Archive | January 2012

Pizza Night


Pizza and I go way back. It’s the meal I remember my family making together. My mother made the dough, but my dad was the one who tossed it up to the ceiling. It was Chicago-style deep dish pizza with lots of toppings and gooey mozzarella. We loved it.

Drew and Our Pizza Oven We still love it. Pizza is Drew’s favorite meal. He loves it so much that he built a wonderful wood-fired pizza oven that bakes a pizza in about 3 minutes flat. So, visiting Southern Italy was like going to Mecca. Pizza is everywhere. The first night at Serra Gambetta, we were treated to pizza straight from the wood-fired oven in the courtyard. The first was topped with crushed tomato, garlic, and fresh basil leaves, another with wild mushrooms and green peppers, a third with tomato and fresh mozzarella di bufalo, and a final version was topped with shavings of aged cheese and slivers of procuitto right after it was pulled from the oven. The crust was thin and crisp, with a lovely, puffy rim.

Bakery In ItalyLater in our trip, we stayed at Tenuta San Arcangelo, surrounded by wheat fields (producing some of the best-tasting wheat in Italy!). Our host Gerardo took us to visit a baker in the hill town of San Agata, where we watched the bakers spin pizza dough to fill large, rimmed pans. These pizzas had thick crust doused liberally with olive oil and crushed tomatoes. The bakers opened cans of whole plum tomatoes in puree, dumped them into a giant bowl, and crushed them to a chunky sauce with their hands. We didn’t get to see what other toppings went on these pies because it was 1 a.m., and the pans full of dough and sauce went into the refrigerator while the night’s baking of hundreds of loaves of bread carried on.

Joe and Suzy With Their Pizza In RomeFinally, in Rome, the travelers made a pilgrimage to Pizzarium, a pizzerria where takeout pizza is sliced off and sold by weight . They make a thick, well-risen crust–baked perfectly to create a lovely open crumb– supporting a generous amount of toppings. And the toppings! Everything from rabbit and broccoli rabe to arugula salad…and all the fresh and aged cheeses, cured meats, and grilled vegetables you could hope for.

Slow-rise Pizza

Calzone, Pitta, Panini, and Focaccia

PizzaThe best pizza dough is made with a small amount of yeast and a long, cool fermentation (rise). Time is the important factor for developing flavor and texture. Making the dough one or two days before you want to make pizza gives the best results. I make my pizza dough using the same slow-rise technique I use for all my breads.

The process starts with a sponge, or starter.

Slow-rise starter: Dissolve 1/2 tsp dry yeast in 1/2 cup warm (105-110 degrees F). Wait until it becomes creamy, 1 to 5 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups more luke-warm water, 3 cups unbleached bread or all-purpose flour (I often use a combination), and 2 Tbs whole wheat flour. Stir in the same directions about 100 times to make a sticky sponge. I put my sponge in a straight-sided plastic storage container so that I can see how much it rises. It should rise to 3 times the original height. I make a mark on the side of the container, put the cover on, and let it ferment at room  temperature ( ideally 72-74 degrees F )for 6 to 8 hours.

This amount of starter is enough for 3 batches of pizza dough or other bread. Sometimes I just divide it in half and use half for pizza and half for focaccia. The starter may be used without additional yeast if it is used when it is most active–shortly after the 6-8 hour rise. For extra puff-power, add another 1/4 tsp yeast when you make the dough.

Louise Making PizzaMake the dough: You will need 1/4 tsp yeast dissolved in 1 cup warm water, 1 1/2 cups of the starter-sponge, 3 to 3 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour, 2 tsp kosher salt, and 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil. You can mix the dough with some kind of machine or in a large bowl by hand. Combine the yeast mixture and starter-sponge and gradually stir in 3 cups of the flour, salt, and oil to make a sticky, rough dough. Use a large plastic spatula or dough scraper to scrape the dough from the sides of the bowl and gather it into a smooth ball. Cover and let it rest 5 minutes.

