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For the love of ricotta

Most of the ricotta in this country is probably baked into lasagna. And that's delicious.

But ricotta aspires to so much more. Its fresh flavor shines when treated lightly, its creamy texture soaring as well. The new vegetables of spring — the greenest peas, tiny, tender fava beans, earthy beets — make companionable partners. It can go savory or sweet.

If your relationship with ricotta is limited to enjoying it baked into lasagna or manicotti, consider its many other guises.

No less a champion than cheese authority Laura Werlin, who has written extensively about cheese (six books, including the James Beard award-winning "The All American Cheese and Wine Book") and teaches regularly at the Cheese School of San Francisco, extols ricotta's versatility.

"This is what I like about ricotta: It can be a chameleon and it can be the star," Werlin says. "It can be a conveyor of flavor; it can be the flavor itself."

Werlin has used it in brioche bread pudding and in ricotta cake, on top of pasta and pizza. As a simple dessert, drizzled with a little honey, with candied walnuts or almonds or toasted pistachios. One of her favorite recipes is to mix ricotta into a spring pea and basil puree to spread on crostini.

"You don't taste the ricotta, but you sense it because you have that creamy texture," she says. "The ricotta lightens it and makes it a little more ethereal."

Basically, wherever you might think of using fresh goat cheese, you can use ricotta, Werlin says.

The key to the best flavors in any of these applications is the same when making any dish that relies on the ingredients to do the most of the work: Buy the best you can find. In the case of ricotta, look for a fresh aroma and taste and creamy texture. (And, we would argue, whole milk ricotta to get the full richness.) Traditionally, ricotta is made from whey leftover from making another cheese, but it should still taste of milk, Werlin says. Hand-dipped is a good phrase to look for, she explains: "It is handled more gently; a lightness to it that ricotta absolutely should have. It shouldn't be dense."

"Traditional basket-drained ricotta almost quivers like panna cotta or a custard. Get as close as you can (to that)," Werlin says.

Some makers with national distribution to seek out are Calabro Cheese Corp., made in East Haven, Conn., and Lioni Latticini, Brooklyn, N.Y. If you have a cheese shop nearby, it might carry ricotta from an artisan maker. Italian grocery stores and supermarkets with a good cheese selection often have fresh, hand-dipped ricotta.

When you bring it home, try it in one of the recipes or ideas here, or perhaps the simplest way is the best. This one from Werlin: Just drizzle with a little olive oil and sprinkle with finely chopped fresh basil or rosemary. "It's just a way to get the full essence of the ricotta and gussy it up a little," she says. "Maybe sea salt on top."

Makes: 6 servings

Ziti with ricotta

Adapted from "Tasty," by Roy Finamore. We've added fresh thyme for the freshness it brings.

Cook: Heat a large pot of well-salted water to a boil; stir in 1 pound ziti or penne rigati. Cook until al dente.

Mix: Meanwhile, whip 1 pound ricotta and 2 ounces fresh goat cheese (both cheeses should be at room temperature) together with a fork in a large serving bowl.

Combine: Drain the pasta, reserving about a cup of the cooking water. Return pasta to the pot. Stir in the cheese mixture, 2 tablespoons unsalted butter and 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves; season with coarse salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper. Stir in enough of the pasta water — a little at a time — to make a smooth sauce. Serve with grated pecorino cheese.

Makes: 4 servings

Dish it up

Laura Werlin offers a host of ways to use ricotta. Among them:

On fresh melon: Mix ricotta with a little sugar and a little milk to extend it, then dollop it on along with fresh mint.

On pizza: Dollop it on. It will soften in the oven, fanning out, but won't melt. Mix fresh chopped herbs first, if you like.

On vegetables: Steamed asparagus, with a little extra-virgin olive oil and pepper. Also zucchini, fava beans and artichokes; even thinly shaved raw artichokes. Add another cheese for saltiness, if you like, such as pecorino or Parmesan.

And from other cooks:

Stuff pancakes with ricotta, says Anna Della Conte in her new book, "Italian Kitchen."

Crostini: The small slices of toasted bread are a frequent vehicle for ricotta. "Franny's Simple Seasonal Italian" has two ideas: ricotta with olives and pistachios, and roasted cherry tomatoes with ricotta. A breakfast crostini from Michele Scicolone's new "The Italian Vegetable Book": Whip ricotta with honey, spread on the crostini and top with fresh halved figs and toasted sliced almonds.

Dip: One of our favorite recipes is a simple ricotta and herb dip: Place 1 cup drained ricotta in a bowl; stir in 2 tablespoons finely chopped herbs (a mix of any of these: basil, thyme, parsley, chives), 1 to 2 tablespoons fruity extra-virgin olive oil, and coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Allow to rest at least 30 minutes for flavors to mingle. Serve with crudite, crackers or toasted bread.

Sugar snap peas with ricotta, mint and lemon

Adapted from "Franny's Simple Seasonal Italian" (Artisan, $35) by Andrew Feinberg, Francine Stephens and Melissa Clark.

Drain: Place 1/2 cup whole milk ricotta in a fine mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth or a clean dish towel; set over a bowl and refrigerate overnight. The ricotta will lose much of its water content and thicken.

Mix: Whisk the drained ricotta in a small bowl with 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil until smooth. Whisk in kosher salt and pepper, to taste. Continue to whisk until the ricotta is fluffy and creamy.

Blanch: Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water and salt it generously. Blanch 2 cups sugar snap peas (about ½ pound) in the boiling water until bright green, 30-40 seconds. Drain; immediately transfer peas to the ice bath. Let stand until chilled. Drain the peas; spread them on a clean dish towel to dry.

Toss: Combine the peas in a bowl with 2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions, 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley, 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped mint, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and pepper to taste.

Serve: Smear 2 tablespoons ricotta on each of four plates. Mound 1/2 cup of the peas on each plate. Drizzle with more olive oil and a sprinkle of salt.

Makes: 4 servings

Sweet ricotta pudding

This recipe is adapted from one by Melissa Roberts at Epicurious.com. She serves it with roasted grapes (2 cups seedless red grapes, halved, tossed with 1 tablespoon melted butter and 2 tablespoons sugar, roasted at 425 until tender, 10 to 12 minutes). We've opted for yellow raisins inside the pudding instead. Also, we used cookie crumbs to coat the pie plate instead of the breadcrumbs she calls for.

Prep: Heat oven to 375 degrees. Soak 1/2 cup yellow raisins in hot water (or sweet marsala or rum) to cover until plumped, about 15 minutes. Butter a 9-inch glass or ceramic pie plate with about 1 tablespoon melted butter; spread 1 to 2 tablespoons fine cookie crumbs in plate to coat.

Mix: Blend 1 2/3 cups whole-milk ricotta (15 ounces), 2 large eggs, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 3 tablespoons sugar in a blender until very smooth, about 2 minutes. Stir in the drained raisins and 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped toasted pistachios. Pour batter into pie plate. Bake in middle of oven until puffed, golden, and just set, about 25 minutes. Cool pudding on a rack.

jxgray@tribune.com

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