Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ode To Pizza (and a pizza recipe)

This may be the dumbest thing I've ever said. But I feel I need to say it to help you make sense of what will be the rather frequent appearance of this dish on this blog, so here goes:

I have a very special relationship with pizza.

May I explain?

Pizza has always been the culinary equivalent to an old friend who's seen me through the bitter and the sweet of growing up - the unrequited loves (frequent), academic successes (rare), acne (moderate-but-persistent), family dinners when my mom didn't feel like cooking (lovely), snot bubbles, farts and all the other things you shouldn't really exhibit or do in front of other people. Pizza restored a sense of normality in me when life felt too crazy or incomprehensible, much like the comfort of a mother's hug, or Frasier reruns on Fox, back when they were still analog.

I can remember countless birthday celebrations at Pizza Hut where, after dinner and several games of I Spy and Spelling Words Backwards, the waiters would bring out a cake with candles and a sparkler (always a sparkler) and everyone would loudly sing Happy Birthday to the Birthday Person. And my father would then offer all the other patrons a slice of cake. I was so embarrassed at the time, only to years later think the whole thing was ridiculously sweet, and be reminded of what a gentle and lovely man my father is.

There was the pizza-and-pool party at middle school; I recall sitting next to Viktor, the boy I had a crush on, who I'd realized that afternoon liked me back. I remember sharply the feeling I had in my stomach, like agitated butterflies mixed with indigestion, and the awkward glances we stole at each other with shy smiles, their exuberance restrained by tight lips. He was making fun of me for picking off all my pepperoni pieces and eating them first, then taking off all the cheese and eating that, then and only then eating the crust, on it's own. All told, it took me at least half an hour to eat one slice of pizza.

And of course, there was that night many years ago with my best friend, which we now refer to as 'that night we ate the pizza.' We'd piled the homemade dough with what could easily be described as a family-sized vegetable garden, complete with a well stocked cheese emporium sprinkled on top. I've never had such a stomach ache in all my life. We still laugh about it.

So, with all this history and heady nostalgia for the sweetness of my youth, is it any surprise that I make pizza as much as I do? Consequently, I've become rather good at it, even boasting of my dough-making prowess to my friends. And so, as was bound to happen, a dear friend of mine who was coming over to dinner asked me to make her pizza. I was pretty excited, as this was the perfect chance to christen my new KitchenAid Mixer in cobalt blue. I hoped I could live up to my own hype.

I used my go-to dough recipe, from here, put all the ingredients in the mixer and turned it on to speed # 2. The mixer made this deep Whhhhhhirrrrrrrr noise, rhythmic and purposeful. The dough was having the absolute shit knocked out of it. I watched, in complete awe, and clapped with delight. I was about to call Husband into the kitchen to share my excitement when I realized I was having what we call a 'sunglasses moment.' (This is where you catch sight of yourself in the reflection of your companion's sunglasses and see yourself doing something really goofy and are suddenly flooded with shame and/or reminded of the usefulness of vanity.) I decided to keep it to myself.

The pizza itself was really simple; I used a store-bought sundried tomato pesto as the base, then spinach, grape tomatoes and green onions, and finally, big chunks of herbed goat cheese on top.
Still on my vegetable kick, I made a salad with carrots, apples, chives and green pepper with a balsamic vinaigrette.

My friend came over in the evening, armed with wine and tarts from Clafouti (that I failed to photograph before eating.) Dinner was delicious; the meal was light, fresh and just right for a sweaty-hot day. We talked and drank and sat out on my deck when the sun went down and the air had caught a lovely coolness. Somewhere down the way, neighbours were having a barbeque and the strains of music on a radio drifted towards us like a breeze.
And I reckoned this was another bit of magic to be put away in the pizza archives.

