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.
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.