Main Dish

Tomatoes have been the main star in our kitchen since the beginning of August. I’ve been getting pounds of tomatoes every week from the garden, so we’ve been doing everything we can to keep up with them before they go bad. Aside from breakfast, almost every meal has had a tomato squeezed into it in some way. Just in case it sounds like I’m complaining, let me assure you that I’m not. I spent my entire life, up until a couple summers ago, HATING tomatoes, so the way I see it I’m happily making up for a 26-year tomato void in my life.

I like to think I was a decent eater as a kid (definitely not the kind who refuses all colorful or healthy foods), but I would NOT BUDGE on tomatoes. Every summer my parents grew tomatoes in our garden and every year my dad would try so hard to get me to eat them. I think he was convinced that some evil friend had fed me a grocery store tomato (gasp!) at some point and that experience had formed my opinion. But every few years I would break down and agree to try a bite of his fresh, ripe, homegrown tomato and I would absolutely hate it.

Then, a year or two after moving to California and being immersed in a produce-loving, potluck-crazy grad student community where people just wouldn’t stop talking about their stupid, delicious heirloom tomatoes, I got jealous. For the first time I was no longer proud of my tomato hatred. Instead, I began to wonder if I really was missing out, and I vowed to put an honest effort into learning to like tomatoes.

I’d always liked ketchup, tomato sauce, etc, but anything resembling a raw tomato had been off limits. So I decided to start small with tomato juice. It was actually pretty easy to start liking that, which gave me hope! Then I moved on to sweet yellow and orange tomato varieties like pineapple heirloom tomatoes and sungolds. The yucky tomato texture was still there, but the relative lack of acidity made them possible to stomach. It took another summer or two to get used to raw red tomatoes, but at some point it just clicked and I became a full-fledged tomato eater!

In the last month or so I’ve made dozens of caprese salads, cucumber tomato salads, fresh tomato sauces, roasted tomato soup, and gazpacho. And when we still couldn’t keep up with the tomatoes, I started slow-roasting them to use in sandwiches and salads. This, I’ve discovered, is my favorite way to eat tomatoes. Most of the water of the tomatoes evaporates away, concentrating and perfecting the tomato flavor in a more compact little slice. A couple of weeks ago when we we were trying to use up homemade pesto in the fridge, I had the idea for this pizza. To me, it’s the quintessential summer pizza. If you have an abundance of basil and tomatoes, this is a great way to use them. Store bought tomatoes and pesto would work as well, but the better quality tomatoes you can get (from a farmers market or farm stand), the better it will be.

Vicken’s dad, who is an English professor, was visiting us last week in the middle of a tomato onslaught, and was reminded of a Pablo Neruda poem that he shared with me: Ode to tomatoes. It’s a wonderful toast to the perfect summer fruit and his imagery might even make you salivate a little! Give it a read if you have a chance. And then make this pizza or anything else involving a tomato before the summer warmth fades and the last of these “stars of the earth” is gone!

Roasted tomato and pesto pizza
Makes one large pizza

Pizza crust (slightly modified from Cook’s Illustrated’s Best Recipe)
1/2 cup warm water
pinch sugar
1/2 envelope yeast
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup bread flour (or all-purpose flour)
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt

6 medium tomatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/4 to 1/3 cup basil pesto (this recipe is pretty good)
1 cup shredded mozzarella

1. Preheat oven to 225 degrees F. Core the tomatoes and then slice into 3/8 to 1/2 inch slices. This will seem thick, but they shrink a lot, trust me. Arrange on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 2 hours.

2. To prepare pizza dough, measure 1/2 cup warm water in a 1-cup measuring cup, stir in sugar, and sprinkle with the yeast. Let it sit until the yeast dissolves and bubbles form, about 5 minutes.

3. Combine flour and salt into a food processor and pulse until mixed well. Continue pulsing as you pour the olive oil and then yeast mixture through the feed tube of food processor. If the dough does not readily form a ball, add additional water and continue pulsing until a ball forms. Process until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 30 seconds longer.

