Archive for the ‘pizza’Category

La Forge Merlot cozies up to ratatouille pizza

La Forge Merlot with ratatouille pizza
We always thought drinking good wines with pizza was our dirty little secret. But then we found that great pizza is a given in California’s Sonoma wine country. We were especially taken by the pizza-wine pairings at Comstock Wines. Unlike us, the Sonoma folks couldn’t enjoy pizza and wine while the New England Patriots.

As football season begins to wind down, we’re exploring a wider world of wine with pizza. As we learned from pizza guru Rosario Del Nero of Bertucci’s, pizza can support an infinite variety of toppings. Just show restraint. “When it comes to toppings, less is more,” Del Nero cautioned. “You don’t want to overwhelm your pizza.”

A mixed half case from wine distributor Esprit du Vin (edvwines.com) arrived at the end of the year. We’ve designated them for pizza pairings, which is proving both challenging and a lot of fun.

The wine: La Forge Estate Merlot 2015


La Forge Estate Merlot bottleMerlot is the good-time-Charlie grape of Bordeaux compared to the tougher, much tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot ripens early and makes lush and plummy wines. It’s widely grown around the world and often marketed as the soft alternative to Cabernet. The rap on Merlot is that it’s often too soft and unstructured.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. This Merlot was crafted in the southwest corner of France by Jean-Claude Mas. Since he took over Domaines Paul Mas nearly two decades ago, he’s been a pioneer in restoring luster to the wines of Languedoc. Taking a decidedly New World approach to this daily table red, he’s aimed for intense concentration. The grapes were destemmed, fermented cool for five days, and then macerated another nine days with daily pumpovers before pressing. The first pressings were blended back in with free-run juice. The malolactic fermentation was in barrique, where the wine was aged another six months before bottling.

The 2015 benefits from some air, as the oak still lingers on the wine. We opened it an hour before eating, but it didn’t fully blossom until we poured the last glass—and then wished we had more. The intense plum and blackberry nose gives way to a palate of red fruit, dark spices, and toasted coffee. It’s a great example of the grape’s potential, and of Languedoc’s suitability for Merlot. The wine retails between $8 and $15.

Ratatouille pizza

The pizza: Ratatouille with fresh tomatoes and feta


Languedoc isn’t quite Provence, but it’s only a few kilometers away. Our first thought was to match this wine to a classic Provençal dish. Fortunately, we had some ratatouille on hand from a dinner earlier in the week. To brighten it up, we thought we’d add some sweet hothouse mini-tomatoes. Tangy feta is a classic foil for ratatouille, but it doesn’t melt very well. We thought we’d put some on the pizza, but added some fresh mozzarella as well.

Interestingly enough, the pizza brought out some of the herbal qualities in the wine, including some pleasant overtones of eucalyptus and the resinous scent of Mediterranean brush. For what it’s worth, we used the recipe for “Quick Ratatouille” from EAT RIGHT by Nick Barnard, published by Kyle Books (kylebooks.com). You can find the recipe in this post.

RATATOUILLE PIZZA

Ingredients


1 teaspoon olive oil
dough for 16-inch pizza (see below)
3/4 cup leftover ratatouille, well-drained
6 oz. ping-pong ball-sized tomatoes, peeled and halved or quartered
3 oz. feta
3 oz. fresh mozzarella, cut in very thin slices

Directions


Set oven at 450°F.

Brush olive oil onto stretched-out pizza dough. Spread ratatouille thinly. Crumble half of feta over the vegetables. Distribute tomatoes. Crumble remaining feta over top. Distribute mozzarella slices evenly. When oven is heated, slide pizza in on top rack. Cook about 10 minutes.

FOOD PROCESSOR PIZZA DOUGH


This is our basic pizza dough for cooking in a conventional home oven using a conventional pizza pan. Measurements are by weight because flour can vary dramatically based on humidity and how firmly you pack the measuring cup. We prefer the extra flavor of half whole wheat and half white flour. But the recipe works fine if you use white flour alone.

Ingredients


210 grams flour
1/4 teaspoon instant dry yeast
1 teaspoon (7 grams) sugar
150 grams ice water
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Directions


In food processor fitted with steel blade, add flour, yeast, and sugar. Process 30 seconds to mix. With processor turned on, dribble ice water through feed tube until absorbed. Process another 30 seconds.

Push dough down to evenly distribute in the processing bowl. Let rest for at least 30 minutes. This allows the yeast to get a head start on the salt. (It’s the same trick that makes French bread rise properly.)

When the waiting period is over, add salt and olive oil and process until the dough pulls away from the sides of bowl.

