Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!

August 29, 2010

Here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the basil is lush and fragrant, and sun-ripe tomatoes are hanging like jewels on their vines.  The cool mornings remind me that fall is just around the corner and I’d better enjoy these warm days and the garden’s bounty while they’re still here.

Might be “enjoying” the warm days too much… we spent the last week installing a thousand or so square feet of gravel pathway between home and shop.  Add wine to the tired body in the evening, and not much energy is left for posting blogs (yes, Saturday did pass without a post, if anyone’s counting). Not much energy for cooking either, but, as I walk past the garden on our new path, those ripe tomatoes are calling, “Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!”

If I were still living in Italy, I probably never would have attempted homemade pizza as there seems to be a pizzaiolo and a wood-fired oven just around every corner. There are few places in America where this is true, and our little corner of rural Oregon is not one of them.

Starting completely from scratch, making both your dough and sauce, pizza can be quite an endeavor. It’s unlikely that I would make the time to do it often. Since pizza is one of my husband’s favorites, I’ve found ways to simplify the process.

  1. Most important step is cooking your pizza on the barbecue. Few home kitchens are equipped with an oven capable of baking a pizza quickly. A well-heated barbecue can do it in 6 minutes, almost quick enough to keep up with Stefano’s appetite. And when he’s on his best behavior, it’s even enough to keep up with a small party. Until we build ourselves a wood-fired pizza oven, barbecued pizza is the way to go.
  2. You will need a pizza stone. Although store-bought pizza stones will work, they’re a little thin and a barbecue’s intense bottom heat may overheat the stone. In the past, when cooking with the stones, I kept two on hand so I could switch stones when the other became too hot. These days, I use my homemade pizza stone made from firebricks. I’ve had a few inquiries on this, so I’ll make it a separate post where you can find the information.
  3. Have the dough on hand. A few weeks back, I posted the recipe for Chewy Italian Bread — which is what I use for pizza dough. Included in that post were instructions on how to make more than one batch of dough at a time. Each “loaf” of dough will make three 12″ to 14″ pizzas, depending on how thin you roll the crust. Allow one refrigerated “loaf” to come to room temperature, and you can have barbecued pizza on the table in 30 minutes. Note: When I have time, I prefer to make pizzas out of a “fresh” loaf of dough (rather than a previously made refrigerated loaf) because it’s more willing to roll out to a thinner crust. If I know ahead of time I’m making pizza, I’ll turn a batch of biga into a batch of dough and let it sit in a covered bowl for 2 to even 8 hours until I’m ready.
  4. Get creative with the toppings.
  • Use fresh tomatoes and make a 5 minute quick sauce (recipe below).
  • Next time you’re cooking tomato sauce for pasta, make a little extra and set it aside for pizzas.
  • Ditto for bechamel/white sauce. (Bechamel, fresh prosciutto and grilled zucchini is a personal favorite!)
  • If you’re sauteing mushrooms, make an extra cup and freeze them.
  • Grill up an extra zucchini.
  • Skip the sauce altogether and make one of the pizze in bianco (white pizzas) below.
  • Stock your refrigerator and cupboards with topping like olives, artichoke hearts, anchovies…

Pizza dough basics:

  • Have your dough at room temperature, whether it’s homemade fresh, refrigerated, or store-bought, and flatten a softball-sized lump onto a floured board.
  • Although I’ve done my share of dough flipping, just rolling it out keeps the kitchen a little cleaner (and the ceiling).
  • Keep your dough and board well floured, and turn the dough often so you don’t end up prying it off the table with a spatula.
  • Roll it out into a shape that works with your pizza stone. Make it as thin (or thick) as you like, just make sure that it’s not so thin that it won’t support the weight of its toppings as you slide it from pizza peel (or cutting board) onto your pizza stone.
  • Spread a thin layer of cornmeal on the pizza peel to keep your dough from sticking.
  • ALWAYS wait to put your toppings on until after you have transferred from your workspace to your pizza peel.
  • The longer you leave a topped pizza on the peel, the harder it is to get off. And, yes, I know from experience that it is possible to reach a point where it will not come off in one piece.
  • When transferring the pizza from peel to stone, give it a little side-to-side shake first. Use your spatula to loosen any areas that stick BEFORE you try to slide it off, and keep the spatula handy in case you missed a spot.

Ready for Toppings

Pizza In Bianco 1

One of my favorite pizza toppings is a simple mix of

  • fresh mozzarella
  • fresh basil
  • olive oil
  • salt

If your fresh mozzarella is packaged in water, you’ll need to let it drain and dry for a few hours.

