Fool Me Twice

July 22, 2008

It’s a minor miracle that this grilled pizza conjures up anything other than the bitter taste of defeat. I’ve made it twice now and both times have been near total disasters. The first time, we had guests and I have no idea how I held it together while they sat sipping wine 10 yards away. I kept glancing over at them from my post at the grill with a perky smile and a hostess-y wave, only to turn back to the pizza, cursing mutedly. And on Sunday night, after a long day of studying, my second try at this pizza nearly reduced me to tears.

(Click “more” for the rest of the story, more photos & the recipe.)

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My Life in Pizza

June 3, 2008

I’ve had a longstanding infatuation with pizza. It was born at the local Chuck E. Cheese, I think, at some kid’s birthday party where I spent more time marveling at the giant slices than watching those creepy mechanical animals sing and dance. And then there was one of my own birthday parties where we made homemade pizzas, which unsurprisingly resulted in saucy faces and an unfortunate mozzarella-in-the-hair episode. Oh, and I couldn’t possibly forget the Apollo, a “pizza parlor” (bar) in northern Minnesota near my grandparents’ house. We’d arrive early (to avoid the debauchery of the later hours, I now realize) and feed quarter after quarter into the pinball machine (right next to the pull tabs) and jukebox (flanked by neon beer signs that emitted a faint buzzzz). The menu featured a predictable array of jalapeno poppers and deep-fried, well, anything. But, man, was (is) the pizza good, with a cracker-thin crust, a zesty old-school sauce and a modest smatter of mozzarella. It was usually bedecked with bits of Italian sausage that were nearly meatball-sized and sliced into little squares. You don’t even want to know the number of those little squares I could pack away as a small child.

In high school, I fell for a pizzeria in Minneapolis, where the waiters slid the piping hot pizza trays onto old tomato cans, papered with cheery, vintage-y images. In college, I was introduced to deep-dish and the joys of the nearly-free pitchers of beer at Giordano’s on Monday nights. I also had a little frozen pizza habit, usually indulged in the wee hours, but I think that’s best left in the past, no? And then there was my trip to Europe with Kevin, the Italian leg of which involved at least one pizza (and a scoop of gelato, ahem) a day.

(Click “more” for the rest of the story, more photos & the recipe.)

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Ramps!!

April 29, 2008

Clearly, I’m atoning for Saturday’s seasonally-disfunctional post (stuffed bell peppers, in April!). Between yesterday’s favas beans, asparagus and peas and today’s ramps (RAMPS!!!), I’d like to think my errant eating has been absolved. So, about these ramps: I was beyond excited to find them at the market. They were tucked haphazardly among the chiles, unmarked (probably the only reason I was able to score some) and unpriced (ominous, for sure). I gathered up a bunch and sort of lost myself for a second, marveling at how simultaneously humble and stunning they looked. I spotted a nearby employee and asked him, wide-eyed and awestruck, “Are these ramps?” He smiled knowingly at me and assured me that they were indeed. Clearly, he understood. As I returned to my handful of the beauties, he mentioned: “$11.99 a pound, by the way.” I snapped out of my reverie, promptly returned half-a-handful of the ramps and began scheming about how I’d put the remaining ones to use.

Well, let me just tell you that the Internets were surprisingly unhelpful. There were not a ton of ramp recipes out there. As I was just about to abandon recipes altogether and go freestyle (probably a little reckless, seeing as though I’d never actually tasted ramps before), I found a recipe at Food & Wine’s site for a white cheese pizza with ramps.

(Click “more” for the rest of the story, more photos & the recipe.)

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Calzones for a Crowd

December 26, 2007

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Cooking for one—when I was in college (though, let’s be honest, cooking was pretty rare during my college days) and when we were in D.C., while Kevin was in grad school and sometimes had night class—was tough. It’s difficult to buy portions, divide up recipes and, more than anything, to get excited about cooking for yourself. Cooking for two can have many of the same problems in terms of portions and recipe quantity, but, at this point, I’m pretty used to it.

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Even though I’ve gotten the hang of cooking for two, I still revel in having an extra person or two (or ten) at the table when I’ve cooked breakfast, lunch or dinner. That’s one reason why I love Family Dinner so much. It’s also a major reason why I enjoy going home for the holidays. As you’ve probably noticed from the last few days’ posts, my status as a food lover does not make me unique in my family. Holidays often center around meals (and snacks and sports and card games, too).

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While my mom had a file folder bulging with recipes to try over this long Christmas weekend, I was pretty sure I’d have my chance to cook for the crowd too. And while I absolutely adore cooking for a crowd, it’s also not without its challenges. Especially when the appetites you’re aiming to please span more than fifty years and various likes and dislikes.

