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Weeknight Pizza Remix

8 Feb

When I was growing up, my mom had some pretty fantastic go-to meals.  Her pan-fried chicken breasts were awesome, the chicken “drumsticks” with green beans was a classic, and her tuna noodle casserole – out of this world.  But one of my favorites (and one she still makes for me whenever I visit) are English Muffin Pizzas.

I’m not sure how or when this meal was created (I think by my Nana), but she often made it during a weeknight when Jenn needed to be picked up from soccer practice, and my basketball practice ran late, and there was still homework threatening late-night hours if it wasn’t quickly attended to.  I can only imagine what it feels like as a parent to have a nutritious dinner on the table on nights like that.  I remember jumping into the hot shower after practice dreading the pre-calculus problems that should have been done way prior to it being dark outside, all the while feeling exhausted from the many “suicide” runs Coach made us do for “conditioning.”  I would take my time – too much time – showering and step out to be greeted by one of the best food smells: toasted Thomas’ English Muffins with marinara sauce and melted American cheese – the Kraft kind.

Mom served it with an Italian salad, but I always ate the salad last as to not miss out on the straight-from-the-oven goodness.  The English Muffin would crunch, the cheese would stick to the roof of my mouth, and the taste was so familiar, so comforting, that it gave me the warmth and energy to attack those pre-calculus problems before bed.

Well, last night was one of those nights where I jumped into the shower after a decent pilates/yoga class (where I found I really need to work on my balance – I looked like a drunk penguin trying to balance on one foot) wishing I had that English Muffin Pizza waiting for me afterwards.  Alas, I realized I had no English Muffins (and only the Thomas’ kind would work), no marinara, and I think our Kraft singles might have seen their last days a few months ago.  My best ideas come to me while I’m in the shower, and I think most people would say the same thing (though they may not outwardly admit it).  It’s a good thinking spot – relaxing and warm, just comfortable.  Craving the English Muffin Pizza and not able to have it, I pondered the never ending question – what to make for dinner?

I had my leftover soup for lunch, and didn’t want to double dose in the potato starches, and being that The Bachelor was going to start in an hour (much more fun than math homework), something quick, easy, and healthy were necessary.  Remembering the Italian Flatbread dough I had pre-made and saved for times just like this, I toweled off, made a flurry of a mice en place, and whipped up a Raw Italian Pizza.

Now, this “raw” pizza is not the never-to-exceed 118 degrees Raw.  I call it raw because of the length of time it takes to cook the sauce: 15 minutes.  Don’t get me wrong, this is no 4 hour bolognese and will not have the same depth and sweetness that tomatoes take on after being exposed to heat for an extended period of time.  But being a tomato lover, especially now when they are nowhere near seasonal peak goodness, the canned stuff is the best bet.  Good plum tomatoes are canned at their peak, retaining that juicy, tangy, acidity that raw tomatoes are known for.  So, a quick hot bath with some excellent Chianti did the trick for a tangy 15-minute sauce.

Now the toppings – something simple, elegant, and loaded with flavor: pesto.  But this isn’t your usual pesto.  Using blanched broccoli as the base, this pesto combines healthiness with a flavor so intense you’ll never go back to simply basil pesto.

Layered with baby spinach leaves and shaved parm, this rustic looking flavor bomb left Rob and me chewing and speechless at the dinner table.  Granted, it did not take place of Mom’s English Muffin Pizza, but it was definitely worth the try!

Raw Italian Pizza
-With the below ingredients, you will also need baby spinach leaves (or another green of your choice), and shaved Parmesan Regiano cheese.

Italian Flatbread (makes 3-4 large, very thin flatbreads)

  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 c all purpose unbleached flour
  • 1 c whole wheat flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2-4 tbsp water
  • s&p

Mix all ingredients in a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment, until mixture forms a ball.  Turn out onto floured surface, and knead for about 7-8 minutes.  Slice into 3-4 pieces, and make them into disks.  Wrap with plastic wrap and set aside to rest for about 30 minutes (after rested, dough can be put in freezer to use at a later date).

