SOMETIMES COOKING is about nourishment, but other times it’s about satisfaction: creating something wonderful and filling from many little pieces. If you’re in it for instant gratification, fresh cheese is the way — or is it the whey? — to go.
One of Quinton Stewart’s favorite fresh cheeses is ricotta. The chef at downtown Seattle’s Ben Paris says the best way to eat ricotta is right as it’s being cooked.
“Ricotta isn’t always served warm, but it really should be. The best time to taste ricotta is when it’s warm and just being strained. Chefs get to experience that — one of these little special moments that things are really at their best,” he says.
Making ricotta from scratch in a home kitchen is incredibly easy, as all it takes is a half-gallon of milk, heavy cream, buttermilk, salt and lemon juice. The process of making a fresh cheese like ricotta is all about transforming naturally occurring proteins in milk. Heat the dairy to a certain temperature, and introduce an acid. Lowering the pH of the milk causes the protein called casein to clump together, forming curds and leaving the other protein — whey — behind.
The bonus of all this whey (about 7 cups or so from a half-gallon of milk) is that it’s filled with possibilities.
“Whey is actually very desirable in cooking. It has richness and umami, some acid and definitely some sugar. It is delicate, but without heaviness,” Stewart says.
Unfortunately, you can’t buy whey in stores — it’s your reward for making cheese. It’s perfect for cooking pasta or bolstering pan sauces; you could give potatoes or sunchokes a quick poach in whey before roasting or crisping them in a fryer, or you could even sous vide with whey.
“A lot of the time, when we have whey around in the kitchen, I’ll keep it warm on the stove and just ladle it in all over the place,” Stewart says.
Outside of that, what’s really interesting to Stewart is adapting a classic Italian recipe of pork cooked in milk to a whey-braised pork shoulder. After an hourslong braise in the whey, the pork is falling-apart tender, eventually ladled over pasta and topped with the fresh, still-warm ricotta.
In the original recipe, a pork shoulder is first seared and then set to braise slowly with milk and aromatics. As it cooks, the milk eventually curdles, leaving browned bits of what is essentially cheese at the bottom of the pan. However, Stewart’s recipe separates these curds at the beginning for an equally delicious end result — if you can resist scooping that fresh ricotta into your mouth while the pork cooks, that is.
Think of braising with whey as the other side of the instant gratification of cheesemaking. It’s perfect for a drizzly weekend dinner, rich and comforting.
Whey-braised Pork with Fresh Ricotta
Here’s a twist on a classic Italian milk-braised pork sugo. “When preparing the original dish, I noticed that the milk curdles in the cooking process,” says chef Quinton Stewart. “So at Ben Paris, we started separating the fresh curds in the beginning, so we could use them to garnish our pasta.”
1/2 gallon whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons lemon juice
2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes, seasoned with salt and pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 sprigs thyme
1 sprig oregano
2 sprigs rosemary
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup white wine
4 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
Zest of 1 lemon
Pappardelle noodles, 4 oz. per person
Basket sieve/cheesecloth to strain the ricotta
Large enameled cast-iron pot, such as Le Creuset or Staub
To make the ricotta:
1. Bring the milk, cream, buttermilk and salt to a simmer in a large pot, stirring so the milk doesn’t scald.
2. Remove from heat, and whisk in the lemon juice, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring between each addition.
3. Once the curds have formed, strain by pouring into a sieve lined with cheesecloth, reserving the whey. Set cheese aside.
To make the pork sugo:
1. Heat a large enamel cast-iron pot on the stovetop.
2. Over medium heat, sear the cubes of pork on all sides in the olive oil; toast the fresh herbs and garlic in the pan.
3. Deglaze with the wine, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
4. Add the whey to the pot, and bring to a simmer.
5. Cover completely, and gently simmer for two hours.
6. Once the pork is tender, season the broth to taste with salt and pepper. As you stir in the seasoning, add the butter, parsley and lemon zest. The pork should be falling apart into the sauce.
7. Cook enough fresh pasta noodles for 4-6 people. Marry the noodles into the pork sugo, and transfer to a large serving bowl.
8. Scoop several large spoons of fresh ricotta over the top of the pasta, and serve.
From Quinton Stewart, Ben Paris