If you have been following my blog you would know by now that I am an immigrant and a parent, and as immigrant parents do, I tend to remind my kid how lucky we are to be here in the U.S.A. and to have the life that we have…even though he was born here, at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, in the shadow of the Beverly Center. He is eight years old now and I am certain that pretty soon I am going to lose my only audience to my one-woman show of “how tough life was when Mommy was growing up in the Philippines in the 70’s and 80’s.” My stories are almost always unrelatable to him because of the light years’ gap in our age and the modern world we live in. Our conversation last week was about milk, and how we should be thankful that milk is readily available to us when we want it. He gave me a puzzled look and, possibly, a slight eye-roll.
Two weeks ago, I taught one of my cooks how to make ricotta cheese by simply bringing the milk to a simmer and adding acid for it to curdle. A process so simple and yet so rewarding…homemade cheese! While we were doing this, I was reminded of the first time I made cheese. I might have been six years old at the most. Back then my grandmother still had unpasteurized cow’s or goat’s milk delivered to her house. The milk would come in a recycled family size Pepsi glass bottle corked with rolled fresh banana leaves, still warm from its natural source. It was in the seventies, but it might as well have been the 1800’s. Back then, pasteurized milk was unheard of in the Philippines. I grew up on powdered milk, and on special occasions, the fresh cow’s milk, which had to be boiled before consuming.
The only real cheese I had ever known as a child was a ball-shaped, semi-hard cheese we called queso de bola…also known as Edam (made in Holland). This cheese was a delicacy in the Philippines usually served with jamon and pandesal (a traditional Filipino roll) during the Christmas holiday. I don’t know why a Dutch cheese would become a traditional Filipino cheese (instead of something Spanish, like Mahon or Manchego), considering the Philippines was colonized by the Spaniards for hundreds of years. That didn’t matter. I looked forward to indulging on queso de bola every Christmas and New Year. All the other cheeses I knew as a kid were processed cheeses. Boy, did I love Velveeta and Cheese Whiz. Butter also didn’t exist in my life until I came to the U.S.A. I grew up on margarine!
So, I introduced homemade ricotta cheese to my team last week. The image of my six-year-old self and my mom’s youngest brother (who would have been in his late teens at that time), standing in front of the stove at my grandmother’s house came back to me so fast and so vividly. My uncle walked me through the process as he brought the goat’s milk to a boil, removed it from the heat, and added vinegar. He and I watched as the milk turned into curds. My uncle scooped the milk curds with a spoon, transferred it onto a plate, and seasoned it with a little salt and cracked black pepper. He warmed up some dinner rolls and we ate our freshly-made cheese with it. I could still taste the gaminess of the goat’s milk in that cheese, and I don’t think I liked it very much. But I loved that moment because it was with my uncle.
We served the house-made ricotta at Rotunda as a topper on our avocado toast, along with market beets and some orange. It was simply delicious. I was happy to show a new trick to a cook and he was proud to have an added skill in his toolbox.
I have come a long way from my time of unpasteurized milk in recycled Pepsi bottles. I now have all kinds of milks available to me…even the non-dairy ones! And my knowledge of cheese has since greatly improved. I especially love ripened French Brie and long-aged Gouda. But old habits are hard to break, as I still enjoy the occasional treat of processed cheese in my diet; it would be difficult to move away from it completely. Margarine has somehow completely disappeared from my life since I met butter. European butters and the ones speckled with black truffles have now also spoiled my palate, and as we all know there’s no going back to mediocre butter after that.
What inspires me about food and cooking? The answer is rooted deeply by these three things: my childhood, my family, and my grandmother’s kitchen. It’s a strong foundation no culinary schools could possibly match. I am grateful.
Please enjoy my simple recipes of Homemade Lemon Ricotta.