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The most popular pizza. August 7, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. When I last opened my e-mail, I saw an ad for Domino’s pizza, featuring, of course, a photo of a pizza. You could see plenty of veggies on the pizza—green peppers, mushrooms—as well as the usual pepperoni. Of course, this started me thinking.

Veggies add color hits to a pizza photo, but do people actually order them on their pizzas? I was willing to bet my last slice of Papa John’s Garden Fresh Pizza that when push came to shove, they went for pepperoni. Or maybe pepperoni and sausage. I turned to my good friend Google to find out more.

Mind you, I’m not throwing stones here. Before I became a vegetarian, my favorite pizza toppings were pepperoni, anchovies and black olives—with plenty of extra salt on every bite. (Now they’re black olives, onions and mushrooms, but still with added salt.)

I was just curious, especially after reading an article recently that noted that the more fast-food chains added “healthy” options to their menus, the more it drove business—right to the good old burgers, fries and shakes or whatever. Apparently, just seeing salads and whatnot on a menu is enough to make customers feel good about ordering a quadruple cheeseburger with supersized fries and a 90-ounce soda. Was the same true for pizzas?

Well, boy, did I find out more than I was asking for. An article on a site called TLC Cooking showcased favorite pizza toppings around the world. Oh, my. I guess the plus side is that pizza has taken off worldwide. But those toppings!

Mind you, if you’re willing to expand your definition of “pizza” to a hot flat bread with toppings, the possibilities are already out there in abundance. I’ve enjoyed hot garlic naan (a flat Indian bread) or Greek-style pita (a bit more like naan, i.e., spongier, than classic Middle Eastern pita) topped with a little butter, crumbled feta cheese, and a sprinkle of dried thyme, oregano, or mint many times. Simple but satisfying!

And of course hot pita wedges topped with hummus and chopped kalamata olives, green olives, crumbled feta, and/or roasted red peppers is supremely yummy. (Try it with white bean/garlic “hummus,” salt and fresh-cracked black pepper, and just the least squeeze of fresh lemon juice for an out-of-this-world experience!) Many cultures have their own favorite topped flatbreads; “pizza” seems to be a universal favorite worldwide, quick, yummy, and easy to eat.

But let’s get back to the TLC article, which focused on actual Italian-style pizzas with out-of-this-world toppings. If you live in Japan, the most popular pizza toppings are eel, squid, and Mayo Jaga (a combination of bacon, potato, and mayonnaise). If you’re in Brazil, you’ll order your pizza topped with green peas; in Costa Rica, with coconut. In Pakistan, you’ll top yours with curry (that sounds good to me!); in India, with pickled ginger, minced mutton, and paneer cheese.

In Australia, no surprise, the favored toppings are shrimp (doubtless hot off the barbie), pineapple, and barbecue sauce; in France, bacon, onion, and fresh cream. In Russia, you’d be ordering these toppings: mackerel, sardines, red herring, onions, tuna, and salmon (hey, no caviar?). And in the Netherlands, it would be the “Double Dutch”—double meat, double cheese, and double onion.

So what about the good old US of A? To my astonishment, the article said that America’s choice was a pizza topped with pepperoni, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, onions, and extra cheese. I guess those Domino’s people had done their market research before taking that pizza photo!

As for who’s the most popular pizza purveyor in the States, according to Google it’s one I’ve never even heard of, CiCi’s Pizza. They don’t have those here in scenic PA, or anywhere else I’ve ever been. I guess I’ll have to stick to Pizza Hut’s Veggie Lover’s Pan Pizza, with its yummy, crunchy crust, and, when I’d like a lighter treat, Papa John’s Garden Fresh Pizza (with the thin, crispy crust and no fresh tomatoes) for now.

Of course, I could simply make my own. I don’t make my own crust, but I do make my own dense, rich, veggie-laden spaghetti sauce, and when I have leftover sauce, it’s a great pizza topping. I buy a crust, spread it with olive oil and pesto, then layer on the sauce (full of onion, mushrooms, green pepper, garlic, zucchini, herbs and spices, red wine, and of course tomatoes and tomato paste), top it with a yummy mix of shredded cheeses, Italian herbs, and crushed red pepper, and into the oven it goes! Oh, yum.

Looks like most Americans don’t just order plain cheese, pepperoni, or pepperoni and sausage, after all. I guess I’ll have to give that last slice of Papa John’s Garden Fresh Pizza to our friend Ben. When you order pizza, what do you top it with, and who do you get it from?

‘Til next time,

Silence

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How not to make a vegan pizza. July 25, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Let’s say you’ve become a vegan and are desperately craving pizza, but you’re not up for pseudo-cheese. Here’s what you shouldn’t do: Send our friend Ben out to a local pizza place to get a takeout pizza where half has no cheese and is topped with mushrooms and onions. As my college roommate, Ellen Rogers, would have said, “Grahdoo, honey!!!”

First of all, you need a whole-wheat crust to give the pizza some depth of flavor. And next, in the absence of cheese, you need a lot of really rich, luscious tomato sauce, not just a dab of jarred stuff smeared over the pizza so it’s barely even visible. I’ll give the restaurant credit for adding plenty of both mushrooms and onions. But the slices would have been far better with some oregano, red pepper flakes, and salt (or seasoned herb salt) to kick them up a notch, as Emeril would say.

