Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pizza Reminiscences

So I'm sitting in the airport about to catch my flight to Sydney - via LA - via Salt Lake City. The past six weeks or so in Ohio have been a blast, hanging with ma and pa, reading books about food, writing about food, cooking food, eating good food, and watching American Idol (oops, did I just admit that).

I must say that I already miss three things (in no particular order): mom, dad, and pizza. The pizza here is OUTRAGEOUS. I've eaten lots of pizzas in my day, but the the pizzerias in Ohio are still number one in my book.

Here's me attacking an eggplant pie in Rome.Every time I come home to Ohio, my first (but certainly not my last) demand is that Mom & Dad to take a trip to Lisbon and pick me up a pizza pie at Mary's Pizza Shop. The pizza there is unlike any other I've eaten, and you can see by the photographs that some of its attributes are cheesy freshly-grated provolone goodness, heavenly sweet meat sauce, and a thick, substantial crusty crust. Mary's Pizza Shop on Urbanspoon

A close-up for your viewing pleasure. Mmmmm, that's right.

Here's me attacking the cheese pie in Ohio.
A very close second on my list of the perfect pizza is The Elmton in Struthers.
Elmton on Urbanspoon
This place is a local institution, having opened in 1945. My dad ate here when he was a kid, and my grandparents live just down the block. But I promise that my taste buds have not been clouded by nostalgia - the pizza at this place is truly legit! Even if you don't ask for extra cheese, they give it to you anyway. My kind of place. See for yourself:

I've heard rumors that the secret to the oozy delicious greasiness is Swiss cheese mixed in with the mozzarella. And, the piemakers often allow the cheese to creep off the edge of the crust a form a crunchy border - my favorite part.

Now I can brag about personally knowing a pizza expert. My Aunt Deanna has transformed her home oven into a pizza-making machine by lining it with bricks. She likes to experiment with different crusts and sauces and toppings and I was lucky enough to be able to try one of her favorites, her zucchini bread pizza. The crust was thick and sweet and a bit chewy, and the addition of fennel to the sauce added a certain je ne sais pas...

Aunt D’s Zucchini Bread Pizza


28 oz can crushed tomatoes
6 oz can tomato paste
1 ½ tsp garlic powder
1 ½ tsp dried basil
1 ½ tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground fennel
Sugar, to taste
Pinch red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Add all ingredients to a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for 1 ½ hours. Remove heat and simmer over low heat until thickened.


1 package active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
2 medium zucchinis, grated
Generous pinch of salt
2 Tbsp good quality olive oil
2 ½ cups (approx.) Primo Gusto flour or King Arthur red flour
Brown rice flour (for dusting dough before baking)

Dissolve yeast in one cup of warm water. Mix grated zucchini with a liberal amount of salt and let stand in a colander for at least 15 minutes. Rinse and squeeze zucchini dry with a clean kitchen towel. Mix the dry zucchini with the olive oil, yeast mixture, and 2 cups of flour. Turn the dough out on a floured work surface and begin kneading. Continue adding more flour a little at a time until the dough is no longer sticky.

Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in size. If possible, allow dough to rise all day or overnight (8 – 10 hours). Punch dough down and allow to rise for another 1 ½ hours while preparing topping ingredients.

Place pizza stone in oven and preheat to 450 degrees F.

Turn dough onto board dusted with brown rice flour, and gently expand dough to desired size (halve the dough if making two 12 inch pizzas) by placing over fists and allowing to be pulled by gravity. Continue dusting with brown rice flour if dough is too sticky to work with.

Oil a 16 inch pizza screen (for crustier, thicker crust) or two 12 inch screens (for thinner, crispier crust). Place crust on pizza screen and fold edges up and over to create a thicker crust. Bake crust 5 minutes (for 16 inch) or 3 minutes (for 12 inch) on screen. Remove from oven and add pizza sauce, toppings, and cheeses, then bake another 5 to 8 minutes, until crust is lightly brown. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before removing pizza from screen and cutting.


¼ cup roasted garlic, chopped
½ pound mild Italian sausage, removed from casings and browned in skillet
1 red bell pepper, roasted and chopped
¼ cup kalamata olives, chopped
Pickled pepperoncini, to taste
1 lb mozzarella, grated
Pecorino romano, grated
Parmesan, grated
Pinch red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Lasagna & Greens

Since the Italian-American food in northeast Ohio is so darn yummy, I thought I'd make an attempt at replicating two of the all-time classics. I think I did a darn good job!