Kneading can be done on a lightly floured work surface or in an oiled bowl. Wet, sticky dough is not really kneaded as much as pulled, stretched, and folded, so I find it easier to leave it in the bowl. Continue to pull and fold, rotating the dough, for 3 to 5 minutes. Form the dough into a ball, cover, and let it rest again for 15 minutes. Now turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead by pressing, folding and turning. Add as little additional flour as possible, using a dough scraper to help lift and turn the dough.

After 3 to 5 minutes, the dough should be smooth and elastic. Form the dough into a ball and put it into an oiled bowl. Cover and let it rise at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Reform the ball, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for 8 hours or up to 3 days.

Making the Pizza

Warm up the dough: take the dough out of the refrigerator and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into equal pieces (2 or 3 large pizzas, or 4 to 6 smaller ones). Roll each piece into a ball, cover and let the dough warm up to room temperature, up to 1 1/2 hours. This is important unless you want a very thin, unrisen crust.

Baking Your PizzaHeat the oven: Pizza bakes best in a very hot oven on a pre-heated surface. Place a baking stone or a heavy cast iron griddle on the lowest rack of the oven 30 to 45 minutes before you want to bake the pizza. Heat the oven to 500 degrees F.

Shape the dough: Put a ball of dough on a lightly floured surface. Dust the top of the ball with flour and gently press the ball into a flat circle about 1/2 inch thick. Now lift the disk and place it over the backs of your fists so that you can use your thumbs and knuckle (and gravity) to slowly stretch the dough into a larger disk. Rotate and stretch the dough until the desired diameter is reached. The rim will be thicker that the middle. If you are really good, you can speed up and rotate the disk between your two open hands like a spinning frisbee. Using a rolling pin is less fun, but that’s another option. When the dough is as large and as thin as you like, transfer the dough to a well-oiled baking sheet or a generously floured peel if you are using a heated baking stone. I use aluminum pizza pans sprinkled with cornmeal or semolina to hold the pizza until it is ready to go into the wood oven or onto a heated iron griddle in my gas oven. If you are not using a stone or griddle, put the dough on an oiled baking sheet.

Italian PizzaTopping the pizza: Keep in mind that if you are sliding a pizza from a peel onto a pizza stone or iron griddle in the oven, you are more likely to succeed if the toppings are sparse. Sauce should be spread thinly enough to see the dough. If you like a lot of topping, you are better off assembling the pizza in the pan it will be baked in.

*Pre-Columbian flat-bread: Strew chopped fresh rosemary or sage leaves (garlic if you like) over the pizza dough, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt.

*Classic Margherita: Crushed tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Add the fresh basil leaves when the pizza comes out of the oven.

*Pugliese (from Puglia): Drizzle the dough with olive oil, sprinkle with minced garlic and halved cherry tomatoes or oven-dried plum tomatoes. When the pizza comes out of the oven, top it with a salad of thinly sliced red onion and arugula , tossed with olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

Italian Pizza*Basil pesto with Artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and roasted red peppers. Drizzle with olive oil. Garnish with shavings of Parmesan when it comes out of the oven.

*Sauteed onions, crumbled bacon, and gorgonzola.

*Crushed tomato with anchovies, garlic, and black olives.

*Serra Gambetta: Crushed tomato and garlic. Top the pizza with fresh basil leaves, thin slices of procuitto and shaving of Parmesan or Pecorino when it comes from the oven.

*Pizza Louise: Olive oil and garlic, grilled or cooked vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower…), and a little grated parmesan.

Bake the pizza! Slide the pizza onto the heated stone or griddle, It should be ready in 6 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the dough and amount of toppings.

Buon appetito.

Calzone, Panini, or Pitta

Calzone are small, folded-over pizzas, panini is a rolled up one, and a pitta is a doublecrust pizza. Any pizza toppings are good for filling calzone, as long as they are not too liquid. Tomato sauce…cooked sausage or bacon or diced salami or ham… soft melting cheeses like mozzarella, provolone or fontina…aged cheeses like Parmesan, pecorino, asiago, or Romano…cooked vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, onions, potatoes, spinach, chard …left-over meatballs? Grilled chicken? Pepperonata? Pesto? What do you have?

Heat the oven to 450 degrees, F.

