I was catching up with a very close friend the other day and we got to talking about cheese. I should mention that he happens to be a former maker of it at Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, and is currently managing St. James Cheese Co. in New Orleans, one of the most impressive cheese shops I've ever been to. He's an expert on the subject, and he was telling me how much he loves sheep's milk cheeses.
"It's probably the most preferred milk in the industry because it contains so much more fat than other milks." he said, "Which makes for a wonderful, deeply flavorful cheese."
Not surprisingly, it's the milk of choice at Fruition Farms, Alex Seidel's pioneering farm-to-table effort in Larkspur. Our conversation prompted me to pick up some of their award-winning ricotta to make gnocchi. A good friend and old neighbor used to make gnocchi with ricotta instead of potatoes, and I remembered loving them for their lightness.
Marczyk's Fine Foods is one of the places that carries Fruition Farms' cheeses, but I later learned that once winter fully sets in, no one will have the ricotta. It's a seasonal cheese in that it's fresh, and the sheep need to take a break when it's cold. The fine folks at Marczyk's informed me that they'll only have it for the next few weeks, but thankfully, it will be back next spring. I grabbed a hunk of Cacio Pecora as well, an aged sheep's milk cheese from Fruition, thinking it'd be a fitting substitute for Parmesan in the gnocchi.
As for a beer with the meal, one of my favorite styles to pair with cheese is saison (French for season and originally brewed for farmers), and one of my favorite versions of it right now is Funkwerks Tropic King: strong, but balanced, with a particularly pleasant mouthfeel. I grabbed a bottle from Argonaut, and headed home hungry.
Turns out, ricotta gnocchi is a bit of a challenge, at least if you want them to look pretty. Prepping them is a breeze, but I couldn't figure out a good method for shaping the sticky dough before running out of it, which resulted in some fairly odd looking dumplings. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and these gnocchi were certainly beautiful. The use of ricotta (by the by, the best I've ever tasted) made them light and delicate and each bite coated my mouth with creaminess; while the aged Pecora added a lively, salty savoriness. The beer was a subtle, spicy contrast to the gnocchi, and refreshingly cleansed the palate, while complimenting the dish with its rich, full body.
But the cheese impressed me the most, which makes sense considering Alex Seidel was behind it. As chef/owner of Fruition, Seidel has blazed many trails in Colorado's culinary scene, and his new mission to grow and produce quality ingredients for himself and others arguably makes him the most inspiring food figure in the state.
I couldn't resist calling him, and telling him how much I loved the cheeses they're making, and to find out where they're available, in case readers wanted to know.
"Thanks, things are going great." he told me, "We've been making cheese for about a year now and we've dialed in three that we're really proud of. We're growing too, looking to get into more places next year. You should come down in the spring." he added, "Hang out, and make some cheese with us."
And I do believe I will, Alex, it would truly be an honor...
Here's the recipe:
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16 ounces sheep's milk ricotta cheese 1 1/4 cups aged sheep's milk cheese, grated 2 eggs, beaten 1 cup flour 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme, finely chopped (most recipes call for sage, but thyme was all I had) 2 tablespoons butter salt pepper
1. Bring a pot of salted water to boil. 2. In a large mixing bowl, combine ricotta, a cup of grated cheese, eggs, flour, a pinch of salt and pepper and stir to combine. 3. Once a sticky dough is formed, drop a spoonful of it into water to see if it hold it's shape. If it doesn't, add more flour. 4. In a large skillet, melt butter over medium heat and add thyme. 5. Drop the ricotta mixture by the spoonful in the boiling water, about six at a time. 6. Once gnocchi rise to the surface, carefully remove and add to skillet. 7. Toss gnocchi in butter and thyme until slightly golden brown. 8. Sprinkle with remaining grated cheese and serve immediately.