Week 10: Braised – Beet, Fennel & Goat Cheese Pizza

This week’s braising challenge is a considerably useful method of cooking that has only come up in our kitchen when brussel sprouts or potstickers are involved. In the case of the former, brussel sprouts had long baffled us as to how to best cook them without a long roasting process. Braising allowed for a quick sear to create the tasty bonus flavors offered by the Maillard reaction while accomplishing the tenderness sought out at a fraction of the time it would take in the oven.

For this pizza, I chose to discover the braising potential of fennel, a hardy root vegetable that can charm or dissuade any indulgers with its vibrant anise aromatics. Having only recently succumbed to fennel’s appeal, I am still in a rather obsessive phase that peaked this time last year with my addiction to fennel & grapefruit soup. Here, the flavors of fennel and some of its dear friends will come out and frolic.

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Sharing the spotlight on this pizza is fennel’s root vegetable buddy, beets. Even in the grocery store, they are already rather neighborly.

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With the help of a mandoline, roasted beets were thinly sliced and prepped for a marinade.

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Before juicing the grapefruits for the marinade, I included the grapefruit zest to allow the tart flavors to pop. A splash of red wine vinegar helped bolster the marinade.

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When it comes time to braise the fennel, only the bulbous base was used while some of the fronds were reserved for the final plating.

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Using a knife this time, I sliced the fennel carefully so as to best preserve the architecture within. During cooking, each portion was flipped methodically with tongs to keep the structure in tact for the final presentation.

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The pizza was built using a somewhat puffier crust that had boiled potato shavings folded in for a fluffier texture. The final toppings included the grapefruit-marinated beets, fennel, goat cheese and a sprinkle of mozzarella. Shaved almonds and fennel fronds dressed the pizza upon its completion.

 

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While keeping an array of fun flavors, this pizza lacked a sense of moisture as its creator didn’t think to incorporate some semblance of a sauce. Taking a cue from the clam pizza from last week’s challenge, a quick spritz of the beet marinade may have saved this pizza from its shortcomings. Beyond this, the flavors meshed well enough to be completely devoured, but there was a certain integration lacking. The wine, in this case, helped bridge some missing links in the dish.

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Chosen to pair with this pizza, Domaine Eric Louis – Sancerre, Loire Valley, France 2014 keeps a fresh and lively style of Sauvignon Blanc behind its cutesy Little Prince-esque label. Its natural affinity for goat cheese is aligned with a geographic history within the Loire Valley. The region’s Sauvignon Blanc has been enjoyed with the local and abundant goat cheese for so long it seems almost too perfect, and yet it is one of the few true classic pairings that is cherished for its simple dance of tangy, refreshing flavors. The aromatics of the Sancerre pile onto the flavors of grapefruit and herbaceousness in the pizza with a similar roar but the bitterness found in lingering after each bite admittedly might be better managed by the roundness of a slightly off-dry Riesling.

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Even still, neither pizza nor wine made it through the night.

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Pizza Nova & Sancerre

Perched overlooking the sleepy harbor of Point Loma, San Diego’s Pizza Nova is a spacious bayside joint cooking up wood-fired pizza amongst other restaurant standards. Aside from the expected basics of pepperoni and margherita, a range of non-traditional pies tempt the more adventurous with toppings not often found on pizza, such as pears, zucchini or thai flavors. Proximity to the sea seems to have had some minor influences on their chosen style as their eponymous signature pie features smoked salmon. Fluffed up with flavors of red onions, caper and goat cheese, the Pizza Nova pie is a tasty departure from loveable classics most swear allegiance to.

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When ordered to-go, the freshly baked pizza kisses salmon with boxed-in heat, cooking in a bit more flaky texture and pink opaqueness. While the salmon brings a sweet smokiness to the overall profile, the capers are bright with ocean-like salinity and the goat cheese peps up each bite with a hit of grassy tang. The oily presence of fontina and mozzarella cheeses wants for a super palate cleanser of acidity while the most prominent flavor of salty brininess calls for something light and mineral-driven.

We return to the Loire Valley where Sancerre grows Sauvignon Blanc from a limestone-rich soil littered with fossilized seashells and capable of fostering a chalky minerality in these vibrant wines. Quintessential Sancerre is unoaked and bone dry with aromatics encompassing a broad spectrum, from green bell pepper to wet rocks to gooseberries. The 2013 Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre is a clean, straightforward style with flavors of citrus blossom, tart lemon and grapefruit as well as contrasting tropical fruit aromas that are especially loud and lush when juxtaposed with the savory pizza elements. Enhanced with aromas of garlic and red onion, the sharp flavors on the pizza soften the edges on this piercing style of Sauvignon Blanc, balancing each other in turn.

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One ingredient here truly secures this pairing: goat cheese. Sancerre and chèvre are a classic “grows together, goes together” combination, adhering to a culinary philosophy that resonates throughout cultures worldwide. While terroir may be an influential factor, the main driving force behind so many of these “perfect” pairings is more likely a matter of time and space. When food and wine find themselves at the dinner table again and again, regional preferences drive the two beyond mere coexistence into a balanced dynamic reinforced by generations of tradition. Since this culinary symbiosis requires ample time for coevolution, most examples of the phenomenon unsurprisingly emerge from the Old World, encompassing classics such as Muscadet and oysters or Nebbiolo and truffles. The many traditions are worth exploration and thoughtful engagement, but they should be considered handy tools rather than governing guidelines. Otherwise this whole business of pairing food and wine would prove way less fun.