Prepare the dough as for a pizza, rolling the dough with a rolling pin to a diameter of 8 or 9 inches, a little less that 1/4 inch thick. Put the filling on one half of the dough, fold it over, and press the edges to seal. Brush the tops with olive oil, put the calzone on an oiled baking sheet, and bake 12 to 15 minutes.

I like to make pitta in my largest cast iron skillet. I stretch the dough to fit the pan (or just press it into the oiled pan until it starts to push up the sides). Sauteed onion with wilted spinach or chard is my favorite filling. Sometimes I add crumbled feta cheese or slices of fresh mozzarella. Roll or stretch another piece of dough to cover the top and press the edges together. Brush the top with olive oil and bake the pitta 20 minutes @ 450 degrees. Lower the temperature to 400 degrees and bake for another 10 minutes. The crust should be golden -brown. Cool 10-15 minutes before cutting.


FocacciaFocaccia is a wonderfully easy bread to make, and wonderfully delicious with or without toppings. To make focaccia, follow the directions for making pizza dough, but add 1/4 cup more water when you mix the dough. Because the dough is wetter and stickier than for pizza, all of the kneading is the stretch and fold process done with the dough left in a large oiled bowl. Pull, stretch, and fold the dough for 3 to 5 minutes, then cover and let the dough ferment at room temperature for 1 hour. Gently press the dough down and shape into a smooth ball. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate for 8 hours to 3 days.

Focaccia With Various SpreadsShaping and baking: Take the dough out of the refrigerator and allow it to warm to room temperature (1 1/2hours). Slide the dough out of the bowl onto a generously oiled baking sheet or shallow pan. I like to use my largest cast iron skillet. Press the dough into an oval or round shape about 1/2 inch thick. Dimple the dough with you fingertips. Drizzle (or slosh) the top with olive oil. Add any toppings you like: chopped herbs, sun-dried or oven-dried tomatoes, olives, caramelized onions…or maybe just some coarse salt.

Slicing FocacciaHeat the oven to 450 degrees F. Let the focaccia proof (rise) for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.


Southern Italy and La Cucina Povera

IItalian Agriturismo‘m starting with the food of Southern Italy because Drew and I traveled there with dear friends Joe and Suzy last October. We stayed in two agriturismo  accommodations (farms that have room and board for guests), one amid the wheat fields near Foggia and the other down the Adriatic coast in a region of ancient olive trees, vineyards, almonds, and rock. Both of our hosts (Domenico and Gerardo) grew up near the land they now farm and are passionate about the traditional cooking of Puglia. The meals they serve are prepared with locally produced cheeses, meats, fruits and vegetables, and wine and olive oil from their own farms. All of these taste of this ancient land, the sun, and the rich volcanic soil.

Large Olive Tree - Suzy DesLauriersThe cooking of Southern Italy is traditionally La Cucina Povera–the food of poor peasants, or La Cucina Rustica–simple country cooking. What could be better? This is the food that first got me interested in cooking.  Cooking with few ingredients, but much creativity and love. The few ingredients are full of flavor, and treated carefully with patience and attention. To cook this food, Domenico says, “you must feel the food, you must be present, and you must feel the spirit (of the place).”

Garden of Lush Vegetables - Suzy DesLauriersSo what did we eat in Puglia? Lots of little dishes adding up to an elegant and delicious meal. We were served Italian style, in courses, with plenty of time to appreciate each offering. The following menus don’t look very povera, but they all stem from traditional peasant cooking and illustrate the Southern Italian genius for turning humble ingredients into fine fare.

(Photograph Note: Large Olive Tree & Garden of Lush Vegetables were taken by, and are property of, Suzy DesLauriers)


Menus from Serra Gambetta (recipes below and to come)

 Fava e Chicorie

(puree of fava beans with wild chicory greens)

Frittata di Zucchini

(zucchini frittata)

Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce

Grilled Steak with Roasted Onion

Green Salad


Italian bread

Chicory greens with Egg and Cheese

Orecchiette with tomato sauce

Braciole al Sugo

(meat rolls in tomato sauce)

