My favorite food(s), a recipe, and a must-have for your kitchen

Whenever anyone finds out that I have this little blog here or that I’m into food and cooking and stuff I am always asked the same question: “What is your favorite food?” It’s a question I used to dread, one that I think many people find difficult to answer. If I really like cooking generally that means that I like to eat most things (a much easier question would be about my least favorite foods…I’m looking at you cilantro and eggplants).

With the prevalence of the question I had to come up with a standby answer instead of hemming and hawing every time it was asked and usually responding with something along the lines of, “it’s too hard to choose, I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite.” However I do choose to answer in two parts – I give my favorite flavor and my favorite dish. That makes sense, right? A favorite flavor more often has to do with desserts or something, the flavor your choose when you go out for ice cream or pick out your birthday cake. Your favorite dish is that last thing you would want eat before you die or what you always seem to pick for an appetizer or entrée at a restaurant. It only seems natural that a “favorite food” question is divided into two categories. So here is goes.

What is my favorite flavor? Coconut. Always coconut. Ice cream, chocolate bars, cakes, thai iced tea, whatever. If it has coconut I generally like it. It can be paired with rich flavors (coffee, chocolate, vanilla, caramel), fruity ones (lime, pineapple, berries) and savory applications, like curry. Coconut for the win.

What is my favorite dish? Pizza. Good pizza, that is. I like the classic Neapolitan style with the blistered crust that is chewy yet light. With the simple tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. But I love unique toppings too. Maybe that’s why I like pizza so much. Its so customizable yet always ends up with a perfect balance of salty, sweet, and tangy. A good pizza is perfection and never fails to make me the happiest person alive. (P.S. You all know my weakness now…you are free to take advantage of this and take me out for pizza anytime you need a favor.)

I would gladly eat pizza for every meal but luckily I have enough self-control and enough proximal distance from any really good pizza shops to keep that from happening. But naturally I have experimented with my own pizza-making quite a bit, not to mention I worked as a pizza-maker in my little hometown pie-shop for 3 years during high school. The earlier attempts were okay, certainly edible but nothing to brag about. I tried different dough recipes and different cooking surfaces but nothing really quite blew me away until I did find the absolute best of each. Together, they create what is arguably the closest thing to wood-fired oven pizza without the wood-fired oven. Let me introduce Jim Lahey and his book “My Pizza” and the Baking Steel.

Jim Lahey’s dough recipe falls right in line with his other famous no-knead methods. You simply mixt up a little flour, yeast, water, and salt, let it sit overnight, and the next day you have stretchy and supple pizza dough. It has a slight bit of tang, a nice chew, and makes a perfect fluffy crust filled with little air pockets. The Baking Steel is a relatively new piece of cooking equipment out there. It started as a kickstarter project but turned into something huge. Essentially its nothing more than an enormous slab of steel that you cook pizzas on but there is science behind it that makes it the best home oven pizza-baking option.  Essentially, the steel may not get as hot as something like a pizza stone but steel is an excellent conductor of heat so the pizza get a perfectly crispy crust in minutes. I definitely recommend it for the pizza enthusiast who wants to empress their friends and family with the best pizza they’ve ever had. It comes with a cool carrying case too made from old recycled billboards (mine has a piece of The X-Factor in it). So, without further ado, here’s how I make my pizzas.

The Best DIY Pizza Dough
-Jim Lahey’s no-knead pizza dough from “My Pizza”, found here. Each batch make 4 pizzas. The rest of the book has excellent sauce and topping ideas too.

– a can of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, crushed with your hands until smooth and seasoned with salt and olive oil.

– get as creative as you like. For the pizzas in the pictures above I used fresh mozzarella, kalamata olives, Italian sausage, and marinated garlic cloves.

To assemble and bake
– Place the Baking Steel or other baking surface in your oven and preheat to 500 degrees. Allow the oven to heat at 500 for 45 minutes then reduce to 475. Take a piece of your prepared dough and stretch it out on a pizza peel in a circular shape with a little cornmeal on the bottom so it doesn’t stick. Add your sauce and toppings. Slide it onto the Baking Steel and let cook for 4-5 minutes. Then turn the broiler on and continue to cook for about 2 more minutes. Slide onto a cutting board when it’s done. It should have a few black, blistered spots around the edges. Don’t forget to turn off you broiler and reset the oven to 475 degrees after taking out each pizza. Cut into 4 pieces and eat immediately. The most important step is to take your time and don’t try to bank out all four pizzas a quickly as possible. Serve salads, olives, and other finger foods in between each pizza and enjoy the whole experience.