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As Sunday night rolled around, I got to thinking about a dinner that would suit the evening, which was going to be anchored by an important Vikings game and a blizzard, and the appetites. The answer came to me: calzones. I was looking for something that involved a “project” of sorts—something I might not do on an ordinary night. Making pizza dough fit the bill. And I definitely wanted something cozy. A packet of dough swollen with delicious ingredients satisfied that criterion. And, of course, I had to have something that would please everyone. By stuffing four calzones with different fillings, I had my perfect meal.

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We settled on the following calzones: (1) Italian sausage and spinach, with mozzarella, (2) Canadian bacon and cheddar, (3) roasted peppers and mushrooms with fontina, and (4) pepperoni and mozzarella. An informal poll after dinner revealed that the meat lovers were satisfied (more with the sausage than with the pepperoni, which just wasn’t bulky enough to fill the calzone’s pocket), the mushroom hater had plenty to enjoy despite the calzone featuring roasted veggies, and the more traditional palates weren’t pushed outside of their comfort zones (Canadian bacon was the favorite there). A great success. And infinitely adaptable for one, two or ten—both in terms of numbers and appetites.

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Sibling Rivalry

November 27, 2007

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Growing up, my sister was a stand-out hockey player. Yes folks, in Minnesota (and elsewhere), girls play hockey. I, on the other hand, can fend for myself on a pair of skates—but give me a hockey stick, and it’s all down hill (read: it’s all fall down) from there. While she was the captain of her hockey team, I was the student council president. While she shot pucks at our battered garage door, I tucked into good books.

Our differences continued during our childhoods and early adulthood. I hesitantly chose a college that, at 7,500 undergrads, seemed impossibly large to me. By contrast, her Big Ten alma mater seemed just big enough to her at 30,000 undergrads. There, she developed a real flair for the social life, which garnered countless great stories—some riotous and others regretful. As she put it in her Maid-of-Honor-Toast at my wedding last August: “Kristin chose a career in the law. And, me? I’ve had a few run-in’s with the law.” (Don’t worry, nothing serious.)

So I guess it shouldn’t come as a shock that I developed a penchant for complicated recipes and obscure ingredients when I finally had a kitchen to myself after college, while my sister has turned to Lean Cuisines with a vengeance in her newly-fresh-from-college days. Despite my deep, wide, intense dislike for frozen, boxed dinners (especially those containing 50% or more of one’s daily recommended intake of sodium), I can’t complain too much. You see, my sister’s first real kitchen is here in Chicago—less than mile from my place.

This proximity has spawned what we now affectionately call “Family Dinner.” My parents aren’t here (and we always wish they were!), but my sister, husband and I have formed a little Windy City tradition of our own. Each week, Ali gets a respite from the Lean Cuisine regimen and makes the trek west on Armitage to our place (never fear—she cues up her DVR to catch whatever TV shows she might be missing that night). And I have an excuse to hatch a particularly delectable menu approximately once a week (and an excuse to have an extra glass of wine, too!).

During one of our first Family Dinners, we embarked on a homemade pizza recipe I found at smittenkitchen.com. As an avowed pizza connoisseur, I have never been bowled over by the pies I’ve whipped up myself. The crust is too spongy, the sauce lacks pizzazz (wow – that almost spelled pizza – cool), and the toppings just never attain the right level of doneness. They simply can’t live up to my favorite Chicago spots (none of which, by the way, involve the deep dish style for which this fair city is known): Spacca Napoli, Piece and Coalfire.

But I’ve come to trust Deb, the woman at the helm of Smitten Kitchen. And, with her pizza recipe, she didn’t lead me astray. In fact, she even led Ali on one of her first major culinary voyages—she and I staged a pizza cook off, of sorts. We each made a pie and left my husband, Kevin, (all too happy to be the judge) to choose a winner.

In the Family Dinners since then, I’ve taken the reins on much of the cooking. I assumed my sister would much prefer a home-cooked meal (one that didn’t leave her up-to-the-elbows in flour) to being roped into sous chef duties. Much to my surprise, then, my mom recently called while my sister was visiting her in Minnesota. Apparently, Ali had announced a make-your-own pizza night, using none other than the recipe we’d used during Family Dinner. Maybe we aren’t so different after all. And perhaps my assumption that Ali didn’t like being “roped into” a kitchen duty or two was just plain wrong.

Oh, and the winner of the original Family Dinner bake off shall remain nameless!

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