Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pizza... slowly perfected

Around my house as a kid, pizza never meant calling up Domino's on the phone for a large pie extra-cheese-extra-pepperoni-please. We didn't have cable access, much less pizza-delivery access. I can just imagine my father trying to give directions to our house "Go 15 miles on county road 187, take a right at the old spooky schoolhouse-looking church, cross two bridges (watch out for the chickens running loose 2 miles down!) go 2 more miles, then stop your car, get out your flashlight and find a mailbox in front of a 1/2 mile long driveway that says 'Weiss'." I'm sure the delivery boy's tip would barely cover his gas.
I didn't know our country road had a name until I was 14. The closest Domino's must have been at least 40 minutes away. So, we made our own pizza.

It was always a Saturday or Sunday night activity, and all 4 of us kids (usually my older sister was out on a date) would get excited when Mom would start making the dough. We loved pizza. We finally loved it and not just liked it when Mom eventually perfected her crust recipe. In the beginning, when my mother wouldn't allow white flour in the house, her 100% whole wheat crusts were... um... interesting. They weren't bad per se, especially to a kid who grew up on whole wheat-sprouts-whole-whole-everything. But eventually, as my mother loosened up a bit, so did her crusts. Her cardboard-y experiments slowly became tender when she compromised with a 50-50 mix.

My father's contribution was to make the biggest, baddest mother of a pizza, loaded with the most gut-wrenching toppings, looking so thick and evil and scary that you would swear that sitting atop that burnt cheese were black olive eyes that were staring you down, almost daring you to try and eat a piece of that horrendous, over-baked mess of toppings with a little bit 'o crust. My father thought nothing of slicing large rings of onion and laying them thick on a puddle of barbecue sauce (substituting for tomato sauce, of course), adding olives, green peppers, and then topping the thing with a layer of cheddar cheese that melted and then burnt into a rubbery layer that inevitably landed on your lap after the first bite. This was my father's coup d'etat... and he called it lovingly his 'Garbage Pizza'.

After I left home, I never made pizza on my own. I wasn't a big pizza-eater, really. And then I met Mark. Funny how a relationship changes how you eat. I began making pizza only out of sheer indignation about the pizza I saw Mark buying from the frozen section of the local stop-and-shop. I couldn't let him commit this kind of crime. I had to do something.

My something was to learn how to make a pizza that was both healthy (yes, so predictable) and utterly irresistible to someone who didn't grow up with sprouty, hippy parents. I could have called my mother, but instead I ended up playing around on my own. I started with a recipe for a classic white flour pizza dough, and then made it entirely whole wheat. Blah. It didn't have the texture I wanted - sturdy and crispy but still light. It really was cardboard... I suppose I'm bound to follow in my mother's footsteps. Then, I did an all-white recipe and liked the classic flavor but couldn't help feeling unsatisfied after eating a few pieces. It just didn't fill you up, making you feel as though you haven't eaten something Real. Once you begin eating unrefined, whole foods, you begin to notice that the refined ones leave you feeling like you've just eaten air... you could go on eating white bread forever and never feel satisfied.

Even with a 50-50 flour mix it wasn't quite right, until I found that white whole wheat flour works very well - and the best is when it's sourdough. White whole wheat flour is increasingly available in stores these days. It is a 100% whole wheat flour, made from grains of white wheat which is softer and lighter than hard winter wheat flour. I made a sourdough starter, and followed the steps to making a large batch of bread. I reserved some of the dough from the batch and made it into pizzas. The sourdough process gave the crust a tangy flavor, and the light but hearty texture from the white whole wheat balanced the crust perfectly.

I think we've finally found our groove, what with the basil and oregano from the garden, and some thyme stolen from friend Ingo's garden too. Mark insists on sun dried tomatoes and sausage, with heavy-handed amounts of Parmesan and mozzarella (insert comment here about similarities to my father, ahem.) Everyone likes their pie a little differently, and mine is usually heaped with spinach and very little or no meat. Homemade pizza on a Sunday night is a fantastic tradition, it disarms a bit the 'dread Monday' feeling, and you can turn it into a movie night as well when the days become shorter. You'll just have to find your own perfect combination, whether it be white, wheat, parmesan, pepperoni or zucchini. But for me, please hold the barbecue and cheddar.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tangential Tuesday, um, I mean Wednesday

Obsessions can be a healthy thing. At least that's what I tell myself every time I get wrapped up into some new possibility, some new restaurant, some new wine... or some new food. I think it's fair to say that each summer I begin anew my obsessions with everything ripe and growing on trees, vines, bushes or compost. Thus my previous posts on cherries and berries (which you know I'm just obsessed with because free is the greatest price to pay for a job-seeking former intern).

