Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Rhode Island Pizza

RI Pizza cheesechorico    RI Pizza Dough

Between growing up in New Jersey and living in Rhode Island, the states with, respectively, the largest number and percentage of Italians, I have eaten a lot of very, very good pizza. Truly fine thin-crust pizza can only be gotten in such Italian strongholds—New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven—as anyone who has had to, say, move to the middle of the country, knows. Pizza dreams always come back to that one little place that is pizza perfection for you: the right amount of black on the bottom of the thin crust, the subtle slick of oil on the top, the moderate smear of properly salted, unsweetened sauce, the restrained yet optimum amount of good cheese, browned here and there to perfection.

For as long as I can remember, Friday night was pizza night at my house: first, in New Jersey, the order of four large pizzas from a local pizzeria for our family of eight; then, in college in Rhode Island, going out for pizza on a Friday night off-campus; later, making my own every single week, a Friday night ritual. I don’t make it every Friday anymore. But I make it a lot. And lately, I’ve been making it frequently, because for the first time ever I don’t feel as if I absolutely must make my own crust or forego pizza altogether. Now in Rhode Island, pizza can be a simple matter of assembly.

A lot of good impromptu food is about assembly of great purchased products—think antipasto platters—and most dishes, including pizza, are the result of assembly of various components in the end. But first you usually have to make or cook them. Now in Rhode Island, with the exception of the truly simple and lightning-quick matter of the sauce, you don’t. You can make a true Rhode Island pizza—indeed, a more-Rhode Island-than-ever pizza—with some special products from our local producers of artisan food products.

The foundation, literally, of this Rhode Island pizza is the fresh, thin, oval pizza shells from Olga’s Cup and Saucer, now available in some local markets. Though Olga started out in Little Compton, it was not until she moved to Providence and put together a professional operation that the food began to meet my food-snob standard; with the offering of this pizza crust, I would have to say that I am now impressed. Pizza every day! Thank you, Olga.

But that is just the bottom line, or at least, the bottom. Now we also have a very good, properly salted, creamy mozzarella from Narragansett Creamery, also now available at a market near you (Thank you, Louella). And we’ve always had chouriço. So in making my Rhode Island pizza, I thought: why not substitute a good handmade chouriço for pepperoni? Not that you can’t get terrific pepperoni here, but why not push the envelope on the Rhode Island theme?

This turned out to be a very good thought. Here is how to assemble your very own Rhode Island pizza. And if you don’t live or summer here, as always, I’m sorry. But do come visit.

A Rhode Island Pizza

Partially cooked, the Olga’s shells already have a generous amount of cornmeal on the bottom; they come in packages of 2 and freeze beautifully. Commercial chouriço will yield more oil than handmade, similar to commercial pepperoni. Serves 1 as a meal, 2-3 as appetizer.

For the sauce

1 15-oz can imported Italian tomatoes, preferably Pastene™
1 T olive oil

In a medium skillet, heat the oil. If the tomatoes look watery on opening the can, drain them; if not (Pastene’s usually do not), put them right into the hot oil. Likewise, if the tomatoes seem hard (Pastene’s usually are not), cover the pan for a minute to soften them. Cook the tomatoes over moderately high heat for 2-3 minutes, chopping them with the edge of a wooden spoon, until they are broken down and a sauce begins to form. Lower the heat and cook at a moderately low simmer for anywhere from from 2-3 to 10 minutes more, depending on the tomatoes, until you can drag the spoon across the center of the pan and create a liquid-free tunnel. The sauce should be completely cohesive but not dry; be careful not to overcook, as the sauce will continue to lose some moisture on cooling. Near the end of cooking, add salt very gradually, just enough to take any acidic edge off to yield a true, sweet, round tomato flavor; again, this will depend on the tomatoes. Do not muck it up with a lot of dried herbs. Remove from the heat. Let the sauce come to room temperature before using.

For assembly

1 Olga’s pizza shell
1 8-oz Narragansett Creamery mozzarella
2-3 T freshly grated parmaggiano reggiano
¼ lb (about ½ link) hot chouriço, skin removed, sliced very thin
1 tea oregano (optional)
extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling (optional)

Preheat oven to at least 450 F, 500 F if your oven will go there. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Place the shell on a baking sheet or peel (if using a pizza stone); you can sprinkle it lightly with cornmeal, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Spread it thinly with  sauce; if you make the above amount, you will have 3 or 4 tablespoons left over, which you can refrigerate for another use. Slice the mozzarella thinly while cold (a wire cheese cutter is good for this), and arrange around the shell on top of the sauce; follow with the thinly sliced chouriço. Sprinkle with the parmesan cheese and the oregano if using. Bake until the cheese is lightly browned and gently bubbling, the crust is golden-edged, and you smell pizza. Home ovens vary widely; if you can get your oven hot, this will take 5-8 minutes, so start checking after 5. If not, it may take as long as 15 minutes. You want to remove your pizza before the bottom gets too dark or the cheese and sauce lose too much moisture; it should still have a gloss.

