I am a sucker for a restaurant cookbook, and when Roberta’s Cookbook thrashed its competitors during each round of Food52’s Piglet competition, I knew I’d have to add it to my collection. Most of the judges of the Piglet focused on whether or not they liked the quirky narrative that runs through the book, retelling the escapades and high-jinx that made Roberta’s the Bushwick pizza institution that it is today. When my Amazon box arrived I completely ignored the narrative (although I did spot a women from my culinary school class in one of the kitchen photos) and eagerly soaked up the variety of techniques and ingredients and recipes each page offered. I really love it when a dish requires me to prepare several component recipes and often days of prep and veritable treasure hunts for the ingredients. Again, this is likely why the book didn’t ultimately win the Piglet, (Louisa Shafia’s The New Persian Cookbook did and it’s equally amazing) but to me Roberta’s approach is what makes a day in the kitchen exciting and challenging.
I started with their basic pizza recipe, making the dough using store-bought yeast (there is one that uses a sourdough starter which I’ll try one of these days). The pizza dough was less work than many others I’ve made, simply requiring a 24 to 48 hour rest in the fridge before using. Meanwhile I blitzed up a can of plum tomatoes with a little olive oil, toasted up breadcrumbs with garlic, and pulled some bulk sausage I had out of the freezer. On Friday afternoon I pulled together the best homemade pizza I’ve ever had, the most authentic tasting dough and the best combination of flavors (which the book attributes to the order in which you place the ingredients on the base). It’s called the Millennium Falco and I’ve already made it again as once you have the basic technique down it’s a snap to pull together. Meanwhile, I’ve also made their Roasted Garlic Salad with Candied Walnuts and Pecorino – the perfect fresh accompaniment to a pizza.
While the Duck Ragu with homemade Papparadelle is just waiting for that perfect lazy rainy weekend afternoon, there are several salads in the vegetable section that are perfect for the Spring weather we’ve been having. Snap Peas, Smoked Ricotta, Anchovy Breadcrumbs, and Pickled Rhubarb. Apple, Burrata, Sorrel, and Honey. Beets, Creme Fraiche, Bottarga, and Dill. Carrot, Smoked Ricotta, Radish, and Lemon. Baby Carrots, Watermelon Radish, Smoked Ricotta. While I was able to run out to Selfridges Food Hall and procure bottarga easily and sorrel is gracing us with its presence at the Queen’s Park Farmers’ Market at the moment, I kept getting hung up on the smoked ricotta, Salvatore Bklyn smoked ricotta, no less…to me the most delicious sounding ingredient ever. The authors even acknowledge how obnoxious it is for them to require such a specific, small-batch ingredient. At a couple of specialty cheese shops I asked about it and got blank stares – one even saying they thought the ricotta would just melt during the smoking process.
It is situations like these that make me most grateful for the internet. Type in “smoked ricotta” and up comes a recipe from Amanda Hesser at The New York Times. Smoking is one of my favorite techniques (see my delicious smoked duck recipe from a few weeks ago) and once you have the equipment for it, it’s a simple process which delivers ingredients that are complex in flavor. Just be certain to use a light hand as it is easy to have your food end up tasting like smoke and nothing more. Be bold and just dive in. Once I’d found the fruitwood chips (I ordered them off a wonderful website: souschef.co.uk) I drained my ricotta overnight and crossed my fingers that the cheese wouldn’t melt through the holes on my flower-petal steamer.
In the end I let the ricotta smoke a little longer than the Times recipe says, tasting along the way to make sure it hadn’t gone too far. After the ricotta had chilled overnight, I used it for the snap pea and pickled rhubarb salad. With a roasted salmon fillet on the side, it was the perfect lunch. I’ve also made the roasted carrot and watermelon radish salad – one of the prettiest dishes I’ve ever made. So far all of these recipes harken back to the very noticeable trend I picked up on while I was in New York last autumn. Veggies are the star of this show, and using them simply, seasonally, with a little care and a couple of well-chosen accompaniments, will elevate them to superstar status, surpassing even meat for some of us.
Meanwhile, all of this goodness has me sitting around thinking of different ways for me to use these many special ingredients. I’ve added the leftover anchovy breadcrumbs to a salad of smoked chicken breast, lentils and arugula. The smoked ricotta, precious as it might be, was a delicious spread on a baguette with a heaping helping of roasted peppers, zucchini, red onions, and eggplant. Extra cloves of roasted garlic were a lovely, enriching flavor in my beet greens soup. My new pizza dough technique came in very handy when I made 20 little pissaladieres for a baby shower over the weekend. And right now I have my ice cream machine’s bowl in the freezer to make their caramel fennel gelato. This is what a good cookbook will do for you, if you’re lucky, make you a better chef and your kitchen a more creative, happy place to be.
1 1/2 cups kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
14 juniper berries
1 tablespoon white peppercorns
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
6 bay leaves
6 sprigs rosemary
1 cup fruitwood chips
2 cups ice
- Line a sieve with cheesecloth and set over a bowl. Spoon the ricotta onto the cheesecloth and let drain overnight in the refrigerator.
- The next day, line the inside of your designated smoking pot with aluminum foil so that it comes at least 2 inches up the sides of the pan. Spoon the ricotta from the cheesecloth into a steel flower-petal steamer.
- Mix together the salt, sugar, juniper berries, peppercorns, coriander seeds, bay leaves and rosemary. Pour this into the base of the smoker. Sprinkle the wood chips around the edges of the spice mixture. Place a small (10-inch) baking rack on top of the spice mixture. Turn the heat to high (and turn on the exhaust fan above your stove), and when smoke appears, spread the ice on the baking rack. Top with the steamer. Cover the smoker (or wok) tightly with either the lid or aluminum foil. Regulate the heat so the mixture is smoking but not scorching. Smoke until the ricotta is golden brown on top and dry enough on the edges to crumble, 20 – 25 minutes. Scrape the ricotta into a bowl and chill immediately.