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Awake at the Whisk: November 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010


Chile Relleno Pizza Recipe

Chile Relleno Pizza Recipe
Who doesn’t love chile rellenos? Sweet, fragrant peppers with a tangy zip oozing with chewy melted cheese and drowning in rich, thick tomato sauce—chile rellenos comfort and delight. But, covered in crunchy fried beer batter, they also clog arteries. Unwilling to give up the flavors of this marvelous dish, I have invented the perfect solution: a whole wheat pizza that captures all the flavors of this dish in a heart-healthy manner. Prepare to indulge! Your mouth won’t know the difference.

Poblano peppers hit the farmers’ market in Sacramento two months ago, and with our pleasant weather, are still coming in strong. Patrick’s Garden is the only farmer selling them downtown. He sells a colorful array of flavor-bursting peppers—far better than any bell I’ve had. I buy several peppers at once and roast them in the oven, peel the skins, and then store them in a bit of olive oil in my fridge for a few weeks. I throw them into burritos, tacos, scrambled eggs—anything and everything. I devour these amazing peppers until the season runs out. And in particular, I eat lots of this chile relleno pizza.

Pour yourself a beer and prepare for an amazing mouth moment!

Chile Relleno Pizza
1 Whole Wheat Olive Oil Pizza Crust (recipe follows)
½ cup Zesty Red Sauce (recipe follows)
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
½ cup grated jack cheese
2 Roasted Pablano Peppers, torn in long strips (recipe follows)
1 red onion, sliced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 Tablespoon olive oil
My chile relleno pizza in a take out box after a pizza contest.

Farmers’ Market fare: jack cheese, pablano peppers, onion, oregano leaves, olive oil
Supermarket ingredients: parmesan cheese, red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 500 degrees.  

Bake Whole Wheat Olive Oil Pizza Crust in preheated oven for 6-8 minutes or until slightly golden. Remove from oven and add toppings, starting with Zesty Red Sauce. Next, add parmesan cheese followed by jack cheese. Now add the roasted peppers, then the onion. Finally, sprinkle with red pepper flakes and oregano.

Return pizza to oven for 8-10 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and golden. Remove from oven and cool for about 5 minutes. Drizzle olive oil over pizza, cut into slices, and serve.

Whole Wheat Olive Oil Pizza Dough
Whole Wheat Olive Oil Pizza Dough
 Farmers’ Market fare: whole wheat flour, olive oil
Supermarket ingredients: yeast, sugar, salt

In a small dish, combine warm water, yeast, and sugar. Set aside for about 5 minutes until it foams. (If it doesn’t foam, dump it out and start again.) In a large mixing bowl, combine salt and 1 cup flour. Stir to combine. Add the yeast mixture and olive oil. Stir to combine.

Add more flour until you have an elastic dough that no longer sticks to your hands. Do not knead it yet! The glutens in whole wheat flour have to rest a moment before you knead. Instead, cover it with a moist towel for about 15 minutes.

After the dough has rested, knead on a floured surface for about 8 minutes. This dough will make one large pizza, two medium pizzas, or four individual pizzas. Divide your dough according to your needs. Then cover each in a separate bowl with a bit of olive oil to coat and prevent from sticking. Cover the bowl with a moist towel.

Let the dough rise for at least 1 hour or in the fridge overnight. Instead of punching the dough down, immediately roll it for your pizza. Place rolled dough on a pizza pan that has been greased and sprinkled with corn meal. Bake in preheated 500 degree oven for 6-8 minutes or until golden. At this stage you can either add toppings and continue to make your pizza, or freeze the cooked dough for later use.

Heirloom tomatoes make amazing Zesty Red Sauce
Zesty Red Sauce
·         2 cups oven roasted heirloom tomatoes or tomato sauce
·         1-2 Tablespoons tomato paste
·         1 Tablespoon onion powder
·         ½ Tablespoon dried oregano
·         1 teaspoon garlic powder
·         1 teaspoon chili powder
·         1 teaspoon cumin powder
·         ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
·         ¼ or ½ teaspoon super hot chili powder (cayenne or your favorite)—use less if you don’t like it hot, because it will be hot!
·         Salt to taste

Farmers’ Market fare: tomatoes, oregano
Supermarket ingredients: tomato paste, spices, salt

Pour all the ingredients into a food processor. Blend well. You can either use sauce immediately or store in fridge or freezer.

Best pablano peppers found at Patrick's Garden
Roasted Poblano Peppers

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Prepare peppers. Dip your fingers in the olive oil and rub each pepper until the skin is lightly coated in oil. Lay them on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 10 minutes. Using a pair of tongs, flip each pepper over and return to the oven for another 10 minutes.

When the skins are slightly blackened on both sides, remove the peppers from the oven and place them in a metal bowl. Cover the bowl. (I use a plate). You want to trap the heat inside the bowl so that the peppers steam. This will make them easier to peel.