Simple Pizza Dough via Everybody Likes Sandwiches:

1 envelope active dry yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour (I tend to use a mix of all purpose and whole wheat flour)
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp assorted dried herbs (I used oregano and basil, but I'm sure lots of different ones will work)
1/2 tsp salt
cornmeal (I've never used this, but I'm sure it's lovely)


1. By hand: In large bowl, combine yeast with 1 cup of the warm water. Stir in flour, salt and olive oil and mix with wooden spoon till sticky dough starts to form. Add the rest of the warm water and shape the dough into a ball with your hands - you may need to flour your hands a bit if the dough is too sticky to handle with ease. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes. Get in there! Get it nice and elastic.
By mixer: Proof yeast in 1/4 cup of warm with a tsp of sugar; wait ten minutes till it gets foamy. Add to the mixer bowl with the rest of the flour, water, herbs, olive oil and salt and turn on speed # 2 and watch it to see that it firms up and gets elastic, about 5-10 minutes. You may need to add more flour, as I did, if your dough is still sticky. I ended up using about 3 cups.

2. Oil up another bowl and place the dough inside. Cover it with plastic wrap and set it in a warmish place and allow to sit for 2 hours. It should double in size. If using, sprinkle some cornmeal on your work surface along with a bit of flour and set the dough on top of it. Cut the dough in half - this recipe makes enough for 2 pizzas. You can either use both doughs now or do what I do and freeze the other half - it freezes really well and just needs to be thawed in the fridge for a few hours. You can also keep it covered in the oiled bowl in the fridge for a couple of days if you want to make another pizza during the week.

3. If you have a rolling pin, I'm sure that would make life a lot easier, but I've never had one, so I've just stretched out the dough to about a 1/2 inch thickness, placed it on a greased baking sheet and then added my toppings. Bake at 350-400 degrees for about 15-20 minutes, keeping an eye on it so the crust doesn't burn. Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then cut and devour!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The A(pple)-B(acon)-C(heese, bleu) Overdose, and a Salad.

Hello dear blog and readers! How I've missed you! I'm back now, married and relaxed and ready to start messing around again in my kitchen. Especially with the addition of this:

and a hearty stack of these:

People keep asking me if it feels different, being married. And the short answer is 'no'. I feel much the same, because I didn't feel like we needed to change anything by getting married. It was really just a chance to get all dressed up and have a big party with all our loved ones. But amidst that 'no' is nestled a tiny qualifier, one which compels me to say that it does feel different not being engaged anymore. Because engagement is kind of like a relationship holding pattern. A near-constant state of anticipation and preparation that everyone seems to participate in and celebrate with you. And there comes a moment when the hoopla is over, and along with that bittersweet thought of 'what now?' there's a sense of relief, of forward motion. Love can stop being held in place and life can go on.

We honeymooned at Husband's parents' trailer in Sauble Beach, followed by a week at a friend's cottage in the Muskokas. It was heaven. We read, we drank, we ate, we sat around and talked. It amazed me the way I was suddenly so aware of my environment - the sound of the birds in the tall pines around us; the sun dripping through the branches and trickling onto my upturned face. The sound of the wind, of the water lapping the shore, even the insects and small creatures rustling in the leaves. I've never been so relaxed, so happy to sit still.

So, what did I eat on our honeymoon? Apart from Burgers, Burgers, Burgers? Well, let's just say that I took 'variations on a theme' to the next level. You know, one of the things I love about vacation is the simplicity it enforces. When you pack, you throw in two pairs of pants, a couple of dresses, some sweaters, and out of this, you fashion a wardrobe that will tide you over for the next week or two. And for the most part, I'm always happy having less choices. I remind myself to pare down my closet when I get home and live like this, with a few great pieces on heavy rotation. But I forget; clothing and food are two entirely different creatures.

And so, armed with a package of bacon, a bagful of apples from Meaford (the apple capital of Ontario) and a hunk of Danish blue cheese, I imagined and re-imagined, then recycled and re-recycled this flavour triumvirate into two weeks worth of meals. I feel I am qualified in saying that I have fully exhausted this taste combination for perhaps another year. Maybe longer. And after a long spate of daily wedding cake leftovers, burgers, sausage and chicken, I came home not only with about 5 extra pounds of body weight, but a strong craving for vegetables and fish.

