Friday, June 22, 2012

Tomato and ricotta napoleons with basil oil

I am fortunate to have several friends with organic gardens.  I hope they all know how very much I appreciate their generosity.  They frequently share their bounty with me, and it makes me feel very loved and very well cared for.  My friends grow especially beautiful, pristine vegetables and recently, the tomatoes have been absolutely peerless.  This year, the color, heft and, most importantly, the juiciness and flavor of the tomatoes have been everything you would want a tomato to be.  Dense, flavorful and rich with that perfect just-picked-an-hour-ago flavor.

I had several perfectly ripe tomatoes that were ready to be devoured.  Firm and intensely red, they held together beautifully when sliced.  They would have tasted wonderful all on their own, but they were so perfectly ripe and gorgeous that I wanted to show them off.  I wanted the essence of a caprese salad, but something a little more elegant than that.  I wanted more richness, more intensity and more decadence.  These luscious tomatoes needed a worthy counterpoint and I wanted a salad course that was essentially over the top.

I had made fresh ricotta earlier that day using Ina Garten's recipe.  This recipe calls for full fat dairy products and produces a very rich, very creamy ricotta.  You can reduce the fat by using 2% milk and half and half or light cream and still get a great-tasting ricotta, but the lack of fat makes for a drier, more crumbly product that doesn't have the same luxuriousness.  So bank your calories and go for the full fat ricotta, it's worth the indulgence.  

If you've never made home made cheese, please consider trying it because it's a very simple process.  Essentially, dairy products heated to the boiling point, salt (if you wish) and some kind of acid are combined and then the proteins are strained through cheesecloth until the whey is gone and the desired firmness is achieved.  You can make soft cheese this way with sheep's milk, goat's milk or cow's milk and get perfect results with very little effort.  You can also strain yogurt and get a tangy, soft cheese that is delicious as well.  Fresh, soft cheese spread on warm flat breads or lavash with good quality olive oil and a variety of olives from your local olive bar makes an excellent lunch or a great snack with a glass of wine.

Ricotta curds

Fresh ricotta is a revelation.  Made with Ina's recipe, it's beyond decadent because of the fat content and it's extremely versatile because it can be the basis for something savory or sweet.  I had started out with some vague idea of enjoying it spread on garlic toasts with olives, tomatoes, basil and some good olive oil.  But I later had another idea.

Why not make a tower of tomato slices, ricotta and basil?  I had constructed a menu for the evening that centered around the theme of intensely flavored foods being stacked into small towers on small plates.  The stacked tomatoes and ricotta would be a perfect first course.

I'm not a professional photographer.  But the plate in the foreground makes me drool.
I made some basil oil while the ricotta was draining, which is essentially some sprigs of fresh Genoese basil put into a small food processor with enough olive oil and a little salt to create a flavored oil to drizzle on things.  It's really tasty on steamed green beans, roasted potatoes, hot rice and of course, pasta.  Add some finishing salt and some freshly ground black pepper and you're golden.

I encourage you to try this tomato tower because it's impressive, gorgeous and absolutely delicious.  Did I mention that it was also simple to make?  You can make the basil oil and ricotta up to a day ahead of time and chill them until ready to assemble this plate.  Just make sure that the basil oil and ricotta warm up to nearly room temperature before assembling so that they're easier to work with.

Tomato and Ricotta Napoleons with Basil Oil

1 recipe home made ricotta
1/4 cup fresh Genoese basil leaves and stems
1/2 cup or more good quality olive oil
kosher salt to taste
2 medium-sized ripe tomatoes
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
fresh basil leaves for garnish (I used purple ruffles basil for contrast)

1.)  Make ricotta and set aside to drain.  The more whey that drains away, the firmer the ricotta.
2.)  Meanwhile, make basil oil by combining basil, olive oil and a generous pinch of kosher salt in a small food processor or blender.  Process until smooth.  If you'd like a looser consistency, drizzle in more oil.
3.)  To assemble the napoleon:  slice tomatoes thinly (about 1/4 inch slices) and place a slice on each plate.
4.)  Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
5.)  Place a generous dollop of ricotta on the tomato.
6.)  Drizzle with basil oil.
7.)  Repeat until you have three layers of tomato, ricotta and basil oil on each plate.  
8.)  Season again with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Drizzle with additional basil oil if you wish.
9.)  Garnish each serving with a fresh basil sprig and serve.  Serves 4 to 6 people.

And here's what you can pair with this salad: We drank a light, lovely, domestic 2010 vintage pinot noir from Napa Cellars (California).  Pierre Labet also makes a very light pinot noir that would be a great match.  Or you could also pair this dish with a sangiovese, or an Italian white, or a not-too-light rose (think rose of malbec, cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc).  Ask your wine guy at Spec's for help.  Choices abound and they are very affordable!

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