Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

Over the past year or so, like many of us, I have tried to make the transition from heavily processed foods to whole foods.  Some of the most difficult changes has been switching from normal yogurt to greek yogurt, semolina pasta to whole wheat, white rice to brown, but especially my change from chips to nuts.  There have been several things I have learned from making the switch.  Firstly, not all whole foods are healthier calorie wise.  It's like choosing Splenda over regular sugar.  One teaspoon of Splenda has zero calories and one teaspoon of sugar as sixteen calories.  Which one is "healthier?"  We tend to confuse healthy with caloric intake, but in my opinion, I would rather eat something that comes out of the ground than a science project.  Please, please don't take what I am saying the wrong way.  I still use splenda, butter substitute, and low fat sour cream occasionally, but I try my best to be conscious of what I am putting into my body.

Secondly, portion control is very important when eating whole foods.  As I just mentioned, not all whole foods have a low caloric index, but like my Momma always says, "Everything in moderation."

The third thing I have learned is that you have to prepare whole foods....  This seems like a no brainer, but it really hits home when you get home late from work.  All you want to do is throw some bean burritos in the microwave and pour yourself a tall glass of Coke Zero.  It takes a conscious effort to get home, cut your vegetables, cook your rice, and grill your meat.  I have a few tricks to making it easier on myself.  I plan five meals each week before I go to the grocery store.  I have a list with all the ingredients I need for the week because multiple trips to the store is exhausting and time consuming.  Out of my five meals, four of them can be made quickly and the other one I consider a weekend meal.  For the weeknight meals, I choose fish, chicken breasts, or pasta and a cook the meat on my stove or in my crock pot.  Weeknights are not the time to be roasting a whole chicken unless you like eating at 8 or 8:30.  I know that planning takes a little effort, but I have found that it saves me so much time during the week when I don't want to think about cooking.  I know that I have my meal plan, I have my ingredients, and all I have to do is go through the motions.

I didn't intend to make this blog post about my cooking routine, but I hope it is helpful.  What I did intend to talk about is ricotta cheese.  Has anyone ever tried to buy ricotta cheese at Kroger?  I get so confused.  Do I want whole ricotta, low fat, part skim...the list continues.  Out of curiosity, I looked up online how to make it.  I had heard it was easy, but I didn't know how easy and delicious it would turn out.  The only ingredients are whole milk (or sweet milk if you are super southern), heavy cream, salt, and white vinegar.  Oh!  And keep in mind what I said about whole foods not always having a low caloric value.  This is my Homemade Ricotta Cheese:

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

Can you believe that I made this??  Sometimes I even surprise myself, and I promise, you will surprise yourself too!

Count it!  4 ingredients: Whole milk, whipping or heavy cream, salt, and distilled white vinegar.

In a large pot over medium heat, add 4 cups of whole milk.

To the whole milk, add 2 cups of heavy cream. 

While your milk is coming to a simmer, set up an apparatus to strain your soon to be cheese.  There are many ways of doing this, but here's how I did it.  I got a colander and lined it really well with paper towels to drain off the excess liquid.  To catch the excess liquid, I placed the colander over a large bowl.  I have used cheesecloth before, but cheesecloth is about $4 for each sheet.  I had to find a more economical way.

Bring your milk to a simmer before adding the 1/2 tsp of salt.  I don't want to get too sciency on you, but if you add salt too early, it takes the milk longer to reach a simmer.

The milk is getting ready for the vinegar.  You don't want to heat the milk too high too quickly or it will burn on the bottom of the pan.  I have found that medium heat works well.  It is better to be patient than to rush it!

Add 3 TBSP of white distilled vinegar and let the mixture cook for about 1-2 minutes more.

The curds (Sorry!  Not a very appetizing name) begin to separate from the whey, and now it is time to strain your Ricotta cheese.

Slowly and carefully pour your cheese into your colander.  Allow the cheese to strain for about 30 minutes or so.  If you want your cheese more liquidy, you can stop it before then. 

Voila!  Homemade Ricotta Cheese.  It is so rich and creamy, it will make it difficult to switch back to the store brand.  It makes about 2 1/2 cups and stays good in your fridge for about a week.  I will use this batch of ricotta in my next blog post for veggie lasagna, but I have also used it for stuffed shells and several other pasta dishes.  One night for a rustic dinner, I grilled some country bread and topped it with the cheese and fresh tomatoes.  I have also brought it to a girls night with ritz crackers.  These are just a few ideas to get you started.  Let me know how you use it!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Italian Wedding Soup

It has been awhile!  I am ready to start out 2014 with boocoodles of new recipes.  Over our Christmas break, I was truly inspired to create beautiful and delicious food.  It was a difficult task to pick a recipe to start with, but I ended up choosing this warm, hearty soup.  To be honest, I love love love soup, but it is not Matt's favorite.  Soups don't excite him like they excite me, but this soup, he actually said was one of his favorites so far.  
In fact, I started asking Matt to rank the recipes that I made to know which ones should be blog worthy.  He gave this recipe an A.  Being the perfectionist that I am, I asked him why not an A+?  He said, "I can't just be throwin' out A pluses. You may stop cooking once you have obtained perfection!"  With this said, I give you my very own:

Italian Wedding Soup

How elegant does this look??  I wanted to make this soup extra special by topping it off with some lacey parmesan crisps.  If I ever went to a wedding and the meal started off like this, I would know a special night was in store.

