Sugar snap pea salad

Sugar snap pea salad with ricotta cheese, mint and lemon. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune / March 12, 2014)

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

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