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

On a floured surface, use a rolling pin to roll out dough into a rustic shape (I just let the dough do it’s thing – you’ll break apart the flatbread, like a lavash, later), until very thin, about 1/8 of an inch.  Sprinkle with a bit of s&p.  Bake for about 10 minutes, until browned and crispy.  Dough will start to bubble in parts, but that is ok.

15-minute Tomato Sauce (watch out – this sauce is addictive.  You will want to put it on everything)

  • 1 28 oz can whole plum tomatoes in juice (unsalted, unseasoned)
  • 2/3 c good Chianti or Sangiovese wine
  • 1/4 tsp dried oregano
  • s&p

NOTE: When you want to get all of the juice from the can of tomatoes, pour in the wine to “wash” the sides of the can (above picture).  That way you make the most out of all of your ingredients.  Heat all ingredients in a large saucepan on high heat, for about 15 minutes, occasionally stirring and breaking apart whole tomatoes with wooden spoon.  Sauce will reduce and thicken, become sweet, tangy, and remain very tomato-y.

Broccoli Pesto (makes about 1 packed cup)

  • 1 medium head of blanched broccoli (heat cut florets in salted boiling water for 2 minutes.  When bright green, quickly remove and shock in ice water to stop cooking)
  • 1/4 c basil leaves
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2 tbsp toasted pine nuts
  • 1/3 – 1/2 c extra virgin olive oil
  • s&p

Combine all ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor.  Add a bit of oil to get the blade moving, and once ingredients are pulsed, pour the rest of the olive oil in a thin stream into the feed tube while processor is running.  Taste for seasoning.  The final texture should be like a paste.

*** Assemble the ingredients: flatbread on the bottom, top with tomato sauce, baby spinach leaves (or other green of your choice), a dollop of pesto, and shaved parm reg.


Are you ready for some football?

5 Oct

Well, Rob was.  And so were our friends.  I was more ready for the food, and the chance to entertain with some of our new wedding gifts!!!

Rob and I had our first party with some people he knew from work, who are becoming my friends, too.  In all honesty, I do enjoy watching football.  It’s a great weekend when you wake up to cool, crisp mornings with tea and toast, and end the day with beer and yelling at the TV.  The Bears lost yesterday (boo), but the company and food was a win-win situation.

Although our house is not large, we comfortably fit about 8 people, all with eyeshot of the screen while keeping a good, but not uncomfortably weird, conversation distance.  Only planning this get together a day in advance, I was channeling my two Goddesses of Entertaining: Lulu and Ina.

Lulu Powers is one of those women who writes and you believe she is permanently walking on a cloud of meringue.  Or valium.  Or maybe a blissful combination of both.  But in all seriousness and respect, her stories talk of entertaining at its best – old fashioned cocktails, the unexpected pop-up guests, the late night taco feast – you name it.  The biggest thing I took from her tips was to keep things simple – people love comfortable and familiar things anytime, but especially to make them feel comfortable and at ease in your house.

Ina Garten, oh Ina, what a classy lady.  Her cooking is fabulous, her attitude is always sunny, and I think one of the main reasons I love her is how much watching her reminds me of my Grandpa (not Ina personally… just keep reading).

About a year before he passed, I was visiting him in Long Island, NY, and he and I had a fabulous time wine tasting on the North Fork, going to a show, shopping, and of course, visiting the Hamptons.  Grandpa was an excellent businessman, and in his retired time, he was also a realtor.  So, in our trip to the Hamptons, we drove along the main drag, down the streets with the high and perfectly trimmed bushes keeping beautiful landscaping in, and looky-loos like us, out. We had dressed for the day (unspoken and understood, of course), in casual yet expensive-nice attire (I was SO happy I hadn’t yet changed out my lime green Kate Spade purse!).  We looked like we could fit in perfectly, having a crisp Sauvignon Blanc on the front stoop, listening to the ocean crash in one ear and the bay tide in and out in the other.  And we got our chance.  As we were slowly making our way down to the farthest tip of the town, like the Scarecrow pointing the way to Oz, we saw it: FOR SALE, OPEN HOUSE.  Grandpa literally stopped the car in the middle of the road (no one was behind us – it’s the Hamptons for goodness sakes).  I was wide-eyed.

“Can we go in?”  The longing in my voice was, I’m sure, unmistakable.

