Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Thin-Crust Pizza with Fresh Mozzarella, Veggies & Grilled Chicken

My pizza-making experience is quite limited. My pizza eating experience, however, is rather extensive, and  since I know how good it can be, I figured it was time that I learn to make my own thin, crispy crust. 

There are tons of recipes and tricks for pizza crust floating around the internet, but the technique I used comes from "My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method," by Jim Lahey with Rick Flaste. The book is fabulous, and I highly recommend it for really rich, flavorful bread with practically no effort. I've cut down his narrative a bit to give you the basic instructions, but his description is really helpful for novice bakers and general troubleshooting. This post might look like a lot of reading, but once you get the hang of it, whipping up a pizza crust will be easy peasey and totally worth it.

This crust recipe will make enough for two 13-by-18 inch pies. If you're not cooking for a crowd, store the other half of the dough in a well-oiled sealable plastic bag in the fridge for up to a day, or in the freezer for up to a month.
Extra dough waiting to be frozen. And yes, those are artificial flowers in an upcycled wine bottle!
If you freeze your dough, defrost in the fridge and bring it to room temperature before stretching.

3 3/4 cups (500 grams) bread flour
2 1/2 teaspoons (10 grams) instant or other dry active yeast
3/4 teaspoon (5 grams) table salt
3/4 teaspoons plus a pinch (about 3 grams) sugar
1 1/3 cups (300 grams) room-temperature water
Extra virgin olive oil for pans, and sealable plastic bag, if you're storing some

Toppings: (in order of appearance)
About 3/4 cup pizza or pasta sauce (I used Walnut Creek tomato and basil organic pasta sauce, which was great)
8 oz. ball fresh mozzarella, sliced into discs (about 8)
1-2 cooked chicken breasts, coarsely chopped (I used some that I had marinated in basil & balsamic and grilled)
1/2 small onion, thinly sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 green bell pepper, thinly sliced

1. In a medium bowl, stor together flour, yeast, salt and sugar. Add the water and using your hand or a wooden spoon, mix until blended, at least 30 seconds.
2. Using a bowl scraper or rubber spatula, remove dough from the bowl onto a floured work surface. Gently form into a round ball, then divide the dough into two halves, spacing them 4 inches apart, and cover both with a moistened kitchen towel for 30 minutes.
3. When you're ready to make your pizza, oil two 13-by-18 inch rimmed baking sheets. Pick up the dough, flip it over  so it is floured side up, moist side down, and stretch the dough the length of the baking sheet. Using your palms, gently pull, press and stretch the dough to fill the entire bottom of the pan. (No need to make a crust or lip around the edge). Spread the dough as evenly as possible across the entire bottom of the pan, pinching together any holes that open up. If the dough sticks to your hands. lightly dust with flour or coat your hands with oil. (I prefer the oil method). Repeat with the other ball of dough, and top as you like.

Position a rack in the center of your oven, and preheat it to 500 degrees. Spread on the sauce a little thicker around the edges, since they will cook and brown more quickly, and thicker sauce will slow that down a bit. Make sure the sauce isn't pooling anywhere, then add the toppings in the order they're listed.  Bake for about 20 minutes, until golden around the edges, and serve!

A Note about Bread Flour
Jim Lahey is the guy who finally convinced me that high-quality bread flour was actually worth buying. I'd had some good results baking with all-purpose, but for a really good chewy bread or pizza crust, the extra protein in bread flour is essential. And I figure, if a bag of King Arthur bread flour is about $5, and with it I can bake four loaves of really excellent, easy-to-make bread, I'm still well below bakery prices for a product that is fresh, fabulous and totally home-made. And now that a simple pizza is part of my bread repertoire, I'm sticking with King Arthur. (And they're definitely not paying me to say that. Not yet, at least!)

Before baking
After, crispy and golden.
You may have noticed that while my recipe says to thinly slice the peppers, my pictures tell a different story. In this case, the story is a lack of foresight that lead to big chunks of peppers that while delicious, cooked a bit too slowly and released a bit too much liquid to call this pizza a true raving success. That said, boy was it yummy - just a teeny bit soft in some places. Even with the slight excess of liquid, the crust was chewy and delicious. I think with thin slices, this pizza would be pretty close to perfect.

Quote of the Day: Pizza is a lot like sex. When it's good, it's really good. When it's bad, it's still pretty good. ~ Anonymous

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Surprise: I'm Still Alive! And I Made Cheese Tortellini in an Alfredo Sauce!

Hello readers!

It's been a while since my last post, and big things have been happening. I moved out to Western Massachusetts, and very soon afterward I became the newest full-time gallery assistant at the Don Muller Gallery, in Northampton. Every day I get to support local and national artists, help people bring beautiful things into their lives, and have a lot of fun doing it. So while it's been a bit hard to find the time to blog, I've been busy with good things, and hopefully that counts for something!