I went to the grocery store yesterday to fill my barren fridge and it was almost too much, seeing all the gorgeous produce, colourful, gleaming, promising vitamins and antioxidants and properly functioning intestines; I had to close my eyes for a minute and compose myself. I got home and started putting together my salad, based on this recipe and decided to pair it with a big honking salmon steak. I used some of this:

and some of this:

and a dash of these, even though they were supposed to be peanuts:

I sliced, diced and zested and put the salad together. It looked like a bowl of 'refreshing.'

Then I pan-fried my massive salmon steak and put it on a plate and attempted to photograph it, only a ghostly predator lurked at my feet, making movement treacherous...

I managed to get my plate to safety and settled down to eat. The salad was delicious, brimming with flavours and textures, and the salmon was like butter at first, but then I realized I was eating the skin and got kind of grossed out by that (eeeuuwww, eating skin) so I skipped it and devoured the rest.

It's a funny thing, this 'getting married' stuff. It's not that I gained a Husband, because frankly, he was my Forever Person before we even got engaged. But I seem to have gained this precious insight into my life, almost like looking at it from outside a window. And what's there, what's in front of me is all I've ever wanted.

My adaptation of Asian Slaw with Roasted Peanuts, via Ezra Pound Cake:

2 carrots, really finely sliced
1/2 a green pepper, finely chopped
a handful of chives, finely chopped
3-4 leaves of romaine lettuce, chopped
a large handful of baby spinach, sliced into ribbons
1/2 avocado, chopped into smallish pieces
zest of one lime, finely grated
1/4 cup of pistachios, chopped coarsely (I'm trying not to be too repetitive with my chopping adjectives)


Chop up ingredients and put them in a large bowl. Dress and top with nuts just before serving.


1/8 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 tbsp rice wine vinegar
Juice of 1/2-1 lime, depending on size
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp ground ginger (I didn't have fresh...would have been awesome)
1 tbsp brown sugar
a glug or two of soy sauce


Combine all ingredients in small jar or bowl and whisk till well combined. Adjust amounts as you see fit.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hello Folks! After a blissful wedding on Saturday, we're now off to the wilds of Northern Ontario, also known as Cottage Country. I'll be back in my kitchen in 2 weeks and will see you then.

P.S. I have a wonderful new appliance just begging for christening that my nearest and dearest lovelies bought me - you may have heard of it; the KitchenAid Stand Mixer? (In cobalt blue) There will be pastry doughs and breads and all sorts of goodies coming soon!

See you soon!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

'Praise The Lard' Potato Salad (and Zucchini Pancakes)

As a kid, I was skinny. Like knock-kneed, gangly, beanpole skinny. People used to comment on it all the time. And those comments were, for the most part, heavily tinged with envy. I picked up on that even at a young age. So I started to think that my skinniness held some magical value - I had something other people wished they had. And as you can imagine, I eventually developed a complex about it. I was afraid that if I gained weight and stopped being skinny, I'd lose that value.

And like most teenagers, well, I did gain some weight. Not a lot. But enough to cover the skinniness and create a strange inner tension between me and my food. It's a permeating tension that overtakes common sense and logic. The messy love triangle it creates between women, food and their weight is almost always at the table. Have you noticed how often a group of women can get together for any sort of occasion and the conversation will somehow find it's way to body image?

Luckily, I never delved into eating disorders. No, I'd say I was just unhealthily aware of my weight. It lasted for years and years, quietly, under the surface. And the resulting side effect was that it created an alarming awareness of other women's food issues. I love to make fun of the celebrities who swear they eat vats of bacon fat and ice cream and still stay skinny, but the truth is, it's sad. It's so very sad that something as gorgeous and layered with sensuality as food and cooking and the socializing that goes with it, is distilled to fat and calorie breakdowns; carbs vs. protein, 'good' foods and 'bad' foods, diets and punishment. And it's not just vapid movie stars who are guilty of this; it's us, it's me, the self-identified sensible, media-savvy ones.