Remove from the oven and, if you wish, drizzle-sprinkle a tiny bit of extra-virgin olive oil on top. Transfer to a board and let sit for a minute or two; using a pizza cutter or very sharp knife, cut it into pieces and serve, with hot pepper if you like. Enjoy the real thing.


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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Apologies—and an Offering


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I’m sorry. I truly am. I really am a loyal correspondent, proud of my record of prompt response to emails, calls, and yes, comments on my blog. I thought it was just that you’d gone silent on me, sort of hibernating for the winter (and horrible spring) or something. Most of my readers email rather than post, so I didn’t think a whole lot of the fact that there was no one commenting on the blog, and I could see that it was still being read from the stats. Then, the other day, I noticed a typo in my blog and tried to get into the site to try to fix it; strangely, Little Compton Mornings was not showing up on my blog list. And I couldn’t log in.

I soon figured out that, despite a prior effort to change the email address associated with LCM, it hadn’t worked. And I still haven’t figured out why, and still can’t engineer the change. But I was able to log in with my old email address. And there, to my horror, I found nearly 30 unmoderated comments—i.e., messages from you that had gone unposted, and unanswered. They have now been published, and I am in the process of responding to them. So particularly if you asked a question, look for a belated answer in the old posts where you originally made your comment.

So I’m sorry, and wish I could make it up to you. Bring you some food to ask for forgiveness. I thought what that might be, if I really could. Some sort of simple, honest penance, I thought, like a loaf of plain, wholesome bread. So here is a virtual offering, of white bread and strawberry jam. Will you forgive me?

Rich White Bread

This bread is enriched with egg, butter, sugar, and milk. It has a nice crust and soft, flavorful crumb. It makes really good toast, and can also be used to make hamburger or other rolls. Makes 2 loaves.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For the sponge:

2 ¼ cups unbleached bread flour
¼ cup buttermilk powder
2 tea instant yeast (or 1 ½ pkg dry yeast, dissolved in ½ cup of the water)
1 ½ cups warm water

Mix together in a large bowl until well combined. Cover and let rise until very puffy and foamy, 45 minutes to an hour.

For the dough:

1 ½ cups unbleached bread flour
1 ½ tea salt
1 T sugar
1 T honey
3T butter, melted
1 large egg
½ cup additional flour or more

2 tea melted butter for brushing loaves

To the sponge, add the 1 ½ cups flour, the salt, and the sugar and honey. Stir well until it forms a sticky dough. Beat the egg into the butter (be sure it’s not too warm), and add to the dough, stirring with a wooden spoon until most of the liquid is incorporated. Using your hand, and turning the bowl with the other, work the dough in the bowl, adding the additional flour only as needed, until it has come together well into a ball. Flour the counter and turn out the dough; it will be very soft and still rather sticky. Knead it, adding as little flour as possible, until it is smooth and you can pull the dough in a solid mass up off the counter without it sticking. The dough should still be very soft. Place the ball of dough into a lightly oiled bowl, turning it once to coat. Cover, and let rise until double; this will take about 1 ½ -2 hours.

Turn the dough out without punching it down. With a lightly floured knife, divide it in two. To make loaves, flatten each piece of dough gently into an oblong the length of your bread pan and about three times its width; fold it lengthwise into three sections, like a letter, and rock it gently on the counter to form an even loaf with squared ends. Place into oiled bread pans, cover, and let rise until the dough comes up beyond the top of the pan, about 1 ½ hours. Bake the loaves for about 35-40 minutes, until nicely golden and hollow-sounding when you tap the bottom. Immediately brush with the melted butter; remove from the pans, and let cool completely before slicing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Never refrigerate homemade bread; freeze it, or leave it on the counter, wrapped in a clean dishtowel, for up to 2 days—it will be gone. 

I made rolls with half the dough; bake them at 375 F for about 12-15 minutes . See the photo at right? Note the surface of the roll—a bit bubbly and somewhat flat: they were slightly over-risen. Important lesson!: Do not get into a long conversation with your particularly talkative friends (we all have them) and forget about your dough! (Still good, of course.)

Strawberry Jam

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Following up on last week's post, I did make one small batch of jam when I was told by one of the local strawberry growers that he thought the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         berries were going to completely rot if the rain did not end soon. Which of course it hasn’t (there is even an article on the nonstop rain in today's NYT), and I had already noticed they were getting a little waterlogged. So no time to lose. Makes about 1 1/2 pints.