4. Turn dough out onto a floured surface, knead by hand a few strokes to form a smooth, round ball. Put the dough into a deep oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Put in a warm place and let dough rise for 1-2 hours.

5. When tomatoes look shriveled and have turned a deeper shade of red, they are done. Remove them from the oven and set aside to cool. Turn the oven up to 450.

6. When dough has risen remove plastic wrap and punch the dough down. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and pat all sides with flour. **I find this step to be really important, especially if the dough seems very sticky. If this is the case, then add even more flour to the surface.** Cover with a damp towel and let the dough relax for at least 10 minutes, but no longer than 30 minutes.

7. Spread dough on a pizza stone or baking sheet (I use a 15 inch round baking stone, but cookie sheets work just fine). Spread a thin layer of pesto over the pizza, followed by roasted tomatoes*, and then mozzarella. Bake at 450 for about 15 minutes, or until crust and cheese are golden.

*If you have leftover roasted tomatoes you can store them in an air-tight container in the fridge for several days. They are great on sandwiches, pasta, or for snacking.


I’m finally telling you about the sweet potato, chard, and black bean recipe I hinted at a few weeks ago. I suppose I should actually say beet greens since that’s what I ended up using instead of chard. We got a week of constant rain at the end of March which sent the garden into a frenzy, meaning mostly that the weeds went crazy, but also that the beets took off. For some reason I just can’t bear to waste beet greens. They are a smaller, more tender version of chard and as a bonus, they come with a yummy root attached! Every time I pick beets I meticulously wash the beets and cut off all the good looking leaves to be cooked in anything I would usually use chard in. I’m not really sure why we even grew chard at all this year…

After making mole enchiladas last week, we found ourselves with about 3 cups of leftover mole sauce and a huge pile of beet greens to consume. Rick Bayless suggests using sweet potato and chard for a vegetarian mole enchilada option, and I decided to try that, with some black beans thrown in.

The enchiladas that resulted were (in my opinion) even better than the chicken mole enchiladas. They were flavorful and satisfying (not to mention colorful!) and made a great dish to take to friends’ house for dinner the other week.

You could also make this with just sweet potatoes and black beans. Similarly, you could use pumpkin or a winter squash instead of sweet potatoes, but sweet potatoes are just so much easier to prepare that I probably wouldn’t bother.

I have to say that it feels good to be amassing so many good vegetarian recipes. I think we’re at the point where we are only eating meat for dinner 2-3 nights a week and I often crave dishes with beans, eggs, or tempeh more than anything with meat. I’m not sure if I could ever make the full transition to being vegetarian, but, for now, eating mostly free range meat and less of it feels pretty good!

Sweet potato, chard & black bean mole enchiladas
mole sauce from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen

2 medium sweet potatoes, diced
1 15 oz. can black beans, drained (not rinsed)
1 to 2 bunches swiss chard or beet greens, coarsely chopped
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
4 Tbsp olive oil
2 1/2 cups mole sauce (or store-bought mole sauce)
10 8-inch (or 15 6-inch) corn tortillas

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Stir chopped sweet potatoes with 2 Tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper, and spread onto an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. Roast for 20 minutes and stir at least once to result in more even browning. Sweet potatoes should be soft and browned on at least one side.

2. Heat oil in large non-stick or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until translucent. Add greens and cook until wilted, stirring frequently.

3. Add the drained black beans and warm through. Then add the sweet potato and 1 cup of mole sauce. Stir to combine.

4. In Bayless’s cookbook, he has you warm tortillas and fill them with warm filling. Then after rolling them up, you top with more mole sauce and serve on individual plates. Since these had to sit for a while between when they were assembled and when we were eating, I assembled the enchiladas, placed them in a glass pan, spread on the remaining 1 1/2 cup of mole sauce, and then baked them, covered with aluminum foil for 30 minutes at 350 to re-warm them. It worked like a charm.