But you know what's been my saving grace? Food blogs. When I discovered them last year while trying to relieve my boredom at my super-boring job, I discovered a universe where food took centre stage, minus the issues attached. I noticed people being more concerned with the production and quality of their food and the artistry and delight of cooking. And it inspired me, wholeheartedly. And slowly, slowly, over the past year, I've noticed a gradual shedding of worry, a loosening of that tension as I slipped over to the other side of the computer screen and starting writing about my own experiences with food.

I find myself making fewer and fewer substitutions in recipes to make them less caloric, not that there's ANYTHING wrong with doing that, I don't mean to sound judgemental, but for me, it's symbolic of a return to health and a rejection of a certain kind of food crazy foisted on and absorbed by women. Show me cheese, show me bacon, show me cream. These are not my foes anymore.

So what better recipe to feature than one of my more unphotogenic models, a potato salad? Long loathed as a catastrophically mushy combination of mayonnaise and potato, this Michael Smith recipe uses both those ingredients in a magical way, with the addition of bacon and pickles and grainy mustard. I paired it with Zucchini Pancakes, from here, which I am unsure of in terms of food combinations, but don't care all that much if it's wrong, because it was so, so delicious! The potato salad was even better the next day with a slice of fresh bread and some really good cheese.

It's funny, isn't it? In the process of losing my fear of the Fat, I found a lovely new piece of myself.

Roasted Potato Bacon Salad, from Michael Smith's The Best Of Chef At Home:

4-5 thick slices of bacon
20 or so baby red potatoes (I used about 8 regular white potatoes, cubed smallish)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
a handful of flat leaf parsley (I hate parsley, so I used fresh oregano)
a few pickles, diced small
1 tbsp of grainy mustard (I used a really big spoonful)
1 tbsp of mayonnaise (I used another really big spoonful - I like sauciness)
a splash of red wine vinegar


1. Stack the bacon slices on top of each other and cut them in thin pieces. Toss them in a large saute pan, add a splash of water (this helps it cook more evenly) and begin heating it over medium-high heat. Strain and reserve the fat; set aside the bacon.

2. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Cut the potatoes in half or in smallish cubes if using regular sized ones, and toss them in the reserved bacon fat, adding salt and pepper. Roast them till they're golden brown, about 40 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

3. Toss the potatoes with the bacon pieces, parsley, pickles, mustard, mayonnaise and vinegar and eat or save for later!

Zucchini Pancakes, via The Wednesday Chef, via New York Times Dining Section:

3 medium zucchini, shredded
salt and freshly ground pepper
3 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1-2 tbsp finely shredded fresh mint (I used dill instead because I love dill and feta together)
1 tsp baking powder
vegetable oil for frying


Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Place zucchini in a colander over a bowl, and mix with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Allow to drain for five minutes. Transfer to a cloth kitchen towel, and squeeze hard to extract as much moisture as possible. Squeeze a second time; volume will shrink to about half the original.

In a large mixing bowl, combine zucchini and eggs. Using a fork, mix well. Add flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, olive oil, feta, scallions, mint/dill and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Mix well, add baking powder, if using, and mix again.

Place a cast iron skillet or other heavy skillet over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and heat until shimmering. Place heaping tablespoons of zucchini batter in pan several inches apart, allowing room to spread. Flatten them with a spatula if necessary; pancakes should be about 3/8 inch thick and about 3 inches in diameter. Fry until golden on one side, then turn and fry again until golden on other side. Repeat once or twice, frying about 5 to 6 minutes total, so pancakes get quite crisp. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels, and keep warm in oven. Continue frying remaining batter, adding more oil to pan as needed. Serve hot, with a dollop of sour cream if you're feeling indulgent.