Salad of garden lettuce and shaved fennel

Grapes and Pears



Ricotta forte

Tapenade of sweet red pepper

Risotto with zucchini and flowers

Carrots with mint

Eggplant Parmigiana

Jam Tart


Crepes with zucchini stuffing

Gratin of Fennel

Pasta with Broccoli

Cheese plate

Tomato Salad

Tart of Pears and Ricotta



I’m introducing some Italian words here because I think they are so beautiful, and because I think they help the cook understand how to build flavor. The battuto is the name for  chopped aromatic ingredients (onion, garlic, carrot, celery, parsley…) that create a flavor base. When those ingredients are cooked in a skillet with fat (olive oil, butter, or flavorful fat rendered from a pork product), the battuto becomes the sofritto. More magic occurs  in the next step, insaporire–“bestowing taste”. I love this description  of how you add other main ingredients to the sofritto and cook them over brisk heat to completely wrap them in the flavor elements of the base.

Allowing sufficient time for these steps–battuto, sofritto, insaporire  (it’s like breathing)–is perhaps the most important thing you can do to create satisfying flavor. Ingredients for a sofritto vary, but whatever they are, don’t dump them all into the pan at once. Add each ingredient in its turn.

Gerardo Cooking


Fava BeansFava e Chicorie: This is the signature peasant dish of Puglia. I loved that Gina picked the greens for our dinner from the untended land beside the garden. The wild chicory can be replaced by cultivated chicory (see garden notes), broccoli rabe, mustard greens, chard or spinach. Dried, peeled yellow fava beans are used for the puree.

Cooking the fava beans: 1/2 lb dried fava beans makes about four servings. Be sure to use favas without skins. Rinse the beans, then put them in a pot with water to cover by several inches. Let them soak for at least 8 hours. Drain, and put the beans back in the pot with water to cover by two inches. Bring them to a boil, reduce the heat, and maintain a low simmer for 1 hour (or until they become very soft – Domenico says they take 3 hours on a very low fire). When the beans soften and begin to fall apart, they can be beaten with a spoon or potato masher to make a puree. Add salt to taste and continue cooking  and stirring until they make a very smooth puree (or use a food mill or blender). The fava puree we ate was like a very thick soup.

When we ate this dish at Serra Gambetta it was so delicious I thought it had more flavorings than just chicory and fava beans, so when I made it at home I added garlic and chile. Domenico says there is no garlic or chile, just olive oil (very flavorful) and salt.

Cooking the greens: You’ll need one bunch (around 1 lb.)of greens from the list above. The bitterness of greens like chicory, broccoli rabe and mustard is mellowed by blanching. Drop the rinsed and trimmed greens into a pot of boiling salted water. After two minutes, drain and chop. Heat 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil with 1 Tbs minced garlic and 1/4 tsp red chile flakes in a 10-12-inch skillet over medium heat. Cook about 2 minutes to soften the garlic. Add the chopped greens and toss to coat with the oil. Turn the greens frequently until heated through and tender. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Stir the greens into the fava  puree or serve them separately for each person to add as they wish.

Serve the fava and greens in soup bowls, with a delicious extra virgin olive oil or olio santo to drizzle on top. Garnish with oven-dried tomatoes (recipe to come).

Olio Santo (hot chile oil) is oil infused with dried red chiles. Warm 1/2 cup olive or grapeseed oil with 2-3 Tbs dried red chile flakes gently over low heat just until small bubbles rise around the chile. Turn off the heat and transfer into a small glass jar or bowl. Let stand at least 1 hour, preferably a day, before using.

TomatoeQuick Tomato Sauce: The tomato sauce we ate in Puglia was chunky and fresh-tasting. It’s cooked briefly–less than 20 minutes–so it keeps its bright, sweet tomato flavor. You can make it with garden fresh, red-ripe tomatoes in season, or use home preserved or best-quality canned plum tomatoes (I won’t say they have to be Italian, but in my experience they are the best).

Ingredients: 3 to 3 1/2 lbs fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (or 1 qt home-preserved tomatoes or 1 28-oz can whole canned plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano), 2 1/2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup finely chopped onion (optional), 2 garlic cloves (lightly smashed or thinly sliced or chopped), 1/4 tsp red chile flakes (optional), 1 to 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt, 2 Tbs chopped parsley leaves or 6-8 fresh basil leaves.