Mole sauce is probably my favorite Mexican food. Does sauce really count as a food? If not, then anything covered in mole sauce is my favorite Mexican food. If I go to a new Mexican restaurant and mole enchiladas are on the menu then that’s the first thing I try. Part of what makes it so enjoyable to eat at a restaurant is that I know it’s supposed to be complicated to make.

That’s why I was excited to see that my new cookbook by Rick Bayless had what he described as an easy mole recipe. Well, let me just tell you that after assisting Vicken in making this “easy” mole sauce, I now appreciate the mole I get out even more.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but Vicken ended up taking charge of this dish. I made the poached chicken early in the afternoon and then Vicken started in on the sauce. About 3 hours later, dinner was served. Even though I wasn’t doing a lot of the prep work, I think it was at least an interesting process. It had a step involving grinding spices so Vicken got to use the mortar and pestle, which is pretty much his favorite kitchen tool ever. You also “get to” soak pan-toasted ancho chiles, blend stuff in a food processor, chop up Mexican chocolate, and then simmer even more stuff on the stove for a while! Yipee!

Finally, you add some of the sauce to shredded chicken and fill warmed corn tortillas and then pour more sauce on top. These enchiladas were good, but we agreed that we probably added a little too much sugar to the sauce at the end, so be careful with that. We had a lot of sauce left over, so when we used the rest I added most of a small can of spicy Mexican tomato sauce to the mole to balance out the sweetness. I think that did the trick for the most part. The next round of enchiladas we made with the mole sauce were even better, I think. That story’s coming soon, so stay tuned.

My final verdict on this recipe is that it’s worth making if you have most of an afternoon free and are looking for something adventurous to make. Given that it took 4+ hours to make though, I’m tempted to see how much better it is than something you can buy in a jar in the store. If it’s not much better and you’re going to be putting in a whole afternoon anyway, I might be tempted to try a harder, more authentic recipe, like the Teloloapan red mole recipe in the same Rick Bayless cookbook. Supposedly it takes at least a day to make. Suffice it to say that if I spend an entire day cooking you’ll hear about it here. It just may take a while for me to motivate for that…

Simple Red Mole Enchiladas with Shredded Chicken
from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen

Poached Chicken
1 medium white onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
4 bone in, skin on chicken breasts
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram

Sweet-and-Spicy Ancho Seasoning Paste
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
8 medium (about 4 ounces total) dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferable Mexican
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
a big pinch cumin, preferably freshly ground
a scant 1/4 teaspoon cloves, preferably freshly ground
6 cups chicken broth (reserved from cooking chicken breasts)

3 tablespoons vegetable oil (or pork lard, if you’ve got it)
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) whole almonds (with or without skins)
1 medium white onion, sliced 1/8 inch thick
1/4 cup raisins
5 ounces (1 small round or 2-3 plum) ripe tomatoes
a scant 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, preferably freshly ground Mexican canela
1/4 cup (about 1 1/2 ounces roughly chopped Mexican chocolate
2 slices firm white bread (or half a Mexican bolillo), toasted
salt, about 2 1/2 teaspoons, depending on saltiness of broth
1 tablespoon sugar
18 corn tortillas (plus a few extra in case some break)
a spoonful or two of sesame seeds for garnish (*We omitted this)
3 cups cooked, coarsely shredded chicken (from poached chicken recipe)

1. Poach chicken breasts and save broth.
In a large (6-quart) pot, bring 8 cups of water to a boil. Add the onion, garlic, carrot, salt, bay, marjoram, and chicken. Skim off any foam that rises after a minute or two. Simmer, uncovered, for 13 minutes. remove the pot from the heat and let the chicken cool for a few minutes (I left it for 10 minutes) in the broth.
Remove the breasts from the broth and set aside to cool. Strin the broth, discarding the solids and spon off any fat that rises to the top. (Refrigerate the broth, covered, for up to 5 days or freeze it for up to 3 months.) When the chicken breasts are cool, pull the meat off the bones in coarse shreds. Discard the skin and bones. The meat will keep covered and refrigerated for several days or frozen for a few weeks.

