Thursday, June 26, 2008

Now THAT'S what I'm talking about.

Thanks to some super helpful advice on my previous post left by Tim of The Second Pancake, my second pizza followed the rule of... well, the second pancake. Tim suggested that I let my dough sit in a warm place until it rose again. I figured that since my kitchen was close to 90 degrees, the counter would be perfect. (Don't ask why I was making something that required turning the oven on in a 90 degree kitchen. Pizza cravings do not listen to logic.)

So I turned the bowl of my salad spinner upside down over the dough and then I successfully distracted myself for about an hour. When I came back, I had a bubble!

Since there hadn't been any bubbles earlier, I figured I was on the right track. At that point, I preheated the oven to 450°F -- a little cooler than last time, since I knew better than to anticipate a perfect thin crust. I also put a link of italian sausage on a baking sheet and let it roast while I prepared the rest of the pizza. I put down a sheet of the parchment paper, sprinkled some corn meal, and then came the moment of truth -- could I turn this blob into a flat dough shape, or would it spring back on me incessantly again?

I felt so empowered as I stretched that dough into shape. There was no resistance. The dough yielded to my every whim, helpless against my fingertips. This pizza dough was my domain, and I was the master of it.

In other words, it worked. Let me say that again: it worked!!

At that point, I spread some leftover tomato sauce over the pie, added chunks of the best smoked mozzarella I've ever tasted (thanks, Joe's Dairy!) and slices of the roast sausage link, and popped the pizza in the oven. Fifteen minutes later, this came out:

And then I ate it. And life was good.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

How Not to Make a Pizza

Maybe this title is unfair. Given all the things that could go wrong, this pizza was pretty good. The toppings were tasty, and it looked "real" enough that one of my coworkers asked if it came from the pizza shop downstairs. But I had this idea of a perfect thin crust pizza, one that slid effortlessly onto the pizza stone even though I forgot to buy parchment paper, and... that's not exactly what happened.

I should probably mention that my dough was supposed to be foolproof; I figured I'd try to get the pizza baking part right before I tried making my own dough, so I followed path #10 on Deb's list of 10 paths to painless pizza-making. Luckily, since I live in Manhattan, the question I asked myself wasn't, "where can I find a pizza place?" Instead it was, "which of the 4 pizza places directly on the 6-block walk from the train station to my apartment should I get the dough from?" I chose The Pizzeria because, well, with a name like that, how can you pass it up? The guy behind the counter didn't flinch when I asked for a ball of dough, though he did confirm about 10 times that I really only did want dough.

I got home and immediately put the pizza stone in the oven and turned it up to 500°F, since I had read that hotter temperatures lead to better pizza. In the meantime, I thinly sliced some onions and tossed them with a little olive oil, a splash of balsamic, and a pinch each of salt and sugar. Then I spread them on a baking sheet and put them in the hot oven for about 10 minutes to caramelize. Arugula and basil were roughly chopped, then tossed with sliced sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, and lemon juice.

And then it was time to roll out the dough. The as-purchased dough lump was sort of round and flat already, but it was also HUGE (2 pounds!) so I cut it in half and started to roll one of the halves out flat.

And I rolled.

And I rolled.

And no matter how many times I rolled, the dough kept springing back on itself.

So I tried another method. I picked up an edge of the dough and held it up in the air, so the rest of it would fall and stretch it out. This sort of worked, but for every inch that it stretched, it immediately sprung back and lost 0.9 inches. However, I wasn't about to give up -- my toppings were ready to go, my pizza stone was hot, and I was going to have pizza for dinner, dammit! I sprinkled some cornmeal on the back of a baking sheet, threw my dough down onto it, and just pushed it outwards with my fingertips as much as possible.

Eventually, I got the dough to a respectable pizza size, but it was still a world away from the thin crust I had envisioned. I spread a thin layer of ricotta cheese (I used the Calabro brand, which was FABULOUS), followed by the caramelized onions, then the arugula mixture. A little parmesean cheese grated over the top, and then all that remained was to slide the pizza onto the hot pizza stone.

Sounds simple, right? As you can probably tell from the picture, I was not so successful in my sliding transfer. The only way I got the pizza off the baking sheet was with a spatula, and in the process I lost a few pieces of arugula, which fell onto the stone and immediately started to char. I didn't want the same to happen to my fingers so I left them there... and now I have some lovely burn marks on my pizza stone.