“Well, let’s see.”  Calm as a cucumber.  “I think, well, hmm.”  He starts to look in the center console for, what I imagined to be, his realtor cards.  No luck.  The click of the console woke me to reality – I got a glimpse of a Hamptons mansion, but only true Hamptonites would be let inside.

And then, as if he was doing what he was meant to come to the Hamptons for, Grandpa turned the car up the driveway.

“What…. what are you doing?”  My heart was literally pounding.

Grandpa’s voice was normal – his calm self, with a bit of business savvy.  “I’m a realtor, and you are my granddaughter interested in seeing Hamptons property.”

It was true.  He was.  I was.  And I was about to poop my casual yet expensive-looking pants.

We toured the house, and it was an experience I will never forget.  The highest point in the house had a “lookout room” that had a 300 degree view with the bay on one side, ocean on the other.  We could see the pool/jacuzzi combination just below, and the tennis courts off in the distance.

We left the house elated, and treated ourselves to a fabulous lunch at 75 Main (I had linguini with clams, he had chicken, and we shared an earthy local Pinot Noir).  We were Hamptonites that day (Grandpa keeping his New York cool much better than I), and I hope to one day relive a similar experience in memory of him.

So, with my nod to Lulu and Ina (and the memory of my Grandpa), I tried to entertain like the best of them – comfortable yet elegant, casual and fun, all while keeping it classy.

I stuck with the basics for the nibblies: farm carrots sliced in ranch, M&Ms, salty and buttery cashews, and the ever popular BBQ seasoned popcorn – yes, I made it from popping kernels on the stove and concocted a blend of real spices.  I knew our guests, and they aren’t huge wine drinkers, but do drink wine.  So I stuck with easy-to-drink wine, inexpensive, with neat lables – Mad Housewife, and Lucky Duck.  We also got the seasonal Pumpkin Ale and Rob’s fave, Hoptober Ale.

Being a football party, everything qualified as finger foods, and the two winners were the Crab Pizza, and Turkey Burger Sliders.  People were questionable about the Crab Pizza, but one taste of the sweet, buttery crab, with tangy cheese, and a bit of a salty bite, and they were hooked.  I must say, this is a nod to my mom, who taught me how to make the crab pizza when I was a (hardly) starving student in my apartment in college longing for her home-cooked classics.  And the Turkey Burger Sliders with some carmelized onions, bread and butter pickles, and my Sweet Mustard Sauce…. finger licking yum.

It was no linguini with clams, but I know my Grandpa, my mom, Ina, and Lulu would have been proud.  Fun, friends, good food, and good memories – what more can you ask for?  (Well, maybe the Bears to win.)

(sorry, not a lot of pics in this one – we got caught up cooking.  But trust me, it all looked – and tasted – good!)

Crab Pizza

  • 1/4 c good, precooked, crab meat (I used Dungeness, but that’s just what’s left over from season)
  • 1 brick cream cheese (8 oz), room temperature
  • 1/4 tsp garlic salt
  • freshly cracked pepper
  • about 4 dashes of Worcheshire sauce
  • prepared pizza dough (with cornmeal for dusting pizza stone)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Spread pizza dough on pizza stone or sheet tray sprinkled with corn meal.  Prick with a fork many times, evenly, to keep dough thin.

Mix crabmeat, cream cheese, garlic salt, and pepper together in a bowl.  Spread evenly on top of pizza.  Dash the Worcheshire sauce on top (I do a circular pattern), and put in oven for about 15-20 minutes, or until dough is golden and firm.

Let sit out of oven for a few minutes.  Then, slice and serve hot!

When the boy is away, the girl will play…

29 Sep

Most of you know, or have figured out, that I teach, but I’ll give you some insight to Rob and my after work household conversations.  I tell stories of cute kids and the funny things they say, and Rob comes home and says, “Well, today I was tested on how close I could get to the top of a tree without hitting it.”  Quite a difference in topics, he definitely keeps me on my feet.  Rob is a helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard.  He is stationed up here on the coast of Oregon for the next few years, and I have to say, his stories of flying through clouds, searching for lost boatsmen, and almost daily getting a free wildlife nature show watching whales breach and sea lions play, understandably trump mine.

