The stuff of legends

Childhood is where we we learn the myths that on some level will be with us for the rest of our lives. We find our heroes, our monsters, our magical friends. We discover the ancient stories of our families, and we create new ones.

And then there are those mystical, monumental structures, built powerful and large in our families’ kitchens, destined to stand for eternity. Yes, you guessed it: I’m talking about our personal food pyramids.

Personal food pyramids are not the old grains-on-the-bottom government lore of yesteryear. Rather, they are individual, mostly subconscious, rarely given much thought. Case in point: I have never ever for even a minute identified as a vegetarian. But I was raised by a vegetarian mom, and so in many ways I eat like a vegetarian. I can’t help it. Oh, I’ll eat meat and even cook it. But it is not my first thought, not my initial orientation to a meal. Meat is not the base of my food pyramid.

My husband, on the other hand, comes from Pennsylvania, from German and Scottish and possibly Dutch stock, and from a family of proud meat eaters, beer drinkers, and pretzel crunchers. Through our near-decade together I have come to learn that where Kyle grew up, meat-ish items are considered to be the broad base of the ancient, sacred food pyramid. The middle layers, best I can tell, are made up of assorted dumplings, anything pickled, and pie of either the whoopie or shoo fly varieties. The top, of course, is the afore-mentioned beer and pretzels.

Kyle, who loves all food except blueberries and olives, has happily embraced the cuisine of his new homeland. With admirable gusto he eats sushi, artichokes, Meyer lemons and avocados, and burritos have a very special place in his heart. I, for my part, try to bring the tastes of Kyle’s youth – his soul foods, and the tastes of my kids’ paternal family history – to our kitchen whenever I can.

Pizza is one of those soul foods for Kyle. I like making pizza, because it is kid-friendly, quick, and surprisingly healthy. It helps that my mother-and-father-in-law got us a pizza stone and pizza cutter, many eons ago when we first co-habitated. (I cannot remember what the occasion was, but honestly with Bob and Sandy there needn’t be an occasion for them to send an awesome package winging its way to us). It also helps to have a super-easy pizza crust recipe that I make in my food processor (also a Bob and Sandy gift).

Now admittedly, this particular pizza is pretty California-ed up. It might not fit in too well on the ancient Pennsylvania food pyramid, and it lacks some of the sacred pizza elements (red sauce, lots of cheese, meat … ).  But in Kyle’s family’s pyramid – well, Bob and Sandy are foodies, and veggie lovers, and adventurers. I think they would love this one. And really, it’s because of them and their excellent gifts – the pizza stone, the food processor, the love of my life – that I make this pizza at all.

Pizza with Ricotta-Chard Cream, Caramelized Onions, Roasted Apples and Asparagus (The Bob and Sandy Special)
I found the original inspiration for this pizza about a year ago, here, in the New York Times Recipes for Health column. That alone should tell you that it is not your traditional pizza! The caramelized onions are terrific here on their own – but I find that piling up the veggies, and the occasional fruit, makes this one even better. Try making your own ricotta, and see what your veggie drawer is itching to get rid of – any vegetable that tastes good roasted is a possibility here. If one of your chosen veggies needs more than fifteen minutes to roast, just roast it part-way on its own before topping and baking the pizza. Bonus: an easy, healthy, food processor pizza dough recipe is down below the recipe for the pizza itself. 

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large onion, sliced
6 ounces mushrooms, sliced

1 large bunch chard (~ 8 ounces), stemmed and washed
3/4 cup ricotta cheese (6 ounces)
2-3 tablespoons parmesan cheese
1 egg yolk

1 14-inch pizza crust (see dough recipe below)

1 small apple, thinly sliced
6-8 asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
Optional: additional ricotta, mozzarella, gorgonzola, or other cheese

At least half an hour before you plan to bake the pizza, preheat the oven to 500 degrees, with your pizza stone inside.

While the oven is heating, heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet. Add the onions. Cook, stirring often, until tender and just beginning to color, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and a generous pinch of salt. Turn the heat to low, cover and cook for 20 more minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions should be golden brown and very sweet, and the mushrooms should have softened and browned and released their juices. Turn off the heat and leave covered until ready to use.

While the onions are cooking, chop the chard into ribbons and put it in the bowl of your food processor. Add the ricotta, egg yolk, and parmesan. Whir in the food processor until it resembles creamy pesto (see photo above of the ricotta-chard mixture spread over the unbaked pizza crust).