Farmer's Market Forays

There is magic in a Saturday Morning. All over the world people wake up and for many, the first thing on their mind is the farmer’s market. No need to shower. It’s worth a grubby appearance for the first pick of the produce and fresh bread. No need to eat breakfast. Chances are more than one vendor has a selection of freshly ground coffee and morning goodies from sweet pastries to egg and cheese sandwiches. Just throw something on, grab one or two reusable market bags, make sure you’ve got some cash, and walk on over.

I’m sorry…did I say walk over. I must be confusing my current life with a previous one where I either lived in London or Harrisonburg and the markets were a mere hop, skip, and jump way. Unfortunately I meant drive over. Yes, we get into the inefficient, gas-guzzling car and drive to get our local produce and artisan goods. Are you picking up on the horrendous hypocrisy my life has come to. But the sad truth is, when I am home, the nearest market is a 30-minute car ride away and turns what should be a weekly sustainable venture into a rare, fuel-costly field trip.

Luckily, last weekend was one of those Saturday mornings where I got to revisit the feeling of being abuzz with farmer’s market exhilaration. We had other errands to attend to so while we were in the neighborhood, a trip to the market was a must. It was actually only my second time at this particular town’s Saturday market. The first visit was actually rather dismal – a few bleary-eyed vendors moping around a vacant parking lot – so things must have gone though some major revamping in the last year. In fact, the market, in a new location in town, was filled with all the right smells, sounds, and sights for a hoard of food-loving locavores. The smell of local eggs turning into breakfast burritos overtook the air while samples of homemade cheeses, chips and salsa, cupcakes, bread, and grass-fed beef led to temptation at every turn. It felt like Saturday morning should feel.

In our browsing, my mom and I played my favoring farmer’s market game: come up with some amazing lunch meal based on what’s fresh at the market. It could be something different every time. And with a little glimpse at some beautiful multicolored and plump cherry tomatoes, flashing their shiny tight skin at me, inspiration struck.

From there we snagged a premade pizza crust, made from local hand milled whole-wheat flour. Next stop was cheese from Everona Dairy. They make the most incredible sheep’s milk cheese in central Virginia and we picked their award winning Piedmont cheese, known for it rich, nutty flavour and great melting qualities. And lastly, a bag of freshly picked greens, though I’m not entirely sure what the various types were. I know there were several sprouts, cress, and leaf lettuces among other herbs but regardless, it was strong and snappy in flavour. We had basil, Parmsan, pine nuts, and ricotta at home…do you see what this is all coming to.

So for lunch, we made a simple pizza, but with such fresh and exquisite ingredients, it became something much more than just simple. We coated the bottom with homemade pesto (recipe below), topped it with the Everona Dairy cheese, dolloped on some ricotta cheese, and placed the cherry tomatoes on top, cut side up so that as it cooked, each tomato became a cup of sweet, hot juice that exploded in the mouth with every bite. Once cooked in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes we transferred our pizza to a platter and scattered over a few handfuls of the greens, a generous drizzle of olive oil, and plenty of fresh Parmesan cheese. It was nothing terribly inventive, just the result of seasonality and what we could find, but great nonetheless. We enjoyed it slowly, sitting on the back patio and savoring each bite of the well-cared-for local ingredients. Just another perfect summer lunch.

Basil Pesto
There are about a thousand things that you can do with pesto, but not being a big pasta person, my favorite way to use it is on pizza or simply spread cold on grilled focaccia or ciabatta bread along with tomatoes and slices of mozzarella. I love pesto because you don’t necessarily need a recipe; most times you can sporadically throw the ingredients into a food processor and come out with something decent, but after making it so many times, I’ve finally come up with a recipe that reflects the way I like my pesto. It’s fairly heavy on the cheese, light on the garlic, and not too runny either. But feel free to experiment not only with the pesto recipe itself, but also with its uses. Although I made my pesto pizza one certain way, it would have been great with an array of other ingredients: sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, or anything laying around really. Have fun with your pesto!

Three large handfuls of fresh, rinsed basil leaves
1/3 cup of pine nuts, toasted
1 clove garlic
¾ cup grated Parmesan
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and pepper

Toss the basil, cooled pine nuts, Parmesan, and garlic into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until everything is finely chopped. Then, with the motor running, slowly drizzle the olive oil into the top pouring spout. Scrape the sides of the bowl, add a squeeze of lemon juice, and pulse the mixture a few more times. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Pulse one more time and transfer to a bowl and use as you desire.