But with those stories come the reality that my babe will eventually be deployed to some drug-intercepting boat off the coast of the Pacific, and weekly he stands duty awaiting those frantic adrenaline-laced calls of frightened lost or distressed fishermen, leaving me with a quiet little house all to my lonesome.  Although I do miss him and given the option, would prefer not sleeping alone, I am not complaining – I knew this was the life of a Coastie pilot.  Plus, it’s always worth it when he comes home in his flight uniform… *sigh*).

So yesterday was a duty day, and I had the itch.  The cooking itch that arrives when you wake up, and doesn’t become satiated until meals and treats are prepared with love and, of course, the freshest of simplistic ingredients.  I had promised Rob a salad to take for lunch, so I quickly grilled some sweet corn and zucchini, chopped up some leftover Tri-Tip steak diced some tomatoes and a green pepper, and opened/drained a can oforganic black beans.  Tossed in a bowl with some baby red lettuce, a bit of arugula, homemade tangy BBQ sauce, squirts of lime juice and s&p, and voila – A gourmet BBQ Tri-Tip Southwestern Salad…. all before 10:00am.

I got a call around 2:20: “Hey babe.  I landed.  Never flown in such bad weather, it was very hard to see.  The salad was delicious!  I love you!” Hmm.  The incongruity of the two statements – not being able to see when flying and enjoying a salad, along with the nonchalant nature of expression – just boggles me.  Nevertheless, I was glad he landed safely, and the salad made him happy.

Knowing he was safe and and sound, it was on to other things – sweet things, comforting things.  Chocolate Cream Pie with Banana Bread crust and Mushroom Pizza with oven-dried tomatoes.  Yum.

The oven-dried tomatoes are a nod to my new foodie friend, Chef Jardin of the Black Market Gourmet shop.  I walked into the store last Friday, wet and cranky from the standard Oregon rain that day, and was immediately hugged by a smell of something sweet, tangy, and warm. Jardin greeted me and I expressed my interest in the aroma, almost forgetting my reason for entering the store (I was looking for Truffle Butter).  We got to chatting, he shared his tomatoes (oh so sweet and chewy with the hint of charred caramelization on the edges), we conversed over recipes, and I left, sans truffle butter (I can’t find it anywhere here!).

Fast forward back to Sunday, I was thinking about my pizza – a mushroom “pesto” with salty anchovy paste, nutty parm. reg. cheese – what better time for the oven-dried tomatoes to make their subtle appearance?  So I cranked up the oven to a blaring 275 degrees, and drizzled olive oil, a bit of s&p, and let them be, wilt, and almost melt for about 2 hours.  The house smelled delicious.

While the tomatoes were doing their magic, I took to making the Chocolate Cream pie.  Oh MY so easy!  And so, so, soooo yummy.  I called my mom to tell her, it was so good.  I dare you to make this and not go for seconds.  And thirds.  And lick the plate.

Then, with Sunday night football on the tele, the best accompaniment had to be pizza – Mushroom pizza.  There is something so genuine about smelling foaming yeast, kneading dough, and the anticipation when you lift the towel to see the dough actually DID rise!  And then having the earthy mushrooms and salty cheese and sweet tomatoes to boot – YUM again.

So please keep reading – and try these out the next time you want to cook to impress…. or just cook for yourself!

Chocolate Cream Pie with Banana Bread Crust (serves 6-8)

  • The dry heels of banana bread (about 1 1/2 c, ground)
  • 2 c skim milk
  • 1/4 c heavy whipping cream (plus rest of pint container for whipping)
  • 1/4 c granulated sugar
  • 3 1/2 tbsp corn starch
  • pinch of salt
  • 4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
  • 3.5 oz/100 g dark chocolate, chopped (I use bars from Trader Joes that are 73% cacoa solids
  • 2 tbsp confectioners sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  In a food processor, grind up the banana bread until very fine crumbs.  Press the crumbs into the bottom of a spring-form pan, packing tightly.  Place in oven for 20 minutes, or until the crumbs have dried out, and set together.

In a medium-sized pot, mix the milk, cream, sugar, corn starch, and salt over med-high heat.  Stir occasionally for about 1 minute, until mixture starts to get bubbles around the edges from the heat.  Turn stove down to med heat, and continually whisk for the next 5 minutes.  The mixture will thicken considerably.

