27 July 2009

Pizza... Too much of a good thing

If there are any loyal readers of this blog, you are very likely sick of hearing about pizza. It seems I go on and on and on about pizza sometimes. Maybe it's because it's so darn easy to make. Or maybe it's because it's one of my I-have-nothing-in-the-pantry dishes. Seriously, you got flour, yeast, olive oil, something that passes as cheese and something that passes as meat or veg or fruit, and you got pizza!

On Saturday Seth asked why we hadn't had pizza in a while, a regular on our cold-season menu. Well, I told him, there's something about turning on the oven to 450 degrees when it's already 90 degrees outside and you don't have air conditioning. Too much, heat, in this case, is not a good thing.

So, I decided to give in to his craving and cook the pizza on the grill outside. Trust me, I still had to brave the heat radiating from the coals during an already sun-soaked evening, but at least I didn't add to the global warming index of my kitchen in the process. We made four different kinds of pizzas thanks to a kitchen stocked with some of summer's offerings. Jasper dined on a broccoli cheddar pizza (thank you, Cousin Nathan and Converging Creeks Farm), while we enjoyed three kinds of our own: peach and blue cheese; basil pesto and parm; and our own broccoli version. It was simple and delicious. If you think ripe peaches and blue cheese sound strange then you have no idea how a candy like Sweet Tarts ever could have caught on. The peaches are sweet the blue is tangy and the result is heavenly. It's a pleasing combo that translates to salads as well.

Go make this pizza crust. Simply top it with olive oil and whatever delicious veggies you have too much of. It will be a good thing, and I doubt you'll hardly have too much!

Pizza Crust (for grilled pizzas)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup of warm water
1 package (or 2 1/2 teaspoons) yeast
Olive oil

The dough is easiest made in a food processor fitted with a dough blade. It can be made by hand, but expect a more consistent crust with food processor.

Combine flour and salt in the food processor. Add yeast to the warm water and stir to combine. Turn the processor on and pour the water mixture in slowly followed by a light drizzle of olive oil. Process until the dough forms a ball, then process for about 1 more minute. Remove dough from processor work bowl and place in a bowl at least double its size. Drizzle olive oil over top and smear around with your fingers. This will keep the dough from getting an outer crust on the ball. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a dish towel. Let the dough rise for approximately 1 to 2 hours, until it has doubled in size. Once dough has risen, use quickly or store in the refrigerator in tightly-wrapped plastic for about 1 day or freeze.

Roll or toss dough to desired sizes, coating in enough flour to make it easy to work with. Place an untopped dough round directly on a hot grill for 2 to 3 minutes. The exact time varies drastically depending on the temperature. Don't walk away. Use long tongs to check the underside. Once the bottom begins to brown, flip the crust for about another minute. Then, remove the crust, top with pizza toppings. Return to grill in a spot where it gets only indirect heat or place on several layers of foil or baking sheet on the grill, so the bottom does not burn. Continue to cook until the toppings appear done.

*To bake in the oven, preheat to 450 degrees and bake a topped crust for about 11 to 14 minutes.

23 July 2009

The Cool of Summer

When it's hot outside and the garden is ripe, there is nothing more refreshing and easy than a summer salad. It's the season where stone fruits and tomatoes, melons and onions and peppers and peaches marry to create flavors that make it clear the only way to improve on a perfectly ripe fruit or vegetable is to add another.

Yesterday I threw together a dish of cubed watermelon, tomatoes, cucumbers, walla walla onions, radishes, oregano and feta. I tossed it all with a little olive oil and seasoning. It was refreshing, simple and substantial enough to be a side dish worthy of seconds.

The seasons for these salads may be short, but the spontaneity of them gives you the freedom to use whatever you have on hand. Leftover watermelon slices, a couple of ripe tomatoes, one lonely peach, a quickly wilting bunch of herbs or half of a bell pepper need not go to waste. It's a cooking method I first caught on to while reporting a story on Turkish immigrants. I visited a family for a few meals and was amazed at the beautiful salads they served with every meal. They were quick, simple and required relatively few ingredients. In a culture where we think salads start with a bag of pre-rinsed greens, we've got a ways to go in the creativity department.

If you need more ideas, check out this New York Times piece by the talented Mark Bittman. If you don't have enough food in your house to make at least one of these tasty salads, it's time to hit up the farmers market. Summer doesn't last forever!

22 July 2009

Burgers, Catfish and Dumplings, Oh My!

We just returned from a 10-day adventure that took us all the way from Southeastern Oklahoma to West Texas, and that was after traveling to Oklahoma City from Portland, Ore.

So, as soon as I get the laundry folded and pantry restocked, I'll offer a recipe. Thank you for accepting my tardy excuse this week.

In the meantime, I'll let you know that I was reminded of a few things on this trip home:

  • Johnnie's still makes one of the best damn burgers around. My parents started taking me to the one off Britton Road when I was a kid. We'd go there for burgers when we were in the neighborhood or meet up with family or friends for dinner. Johnnies strikes the perfect blend of fast food and full service. It's technically fast food, but it just feels homier than a McDonald's, and the food, of course, is far superior. Grated cheese on a large beef patty and their special sauce, which is really a tasty barbecue dressing, makes this burger darn near perfect. And the onion rings set the standard.
  • Fried catfish is plentiful and delicious. And don't you dare try to serve it without hush puppies. A meal I can't pass up when I'm in the state. As a kid we always had our own fish fries, but today we settle for a cafe's version when we're down near our lake house.
  • I grew up eating my Great Grandma Peach's Chicken and Dumplings. The dumplings, however, are more like noodles than anything else. I was happy to find that my family isn't alone. I chowed on some chicken and dumplings that were of the noodle variety. I must say, though, Peach's are still the best.

