Week 20: Outdoorsman – Charcoal-Grilled Veggie Pizza

Taking on the camping aspect of this week’s theme, I fought mild waves of self-doubt over how cooking pizza outdoors would actually go. In the kitchen, I rotate through most of the gear enough to anticipate any issues or difficulties. Cooking pizza dough on a naked grill didn’t come as intuitively as cooking a steak, so I tapped a Serious Eats guide for a smack of confidence that the dough wouldn’t just slide through the grates cartoon-like and melt over the coals. And it didn’t.

Preparation turned out to be the most important lesson in this setting. While this grill session took place in my backyard on a mild weekend afternoon, running inside for every forgotten item was pain enough for me to squeeze out a thoughtful camping lesson for reflection. If I truly were camping, I’d be boned nine times before food ever hit the grill.

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While the coals heated up, I prepped the veggies first, skewering mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and canned artichoke hearts (which were thankfully placed in a pop-top can).

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The dough was patted out in advance, ready to determine the course of this night with how well it faced the grill. To my surprise, the crust was rather easy to manage once it settled in over the heat. It bubbled up and took on a rather rustic look within minutes. Rotation helped to cook portions of both crust and vegetables evenly over the meager amount of coals used.

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With one side of the dough fully cooked, I flipped the crust over for a kiss of heat so that texture wouldn’t be too soft amongst the toppings.

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The sturdiness of the dough was rather fortunate as I gave no thought to the weight of the toppings as they were piled on. It was only during the transfer back to the grill that I realized how heavy the pizza had become, but the crust stayed true to the cause.

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With coals pushed to one side, I set the pizza on the other end and tried to capture enough heat under the grill cover to melt the cheese a bit. The results were somewhat lackluster but the flavor remained unaffected.

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With big, juicy toppings to chomp into, this pizza had a glamping charm to it that would only suit a rosé. Something crisp and funky from Corsica to feast with.

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But just as the realities of camping with wine have struck me before, this bottle was corked and completely ruined for enjoyment. So I did as I did last time and grabbed a beer.

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Yes, Ballast Point sold out for a billion dollar check but that doesn’t mean I love this beer any less. It’s refreshing AF and great alongside whatever just came off the grill. Cheers.

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Week 18: Brown Bag Lunch – Homemade Lunchables Pizza

This week’s Brown Bag Lunch challenge dangled the opportunity to poke at my nostalgia buttons and I took a swing at my very own set of homemade Lunchables pizza. Overall, this was a very smart decision.

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To begin, mini crust discs are made to fit the lunching tupperware I use on the daily for packing snacks for work. Puffing up in oven may be an issue, which can be remedied by a few stabs from a fork beforehand or a bit of pressure from above afterwards.

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Next the tomato sauce is made by gently cooking garlic in olive oil and then dousing crushed San Marzano tomatoes into the pot for a quick simmer. Fresh basil and dried oregano make up the whole of the spices used.

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Raw ingredients may vary based on personal preference but fresh tomatoes and pepperoni are great toppings of choice.

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A quick mix of cheddar and mozzarella made for a wonderfully complex assortment of cheese aromatics. For further instruction on preparing a two cheese blend, this brief video guide can provide the necessary guidance for mastery.

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Staging is key in creating a bag meal experience. For the majority of my packed food needs, I turn to a set of Rubbermaid kits I found at Costco once long ago. They just happen to fit the REI lunchbag I bought just as long ago.

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Being the responsible worldly thinker that I am, I chose to feature my handy-dandy reusable lunchbox as my “brown bag” for this project. Stocked with plastic utensils and an icepack, all this lunch needs is a nice view and a cool breeze.

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The build is simple. A microwave or toaster oven can zap this mini pizza into a blissful dance through a flavor meadow, but the extra effort can be easily overlooked when hungry.

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If wine is an option, rosé or lambrusco can make a daytime meal sing. If a lunch is forgotten until the later hours, a Louis Latour red burgundy can transform a Lunchables adventure into an epic midnight snack.

Week 6: Finger Foods – a trio of pizza snacks

Exploring the miniature world of pizza-inspired finger food, as decreed by this week’s challenge, I decided to experiment with three different styles to see how far whimsy could take me. To begin, I chose to bring to life a mediocre pizza cone I once experienced at a night market but this time it would be tastier and in bite-size form.

Pizza Cones

Ideally this project would begin with an army of small cone-shaped, oven-safe items such as a basic frosting tip, at the ready. If this is not the case, the next best option is to create a set of Cones of Dunshire out of foil.

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Using room-temperature pizza dough, I rolled out thin, roughly-shaped triangles that were wrapped once around each cone. The cones were baked pointy side up until browning and gently release from mold when cool enough to do so.

