put the ricotta into a separate bowl and seasoned it with some salt and pepper. I coarsely chopped about a 1/2 cup of fresh basil. I dumped a pound of orecchiette pasta into the boiling with water with a sprinkling of course salt and cooked until el dente.

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If you’ve never had orecchiette pasta you are missing out. They look like these little suction cups (which is what my eight year old calls them) which allow the sauce or whatever you’re mixing in to nestle perfectly in the pasta. If you don’t have any orecchiette on hand, or can’t find it in the store, than any other small pasta such as bow ties, or campanelle will be a fine substitute.

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While the pasta was cooking I heated the tomato mixture over low heat in a medium size pot. Once the pasta was done I drained it, added it to the tomato mixture, sprinkled in the fresh basil and then gently stirred in the ricotta cheese.  I topped it off with some freshly grated parmesan cheese.

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Delicious – fresh ricotta bares no resemblance to the commercial variety. It’s creamy in texture (no graininess to be found) and very light. It is consistent with my experience: the homemade version is always better. And the girls really loved this pasta too!

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Fresh Ricotta Pasta

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 garlic clove
small bunch fresh basil
1 T olive oil
1 C ricotta cheese
1 pound orecchiette pasta
3 T grated parmesan cheese salt and pepper

Place a large pot of water to boil. Cut tomatoes in half and squeeze out seeds and juice. Finely chop clove of garlic and combine with the tomatoes and olive oil in small bowl. Season with salt and pepper and let marinate for 15 minutes. Put ricotta in bowl and season with salt and pepper. When water boils, add orecchiette pasta to water and cook per package instructions to el dente. Gently heat tomato mixture over low heat in pot. Add cooked pasta and fresh basil stirring together. Stir in ricotta cheese and gently combine. Serve with grated parmesan cheese.

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Lemon Pepper Mahi-Mahi

I’ll share a little secret with you.  Sometimes when I am feeling less imaginative and am in need of a good recipe, I’ll rely on a recipe on a package.  While it does seem as if I am cheating in the creativity department, here’s my theory:  No business would put a recipe on the packaging for one of its products if the recipe weren’t tried and true, guaranteed to come out the way it should.  So for example, at one point or another, I’ve followed all of the cookie recipes on chocolate-chip packages and the cake recipes on the cocoa and cake-flour boxes.  And all of those recipes turn out good.

In light of the above confession, here is the meal I prepared the other night:  For dinner for my husband and me, I defrosted some mahi-mahi fish fillets from Trader Joe’s.  This type of fish is not a regular on my repertoire so I was in need of some ideas.  Luckily, the package had a couple of great recipes: Lemon Pepper Butter, and Easy Aioli.  I’ve made aioli many times in the past, so I decided to test out the Lemon Pepper Butter, especially since I had most of the ingredients on hand anyway.

First, I took out a half a stick of butter and let it soften while I prepared the other ingredients.  Next, I zested one lemon and chopped up about a quarter cup of fresh, flat-leaf Italian parsley.

Once the butter had softened, I combined the lemon zest and parsley with the butter using a fork.

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The recipe called for Trader Joe’s Lemon Pepper, which I didn’t happen to have, so I substituted Maine sea salt and freshly ground pepper (it just so happens that my father makes his own sea salt).

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imageNow this handy-dandy recipe also included advice on various ways to cook the fish, depending on whether it had been defrosted or was still frozen.  As my mahi-mahi was defrosted, I had these options: on the grill, pan seared, or oven roasted.  I decided to sear the fish in a pan since I like crispy fish, and it’s too cold and snow around here to do any outside grilling.

I heated a heavy cast-iron pan over medium-high heat until it was sizzling hot, added a little olive oil, and seared the filets about three minutes on each side until cooked through.

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I topped the cooked fillets with the Lemon Pepper Butter and served it with quinoa (more on that another day) and a tossed salad.  The mahi-mahi came out crisp on the outside and flaky on the inside.  The Lemon Pepper Butter melted over the fish and created a delicious topping and added flavor to the quinoa.

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Delicious!

Lemon Pepper Butter Mahi-Mahi

2 mahi-mahi fillets

1/2 stick of unsalted butter, softened

zest of one lemon

1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Using a fork, mash together the butter, lemon zest, and parsley until mixed completely.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Heat a heavy-bottom pan over medium-high heat.  Coat pan with olive oil.  Sear fish fillets on each side about 3 minutes until cooked through.  Serve with lemon butter on top.

Serves 2

Steamed Mussels

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Maine is famous for its rocky coastline; it has very few of the sandy beaches that you find, for example, on Cape Cod.   Go to any beach in mid-coast Maine, where I grew up, and you will find tons of rocks.  As a child, I had so much fun climbing on the rocks, crunching on barnacles, slipping on seaweed, and peering into tidal pools looking for sea urchins, hermit crabs, and starfish.  One sea creature that was abundant and easy to find was the mussel. They cling to tidal rocks in coastal Maine, and their empty shells litter the beaches.

