September 27, 2008

Vegetarian Pizzas

I don't have any revelations about vegetarian pizza, really. I haven't found some new, hitherto undiscovered topping that requires me to shout from the rooftops. I've just been reminded that sometimes the simple things are really, really good.

The pizza above has those most classic of vegetarian pizza toppings: artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, good black olives, and cheese (in this case, a nice Monterey Jack), and a slightly spicy, garlicky tomato sauce. I refrained from adding more and more and more toppings, which used to be my pizza downfall, and let the combined flavours hum along in harmony.

The pizza below, is a very, very simple pie based on my memories of post-nightclubbing slices devoured at a long-departed establishment that stayed open until 3:00am downtown. The deceptively simple pesto pizza. Really, all you need is a good, home-made crust, and a good, home-made pesto, and the cheese of your choice. No tomatoes. No chunky bits. Just you and the pesto and the crust. For cheese, I opted to use some of the Jack (as above), and some parmesan, which is simply a component of the pesto. You don't need a lot of cheese - and you will need to shore up the edges of your crust a little to avoid spill-age if your crusts get any oven-spring lift to them. Just smear the pesto on, sprinkle the cheese, and ignore the pang of sadness that you feel when the beautifully bright pesto turns dark, olivey green from the heat of the oven.

I've learned a thing or three about pizza crust, in the years that I've been, ahem, studying.

1) Don't add too much flour. A looser dough has better texture
2) It doesn't matter if you forget to add salt to the crust, just sprinkle a little on the dough before you add the toppings (or use salty toppings, like feta).
3) The longer and slower the rise, the better the crust - airy, chewy, complex and delicious.

The two pizzas above were made with a batch of dough that was stirred up just before heading out to meet some friends for drinks. I only used a small amount of yeast (1 teaspoon for a double batch of dough, whereas many recipes - including my master recipe - use up to a tablespoon per pie). Three hours, on the counter, later, the dough was well-risen, soft, pliable, and ready to be stretched into shape. I can actually toss pizza crust, but generally I just pat it back and forth in my hands, like a chapatti, until it is big and round, and then flop it on a cornmeal-lined pizza pan and finish pressing it out to the edge.

I'm definitely going to try the low-yeast, slow rise thing again - it has wonderful schedule flexibility potential, and I feel the urge to experiment a little. Next time, maybe some other classics: pepperoni mushroom, perhaps (always a favourite), spinach and feta, or my personal guilty-pleasure - the cheeseburger pizza.

September 11, 2008

A Soup For All Seasons: Borscht

I had just about given up on summer. Before this glorious September sneaked up on us, I was frantically soaking up as much sunshine and warmth as I could, trying to store it up for the depths of December, when I would most miss it. I started, as the weather started to turn to wet, to make soup.

Borscht is one of those dishes that engenders strong opinions in its adherents. Should it be beets alone, or with cabbage? Should there be meat stock, or should it be vegetarian? Carrots? Do you add wine, or just vinegar? Should it be hearty, a meal in itself, or a starter for cabbage rolls, pyrohy, and sausage? Should it be hot or cold? Chunky, or smooth? Truth is, you can serve it any way you like. Cold and pureed in the summer, hot and chunky in the autumn and winter, clear, spare and delicate in the spring. There isn't a season that doesn't have its borscht.

The funny thing is, most folks who acknowledge their love of a good bowl of borscht like the variations just fine...they simply may not consider them to be proper. You know, the grail borscht, the standard from which all others are merely delicious anomalies.

My favourite version comes from Diane Forley's lovely work Anatomy of a Dish which is required reading for the botanically inclined cook. I haven't altered it much at all, going with the full cup of red wine and full cup of red wine vinegar, but I've cut the sugar down to a lean 1 tablespoon, whilst she allows (gasp!) as much as 2/3 of a cup, which I think is the short train to crazyville. Beets, especially roasted ones, are quite sweet enough. However, she gets my big seal of approval for eliminating much of the tedium of borscht making - she doesn't grate or chop the raw beets. She roasts them, skin and all, and when they are done you can simply slip the skins right off. If you have roasted them a little more al dente, so to speak, you may need to grasp the roasted (and cooled) beet in a clean cloth, such as a washable jaycloth, and briskly rub to remove the skins. I do so under running cool water, which minimizes any potential mess. It is marvelously easy - and has less waste than using a vegetable peeler.

I also note that Forley suggests that this recipe serves 8. What she doesn't mention, is that this would be eight starving farmhands. If you're simply serving it as a generous appetizer, it would easily serve 20. It's a lot of soup. My freezer is now full of it, in fact. But, really, there's no sense in making a tiny pot of borscht. Go big, and dine off it for a couple of months.

Borscht
adapted from Anatomy of A Dish, by Diane Forley

Serves 8 (farmhands).

1½ lbs. baby beets, roasted, peeled and diced
2 onions, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 carrots, diced
¼ head red cabbage, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups chicken stock
4 cups water
1 cup red wine
1 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of fresh thyme
1 waxy potato, diced (Forley recommends a russet, but I find them too mealy)

To roast the beets, seal them in a foil pouch with a spritz of olive oil, and roast at 400° F for approximately 1 hour, or until a knife slides easily into one. Remove, allow to cool for fifteen minutes, and rub the skins off under cool water. Dice and set aside.

In a large Dutch oven, sauté the onion, carrot, celery and cabbage in the olive oil with a little salt and pepper until vegetables soften and become translucent. Add the diced beets, stock, water, spices/seasonings, sugar, wine and wine vinegar. Bring to a gentle simmer and allow to cook for 15 minutes. Add the potato and allow to cook for another 15 minutes. Taste, re-season as necessary, and serve. If you're a fan of dill, sprinkle some over each bowl, but it certainly doesn't need it.

A note on dicing: beets do not shrink down, so dice them to the size you want to find in your spoon, when you are eating.