I think the crust and sauce are the keys here, and I’m still convinced despite last night’s disaster that a hearty, satisfying vegan pizza is possible. Suggestions?

           ‘Til next time,

                        Silence  

 

 

The pizza zombies are coming. December 2, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I was reminded yet again that I don’t get out much when I read an article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com) called “Slice of Life: a Quest to Try Pies in the Big Apple.” The story followed a 28-year-old Brooklynite, Colin Hagendorf, as he sampled pizza-by-the-slice at 362 Manhattan pizzerias. (Had it been me, I’d have gone for a nice, year-end total of 365 slices, but hey, everybody’s a critic.)

Anyway, I was looking forward to another fun Wall Street Journal food read, and launched into the story with gusto. (So to speak.) Then I stuck my finger in the socket of culture shock: “[Mr. Hagendorf] scribbled notes for a review to be posted on his blog, where he chronicles his pizza forays and rates slices on an eight-slice scale.” Pizza blog? There’s a whole blog just about pizza, and it’s made the front page of The Wall Street Journal?!

To say that I was a bit jealous doesn’t even begin to cover it. My face probably turned as green as a pesto pizza. But the shocks were only beginning. I thought the name of Mr. Hagendorf’s blog, Slice Harvester, was unnecessarily obscure. (Perhaps that’s because I grew up where no pizza was ever called a pie, and you ate a piece of pizza, not a slice.) But reading further, I realized that the name had been chosen to distinguish the blog from an existing website devoted to New York pizzas and simply called Slice. 

Then there was “Scott Wiener, 30, who runs New York pizza tours…” New York pizza tours?!! And “Michael Berman, a Brooklyn-based photographer and pizza-focused food writer.” Uh, “pizza-focused food writer”?!

Okay, we now had a pizza blog, a pizza website, a pizza-focused food writer, and pizza tours. Clearly, a whole world had eluded me here, and I was determined to find out what I’d been missing.

But before I get to the dead pizza, the WSJ article, by Aaron Rutkoff, is hysterical and well worth reading. You’ll discover what a good slice of pizza and Johnny Cash’s nose have in common, as well as Mr. Hagendorf’s top-rated pizza joint. (No, I’m not telling.) You’ll also discover—perhaps the greatest shock of all—that New York City has a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. I’m not sure what Mental Hygiene is; maybe the city’s just trying to clean up dirty minds. But I digress.

For once, I managed to recall my fascination with the concept of pizza blogs long enough to Google “blogs about pizza” today. In addition to pulling up a plethora of individual blogs, it also gave me two sites that ranked the top 10 and top 24 pizza blogs, respectively. The top 24 pizza blogs?! Mercy on us. Opting for an easy intro, I clicked on the link to the top 10, at which point I received the final shock (an aftershock, if you will) that I plan to endure in this pizza-blogging adventure.

“They Are Back! Enjoy a dead pizza for 3 bucks Wednesday,” the Punch Pizza blog (http://minnesotapizzablog.com/) proclaimed. “Enjoy” and “dead pizza” are not words I would normally put together, let’s just say, bringing to mind as they do images of molding cheese and rotting pepperoni. (Assuming pepperoni ever actually rots; it may be the ultimate survival food.) I had to find out more. 

Clicking this link, I was shown an image, sure enough, of mummy-wrapped pizzas marching forcefully forward, one brandishing a pizza slicer, with the caption “DEAD PIZZAS: Eat them before they eat you.” Pizza zombies! The pizza zombies are coming! Get out your knives, forks, and napkins, and prepare to defend yourselves!

Reading a bit further before fleeing for the bomb shelter, I saw that on October 26th, Punch Pizza, which originated in the Twin Cities (that would be Minneapolis/St. Paul), was offering $3 deals on pizzas that are no longer on their menu, aka dead, defunct, kaput, croaked, um, retired. “Dead pizzas only,” the poster reminded us.

Well, tough luck for me and our friend Ben, here in scenic PA and already into December. No Punch Pizza, dead or alive, for us. Fans of Punch, please tell us what you like! Fans of zombies, add “October/Minnesota” to your calendars.

As for my ventures into the oozing underbelly of pizza fanaticism, I decided that “Dead Pizza” was a good place to stop. I doubt I could top it—pun intended, of course—no matter what I tried. But I’m already working on an idea for next Hallowe’en… 

               ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

Pizza perfect. May 21, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. My computer opens to the Yahoo! homepage, and the other day they had a highlighted feature called “World’s Best Pizza.” It featured six pizza styles—rather than individual pizzas—that the U.S. News & World Report team, who provided the article, considered to be tops. Their #1-rated pizza was Neapolitan, a soft-crust pizza topped with bufalo mozzarella, raw San Marzano tomatoes, and fresh basil, then cooked in a super-hot wood-burning oven for a minute and a half.

If a trip to Naples isn’t in your travel budget, the article provides some other options:  New York pizza (rated #2), characterized by its puffy outer crust and thinner, crispier inner crust and by being baked on a pizza stone rather than in a pan. Pizzas from Sao Paulo, Brazil (#3), a town so crazy about pizza that it celebrates Pizza Day every July 10th. (I heartily approve.) Sao Paulo pizzas apparently include a minimal-to-vanishing amount of tomato sauce but tons of mozzarella. We are warned not to dump ketchup on our Sao Paulo pizzas, a practice apparently endorsed throughout the rest of Brazil, perhaps to make up for the lack of tomato sauce.