Roll out the dough, then (carefully!) remove your pizza stone and put the dough on the pan. Spread the ricotta mixture over the pizza dough in an even layer, leaving a 1-inch border around the rim. Spread the onions and mushrooms over the ricotta mixture, then put the apple slices and asparagus pieces over that. (Add the additional cheese over top if you’d like).

Place in the hot oven, and bake 10 to 15 minutes until the crust and bits of the veggies and apples are nicely browned. (Note: the dough recipe is meant to bake at 450 F, but 500 F works here and gets you a nice browned crust, well-roasted veggies, and a ricotta-chard cream that sets up almost like an egg dish – yum)

Makes 8 nice-sized slices.

UPDATE 5/4/2012: Pizza with Ricotta-Arugula Cream, Caramelized Onions, and Parmesan-Crusted Chicken
We made this version last night, and I had to share!

1 tablespoon canola oil
3 sweet onions, sliced

15-20 large arugula leaves (from an older plant), stemmed and washed
3/4 cup ricotta cheese (6 ounces)

1 14-inch pizza crust (see dough recipe below)

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, poached in your favorite poaching liquid
3 tablespoons fresh-grated parmesan

At least half an hour before you plan to bake the pizza, preheat the oven to 500 degrees, with your pizza stone inside.

While the oven is heating, heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet. Add the onions. Cook, stirring often, until tender and just beginning to color, about 10 minutes. Turn the heat to low, add a pinch of salt, cover and cook for 20 more minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions should be golden brown and very sweet. Turn off the heat and leave covered until ready to use.

While the onions are cooking, chop the arugula into ribbons and put it in the bowl of your food processor. Add the ricotta. Whir in the food processor until it resembles creamy pesto. (If you need to loosen it up a little, add a teaspoon of water or canola oil).

Slice the poached chicken breasts into pieces. If you’d like, toss the pieces with some  seasoning (I used lemon zest and black pepper).

Roll out the dough, then (carefully!) remove your pizza stone and put the dough on the pan. Spread the ricotta mixture over the pizza dough in an even layer, leaving a 1-inch border around the rim. Spread the onions over the ricotta mixture, then put the chicken slices over that. Sprinkle the parmesan over top, making sure each piece of chicken gets a good dusting with the cheese.

Place in the hot oven, and bake 15 minutes or until the crust and parmesan are nicely browned.

Makes 8 nice-sized slices.

Easy-Peasy Pizza Dough
This dough is also based on a New York Times Recipe for Health. The mostly-whole-grain pizza crust has a nice, wheat-y flavor and more nutrition than most pizzas. Using a bit of all-purpose flour keeps it from being heavy or dry. The crispiness vs doughiness of the crust will depend largely on how thin you roll it out – a 12 inch pizza will be doughier, while a 14 inch pizza will be crisper (Kyle’s preference, and our usual). This makes enough for two pizzas. 

Note to parents: this is also a nice quick dough to make on a rainy day if your kids feel like baking bread but you don’t really have time for a second rise. Just substitute bread flour for the all-purpose flour – you can let them form the dough into letters, shapes, or cookie-cutter creations, and then bake them for ten minutes at 450 for chewier results or 500 for crisper ones. 

2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup warm (body temperature is good) water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 3/4 cups stone ground whole wheat flour
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (plus more for kneading)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt

Combine the yeast and water in a liquid measuring cup. Add the sugar, stir together, and let sit 2-3 minutes, until the yeast is dissolved. Stir in the olive oil.

Combine the flours and salt in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse a few times to combine, and then with the machine running pour in the liquid mixture. Process until the a dough forms on the blades (it will ball up around them). Remove from the processor and knead on a lightly floured surface, adding flour as needed. In three or four minutes you should have a smooth dough.

Shape the dough into a ball and place in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and leave it in a warm spot to rise for about an hour. It should double in size and stretch when pulled.

Divide the dough into two equal balls, cover, and leave them to rest for fifteen minutes. At this point they are ready to roll out and bake, or they will keep in the fridge for a few days – wrap them loosely in lightly oiled plastic wrap and then refrigerate in a plastic bag. (If you do this, then when you are ready to roll out the crust just bring the dough to room temperature first).

Bake on a preheated pizza stone at 450 F, for 10-15 minutes, with desired toppings. (Or, see pizza recipe above).

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