One of the things I love most about this recipe is that it is composed of humble ingredients.  I used 1/2 lb of italian sausage.  If you can find it not in the casings, it will save you a little trouble.  All the sausage I could find was encased, but I removed the casing and voila! Ground sausage.
Place your ground sausage in a small mixing bowl.
To your sausage, add 1 egg, 1/2 cup of italian bread crumbs, and 1/4 cup of grated parmesan
I wanted these meatballs to be small so you could fit them in a spoonful.  They also cook quicker the smaller they are.  From my experience when things cook faster, you get to eat sooner.  Just throwing that out there!
Now for the Parmesan crisps!  I used a
silicone liner so the cheese would not
stick to the pan.  Parchment paper also
works wonderfully!

Grab your cheese grater and a hunk of cheese.  You can use
the already grated stuff, but take my word for it, do not use
the stuff in the green container for this!  It does not melt.
It just make black, burned cheese lumps.  Not pretty!

Grate your cheese into little piles and place into a 400 degree
oven for 10 minutes until golden.
This is the color you are looking for.  The crisps will still be flexible when you take them out of the oven, but as they cool, they will crisp up.
Time to make your yummy soup!  The stars of this recipe are 4 cups of chicken stock, 1 cup of small tube shaped pasta, 1 can of cannellini beans, 4 cups of spinach, 2 carrots (peeled), 1 stalk of celery, the juice of 1/2 a lemon, and 1 garlic clove. 

Dice your carrots and celery.  Place them in a large pot
with 1 TBSP of olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Cook your
 vegetables for about 5 minutes.

Mince your garlic clove and add it to your carrots and
celery.  Cook the garlic for an additional minute.  Don't
forget to take a whiff of the glorious smell in your kitchen!

Squeeze the juice from your lemon half.

Add your chicken broth and once the broth has reached a
boil, turn your heat down to simmer.  Add your meatballs to
your broth and watch your soup go from not enough for one
person to enough for 4 people.

After your meatballs have cooked for a few minutes, add
your dried pasta and cook according to the package

In the picture where I was showcasing the ingredients, I
had about 1 cup of spinach shown.  Spinach wilts...a lot!
You will need about 4 cups of packed spinach for this soup.

Rinse and drain the can of cannellini beans

By this point, you will be drooling out of the corner of your
mouth.  You are just a few minutes away from dinner!

Add your rinsed beans

And all of your spinach!  I know it looks like a huge
amount, but you will be surprised with how much it shrinks
when cooked.

While you are waiting on your spinach to wilt, grate 1/2 cup
of parmesan.

Add the parmesan to the soup for an added depth of flavor.
Stir the soup until the parmesan is incorporated.

Dish up your Italian Wedding Soup and top it off with your lovely parmesan crisps.  I hope you enjoy this hearty soup.  It is perfect on one of those cold, wintery nights we have been experiencing lately.

1/2 lb mild ground sausage
1/4 cup of grated parmesan
1/2 cup of Italian breadcrumbs
1 large egg

1 quart of chicken broth
1 TBSP of olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 stalk of celery, diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
Juice of half a lemon
1 cup of small tube shaped pasta like Ditalini or macaroni
1 can of cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
4 cups packed of fresh spinach
1/2 cup of grated parmesan
salt and pepper
Parmesan crisps (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Place a silpat or parchment paper over a cookie sheet.  Take a fine grater and grate piles of parmesan.  Bake parmesan for 10 minutes until golden.  Set aside to cool.

Place 1/2 lb of ground sausage in a medium bowl.  Add parmesan, breadcrumbs, and egg to the sausage.  Mix the ingredients until combined.  Form small meatballs and set aside.

In a large pot, heat the olive oil to a medium high heat.  Add the carrots and celery and cook for 5 minutes.  To the vegetables, add the minced clove of garlic and cook for another minute.  Squeeze the lemon juice into the pot, followed by the chicken broth.  Bring the broth to a boil and carefully add the meatballs.  Allow the meatballs to cook in broth for 5 minutes and add your pasta.  Cook the pasta for the length of time designated on the box.  Add the beans and spinach.  Stir until the spinach has wilted.  Add 1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese and stir until combined.  Ladle the soup into bowls and top off with the parmesan crisps.