After 10 minutes, I faced a tough decision. The toppings were hot and starting to burn, but the crust needed at least a few more minutes. Either I could wait a few more minutes for a perfect crust with burnt toppings, or I could deal with a doughy crust that left the toppings in perfect condition. I went with the latter option. The crust wasn't raw, really, and it was edible, but it was awfully doughy. For me, it was fine, but there's no way I would have served this pizza to anyone else.

I still have half of my original dough blob in the fridge, so I guess I'll be trying to make pizza again soon. I know I can solve the clean-transfer-to-pizza-stone problem with a piece of parchment paper, but any tips for getting the dough to actually stretch out would be greatly appreciated!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Recipe: Asparagus and Polenta with Fried Capers

I might be a little late in posting this, since I didn't see any asparagus at the market on Saturday and there's a chance the season is over already, but in case you can still find fresh asparagus in your area, you should give this a try. (Also, know that I am a little jealous of you. Asparagus season never lasts long enough!)

This meal would have been fairly ordinary if not for the fried capers. I can't remember where I first read about them, but it's something I've kept in the back of my mind just waiting for the perfect dish to garnish with little crispy flowery capers. Well... here it is. The capers really brought this from a little boring to very, very good.

Asparagus and Polenta with Fried Capers
serves 2

1 tbs brined capers
canola oil or other high-smoke-point oil for frying
1/2 lb asparagus
1/2 small yellow onion
1 large stalk green garlic, dark green parts removed (or 1-2 cloves of regular garlic)
1 tbs olive oil
1/4 cup basil leaves, loosely packed
1 2/3 cup chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
1/3 cup instant polenta (or non-instant polenta, if you have it and don't mind lots of stirring)
1 tbs butter (optional)
3 tbs grated parmesean cheese

small skillet
large skillet
slotted spoon
knife and cutting board
cheese grater

Measure out the capers and blot dry with paper towels, being careful not to squish them. Pour 1/4" of oil into a small skillet and heat over medium-high heat. When the surface of the oil shimmers, drop in the capers. The oil will start to bubble so don't stand too close! After about 2 minutes, the outer layers of the capers will peel back so they look like little flowers. (My camera batteries died right as I started to cook, so I don't have a picture, but I found a good one here -- just scroll halfway down the page.) Remove the capers from the oil with a slotted spoon and set them aside to drain on paper towels.

To prepare the asparagus, snap off the woody bottoms and slice into 1" pieces. If your asparagus is really fresh, the woody bottoms might be non-existent. Peel and dice the onion and green garlic.

Heat olive oil in larger skillet over medium heat. Add the asparagus, onion, and green garlic with a pinch of salt. Saute for about 5 minutes, until the onions are translucent and the asparagus is tender. In the meantime, roughly chop the basil. Add it to the cooked vegetables and remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste, but be careful not to overdo it with the salt, because the capers are like little salt-bombs.

While the asparagus cooks, you can start the polenta by heating stock or water in a saucepan. When it boils, add the polenta in a steady stream, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and continue to stir until the mixture thickens. With the instant polenta that I used, this took a minute or two, but there's a wide range of cooking times with non-instant polenta, so follow the directions for whatever type you're using. Honestly, I think the non-instant stuff tastes noticeably better, but it was about 90 degrees in my apartment and I didn't want to stand over the stove any longer than absolutely necessary.

Once the polenta is cooked, add the cheese and butter if you're using it. Scoop the polenta into bowls, top with the asparagus mixture, and sprinkle some fried capers on top.

[and pretend there is a tasty looking bowl of food pictured right here!]

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Well, I'm off to a great start, aren't I? Two entries in one day, and then... nothing. Silence. For a month. I could make excuses (I was sick, I ate out too many days in a row near my birthday, it's been too hot to think let alone cook) but that's really all they are -- excuses. Not so much legitimate reasons. So, in the hopes of motivating myself a little, I'm setting a new goal of posting at least once a week.

Umm... this one doesn't count.

Anyway, check back this weekend for a post on tonight's highly successful dinner. Two words: fried. capers. Possibly the best garnish ever. Or maybe the best snack ever, depending on your perspective.