Tomato Time!

P1010743It’s my favorite produce season, when tomatoes are abundant, ripe, and worth the farmer’s market prices. (Plus, the peaches are quite plump this time of year.)

For most of the year I get bored if I’m haven’t cooked and eaten many nations’ worth of food in a week, but there’s just something about these perfect tomatoes that leave me content making nearly the same dish days in a row. Simple combinations of grilled bread, rubbed with garlic, olive oil, basil, tomato, and sometimes cheese can satisfy me for weeks, until the tomatos start to fade.

This week it was dry-farmed Early Girls (plus one tomato from my slow-growing, rarely-watered plants) with some amazing bread from MH Bread and Butter that I picked up over the weekend up north, and the sheepsmilk feta from Garden Variety Cheese.  And whether I’m making panzanella (my most common, as it is easiest to make and eat) or bruschetta, it is pretty much the same format–

Cut the tomatoes and put them in a bowl with salt and pepper, add a bunch of olive oil. Do this first to give them some time to release juices. Add some cheese if you want, like mozzarella or a lightly flavored feta.

Cut the bread into slices and toast, or grill. While still warm, rub both sides of the bread with a clove of garlic. If you’re making panzanella, cube it and add to the bowl of marinating tomatoes. Or, serve as bruschetta on a platter. In Italy we’d get this with extra glugs of olive oil and olives on the platter.

Add basil to bowl, toss, and devour.

Meatless Mondays: Ligurian pasta salad

Perfect for picnics

I’ve always been a bit of a picnic grouch (I’m also a lot of a going out to brunch grouch, if anyone is wondering). Instead of enjoying a beautiful setting, I often can’t stop thinking about how much better the food would be if we had a kitchen to prepare and heat things. (And of course there is the issue of bugs, though that situation has vastly improved since I moved to California). I just don’t get that excited about cold or room temperature foods–maybe it’s their congealed texture, or maybe I’m just a terrible person, but for a long time I struggled to find a prepared dish I loved, which would still taste great at a potluck or picnic.

I have finally settled on a dish I like better at cool temperatures than fresh off the stovetop. This simple salad is good just after cooking, but it seems to me that some sort of magic happens both with the combination of ingredients and cooling. The beans taste sweeter, the texture of the potatoes improves, and it makes a great salad that is substantial enough for a meal (or a double-carb nightmare, to certain people).

I usually make pesto in large batches when I harvest basil from my herb bed, or find a good deal on basil. It keeps fairly well in the freezer, I add a thin layer of olive oil on top to prevent oxidation. I generally use walnuts instead of pine nuts–they are much cheaper and not likely to run into problems with rancidity or pine nut mouth. While I haven’t experienced the horror of having a metallic taste in my mouth for weeks, I have found that almost all of the pine nuts I’ve purchased in the US have some rancidity to them.

Pesto, it's time for your close-up.

Basil pesto

2 large bunches of basil (~3 cups leaves)
1/3 cup toasted walnuts
4 cloves garlic
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
~1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Wash basil thoroughly and pluck all leaves from stems. Process basil, toasted walnuts, garlic, and cheese until very finely chopped in food processor. Slowly stir in olive oil, without using the processor. I’ve read that high speed blades on food processors/blenders can cause extra virgin olive oil to become bitter. As a skeptic, I chose not to believe it until I experienced it, and I have. Add only as much oil as the mixture will absorb and become a smooth, fluid paste–this may be a bit less or a bit more than the 1/3 cup recommended.

Once you have the pesto made, the rest of the dish is easy and can be made in the time it takes to boil water and cook your pasta. Make sure you use a pasta that has a recommended cooking time of 12 minutes or more (and is actually al dente at that time), if you want to use the one pot meal technique. Trenette is traditional, but any shape you can imagine shoving in your mouth along with potato rounds and green beans will work. I’ve also made this without pasta when I didn’t want to double up on carbs, or decided to serve it as a vegetable dish with another pasta. Though it is a traditional Ligurian dish, it is as though the picnic traditions of pasta salad and potato salad

Pesto Pasta Salad

1 pound pasta
1 pound green beans
1 pound small, cleaned red potatoes
1+ cup basil pesto
Start a large pot of water boiling and add at least a tablespoon of salt. While water is coming to a boil cut the potatoes into 1/4 inch rounds. If your potatoes are much larger than a dollar coin, cut the rounds in half or quarters, depending on the size. Add pasta to boiling, salted water and set timer for the pasta cooking time. When water returns to a boil, in about a minute, add the potatoes. Cut the green beans into bite-sized lengths while everything is boiling. When there are 4 minutes left on the timer add the beans to the pot. Place about 3/4 cup pesto on the bottom of a large bowl. When the timer goes off, test pasta and potatoes. The pasta should be quite firm, but will be the perfect texture after standing. Drain, reserving some of the pasta water. Loosen the pesto with a small amount of the pasta water, just enough to ensure the cheese is melted and the sauce can coat the noodles. Add pasta, potatoes, and beans to the large bowl, adding an additional 1/2 cup of pesto to the top. Mix, sliding a spatula down the sides, through the pesto mixture on the bottom several times. If the pasta is not coated with pesto add a bit more until all strands are coated. Taste, and if undersalted add some more Parmigian0-Reggiano or salt. Eat some now, then see if you agree with me about it sweetening up (in a good way) after cooling.

Emilia’s Pizza

Everything looks good here.