Cari's Classic Lasaaahgna

1 pound dried lasagna noodles, cooked until almost al dente
5 cups Epic Tomato Gravy
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 pound sweet Italian sausage
1 can tomato paste
Fresh basil. chopped
10 oz cremini mushrooms, sliced
Fresh thyme
1 container ricotta cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 bunch parsley, chopped
Parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and pepper
2 pounds mozzarella cheese, grated
2 pounds provolone cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in medium saute pan until hot. Saute chopped onions until tender, about 7 minutes, then add hot pepper flakes. Remove sausage from casings and add to pan, sauteeing over medium heat until no longer pink. Once sausage is cooked, add tomato paste and basil and mix well.

In a separate skillet, heat remaining 1 tbsp olive until almost smoking. Add sliced mushrooms and thyme and cook, stirring only once, until mushrooms have released their liquid and are caramelized.

In a medium bowl, mix ricotta cheese, beaten egg, parsley, and parmesan cheese. Season with salt and pepper.

Assemble the lasaaahgna: Place 1/4 of the Epic Tomato Gravy in the bottom of a large, deep dish lasagna pan. Top with a layer of cooked noodles, slightly overlapping the edges of the noodles. Next, add 1/2 of the sausage followed by 1/2 of the ricotta mixture. Top the ricotta with 1/3 of the grated mozzarella and provolone. Continue one more set of gravy, noodles, sausage, ricotta and cheese layers. On top of this layer of cheese place the sauteed mushrooms. Finish the lasagna with more gravy, a last layer of noodles topped with a thin layer of gravy, and finally topped with the remainder of the provolone and mozzarella cheeses.

Set the lasagna on a baking sheet to catch any spillovers and bake approximately 1 hour, or until lasagna is hot and bubbly around the edges and cheese is beginning to brown. Serve with a green salad, baguette, and greens.

1/2 cup diced bacon
1/2 cup diced onion
2 tbsp minced garlic
Pinch red pepper flakes
2 pounds collard or mustard greens (or any combination of greens you like)
3 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper
Parmesan cheese, for serving

In a large Dutch oven, saute bacon until crisp. Add diced onion and cook until tender. Towards the end of cooking onion, add garlic and red pepper flakes. Wash greens thoroughly and cut out any tough stems. Rip greens into pot and stir until greens have wilted. Pour chicken stock over greens, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, until greens are tender and most of chicken broth has evaporated.

Serve greens with grated parmesan cheese.Playing with food is fun.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Le cuisine d'Ohio

Over these past few weeks, I've rediscovered the regional cuisine of northeast Ohio. Italians poured into this region the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, setting the stage for some of the best Italian American cuisine you'll find in our country. Eastern Europe is also well represented, with pierogies and halushki available at many markets and restaurants.

In true American fashion, some interesting "fusion" items have developed. Now ubiquitous in the Cleveland area, the Pittsburgh panini sandwich was "invented" in the 1930's, a gigantic overstuffed sandwich of meat (usually pastrami or corned beef) with fries, coleslaw, and sometimes cheese and/or tomatoes on "Italian" bread. Just try getting your mouth around that. A friend who lives in Cleveland told me of a sandwich she loves to purchase at a local panini shop - it's stuffed with pierogies, melted cheddar cheese, and caramelized onions (or sauerkraut), on crusty white bread and grilled until golden.

One of my favorite local dishes is Italian Wedding Soup. It is exclusive to western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, and very popular in Youngstown, where my family is from (for the most part). Despite its name, the soup is not traditionally served at weddings. When Italian immigrants came to this area, they directly translated the name of a soup they remembered from the Old Country, Minestra Maritata, where the marriage referred to is between the vegetables and the meat in the dish. Each Italian-American family has its own closely guarded recipe. My aunt Katie watched a friend as she prepared her family's recipe for the soup. She tweaked it a bit and handed it off to me, then I tweaked it again - here it is for your eating pleasure.

Italian Wedding Soup

2 whole (4 split) chicken breasts, bone-in, skin-on
5 quarts homemade chicken stock*
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1/4 inch dice
Bunch curly endive or escarole, chopped
3/4 cup pastina (can also use orzo)**

2 egg yolks
3/4 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1 small onion, grated
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup parsley, chopped
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
1 1/2 pounds meatloaf mix (equal parts ground veal, pork, and beef)
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Rub chicken breasts with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 minutes, or until cooked through. When cool enough to handle, remove meat and chop into bite-size pieces. Set aside.

Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees F.

While chicken is roasting, make meatballs. Mix together egg yolks, breadcrumbs, grated onion, garlic, parsley, Romano cheese, salt and pepper. Add to the meatloaf mix and gently combine, being careful not to overwork the meat. Form tiny meatballs (the tinier, the better) and place on a baking sheet. Bake meatballs for 10 to 15 minutes, until slightly browned.