To prep for the next stage of cooking, foil was wrapped tightly around a baking dish and gently poke tiny, well-spaced holes for the cones to sit upright in. These cones were filled with a modest layering of fresh mozzarella, marinara sauce, finely chopped pepperoni, more sauce, and shredded mozzarella to top.

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These were placed back in the oven for another 5 minutes and served in the very same delicate DIY foil holder as before.

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While the presentation is lacking a bit of panache, these small treats have potential for greatness in the future, especially if I combine the piping mousse used in the following finger food.

Pepperoni Cream Gougeres

Gougeres are small pastries that create little air pockets when they puff up in the oven, providing space for a creamy treat to be piped in.

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While these might be considered the most successful of my experiements, I encountered many difficulties along the way. Using a very basic recipe provided by the Addison kitchen, I had a batch ready to go within minutes.

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Boiling the butter and milk together, I added the flour all at once and beat the resulting goop for three minutes. Off heat, I whipped in the eggs one at a time and then added parmesan and season with salt to taste. This was then added to a pastry bag, though a sturdy ziplock bag would make a fine enough substitution.

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Piping out small swirly poops was my first mistake. The shape created at the base of each pastry did not allow half the batch to rise with the appropriate amount of spacing within. It is better to start with a fat blob as the base, swirling towards the top to avoid a Hershey kiss shape.

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Each batch took around 20-25 minutes in the oven before crispy and light. Midway through the first batch, I noticed the color of the gourgeres remained quite pale so I pulled out the lot and painted on a sheen of whipped egg whites for some last minute coloration in the oven. The trick seemed to work so I applied the egg whites to the second batch as well.

While waiting for the pastries to finish baking, I pulled together some pizzaesque ingredients laying around in the kitchen for a haphazard emulsion. The final makeup of this concoction involved a blend of tomato chunks, mozzarella, sour cream, cottage cheese, half and half, crushed red pepper, salt, pepper and crispy pepperoni. This was added to its own pastry bag and piped into the cracks found along each puff pastry to fill the gap within.

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At first I didn’t mind the chunky texture the pepperoni provided until the pastry bag tip kept getting clogged and splattering comically all over the kitchen from force and frustration. Had I made a bigger batch, the end texture may have been smoother as the pepperoni would have a chance to become completely emulsified. In addition, I would avoid using firmer cheeses so that the mousse remains creamy when reheated. Another couple rounds of practice should transform this puppy into a winner in a crowd.

Mini Pepperoni Pizzas

Despite my certainty that this would be the least exciting aspect of my finger food experiments, I devoted a good half hour into this project to use up some leftover dough and ingredients. The majority of this half hour was spent meticulously cutting regularly-sized pepperoni into miniature pepperoni pieces, all for the cutesy look of it.

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From here, the dough was separated into equally-sized balls that, when pressed into shape, resulted in 3-inch rounds. And from here I built the pizza as I would any other.

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The pepperoni scraps from earlier did not go to waste as they were chopped up and placed over the sauce and under the cheese when designing the final toppings.

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Edible? Yes. Cute? Sure. Worth it? Eh.

The Pairing

While the flavors of these three treats were very similar overall, I would still need a wine broad enough to span the nuances of spices and texture. When it comes to classic Italian flavors of tomato and cheese and cured meats, I tend to seek out Italian wine.

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Vecchie Terre di Montefili – “Bruno di Rocca,” Toscana, Italy 2000 is plush, rich and easy to become friends with. While a decade and a half of aging has definitely pushed this wine into its developing stages, there is still a dense juiciness to the black cherry and raspberry fruit that can manage to the pastry-dense food. The wine’s age offers the additional benefit of extra complexity by emphasizing more savory components like black tea and chopped mushrooms. This wine is just as fun to drink with the food as it is to drink during its preparation.

Blind Lady Ale House & Aglianico

On the northern end of the 30th Street beer crawl lineup sits Blind Lady Ale House where pizza and brews are served in an indoor beer garden fashion with small jovial crowds lining long tables. Beer is the ultimate fail-safe pizza pairing, making this environment perfect for fostering a pizza eating culture. With Kimmy Schmidt waiting to entertain my pizza-eating face, I opt out of beer and slink back to my Netflix cave, a Spicy Salami pie in hand, to find a wine to pair.

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The pizza is a simple but aromatic wonderland topped with Balistreri salami, fontina and pecorino romano cheeses, and a light tomato sauce. Leading the topping parade, the salami is crafted by San Diego native Pete Balistreri, a Sicilian-American quick to gain a following for his recent venture in artisanal charcuterie. Dense with savory elements, the salami contributes the bulk of the seasoning with classic flavors of chili flakes and fennel.

