pizza party

I want you all to put your thinking caps on, use your inside voices, and think back to that blue-industrial carpeted, windowless, cement walled room covered in bulletin boards with cut outs that generically represented whatever season it happened to be. It smells like kids and chalk and old books. You’re in third grade, and sentence conjugation and algebra are a bummer. What was the number one most exciting thing that could ever happen on a school day such as today (besides the school day being cancelled for snow)? What’s the one thing that would awake you from your ‘is-it-recess-yet-slumber’? That’s right: PIZZA PARTY! Usually pizza party day coincided with ‘watch a movie’ day, so basically as soon as you saw this:

ERMEGERD PERRRZEERR

ERMEGERD PERRRZEERR

And this:

ERMAGERD MERVEEERS

ERMAGERD MERVEEERS

Your tiny 8 year old heart was about to explode with joy.

Well, maybe the rest of you have grown up a little more than me, but as far as I’m concerned, anytime I see pizza I still feel like eating it while laying on my stomach on the floor and watching a crummy edited VHS version of The Indian in the Cupboard. (true story). Nowadays, the pizza is the only thing that’s grown up. And the movies. Sometimes.

Making your own pizza at home is super easy, super cheap and super fast. You can seriously make a pizza at home, from scratch, in less time than it would take you to order a pizza and have it delivered by a high school kid who has hit every bump on the way to your house, causing the majority of your pizza toppings to remain firmly attached to the roof of the pizza box.

I started making this pizza crust years ago, and it’s so easy it’s absurd. Like, it’s actually insane to me that everyone doesn’t do this and that people still buy pre-made pizza crust. First, there are only FIVE ingredients (besides water), most of which you probably already have in your cabinets. Second, the crust is this delicious, chewy, wonderful thing when you’re done. Not too thick, not too thin. If you’re one of those people who likes pizza that is essentially a heavily topped cracker, this is not for you. And for those of you who like pizza that was baked in a cake pan and you have to eat with a fork, it’s so thick, this is not for you. But for everyone else – this is our pizza crust.

Homemade Pizza Crust

pizza party crust

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup warm water (110 degrees F)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 packet of Fleischmann’s pizza crust active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
    (find it in the baking aisle of your grocery store)
  • 3 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/2 cups AP flour

Method:

  1. Add the sugar and yeast into the water, stirring until dissolved 
  2. Stir in the olive oil and salt, then the flour, stirring until well combined
  3. Knead the dough very lightly just until a ball of dough forms. Let dough rest in the bowl for 10 minutes.
  4. Pat dough out onto pizza stone or pan into desired shape, 1/4” thick. Top with olive oil, garlic powder and herbs, if desired before topping with ingredients.
  5. Bake at 425 for 15-20 minutes or until done. Let rest five minutes before cutting and serving.
Top it up.

Top it up.

Your ingredients can be whatever you want, but I love a good Greek pizza, and usually just throw together whatever I have on hand at the house. In this case, I topped the dough with a little more olive oil, Italian seasoning and garlic powder, then I put down a sauce that I had frozen from some local tomatoes mixed with some tomato paste. You can just use store-bought pizza sauce – no big deal. Then I topped that with a thin layer of fresh grated Parmigiana Reggiano, low-fat mozzarella, kalamata olives, diced sundried tomatoes, sliced pepperoncini peppers, half an onion, thinly sliced, and most importantly – browned, ground, local, Italian sausage from Windhaven Farms. I used about 1/3 of a pound. Since I’ve got a lot going on there, I bake my pizza for a good 20 minutes. I don’t want the dough to be underdone in the center. Take it out of the oven and let it rest for a few minutes. This will be the hardest part, cause when it comes out it looks like this:

pizza party pizza

And your 8 year old self is going to just want to grab it and stuff it in your face before that greedy kid with the runny nose touches it.

What are your favorite pizza toppings?

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Slow Cooker BBQ

I’m from North Carolina so naturally I am a huge fan of Barbecue. And while you can’t beat hardwood smoked whole hog, for most of us that is not an option in our own kitchens (although I am still trying to convince Jeremy that there is room beside the hot tub in the backyard for a full-hog sized smoker).  But there is another option and it comes in the somewhat unexpected form of a slow cooker. Yea, there are some hard-core BBQ fans out there that will tell you that if it’s not cooked over a real hard wood fire then it’s not technically barbecue, and on some historical points I will agree with them, but for all intents and purposes this recipe gets the job done. But make no mistake – while you don’t have to cook a whole hog in a split metal garbage pail over a hickory fire, you do have to commit yourself to two days of cooking, although most of it is pretty hands-off. You also have to commit yourself to your house smelling like pork for two days. Something I do not mind at all, but which some of you may find displeasing.