Right now my obsession has been turned to the ripening August blackberries that fall heavily from every thorny vine on every sunlit side street around here. It's totally obscene, the amount of blackberries you can pick in half an hour. The bushes are full of them into September, but the best ones are found right now, the first berries to turn that deep shade of magenta-purple-almost-black. The first ones are the biggest, and to me they taste the best, if only because after 11 long months you've forgotten just how divinely, deeply sweet they are. I can go out and pick forever, my hands moving back and forth from vine to bowl, just grazing the sharpest thorns and leaving track marks on my right forearm, evidence of the addict that I truly am. My bowl mounds higher and higher, until I realize that I have a cramp in my left thumb holding the plastic bowl, and I snap out of my juicy berry reverie.

I realize, as I'm picking, that this is women's work. I'm gathering food as women have for thousands of years. The guys can have their spearsh and they can go chase their wooly mammoths for fun for all I care. But this? This comes naturally to me, and I get the impression that it certainly doesn't to Mark. I must have asked him ten times before if he'd like to go picking, but he always replies in the negative. Of course, when I arrive home, he can't keep his hands from the purple mass of sweetness in my big red plastic picking bowl.

Blackberries, ounce for ounce, must be one of the most medicinal and nutritionally-dense foods that are readily available to us. They get their deep purple color from phytochemicals called anthocyanidins. These are potent antioxidants - similar to those in red wine - that can calm inflammation in the body. They also contain ellagic acid, a compound which is believed to be cancer-fighting. They are also high in fiber due to their seeds, and we could all use a little more fiber... come on.

Blackberries and raspberries, as well as other wild berry varieties like salmonberries and thimbleberries, are all consider caneberries. They all have long, thorny stalks or canes. What is really interesting about caneberries is that each berry that we consider a single fruit is actually a composite of sometimes 100 or more tiny 'fruitlets' each with its own seed. So each tiny fruit is actually a hundred little stone fruits! So cool.

I had so many blackberries this past week from obsessively stalking new bushes in the neighborhood that I had to cook them all down. I don't know quite yet if I'll leave the fruit for jam, or turn the sweet stuff into a few pies... or maybe both. Right now there is about a gallon of black-purple goo sitting in the fridge, waiting for something exciting to happen to it. For now, my morning toast will be excitement enough. Or maybe I'll turn a spoonful into yogurt, over vanilla ice cream, or heaped into a banana smoothie.

Blackberry Jam, Sauce, or Pie Filling (a very loose recipe by Chrissy Weiss)

Get a bunch of blackberries, picked while meditating on how life can be compared to this fruitful exercise (the good ones are always out of reach, to get the sweet you have to deal with the thorns, you never know what's hiding under the next leaf, etc.)

Bring them home and wash them (or don't).

Stop your significant other (most likely male) from eating the whole bowl.

Put them in a big pot and very slowly bring to a boil.

Turn down the heat to simmer, and stir.

Reduce the berries by cooking off the excess liquid... maybe reduced by 1/4 in volume. This could take some time depending on the amount of berries you're cookin'.

Add honey. Really, use honey. I promise you'll wilt to the floor with the results. Blackberries and honey were made for each other. Sweeten it to taste. Start with 1/4 cup per 3-4 cups of sauce in the pan and go from there.

Once you're happy with the sweetness, use cornstarch, arrowroot powder, or pectin to thicken. Again, you'll have to play with the amount, depending on how viscous your sauce is to begin with. Just remember that it thickens up very well after cooling.

Now eat it with a spoon (or not) and feel good that you're eating your afternoon's work.

Monday, August 10, 2009

City Girl Has a Garden

I do consider myself a city girl. Despite the fact that I spent the first 20 years of my life in small-town Indiana, know what the phrase "Knee high by the Fourth of July" means, and remember when dining out meant either Chili's or Olive Garden... or maybe Steak 'n Shake (and getting there meant 30 minutes driving at 60 mph on country highways.) I have various valuable and marketable skills learned from country life - catching frogs in pails out by the pond, hauling wood, bike riding on country roads with no shoulder for miles (alone at age 10), and egg collecting from the hen house. Spiders don't scare me. I think the whole concept of 'germs' is a marketing ploy by the antibacterial soap industry. I camp.

