Old, and new again

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Fresh ricotta is the overlooked bonus from the great American cheese revolution over the last 20 years. As artisans have churned out award-winning Camemberts and chevres, they have been increasingly converting the leftover whey into a crumbly fresh cheese that is as different from the wet blandness sold in supermarkets as Vermont Cheddar is from Velveeta.
Ricotta is Italian for “re-cooked,” and what is now widely available in farmers’ markets and specialty cheese shops is much closer to the original idea: sweet and firm and almost nutty-tasting. You can eat it by the spoonful simply dusted with sea salt, or by the bowlful drizzled with warm chestnut honey.
But fresh ricotta is made for cooking. The dry texture makes it super-easy to convert into airy gnocchi, one of the trendiest ideas on restaurant menus anymore, particularly with greens mixed into the dough. And the same quality makes it perfect for melting into a sauce for pasta with little more more than butter, sage and walnuts. It would be wasted in lasagne.


1 bunch Swiss chard (about 1 pound)
1 pound fresh ricotta, from cow’s or sheep’s milk
4 large egg yolks
1/4 cup flour
Kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Trim stems from chard leaves and reserve for another use. Rinse leaves well in several changes of cold water. Drop into boiling water and cook until very tender, about 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon or tongs to a colander and drain very well. Squeeze dry in paper towels and chop very fine. Set aside.
2. Add additional water and 1 tablespoon salt to the pot and set aside. Line a baking sheet with waxed paper and set aside.
3. Strain the ricotta through a sieve into a bowl. Using a wooden spoon, beat in the egg yolks, then the flour, 1 teaspoon salt, nutmeg and cayenne. Add the chopped chard and mix thoroughly.
4. Using two tablespoons, shape the ricotta mixture into oval walnut-size dumplings. As each is formed, lay it on the lined baking sheet. (The gnocchi can be made ahead at this point and refrigerated until needed.)
5. To cook, bring the salted water to a high simmer. Carefully drop the gnocchi into the water and cook until they float to the surface and firm up, about 5 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon to a colander as they are cooked, then to individual serving plates or a communal shallow bowl.
6. When all the gnocchi are cooked, melt the butter in a small skillet until it is bubbly. Pour over the gnocchi, dust with cheese and season with pepper to taste. Serves 4 to 6.


1 pound garganelli (or penne)
6 tablespoons butter
4 large cloves garlic, minced
2/3 cup chopped walnuts
1 large bunch sage leaves (about 36), thinly sliced crosswise
8 ounces fresh ricotta, from cow’s or sheep’s milk, finely crumbled
Pinch hot red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil with 1 tablespoon salt. Add the pasta and cook, stirring often, until al dente, about 11 minutes.
2. While the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute 2 minutes, then stir in the walnuts and sage and cook, stirring, until the nuts are toasted, about 5 minutes.
3. Drain the pasta well and transfer to a warm bowl. Scrape the butter mixture into the bowl and add the ricotta and hot pepper flakes. Mix until the cheese is melted over and into the pasta and the ingredients are well distributed. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve hot. Serves 6.