While meatballs are baking, heat the chicken stock in a large stockpot. Add the carrots and endive (or escarole) to the stock and simmer 10 to 15 minutes. Once meatballs are finished, add them to the soup along with the chicken breast pieces and pastina. Season to taste with salt and pepper and allow to gently simmer until the pastina is al dente. Serve hot with grated Parmesan cheese.

*It's very important to use a good quality, homemade chicken stock for this recipe.

**Some recipes incorporate mini dumplings or noodles instead of pastina. Giada De Laurentiis has a version with strands of egg stirred into the soup.

Salvatore's Italian Grill in Austintown serves a great version of Italian Wedding Soup (above photo), alongside the rest of its amazing Italian-American fare.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Gravy gravy gravy gravy

Aaah, gravy. I've never met a gravy I didn't like (except for the fluorescent yellow stuff in a can). Since I've been in Ohio, I've encountered gravy in many forms and have come to realize its popularity in these here parts. When I was a kid, my favorite breakfast was brown gravy, a specialty of my grandma's. She would tear chunks of her dense homemade bread and smother them with a gravy she lovingly made by making a roux with bacon grease and a heap of flour, then slowly incorporating water and patiently stirring until thickened. No formalized recipe exists for my grandma's brown gravy - her mother used to make this for her twelve children (they obviously didn't count calories and carbs back in the day), so the method was passed down by oral tradition first to my grandmother, and then to me.

My mom has her own humble version of a brown gravy. She says it's nothing special, but it's my dad's favorite meal and it reminds me of the stick-to-your ribs fare I ate growing up.

Mom's Peasant Meat & Gravy with Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes

2 pounds round steak, fat removed and cut into serving size pieces
1/4 cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp salted butter
1 (16-oz) can cream of mushroom soup
1 (16-oz) can beef broth
1 (1-oz) packet of Lipton French onion soup

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Heat olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Dredge the steak in flour and brown on both sides (you may have to do this in batches). As the steak browns, remove it to a roasting pan. Whisk together cream of mushroom soup, beef broth, and onion soup
in a medium bowl. Once all meat is browned and in roasting pan, pour the soup mixture over meat. Cover roasting pan and bake for 2 1/2 hours. Remove to a serving platter and serve with Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes (recipe below) and corn.

Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes:
1 head of garlic
1 tbsp olive oil
7 all purpose white potatoes, peeled and quartered

4 tbsp salted butter, at room temperature
2 tbsp sour cream
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Slice the top off the head of garlic to expose the top of the cloves. Place the garlic in a square of aluminum foil and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and wrap the foil tightly around the garlic. Roast 30 minutes, or until the cloves are tender, sweet, and lightly brown. Allow to sit until cool enough to handle, then squeeze the cloves into a small dish.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt to the water and boil the potatoes until tender. Drain.

Add the potatoes, butter, sour cream and roasted garlic to the bowl of a mixer. Mix at medium speed until potatoes are smooth and all ingredients are incorporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste.


With all this gravy I've been experiencing over the past month, I'm happy to know that I won't need to experience gravy withdrawal in Australia. Phil and I stumbled upon a little Australian cafe called the Walkabout Cafe & Eatery in Jacksonville Beach. When I ordered my plate of Aussie Meat Pie and Chips, I was delighted to learn that it came with a mini-pitcher of gravy with which to soak my pie and chips! Apparently in Oz they even produce a specialized mini-pitcher for serving gravy! High five to the English for exporting meat pies and gravy to the colonies!

There's one more special gravy I can't leave out - thick, rich, meaty Italian-American tomato gravy, slow-simmered for almost 4 hours. Served over spaghetti with a green salad and crusty bread, you couldn't dream of a better Sunday dinner.
Epic Tomato Gravy
(adapted from David Rosengarten's recipe from It's All American Food)

1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup (or more) garlic, minced
3 large onions, minced
3 large carrots, peeled and minced
3 large celery stalks, minced
4 (28-oz) cans whole tomatoes
1 (28-oz) can tomato puree
4 (6-oz) cans tomato paste
1 cup fresh basil, chopped
2 tbsp dried oregano
Sugar (to taste)
12 cups water
5 pounds beef soup bones
5 pounds pork ribs
Rind from pecorino Romano cheese
Salt and pepper

Heat the olive oil in a huge stockpot over high heat. Saute garlic and onions until tender, then add carrots and celery and saute, stirring occasionally, for 5 more minutes.