Mix chopped basil and cubed mozzarella in a dish, pour at least a couple of tablespoons of olive oil on top and smush a bit. Spread on the pizza (this one was a little heavy on the cheese and it ran off the sides when baking). Salt to taste just before serving.

Ready for the Barbecue

Six minutes later…

Ready to Devour

Kitchen Tip – Saving Basil

In Italy, you can purchase confections of cubed, frozen parsley, and I always thought this was a great alternative when fresh herbs weren’t on hand. I brought the practice home with me. Whenever I pick parsley, I pick a bit extra, chop  it up, and stick it in a Ziplock in the freezer.

Basil is a different story. Who wants brown flecks of defrosted basil on a pizza? The trick is to keep the cut edges of the basil from being exposed to the air for too long. As with the parsley, when I gather fresh basil, I gather as much as I can, chop it up, set aside what I need for my current dish, and stuff the rest into an ice cube tray I keep just for this purpose. Then I fill the cubes with just enough olive oil to cover the basil (pushing the basil down into the oil with a small spoon once it’s moistened with oil helps), and freeze. Store the frozen cubes in a Ziplock. In winter, it’s the next best thing to fresh basil. Use the cubes in pasta sauces, soups, pizza, even Pesto! If necessary, they can be defrosted in the microwave on a low setting, and any extra oil (is there such a thing?) can be drained off and used for other dishes.

Tray of Basil Ready for the Freezer

Frozen Cubes Ready to Use

Sal’s White Pizza

  • garlic
  • olive oil
  • parsley
  • fresh Parmesan cheese

Another one of my favorite white pizzas is this simple “garlic bread” pizza. It’s been almost 20 years since I worked for anyone besides myself, but my last job was waiting table in an Italian pizzeria in Glenwood, CA, ( a blip on Park Boulevard between Oakland and Montclair in the east bay). Sal’s parlor was always packed. More than an appetizer, Sal served this yummy creation as an “appeaser” while patrons waited for their entrees.

Mix a tablespoon or so of finely chopped garlic with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl, squishing the garlic a bit with the back of the spoon to release its flavors. Pour onto your dough and use the back of the spoon to spread it evenly. Bake until lightly browned and bubbly. Sprinkle with chopped, fresh parsley and fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Salt to taste

Sal's Garlic Bread Pizza

Pizza Margherita

A simple pizza, named after a princess called Daisy.

  • tomato
  • garlic
  • basil
  • mozzarella

I’ve consumed more than my share of simple tomato sauces on pasta and pizza over the years, but these days I just don’t care much for most tomato sauces unless they’re either made from barely-cooked fresh tomatoes or  if they’re sporca — dirty — as our friend Andrea would say — filled with loads of yumminess like olives and capers and bacon.

The trick to make a 5-minute tomato sauce is to start with fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, chop your tomatoes into half-inch cubes, and strain all their water away before tossing them into the pan. (The small size of these pieces makes in unnecessary to remove the tomato peels.)

For one 12″ – 14″ pizza:

Saute slices of fresh garlic in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Strain 3 -4 chopped, plum tomatoes, giving them an extra squeeze as you transfer them from colander to pan. Saute on medium to medium-high. The heating tomatoes will generate some water — don’t cook any longer than necessary to evaporate that liquid. Your tomatoes will start to lose their shape, but should not be cooked long enough to lose their fresh-tomato color.

Spoon onto a prepared pizza dough and spread with the back of a spoon. Add a few slices of fresh mozzarella, chopped basil to taste, and get it on the barbecue.

Margherita Ready for the Grill

Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!

And there you have it. Three pizzas start to finish in 30 minutes. Since we were eating the first as the second and third cooked, after 15 more minutes all that was left were the dishes and the last sips of wine.

Now, if only I could figure out how to write one of the posts so quickly!!!

Buon appetito ~


August 21, 2010

Summertime….. and the livin’ is easy…. hearing Janis Joplin’s voice crackling and scratching through those words makes it feel like summer. Makes it feel like the livin’ is easy, even when it’s not. A vat of Sangria has that same effect, and it’s exactly what was in order this week.


Sangria is easy to drink and easy to make, whether you’re making it for two or a party of twenty, and it’s perfect for a late summer barbecue. The sugar, cinnamon and fruit do wonders for mediocre wine – which also makes this libation on the less-expensive side.

I was introduced to Sangria back in my circus days by my friend Gloria, who always seemed to have Sangria on tap – ready to spice up our lives, cool off a summer’s day, or wash away a frown. Gloria is also the person who sowed the seeds for my love of cooking, so cheers to Gloria – her patience and her Sangria recipe.