Step 1: Purchase a pork shoulder. These are also often called pork picnics, or pork butts. I usually go for a 3-4 pounder because I’m not looking to cook for a huge crowd. Go bigger if you need to, just make sure it will still fit inside your slow cooker.

Step 2: The night before you want to eat the Q, put the shoulder into the crock pot with at least a liter of cola or as much as you need to just about cover it. You can use any kind of cola. I used Dr. Pepper, but I’ve also used R C Cola, Coke, Pepsi, whatever. Turn the cooker on low and let it sit overnight.

Step 3: In the morning, remove the pork from the cola, pour the cola out and wipe out your slow cooker crock. The pork will be falling apart, so make sure you get all the meat out before you toss the cola (IE- don’t throw the pork baby out with the bath water). Let the pork cool for a bit, then begin to remove as much of the fat as you can from the meat. This will require tearing the meat into large chunks. (See photo collage, upper right hand corner). Once you’ve gotten as much fat off as possible (and bones if you’ve purchased a bone-in shoulder), put the meat back into the crock pot and shred with two forks until you’ve reached the consistency and chunkiness you like. You can also chop the meat after it’s shredded if you like that texture better. Chopped vs. Pulled is a completely personal preference; the value of one over the other I will not weigh in on although many people have strong opinions here.

BBQ Collage

Step 4: Make your sauce. This is where personal preferences turn into regional BBQ wars. You are certainly welcome to go to the store, buy a pre-made jar of BBQ sauce and dump it onto your meat at this point. That is totally fine if you have a particular brand that you really enjoy. However, I have never ever ever purchased a sauce from the store that adequately represented real Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce, so I make my own. I cannot even begin to give you real measurements of anything, but I will tell you it includes a little to a lot of the following things: apple cider vinegar, molasses, red pepper, black pepper, hot sauce, salt, garlic and onion powder, ketchup, and (secret ingredient alert!) liquid smoke. Yup. If you can’t cook it over real smoke and enjoy that hard-charred meat bark, liquid smoke will at least give you a hint of that flavor. The sauce I make looks something like this when I’m done:

Eastern Carolina BBQ Sauce

Secret Sauce

Possibly not at all like the BBQ sauce you know and love. Again, this is very regional. If you love some KC Masterpiece, I’m not judging (yes I am), just use that instead and sauce it to your liking. It should look something like this, or like something completely different if you’re using a different kind of sauce:

NC Style BBQ

This is what Eastern NC sauced BBQ looks like.

Step 5: Leave the meat in the crock pot with the sauce on low during the day. When you’re ready for dinner, check the meat, see if it needs any more sauce, then serve how you like. Again, this could be a multitude of ways, but I see no reason why you wouldn’t want it on a soft bun with home made coleslaw and a good dose of hot sauce:

BBQ Sandwich

Heaven.

I’ve taken this BBQ to several events and never get less than a dozen compliments on it. Even though it takes a good 20 hours, it’s worth it, and really is very very easy when you break it down. And the more you make it, the better you’ll learn how you like your sauce, or you’ll come up with other fun combinations. I’ve seen a recipe done like this but instead of BBQ sauce, a Cuban marinade was used, then the pork was made into Cuban sandwiches with ham and pickles and oh jeez, that’s going to have to be another blog . . .

What is your favorite kind of BBQ? Tennessee? Texas? Arkansas? Western NC? Let’s fight about it!

