Seriously Italian: Punctuating Flavors with Ricotta Salata

"I like to think of it as the anchovy of the cheese world."

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Ricotta salata is riding a wave of new popularity that I didn't fully realize until I sat down to write this post. I've been largely oblivious to the attention it is getting on restaurant menus and in food blogs because it has been a daily part of my existence for so long. We've used ricotta salata at Babbo on a number of dishes for the past decade, and I've become addicted to it, always making sure I have a hunk on hand at home. I think of it in same way I do Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano and Pecorino Romano: as an indispensable and versatile punch of flavor for an endless number of dishes. Ricotta salata has the ability to seep into your culinary existence.

So much of the enjoyment of food comes from the interplay between complimentary and contrasting flavors. In order to create that kind of synergy, we turn to a stable of strong players, a role that ricotta salata fills perfectly on two fronts. Most commonly made from sheep's milk, it automatically has a slightly barnyard edge. Add to that the clean, clear brininess of sea salt—I like to think of it as the anchovy of the cheese world.

How It's Made

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You can find ricotta salata sold in individual cone-shapes, aged right in the basket (above), or cut in wedges from larger wheels (right).

20090924-ricottasalata-wedge.jpgRicotta salata is produced in the south of Italy; in Lazio it is made from whey that comes from the production of Pecorino Romano, but in Basilicata it can also be made from goat whey. The curds are molded into a basket; the combined action of first pressing and then salting the cheese extracts moisture and compacts the curds to produce a tight, uniform texture. We get an additional sensory ride from ricotta salata's distinctive, snowy-white color, which stands out strikingly against other vivid food hues, creating a lovely picture against deep red, golden orange, and vivid green.

How to Use It

The best way to fit ricotta salata into your dishes is to think of it as a punctuation mark for both the eye and the palate. Position it strategically to call attention to the juicy sweetness of peas, shallots, watermelon and tomato, or the syrupy, honey-like quality of raisins, roasted butternut squash and parsnips.

Ricotta salata complements the bitter edge of walnuts and it pairs exceptionally well with anything in the chicory family, such as endive or radicchio di Treviso. It works alongside the minerality of artichokes or the earthiness of wild mushrooms, and makes the fatty richness of olive oil, meaty ragus, and cured sausages seem all the more luxurious. Grate it over steaming mounds of doughy pasta, such as gnocchi, cavatelli, and orchiette, or crumble it on top of a crisp green salad. For a whacked out sandwich, try it thinly sliced on farmhouse white bread, slathered with butter and jam or honey—I love the interplay of its salty bite with gooey sweetness.

Here, I'm featuring wide ribbons of ricotta salata on one of my favorite crostino variations: I started with lightly toasted bread spread with a smooth purée of roasted eggplant and garlic, and top that with the last of farmer Tim Stark's impossibly tiny tomatoes, dressed with olive oil, fresh mint, and parsley—a fitting farewell to the last gasp of summer.

You can find ricotta salata in many supermarkets, including Wegman's, in Italian specialty stores, cheese shops, and from various online sources.

About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats.

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