13 July 2009

A Good Thing Worth Repeating

Seth recently said, "It's not summer until you make potato salad." It's true. It's one of those dishes that you could make any time of year, but fixing it in December would be like wearing a Hawaiian shirt to a Christmas Party in Detroit. Neither would fit in with reindeer sweaters.

So in the name of celebrating summer, you must go make this potato salad. I like all kinds of potato salad (come on, mayo, potatoes, salt, what's not to like?), but this is the one I always come back to. It's simple yet divine. Perfect for picnics but not so unassuming it couldn't make an appearance at a set table either.

I have written about it before, so I won't repeat the details. Here is where you'll find the backstory. Enjoy the summer. It won't be too long before those tacky sweaters will be in season.

Grandma Sarah's Potato Salad

5 pounds of Russet potatoes
1 bunch of celery, chopped
1 medium red onion, diced
2 eggs, hard boiled and peeled
3 cups of mayonnaise (no Miracle Whip, please)
1 4oz jar of diced pimentos (find them in grocery aisle near pickled asparagus and such)
S & P to taste

Peel, rinse and dice potatoes. Boil until tender in a large, liberally salted pot of water. Drain. Lay potatoes out on a cookie sheet to cool. Speed up the process by placing freezer bags filled with ice on top of them.
Chop one bunch of celery, dice the onion and egg. Combine celery, onion, egg, pimentos (juice and all), mayo, salt, pepper and potatoes in a large bowl. Gently mix to combine, making sure not to mash potatoes.
Season to taste. Chill, serve cold.

Note: Obviously, one only needs five pounds if you're feeding the entire church congregation. Scale down as necessary. Also, you can leave out ingredients you don't like, but do keep in mind that potato salad is not only about taste, but texture, too. The onions and celery add a delicious crunch.

06 July 2009

Cobbler Love

As I've mentioned here before, I'm not much of a baker. Slowly, though, I'm coming around. Maybe it's just my stage in life, but I am growing to appreciate the structure a recipe offers. That said, you will still find me hunched over the garbage every now and then used a knife to scrape some sadly burned cake out of a pan.

So when I decided to throw together a dessert for my Fourth of July barbecue, I went with something I know. I started with an all-American biscuit. It's probably the one baked good that I feel completely comfortable making. It's a recipe adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook with the red and white checkered cover. A little extra sugar and lemon zest transformed this flaky biscuit into something that pairs better with berries than sausage gravy. I made the biscuit dough the day before and popped them in the freezer for the night.

The next morning I made a quick trip to the farmer's market where I passed right by fresh sugar snap peas, homemade tamales and my favorite mushroom man. I was focused on fruit. Something that would pair nicely with those buttery biscuits in my freezer. I was sold when my eyes landed on a half-flat of plump, deep purple marionberries. This Oregon jewel is similar to a blackberry in size and shape with a flavor that bleeds more sweet than tart.

At home, I spent about five minutes pulling this cobbler together. The berries went into a pan with sugar, flour and lemon zest. Then the frozen biscuits were popped on to top, and the entire thing took a quick trip in a hot oven. After mini burgers, hot dogs and too much potato salad, we ate marionberry cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. Lots of neighbors ended their evenings with sparklers in hand but not our crew. With a slew of young kids and babies more interested in bubbles than fireworks, a little berry cobbler didn't disappoint as the cap to our celebration.

Marionberry Cobbler
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for working with dough
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup butter, cold, cubed
2/3 cup milk
1 lemon, zested
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Juice of one lemon
3 to 4 tablespoons powdered sugar

Berry mixture
8 cups rinsed and drained marionberries*
3/4 cup sugar
1 lemon, zested
2 tablespoons flour

To make biscuits, in a food processor combine flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, cream of tartar, lemon zest and cubed butter. Mix, pulsing until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. If you do not have a food processor, use a pastry blender to combine ingredients. Dump flour and butter mixture into a mixing bowl and add milk. Combine with a spoon. Turn out dough onto well-floured surface. Work dough into a ball and use a rolling pin to roll dough out to about 1/2 of inch thick. Use a biscuit cutter to cut rounds, making sure not to twist cutter. Dip cut biscuit tops in melted butter and transfer to baking sheet. Place biscuits in freezer for at least five minutes (I place the entire baking sheet in there). Then either proceed with rest of recipe or transfer to airtight container once biscuit dough is frozen until ready for baking.

Prep berries by gently rinsing and draining. Then gently combine with sugar, lemon zest and flour, careful not to bruise or crush the fruit (using your hands is best). Pour the berry mixture into a 9x13-inch pan. Top with biscuit dough and bake in a 450 oven for 12 to 14 minutes or until golden brown.

While cobbler bakes, combine powdered sugar and lemon juice. After the cobbler is baked, use a pastry brush to lightly coat the tops of biscuits with the lemon-sugar glaze. Serve warm or room temperature topped with vanilla ice cream.

* Substitute blackberries if you cannot find marionberries.

Note: Because the sugar content of fruit can vary, adjust the amount of sugar as needed based on the ripeness of fruit used.