Add tomatoes, tomato puree, tomato paste, basil, and oregano and mix well. Taste the sauce -if it seems tart, add sugar to taste. Add 12 cups water and bring the sauce to a simmer. Add beef bones, pork bones, and rind of Romano and stir well. Keep sauce at an active simmer for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally.

Let sauce rest in pot until it cools slightly. Remove the meat bones from the sauce and shred the meat with your fingers - return to sauce in pot. Taste sauce for seasoning. Serve over spaghetti. (any leftover gravy can be frozen for about a month, or used immediately to make lasagna... mmmmm).

See, ma likes the gravy too!

Puerto Rican Feasts de los Sanchez

Pasteles, Tostones (Tostobueno)

Like all grandmothers' recipes, ....... etc. .... my below version of Mimi's recipe for Puerto Rican Rice provides approximate measures of most ingredients. I don't know if it's the water, or the air, or her pots, but it tastes different in her house.

Mimi’s Puerto Rican Rice

¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup green bell peppers, chopped
½ cup onions, chopped
½ cup pepperoni, chopped
1 bulb garlic, cloves peeled and pressed through a garlic press
3 packets Goya Sazón con achiote
1 ½ tsp cumin
1 ½ tsp Goya Adobo con pimiento
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tbsp salt (or more to taste)
2 cups Goya white rice
1 can red beans
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Heat vegetable oil in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot but not smoking, add peppers, onions, and pepperoni to oil. Saute until just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, Sazon con achiote, cumin, Adobo con pimiento, oregano, salt and pepper and stir until spices are fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add rice to the vegetable mixture and stir-fry over medium-high heat, stirring only occasionally, for 3 to 5 minutes. Pour 4 cups hot water over the rice, then add red beans (with a little liquid from the can). Bring rice to a rapid boil. Cover, and continue to boil rapidly over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. After 5 minutes, stir the rice and turn the heat to the lowest setting. Let rice simmer for 20 minutes without removing the lid. Once rice is cooked, fluff with a fork and stir in chopped cilantro. Allow rice to rest for at least 10 minutes (Mimi keeps the rice simmering on the stove, covered, over low heat for up to an hour).

Mimi's Limber de Leche

1 can evaporated milk, plus one can filled with water, plus one more can filled to 1/2 inch of water
1 cup sugar
Cinnamon (to taste)

Whisk all ingredients together until sugar dissolves. Freeze mixture in small plastic or paper cups or ice cube trays. Buen provecho!

Note: There are many variations on limber. Try making with 1/2 can evaporated milk and 1/2 can coconut milk for Limber de Coco. Many recipes also call for the addition of 1 tsp vanilla extract.

Super Bowls of Food

I love the Super Bowl for one reason, and one reason only: FOOD (obviously). I complain and pout incessantly throughout the football season since it's entirely possible (and highly likely) to catch football-related programming at any hour of the day, seven days a week, for six months of the year. The only time I'm okay with this is when PTI is gossiping about Tom Brady's most recent scandalous love affair with an impossible hot superstar (that's some juicy stuff, and man is he cute. Go Pats!). I must also admit to being thoroughly entertained and quite blown away by Prince's halftime performance last year. When I was a marketing major at BC I think I liked the Super Bowl commercials because I thought I should, but this year the only one that caught my attention involved a man dressed as a hug rat jumping through a wall in order to beat up a man eating a bag of Doritos. Very classy.

So, happily the entire season redeems itself during the final game, when man, woman, and child alike gather in front of the television, and an excuse for a party is born! This is truly the most American of occasions, an event hich brings people from all corners of our vast nation together and represents some of the most interesting sectors of our culture: entertainment (sport of football), economy (commercials), cuisine (fried, dipped, and chugged), religion (television, dare I say), art (halftime music show), values (rooting for the underdog. Boo, Giants). It's a day when all Americans have an excuse to eat food that is horrible for the waistline and drink too much beer for a Sunday night (no respectable Super Bowl party serves wine, or cheese that isn't melted, mixed with jarred salsa, and served with tortilla chips). The only healthy fare available is in the form of a vegetable tray, and even that is accompanied almost ritualistically by goppy ranch dressing. Admittedly, my party did break a few rules - only three people attended, I was the only one drinking beer, I only drank one beer, and it was an import. Also, there were no chips, salsa, or chili on the menu (there were only three of us - how much food did you expect me to make?!). Nevertheless, we utilized the deep fryer to full advantage and ate extremely well:
On the menu: Veggie Delight Platter with Homemade Bleu Cheese Dressing, Southwest Eggrolls with Ranch Dip, Pan-Fried Onion Dip with bagel Crisps, Smokin' Hot Buffalo Wings, Barbecue Wings, and a Red Stripe