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The main source of spice comes from the side of calabrese chili oil, which allows for adjustment according to personal preference. The chili oil offers mild peppery heat and a satisfyingly slick texture, finding a comfortable home amongst the salty toppings and juicy tomato sauce. If hotter, the spice would threaten to zap a wine’s more delicate fruit aromas, making a sweeter or less alcoholic pairing more appropriate. Bold, inky and certainly no pushover, wine made from the thick-skinned Aglianico are weighty and capable handling a livelier set of flavors. The red Italian varietal makes the whole of this pizza’s pairing, 2008 Terredora di Paolo, Taurasi DOCG, Fatica Contadina.

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Smooth, finely-grained tannins enrich the wine’s already full body, allowing the wine to match each bite in personality and gumption. The moderately high acidity keeps the oil and cheese from overpowering the palate while aromas of blackberry, plum skin, fresh leather and tar provide a layer of contrasting flavors and complexity. Overshadowed by more northern Italian players of Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, southern Italy’s Aglianico remains under-appreciated despite its ability to thrive in warmer climates while maintaining a robust yet balanced wine. It is a feisty selection to keep around home, well-suited to pair with rich Italian dishes and hilarious Tina Fey productions.

references:

Guild of Sommeliers Compendium

Daring Pairings by Evan Goldstein

Landini’s Pizzeria & Spanish red

The recent boom of trendy bars and restaurants in San Diego’s Little Italy has been all the chatter about town. From the killer wine list at Juniper & Ivy to the shiny upstairs patio of Kettner Exchange, there is plenty to talk about and more foodie fodder still to come. While old neighborhood standards may harrumph about with speculation as to what the competition means for business, the influx of roaming drunk hoards seems well-suited for a pizza joint to thrive in and Landini’s Pizzeria is situated within easy stumbling distance of it all.

San Diego kitchens shut down disappointingly early for a city that parties nightly until two. As bars unleash batches of wooing hot messes and their socially oblivious companions into the streets, Landini’s becomes a magnet for inebriated pizza zombies drawn to the ever-appreciated business model of late-night slices.

Initially enticed by the menu’s fancy sounding toppings of brussel sprouts and butternut squash, I opt for a less cerebral treat after standing in line between drunk toddlers in celebratory feather boas indicating some holiday nigh. Instead, the very chill people of Landini’s recommend a standard issue pepperoni pie, to which I add tomato and mushroom to half and contribute what I can to send some cat to ninja school.

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The toppings don’t seem to matter beyond pepperoni as the base components make up the whole of the pizza’s personality. A soft core that runs from crust to cheese is enlivened with collected pockets of juicy tomato sauce and a chewy texture. While the tomato and mushroom are decorative at best, contributing nothing much beyond texture to the pie, the pepperoni is spiced perfectly, calling for a bigger style of red wine to be its match.

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Bodega Margon Pricum (Tierra de León, 2007) is a Spanish red made up solely from the Prieto Picudo red grape of the region. Upon opening, the wine is immediately taut, tannins strained and fruit ungiving, and in need of time to breathe. Decanting is an option, offering more surface area for oxygen to interact with the wine and hasten its evolution, while swirling in glass offers smaller format aeration for those seeking to enjoy a glass or two.

As the wine opens up, aromas of black tea, pepper, and dusty earth are at first most notable. Dark fruit flavors emerge in the form of black cherry and blackberries that provide a counterbalance to the meaty landscape of the pizza and inherent spice never overwhelms the wine. With plumply ripe fruit aromas and moderately higher alcohol, there is just enough acidity to match the tomato sauce while the scrubby tannins play nicely off each cheesy bite.

landini's leftovers

Leftovers are an undeniable truth of pizza eating for one. To step up my pizza game, I ditched the microwave and learned a stovetop method for reheating pizza that revives any lifeless crust on the fly. All it takes is a pan prepped to low-medium heat with slices placed in dry for a crisp bottom while covering with a lid to heat the toppings evenly. Serve with eggs and call it breakfast.

Buona Forchetta & Falanghina

Buona Forchetta is a quietly trendy South Park restaurant priding itself in traditional Italian fare and a pretty dope ambiance. An incredible amount of hype built up by local pizza fanatics sets expectations high, especially when personal experience with a range of dishes has placed overall consistency into question. Even still, ravings over Buona Forchetta pizza persists, making their cuisine an on-going, sometimes obsessive study. Curiosity strikes with every recommendation for the place and I find myself perusing the menu again and again, tempting my hunger with the array of options.

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Close proximity to Hamilton’s, South Park’s keeper of great beers, usually green lights the decision to make the trek for pizza. With sours kept well stocked, Hammy’s is my first stop regardless of whether I’m waiting for a table or saying ambiance schmambiance and ordering a pizza to-go. Although much of Buona Forchetta’s overall experience can be extracted from the quaint atmosphere reminiscent of the chef’s homeland, isolation from the romantic distractions of strung up lights and Italian accents can be quite revealing and just as satisfying. Carry-out means no corkage fee, but it’s worth mentioning that the corkage fee here is extremely reasonable at ten dollars per bottle.

