Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pesto Pizza

The first time I made pesto pizza, it was not good.  The pizza part was fine.  Judging by the number of tastes I took from the pesto, that part was just fine, too.  What wasn't successful was the blending of the two.  Instead of a taste of heaven, I ended up with a greasy green mess.  I stuck to my normal summer pizza routine of fresh tomatoes with plenty of fresh basil and called it a day.

Then last summer I was idly flipping channels and happened to land on Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition.  The chef suggested that the contestant swap out his extra-large-double-cheese-double-meat-lover's pizza for a slimmed down pesto pizza.  Recalling that the primary problem with my pesto pizza was the grease, I decided to give their "diet" pizza a shot.

Pesto pizza calls for garden fresh basil and garden fresh tomatoes, two ingredients that are in abundance during harvest season.  But what should you do if you don't have a garden or if your craving lands during the 10 months of the year when tomatoes aren't in season?  I'll let you in on a secret: head to the grocery store and buy jarred pesto and any old tomato.  No, it won't have the magic garden freshness.  But it's still well worth making.

(Pesto recipe from Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition.  The unlikely source of my pizza dough recipe is found at the end of this post.)

  • Crust
    • 1 tablespoon (or packet) yeast
    • 1 teaspoon sugar
    • ¼ cup warm water, 95°-105°
    • 2 cups flour.  Suggest a mixture of 1½ cups all purpose flour, 6 tablespoons corn meal, and 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour.
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
    • approx ½ cup additional water
    • oil spray (I use olive oil in a Misto sprayer)
  • Pesto
    • ½ cup fresh basil leaves
    • 2 teaspoons chopped garlic
    • 2 Tablespoons pine nuts (see discussion below for substitutions)
    • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
    • ¼ cup Parmesan cheese
  • Other:
    • 1-2 fresh tomatoes
    • 4-6 oz cheese (I use a mix of mozzarella and muenster)


My pizza dough recipe hasn't changed since my original post two years ago, but my preparation method has, so let's start by getting that up to date.
Heat ¼ cup of water between 95°-105°.  This takes about 15 seconds in the microwave, and since I'm leery of yeast cooking, I always use a thermometer to measure it.

Mix in a tablespoon (or packet) of yeast and a teaspoon of sugar.

 After 5 minutes, the yeast will be very bubbly.  If it isn't, something is wrong - water too hot/too cold/something wrong with the yeast.  Figure it out and try again.  Since I don't use yeast in anything much besides pizza dough, I store it the refrigerator, where it will last for years.

Place the flour, salt, and tablespoon of oil in a food processor and pulse together.  Add the yeast mixture and pulse again.

Now add the water, and let the games begin.  Due to some quirky law of the universe, I use a different amount of water every single time I make dough.  If it's too dry, the dough will look flat and and will be very tight to handle.  Too much water, and the dough will be sticky, as shown above.  Add a little more water to get it loose, and a little more flour to get it tight.

When it's just right, the dough will adhere together, and won't stick to the food processor bowl.  Let it spin about 25 times once it gets to this stage.

Hand kneed the dough a few times.

Place in a lightly oiled bowl, and spray a little oil over the surface.

Seal the bowl.  Technically you can roll it out in 10 minutes, which is what I used to do when I first started making pizza.  But then I discovered that it's just that much better if it has time to rise, so I started planning ahead.  If you're going to be cooking it within a few hours, leave it at room temperature to let it rise.  Any longer than than, put it in the refrigerator.

This is what the dough looked like 24 hours later.  Set it out to warm to room temperature while you make the pesto.

I headed out the garden to pick about ½ cup fresh basil.

Now let's talk about pine nuts.  Two things you should know: they are delicious and they are expensive.  I have room in my budget for such luxuries, but I understand that not everyone does.  To stretch my supply, I store them in the refrigerator, where as far as I know, they keep indefinitely.  Others have suggested using sunflower seeds.  I've also heard of just omitting them all together.  So pick your option and proceed.

Toast the nuts on medium heat for a few minutes until tan and fragrant.  If you used pine nuts and still remember the price, you will be extra motivated to not let them burn.

Combine the basil, Parmesan, garlic, nuts, and oil in a blender or food processor.

Blend until combined.  At this point, start preheating the oven to 425°.

Slice the tomatoes as thinly as possible (because they are heat sinks and you do not want to burn your mouth later on).  Quarter the slices and drain as much liquid off as possible, without being fanatical.

Place the dough on an unheated pizza stone (you can read about my love of pizza stones here - and yes, you can use a regular pizza pan if you aren't there yet).

Spread the dough out a little by hand.

Finish the job with a rolling pin.  If the dough is cold, it may resist a little.  Just walk away for a minute and it will cooperate.

Shape the edges.  Pre-bake for 10 minutes.

When the crust comes out of the oven, add all of the pesto.  If you're using store bought pesto, drain off as much of the oil as you can.