I’ve recently confirmed that Emilia’s is my favorite pizza in the Bay Area. I doubted my first impression,as it was formed under extenuating circumstances. I had a dentist’s appointment near Telegraph and Ashby and discovered once I got out of the dental office it was unexpectedly raining and my front tire was unexpectedly flat. So I walked along Ashby to catch the bus, in pouring rain, and remembered hearing about a great, new pizza place, Emilia’s. I ran in, and luckily there was a pizza available about 10 minutes from when I ordered. At the time, I didn’t realize how valuable that was, as it was near the beginning of the business, when he transitioned from offering tempting slices to offering only as many pizzas as he could personally make and put in the oven, most of which were sold out by phone orders by early evening. But I got my Margherita pie in the quoted time, and saw the confusion of the neighborhood kids who came in after me, when told the first available pizza would be about an hour and a half from when they ordered. I tried one slice there, and the rest rewarmed when home. It was, without a doube, the best pizza I had ever picked up on the bus route home during an unexpected rain storm. But I needed to sample it again. But I’m horrible at calling for reservations, planning ahead, or dealing with such situation, no matter how egalitarian and straightforward they are (which they definitely are in the case of Emilia’s). Also, in the past year I’ve ditched the car, which has worked out well, but makes pizza transportation difficult. In fact, it’s one of my parents’ set stories how, on some early int the dating process date, my dad brought my mum a pizza, but rode his bike and carried it vertically, so I’ve always known the dangers of such actions. But I finally managed to order and transport another pizza from Emilia’s, and it confirmed my initial suspicion that it is my favorite in the area.
There are always heated debates about the best pizza, and many East Coasters claiming that nothing outside of their hometown is good pizza. There are many who say that you define good pizza as the pizza you grew up with, though I’d modify that to indicate that it is likely you will define good pizza as the first great pizza you encounter. I grew up in Iowa City, IA and while I don’t mean to disparage their good pizza places (Paglia’s) most of my exposure was to chains. In fact, I still have an embarrassing soft spot for Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza since their ingenious marketing scheme aimed at elementary school students. All you had to do was report to your teacher that you read a certain number of books that month and you would get the certificate for a free personal pan pizza. It was amazing, because the personal pan was only available to Book It winners at dinner hours. And of course you brought your parents who had to order something else, since they probably wouldn’t let you go to a restaurant yourself under the age of 12. A spectacular marketing scheme, and a spectacular “buttery” crust. Even now that I recognize that the substance crisping and caramelizing the thick layer of crust is an artificially flavored, butter-like substance I still salivate at the thought of a Pizza Hut Pan Pizza.
But don’t let that last paragraph fool you into thinking I have ridiculously low standards in pizza. I’m embarrassed about that portion of my personality. I first got really into pizza when I spent a semester in Rome and you could get a perfectly cooked, always flavorful, thin-crust pizza for about $9. Not to mention the carafe of wine for another $8 or so. The crust was always thin, tasty, and blistered slightly. The sauce was fresh, flavorful, and delicious, and the toppings were always harmonious. I even went to Naples, the supposed birthplace of pizza, and while I thoroughly enjoyed my pizzas there the thicker dough and less fluid buffalo mozzarella made me prefer the derivative (but tried first by me) Roman pizza to the ur-pizza, Neopolitan.
So, my preferences being stated, Emilia’s is like a giant, American-sized Margherita pizza. (speaking of which, one of the things that makes me most angry in life is when a “margherita” pizza is no sauce with fresh tomato slices on top of mediocre cheese. No. It’s as if the makers of this pizza just read the rules of VPN (Vera (true) Pizza Napoletana) which indicate tomato, mozzarella, olive oil and basil as the definition of Margherita. Though technically the poor-quality tomatoes atop bad cheese meet that sentence’s description they are nothing like the Margherita’s I had in Rome or Naples. And the poor interpretation of dried-out, flavorless tomatoes atop dried-out cheese is not appealing to me, and I can’t imagine how it would appeal to anybody.
So, with my background, Emilia’s is the best. The crust is thin like the Roman pizzas I tried, and flavorful (which means properly salted and raised). The sauce was delicious, one of the elements that most often rules out pizzas outside Italy. They either like to use a very cooked sauce, which concentrates flavor, but becomes too sweet and caramelized for my taste, or have a fresh sauce with little flavor (this is how I feel, in general, about my neighbor Lanesplitter, thought it still rates as decent on the overall Bay Area pizza list) . But Emilia’s hits all the notes I’m looking for:  tangy, flavorful, fresh sauce, blistered crush, decent cheese. And even though on many measures of surface pizza it is not the ideal Roman pizza I’m looking for (It’s cut in wedges, like NY slices, not little squares like Italy, it’s big, like the USA, and only available size, and offers only a few toppings and an ordering experience which is difficult for me) but because it is delicious pizza no matter where you are.
This makes it sound less than it is, but often in the age of pizza, less is more.
And I’ll never be a wine critic, but every once in a while when I come across something that is both delicious (to me) and interesting. I tend to judge wine on the same scale I judge art, because I don’t want to study either.  It’s a grid regarding “I like it” to “not so much” vs “this took skill” to “did you even google instructions on the internets?”

Fronton de Oro from the Canary Islands

And this wine wins on both accounts. It is quite interesting to me, as it different from anything I have tasted before. It  seems that the Canary Islands encourage growing in volcanic rock and this wine definitely had a more mineral flavor than I was used to (but definitely in a good way) and it was lighter bodied than I expected, almost like a Pinot Noir. Honestly my useless descriptions are why this isn’t a regular feature, but I enjoyed this and I got it at Paul Marcus Wines at Rockridge BART. And I’ll post things that are ususal to mem, but interesting in the future. I hope.
This wine is particularly interesting because it has a definitely different, in a good way, minerality. And it wasn’t just my imagination. The cork and my first glass had plenty of inclusions, which were clearly lava rock.

Look at the lava rock clinging!

I liked having the novel experience of this Canary Island volcanic wine, and it went with the amazing pizza I ordered above.