When it comes to a hot meal in a hurry, hands down it will be pizza. The odyssey of scraps of dough topped with oil and oregano, popped in the bread oven at the end of a day’s baking for a quick meal has turned this Italian peasant food into a national passion. Ancestors of pizza first appeared in the Mediterranean at the dawn of the age when cereals were crushed into flour and baked on hot stones for flat breads way back in the BC eons of history, but today’s pizza took over the United States after WWII.
Tomato sauce arrived late on the pizza scene in the 17th century; once you have a good bread dough base and a great tomato sauce, you’re on the road to pizza excellence. You can order pizza from almost any corner shop in America, but it won’t come close to what you can make at home with very little effort and for a fraction of the cost.
I first saw an glimpse of pizza when I was a child visiting a distant Italian relative who baked circles of bread dough topped with fresh tomatoes. I wanted a taste; I can still see those flat pies cooling on that screened farmhouse porch. Commercial pizza hadn’t arrived in our Western town, but on a visit to the bright lights of Salt Lake City in 1957, I had my first slices of real pizza topped with pepperoni and cheese. From that day I’ve been on the pizza trail. Seldom more than a week passes without an enticing circle of tomato-cheese-and-sausage-topped flat bread being pulled from my oven. Whether it’s called cheese on toast, a hot open sandwich, or a hand-held pie, the scent of pizza in the oven lures everyone into the Friday night kitchen.
Here’s a way to streamline your pizza operation at home. Make the dough several hours ahead and place it in the fridge. Simmer a pot of tomato sauce anytime and package it in pints to freeze or refrigerate. Keep a good supply of cheese on hand (mozzarella, provolone, white cheddar to dice or grate; Parmesan, Romano to grate), along with whatever toppings you like: pepperoni, roasted peppers, Italian sausage, anchovies, olives, fresh or dried herbs (always oregano), crushed hot pepper, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, etc.
Basic Pizza Dough
10 fl. oz. lukewarm water (1 ¼ cups)
1 teaspoon dry yeast
pinch ginger, ¼ teaspoon honey
12 oz. bread flour (3 oz. whole wheat, 9 oz. white) (3 cups)
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons olive oil
Dissolve yeast in water in mixing bowl along with ginger and honey. Stir in flour, sprinkle over salt and olive oil. Cover and let rest 20 min. for flour to fully hydrate. Knead in mixer with dough hook or by hand 10 min. keeping dough soft. Scrape down sides of bowl; cover tightly. Allow dough to rise in fridge 6-8 hours (or up to 2 days) or at room temp. until doubled and light.
Scrape dough from bowl, divide in half and shape into 2 balls. Rest dough a few minutes. On a flour-dusted surface use a rolling pin to start the dough circle, then stretch it over your knuckles to form 2 12-14-inch circles. Sprinkle an edgeless baking sheet or pizza pan with cornmeal or coarse flour and stretch dough circle on the pan. Rest dough circle 20 min.
Brush edges with olive oil, swirl tomato sauce over surface and layer on toppings (be moderate so the dough won’t be weighted down). Bake pizza in a 450º preheated oven, on a pizza stone if possible 15-20 minutes. Slide pizza off sheet pan onto stone for last few minutes for a crisper crust. Cool briefly on wire rack to prevent crust from steaming soft.
Basic Tomato Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
2-4 cloves peeled, minced garlic
pinch crushed red pepper
28 oz. can plum tomatoes, chopped or quality crushed tomatoes
Warm oil in heavy saucepan; add garlic and red pepper. As soon as garlic is fragrant, add tomatoes and simmer until thickened. Season with salt and pinch of sugar if needed.
Caramelized Onions: Soften sliced onions in olive oil; season with salt. Raise heat and gently cook onions until reduced and beginning to brown.
Roasted Peppers: Blister peppers in 450º oven or on hot grill. Place in plastic bag or in covered pot to steam. Peel off skins.