I well remember collecting live mussels at low tide with my family. We would gather them in a bucket filled with seaweed and bring them home to be steamed.

Unfortunately, because these were truly wild mussels, eating them was not nearly as much fun as gathering them.  Most of the mussels were either very sandy, or full of little pearls that were crunchy and hard on the teeth.

As an adult I love to cook mussels for my family; that’s because I am able to buy the cultivated variety in the grocery store.  Sure, these days everybody loves the idea of foraging for their own food, but cultivated mussels are meaty and tasty, and they hardly ever have pearls or sand.  Plus, living in the Mid-West I have to accept that for now those days are over.

So, I recently made a trip to my local Costco to take advantage of their Fish Friday sale.  Every week they hold a special market with remarkable prices for fresh fish ranging from such shellfish as mussels, clams, and shrimp, to such meaty fish  as halibut and swordfish.  I bought a 5-pound bag of fresh Canadian mussels – more than enough to feed my family of four.

First, I rinsed the mussels under cold water and sorted through them, throwing out any that were open or had broken shells.  With a sharp knife, I removed the mussels’ beards.

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A mussel’s beard, which the shellfish uses to anchor itself to a rock, looks somewhat like a bit of black seaweed.  It is easily removed from the shell.

Once the mussels were clean and free of beards, I sprinkled them with about 1/2 cup of cornmeal, covered them with water, and let them sit for about half an hour.

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Cornmeal in water causes mussels to spit out any sand they might be harboring in their shells.  If you don’t have cornmeal, you could also cover them with milk, but I find that to be a little wasteful compared to the cornmeal method.

While the mussels rested in the cornmeal and water, I chopped up one onion, two cloves of garlic, two stalks of celery, and about a 1/3 cup of fresh, flat-leaf Italian parsley.

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Using a large Dutch oven, which I find best for steaming mussels, I heated about a tablespoon of olive oil and a half stick of butter over medium heat.  If you don’t have a Dutch oven, use a large, heavy pot.

After the butter melted, I added the garlic, celery, and onions, and cooked them until they were soft, then added the fresh parsley.

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Meanwhile, I rinsed the mussels under cold water to eliminate excess cornmeal and any sand, then dumped them into the pot and added about a half bottle of dry white wine.

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I turned the heat up to medium-high and covered the pot to steam the mussels.  They were cooked in about 8 to 10 minutes – I knew they were done when their shells were open.

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I put the Dutch oven, mussels and all, directly on the table.  This is a wonderfully easy one-pot meal.

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I serve steamed mussels with crusty French bread, warmed, and a salad.  French bread is great for dipping in the broth. Delicious!

Mussels

 5 pounds fresh mussels

1/2 cup cornmeal

1/3 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

2 celery stalks, chopped

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 cup butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

 Rinse mussels in cold water.  Discard any broken or open mussels. Remove the beards  with a sharp knife. Put mussels in a bowl and sprinkle cornmeal over them.  Cover with cold water.  Allow to sit for about 30 minutes, then rinse to remove any cornmeal residue and sand.  

Heat a large, heavy pot, such as a dutch oven, over medium heat, and add butter and olive oil.  After they have melted, add the onions, garlic, and celery, cooking them until soft.  Add the parsley, then the mussels.  Pour about 1/2 a bottle of dry white wine over the mussels, turn the heat up to medium-high and cover.  Cook about 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mussels have opened their shells.  Serve with warm French bread.

Serves 4

Fresh Raspberry Sauce

Raspberry Sauce

The other day my store had a great sale on raspberries.  I couldn’t resist picking up a couple of boxes, even though we haven’t quite reached the fresh-raspberry days of August.

When I was growing up, wild raspberries bushes grew on the side of the road near our house and the berries were free for the picking.  My siblings and I would head out after dinner in search of bushes heavy with fruit.  We would settle down in a good spot to eat the berries as quickly as we picked them.  I don’t remember that we ever brought buckets with us, because fresh raspberries are so delicious, we never saved any for later.  The soft, warm berries melted right on the tongue.

The raspberries I recently bought were not nearly so fresh; they were imported from California in little half pints.  I decided they would be best served as dessert over ice cream.

I rinsed the berries gently in water, dumped them into a small sauce pan, then sprinkled them with about 1/3 cup of sugar.

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I heated the raspberries over low heat until the raspberries began to soften and the sugar had melted.  I was careful not to overheat the berries, as I wanted a few whole berries to remain in the resulting sauce.

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I then served this simple raspberry sauce over vanilla ice cream.

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Delicious!

Raspberry Sauce

1/2 pint fresh raspberries

1/3 cup sugar

Rinse raspberries gently under cold water.  Put into a small sauce pan and sprinkle with sugar.  Heat on stove over low heat until the sugar is incorporated and the raspberries have softened.  Serve over vanilla ice cream.

Four servings