Chicago deep-dish pizza appears at #5 on the list. I’ve long heard of the fabled deep-dish Chicago pizzas, but never had one, and was taken aback by the description: a thick, crunchy layer of crust covered with mozzarella, then the toppings, and then chunky tomato sauce before hitting the oven in its deep-dish pan. Er, you mean the cheese is on the bottom and the tomato sauce is on the top?!! The accompanying photo seems to confirm my fears.

The #6 place to eat pizza is in Rome, according to the article, where thin-crust pizzas are baked on rectangular trays in wood-fired ovens, then sold by the slice and served folded over like a sandwich. (You can choose both your toppings and the size of your slice, which is priced by weight.)

In case you’re wondering what happened to pizza #4, in my view, the article cheated and included a frittata from Osaka and Hiroshima instead. Called the Japanese pancake or Japanese omelette, this popular egg-based dish is stirred, poured, flipped to cook both sides, then drizzled with sweet brown sauce, mayo, and bonito and seaweed flakes. It certainly sounds intriguing, but what it has to do with pizza I can’t imagine. 

Thinking about the styles of pizza favored by the article’s panel and by everyone I know, I was struck again by how individual people’s taste in pizza really is. I feel really strongly about what makes a good pizza and what makes a bad one, and so do all my friends. And no two of us agree about what makes the perfect pizza. I tried to think about some other popular food that brings out this much passion and inflexible opinion in people, and drew a blank. Chili, maybe? Barbecue? Turkey stuffing/dressing? Chocolate bars? Help me out here, please. There has to be something!

Contemplating what, in my view, makes a perfect pizza was, I confess, a blissful experience. I’d have said an ecstatic experience, except for the fact that I’ve read many times that tests have shown that imagining eating food somehow magically packs on as many calories as if you’d actually eaten it. How this could possibly be, I can’t begin to imagine, but if it turns out to be true, it’s the most cruel joke ever played on our weight-conscious society. I guess now I’ll have to imagine running 50 miles to burn those imaginary calories off. But I digress.

Before I reveal my own favorite pizza styles, let’s talk about what I really hate in a pizza, and the description of that Neapolitan pizza so beloved by the U.S. News & World Report team (and iconized in the movie “Eat, Pray, Love”) has it all. Soft, undercooked crust. Raw tomatoes rather than tomato sauce. Inadequate gobbets of cheese. Eeeewwww!!! I love San Marzano tomatoes.  I love bufalo mozzarella. I love fresh basil. But please, could I have them in a Caprese salad, rather than on a so-called pizza?!

The other pizzas beloved by the team fared little better on the Silence Dogood Yummy Pizza Scale. Pizza crust soft enough to fold over, a la Roma? Spare me. Almost no tomato sauce, a la Sao Paolo? Yuck. Puffy crust, courtesy of NYC? Ugh. Tomato sauce on top? No thanks, Windy City. As for the “Sicilian style” deep-dish pizza prevalent pretty much everywhere around here, and featuring a thick slab of doughy so-called crust, please. I’d like to get my calories on top of the crust, thanks very much.

So what, exactly, does make a pizza good, or even great? I’m so glad you asked. A delicious pizza depends on a combination of four things: crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings. Let’s look at them one by one.

First, and most critical, is the crust. The best sauce, cheese, and toppings in the world can’t redeem an awful crust. A bad crust = a bad pizza, period. And yet the crust is, in my opinion, the most neglected element of pizza-making.

Mind you, my idea of the ideal crust horrifies literally everyone I know, without exception. I hate a thick doughy crust, a thin soft crust, a thick or thin hard crust, a chewy, stretchy crust. My ideal is a crunchy crust, exemplified by a just-made Pizza Hut pan pizza. To me this luscious crunch perfectly complements the sauce, cheese, and toppings on a pizza.

Unfortunately, I’ve read more times than I care to remember that this type of crust is only achieved by saturating the crust in oil. This brings to mind French fries, fried onion rings, and fried chicken, other foods that are utterly delicious and also on the proscribed list. I don’t see a huge amount of upside in encouraging heart disease, overweight, and diabetes, so my trips to Pizza Hut have been drastically curtailed in recent years.

However. I refuse to let the health Nazis have the last word when it comes to pizza crust. When I make pizza here at Hawk’s Haven, I add the crunch factor by brushing the crust with extra-virgin olive oil and baking it on a pizza stone before proceeding with the other stages of pizza composition. Works like a charm. If I have to purchase pizza and can’t get that crunchy crust, a light, thin, crispy-crackly crust is definitely next-best. No soggy, doughy, heavy, underbaked crusts, please God. Those all rate an instant “Give this to the chickens!” from me.

Moving on to the sauce. Balance is all at this crucial step. I can’t abide a pizza without a good, flavorful tomato-based sauce. Whatever anyone may say, that is not pizza, it’s a topped flatbread. But I also hate a pizza drowning in wet, flavorless sauce without enough cheese to balance it (and inevitably with a limp, doughy crust).

When making pizza at home, I like to spread a layer of pesto over the crust for added flavor before spreading on the tomato sauce. And that sauce should be thick and flavorful, making its presence known in every delicious bite without overwhelming the other ingredients or sogging down the crust. (The layer of pesto really helps in this regard, providing a barrier that separates crust and sauce.) My favorite is my own homemade spaghetti sauce, thick and rich with flavor to spare. If I want to add a little freshness, crunch, and heat, I’ll press some fresh salsa into the sauce before adding the cheese. On a restaurant pizza, the richer, thicker, garlicky flavor of marinara sauce wins my vote over plain old tomato sauce any day.

