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Seasonal Pantry: Spruce up spring dishes with Petaluma-made ricotta

Ricotta cheese makes a delicious breakfast food alone but you can also cook with it.

MICHELE ANNA JORDAN,

If you have stayed at a farmhouse somewhere in Sicily, on a farm where there are sheep, and were lucky enough to be offered breakfast, you have likely tasted the best ricotta in the world.

Those Sicilian morning breakfasts, with warm curds of just-made cheese as ethereal as clouds, are unforgettable. The aroma of olive oil as it is warmed by the cheese, the scent of black pepper, the salty tang of the cheese all mingle with the morning’s rising heat: There may not be a heaven, but there is a Sicily and its ricotta is heavenly.

As you save up frequent flyer miles to snag a ticket to Sicily, there are very good local options when it comes to ricotta. Northern California is blessed with extraordinary milk, which is enjoyed fresh and also turned into butter, yogurt, creme fraiche, and myriad cheeses, including two excellent ricottas, both from Bellwether Farms of Two Rock Valley in Petaluma.

Bellwether’s Sheep Milk Ricotta is made from the whey after their signature cheeses, San Andreas and Pepato, are made. This is the most traditional method, heating the left-over whey, adding acid — vinegar, typically, or lemon juice — and letting the proteins slowly form into cloud-like clumps of deliciousness. The company also makes a whole milk ricotta, using cow’s milk, and it, too, is a lovely cheese, richer and not quite as ethereal as the one made of whey.

If the only ricotta you have ever had is one of the national commercial brands offered in supermarkets everywhere, you may wonder what the big deal is. That ricotta — typically labeled low-fat, though ricotta is naturally low in fat — is cloying on the palate and offers little flavor, just an unpleasant sweetness mildly reminiscent of milk. It’s the filler in lasagna and is often used in ravioli, too. In both dishes, its cloying texture and ho-hum flavors are masked by other ingredients.

If you want the real thing, you have to hop on a plane or, because you live in cheese paradise, simply head to a locally owned market, such as Oliver’s.

For recipes calling for ricotta from the Seasonal Pantry archives, including my version of cannoli, visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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These fritters are fragile and delicate and you need to handle them carefully so they don’t fall apart. And be sure to chill them for as long as recommended, or even longer; this will help them stay together.

Ricotta & Chive Fritters
Makes 8 to 12

1 basket (12 ounces, about 1 1/4 cups) Bellwether Sheep Milk Ricotta

¼ cup (1 ounce) grated Bellwether San Andreas or other sheep milk cheese

1 extra-large farm egg, beaten

2 tablespoons fresh snipped chives

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

¾ cup Panko bread crumbs

½ cup all-purpose white flour

3 cups, approximately, mildly flavored olive oil, for deep frying

1 bunch Italian parsley, large stems discarded

2 chive flowers, snipped into separate florets

Put the cheese, egg, and chives into a medium bowl, add several generous pinches of salt and several generous turns of black pepper and mix well, using a large wooden spoon. Do not overmix. Cover and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.

Put the Panko bread crumbs into a wide shallow bowl, season with salt and pepper, and toss gently.

Put the flour into a second bowl. Line a baking sheet with wax paper.

Use a small (1- or 2-ounce) ice-cream scoop to make the fritters. To do so, dip the scoop into the flour and then immediately dip it into the ricotta mixture, filling it about three-quarters full. Tip the fritter onto the wax paper and continue until all the fritters have been shaped.

Cover the fritters with a sheet of wax paper, setting it on top very carefully. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To finish the fritters, pour the oil into a medium saucepan and heat it to 355 degrees. Place several layers of absorbent paper next to the burner and have a slotted spoon nearby.

Working slowly and deliberately, carefully drop fritters, one by one, into the oil, letting the oil return to a simmer between additions. Cook for about 2 minutes and then use the tip of the slotted spoon to turn them over. Cook until the fritters are golden brown all over; transfer to absorbent paper and continue until all fritters have been made.

To serve, spread the parsley over a serving plate, set the fritters on top, scatter the chive florets over everything, and enjoy. Variations:

Fold in about 3/4 cups shelled, blanched, and peeled fava beans before forming them into fritters. Serve with little lemon wedges.

Cut 3 or 4 thin slices of old-fashioned-style (with pistachios) mortadella into very small dice and fold them into the ricotta before forming the fritters.

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Simple, fragrant, delicious, and flexible, this simple dish is perfect on a weeknight when you want something good that doesn’t involve a lot of time. Add a green salad alongside and you have a lovely spring dinner.

Baked Ricotta
Serves 4 to 6

12 ounces (1 basket) Bellwether Farms Sheep Milk Ricotta

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

½ teaspoon hot Spanish paprika

½ teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika

— Kosher salt or Maldon Sea Salt

— Hot hearth bread, crackers, or croutons

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Put the cheese, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the parsley, and the thyme into a mixing bowl and use a fork to quickly combine the ingredients; do not over mix. Add the paprika, season with salt and pepper, mix again quickly, and put a baking dish (an 8-inch porcelain tart pan is ideal.)

Spread the mixture evenly over the dish and set on the middle rack of the oven. Cook until the cheese is bubbling hot and lightly browned on top, about 20 minutes

Remove from the oven and let rest 5 minutes. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the top, season slightly with salt and pepper, and enjoy right now.

Variations:

Scatter 3/4 cup fresh shelled, blanched, and peeled fava beans over the cheese just before serving it.

Cut 2 small zucchini in half lengthwise. Melt a little butter or heat some olive oil in a sauté pan, add the zucchini, cut side down, and sauté until lightly browned. Use a sharp teaspoon to scoop out some of the flesh, being certain not to cut through the zucchini. Fill the scooped-out zucchini with the ricotta mixture, set on a baking sheet and cook in a 375 degree oven until the cheese is bubbling hot, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the heat, drizzle with a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper and serve right away.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Salt & Pepper.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com