Saturday, July 30, 2011

Perfect Pesto Pizza

Here you can see a basil plant in our backyard:

What you can't see is the second equally enormous plant immediately behind this one, nor the big bunches we have been receiving each week in our CSA box. I suspect we would have basil growing out our ears if we weren't careful. Of course, there is only one logical option for such an inundation... make pesto!

I base my pesto on the recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, Simply in Season, which contains wonderful everyday dishes using seasonal produce from the northern half of North America. It's the perfect cookbook if you shop regularly at a farmer's market or participate in a CSA, and provides helpful tips for how to eat seasonally and inexpensively.

First, toast 1/3 cup of pine nuts, walnuts or hazelnuts in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Personally, I like to use walnuts since they're a little less expensive than the others and we usually have them on hand. You don't need any oil, just keep stirring the nuts to keep them from scorching until they start to turn golden and smell fragrant. Allow the nuts to cool.

Next, put all of the following into a food processor and finely chop:
  • 1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 1/3 toasted nuts
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

With the food processor running, gradually add 1/3 cup (or more to get a consistency you like) extra virgin olive oil to make a thick paste.

If you intend to use the pesto within a few weeks, you can store it in a glass jar with a lid. When you first put the pesto in the jar and each time after you use it, flatten out the surface of the pesto with a spoon and pour a thin layer of olive oil over the surface. This helps the pesto stay a bright green color (it oxidizes and turns brown in contact with air) and keeps it fresh longer.

If you want to freeze pesto for use through the winter, omit the garlic and cheese and pour the pesto into ice cube trays. When frozen, you can pop the cubes out and store them in a bag in the freezer. It's easy to defrost a cube or two as you need them; just add garlic and cheese.

All of this talk about pesto might leave you wondering "where's the pizza?" Well, one of the best parts about making super delicious homemade pesto is that the pizza itself can be very simple. We put artichoke hearts on ours, but I thought they were unnecessary and over-complicated the flavors. The pizza would have been perfect with just three toppings:

TOPPINGS (layered in this order):
  1. Whatever crust you have on hand, par-baked. The very best pizza crust ever or the simple crust are equally delicious for this one.
  2. Thin spread of pesto. A little flavor goes a long way, so there's no need to overdo it.
  3. Grated mozzarella cheese or thin slices of fresh mozzarella
  4. Thinly sliced fresh garden tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes
That's it! Bake at 450 degrees F for 7 minutes. There's no need to top this one with more Parmesan or olive oil, since the pesto supplies more than enough of those flavors.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ratatouille Pizza

As I was afraid, when I googled ratatouille to make sure I was spelling it correctly, the first three search items were about the animated film. Nothing like associating French cuisine with a talking rodent.

Then again, in our apartment, we automatically associate ratatouille with an outrageous French accent and the gratuitous use of the three French phrases we know: oui, oui; impossible (approximately *ahm-pos-seeb-leh*); and les poissons. I had to turn on some Edith Piaf and stick my recently acquired Bastille Day flag above my desk in order to channel the appropriate je ne sais quoi for writing about pizza.

The wine, unfortunately, is Australian, so it's not helping much.

Ratatouille, for the layperson, is a traditional French dish of stewed vegetables, usually high summer veggies like tomatoes, eggplant (aubergine), zucchini, bell peppers, onions, garlic, basil and marjoram. I have always thought of it as a way to use up garden excess while producing a delicious, colorful meal.

Even though our zucchini plant succumbed to destructive squash bugs the other week and our tomatoes seem averse to actually ripening, we realized we had a pretty good assortment of the necessary ingredients on hand. There were a few leftover zucchini in our fridge, a green tomato fell off the vine when we were trying to fix the stake, our white Japanese eggplant were reaching full size, and various peppers were turning red.

The combination is tres délicieux, although you should feel free to substitute whatever fresh summer produce you have on hand.

TOPPINGS (layered in this order):
  1. Very best pizza crust ever, par-baked
  2. finely chopped garlic
  3. diced tomatoes (fresh if you have them; we used some leftover canned ones)
  4. sliced green tomatoes (if you have abundant ripe tomatoes, combine #3 and #4)
  5. very thinly sliced zucchini
  6. thinly sliced onion
  7. shredded mozarella
  8. very thinly sliced eggplant, tossed in olive oil (I recommend small, skinny Japanese eggplants. If you use a larger eggplant, be sure to salt it for 20 minutes and press out some of the liquid before putting on the pizza)
  9. thinly sliced red bell peppers or mild cherry peppers 
Bake at 350 degrees F (lower than usual) for about 15 minutes (longer than usual), until the eggplant is tender all the way through. Top with grated Parmesan and an assortment of chopped fresh herbs such as basil, marjoram, oregano, etc.

Bon appétit!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Pita Pizza

Imagine, if you will, two creative individuals with similarly creative careers (aka they work nonstop doing things they enjoy for piddling amounts of money) arriving at home late one evening after their respective gigs. They are a little hungry, a little grumpy and not at all interested in having a pile of dishes to wash. The fridge seems awfully bare and the pickings look slim, until—voilà—one of them notices that the stale pita bread in the bottom of the lefthand fridge drawer strongly resembles a pizza crust. Out comes a crusty-rimmed bottle of pasta sauce, a few soggy mushrooms, the last artichoke hearts floating in the jar, a chunk of leftover cheese. A few minutes in the toaster oven, and the pita pizza is born.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hello Summer Pizza

City living isn't always kind to gardeners, but we have the good fortune to have a slab of fenced-in concrete for container gardening, a garden plot in a nearby community garden, and a CSA share from a local farm. Summer produce in abundance. Currently, our CSA has been overflowing with lettuces and kale and our garden plot has been exponentially producing cucumbers, so we've been gorging ourselves on salads while we wait for everything else to ripen. (Picked one cherry tomato today!)

But frankly, we're getting tired of salad and our various attempts to creatively prepare cucumbers are losing their novelty, so we recently gave in and picked up some tomatoes and peppers from a farmer's market.

Tonight, in spite of the 95-degree heat, we thought it was time for our favorite summer veggie pizza, so we fired up the oven (yikes), sliced tomatoes and already-roasted red peppers and walked out back to snip some fresh basil. It was exactly as delicious as we remembered it, although I'm sure when we make it again entirely with vegetables we grew ourselves, all of that hard work and nurturing attention will make it taste even better.

TOPPINGS (layered in this order):
  1. par-baked very best pizza crust ever
  2. brush of extra virgin olive oil
  3. minced garlic
  4. shredded mozzarella cheese
  5. sliced fresh tomatoes
  6. sliced roasted red peppers
  7. fresh basil leaves, snipped into small pieces
  8. a sprinkle of salt
Bake at 450° F for about 7 minutes, then top with more fresh basil and a sprinkle of Parmesan.

Someday soon we need to experiment with grilled pizza and keep all of that heat outside!