But somehow, ever since I was a little kid, I have been inexplicably drawn to the bright lights, the energy, the people, and the excitement of the city. I dreamt of working downtown, amidst skyscrapers, lunching at cafes and meeting exotic people from all over the world. I dreamt of putting on sparkly clothes and going out to the clubs at all hours, rubbing elbows with the fashionable people, people with money and power and a certain attractive je ne se quoi that you just couldn't find amidst the corn fields, chain restaurants, and bible-beating churches of rural Indiana. Eventually, I found myself playing out these dreams in both Chicago and Seattle, proving some dreams and disproving others, until I understood what was real and more importantly who I was against this backdrop, so bright and fast and foreign compared to where I came from. I guess you could say I learned my happy medium. I learned that I was neither one nor the other, but something very in-between.

So here, in this city, I've finally planted a garden. Atop our hill overlooking the skyscrapers of downtown, next to those charming thimbleberries, is a small patch where I have heirloom tomatoes, dinosaur kale, Italian basil, and a mess of oregano and sage as an inheritance from a previous owner's efforts. But please don't assume - I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. My mother has had a garden the size of a large tennis court for years. As an 8-year-old kid I would dig little holes in the ground for the seeds to drop into. When the asparagus popped out of the mulch in early spring, I'd pluck off their plump heads and collect them in a bunch. My favorite was picking strawberries. I liked to pick and collect, but I had really no idea how to grow. When do you plant? Do you start with seed or with seedlings? My mother was no expert, but she did alright, despite her constant reinvention of the wheel.

For the past few years I've wanted to grow my own food. All of my interest in sustainability, organics, and watching my former neighbor grow lush bunches of herbs and squashes in his backyard was all the convincing I needed. I just needed a bit of soil, and this year I finally got it. It doesn't hurt either that our upstairs neighbor is practically a master gardener, and has given me a big bag of compost, bamboo tomato stands, and tips on plant spacing and renewing the soil. This garden is more than just food - it's also a statement about where I am in my life. I've found my perfect home, my mate, and my balance between the two sides of myself. I'm ok with being a girl from Indiana. I'm proud that I know how to bait a hook, build a good campfire, and have respect for the land. I'm also proud that I know how to charm at a cocktail party, know all the hottest restaurants in town... and yes, I own quite a few pairs of clubbing heels. I'm ok with that.

I went out to my tiny garden on Thursday morning and began collecting basil leaves. My own basil! The little plants weren't the sprawling, giant-leafed ones I imagined when I planted them a few months ago. But they were mine, and they were what I needed to teach my Berries class that evening. I taught the students how to make a basil-strawberry pesto, and it tasted all the better because it came from my own effort. The recipe is unique, and it came from Clotilde's Chocolate and Zucchini blog. I paired the pesto with capellini pasta and prosciutto and it was superb.

The recipe is so simple, and a great way to use the basil and strawberries that are in season right now. The fresh and somewhat bitter basil contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the berries and the saltiness from the cheese and prosciutto. Being creative with recipes simply means being creative with opposing elements to create balance. A little like life, don't you think?

Capellini with Strawberry Pesto and Prosciutto

Serves 6

You can use any kind of pasta for this recipe, but I do like a thin spaghetti or capellini best. Gluten-free or whole grain pasta would work well too. I suggest in the directions to not rinse your cooked pasta. Rinsing cooked pasta washes the sticky starch from the outside of each noodle, and this starch helps the sauce or pesto to cling well to each piece. This makes a big difference, see for yourself! Also, be sure to roast the almonds fresh, as fresh-roasted flavor is a major flavor contributor to the pesto. Otherwise, PCC Natural Markets carries fantastic roasted almonds in their bulk section.

1 pound capellini or angel hair pasta

2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
(Grana Padano works well too)

2/3 cup whole toasted almonds

2 handfuls (about 1 cup) fresh basil leaves

10 small strawberries (or 5 large) [be sure to use fragrant and full-flavored strawberries: if they're a bit bland, I'm quite sure they'll get lost in the battle]

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Few pinches freshly ground pepper

6 ounces antibiotic-free prosciutto

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

In a large saucepan, fill with water and bring to a boil. Add the capellini and stir for one minute to prevent the pasta from sticking. Bring back to boil and let cook until tender or ‘al dente’. Meanwhile, combine the Parmesan, almonds, and basil in a mixer or blender, and process in short pulses until the mixture forms a paste. Add the strawberries and olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and mix until smooth. Set aside. Slice the prosciutto into thin strips. When the pasta is done, drain, but do not rinse with water. Toss pasta with the pesto, adding the 2 additional tablespoons of olive oil if needed to help distribute the pesto. Serve in a mound on each plate, placing pieces of the prosciutto atop each mound of pasta. Garnish with basil.