With my new work schedule, I've become extra interested in satisfying dinners that I can throw together in just a few minutes. This Alfredo recipe, while not the healthiest thing on the planet, is a sauce that returns lots of creamy, hearty flavor for minimal time and effort. And after a long day, especially if you've barely stopped for lunch, tortellini really hits the spot. Seriously, I can't be the only person who at 8 AM thinks baby carrots, yogurt and a granola bar will be a good lunch. By 2 PM I'm usually cursing 8AM-Genevieve, and definitely looking for something filling come dinnertime.

I think that a traditional Alfredo involves all the creamy stuff I used and not a single veggie, but I added some frozen peas for color, and to slightly relieve the guilt factor. Very slightly. This recipe serves two, with some leftover sauce for lunch another day.

1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup frozen peas
1 cup heavy cream
1 9 oz package cheese tortellini
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 1/2 cups grated Gruyere or Parmesan, or a combination (I used mostly Gruyere with about 1/4 cup of Parm)
1/4 cup chopped parsley (optional)

1. In a large pot, cook pasta according to package directions. Add peas in last two minutes of cooking. Drain.
2. While your pasta is cooking, in a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt your butter. Add cream, simmer for a few minutes, then add garlic and cheese, whisking constantly until heated through.
3. Stir in parsley, if using, and pour over pasta and peas. Gently mix to combine, and serve immediately.
If I'd had a different sort of winter - one not full of master's theses and moving and job hunting - I like to think I might have a bag of home-made tortellini or ravioli in my freezer to use for something like this. But, things being what they are, I must admit that there are some pretty good packaged pasta options out there. So, haters gonna hate.

Quote of the Day: Fettucini alfredo is mac and cheese for adults. ~ Mitch Hedberg

Friday, January 13, 2012

Beer-Battered Fish Tacos with Creamy Chipotle Sauce

The first time I had fish tacos was just this past September, in while in Aruba with my sister Allie. One evening after being totally exhausted from a fantastic snorkeling trip and not feeling much like venturing downtown for dinner, we headed down to the hotel's sports-themed bar/restaurant for a quick bite. We were very, very pleasantly surprised. Despite the corny ambiance we were fully impressed by their fish tacos, made with perfectly fried local fish and fresh, yummy toppings on white flour tortillas. Delish.

So, for some reason, I decided that I wanted to make some fish tacos of my own while still here on the Cape. Adventure!

The sauce is based off of my recipe for the spicy chipotle dressing that I used in my black bean bowls with brown rice and sweet corn salsa back in June. Basically you'll want to make the dressing in a food processor and add sour cream until you are happy with the texture - probably around three quarters of a cup or more. Since this will also cool down the spiciness of the sauce, it may take a little fiddling with to reach the level of spiciness that you're going for, but it's totally worth it. Also, this way you can make a signature sauce that's all your own.
Crispy golden fried fish covered in sauce and toppings.
This recipe serves 4 people.

1 1/2 lb. fresh cod fillets, sliced diagonally into about 4 inch strips
White flour tortillas (Not corn. That is a mistake that I very nearly made.)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 12 oz. bottle of lager (I used Sankaty Light Lager made by Cisco Brewers on Nantucket, which I recommend.)
Oil for frying (quantity will depend on the vessel you're using)
1/2 tsp. Old Bay Seasoning or a "house seasoning" mix

Oil for frying
Slotted or basket spoon, wok or cast-iron dutch oven for frying

1. Heat oil in your dutch oven or wok. If you have a thermometer for these purposes, you'll want it around 375 Fahrenheit. If not, you want it hot enough that if you add a drop of water, the oil sizzles and freaks out a little. Very scientific. (Another trick is to test the temperature with a cube of bread. If it browns within a minute, it's ready to go). Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 Fahrenheit.
2. Wrap your tortillas up in some aluminum foil and place in the oven. In a large bowl, pour out the beer. Sift 1 1/2 cups of the flour into the bowl, add house seasoning and whisk until just combined.
3. Pat fish dry with a paper towel, season on both sides with salt and pepper and coat with beer batter. Dredge fish in remaining flour and slide into the oil.
4. Fry fish until deep golden and cooked through, about 4 - 5 minutes. Transfer to baking sheet lined with paper towels and keep warm in oven, frying the remaining fish in batches.
5. Serve fish with toppings and sauce on a small pitcher, gravy boat, or with a ladle, and the warmed tortillas.

This batter is, in a word, fantastic. With the Sankaty Light Lager we used our batter came out light and crispy, without overwhelming the delicious, flaky white fish. I would recommend this for any kind of fried fish or seafood that you feel like beer-battering. The toppings are up to your own artistic license. I served them with shredded red cabbage, thinly sliced red onion, guacamole, a wedge of lime and the chipotle sauce, but they would also be delicious with a corn salsa, diced peppers and onions or even cucumber, if you're feeling adventurous.

My only caveat with this dish is the work involved. There is nothing difficult about the frying - the battering and cooking are all pretty simple - but you will almost certainly want an extra set of hands to help scoop out the cooked fish strips and transfer them to the baking sheet. Fortunately my Mom was there to (enthusiastically) do everything that my batter-covered hands were much too gunky to do. So grab a friend or two, some fresh fish and a beer and make some yummy, crispy tacos!

Quote of the Day: Chance is always powerful. Let your hook always be cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be fish. ~ Ovid