V is for…

I’ve taken on the challenge of an A-Z during April – one post each day on a chosen theme. My theme? Books and writing, of course…

V is for Vegetables

My leading lady in Wish You Were Here is Maxine (Max) Henderson. Max lives in Brookford – a small town in the Cotswolds – and is a seasonal cook. She writes the monthly newsletter Harvest Happenings for the garden centre she works at.

Here’s an excerpt from April’s Harvest Happenings. And the recipe? You’ll need to wait until I’m back from France for that…

The first of the season’s spring onions were picked the other day. They’re still thin and straggly, but will soon be much plumper ‒ if only I can leave them in the ground for just a little longer. We’re also getting some curly lettuce and cucumber, and a few skinny spears of asparagus. In another few weeks we’ll start to see fresh peas and artichokes, then broad beans, tomatoes, and then … I could go on.

It’s about this time of year that we start to shed our layers, see what’s underneath and vow to make better friends with salad. Which leads me into dishes that go well with salad, or dishes that salad goes well with. There’s a difference. Even in the middle month of spring there are days when we need comfort, something warm in our belly, but without the richness and heaviness we look for in winter. Take cheese, for example. Whereas in winter we might long for creamy mornays or cheddar-rich macaroni cheese, now we’re after something a little lighter. Ricotta fits that brief.

Of course you can buy ricotta ‒ we stock a particularly good one from Westfarm Dairy ‒ but it’s easy to make it yourself. All you need is a saucepan, some milk, and lemon juice or vinegar. Heat, Curdle, Drain ‒ One, Two, Three. It couldn’t be easier.

Step 1: Heat. Pour two litres of whole milk (don’t even think about attempting this with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk) into a saucepan. If you want a creamier ricotta, add a couple of tablespoons of cream to the milk. Season as required. Heat until it’s almost at the boil. You can use a thermometer if you must, but really, just bring it to this side of a boil.

Step 2: Curdle. Add four tablespoons of white vinegar or lemon juice. The purists use citric acid, but I find you get a good curdle from vinegar or lemon ‒ and a good curdle is exactly what you want. Stir gently, then bring the mix to a simmer for a couple of minutes before removing the pan from the heat. Once the mixture’s sat for about ten minutes you’ll notice that the curds have floated to the top and the whey is at the bottom. We’re only interested in the curds for ricotta ‒ although there are plenty of uses for whey. I’ll leave you to google those.

Step 3: Drain. Line a sieve with cheesecloth or something similar (I find clean pudding cloths are perfect) and balance it over a large bowl. Pour the mix through and allow the whey to drain away. The longer you leave it draining, the more solid your ricotta will be.

This is a fresh milk product so you’ll need to store it in the fridge and use it within a few days, but as ricotta is so versatile that’s not difficult.

You can crumble it into an omelette, over a salad, or on top of your tagliatelle carbonara ‒ remember, no cream in the carbonara, we do it the Italian way! The ricotta is also lovely on hot toast with some cinnamon shaken over the top. You can even use it whenever you’d normally use Greek yoghurt ‒ not that you’d use Greek yoghurt on toast, but you get the idea. It goes especially beautifully with bananas, strawberries and honey. Speaking of honey, have you tried the local honey we have in the shop at the moment?

My favourite use for ricotta, however, is in little gnocchi-type dumplings. I love gnocchi, but let’s face it, they can be temperamental. If the potato isn’t cooked exactly right, or dried out enough, or worked too much, your perfect little gnocchi can easily taste like rubber. You won’t have that problem with these ricotta dumplings. I serve them with a smoky, sweet red pepper sauce. Coincidentally, peppers are coming into season next month. I’ll pop the recipe for both the dumplings and the sauce up on the website.

Until next time,

Max

If you want to read more of Max’s story – and perhaps more of Harvest Happenings – Wish You Were Here is available now on Amazon and ibooks. Follow the links here.

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