Now let’s tackle the cheese. Nothing offends me (and our friend Ben) like a sprinkling of cheese on a pizza. So when I first started making my own, I dumped on the shredded mozzarella, and how. Huge mistake. I’ve learned to use a much lighter hand with the cheese, making sure there’s enough to coat the sauce evenly but not an iota more than that. Using whole-milk shredded mozzarella makes up in quality and richness for the lack of quantity. And using a lighter hand gives you the option of adding additional cheeses like blue, Gorgonzola, shredded or grated Parmesan, and/or feta as toppings if you choose to do so, but again, don’t get carried away. I don’t know why adding too much cheese destroys the texture of a pizza, but trust me, it does. Better to eat an extra slice done right than shovel down a gloppy, overloaded couple.

The toppings are the final, and frankly, least relevant part to making great pizza. What?! Blasphemy!

I’d have agreed with you until I started making my own. Then I realized that if you’d nailed the crust, sauce, and cheese, the toppings would take care of themselves.

Whatever I ultimately add to a pizza, I always top it with a generous sprinkling of “Italian herbs” (oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram) and a little Trocomare (hot herbed salt). I’ll usually add a sprinkling of lemon pepper and a dash of red pepper flakes as well, since our friend Ben is a sucker for the hot stuff. (Not too much of the red pepper flakes, though, or they catch in my throat. OFB gets the shaker when we eat to add as much as he chooses.)

I like to add diced roasted sweet onions, minced roasted garlic, sliced roasted mushrooms, sliced kalamata or canned black olives, and diced fresh or roasted red, yellow, or orange bell peppers on my pizzas. Sometimes, for a special treat, I’ll add chopped marinated artichoke hearts, roasted yellow summer squash slices, and/or roasted white corn kernels scraped from the cob. Fresh chopped arugula, scallions (green onions), garlic scapes, basil, and sliced hot radishes can also add punch to a pizza.

And yes, I admit it, I do occasionally go all-out (or far out, depending on your point of view) and make special-occasion pizzas, such as my Mexican Night pizza, with mild salsa mixed with fresh salsa and cilantro subbing for the standard tomato sauce and a mix of shredded 4-cheese “Mexican” cheese blend and sliced black olives, sliced jalapenos, and chopped green and Spanish (purple or red) onions. Dabbing on a bit of sour cream and adding a little more cilantro before eating a slice is absolutely okay. And don’t forget the margaritas!

Let’s not leave the topic of pizza without discussing the final, essential element, and that’s the perfect temperature. Obviously, your goal is to cook the pizza until it’s hot, the cheese has melted, and the sauce and toppings have heated through. But if you try to eat it at that point, you’ll be confronted with a runny, gooey mess. I like to cook the pizza to this stage, then force myself to wait until it cools to the point where it’s still hot but the cheese is no longer gooey and it’s comfortable enough to pick up with your bare hands (though, gasp, I admit I eat mine with a knife and fork, since I hate touching grease, and oil qualifies). Yes, it’s hard to control myself when I can see and smell that delicious pizza-in-waiting. But I find that marrying the perfect temperature and texture is well worth the extra five or ten minutes of self-restraint, and it gives me time to make a salad OFB and I can enjoy with our pizza. 

Fellow pizza lovers, now it’s your turn: What do you think of when you think of the perfect pizza?

             ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

What about that pizza crust? November 3, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. The other night, our friend Ben and I watched Anthony Bourdain’s Pacific Northwest episode from his series “No Reservations.” (Thanks, Netflix!) We thought it was one of the better episodes, showcasing both the unique foodie/artisanal approach of Oregon and Washington State and Tony Bourdain’s entertaining persona and unending flow of bon mots.

But while OFB and I were enjoying the show, something struck me: There’s room for improvement in pizza crust creation. Say what? OFB and I are serious pizza fans. We like to go out for pizza and order it for takeout. We love homemade pizza. (OFB consistently praises my own-made pizza as “the best ever,” forgetting that our friends Delilah and Mary both make much better pizzas on their grills.) I love to improvise by spreading olive oil and/or pesto on the crust before adding tomato sauce, cheese, herbs, and toppings. But it never before occurred to me to consider adding things to the crust itself.

All this changed when I saw Tony Bourdain heading to a pizza parlor, something that, even loving pizza as I do, I’d never have expected, on-air at any rate. But this wasn’t just any pizza parlor. It was a restaurant owned by a chef who was determined to make the perfect pizza. He makes his dough by hand so the crust will be light, crispy, and crackly. (“Nobody does that!” said Tony about professional pizzerias and handmade, from-scratch pizza crusts.) He allows no more than three toppings on his pizzas. And he closes the restaurant once the dough for that day runs out. (“Don’t you care about making money?” “No! I care about making pizza.”)

Watching all this made me think. Why doesn’t anyone add ingredients, enhancements to the pizza crust? Olive oil and Italian herbs (rosemary, basil, oregano, thyme); Parmesan cheese; kalamata olives; sauteed onion and/or roasted garlic; roasted peppers or sundried tomatoes. Maybe a crust with lavender or minced truffles, pepitas or cumin seeds. The possibilities are endless.  I can imagine a luscious crust with a simple assortment of toppings, all working together for the ultimate goodness. Yum!!!

