Ricotta Made Easy. Really?

It could be said that there isn’t much new when it comes to Pasta Marinara―especially with grilled vegetables.  Possibly even more uninteresting might be a lasagna lacking the gooey layers of cheese.

Well, that’s pretty much where we begin here:  a layered lasagna-like version where grilled vegetables are front and center and cheese layers are nearly non-existent. What makes this pasta newsworthy and exceptionally tasty is the homemade lemon ricotta cheese added after baking, instead of buried way inside.  Here, superb ricotta is a creamy condiment that crowns the pasta and elevates it to spectacular heights.

Ricotta has always meant a special trip to the grocery store before making that special cheesecake, white pizza, or lasagna.  Then, in the cheese aisle I debate which ricotta to purchase, and why?   I usually recall that it isn’t the fat free variety ― they all resemble tasteless rubber.  So, it’s probably a low fat ricotta, but which one?  Some of those are pretty bad, too.   Good grief, it’s such a crap shoot.
It hadn’t occurred to me that it might actually be easy to whip up a homemade batch of ricotta.  Having the convenience of fresh ricotta at my finger tips would certainly take all of the guess and gamble out of the equation.  Thanks to Cooking Light magazine, their simple ricotta offers the perfect solution, and even better, their secret ingredient is none other than low fat yogurt, an item I usually have on hand.
Of course, there are a couple of caveats:  the yield/ratio to yogurt is about 1:1; plus, a fair amount of low fat milk is required.  I have found that making about a one cup quantity is a realistic return.
A few notes on procedures.  The process is made easy by using the microwave to heat the yogurt/milk mixture.   To strain the curd and whey, lining a sieve with coffee filters will make the subsequent cheese collection and clean up straight forward.  Also, the liquid left from the straining process has good nutritional value, and is a great addition to baked breads and such.
Flavoring the ricotta also adds a whole new dimension, too, and in this particular dish lemon zest offers the perfect finishing touch.   So here you are, a truly exceptional layered penne with marinara and grilled vegetables regally crowned with homemade Lemon Ricotta.  Naturally, we’ll start with the ricotta!
Lemon Ricotta, Quick
Courtesy Cooking Light magazine, Aug 2011
·         2 cups 2% milk
·         ½ cup plain Greek yogurt, or other natural yogurt such as Nancy’s
·         2 tsp cider vinegar
·         1 ½ tsp grated lemon rind
·         1/4 tsp  coarse salt, divided
In a microwave safe 1-qt measurer combine milk, yogurt and vinegar; microwave on high for 4 minutes.
Stir mixture to form small curds.  Strain into cheese cloth or a coffee filter lined sieve, and let stand for 5 minutes.  Discard liquid.
Scrape mixture into small bowl and stir in rind and ¼ tsp. salt.   Yield:  approx ½ cup, enough for 4 servings.
Penne with Marinara, Grilled Vegetables and Fresh Lemon Ricotta
·         6 to 8 cups Marinara Sauce, approximate
·         1 eggplant, sliced.  Sprinkle with salt and allow to drain in colander for 20 minutes; pat dry
·         2 zucchini
·         2 yellow squash
·         3 cups whole wheat penne pasta, cooked in salted boiling water until al dente
·         ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
·         cooking spray for the grill
·         salt and pepper
Lemon Ricottta and fresh mint
Prepare the marinara sauce, or have 6-8 cups on hand.
To grill vegetables: 
Prepare the grill to medium high or until coals are red hot.
Slice the eggplant, zucchini, squash and red onion into long ½” thick slices.
Spray the eggplant slices on one side and lay sprayed side down onto clean grill over hot white coals.  When well marked, spray top side, and turn.  Remove when browned on both sides but not cooked through.
Spray, salt and pepper the zucchini, squash and red onions on one side; grill, spray, salt and pepper top sides and turn until all are seared but not cooked thoroughly.  Remove and cool.  Cut the vegetable into bite sized chunks
To assemble:  Spray or oil a Le creuset or other oven proof 2 ½ qt dish or pot, and spread about 1 cup sauce in the bottom.  Add half of the pasta, sprinkle with 1/3 of the cheese, top with half of the vegetables, and spread half of the remaining sauce over it.  Repeat with second layer of pasta, Parmesan, vegetables, and top with the remainder of the sauce and sprinkle with rest of the cheese.  This can all be done ahead at this point and refrigerated.
To bake:  Heat the oven to 325 degrees.  Place covered dish in center of oven and bake 60 to 90 minutes or until browned and bubbly.
To serve:  place 2 cups hot pasta into 4 shallow bowls.  Sprinkle each serving with a few grinds of coarse salt and pepper; top each with 1-2 tbsp room temperature Lemon Ricotta Cheese and 1 Tbsp mint.  Serves:  6-8

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