2. Make sweet-and-spicy ancho seasoning paste.
Roast the unpeeled garlic directly on an ungreased griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat until soft (thry’ll blacken in spots), about 15 minutes; cool and peel. While the garlic is roasting, toast the chiles on another side of the griddle or skillet: 1 or 2 at a time, open them flat and press down firly on the hot surface with a spatula; in a few seconds, when they crackle, even send up a wisp of smoke, flip them and press down tot toast the other side. In a small bowl, cover the chiles with hot water and let rehydrate 30 minutes, stirring frequently to ensure even soaking. Drain and discard the water.
Combine the oregano, black pepper, cumin and cloves in a food processor or blender, along with the chiles, garlic and 2/3 cup of the broth. Process to a smooth puree, scraping and sitrring every few seconds. If the mixture won’t go through the blender blades, add a little more liquid. Press through a medium-mesh strainer into a bowl.

3. From ancho seasoning to mole.
In a medium-size (4-qt) pot (preferably a Dutch oven or Mexican cazuela), heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil or lard over medium. Add the almonds and cook, stirring regularly, until lightly toasted, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the almonds to a blender or food processor. Add half of the onion to the pan and cook, stirring frequently, until richly browned, about 10 minutes. Use the slotted spoon to scoop the onions in with the almonds, leaving behind as much oil as possible. (If needed, add a little more oil or lard to the pan, let meat, then continue.) Add the raisins, stir for a minute as they puff, then use the slotted spoon to scoop them in with the almonds.
Roast the tomatoes on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until blackened on one side, about 6 minutes, then flip them over and roast the other side. Cool, peel and add to the almond mixture in the food processor, along with the cinnamon, chocolate and bread. Add 1 cup of the broth and blend to a smooth puree, scraping and stirring every few seconds.
Return the pot to medium-high heat and, if necessary, add a little more oil or lard to coat the bottom lightly. When very hot, add the ancho mixture and cook, stirring almost constantly, until darker and very thick, about 5 minutes. Add the pureed almond mixture and cook, stirring constantly for another few minutes, until very thick once again. Stir in the remaining 4 1/3 cups of the broth, partially cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, over medium-low for 45 minutes. (**Note, you may need to leave the pot uncovered so that the mole reduces enough.) Taste and season with salt and sugar. (If you have never made mole before, season it until it’s slightly sweet–the sugar balances the strong flavors.)

4. Warming the tortillas.
Set up a steamer (with this many tortiallas, you’ll need 2 vegetable steamers set up in saucepans or a big Chinese steamer–either choice with 1/2 inch of water under the steamer basket); heat to a boil. Wrap the tortillas in 2 stacks in havy kitchen towels, lay in the steamer, and cover tightly. Boil 1 minute, turn off the heat and let stand without opening the steamer for 15 minutes.

5. Finishing the enchiladas.
Turn on the oven to the lowest setting and warm 6 to 9 plates in it. Toast the sesame seeds in a small skillet, stirring frequently, over medium heat until golden, 2 to 3 minutes. In a medium-size saucepan, combine the chicken with 1 1/2 cups of the mole and warm over medium heat. Bring the remaining mole to a simmer.
When you’re ready to serve, quickly make the enchiladas by scooping 2 generous tablespoons of chicken onto a tortilla, rolling it up and placing it on a warm dinner plate. Continue making enchiladas, arranging 2 or 3 per plate, then douse them liberally with the hot mole. Strew with the remaining sliced onion and sesame seeds.

*Advanced preparation* The finished mole will keep several days, covered and refrigerated; it also freezes well. Reheat, taste and adjust the seasonings before finishing steps 4 and 5.

After years of observations and careful analysis I have pin-pointed the major causes of my unproductiveness in grad school: perfectionism and its close relative, the fear of failure. And after a couple of days of wondering why I never write on this blog I realized it’s for the SAME REASONS! Namely, I want every picture of every step of the cooking process to be perfect and for each entry to be clever, poetic, or some other adjective to describe good writing. Well, the real kicker is that, although I’ve been really proud of some of my photographs, it’s really hard to get a nice picture when you don’t have great natural light, aka when it’s dark outside aka when most of us cook. So the only times I get “successful” photos is when I play hookie from school and cook in the afternoon or when I cook on the weekends.