But I’ve never heard of anyone doing this. Do you? If so, what do you do? If not, what do you think of the idea? Please let me know!

          ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Pizza perfected. September 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. I am happy to tell you all that I’ve finally figured out the secret to making great pizza in a home oven. Our friend Ben and I love pizza. We could eat pizza several nights a week, and for at least a couple of lunches, too. But we figure one pizza night a week (and lunch from the leftovers) is probably plenty, at least as far as our waistlines are concerned.

We used to go out for pizza night, but it seemed just crazy to get a salad that was way more pitiful than the bountiful creations I could toss together at home, have to put up with pizza-restaurant atmosphere, and then have to pay quite a bit for the privilege, especially if you’re adding a glass of wine and a glass of Black & Tan to the bill. Besides which, we always wanted to add more toppings than we could afford.

Okay, you ask, why didn’t you just order pizza to go and do the rest at home? Legitimate question, but we had a few problems. The first is that, unless you’re one of those barbarians who eats cold pizza for breakfast, you’ll know that pizza is at its best five minutes from the oven, when it’s still crispy but the cheese has had a chance to set. You have to be where it’s cooked to get that perfect pizza texture. And next, our friend Ben and I have different tastes in pizza. My favorite is the Pizza Hut pan pizza style, with a delightfully crunchy (but not hard or dry) crust, while Ben prefers a thinner, crispy Neapolitan crust. What to do?!!

We have friends who make pizzas on their outdoor grills, and boy are they good. But our friend Mary makes her yeasted whole-wheat pizza dough from scratch, which strikes me as way too much work for pizza, and our friend Delilah buys frozen whole-wheat bread dough for her crusts, which still requires thawing, rising, punching down, rising, and rolling out on a floured board, along with all the extra cleanup. My goal was a quick and simple pizza that I could make in my gas oven, indoors, and that still tasted fantastic.

Aaaaarrrgghhh. With the best will in the world, my first few attempts left a lot to be desired. Even though I had a pizza “stone”—a ceramic disc with ridges that raised the crust so hot air could get under it and crisp it up—my pizzas were pretty soggy, with the crusts falling apart under the mountain of toppings. Ugh. Back to the restaurant!

But no, I refused to give up. And finally, finally, I discovered the trick to making a pizza in a conventional oven, with a store-bought crust, that our friend Ben and I both love. It’s so easy, too. And while the pizza’s baking, you have time to make the salad of your dreams to go with it, light the candles, and pour the wine. Life is good!

Here’s all it takes: Buy your pizza crust in the refrigerated cheese section of your grocery store. (I’m still looking for whole wheat, but meanwhile have settled for white.) Buy a package of shredded whole-milk or part-skim mozzarella while you’re over there. When it’s time to make pizza, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Put the crust, holey side up (one side tends to be smooth, the other has lots of little air holes), on the pizza stone. (You can now buy pizza stones in any grocery for less than $20. Trust me, it’s worth it!) Now, time for the secret: Spread some extra-virgin olive oil over the crust. This promotes crunchiness while keeping the other ingredients from soaking into the crust and turning it into a soggy mess.

Okay, it’s time for the second secret. Ready? Spread a thin layer of pesto over the olive-oil-topped crust. This will give you a fantastic flavor punch that will instantly take your pizza from good to great. Next, add your pizza sauce. Sometimes I’ll use my home-canned tomato sauce, but since I really love to use that on spaghetti, I’ll often just buy a jar of pizza sauce at the grocery. Not any jar, though: It’s just amazing how many brands, both in jars and cans, add the dreaded corn syrup or sugar to their sauces. After looking at dozens of sauces, I finally found one that didn’t: Ragu Homemade Style Pizza Sauce. Sheesh. I love the rich flavor tomato sauce adds to a pizza, so I add it liberally on top of the pesto, enough for tons of flavor but not enough to ooze out when you’re eating a hot slice.

Next, the cheese. In my numerous failed attempts at pizza making, I added tons of cheese. Our friend Ben and I love cheese. The more cheese, the better, right? Wrong. I discovered that the key to great pizza was to add enough cheese to completely cover the pizza, patting it down into the sauce, but not a bit more. One of the small bags of shredded mozzarella is perfect for topping a large pizza crust. The pizza will be cheesy without being overwhelmed by the cheese. I used to add all kinds of cheeses, too, but have found that sticking to shredded mozzarella ends up making the best pizza. Save that feta or whatever for your salad.

Now, a critical part: the herbs. In case you think the pesto would add enough herb flavor, let me just say: forget that. Pizzas can take as much herb seasoning as you can bear to add. I top the cheese with a liberal sprinkling of Greek or Mexican oregano, thyme, and dried basil (yes, more basil!), and a more modest sprinkling of dried marjoram and rosemary, again patting everything in.

Finally, it’s time for the toppings. I add diced sweet onion, minced mushrooms, sliced black olives, and diced red and orange or yellow peppers for a sublime pizza. You can add anything you love. Add enough to cover but not overwhelm your pizza. You want the pizza to be flat, not domed, when you put it in the oven. (Note: I used to add an extra step here, sauteeing the mushrooms and onions before topping the pizza. But if you mince the mushrooms and dice the onion very small, I’ve found that this step is unnecessary.)

