Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Roman-Style Pizza




Fresh tomatoes and basil just SCREAM pizza to me.  Nope, summer is not over just yet.

Even though I live in the land of great pizza (NYC baby), still enjoy making my own.  While I love a slice of New York's finest, I have equal affinity for Roman-style ever since I tasted Gabriele Bonci's pizza in Rome in 2011 (oh yeah, am still dreaming about it after all these years).

Not sure what Gabriele Bonci does to his pizza, but it's damn good.  Maybe it was the fact that I was in Rome on a warm summer's night -- nicely tanned after a peaceful few weeks spent exploring Sicily -- with a glass (of nerello mascalese) from Mt. Etna (albeit, in a plastic cup), sitting on a bench enjoying a simple dinner with Patrick.  Whatever "it" was, it left a lasting impression.

While Bonci stresses using the best quality toppings, his pizza is really all about the dough/crust.  I've been trying to perfect my Roman/Bonci-style pizza for years.  The recipe for his dough comes by way of Elizabeth Minchilli (an American food blogger living in Rome) by way of Bonci himself. While my pizza is good, with its nice crispy crust, soft chewy interior, and super fresh toppings, it will never be as good as his. Bonci is a true master at what he does.

Oftentimes, simple is best.  When it comes to pizza, I like it simple -- good quality tomatoes, freshly made mozzarella (not by me, by someone else; although, making my own mozzarella has crossed my mind, perhaps another time), and basil.

The dough, with a basic tomato sauce and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, is first baked and then the toppings -- a good amount of mozzarella and basil -- are added after the pizza comes out of the oven.  The mozzarella melts a bit on top of the steaming hot out-of-the-oven pizza.


This pizza has a nice crispy bottom with a tender chewy interior.  The key to crisping the bottom is to place the pizza (on a baking sheet) on the floor of your oven for the first 5 minutes, but no longer (in the past I've completely charred the bottom of my pizza when I inadvertently left it on the oven floor for the entire cooking time).





Not certain what variety of tomatoes these are, but they're pleasantly sweet and juicy...



The dough is alive....



To make the dough, you gently mix and fold, and then the dough goes in the refrigerator for a slow 24-hour rise.  The next day, bring the dough to room temperature and you're ready to make some pizza.

Here are a few photos of the process (am still trying to perfect this part)...setting the timer and posing in front of the camera as I'm preparing the dough is not conducive to the process.  But you get the gist.


I like a lot of sauce (and tend to go easy on the cheese).  And a nice drizzle of extra virgin olive oil...


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Crispy Rice Salad



My taste buds were craving something a bit different.  Something out of the ordinary. Hmm....

Then I remembered this salad -- a Laotian-style crispy rice salad -- I had at a little hole-in-the-wall, mom and pop restaurant in Falls Church, VA.  Bangkok Golden is an unassuming place from the outside and is located in a nondescript strip mall.  Notwithstanding, when you enter and every table is full (on a cold weekday during lunch), it tends to be a good sign.

I ordered the Lao crispy rice salad (aka nam khao), among other things, but the salad is what sticks out in my mind.  Bangkok Golden offers a meat and a meatless version.  Traditionally, this salad is made with fermented pork sausage (called som moo).  I opted to forego the pork; the pork-free version had plenty of flavor.  I think it's the crispy rice that got me.  I'm a sucker for crispy bits.

Take paella for example.  The best part of paella, for me at least, is the rice.  More specifically, the socarrat, that crispy layer of rice at the bottom of the pan when paella is cooked perfectly.  Will fight you that last bite of crispy rice.

These rice balls are deep-fried.  Deep-frying is not something I do very often, but once in a while...well, what the heck?  Who doesn't enjoy something that's deep-fried from time to time.  It's all about balance.  Plus, there's a nice amount of fresh herbs (fresh mint and cilantro) and vegetables (butter lettuce, scallions, and shallot) to give this dish a light and fresh element.



Bibb or butter lettuce makes a nice little wrap/vehicle for serving...




The rice balls are made of Jasmine rice, freshly grated coconut, red curry paste, fish sauce, egg, and a pinch of (coconut) sugar.


Deep-fried, drained, and then roughly chopped...



Freshly grated coconut goes into the rice balls.  Opening a coconut can be a challenge.  With hammer in hand, just needs a few good wacks to crack the coconut open.  Then I shredded finely (with a box grater)...

Be sure to first reserve the coconut water.  Nothing is more thirst quenching than a big glass of fresh coconut water on a hot day.






The dressing is nothing more than fish sauce and Thai chiles mixed with lime juice and sugar.  Go easy on the dressing.  You don't need much.  I always keep a big jar of fish sauce mixed with Thai chiles in the fridge.  I just keep replenishing the chiles when I run out.



Lastly, the red curry paste...

You can use store bought curry paste such as this one, but it won't have the same depth of flavor as homemade.  If you feel so inclined to make your own curry paste, you will need: shallots, dried red chiles, lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste, and (kaffir) lime zest.

A few notes on some of these ingredients...

Galangal is a root in the ginger family.  It has a distinct flavor.  Ginger is not a good substitute for galangal.  You should be able to find galangal at most Asian grocery stores.  By the way, galangal freezes well.

Shrimp paste is made from fermented ground shrimp mixed with salt.  It's VERY pungent, and adds a special/unique flavor to a dish; similar to the way a few anchovies add a subtle punch of flavor to a red tomato sauce, albeit without you being able pinpoint their presence. That's exactly what shrimp paste does.  Don't be afraid of its funky odor.  You should be able to find shrimp paste at most Asian grocery stores.  It lasts a really long time in the refrigerator.

Kaffir lime zest has a really unique aromatic, floraly aroma.  This may be tricky to find.  I was able to find some in Manhattan at a Thai grocery.  If you can't find kaffir lime, you could substitute kaffir lime leaves (often found in the freezer section in Asian grocery stores; I've also purchased them fresh at Whole Foods).  If you can't find kaffir lime or its zest,  substitute with regular lime zest or even a combination of lemon and lime zest (it won't have the distinct flavor of kaffir but will still impart a citrusy flavor).

The lemongrass is from the Union Square Farmers' Market, NYC.  Ditto for the shallots.



This is a kaffir lime...it's the first time I've ever come across fresh kaffir lime.  Kaffir's unusual, citrusy flavor will make an lasting impression on your taste buds.


Pound, pound, pound in a mortar and pestle...this will take some time.



Serve the salad with a few wedges of lime on the side.