Butternut Squash in the Oven
We’re closing windows, pulling on sox and turning on the oven. Butternut squash are the ticket, at their best now, available in farmers markets and supermarkets. This is the time to buy them and to feast on their goodness (and their important vitamin A, the eye vitamin).
We’re all familiar with baked squash dusted with cinnamon, dotted with butter and sprinkled with brown sugar. Good as it is, it can be a too sweet, when we’re looking for a savory lift that makes vegetables more interesting. I’m ready to combine the sliced neck of the squash with some ripe late summer tomatoes for a long bake in a shallow oven dish for a melt-together Mediterranean tian. A stuffed mini-pumpkin uses the bulb section of a butternut squash lightly filled with sharp cheese, onions, pepper and breadcrumbs to create a creamy, zippy filling that works magic with the bland slightly sweet squash.
Both the stuffed squash and the tian can go in the oven at the same time or separately. Consider baking a squash dish alongside whatever else you have in the oven. Let’s make the most of that energy we have on the go and fill the oven. Even if it’s early in the day and you’re baking bread or a pie, slip in a squash dish, let it bake alongside and then finish cooking as the oven cools. The squash can be reheated for dinner or the next day quickly in a microwave, slowly in the oven or conveniently in segments in a heavy stovetop pot. These squash dishes will keep for 5-6 days, taste even better when reheated and can perk up any simple midweek supper. The tian is good at room temp and makes a tasty to-go office lunch with a blob of Greek yogurt.
For the best tasting butternut squash, choose squash no bigger than 2½ pounds. Recent experience has shown me that the best tasting, deepest colored squash comes from the smaller fruit.
Butternut Squash Tian with Tomatoes
1 lb. peeled butternut squash (from the neck) cut in ½ inch slices
4-5 tablespoons olive oil
½ large onion, red, white or yellow, peeled and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves chopped
leaves from 2 branches fresh thyme or a little dry thyme
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper or grindings of black pepper
2 large fresh tomatoes halved vertically and thinly sliced
Gently sweat the onion in 1 tablespoon oil until softened and translucent. Film a 6-cup shallow baking dish with oil and layer in the vegetables, sprinkling each layer with a pinch of salt.
1. half squash
2. half tomatoes
3. onions, garlic, thyme, pepper
4. half squash
5. half tomatoes
Drizzle remaining olive oil over top, grind on fresh pepper and bake at any oven temperature you have going—350º to 450º for 45 minutes to an hour and a half or until the squash is tender and the top flecked with brown. Let dish rest in the oven until cooled for maximum concentration. Serves 4-6.
Stuffed Butternut Squash Bulbs
2 bulbous butternut squash ends plus the sliced off tops
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
4 oz. onion cut in small dice (1 cup)
1 oz. fresh bread crumbs (1/2 cup)
1 clove garlic minced
fresh thyme and parsley to taste
a few slices chopped Serrano chili or freshly ground white pepper
1 oz. grated white cheddar mixed with Swiss cheese (1/2 cup loosely packed)
4 tablespoons cream
Reserve the sliced off squash tops to use for lids. Cut the squash blub where it begins to bulge into a pumpkin shape. Scoop out the seeds. Sprinkle the squash interior with salt.
Sweat the onion in olive oil or butter just until softened and translucent (cover with a butter wrapper to encourage even cooking). Mix together cooked onion, breadcrumbs, garlic, thyme, parsley, chili or pepper, cheese and little salt. Loosely fill the squash interiors with stuffing. Pour 2 tablespoons cream over stuffing in each squash. Top each squash with a paper butter wrapper (or square of foil) and weight it in place with the squash top (see photo).
Place filled squash in baking dish and cook alongside whatever is going in the oven. Squash will bake at any temperature between 350º to 450º for 45 minutes to an hour and a half or until squash is tender. If squash are baked at a high temperature, it would be wise to add a little water to the bottom of the baking dish to encourage steam and to prevent burning edges. Baked squash may rest in the turned off oven to continue cooking.
To serve, cut squash in half or quarters; the skin is edible too. Enough for 4 to 8.
Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at Amazon.com http://amzn.to/9lOnZv