Now for the last things. First, the cooking time. When I started trying to make pizza at home, I cooked it at too low a temperature for too long a time. The result was gummy, yucky pizza. Now, I cook it at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, or just until the cheese melts. Then I put the pizza on top of the (unheated) stove for 5 minutes to “set.” I think this is a critical stage—setting lets the pizza cheese and toppings firm up, while keeping the crust crunchy but tender. I have a pizza wheel, which will typically come with your pizza stone or cost practically nothing if purchased separately, and I use it to slice the pizza cleanly into 6-8 pie slices.

Voila! Light those candles, pour your beverage of choice, dress the salad, and serve up the pizza of your dreams. Despite our disparate tastes in pizza crusts, our friend Ben and I both love this pizza: It’s crispy enough for Ben and crunchy enough for me. And it couldn’t be easier to make. If you’re truly time-pressed, you can buy pre-sliced olives and mushrooms and/or a pack of pre-sliced pepperoni. You can pick up diced onions and pepper strips in the salad section of the grocery, or simply raid your store’s salad bar to pick up all the pre-sliced toppings you need. No excuses!

Finally, a homemade pizza we all can love! Too bad I can’t think of a good excuse to make it every day.

           ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

Pizza, please. August 20, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, pets, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Fond as I am of cooking, this past week has given me an overdose.

It started on Friday, when I went up to cook a farewell meal for six before our good friend Huma and her twins Sasha and Rashu headed off to the United Arab Emirates for the school year. Since they’d be gone ’til next June, I wanted to give them a worthy sendoff. The kids had requested the famous Crock-Pot Mac’n’Cheese (see my post “The best ever mac’n’cheese” for the super-easy, super-delicious recipe). But of course I couldn’t leave it at that, so I made my Super Summer Squash Casserole, Think Pink Gazpacho, and mixed green and yellow wax beans. (Recipes for the squash casserole and gazpacho are in my posts “Super summer squash recipes” and “A gazpacho rainbow.”) After spending gazillion hours standing up chopping vegetables and scuttling from pan to pan, not to mention the hour and a half drive to the Poconos to serve the meal, I was bushed.

Then on Saturday, don’t you know I had to turn around and do it again? Since we’d had to skip the Friday Night Supper Club (a delightful tradition—see our post “The Friday Night Supper Club” and start your own!), the gang rescheduled for Saturday night, and guess what they wanted? Crock-Pot Mac’n’Cheese. Turns out there were going to be eleven people there, so I made another huge summer squash casserole and two platters of my luscious Caprese Salad with spirals of red and yellow tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella, and a drizzle of olive oil and salt, all served in pie wedges on beautiful red romaine or other stunning lettuce leaves. (The recipe for this one is in my post “What to do with all those ripe tomatoes, part one.”) Alas, we didn’t have so much as a crumb of leftovers to take home (again).

Sunday, our friend Ben was out with some buddies, so I had one of my favorite simple summer suppers—corn on the cob, green and yellow wax beans (can you tell I love them and eat them as often as possible when they’re in season?!), and a bowl of mixed heirloom cherry tomatoes. (I love the mix of colors—red, pink, gold, orange, red with yellow streaks—and flavors. Every bite is different!)

But as all gardeners know, produce doesn’t sleep. So yesterday saw me up at 6 a.m., slicing a Xerox box full of heirloom paste tomatoes and tossing them into my two enormous LeCreuset Dutch ovens and my Crock-Pot to boil ever so slowly down for the tomato sauce I planned to make and can. (The chickens were ecstatic to get an entire compost bucket’s worth of tomato tops, and of course our tomato-loving golden retriever, Molly, got her share as well.)

Then it was time for dinner, and another opportunity to use some of those wonderful fresh veggies. I made a simple pasta sauce of sweet onions and mushrooms sauteed in olive oil with fresh basil, thyme, and oregano, then tossed in chopped red and yellow bell peppers, corn scraped from the cob, and chopped artichoke hearts. While the sauce was simmering and the pasta was cooking, I tossed together a salad of romaine lettuce, scallions, mixed heirloom cherry tomatoes, radishes, fresh mint, basil, dill, and fennel, kalamata olives, purple bell pepper, and sliced hardboiled eggs (thanks, chickens!). I poured the wine, set out an assortment of salad dressings (including my own-made vinaigrette), topped each plate of pasta with sauce and a liberal handful of grated Parmesan, and voila! Simple but satisfying, though admittedly, the tomatoey atmosphere of the kitchen (which is also our eating area) made for a rather confusing experience. (Imagine smelling tomato sauce but eating something else.)

Which brings us to today. This morning, I sauteed onions, garlic, peppers, and herbs in olive oil, reheated the lusciously thick, cooked-down tomatoes (now reduced to a single Dutch oven), added wine, lemon juice, salt, hot sauce, and balsamic vinegar, and fired up the water-bath canner. (The recipe for this sauce is in my post “What to do with all those ripe tomatoes, part three.”) lf you’ve never tried water-bath canning, I urge you to take the plunge (so to speak). lt’s incredibly easy, and so satisfying! I now have ten gleaming wide-mouthed pints of rich, luscious tomato sauce on the counter. And with bags of tree-ripened, locally grown organic peaches, plums, pears and apples in the fridge, it won’t be long before an assortment of chutneys joins them!

