August 30th, 2012 § § permalink
For years I had a problem with pizza. What I liked and what I ended up eating were two vastly different things. I wanted crunchy yet chewy thin crusts with fresh, flavorful toppings. What I got were gummy, limp slices with bland and greasy cheese that oozed onto my hands, shirt, jeans . . ..
Turned off by floppy, oily take-away, I periodically tried to make my own pies. While the recipes in The Joy of Cooking, Fanny Farmer and Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking made perfectly respectable pizzas, none resulted in the crisp, wafer-thin crust that I craved.
Around the time that I had resigned myself to mediocrity my husband and I had dinner at the home of our friends Rob and Brande. On that fateful night we ate Rob’s ethereal, homemade pizzas. With their firm yet light crusts, hearty sauces and fresh, wholesome toppings these pizzas ranked among the best that I’d ever consumed. With one amazing meal I rediscovered my love of this food.
After months of badgering Rob for lessons, last weekend I walked, step-by-step, through his pie-making process. Needless to say, it was a fun way for this food-lover to spend a Saturday night. It was also a great opportunity to pick up tips for fellow fledgling pizza bakers.
Usually recipes contain at least one ingredient that sets them apart from all others. In Rob’s case it’s vital wheat gluten. Found in the baking aisle of most grocery stores, this powdery, high protein substance bumps up the elasticity of baked goods. Want a chewier pizza? Add vital wheat gluten.
Another inside scoop pertains to parchment paper. Cut your parchment paper so that it matches the dimensions of your pizza stone. This way you don’t have paper slopping over the sides or pizza baking directly on top of the stone. How sensible!
Once your dough has risen, you’ll divide it into two or three balls — the more balls you shape, the thinner the dough and resulting crust will be. Using a flour-dusted rolling pin, roll out a dough ball so that it covers the parchment. You’ll then brush the top with olive oil that has simmered alongside sliced garlic, fresh oregano and crushed red pepper. This infused oil was my husband’s favorite tip of the night. Who needs messy tomato sauce when you can slather a warm, zesty oil over the surface of your pie?
At this point you’ll add your toppings. Layer on the cheeses, veggies, meats — whatever you desire. Dough dressed, you’ll slide a pizza peel beneath your parchment paper and ease your pie into your preheated oven and onto the preheated pizza stone. Twelve to sixteen minutes later you’ll have a crisp and delectable repast.
Note that, although I’d been against adding more gadgets to my already overstocked kitchen, I am quite pleased with the acquisitions of pizza peel and stone. How else could I have gotten my pies into and out of the oven without dropping them on the tile floor, oven door or fat cat who lingers on the floor by the oven door? Likewise, how could I have gotten them to cook evenly and completely? I couldn’t have.
ROBBIE P’S PIZZA DOUGH
Makes 2 to 3 (8-slice) pizzas
2 1/2 generous cups all-purpose flour
1/2 generous cup cornmeal
pinch kosher salt
1 tablespoon vital wheat gluten
2 generous teaspoons dry active yeast
1/4 teaspoon honey
2 cups lukewarm water
2 1/2 teaspoons olive oil, plus more for greasing hands
In a large bowl whisk together the flour, cornmeal, salt and vital wheat gluten.
In a separate bowl mix together the yeast and honey. Add the water to the yeast and honey and stir to combine. Pour almost all of the water into the flour mixture. Stir to combine. If the dough seems too dry, add the rest of the water and stir again. Add the olive oil, stir, and cover the bowl with cling wrap.
Place the bowl in a warm spot and allow the dough to rise for a minimum of 3 hours. (Note that the dough can be made a day in advance. Once the dough has risen, divide it into 2 to 3 balls, place each in a well-oiled bowl, cover and refrigerate.)
Cut two to three sheets of parchment paper to match the size of your pizza stone.
Preheat your oven to 550 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once the dough has risen, remove the cling wrap. Place a small mound of flour onto a sheet of cut parchment paper.
Rub some olive oil on your hands. Remove the dough from the bowl and divide it into two or three equal parts. Place the remaining dough into 1 or 2 oiled bowls and set aside.
Fold the dough several times and then make it into a ball. Put the ball on top of the flour and, using your hands and flipping it over and over, shape it into a square. (If you have a round pizza stone, you’ll shape it into a circle.)
Roll out the dough until it’s the shape and size of the parchment paper. Crimp the edges all the way around and then brush olive oil over the top.
From here you’ll layer sauce and/or cheese, vegetables, meats, etc. onto the pizza. Bake at 550 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 to 16 minutes, checking periodically to ensure that the pizza doesn’t overcook. Remove and serve hot.