Add about a tbsp of the milk mixture to the egg yolks, and whisk, and then add another tbsp.  This is tempering the eggs so they do not scramble.  When mixed, add the eggs to the pot, lower stove to low heat, and continually whisk for the next 2 minutes.  The mixture will thicken a bit more, and start to smell like sweet eggs.

Take pot off the heat, and add the chopped chocolate, continually whisking.  Set aside to start to cool.

Meanwhile, whisk the rest of the heavy whipping cream into an oblivion with the confectioners sugar and the vanilla extract.

Measure 1/4 of the whipped cream, and, with a spatula, fold the cream into the cooling chocolate mixture.

Pour the filling into the spring-form pan and jiggle to even it out.  Place a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface (so a skin doesn’t form… unless you like the skin, but then you and George Castanza probably have a lot in common), and place in the fridge.

After at least an hour in the fridge, cut, dollop with the extra whipped cream, serve, and ENJOY!

Pizza Dough (makes 2 crusts)

  • 2 c all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 c whole wheat four (plus more for dusting dough)
  • 1 1/3 c warm water (between 105-115 degrees)
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 2 tbsp good honey
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 20-25 cracks freshly ground pepper
  • 2 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • sprinkling of corn meal

In a stand mixer (fitted with a dough hook) or large bowl mix honey into warm water to dissolve, then add yeast.  Stir to lightly incorporate, and let sit for about 10 minutes.  When ready, yeast should be frothy and smell like sweet beer.  Meanwhile, mix dry ingredients, and oil a separate bowl with 1/2 tbsp of the olive oil.

To the yeast mixture, add 2 tbsp olive oil and, while mixing, add dry ingredients.  Make sure dough is well incorporated (use a spatula to wipe down the sides of the bowl if necessary), and when dough starts to come together in a ball, transfer onto a floured work surface.

Knead dough for 6-7 minutes, adding more flour if dough gets too sticky (dough should have a sticky feel, but nt so much that it won’t pull off the kneading surface).

Transfer dough to lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean, dry dish towel and place in a warm spot to let rise, about an hour. (Usually when the dough is rising, I will prepare the toppings for the pizza.  Or, sit down with a glass of wine)

When dough is risen, lightly punch down and remove from the bowl.  Give a few more kneads for good measure, and divide dough in half.  NOTE: If you want to freeze dough, now would be the time to do it.  Wrap well in plastic wrap and place in a freezer bag, releasing the air.  NOTE AGAIN: If you want an extra-chewy, lighter pizza dough, let rise again for another hour, and repeat twice.

When ready, evenly stretch out dough using your hands or a polling pin.  Sprinkle your pizza stone or sheet tray with corn meal, and place pizza dough on top.  If you like a thinner crust (I do), poke repeatedly and evenly with a fork.

** I bake most of my pizzas at 425 degrees for about 15-20 minutes, or until outer crust is golden and firm.

Mushroom Pesto Pizza

  • 2 cartons Crimini mushrooms, wiped and sliced.
  • 2 tbsp butter (or olive oil if you want to go lighter.  I just like the nuttiness the butter gives the mushrooms)
  • 1 1/2 tsp anchovy paste
  • a splash of dry white wine, about 1/4 c
  • 3 sprigs thyme, leaves only
  • 1 c Italian 4-cheese blend (can buy pre-shredded, or mix 1/4 each of: Mozzarella, Asaigio, Fontina, Parmesean Regiano.
  • 9 or 10 oven-dried tomato halves
  • s&p

Saute mushrooms in butter, until browned, about 10-15 minutes on med-high heat.  Addanchovy paste, thyme leaves, and mix.  Deglaze pan with white wine, picking up the brown bits, and reduce until almost no liquid is left.

Take off heat, and pour into food processor.  Pulse until finely ground – it will look the same consistency as pesto.  Spread evenly over prepared pizza dough.  Top with a sprinkling of most of the cheese, and oven-dried tomatoes, and then the rest of the cheese.

Bake at 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the outside edges are golden brown and firm to the touch.  Serve!  Enjoy!!

NOTE: This pizza would be fantastic with a drizzle of white truffle oil before baking.  I would do it, but anything truffles are non-existent in this town!

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