A recent trip to Sicily reminded me just how marvelous fresh ricotta can be. Sheep’s milk ricotta is becoming more available in the United States, both from U.S. producers and as an imported product. Better cheese shops and Italian delis stock it. The ricotta needs to be ultrafresh, so try to buy it as soon as it comes in, and use it within two days. Or ask for fresh cow’s milk ricotta, which can also be divine. Both are far superior to the generic type found in most supermarkets. You could also join the growing ranks of homemade cheese enthusiasts and try your hand making it yourself.
In Sicily (all over Italy, for that matter), ricotta has a variety of uses, both savory and sweet. It is a common filling for ravioli and lasagna, or it can be turned into tender gnocchi. Lightly sweetened, it is also an element in desserts — for ice cream, or ricotta cream for cannoli, or for the traditional cake, cassata.
But fresh ricotta is perhaps best when employed to make a wonderful basic pasta, especially this time of year, when garden-fresh, just-picked vegetables abound.
Here is the technique: While your pasta is boiling, soften a diced onion in olive oil. Then add chopped zucchini (or summer squash, peas, or split cherry tomatoes) and let it soften as well. When the pasta is al dente, it joins the zucchini in the pan, followed by a good dollop of ricotta and a splash of the pasta’s cooking water. The ricotta melts to a creamy cloak, and a handful of grated pecorino or Parmesan brings it all together. I also add a touch of lemon zest and a spoonful of basil pesto.
It is a dish of utter simplicity, yet it tastes, to me at least, like the height of luxury.