The one day of the year that everyone does what I want them to do

Thanksgiving gets the shaft and we all know it. Here is how the second half of the year’s calendar works:

September – Labor Day, back to school
October – Halloween
November, December, Most of January – out of control consumerism in the guise of a religious holiday we all know as CHRISTMAS

It doesn’t leave much room for a little altruistic holiday like Thanksgiving that focuses on being grateful for what we have instead of insistent that we get all the things the TV told us we need. Which is why I try my best to be a Thanksgiving cheerleader. It is, after all, the one day of the year that everyone collectively does this thing that I am constantly trying to convince people to do: get into your kitchen, cook a meal for people you love that is inspired by seasonal produce, then sit down at a table together and eat it slowly. Then, of course, the next day is the one day of the year where everyone does the one thing that actually makes me want to not be a part of the human race. The contrast between Thanksgiving and Black Friday could have been the socioeconomic topics of one of  George Orwell’s books had he lived long enough to see the monstrosity that is the biggest retail holiday of the year. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a free-market capitalist as much as the next gun-toting Libertarian, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to support the economy and we all vote with our dollars whether we vote for massive corporations who export jobs and manufacturing to China or whether we vote for small, locally-owned companies whose owners create jobs and reinvest those dollars back into our community . . . . but I digress.

THANKSGIVING!!

An Edible Arrangement, indeed.

Whether or not the traditional Thanksgiving story is true, and whether or not the things we eat each year really represent a traditional early-American harvest, the bottom line is that the meal is still a celebration of bounty, inspired by the local, the seasonal, the gracious things in life. And I love it. My personal family traditions have changed over the years. As a kid, our entire 30+ person extended family would all come to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, so it was always a really big deal. We would get up early in the morning to help my mom set the house up for the influx of people, and then as the sun went down, people would start pouring in, and the whole evening was just complete bliss for me. I love my family so much and even though most of us lived next door to each other on the same dirt road, it was somewhat rare that we are all in one place at one time, so for me, it was like this amazing Thanksgiving miracle. And everyone could cook so damn good. There were usually at least 20 dishes spread out around the kitchen, everything from corn pudding to collards to stewed tomatoes (this is the south, after all) and of course the traditional turkey, ham, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, etc.

As we’ve all grown up, the grandkids have gotten married and it’s harder to get everyone together at the same time, and so traditions have changed, and Jeremy and I usually spend every other Thanksgiving with his family in Ohio, which I also love and which includes a very different list of dishes like Galumpkis, Kielbasa and Pierogies (are you sensing that someone is Polish?) But the day itself and the meal is always the same: full of love and tradition and thankfulness and I am a complete sucker for that.

So in the spirit of Thanksgiving and with those big family dinners playing out in my mind, I share with you a recipe for genuine southern collard-greens (pronounced ‘collargreens’, no d, all one word). Please understand, though, that cooking up a mess of greens requires a tiny bit of know how and personal preference. This recipe is more of a guide. As you cook them more and more, you’ll figure out exactly how you like them.

Simply Southern Collard Greens

Serves 10, approximately

Ingredients:

  • 2 large bunch of collards, fresh and local if possible and cut directly at the base of the stem (pictures at right)

    If possible, get collards from the market or farm cut right at the base of the plant.

  • 1lb of bacon, fat back, ham, jowls, ham hock or any other kind of seasoning meat
  • 1/2 of a medium onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 c. apple cider vinegar, plus more for serving
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • jalapenos (fresh or pickled) – *optional and to taste – no more than one whole jalapeno *
  • water, on hand

Method:

  1. Thoroughly rinse each individual leaf off the collard plant and then tear the thick rib/stem off each leaf.
  2. Roll leaves together like a cigar, then cut crosswise into strips. Do this with all the collard leaves.
  3. If you’re using any uncooked meat (such as bacon) but it in the bottom of a large, heavy stock pot and cook it over medium heat. Once it starts to release its fat, throw in the onions and garlic and saute it all together until cooked through
  4. Pour in the apple cider and use this to deglaze the bottom of your pot – scraping up the bacon and onion bits with a wooden spoon, let this reduce together for a few minutes
  5. Begin adding your strips of collards, one large handful at a time, to the vinegar/pork fat glaze (that sounds awesome, right?) and stir them in, letting them wilt before adding another handful
  6. Stir in the baking soda and pepper to taste (and jalapenos if you’ve chosen to do that) and begin adding water as needed (This is where the know-how and experience comes in. You don’t want them too soggy, but you don’t want them to burn. They’re just sort of stewing in the water bath, so add it as you need, but not too much). Really taste the collards before adding salt – the meat you’ve used generally makes them salty enough.
  7. At this point, you can continue to let them simmer and cook on low on the stove top, or you can transfer them to a crock pot and leave them on low for a few hours, or you could even just continue to cook the water down in small amounts in your pot , doing a braising method that would results in less “soggy” greens. It’s totally up to you, I’ve done it every which way, depending on what I want and how much time I have. If you’re braising them, just keep stirring in water every 10 minutes or so and stirring the greens until they are done to your liking (30 minutes or so?). Otherwise, simmer or slow cook for 3-4 hours on low, for very Southern style greens.
  8. Serve warm with more cider vinegar or pepper vinegar, salt and pepper.

