Mouths to Feed: Celebrating the Garden

baked ricotta

Baked Ricotta with Bread Crumbs (photo by Henry Weed)

Anyone fortunate enough to have eaten at Blue Hill at Stone Barns knows the restaurant’s penchant for vegetable idolatry. So outlandishly artistic is the presentation that a diner can find herself puzzled whether to consume each course — baby carrots and turnips impaled on a shrine-like fence, eggplant lollipops enrobed in ivory seeds, ziggurats of penny-size beet slices — or to worship them. Me, I sat dazzled through our long-ago dinner there as I might a Cirque du Soleil performance, grateful that people exist in this world who are willing to perform such vegetable pageantry, and relieved not to be one of them.

I was reminded of that meal last week when I harvested the first three cherry tomatoes from our brand-new garden. Honestly, if I’d had a trumpet handy, the whole neighborhood would have known as I paraded that trio of golden orbs into the kitchen. I placed them on a cutting board, called the kids to come admire them, then cut each tomato in half so we could all partake. Today, I pranced down the hill bearing a half-dozen thinned carrots no larger than pen caps, which I will doubtless present on a velvet cushion at dinner tonight, alongside the first handful of sapphire blueberries from our bushes. 

Evidently, there’s nothing like sweating over a garden to transform a person into a shameless vegetable worshiper. 

Yet pomp alone does not get supper on the table — especially if said supper must leave five people sated enough that they won’t go scavenging for potato chips at 8 p.m. In other words, I need a shrine to my garden’s gems that doubles as a satisfying, substantial meal.

When the kids were little, pasta was my go-to vehicle for making vegetables appealing. Through trial-and-error, I found that everything from beets to cauliflower could become a delicious sauce for noodles; no dandelion leaf was too bitter, no celeriac too gnarled to escape my efforts. I came to think of pasta as my culinary Trojan horse — a canny way to transport vegetables past my kids’ defenses, which, over time, became hardly defensive at all. (I wrote about some of these endeavors for this paper; see highlandscurrent.org/tag/mouths-to-feed.)

Despite the intervening years, none of us has outgrown pasta. Really, why even try? But lately, I feel a little deflated carrying a plain platter of zucchini-tossed rigatoni to the table and watching it disappear into the mouths of my spouse and kids. Maybe I’m just missing the ceremony and adrenaline of non-family meals.

A few weeks back, I came across a recipe I had flagged many years ago in a cookbook, for baked ricotta. By chance, I had recently picked up a tub of fresh, creamy goat’s milk ricotta from Edgwick Farms, a recent addition to the Cold Spring Farmer’s market. Some ricottas are bland and mealy, but Edgwick’s is dense, creamy and delicious. I adjusted the recipe to suit our season, adding lemon zest plus herbs from our garden. It made for a humble, and infinitely adaptable, ceremony: A crumbly, marble-white temple to the glory of our fresh-grown vegetables. 

Baked Ricotta with Bread Crumbs 

Be sure to begin draining the ricotta several hours before you are ready to eat. To serve this with roast vegetables and/or pasta, double the quantities of butter, lemon zest and juice, and herbs; toss the warm pasta and vegetables with them before serving.

Ingredients

Olive oil 

8 ounces full-fat ricotta, preferably goats’- or sheep’s-milk, such as Edgwick Farms’

2 teaspoons butter
(see headnote)

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs

Zest and juice of 1 lemon (see headnote)

¼ cup basil leaves, chopped (see headnote)

2 tablespoons mixed soft herbs (such as chervil, mint, dill or cilantro), chopped
(see headnote)

Sea salt and pepper, to taste

Pasta and grilled seasonal vegetables, optional, for serving

2 ounces parmesan, for serving

A few hours before you begin cooking, place the ricotta in a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl to allow any excess water to drain out.  

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil or butter a ramekin or other small baking dish. Press the ricotta into it, making a smooth layer. Drizzle a little olive oil over the surface. Bake 20 minutes, or until the ricotta is puffy and beginning to brown on top.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet, melt the butter. Add the bread crumbs, and toast, tossing, until just golden. Remove from heat; stir in the lemon zest. 

After 20 minutes, remove ricotta from oven, sprinkle the bread-crumb mixture over the surface, then reduce the heat to 325 degrees and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes (the exact time will depend on how moist your ricotta is).

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. Grill or roast vegetables. Combine pasta and vegetables, tossing with additional olive oil, lemon juice and zest, and herbs. Serve with a spoonful of baked ricotta on top.


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