Secondly, I rarely get a photo of the final product when I make something I’ve worked hard on or am really proud of because it’s either for a dinner party or it just disappears too fast. I always feel ridiculous pulling out my big camera in front of people to take pictures of food. I’m even shy about doing this around my roommates. Finally, while I’m a decent writer, I’m not particularly funny in writing. And I desperately wish I was. I mean, why else would anyone want to read this? It’s not like I’m a cooking expert with anything genius to say…

Well, I’ve decided to just get over all of this. I’m going to start writing posts with imperfect pictures and sometimes with very little text if I don’t have that much to say. My main goal over the next few weeks is to get out all of the back-logged posts (imperfections and all!) and share food that I like with whatever people read this. Hopefully there are a few of you…

Today for lunch I made these eggs poached in tomato sauce topped with grated pecorino romano cheese and served on toasted bread. I’ve been making this all the time ever since I found it on about a month ago. It is my new favorite quick meal. It’s so wonderful because pretty much any tomato sauce will work. So you can follow the tomato sauce recipe below or use the leftover homemade mushroom pasta sauce like I did. It’s genius!!!

You’ll notice with this post that I didn’t take any pictures of the process of cooking this. If you want that, check it out here. In the meantime, I’m gonna keep gorging myself with tomatoes and eggs and relish in the flexible grad student lifestyle that allows me to do this on a Tuesday afternoon…

Poached Eggs in Tomato Sauce
from the smitten kitchen, inspired there by Martha Stewart

This tomato sauce is pretty good, but if you have another tomato sauce (in a jar, or leftover from another meal) on hand, that will also work. Just reheat it in a sauce pan/ dutch oven and start at step 2.

1 can (14 ounces) tomato puree
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
Big pinch of sugar
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
Glug of red wine (optional)
4 large eggs
4 slices toasted country bread, for serving
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

1. In a small skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and crushed red pepper; cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Add tomato sauce and bring to a boil; season with sugar, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 10 to 20 minutes minutes. A few minutes before it’s done, I like to add a glug of red wine and let it simmer for a moment.

2. Gently crack eggs into tomato mixture, cover, and let cook 4 minutes. Remove skillet from heat, uncover, and let stand 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Transfer each egg to a piece of toast. Spoon over sauce, garnish with cheese, and season with salt and pepper; serve immediately.

It’s been way too long since my last post!  School has started, which means I’ve had to switch back into “teaching mode,” and that my life is 10 times busier than it was this summer.  Something about doing field work is just so relaxing. The days can be long and exhausting, but there aren’t deadlines around every corner or students depending on me.  It’s a nice break from the normal hectic grad student life.  At the same time, I’m pretty relieved to be back on a normal schedule and to feel like I’m getting important work done again.

Despite being busy, it is my goal to catch up with the backlog of recipes and photos that have accumulated over the last month or so.  I’ve made peach jam, Thai chicken salad, tofu stir fry, and about a million variations on caprese salad, and I haven’t written about any of them!

I’m going to start digging myself out of this hole by telling you about this amazing grilled pizza I made about a month ago.  Vicken recently bought the Cook’s Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue and this was the first recipe I tried out of it.  You incorporate sautéed garlic and rosemary into the dough, which results in the most flavorful (yet not over-the-top) pizza dough I’ve ever made.  You can honestly grill the dough alone and eat it plain it is so good. It would make excellent bread sticks.

Once the dough has risen, you partition it into smaller rounds, which you then flatten into personal-sized pizzas.  The cooking process goes really fast, so you want to make sure you have all of your ingredients ready before you put the dough on the grill.  The recipe called for fresh sliced tomatoes, chopped basil, and grated parmesan cheese.  This worked fairly well, but the recipe drastically under-estimates how many tomatoes you will need.  They call for 3 medium tomatoes for 8 small pizzas, but I couldn’t even stretch 3 tomatoes to cover 4 pizzas so we used some sliced small romas to fill in the gaps.