August 23rd, 2012 § § permalink
After graduating from college and moving to suburban Philadelphia, what I wanted, more than anything, was to adopt a dog. What I got was a cat, Andy Peabody, who came with a homemade, nondescript toy called Mr. Catfish. The gentle, gray tabby became my doorway into pet ownership. His beloved, yellow-and-gray pipe cleaner toy became, in its own weird way, my introduction to catfish.
Over the weekend I was reminded of Andy and his quirky sidekick when I went fishing in Marietta, Ohio. There the catch of the day was the benign, whiskered channel catfish.
Of the 28 varieties of North American catfish, channel remain the most commercially important. Fast-growing and highly sustainable, they thrive in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and ponds. Although they can reach 50 pounds in the wild, the Ohio channel cats that we caught – and released – were closer to one and a half pounds.
Had we kept these fish, we could have expected a meal with an earthy tang to it. Because wild catfish happily potter about in murky waters, they develop a muddy flavor that farmed ones don’t possess. Yes, in this instance, farmed fish actually taste better than wild-caught. That’s great news for cooks and consumers for channel catfish are America’s most commonly farmed fish.
Often when I hear “farmed” in relation to seafood, I think environmental pollutants, disease and fish escapes——food that I don’t want to purchase or consume. This is not the case with U.S.-farmed catfish. Raised using environmentally sound aquaculture, these guys remain one of the eco-friendliest options in American markets.
Along with sustainability, catfish also has in its favor versatility. I often use it in place of such over-fished favorites as cod, orange roughy and perch. It responds well to almost every cooking technique, including baking, broiling, frying, grilling, poaching, sautéing, stir-frying and steaming. Its delicately sweet meat marries well with bell peppers, chiles, garlic, lemon, onions, paprika, pecans, tomatoes, sesame, soy sauce and vinegar. Native to the South, catfish makes frequent appearances in this region’s cuisine and pairs nicely with Cajun and Creole seasonings.
4 (4 to 6-ounce) catfish fillets
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Grease the bottom of a medium baking dish.
Season both sides of the fillets with salt and pepper and place them in the baking dish. Pour the lemon juice over the fillets.
In a small bowl stir together the paprika, garlic powder and cayenne pepper. Sprinkle the seasoning over the fillets and then dot the fillets with the butter. Bake, uncovered, until the fish becomes firm and can be flaked with a fork, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve immediately.
August 16th, 2012 § § permalink
Last week I owned up to my dearth of gardening skills. What I lack in ability, I more than make up for in my enthusiasm for others’ horticultural handiness. So, when a friend invited me on a foraging walk last weekend, I jumped at the chance. I mean, really, who has a greener thumb than Mother Nature?
As you might expect from someone who blundered through gardening, I struggle with identifying wild edibles. Set set me loose in the forest to collect stinging nettles or chanterelles, I’m likely to pull out a clump of poison ivy or toxic jack o’ lantern mushrooms. Obviously, these are not the ingredients of a lovely soup or sauté. However, if you put me in charge of foraging, these are what you might receive. Yeah, I need to learn a bit about harmless versus deadly wild plants.
Led by naturalist Steve Brill, the ecology walk featured such wholesome plants as garlic mustard, wild ginger and purslane. Things that I had dubbed “worthless weeds” and yanked from my overgrown garden likewise made appearances. Had I known that delicate lemon wood sorel possessed such a pleasing citrus flavor, I would have added it to salads instead of to our overflowing compost bin.
Greens weren’t the only foods found. The woods were dotted with crab apple, black cherry and persimmon trees. All that fruit, right at our fingertips. The squat, shrubby spicebush also popped up along our path and offered multiple culinary uses. I could pour hot water over the leaves for tea or chop up the hard, red berries to flavor quick breads and other baked goods.
Although I enjoyed learning about these edibles, what I longed to see were elderberries. Found throughout North America, Europe and Western Asia, these tiny, black berries make tart and tasty jellies, sauces, syrups, chutneys, pies and soups. Because they contain a small amount of a toxic alkaloid, elderberries should be cooked before being consumed. Nonetheless, on the walk we all sampled a raw one or two. So far, so good.
While elderberries hung heavy from their slender branches, I still couldn’t collect enough to cook. However, the next time that I come across a half-pint of these berries at a farmer’s market, I’ll whip up the following pies.
INDIVIDUAL APPLE-ELDERBERRY PIES
Here the winey tang of elderberry pairs with the tart sweetness of apple for these delicious, open-faced pies.
5 medium-size Granny Smith apples, cored, peeled and diced
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup water
1 cup elderberries
2 sheets phyllo, defrosted
1/4 cup butter, melted
Confectioner’s sugar, for decorating
Vanilla ice cream, optional
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 6-cup muffin pan.
Place the apples, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and water in a medium-size saucepan and bring the contents to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until apples are soft. Add the elderberries and stir to combine. Strain the mixture, reserving the liquid. Allow to cool.