Gloria’s Sangria

1.5 liters red wine

2 oranges

2 lemons

2 apples (red or green or mixed)

2 bananas

2 peaches

2 Tablespoons sugar

1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon

These ratios are guidelines which can — and should — be adjusted to your taste. I use only one lemon because it’s rare that anyone eats it. The peaches, on the other hand, I double or even triple. (Doesn’t hurt that we have a peach farm down the road.) You might decide to add different types of fruit depending on whether it’s strawberry season or… Gloria would probably give her blessings with one caveat: Of course you can add strawberries or mangoes; just don’t call it Sangria. (Stefano says the same about pineapple on pizza!) As I’ve written before and will write again: Recipes are like friendships; they’re best when they evolve. So make it how you like it. Some prefer their Sangria with less sugar or more cinnamon… you get the picture.

Gloria’s wine of choice was Lambrusco, which is light, sweet, and a tad frizzante (bubbly). I’ve used Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah (depends what’s on sale), and I’ve never noticed much of a difference in the finished product – especially by the second or third glass.

To make the Sangria:

Peel the bananas and peaches. Wash the rest of the fruit using care not to remove all the oils from the citrus peel. Core and pit where necessary, slice into bite-size chunks, and place in a something large enough to hold your fruit and wine.  Large glass pitchers or jars show off the fruit; canning pots fit enough for a decent size gathering. Set aside a few citrus slices for garnish if you’d like.

Pour the wine over the fruit, leaving a couple of inches in two bottles. Pour the sugar and cinnamon into one of those bottles, swirl to mix well, and pour over fruit. Use the bit of wine in the second bottle to rinse any remaining sugar and cinnamon out of the first bottle. Mix the wine and fruit well, cover and chill for at least two hours. (If there are leftovers, they’ll keep for at least a few days.)

When it’s ready, raise a glass to whatever or whomever you’re thankful for — summer, your family and friends.


For me, it was the beloved canine companion that Stefano and I had to put down this week.  Tough thing to do even when it’s the right thing to do.  After all was said and done, I made a batch of Sangria and we raised a glass in honor of the sweetest dog that ever lived. May he rest in peace.

Chicken in an Herb Bath

August 14, 2010

I just made up that name. Though it seems fitting for what I’m going to write about, I’m guessing there’s some other common name out there. Surely someone will fill me in if there is…

Perhaps I should call it Plumber’s Chicken. Here’s why: The controller on our submersible pump decided to go haywire last week, so the plumber that installed it has been by a few times troubleshooting and replacing various parts. Between discourses on travel, immigration (he has a Philippine wife), and food, we seem to spend as much time talking as he does working. During his last visit, he told us about his method for “brining” chicken, something I had never tried. Even after trying his recipe, I still don’t think I’ve “brined” a chicken. Wikipedia agrees.

The plumber’s method: take a whole chicken, put it in a Ziplock with fresh herbs, cover it with water and seal it up. After two days in the refrigerator, drain the water and herbs and roast or barbecue as you usually would.

It’s rare that my husband and I cook a bird without marinating it, but we’ve never let it “bathe” for two days, and never in water. I couldn’t wait to give it a try.  All I had on hand were frozen chicken breasts, which I promptly defrosted and submerged in rosemary, basil and water. Two days later, we grilled them up. Wow. The meat was perfectly infused with the herb flavors. And it was moist, or at least moister than chicken breasts usually are.

Next, we experimented on a whole chicken. I harvested a good amount of fresh rosemary and basil from the garden, which I crushed in my hands to help release the flavors. The chicken went into the gallon Ziplock first, then 1/3 of the herbs into the cavity, the rest loose in the bag, and then a handful of unpeeled garlic cloves I’d smashed with a mallet. I topped it off with cold water.

Chicken & Herb Bath

Two days later, Stefano grilled it up.

Grill, baby, grill!

Although the results were pleasing, I couldn’t taste the herb flavors anywhere near as much as I could in the chicken breasts. (Seems reasonable, given the thinner cut of meat.) Still, with a side of grilled mango, this herb-bath chicken made a nice dinner, and the leftovers were the perfect addition to a Bejeweled Summer Salad (recipe to follow).

I’m not done experimenting with this. First, I like what Wikipedia had to say about brining, and I’d like to add some salt to the bath. Online, there were plenty of warnings not to let your chicken brine for more than a few hours – which is not enough for the herbs. I figure I’ll either use a lot less salt or add the salt during the last few hours. Maybe the brining process will help infuse the herb essences deeper into the meat. I’d also like to experiment with different liquids. Beer perhaps? White wine? Maybe toss in a quartered lemon?

I’ll let you know how it goes. And if any readers have experience with any of these processes, I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Ciao ciao ~