Meanwhile, though, I’ve had just about enough of standing over a hot stove for one week. So tonight, I’m thinking about pizza. In fact, there’s seldom a time when our friend Ben and I don’t think about pizza. How about you? Anyway, as it happens, I have exactly one jar of homemade tomato sauce left from last fall’s canning. And I have a jar of Stonewall Kitchen’s luscious pesto, thanks to some kind-hearted relatives who gave me and Ben a Stonewall Kitchen monthly gift subscription for Christmas last year. After all this cooking, I’m prepared to take a few shortcuts with tonight’s pizza, but I’m not prepared to settle for less than fabulous pizza. Here’s my plan: I’ll buy a prepared round of pizza dough. (Do any of you all have advice on this? Cheese-aisle refrigerated rounds, frozen rounds, Boboli, frozen bread dough? Favorites?) And a bag of pre-shredded mozzarella.

Then, when it’s time to put the pizza together, I can take my pizza dough, spread a thin layer of pesto on it, top that with the tomato sauce, top that with the shredded mozzarella, add a liberal dusting of dried basil, oregano, and thyme, and then some toppings. Tonight, I think I’ll add some sliced black olives, diced orange bell peppers, chopped sweet onion, and maybe some marinated button mushrooms. Or a few of those artichoke hearts. Or some fresh-off-the-cob corn. Hmmm… (Our friend Ben, no slouch when it comes to pizza preferences, listed some of his in the post “Ben Picks Ten: Veggie Pizza Toppings.”)

We still have a big bowl of salad from last night—I find that it’s usually still fine the next day as long as you dress the individual bowls rather than the whole salad—and we can enjoy both with a bottle of Quaff, a red wine from our favorite local winery, Pinnacle Ridge. Our heat-loving friend and fellow blog contributor, Richard Saunders, is joining us for dinner and bringing a bumper crop of hot peppers so I can process them for him. (He’s promised to cut them up and wash everything, thank goodness. I’ll toss the chopped peppers in the blender, puree them, and pour the puree into an ice-cube tray Richard has bought especially for the purpose. Once the cubes are frozen, I’ll put them in a labeled and dated freezer bag for him, so he can thaw each cube as he needs it. He’s envisioning many a chili, salsa, and taco-fest ahead.)

Pizza and salad! Yum. But hmmm, that oven’s going to be heated up, and there are those bags of luscious tree-ripened fruits in the fridge, and Huma sent us home with a whole quart of whipping cream… Maybe I’ll make a peach-plum crisp and whip up some cream to put on it for dessert…

        ‘Til next time,

                Silence

Ben Picks Ten: Veggie Pizza Toppings July 1, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Back in the day, our friend Ben’s favorite pizza was topped with black olives, anchovies, and pepperoni. But since meeting Silence Dogood, my pizza horizons have broadened, and now I enjoy veggie-topped pizzas as much (well, almost as much, but don’t tell Silence!) as my former favorite.

Last Thursday night, Silence and I were visiting our friends Delilah and Chaz, who had arranged a make-your-own grilled pizza party for us. Delilah and Chaz have a wonderful outdoor entertainment area, and when they do something, they do it. Their outdoor countertop was literally blanketed with yummy pizza toppings, from a jar of tomato sauce and a big bowl of mozzarella to platters of grilled veggies, chunks of sweet potato and oven-browned baking potatoes, feta cheese, raw veggies, fresh basil, and chorizo sausage and shredded chicken. (And trust me, that’s not the half of it.) They had also made and pre-grilled a platterful of pizza crusts, so all we had to do was grab a crust, load it with the toppings of our choice, and pop it on the grill.

Our friends Mary and Dave first introduced us to grilled pizzas, and let me just say, they are sooooo good. Perfect for summer. (Or anytime!) Delilah and Chaz even put unglazed tiles on top of their grilling rack and set the pizzas on the tiles to make sure the crusts crisped up just right. And of course they have a wooden pizza peel—the cutting-board-shaped, long-handled, thin wooden “spatula” that’s the best way to get the finished pizza off the grill.

Our friend Ben concocted such a perfect pizza that everyone demanded a bite and then oohed and aahed, which made me think I should share some of my topping combos with you all, pizza being, after all, one of my favorite foods. (Enshrined as it is in the pantheon of the four Ps: pizza, pasta, potatoes, and popcorn.) In honor of Silence and summer, all these use veggie toppings. Try ’em, you’ll like ’em! And please share your own faves with us.

1. Pesto pizza. After coating the crust with tomato sauce, add a layer of pesto before you put on the mozzarella. This gives a great flavor boost to the finished pizza without being as overwhelming as pesto alone sometimes is. Once you’ve added the cheese, use any toppings you like—any of the combinations that follow will work just fine (except for #10, the Indian pizza)—and finish with some shredded fresh basil to echo the pesto flavor.

2. Grilled veggie pizza. Coat the crust with tomato sauce, top with mozzarella, and add grilled rings of sweet onion (Vidalia, Walla Walla, or Candy type), strips of grilled red, yellow, and/or orange peppers, and grilled slices of portabella, baby ‘bella, and/or button mushrooms. Sprinkle with oregano, thyme, and coarse salt before sliding the pizza onto the grill.