Once the dough has cooked on one side you take it off the grill and put the toppings on the grilled side.  Then you put them back on the grill to cook the other side and heat the toppings through.  Depending on the heat of your fire, this can take as little as 2-3 minutes.  For this reason, you want to use only toppings that are pre-cooked or don’t take a long time to heat through. They suggest covering the pizzas with disposable pie plates to help cook the toppings, but I didn’t do this and it still turned out fine.

A short time after I made this, I decided to try it again and perfect some of the flaws I found the first time around.  This time I bought more tomatoes and baked them at a low temperature for 30 minutes before adding them to the pizzas.  This concentrated the tomato flavor and resulted in a less soggy pizza.  I also substituted sliced fresh mozzarella for some of the parmesan cheese, and these two changes made the pizza was soooo much better.  I’ve made those alterations to the recipe below.

My final verdict is that this recipe is a keeper.  This is some of the best pizza I’ve had in a long time (Gino’s East deep dish withstanding) and it’s both easy and fun to make, especially with friends!  You just want to make sure that you eat them straight off the grill while they are still hot. If you don’t make it through all of them at the first sitting, they also make excellent left-overs.

Garlic-Herb Pizza Dough

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 medium cloves, minced or pressed (about 4 tsp)
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary, thyme, or oregano leaves (I used rosemary)
4 cups (22 ounces bread flour, plus extra for dusting hands and work surfaces
1 envelope (about 2 1/4 teaspoons) instant yeast
1 3/4 cups warm water (110 degrees)
vegetable oil or spray for coating bowl

1. Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and rosemary and sauté until the garlic is golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and cool the mixture to room temperature.

2. Process the flour, yeast, salt, and sautéed garlic mixture in a large food processor, pulsing to combine. Continue pulsing while pouring 1 1/2 cups of the water through the feed tube. If the does does not readily for into a ball, gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup water and continue to pulse until a ball forms. Process until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 30 seconds longer. (You can also knead this by hand. Just stir the water and garlic-herb mixture into half of the flour. Then add the rest of the flour and knead for 7-8 minutes).

3. The dough will be a bit tacky, so use a rubber spatula to turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface; knead by hand for a few strokes to form a smooth, round ball. Put the dough in an oiled straight-sided plastic container or deep, oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Press the dough down with your first and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide and shape the dough into 8 smaller rounds. Cover them with a damp cloth and let the dough relax for 5 minutes but no more than 30 minutes. Then press dough out to 8 inch diameter pizzas of 1/4 inch thickness.

Grilled Pizza with Fresh Tomatoes and Basil

1 recipe Garlic-Herb Pizza Dough
Olive oil for brushing dough
8 medium ripe tomatoes, cored and sliced crosswise into thin rounds
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
12 oz fresh mozzarella cheese (more if you like very cheesy pizza)
1 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves
ground black pepper
1/4 cup pitted and quartered oil-cured black olives (optional)

1. Prepare dough as directed above.

2. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 230 degrees F. Arrange tomato slices on lightly oiled baking sheets and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 30 minutes or until tomatoes soft and slightly dehydrated. Set aside.

3. When the grill is medium-hot, brush some oil over each stretched dough round and sprinkle with salt to taste.

4. Slide your hand under several dough rounds and gently slip them onto the grill, oiled-side down. Grill until dark brown grill marks appear, 1 to 2 minutes. Prick any bubbles that develop on the top surface with a fork. Brush the tops with more oil and flip the dough rounds onto a clean baking sheet or peel, grilled side up.

5. Brush the grilled dough surfaces with more oil. Arrange a portion of the tomatoes over each dough round, leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edges uncovered. Sprinkle with the parmesan, basil and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with oil and dot with the mozzarella and olives, if using.

6. Slide the pizzas back onto the grill and cover each with a disposable aluminum pie plate. Grill until the pizza bottoms are crisp and browned, the tomatoes are hot, and the cheese melts, 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately and repeat the process with the remaining dough rounds.