After about 10 minutes, working with one pepper at a time, remove the skins and discard. Your peeled peppers will last in the fridge, covered in a bit of olive oil, for a few weeks.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010


Manny’s Pizza: Community Landmark Lost in Fire

Eight fire crews battle flames today at Manny's Pizza.
Photo by Linda Yenney

Early this morning, a 36-year-old tradition in my home town of Savanna, Illinois was gutted by fire. Beloved Manny’s Pizza, a Main Street focal point in this small town along the Mississippi River, was consumed by flames as firefighters from eight stations across rural Illinois and Iowa battled the tragic fire.

Savanna, Illinois is no typical small town (population 3,188). In a state where the median household income is $56,235 and where 10.7% of residents live below the poverty level, Savanna’s median income is $32,262 and almost 17% of the population lives below the poverty line.  The nearest city with a population over 50,000 is a full 40 minutes away. There are four grocery stores and 11 full-service restaurants in the entire county. This is a town where people rely on one another.

Savanna is also a fairly crime-free and trusting community where people leave their houses and car doors unlocked. If you get into trouble or do something good, you can be sure that everyone will know about it by the next day. The picturesque town is nestled in the hills behind towering bluffs that flank the wide and majestic Mississippi River. When I grew up there, extracurricular activities included boat trips and water skiing on the river, hiking in the tree-filled forests of the Mississippi Palisades State Park, reading books borrowed from the public library (where my mom worked), attending high school sports events, and eating Manny’s Pizza.

Suffice it to say, like the town itself, Manny’s Pizza is not your run-of-the-mill pizza joint. A visit there was always about far more than eating (although that was important, too). Manny’s was where the community gathered—for nearly four decades running until this morning’s terrible blaze. Birthdays, weddings, basketball game victories, tracks records, good report card grades, and the homecomings of former Savanna residents were all celebrated here.

A firefighter rescues historic memorabilia.
Photo by Lucas DeSpain
When most children grow up and return home, they might return to the houses and the families of their youth. In Savanna, we also returned to Manny’s. No visit home was complete without it. And like Cheers, it was a place where everybody knew your name. Whether you had been gone for 2 years or 10, someone dining or enjoying a beer at Manny’s was sure to recognize you and say hello.

Manny’s was also the place the community came together in times of tragedy. This past spring, my heart and joy, my fairy god sister, Rachel, passed away. The night of her wake, Manny’s Pizza was the place where the community informally assembled. Former Savanna folks traveled from California, Colorado, Chicago, and the like to drink to Rachel’s memory and comfort our loss with the familiar taste of our hometown pizza. In pictures framed on the walls, Rachel smiled down at us, wearing her volleyball uniform and posing with her high school team. Old school uniforms hung on the walls. Manny’s held Rachel’s—and Savanna’s—history like a grandmother proudly displays her family memorabilia.

Home for a visit, I enjoy the Manny's Pizza ritual with
my dad and his wife.
And of course, Manny’s pizza was without competition (and still is—they thankfully have a few other locations in the county now serving their pizza. Although none have the history or the memories of the Savanna location). An entire large cheese pizza there cost a mere $10. Served on a crisp, wafer-thin crust, the cheese had a way of melding as one with the light layer of sauce, forming a chewy, juicy top that was in perfect texture balance with the crust. I have eaten my fair share of pizzas in cities from Chicago to San Francisco, and I have never found a pie quite like this one. It simply can’t be replicated.

So, this morning when news arrived that Manny’s Pizza was on fire, the Savanna community (scattered as we are across the nation as folks have grown up and moved away from home) sent a flurry of text messages and Facebook posts about the news. This is not the loss of the mere bricks and mortar of a building. We know that buildings can be rebuilt (and according to one news story, owner Manny Castro intends to do just that). This is the loss of a space that contained all our many shared memories.

Hearts go out to the Castro family—owners of this irreplaceable community landmark. 

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Thursday, November 11, 2010


Chili Relleno Pizza: A Two-Part Series (Part I: The Story; Part II: The Recipe)

My chili relleno pizza just pulled from the wood oven.

Here’s a great party idea: Prepare lots of individual pizza dough in advance. Invite your friends, and tell them to bring their own pizza toppings. Fire up a wood burning oven, and watch the fun that ensues! For added enjoyment, hold a pizza contest and dole out fabulous prizes to the winners.

A few weekends ago, I attended such a party. It was the highlight of my fall fun! The invitation came to my email with colorful Day of the Dead images. “Mexican pizza contest!” it read. “We’ll provide the dough and the wood burning oven.”

My pulse quickened as I read. I am a self-declared pizza snob. Growing up in Illinois, I know good pizza when I taste it. Deep dish, stuffed, crispy thin crust, or even calzone, I have eaten my share of incredible pies. This promised to be my kind of party!

The element of competition made my pulse race a little faster. I love a good contest! Just so happened that this game would be played on turf where I feel confident: pizza.

