Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Basic tomato sauce

I can't believe so many people are still buying tomato sauce in jars from the store.  Take a look at that ingredient list next time and you'll find sugar, cornstarch, preservatives, bleck!

There are still tomatoes being sold at the market here, but at the tail-end of the season they lack the juicy sweetness of the July-August crop.   Putting tomatoes in the fridge is the worst thing you can do, as cold temperatures destroy a compound that accounts for a lot of their flavor; the same thing happens to October tomatoes on the vine.  The chilled fruits aren't spectacular in a sandwich or salad, but cooking them helps to bring back some of their character.

If you don't have access to fresh, locally-grown tomatoes, opt for canned tomatoes that have no additives (the ingredient list should just say "tomatoes").

Tomato sauce

1 lb fresh tomatoes (or one 16oz can of peeled tomatoes in their juice)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 branch of celery
1 large onion
2 small shallots
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of fresh basil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Using a serrated knife, cut an X across the base of each tomato.

Plunge the tomatoes and the garlic clove into the pot and boil for about 45 seconds. Drain and allow to cool.

Peel the garlic clove; the skin should slip off easily thanks to the bath in boiling water.  Slice the shallots in half lengthwise and remove their papery skins.  Slice the base and top off of the onion and peel.  Coarsely chop the onion, shallots and celery.  Finely chop the garlic separately.

Peel the skins off of the tomatoes, starting at the little X.  They should just slip right off.  Doing this over a bowl allows you to save the juice.

Place the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.  When hot, add the onion, shallot and celery.  Stir for one minute and then turn the heat down to medium low.  Cook until translucent but not browned (about 5 minutes).

Add the tomatoes and garlic to the pan and stir.  If your tomatoes are not very juicy, you might want to add a few spoonfuls of water to avoid burning.  Add the bay leaf and basil.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Allow to simmer over medium low heat for about 15 minutes, or until the bits of celery and onion are completely mushy.

Allow to cool slightly before removing the bay leaf and blending well with a stick blender.

Serve over pasta and/or vegetables.

To use this sauce for pizza, cook a little longer, uncovered, so that it thickens up, or just add a tablespoon of tomato paste (again: choose the kind with no added ingredients!)

I don't need to tell you that this recipe is far from an exact science.  Play around with the quantities, add red pepper flakes, thyme, olives...  Another variation: add a leek and an additional onion to the vegetables and cover the entire pan with water when you add the tomatoes...tada!  tomato soup.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pizza is easy

This pizza crust recipe comes from my favorite Italian cookbook ever, The Cook's Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking by Carla Capalbo.  A blend of about 1/3 white and 2/3 whole wheat flour makes this a good compromise.

Whole wheat pizza dough

21/2 tablespoons fresh cake yeast or 11/2 tablespoons active dried yeast
1 cup lukewarm water
pinch of sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
11/2 teaspoons salt
11/4 cups plain white flour
2 cups stoneground wholewheat flour

Warm a medium bowl by swirling some hot water in it.  Drain.  Place the yeast in the bowl and pour on the tepid water.  Sprinkle on the sugar and stir to mix.  Allow to stand for 5-10 minutes, or until the yeast has dissolved and starts to foam.

Use a wooden spoon to mix in the olive oil and the salt, then add the white flour.  Add about half of the whole wheat flour, stirring with the spoon until the dough forms a mass and begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.

Sprinkle some of the remaining flour onto a smooth work surface.  Turn the dough out from the bowl onto your work surface and begin to knead it, working in the flour a little at a time.  Knead for about 8-10 minutes.  The dough should be elastic and smooth.  Form it into a ball.

Rinse any excess flour from your medium bowl and dry it well.  Place a few drops of olive oil in the bowl and spread it around to coat the bottom and sides.  Place the dough in the bowl.  Stretch a moistened dishcloth across the top of the bowl and place it in a warm place (next to the radiator, for example) for 40-50 minutes or more.  The dough should have doubled in bulk.  To test if the dough has risen enough, press two fingers into the dough; if the indentations remain, you're good to go.

Punch the dough down with your fist to release the air.  Knead on your lightly floured work surface for 1-2 minutes.  Divide the dough into 2 or 4 balls, depending on the size of the pizzas you want to make.  Pat each ball of dough into a flat circle.  With a rolling pin (or empty wine bottle), roll the dough out into a circle.  Tip: turn the circle of dough at a 45° or 90° angle each time you roll over it to ensure that you are flattening all sides equally.

Each time I make this I get a little closer to the throwing-it-in-the-air trick.  Practice makes perfect.

You want the thickness of the dough to be around 3/8 to 1/4 inch.  I like to toss it around my fists a little bit to try to stretch it out, but rolling it on the table is probably the best way to avoid getting holes in your crust.  Place the dough on a lightly oiled cookie sheet or pizza pan.

(The crusts may be frozen at this stage, which is what I did this time.  When you're ready to use, remove from the freezer and allow to thaw for an hour or two before filling.)

Top your crust with whatever you like.  Preheat the oven to 250°C (475°F) and bake your pizza for about 15-20 minutes.