3. Greek pizza. Coat the crust with tomato sauce, top with mozzarella, and add artichoke hearts or bases, black olives (sliced canned or seeded kalamata), and crumbled feta cheese. Top with fresh basil and/or fresh mint leaves. Simple but fabulous! To convert it to a Middle Eastern pizza, add crumbled falafel patties and diced grilled eggplant, with some yogurt cheese added prior to the mozzarella, and make sure you add the fresh mint leaves. Yum!!!

4. Pepper pizza. If you love peppers, this is the pizza for you! Coat the crust with tomato sauce and top with mozzarella. Add sliced button mushrooms and/or diced sweet onion (optional). Then top with strips of red, green, orange, yellow, “chocolate,” and/or purple bell peppers, jarred jalapeno rings, and jarred sweet pickled pepper rings to taste. Fanatics can season this pizza with a liberal sprinkling of crushed red pepper before putting it on the grill.

5. Mexican pizza. This is one of my all-time faves. Coat the crust with tomato sauce or salsa and top that with a thin layer of cilantro paste (available in tubes in the produce section of most markets). Add a layer of refried beans, a very thin layer of hot sauce (optional), and a thin layer of sour cream. Top with a mixture of mozzarella and the shredded “Mexican cheese” mixes you can buy at the store. Add diced red bell pepper, jarred jalapeno rings, sliced black olives, diced onion, minced garlic scapes (if available), and minced fresh cilantro. Allow guests to add sliced green onions, additional sour cream, hot sauce, and jalapenos, and more minced cilantro to their grilled slices before eating. 

6. Mushroom-lover’s pizza. If you really love mushrooms—if you’re one of those folks who has to make an effort to refrain from referring to them as “mushies” or “‘shrooms” in company—then this is the pizza for you. Marinate sliced portabellas in a marinade of tamari soy sauce, sliced green onions (including white part), minced garlic scapes (if available), and red wine (your choice; we usually go with chianti or whatever’s available) in the fridge overnight, shaking the container occasionally. Grill some button mushrooms over mesquite chips (or your favorite) and slice them. Saute sliced shiitake and oyster mushrooms, or one of the gourmet mushroom blends available in the produce section of most supermarkets, in butter, and drain, reserving the butter (it’s luscious on pasta; try it with sauteed sweet onions and roasted red pepper strips or arugula cooked just until wilted). Make a standard pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella (a thin layer of pesto between the tomato sauce and mozzarella is delish on this pizza), then top with the marinated portabella slices, the grilled button mushroom slices, and the sauteed mushrooms. Add fresh or dried thyme sprigs and rosemary. Sprinkle liberally with coarse salt (we like Real Salt, but you could use sea salt or Kosher salt if you prefer), and add fresh-cracked black pepper if you wish.

7. Buffalo pizza. Bufalo mozzarella is actually made with the milk of water buffaloes, not milk from American bison (aka buffaloes), a most disappointing discovery on our friend Ben’s part. So much for the romance of the open range. But never mind, it still makes great pizza, and you can always put on a CD of Native American music and look at your favorite Georgia O’Keefe painting while you’re eating it. To make buffalo pizza, spread a crust with pesto, add tomato sauce, then top it liberally with rounds of bufalo mozzarella, sprinkle on minced kalamata olives, and position a fresh basil leaf over each mozzarella round. Grill just long enough to heat through.

8. Summer garden pizza. This sounds weird, but trust me, it tastes good! Spread tomato sauce over a pizza crust and top it with fresh basil leaves or pesto. Cover with mozzarella. Add fresh sweet corn cut from the cob, super-thin slices of yellow crookneck or straightneck summer squash, rings of sweet onion (Vidalia, Walla Walla, or Candy type), sliced button mushrooms, and diced yellow, red, or orange bell pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and oregano before grilling.

9. “Say cheese!” pizza. As faithful readers know, here at Hawk’s Haven, we love cheese, so of course this pizza is a favorite with us. Spread a pizza crust with tomato sauce. Embed fresh salsa (the tomato/onion/green pepper/cilantro mix typically sold in supermarkets in the produce section, or homemade) into the sauce by pressing it in. Splash on a little hot sauce (we like Pickapeppa, or try Tabasco Chipotle or your favorite). Top this with a mix of mozzarella, white sharp Cheddar, feta, and an Italian cheese blend. The fresh salsa adds some much-needed crunch to this cheesy delight. I like to add a liberal amount of dried oregano, basil, and salt to my slices before eating them.

10. Indian pizza. Our friend Ben suspects that this will be the most exotic pizza you’ll ever try. But yow, it is good! So be brave and take the plunge if you like curry. (Otherwise, stick to the first nine.) Saute black mustardseed, whole cumin, whole fenugreek, just a pinch of cinnamon, salt, garam masala, and curry powder in butter. Add diced sweet onion (Vidalia, Walla Walla, or Candy type) and saute until clarified. Add minced button mushrooms and saute. Cook down until the mixture forms a thick filling. Coat a pizza crust with a thin layer of chutney (mango, peach, or your favorite). Top with the sauteed filling. Top this with a very thin layer of mint-coriander sauce, and then cover everything with thin slices of paneer (Indian cheese) or fresh mozzarella (bufalo mozzarella would work well for this).

And the bonus:

11. Extra cheese, onion, and black olive pizza. This is what I inevitably order when eating pizza out, dumping on oregano and salt when it arrives at the table. If you haven’t tried this particular combination, check it out!