This summer I’ve had the worst luck EVER with airline flights.  One example: A few weeks ago Vicken and I flew to Vermont for a wedding (he from Montreal and me from Sacramento) and we both got stuck in our connection cities with cancelled flights.  I was in Chicago and spent the night freezing cold, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep on the airport chairs with not much luck.  Vicken spent the night in the Detroit airport.  THEN on the way back we got stuck in Chicago again, this time for 24 hours!  We were ready to be home so we were pretty bummed, BUT several things happened that made this detour worthwhile.

1.  We spent the next day exploring downtown Chicago, a place where neither of us had spent any time.  We listened to the Grant Park Orchestra practice in Millennium Park, went to a farmer’s market downtown, and walked a LOT. It beat the hell out of hanging out in an airport.

2.  We met up with my cousin, who lives in Chicago, for dinner.  I hadn’t seen her in 4 years and got to meet her 2 daughters for the first time.  Her youngest was asleep the whole time, but her older daughter, Clara, was full of energy.  She was a blast to hang out with.

3.  We ate Chicago-style pizza for dinner (at Gino’s East) and I had the BEST pizza I have ever eaten in my entire life!  And no, I’m not exaggerating!

We got deep dish spinach pizza and it was amazing.  They make an amazing cornmeal-based crust and the pizza toppings were proportioned perfectly.  First of all, they didn’t overdo the cheese, which (in my opinion) is the easiest way to ruin pizza.  The cheese was the bottom layer of the toppings, followed by sauteed spinach, and then a fresh tomato sauce.  The spinach tasted amazingly fresh and they put a hefty portion of the tomato sauce (my favorite!) on top.

I wish I could have savored every bite more, but we were in a rush and afraid to miss our flight, so we had to eat quickly.  As soon as we left I started dreaming about recreating that pizza.  It took a while, but I finally looked on and found a recipe for a deep dish sausage pizza with a cornmeal-based crust.  The tomato “sauce” in this recipe had one pound of sausage to one small can of diced tomatoes, which sounded a little too sausage-y and not tomato-y enough for me.  When I made it I cut back on the sausage a bit and added sauteed spinach to at least attempt to copy the Gino’s masterpiece.

All in all, the pizza was really good.  My only complaint was that the recipe gives you enough dough to make TWO 10-1/2 inch pizzas instead of one.  The dough rose a lot so the crust was way thicker than I prefer it.  If you like thick crust pizza though, this is the crust for you.  I’ve made the pizza again and literally halfing the recipe or splitting the dough between TWO 10-1/2 inch pizzas is perfect.  I drained the sauteed spinach and garlic and the tomato sauce was also really dry, so we didn’t end up with a soggy pizza like I was afraid we might.  I made a few suggestions to change the recipe below, so feel free to try those if you give this pizza a shot.

I feel like this is something I’m going to keep making over and over until I get it just right.  I can only dream that I’ll eventually make something as good as what we had in Chicago.  If that never happens, maybe I’ll just drop out of grad school, move to Chicago, work in the Gino’s kitchen and get their recipe. Until then, on with grad school…

Deep dish pizza with sausage and spinach
Adapted from Gourmet

½ teaspoon sugar
1 cup warm water (110° – 115° F)
a ¼-ounce package (1 ½ teaspoons) active dry yeast
2 ¼ to 2 ½ cups unbleached flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal

¾ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil plus additional for oiling bowl

½ pound Italian sausage, casings discarded
28-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
½ teaspoon crushed chili pepper
1 bunch spinach, washed, stems removed and coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese (about 1/4 pound)

1. In a large bowl dissolve sugar in water. Sprinkle yeast over water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Stir in 2 ¼ cups flour, cornmeal, salt, and 2 tablespoons oil and blend until mixture forms a dough. Knead dough on a floured surface, incorporating as much of remaining ¼ cup flour as necessary to prevent dough from sticking, until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.

