Monday, March 10, 2014
By RUSS PARSONS/McClatchy Newspapers
As sure as autumn's harvest brings ripe vegetables aplenty, it also sparks a craving for burrata. They go hand-in-hand, nearly perfect by themselves, utterly profound when combined.
Bruschetta topped with burrata and tapenade
McClatchy Newspapers photos
Shaved zucchini, radishes and mint topped with burrata
If there is a sure thing in cooking, it would be a platter of ripe tomato wedges -- use different types for a mix of shapes, sizes and colors -- surrounding a ball of burrata, split open to show the creamy, ragged insides. Add a little olive oil, maybe some vinegar, and a good sprinkling of coarse salt and freshly ground pepper and you've got a dish that you'll be dreaming about long after perfect tomatoes have disappeared.
It seems the whole country goes burrata-crazy at this time of year. And why not? Stretch a thin skin of mozzarella around a voluptuous filling of mozzarella rags and cream, and how can that be bad?
Funny thing, then, that the cheese was largely unknown in this country until an Apulian immigrant named Vito Girardi started making it at Gioia Cheese in South El Monte, Calif., in the early '90s. (There is an alternate theory that it was introduced by Mimmo Bruno, whose son runs Di Stefano Cheese in Pomona, Calif., but Valentino's Piero Selvaggio -- the first restaurateur to sell it -- credits Girardi.)
With a product as delicious as burrata, the simplest preparations are almost always the best. Here are 10 ways to enjoy it -- at any time of year.
Grilled vegetable pizza -- Top a rolled-out pizza dough with a layer of raw tomato salsa (just chopped tomatoes, garlic, basil, salted and drained), and a few pieces of grilled zucchini and eggplant chopped up. Bake it as hot as your oven will go. After the pizza is done, but while it is still hot, top it with pieces of burrata.
Roasted tomatoes -- Slice plum tomatoes in half lengthwise and arrange them in one layer in a baking dish. Add a few whole garlic cloves. Pour over olive oil to come halfway up. Season with salt and black pepper. Bake at 300 degrees until the tomatoes start to shrivel and brown -- a couple of hours. Cool and spoon some tomatoes onto a plate, put a torn hunk of burrata in the middle (the insides should show ... it's the best-looking part).
Shaved zucchini, radishes and mint -- Slice the zucchini lengthwise about 1/8 inch thick. Salt and set aside in a colander to drain for 30 minutes. Rinse well and pat dry. Slice radishes paper thin. Make a vinaigrette with peppery olive oil, lemon juice and torn mint leaves. Put the burrata in the center of the plate. Dress the zucchini lightly with the dressing and arrange around and over the burrata. Dress the radishes lightly and scatter them over top. Spoon just a little of the dressing over all.
Winter salad with roasted beets and blood oranges -- Trim the tops and roots of several beets. Wrap in aluminum foil and roast at 400 degrees until tender enough to pierce easily with a knife. Rub away the peel with your fingers and cut into wedges. Season with olive oil and red wine vinegar, salt and black pepper and toss to coat evenly. Arrange on a platter with blood oranges cut in circles, and top with pieces of burrata. Drizzle the cheese with just a little more olive oil, salt and pepper.
Bruschetta with tapenade -- Spread grilled bread moderately thickly with tapenade and top with a generous spoonful of burrata. Drizzle with just a little peppery olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt and black pepper.
Bruschetta with radicchio marmalade -- Cook slivered radicchio slowly with olive oil, garlic and balsamic vinegar until the flavor is nearly sweet. Spread some of this marmalade on grilled bread and top with a hunk of burrata. Drizzle with a little olive oil and season generously with black pepper.
Spring salad with prosciutto and peas -- Arrange slices of prosciutto in ruffles around the outside of a platter. Place the burrata in the center. Make a vinaigrette with olive oil, lemon juice and basil. Toss blanched fresh peas in the vinaigrette and scatter over the top of the burrata. Spoon a little of the remaining vinaigrette on top of the cheese.
Summer salad with prosciutto, arugula, and figs -- Arrange slices of prosciutto in a ruffle around the outside of a platter. Make a vinaigrette with olive oil and lemon juice. Toss torn arugula in the vinaigrette and place it in the middle of the platter. Place hunks of burrata on top of the arugula. Slice fresh figs in half or in quarters, depending on the size, toss them in the remaining vinaigrette and scatter them over the top. If you have hidden away some saba or aged balsamic vinegar, this would be a good place to use it.
Roasted red bell pepper roll-ups -- Roast red bell peppers on the grill or in a 400-degree oven. When the skin has wrinkled and begun to blacken, place the peppers in a plastic bag to steam briefly. Remove the skin with your fingers and remove the stem and seeds. Cut the peppers into slabs and roll up each around a small piece of burrata. Arrange on a platter and dress lightly with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and torn basil leaves.
Tomato risotto -- Make a risotto, starting with a base of chopped tomatoes. When the rice is cooked, stir in skeins of burrata so the cheese melts slightly and gets stringy. Scatter over slivered basil.
A TASTE TEST OF BURRATAS
It seems like another age now, but it wasn't so long ago that burrata could be hard to find. There are several brands available today, though, so I picked up four of the best for an impromptu at-home comparison tasting.
The results were surprising. The two best burratas were also the least expensive. And considering burrata's reputation as a slightly bland cheese, the best brand was head-and-shoulders above the rest.
Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise, since it comes from the cheesemaker who pioneered burrata in America.
It should be noted that this was the result of what I could buy on a single given day; burrata is notoriously dependent on being freshly made and, theoretically anyway, another day could have yielded another result. In order, then:
1. Gioia Cheese (gioiacheeseinc.com) -- Not very promising at first. It comes in a huge 1-pound ball that has practically molded itself to the container. But cut the ball open and the picture changes completely. The skin is thin and silky, not rubbery. The filling is slightly firm and raggy but still voluptuous. And the flavor is really terrific, sweet with a complex dairy flavor. This is one terrific cheese. 62 cents per ounce, available at Bristol Farms.
2. Trader Giotto (traderjoes.com) -- Yeah, I know; I was surprised too. But the house brand for the Trader Joe's chain is actually quite ... acceptable. It comes in a pair of 4-ounce balls. The skin is slightly rubbery, the filling is fairly raggy, but not quite as voluptuous as the Gioia. The flavor is sweet and milky, almost like cottage cheese. 62 cents per ounce, available at Trader Joe's.
3. Angelo & Franco (angeloandfranco.com) -- Very soft texture with a lot of weeping liquid as it sits on the plate. The flavor is fairly bland with a slight lactic bitterness and a touch of sweetness in the finish. 93 cents per ounce, available at Whole Foods.
4. Di Stefano Burrata alla Panna (distefanocheese.com) -- This was a bit of a shocker, since it is Nancy Silverton's favorite American burrata and had scored very well in a tasting last year (which didn't include Gioia).
But this time around, the cheese is a bit of a mess. It comes in a tightly wrapped plastic bag rather than a container, and it falls apart when removed from that. There's lots of liquid in the center and not much rag. The flavor is bland and slightly bitter. $1.12 per ounce, available at Whole Foods.
click image to enlarge
Burrata surrounded by heirloom tomatoes