Heat the oil with the onion in a wide saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Stir for about 5-6 minutes to soften the onion. Add the garlic  and chile and  saute 1 minute. Add the tomatoes (crush the canned tomatoes with your hands, like the Italians, or use a wooden spoon) and the salt. Raise the heat a little to maintain a brisk simmer and stir occasionally for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how thick you like your sauce. Add the parsley or basil at the end of cooking.

Use this sauce on pasta or pizza, or use it to braise meatballs or braciole, to make ragu, add to beans or soups, or as a base for other sauces.

Braciole al Sugo (meat rolls in tomato sauce): This is a good example of taking ordinary ingredients and turning them into something elegant and special…and stretching a small amount of meat in the process. Both the cooks at Serra Gambetta and Gerardo prepared this dish for us. It can be made with various cuts of meat (braciole means cutlet): pork shoulder, fresh ham, thin pork chops, beef round, or veal shoulder. The slices of meat are pounded very thin, rolled up around a mixture of flavorings, and grilled, braised or baked. Gina and Jessica used fresh ham stuffed with a mixture of sauteed onion, carrot, celery and garlic, grated pecorino, and minced pork. They baked the rolls in the oven. Gerardo made veal rolls filled with garlic, parsley, and Parmesan, and braised them in tomato sauce. My version borrows from both–an experiment.

I used thin-cut boneless pork chops, because that’s what I had on hand. I pounded the chops (about 1 lb.) to make 8 rectangles measuring roughly 3×5 inches and about 1 cm. (a little more that 1/8 inch) thick. I sauteed onion, carrot and celery (about 1/2 cup each) in extra virgin olive oil about 5-6 minutes, and stirred in a Tbs. chopped garlic. I left a few Tbs. of the vegetables in the skillet, and mixed the rest with chopped parsley (a few Tbs.) and grated Parmesan (1/4 cup). The meat is sprinkled with salt on both sides, topped with 2 or 3 spoonfuls of the filling, and rolled up. Using toothpicks to hold them together is easier than twine.

While I was rolling up the meat, I stirred about 3 cups of quick tomato sauce (or use 3 cups crushed canned tomatoes) into the skillet with the sofritto and turned the heat to medium low. They got a pinch of red chile and some salt, as well.

In another skillet, I heated another couple of Tbs. olive oil over medium -high heat–enough to make the meat rolls sizzle when they hit the pan. The rolls get browned on all sides, about 5 minutes in all, which is enough to cook them. I rolled them around in the tomato sauce and let them sit there until the pasta was done. The rolls went on a plate, and the sauce went on the pasta.

Next time, I’ll grill the rolls and put a little pancetta in the filling.

To make the meat rolls with a longer-cooking cut of meat, you follow much the same procedure. After the rolls are browned, add 2 lightly smashed garlic cloves or 1/2 cup diced onion to the pan and saute a minute or two. Add 1/4 cup red wine and stir to release any crusty bits from the bottom. Add 1 qt. crushed canned tomatoes and salt to taste. Bring to a simmer. Cook on the stove top or bake in a 300 degree  F. oven for an hour, until the meat is very tender. Turn the rolls occasionally as they cook.

PastaPasta with Broccoli: Perfectly simple and very delicious! I am generous with the broccoli and it tastes so good fixed this way it’s easy to eat up any extra.

Ingredients: 8 oz. dried pasta (ziti, fusilli, penne, farfalle, cavatappi…), 1 lb broccoli crowns, 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1 Tbs. finely chopped garlic, 1/4 tsp. red chile flakes, salt and pepper, freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

Extra: 1 cup bread crumbs toasted in olive oil, or 1/2 cup toasted walnuts

Cut the broccoli into florets and drop them into a big pot of boiling water for about 3 minutes. Scoop them out and leave them in a colander to cool. Stir the pasta into the boiling water. Heat the olive oil, chile, and garlic in a large skillet or dutch oven over low heat, stirring for a minute or two until the garlic softens. Chop the broccoli and stir it around in the garlic oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. When the pasta is done, drain it and toss it with the broccoli. Put it in a serving bowl and sprinkle the top with the breadcrumbs or walnuts. Serve with plenty of grated cheese.