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Buona Forchetta (left) credit: San Diego Magazine

From the belly of the kitchen’s shiny centerpiece oven, Sofia, built by third generation oven-maker Stefano Ferrara, comes an order of the Sergio pizza. The pie is one of the more popular choices featuring prosciutto di parma, arugula, parmesan and buffalo mozzarella. The pizza is a winner from the very first bite with flavors singing harmoniously together as bright parmesan and milky fresh mozzarella balance with a base of light and acidic tomato sauce. Meanwhile, the prosciutto and arugula not only contributed with bursts of flavor, their layers also enhance the texture of the chewy dense crust, making each bite immensely satisfying.

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With buoyant pizza flavors presented in a classic Neapolitan style, the streak of lesser known Italian wines continues on with Falanghina (2010 Feudi Di San Gregorio, Falanghina del Sannio DOC), a fragrant white wine hailing from Campania in Southern Italy. As the grassy arugula cuts through powerful cheesy core with refreshing bitterness, the cheese in turn bridges the lean vegetal notes of the arugula with the bright acidity in the wine. In general, lively wines with plenty of acidity can gracefully manage cheesy situations while also playing the same role as a squeeze of lemon with bitter greens. The meaty, salty prosciutto enhances stone fruit flavors of peach and apricot in the wine while red apple and tangerine aromas contribute to its juicy, refreshing style. With delicious flavors in full balance, this pizza and wine pairing requires no more than sweatpants and a couch to appreciate this winning combo.

Napizza and uncommon Italian DOCGs

For a by-the-slice concept, Napizza is a pretty swanky spot holding down a coveted corner in Little Italy, the land of shiny new restaurants. With more than a handful of pizza options nearby, Napizza has established itself as a “healthy and organic” option, a modern trend that tends to litters walls and websites with a fatiguing number of buzzwords. With marketing so fiercely tuned in, it is best to hit mute and let the flavors speak for themselves.

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Behind the display window, each pizza offering sings its own siren song, drawing me in until I focus my hunger on the Truffle Porcini and Parmigiana, two slices destined for a set of Italian pairings.

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Built on a focaccia bread base, the medium-style pizza has a crisp olive oil crust that helps maintain the structure, allowing for weighty toppings such the mess of eggplant and chunky tomato on the slice of Parmigiana. A smothering of pesto with each bite offers a glitter of garlic spice and tangy green brightness. Meanwhile, the personality of the pizza stays true to the name, singing of simple Italian cuisine, hearty, earthy and satisfyingly cheesy.

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Azienda Agricola COS, Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG, Sicilia, 2011 is produced from the first and only DOCG of Sicily. The ruby red wine is made predominately from the black grape Nero d’Avola, Frappato making up a 30-50% minority. In this bottling, the dominant varietal expresses itself with finely grained tannins found in the wine while the latter varietal can be seen through red berry aromas of dehydrated raspberry and cranberry, further emphasized by the savory pizza elements of eggplant and pesto. The refreshing acidity is quite appealing with such a rich style of pizza while a soft note of wood provides a plush finish as does a lingering note of tobacco and black tea. The pairing isn’t perfectly aligned, each element playing its own instrument and not quite harmonizing. It comes together like an awkward first date, whereas the next one is like a long-awaited, romantic night out.

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The Truffle Porcini slice hits the palate with a roar of mushrooms, herbs and truffle notes. Such an aggressive umami overload puts our first wine in an aromatic stranglehold, demanding a larger player. Travaglini, Gattinara DOCG, Piedmonte, 2008 is a playful companion to this slice, swinging at its oily center with all the elevated acidity that accompanies the varietal, Nebbiolo. Known locally as Spanna, Nebbiolo makes up 100% of the wine even though a minimum of 90% composition is required for Gattinara DOCG.

In the last pizza pairing, Nebbiolo was featured through Palmina’s New World interpretation whereas in Gattinara, Nebbiolo is in its homeland of Piedmont, where Barolo and Barbaresco represent the pinnacle of its expression. Even though Gattinara is a more approachable style, it still comes dressed up with purple flowers, violets and roses as well as fresh leather, orange peel and baked cherry pie. The tart red fruits are tangy with personality and a quick burst of tannins add fireworks to this hot little love fest.

postscript: the uniquely-shaped bottle was designed in 1958 to diminish the need for decanting by catching sediment naturally. For three years, I walked around thinking the misshapen bottle recovered from a vineyard fire as lore would have it. Oh, how humbling fact checking can be. Also, embarrassing.