Let’s Cook: The Scratchiest Cook in Town
Let’s Cook: The Scratchiest Cook in Town
by Alison Boyd & William Sertl
April is National Spinach Month, so naturally we sent out an appeal to friends and loved-ones, here at home and overseas, to see who could come up with the most original and appetizing recipe employing spinach. Imagine our surprise when the winning entry—Manicotti with Spinach and Ricotta—arrived from none other than Alison’s neighbor, Kim Dyla, self-proclaimed The Scratchiest, as in she who makes everything from scratch. Folks, she grinds her own flour, roasts green coffee beans—then grinds them—and makes her own cheese.
We sampled one of her fermenting cheeses in the cool basement she calls the kim-cheese cellar, marveled at her black-currant jam spooned over just-made ricotta (more on that later), and on the spot decided to give her the assignment.
Kim told us about the tomatoes from her garden that she put up last summer to use in recipes the rest of the year. We followed her to KK’s The Farm (kkthefarm.com) in Southold to buy fresh spinach that was peeking out of the greenhouse. We marveled when she told us her ricotta was made with creamy raw milk from Ty Llwyd Farm (tyllwyd.wordpress.com) in Northville. (Now on the state and national registers of historic places, the name of the 144-year-old farm is Welsh, so think “stay clued” but drop the “s” to pronounce it correctly.) Kim’s finale—homemade crepes—suddenly seemed like The Scratchiest’s tamest move yet.
You might want to book a date in your own kitchen to make this recipe. It takes a while, but yields a delicate balance of flavors you’ll never find in a manicotti of sunken pasta drowning in red sauce. Do it just for fun. Or to make yourself a scratchier human being. If nothing else, step up to National Spinach Month.
Manicotti with Spinach and Ricotta
Kim Dyla’s play date in her kitchen begins with sautéing spinach, chopping parsley, and toasting fennel seeds. On one on her burners, milk for ricotta is heating up. Soon she’ll be making crepes, a final step on the way to an amazing manicotti.
Each summer, Kim pulls together whatever tomatoes are ripe in her garden—regular slicing tomatoes, plums, and tiny cherries. After coarsely chopping, she bakes the tomatoes in a roasting pan with a couple glugs of olive oil in a 350-degee oven, stirring now and again until they collapse. She then runs them through a food mill to remove skins and seeds, vacuum-seals them, and puts them in the freezer. “Whenever I need tomatoes, all I do is pull out a packet,” she says.
If you don’t have any tomatoes stashed in your freezer, many farm stands Out East have their own summer tomatoes, often heritage varieties, put up in Mason jars, or you can simply drain and chop up the contents of a large can of pomodori pelati from the supermarket.
If you love spinach, add more than she calls for. Crushed fennel seeds—from her garden, of course—are those little recipe touches that can lift a dish from good to great. But if you just don’t like fennel, skip it.
2 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
8 oz spinach
1-2 Tbs olive oil
2 cups ricotta
1-2 large eggs
Toast fennel seeds in a skillet. When fragrant, remove from heat and lightly bash. (Do not crush to a powder.) Sauté spinach with olive oil. Remove from heat, squeeze out excess liquid, and chop. (It isn’t the end of the world if you buy frozen spinach, she says.) Mix together ricotta, spinach, fennel seeds, and 1 egg. If the mixture looks too dry, because you squeezed every last drop of liquid from the spinach, add the second egg.
Parsley here is more for presentation than flavor. “Don’t go overboard: I never measure.” she says, “Just chop some leaves and use them to decorate.” She always makes the batter ahead of time so it can relax for about an hour. “Same for me,” she says. If you’ve never made crepes before, she advises you experiment with the first couple to get the hang of it.
6 large eggs
½ cup flour
Small bunch flat-leaf parsley
1 cup milk
Add two eggs to flour and mix using a fork or a whisk. (Work out any lumps now; if you don’t, they will be next to impossible to get rid of later.) Add remaining eggs, one at time, and keep mixing. Add milk and salt. Coarsely chop some parsley and mix into the batter.
Heat a 10-inch crepe pan over a medium flame (you’ll have to do some experimenting to get the right level on an electric stove) and spread a thin film of oil with a paper towel. A 10-inch pan will give you an 8-inch crepe. If you don’t have a crepe pan, you can make do with what you have.
When the pan is hot, add 3 tablespoons of batter and swirl it around to evenly coat the pan. If you have excess, pour it back into the batter. Since measuring out 3 tablespoons is a pain, use a 2-ounce ladle (and fill it three-quarters full) or a quarter-cup measuring cup (after noting how much 3 tablespoons of liquid take up in it.)
When the edges of the crepe start to pull away from the pan, and the batter no longer looks wet—give it a couple of minutes—pry up an edge of the crepe with a butter knife or a flat spatula and pull the crepe off the pan with your fingers.
Stack the crepe on a piece of wax paper, upside down, and fill it. (Proceed to “Assembly.”) You should get about 15 crepes, but don’t worry if that number varies.
Pour tomato sauce into a lasagna pan to coat it so the crepes don’t burn. With a couple tablespoons of filling, make a line down the lower bottom half of the crepe now resting on wax paper. Roll it up like a burrito but leave the ends open. (Keep in mind that you need enough filling for all your crepes.) Do not stack crepes. After rolling one, add it to the pan, butted right up against its neighbor. When a layer of crepes fills the pan, pour on enough sauce to lightly cover the tops of each crepe. “If I have a couple of crepes left over,” she says, “I toss them on top, but I prefer using two pans and keeping each to a single layer.” Cover the pan with aluminum foil and cook for 50 minutes in a 350-degree oven.
Ricotta is simple to make, but nothing is easier than buying it, especially if fresh from a local farm stand. But why not give homemade a try? Think of making ricotta as a nifty little science experiment. A half gallon of milk yields about 2 cups ricotta.
½ gallon pasteurized whole milk
1/3 cup vinegar (any kind)
equipment: liquid cooking thermometer
Note: Our recipe calls for pasteurized milk, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control warns of potential health risks from drinking raw milk (cdc.gov/features/rawmilk/index.html).
Slowly heat milk to 190F, stir in the vinegar, and turn off the heat. (The proteins in milk are denatured at 185F, which is what makes ricotta possible.) Curds should start forming right away, leaving a greenish whey. If you don’t see curds, give it a minute or two. If they still don’t form, stir in another teaspoon of vinegar. Remove the ricotta with a slotted spoon. Once cooled, cover and put in the refrigerator. If you are going to keep the ricotta for a few days, add some of the whey to your container.
Alison Boyd ran a catering business in her native London before working as a private chef in Bridgehampton. She has since decamped to the North Fork where she cooks frequently with William Sertl, Culture Editor of the Beacon and former travel editor of Saveur and Gourmet magazines. Kim Dyla is always finding inspiration to be a scratchier home cook, and is ever grateful for the North Fork’s bounty.