Thursday, August 19, 2010

kicking back and some farmer's cheese with stone fruit

Waking up this morning with the knowledge that I had a day off I felt almost giddy and I began to make my list…

It begins with the morning ritual of a walk with my hubby and the dog and then off for coffee at a favorite local hangout.

After the legal addictive stimulant had done its handiwork, it was time to get serious. Should I finally crack open one of the many books that I’ve been meaning to get to or should I hit the beach? Or what about heading out to some of my favorite antique shops to find a lovely treasure that needs a new home? Gardening? Trying out that new recipe?

But after some thought I decided to text a good friend to see if she was up for lunch…thankfully for me she was.

Enjoying the relaxing outdoor atmosphere of my favorite local restaurant Ramos House, it was sheer bliss knowing that the most difficult thing ahead of me was deciding what to order from the menu.

I decided to start with the stone fruit with farmer’s cheese, a mix of peaches, plums and nectarines. It was the perfect start.  Especially since stone fruits are at the peak of the season right now, and with the addition of some fresh mint and blueberries it couldn’t have been a better precursor to my savory main course.

But the thing that took it over the top for me was the farmer’s cheese. The delicate creaminess and slight tang were the perfect accompaniment for the fruit. This cheese has a very creamy mouth feel and can be used in many different applications that call for ricotta and it works beautifully in lasagna as well. It is a little difficult to find, although I’ve seen it in some specialty food stores, but it couldn’t be easier to make yourself.

The process starts by basically taking 1 gallon of whole milk and bringing it up just to the boiling point (190°) over medium heat. Stir occasionally to prevent the milk from scorching on the bottom of the pot.

When the milk begins to reach the 190° point, small bubbles will begin to appear at the edges, turn off the heat. Stir in about ¼ cup lemon juice into the milk and a pinch of salt, and the milk will curdle. You may need to wait 10 to 15 minutes for the curds to fully form.

Line a sieve or colander with 4 layers of cheesecloth, and pour the milk through the cloth to catch the curds. This may take a few hours, what is left in the cheesecloth is the Farmer's Cheese. The liquid is the whey. Some people keep the whey and drink it, but I throw it away. Gather the cloth around the cheese, and squeeze out as much of the whey as you can. Wrap in plastic, or place in an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator. This yields about 1 pound of cheese.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

in the eye of the beholder

I think we’ve been trained to think that anything ugly can’t be good. This is especially wrong when looking at figs. They have to be gushy, ugly and soft before they’re good.

Most figs we find in the grocery stores are picked too early; they need to ripen on the tree because they won’t ripen off of it. But growers who sell through farmers’ markets can pick their figs dead-ripe and count on finding customers who don’t care that the fruit’s not picture-perfect.

The harvesting of figs is not an easy task, and probably the main reason why they are a little pricey. Figs are brutal on workers’ hands because the stems “bleed” latex when it’s cut. The latex so irritates the cuticles and the area under the nails that the pickers have to tape their fingers like football players do. At night, workers soak their hands with medicinal herbs. Usually growers will maintain two crews so no one picks too many days in a row.

Look for figs that are very soft. Black Missions, the typical ones we find here in California are tear drop shaped with a thin purplish-black skin and a slightly reddish flesh, these taste best when they start to shrivel. The small round Kadota fig has a greenish yellow skin with a honey sweet flesh. When ripe they should have a drop of “honey” at the end. Avoid figs with any sign of mold.

Don’t store figs in plastic; they don’t like humidity. Refrigerate them in a paper bag, or better yet on a plate. They should keep a week.

Even though figs are delicious on their own, I have a favorite way to enjoy them for a simple appetizer or in-between meal nibble. Simply halve the figs and put a small knob of goat cheese on top of each one.

Drizzle with a touch of Balsamic Vinegar or Vincotto, then wrap in a thin layer of prosciutto. The tender sweetness of the fig with the tang and creaminess of the goat cheese pairs beautifully with the salty prosciutto.

Remember the season for these little beauties is short so enjoy them while you can!