Collardy Goodness

What are your favorite Thanksgiving dishes? What can you not live without eating on the big day?

Sweet Meat

I promised I wasn’t a vegetarian and I’m here to deliver. Also, my friend Robyn threatened to stop reading the blog unless I posted a meat recipe she could make for her seriously carnivorous husband. Fine.

But before we get into that, I want to talk a little bit about meat, the consumption and environmental effects of it, and healthy options and portions. Wait….where are you going? No, really – it’s important! Fine, I won’t TALK about it, I’ll just show you this:

Get the point? Meat should be a SMALL percentage of your daily food intake. It should be used as a side dish, not a main course, and should be chosen wisely. I can’t say that this particular recipe was the “wisest” one, but it did serve up about 8 small servings over the course of three days, so it had that going for it.

This recipe was adapted from one I found via Pinterest, and was originally posted here. I changed it up a little, but all in all it’s pretty similar.

Brown Sugar and Balsamic Glazed Pork Loin

Ingredients:
1 (2 pound) boneless pork tenderloin (or regular pork loin)
1 bunch of fresh sage
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
3 clove garlic, crushed
1 small onion, sliced
1/2 cup water
Glaze
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Directions:
Rub roast with salt, pepper and granulated garlic. Place in slow cooker with 1/2 cup water, sage, crushed garlic and onion slices. Cook on low for 6-8 hours. About 1 hour before roast is done, combine ingredients for glaze in small sauce pan. Heat and stir until mixture thickens. Brush roast with glaze 2 or 3 times during the last hour of cooking. Serve with remaining glaze on the side.
I sort of sliced, sort of shredded the pork loin when it came out of the pot, removing the fat as I cut. I used a regular pork loin, not a tenderloin, so there’s some different meat textures going on in there. Once I had sliced/shredded it onto a platter, I drizzled the glaze over top of it.

I served it with a squash and corn casserole and a light tomato and cucumber salad. You’ll notice the portions here look similar to the diagram at the beginning of the post:

The meat only takes up 1/4 of the plate.

So, see – I DO eat meat. I just think we have to start thinking about it and preparing it and eating it a little different. Meat can be a great source of protein, but it can also be a great source of saturated fats, unnecessary hormones and antibiotics. Not to even mention or get into the kind of cruelty that goes in to most mass-bred cattle, pork and chicken. Under normal circumstances I purchase all of our meat through local farms who use ethical animal raising and slaughtering methods. This was a rare exception, although the meat is still technically local (Smithfield, VA).  Yes, locally raised meats are more expensive, but when you eat less of it, the cost works itself out. Not to mention the long-term health benefits of eating less meat and more sustainable meat are a huge cost savings (would you rather spend money on healthier food or on blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes medications and treatments?). Pasture raised meats have less saturated fats, are generally not fed antibiotics (because they are outside eating grass, not shoved in a cage with 1,000 heads, chowing on grain which inherently makes cows sick), and are leaner because of the natural exercise they get. The same is true of pigs and chickens. If you’d like to learn more about the environmental and health effects that meat has in America, I would encourage you to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. This is the book that the documentary, Food Inc. was based on, but if you’re like me and can’t stomach movies like that, try the book instead. He traces the steps of three meals from beginning to end: a fast food meal, a “locally sourced” meal, and a meal that was 100% hunted and gathered by him. It’s fascinating and you will never look at the food the same way again, I promise.

Ok, so I ended up talking about it anyways. I’ll get off my meat soapbox now. Honestly, I do love it and I do eat it, and when the summer ends and we get into fall and winter, you will see me use it as an ingredient in a lot more dishes.

What is your favorite meat? Where do you get your meat from and what is important to you when purchasing it? What kind of questions do you ask your farmer, butcher or grocer when purchasing meat?