Cut the phyllo into 24 squares, each measuring 4 inches by 4 inches. Cover the squares with a damp cloth. Take one square and brush the top with butter. Place another square at an angle on top of this square and brush the second square with butter. Repeat the steps with two more squares; you will have a stack of four overlapping squares. Place the buttered, overlapping squares into a greased muffin cup. Repeat these steps with the remaining phyllo squares.
Spoon the apple-elderberry filling into the pastries, filling each to the top. Bake the pies for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown.
Meanwhile, return the cooking liquid to the saucepan and cook until it thickens into a syrup. When the pies have finished baking, cool them for 5 to 10 minutes before gently removing them from the pan. Place each one on a plate, spoon the syrup over the top, dust with confectioner’s sugar and serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, if desired.
August 9th, 2012 § § permalink
After years of kidding myself that one day I’d grow bushels of pert tomatoes and eggplants at our suburban Philadelphia farmhouse, I’m finally throwing in the towel on gardening. It’s never helped matters that I’m not there enough to consistently weed and water a garden or that every vegetable planted feeds not my family and friends but those of groundhogs and deer. There’s another reason, though, behind my bailing out on horticulture. Truthfully, I’m a lousy gardener who can’t even keep the lowest maintenance plants—garlic, onions, potatoes—alive.
In spite of my black thumb each August I find myself wondering what to do with all the season’s produce. Gardeners can’t seem to give the stuff away. Well, actually, they can and do but, as the overwhelmed recipient, I often find myself wanting to give it back. Such is the case with corn.
The problem with corn is that I never receive just four or five ears. Whether I drop by my favorite farmer’s market or a friend’s backyard garden, I invariably leave with at least a dozen ears of freshly picked corn. This is a wonderful gift on nights when I’m cooking for six or more people but not so great when I’m making a meal for two.
What to do with all this corn? Over the years I’ve dropped countless ears into pots of boiling water or onto hot grills. I’ve sliced off the kernels and made them into sautés, casseroles, stews and soups. Corn bread and muffins? Been there and done that so many times. The same can be said for corn relishes, salsas, puddings and flans. While I’ve not ground my own cornmeal for polenta, I have run the kernels through my food processor and made tasty corn purees. Yet, on nights when I’m out of ideas for that mound of shucked corn, I turn to the following standby.
WARM SUMMER CORN SALAD
2 tablespoons salted butter
1 large garlic clove, grated
4 cups fresh corn kernels
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
11/2 teaspoons minced fresh basil
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat the butter in a medium sauté pan. Add the garlic and sauté until softened but not browned, 2 minutes.
Add the corn and pepper, toss to combine, and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the basil and stir to combine. Taste and add salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
August 3rd, 2012 § § permalink
They’re airy! They’re crisp! They’re buttery! They’re one of the best foods adapted from English cooks. They’re popovers!
Derived from Yorkshire pudding, that puffy mainstay of the British Sunday roast, popovers date back to 19th century America. Unlike their English forbearer, which was baked in a rectangular pan with a layer of meat drippings, popovers were cooked without beef fat in individual cups. As a result, instead of a fluffy souffle-like dish, you ended up with golden, crusty yet velvety rolls.
Similar to Yorkshire pudding, popovers come from a simple combination of eggs, milk, butter and flour. The ratio of liquid to dry ingredients gives the batter its levity or “popover-ness.” In the oven the liquids create steam, which causes the rolls to puff up. Tear into a popover and you’ll find a perfect hollow center, the lovely side effect of all that steam.
Steam also provides these baked goods with their name. As the steam increases, it pops the batter over the sides of each individual baking cup. Hence the moniker “popover.”
Although some bakers claim that muffin tins make acceptable popovers, I prefer to use deep, cup-shaped, commercially produced popover pans. With muffin tins my rolls look like squashed mushroom caps. With popover pans they look as they should, like popovers.
Popovers can be flavored with herbs, spices or cheese. Because I love the subtle taste of these rolls, I usually leave them plain or flavor them after baking with preserves or sun-dried tomato, garlic or herb butter. The choice is yours.
ROSEMARY STILTON POPOVERS
If you prefer a plain popover, just leave out the chopped rosemary and cheese.
1 1/2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter, plus more butter for greasing pans
3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups skim milk, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
scant 1/4 cup crumbled English Stilton or other rich blue cheese
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
Grease the popover pans with butter. Place in the oven for 2 to 3 minutes to preheat.
Whisk together the butter, eggs, milk, flour, salt, pepper, rosemary and cheese until smooth. Pour the batter into the preheat pans, filling each cup to less than half full. Bake for 30 minutes, until golden brown and puffy. Serve hot.