When I moved to Sacramento from Illinois 10 years ago, I longed for good pizza. Back then, Sacramento’s pizza scene left something to be desired. Crusts were like cardboard, cheeses like rubber, and sauces underwhelming (at least at the places I could afford). I was shocked. I didn’t know it was possible to make such bad pizza. Even the cheapest places back home made a palatable pie. But time and again, my California pizza experienced failed to meet even the lowest standards of mediocre pizza back home.

So, ten years ago, depressed by the pizza options before me, I did what any god-fearing pizza hound would do: I started making it from scratch. I’ve experimented with many dough recipes over the years, used a zillion different cheese combinations, and made so many different sauces I’ve lost count. I’ve read oodles of books and articles on pizza, adjusting my recipes as I learn more. For the first time, about a year ago, I hit my stride—right in sync with the Sacramento restaurant scene that is now churning out quality pies at places like Hot Italian and Chicago Fire. And with all my years of practice, despite Sacramento’s pizza improvements, my husband now prefers to eat mine.

At last month’s Day of the Dead Mexican pizza contest, I decided to bring out my newest pizza creation: Chili Relleno pizza. I invented it last year when the pablano peppers were ripe in the farmers’ markets and I had a hankering for one of my favorite Mexican dishes—obviously the pizza’s namesake, chili rellenos. I made a few batches of chili rellenos, but I always felt guilty dropping them into oil to fry. I also knew that the massive amount of cheese stuffing was a clogged artery waiting to happen.

I decided to meld two of my favorite foods: pizza with chili rellenos. With this recipe, you get to keep the great taste of the roasted pablano pepper. But you eliminate the deep frying and replace it with a crispy pizza crust (in my case, whole wheat). You can adjust the amount of cheese to a thin layer as opposed to a gooey glob. A healthier chili relleno with all the great flavors wrapped in the perfect pizza package!

In preparation for this pizza party contest, I made a spice-bursting sauce using heirloom tomatoes from my garden, (which could also be made from canned tomato sauce for those without fresh tomatoes this time of year). I bought ripe pablanos at the farmers’ market, roasted, and peeled them. I bought fresh jack cheese (also from the market) and grated it. Everything I needed was local.

I arrived at the party to glorious waves of colorful paper flags in intricate cutouts. The hostess, Cynthia, had clearly labored over the spread of authentic Mexican salsas, fresh juices, homemade tortilla chips, and pumpkin seeds scattered over a salad of green beans and brussel sprouts. And of course, her fresh pizza dough.

The first pizza up to bat was made by Jay, the previous owner of Sacramento’s delicious, but long-gone, Black Cat Café (RIP). He pulled out a creamy, pale, homemade cilantro pesto, cooked squash, and bags of fresh pork and cheese purchased at a Latin deli. The finished pizza evoked all the colors of fall. The soft squash and chewy crust melted away with a clean cilantro finish.

I had to follow that?! Gulp. Perhaps I don’t know pizza as well as I thought.

I turned to check on the next pizza in the line-up. The dough was covered with a sticky cream sauce that oozed over the edges of the crust. Experienced wood-fire bakers immediately sprung into action, attempting to rescue the gluey mess, rapidly scooping sauce away before it soaked the crust and caused irreparable damage. A pizza that enters one of these ovens must not be moist, because it has to slide on and off a pizza peel, and once inside the oven, inch across the surface as it’s maneuvered closer to or farther from hot flames.

Perhaps I was still in this competition after all.

Pizza after pizza went into the hot oven and emerged bubbling lusciously. One had smoked, line-caught trout, another had a beef chili sauce. Every idea was original.

Presenting my chili relleno pizza to the judges.
As my own chili relleno pizza emerged from the glowing oven, I heard “oohs” and “ahs” whispered on the lips of party guests. I felt eyes following as I edged narrowly between guests, holding my precious pie firmly on the end of the pizza peel and turning precariously to present it to the judges.

“Don’t drop it! Don’t drop it!” I whispered to myself. If any one of the guests whirled around unexpectedly, they might send my pretty pizza flying.

I made it safely to the judging table. I proudly presented my creation and gave a pitch about all its local glories, the origin of the idea, and the health benefits. Then I stepped back. I watched as they sliced my baby into tiny pieces. Eager hands reached in. In the blink of an eye, the pie reduced to mere crumbs.

I looked around the room. A friend and woman I look up to for her culinary dynamism, Peg, took a bite. I saw her eyes close. She “mmm’d”! Another of my favorite food friends, Elise, repeated Peg’s utterance three times in a row: “Mmmm. Mmmm. Mmmm!”

“This is good!” they both told me. I did a happy jump. I no longer cared if I won the contest. Two of the best cooks in the room liked my pizza! They asked if I was going to post the recipe. They made me feel like a pizza queen!

At the end of the night, I took home a tie for third with the line-caught trout pizza maker. Black Cat Café guy came in first with his cilantro pesto creativeness. 

My prize: two rich, dense, luscious, smoothly spiced panforte homemade by our hostess, who I am told, makes the best panforte around. I’d trade pizza for that panforte any day. Ah, sweet victory!

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