1 quart perfect strawberries
2 ½ cups sugar
juice of ½ lime or lemon

Remove the crowns and stems from the berries; wipe any dirt off with a paper towel. Leave smaller berries whole; slice large berries in half or, if very large,  quarters. You will have about 3 ½ cups after you have eaten your share as you work. Add the juice and sugar and  very gently turn the berries and sugar over until it is combined. Cover and leave out on the counter overnight, stirring occasionally (not in the middle of the night, of course).

In a 4-qt pan, bring the berries to a boil and cook at a moderately high boil, skimming the foam into a cup, until the jam has set, about OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         10-11 minutes; it will sheet from the spoon or form a soft gel on a cold saucer; see previous post on preserving for general guidance on cooking and storing.

I “skim the skim” near the end of cooking, as there is often some good, flavorful syrup at the bottom of the cup; I pour it back into the pot.



Monday, June 15, 2009

Surprise! Strawberries


I wasn’t really expecting them. Not yet. It wasn’t just that it had been so cold and rainy for so long, although that was a big part of it. It was more that it was only the first days of June. It seemed so early. But there they were, along with that other eagerly awaited assurance, beautiful and flavorful lettuce, that the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         summer growing season is, after all, coming to come again this year: strawberries. Surprise!

Of course, they are not cheap. Yet. Maybe never this year unless it stops raining and warms up some more. But at $5.50 a quart, worth every penny.

Not that you’re going to make a kettle full of preserves at this price. For that, we’ll wait to see what happens with the weather and the crop—meaning, to see if the price of that quart drops to $3.00 like, happily, last year. Or even $4.00. For now, there are other delights for a single quart, including that essential for the first-of-season, eating them out-of-hand. The old standby, strawberry shortcake. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Strawberry ice cream, should we get the elusive hot day (we can dream, can’t we?). Or something as simple as a strawberry syrup for plain vanilla ice cream or pound cake, or an intense strawberry butter for slathering on biscuits or thick white toast, both started by simply pushing ripe strawberries through a sieve. Biscuits and strawberry butter are, in fact, just a deconstructed version of strawberry OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         shortcake, a variation on the theme of simple biscuit dough, fruit, and cream—in this case churned beyond the whipping stage to fresh unsalted butter. It makes for a nice, quick, springtime breakfast or afternoon treat with lemonade or iced tea.

But confronted with strawberries and lettuce, an embarrassment of June riches, what else is there to do but join them—it is June, after all—in wholly flavorful matrimony. Sitting down to these first gifts of summer is as sentimental and life affirming as eating cake at a June wedding—preferably one held, and eaten, out on a Little Compton lawn. Pour the champagne, and say a toast to a new beginning. Summer, or life. They’re both the same.

Red June Wedding Salad

This is very pretty, and very good. I like to use the Boston red leaf lettuce from Coll Walker’s farm to complement the intensely pink strawberry dressing. Serves 4.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

3 T extra-virgin olive oil, preferably organic, unfiltered (see Note)
1 T half-and-half or light cream
3 medium-large strawberries, trimmed of stems and crown
½ tea aged balsamic vinegar (see Note)
½ tea white balsamic vinegar (see Note)
¼ tea salt
6-8 twists of the pepper mill

1 head red Boston lettuce or other red leaf lettuce, washed and dried

In a small bowl. whisk the cream into the olive oil with a small whisk until combined. Slice the strawberries in half or quarters; you should not need to core them, as those awful white cores are virtually nonexistent in local berries, which are, deliciously, red right through. Using your little whisk, press down on the berries—local berries are soft—and whisk them into the oil/cream mixture until they have almost disappeared, turning the mixture an intense pink with a few flecks of red. If you want bigger pieces of berry in your dressing, stop when it is as you like. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Tear the lettuce into big pieces and place in a bowl. Pour about half the dressing in and toss; add more dressing gradually until the lettuce is nicely coated, with little red bits clinging to the leaves, but not saturated. The dressing will keep well in the refrigerator for several days; it will thicken, but may be used as is, or thin it a little by whisking in a few drops of warm water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Note: Both organic olive oil and old balsamic are quite viscous—my balsamic, brought back from a trip to Italy, is like a thick syrup. If you do not have either, use regular extra-virgin olive oil, and you will likely need to use more vinegar (either regular balsamic and white balsamic or all balsamic) than is called for in the recipe—maybe 2 teaspoons total. Taste as you go. I am very fond of the Casa Pareja olive oil from Spain (where all the best olive oils hail from, in my opinion); I discovered this outstanding value oil while living in Philadelphia; you can mail order it from DiBruno’s if you cannot find it where you live.