(Alternatively, dough may be made in a food processor. Proof yeast as described above. In the food processor process yeast mixture with 2 ¼ cups flour, cornmeal, salt, and 2 tablespoons oil until mixture forms a ball, adding more water, 1 teaspoon at a time, if too dry or some of remaining ¼ cup flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, if too wet, and knead dough by processing it 15 seconds more.)

2. Put dough, prepared by either method, in a deep oiled bowl and turn to coat with oil. Let dough rise, covered with plastic wrap, in a warm place 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk.
(**If you prefer a thinner crust, pinch the ball of dough in half, reshape them into balls and put each in a separate oiled bowl. You will need to double the portions of sauce, spinach, and cheese to make two pizzas).

3. While dough is rising, in a heavy skillet cook sausage over moderately high heat, breaking up lumps, until no longer pink and stir in tomatoes, oregano, crushed chilies, and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer sausage mixture to paper towels to drain and cool.
(** I didn’t drain the tomato sausage mixture and instead cooked the sauce until all of the excess liquid had cooked off.)

4. In another large skillet heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over med-low heat. Add the minced garlic and cook until garlic is fragrant, but not browned, about 30 seconds. Add the chopped spinach and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is wilted and most of the excess water has evaporated. Transfer spinach to a fine mesh colander and press to remove excess liquid. Set aside.

5. Preheat oven to 475° F.

6. Punch down dough and knead 4 times. In an oiled 10 ½-inch cast-iron skillet, press dough with oiled finger until it comes 2 inches up the side and is an even thickness on bottom. Let dough rise, covered loosely with plastic wrap, in a warm place 15 minutes.

7. Sprinkle dough with mozzarella and spread the spinach evenly over the cheese. Top with tomato-sausage mixture. Bake pizza in lower third of an electric oven or on floor of a gas oven for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 400°F and bake 10 minutes more, or until crust is golden.

Cooking for yourself just isn’t that fun and I’ve been doing a lot of it lately.  That’s why, DAYS before leaving for Davis, I had come up with an entire menu to cook for housemates when I went home last weekend.  For whatever reason, I was craving southern soul food, so the menu that unfolded turned into a somewhat of a southern feast!  Rather than giving you the whole menu now, I’ll post it dish by dish.  That way I’ll leave you in suspense!  Right…

First I’ll start with the main course, spicy blackened catfish.  I know it’s not the world’s most glamorous fish, but it’s a southern classic and I like it.  I like blackened catfish better than fried and it’s a little healthier, so that’s what I went with.  This was my first time attempt at cooking fish this way and I found a recipe online that looked promising.  The whole process, start to finish doesn’t take very long and since it wasn’t critical that my other dishes be piping hot, I made the catfish last–just before I was ready to serve the meal.

You probably noticed that my catfish didn’t turn out very black.  I think the oil/butter mixture in the skillet wasn’t hot enough, but I’m not sure.  It still tasted good, but it didn’t quite deliver on spiciness.  Next time, even though I’m not very tolerant of heat, I would add more cayenne pepper to the seasoning mix.  If you know you like things spicy I might double the amount this recipe calls for.  I would just be careful not to go overboard on adjustments since the heat of different cayenne peppers can vary a lot.

If you decide to make this, I hope you enjoy it!  The side dish (and dessert!) recipes will be up soon!

Spicy Blackened Catfish
from Gourmet (via

Serves 2.

2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste (I would try 1/2 tsp)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 catfish fillets (about 1 pound)
1 large garlic clove, sliced thin
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
lemon wedges as an accompaniment

1. In a small bowl combine the paprika, the oregano, the thyme, the cayenne, the sugar, the salt, and the black pepper, pat the catfish dry, and sprinkle the spice mixture on both sides of the fillet, coating them well.

2. In a large skillet sauté the garlic in the oil over moderately high heat, stirring, until it is golden brown and discard the garlic.

3. Add the butter, heat it until the foam subsides, and in the fat sauté the catfish for 4 minutes on each side, or until it is cooked through. Transfer the catfish fillets with a slotted spatula to 2 plates and serve them with the lemon wedges.