Spread it out to the edges.

Add tomatoes.

Add a light coating of cheese.  Listen, I am your friend.  Use as little cheese as possible because less is more here.  The pesto and tomatoes need room to shine.

Cook for 10 minutes, until cheese is melted and beginning to brown.  Remove from oven and let sit undisturbed for at least 10 minutes to let the flavors settle.  Clean up the kitchen while you're waiting.

And with that, let yourself sit undisturbed and inhale the pure late summer pleasure.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Blackened Chicken

Overall my life is OK, but it is not perfect.  I lack many things, including a grill.  Someday the pain will become too great and I will deal with this shortcoming, but in the meantime there is a workaround: blackened chicken.  You will be amazed at what a little sugar and a hot skillet can do for you.  I'm sure it would also be fabulous on an actual grill, but we are going to fake it until we make it.

What do you do with blackened chicken?  Just about anything!    I've often eaten it as is with veg and a baked potato for dinner.  It goes well in Budget Bytes's Chicken Shawarma and the Pioneer Woman's Chicken Florentine Pasta.  But most often, I cook up a batch of chicken and use it to make chopped salads for lunch, and that's what we'll do today.

(Blackened Seasoning Recipe from Can You Stay for Dinner?)

  • Blackened Seasoning (makes enough to season three pounds of meat)
    • 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
    • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
    • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
    • 1 tablespoon thyme
    • 1 tablespoon sugar
    • 1 tablespoon salt
  • Chopped Chicken Salad
    • Chicken breast
    • Veggies and lettuce
    • Feta Cheese
    • Balsamic Salad Dressing

Mix up the blackened seasoning ingredients.  The original recipe for blackened seasoning makes enough to cover one pound of chicken.  By the second time I made it, I realized that this quantity just would not do and tripled the recipe so that there is a reasonable chance I will always have some on hand when needed.

Trim up the required amount of chicken for your purposes - here I'm making up about a week's worth of chicken for salads.

Tenderize the chicken with the smooth side of a meat mallet.

Sprinkle a generous amount of seasoning on the chicken and pat it in.

Spray a skillet with cooking spray and heat to sizzling - the hotter the better.

Cook for a few minutes per side, until it has a gorgeous blackened crust on the outside and nothing pink inside.

Remove from heat.

Prepare a selection of lettuce and veggies.

Toss the veggies lightly with dressing.  Would you believe that I actually don't make my own salad dressing? Some day I may venture into the world of homemade salad dressings (it's not like I don't already have the ingredients), but that day is not today.  I'm particularly fond of Marzetti's Simply Dressed Balsamic

Top with a sprinkling of feta cheese and chicken, grind a little salt and pepper, and drizzle a little more dressing on top of the salad.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Soft Batch Chocolate Chip Cookies

Let's face it, there has been too much healthy eating on this blog recently.  In the spirit of all things in moderation, it's time for dessert.

It was surprisingly difficult to find a go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe.  I like my cookies on the soft side, but unless you underbake to the point of rawness, chocolate chip cookies have a tendency to turn crisp.   Don't know about you, but if I wanted something crunchy, I'd eat a carrot and save the calories.  My other go-to cookie recipes have built in softeners: blondies have coconut, oatmeal raisin cookies have oatmeal, and peanut butter cookies have peanut butter, but a plain and pure chocolate chip cookie has nothing to protect itself from the cruel world.

One of the recipes I tried was the venerable NY Times gold standard.  With all the extra detail - two different kinds of flour! a 24+ hour dough aging process! - you would figure it must be incredible.  To be fair, the cookies I brought in to work were gone by the next day, but I really resented the recipe.  I wouldn't have minded the fussy ingredients and multi-day prep time, but the end result was a cookie just like any other cookie.  Not life changing, and still on the crisp side.  The search continued...and then I found the one.  They were soft as pillows right out of the oven.  They were silky soft later that evening under the stars with a bottle of red wine.  And the next day, they were still all softness and cuddles.

(Recipe from The Picky Palate)
Yield: 2-3 dozen cookies, depending on size

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1½ cups chocolate chips


Cream the butter and sugars together for 2 minutes.

Introduce the egg and vanilla, beating until just combined.

Combine the flour, corn starch, baking soda, and salt.  Add the dry ingredients in 3 batches, beating lightly between additions.

Next comes chocolate.

Next comes a dose of extreme self discipline to not eat the entire batch of dough then and there.

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Drop the dough by small spoonfuls onto the cookie sheet.  Cookie size is a matter of personal preference, and my preference is for a smaller cookie.

Space out the cookies evenly on the sheets.

Set the cookies' shape by pressing down lightly.  I'm using waxed paper for the job.

Take a second to admire your work.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, rotating the sheets front to back and top to bottom at the halfway point.  9 minutes was the magic time for my oven.

Let the cookies sit on the sheet for a minute to settle in.

Remove to cooling racks.

And dig in.