Turn out and place in barely greased 1-quart bowl. Cover loosely and let rise, preferably six hours or more, in cool spot. (Or refrigerate overnight, removing 3 hours before cooking to let dough return to room temperature.) If dough expands to rim, jiggle bowl to make dough subside.

Set oven to 450°F, making sure that one rack is on the top rails.

Flatten ball on slippery surface very lightly dusted with flour. We use polyethylene flexible cutting boards. Stretch by hand into a 16-inch round. Place well-seasoned pizza pan dusted with cornmeal on top of pizza and invert. Trim off excess or roll into a thicker edge. (Or invert onto dusted peel if using a pizza stone or steel in the oven.) Place toppings on pizza. Cook on oven’s top rack for 8 minutes if toppings are light, 10 minutes if laden with cheese or heavy vegetables. The Neapolitan-style crust should be crisp and browned on the bottom and slightly chewy on the top. Cooking time is much briefer if using a pizza stone or steel.

09

01 2018

Comstock embodies Sonoma wine country living

Merlot vineyards at Comstock Wines

The success of the 2004 film Sideways made California Merlot unpopular for a while. But the dip in that red’s reputation might have made helped clear the way for the winery and tasting room at Comstock Wines (1290 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-723-3011, comstockwines.com, tastings $20-$50). The photo above looks out the back of Comstock’s tasting room to old Merlot vineyards. (That’s a blue heron flying over the vines.) Many more vines were sacrificed to clear ground to build the winery, tasting room facility, and wine club residence. But not too many. Founded in 2012 using much older vineyards, Comstock still makes an outstanding Merlot that shows the restraint of the cooler Dry Creek Valley climate but bursts with black currant and violets.

pouring tasting at Comstock WinesCurrently producing about 6,000 cases per year, Comstock sells all but a few cases at the winery or to the 500 members of its wine club. (A small allotment goes to a few area restaurants.) By the way, all proceeds from the sale of the remaining stock of Comstock’s excellent 2012 Zinfandel ($42) go to aid the victims of the Sonoma wildfires.

Comstock offers a lot of tasting options. On the first Sunday of each month, visitors can opt for the Sunday Brunch White Flight ($40). Sips of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir are paired with your seasonal brunch bites. We caught the Wine and Pizza Pairing, offered the second Saturday of May and July-October or by appointment ($50, or $40 for wine club members.)

Pairing wine and pizza


We had always thought that pairing wine and pizza was our own little secret, not to be divulged in the polite company of wine folk. But Comstock is full-on Sonoma casual—and Healdsburg-based pizza oven company Mugnaini (mugnaini.com) has elevated the simple pie to high culinary art. The cooks at Comstock have come up with some inventive toppings that help bring out the characteristics of the wines.

pear pizza at Comstock WinesOur favorite combination was the 2015 Russian River Valley Viognier with a restrained pizza brushed lightly with peach-bourbon sauce and slices of ginger-soaked pears and topped with crumbled chevre. The Viognier shows orange blossoms and candied peach on the nose, and the slight tartness of the wine cut through any sweetness of the toppings.

Another outstanding pairing brought together a red pepper and prosciutto pizza with a glass of 2013 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley. The salty notes of the prosciutto were an especially good complement to the dark bramble fruit that dominates this Zin. The sweet red peppers accentuated the coriander, clove, and toasted spice notes of the mid-palate.

That’s definitely our idea of a pizza party! Visitors electing the pizza pairing, by the way, are invited to play on the winery’s bocce court after lunch.

Tenderness and restraint are key to pizza love

Executive chef Rosario Del Nero at Medford branch of Bertucci's
We had always assumed that good pizza required a certain amount of drama. Showboat pizzaiolos sometimes toss the dough into the air, spinning it to stretch to size. In Naples, guys slap the dough around back and forth on the counter as if they were Jack Nicholson working over Faye Dunaway in Chinatown (“she’s my daughter, she’s my sister…”).

That’s no way to treat a lady.

Rosario Del Nero shapes pizza dough “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” says Bertucci’s executive chef Rosario Del Nero, “Dough is a living thing. You must treat it gently.” He slips a bench knife under a half pound round of pizza dough and carefully transfers it from the covered proofing box to a bowl of flour. Turning the dough over to coat the surface, he moves it gently to a marble counter. He begins to prod the dough with his fingers, stretching the round into a flatter piece. “I’m transferring the heat of my body to the dough,” he explains.

“Once the dough is fermented and rested [see previous post], you can’t reshape it,” Del Nero explains. “It’s full of air. You don’t want to disturb the structure.”

With the heat of his hands, he pushes from the center out to the edges, turning the dough all the time. In seconds it stretches a little, then a little more. “It’s best when you use your body heat,” Del Nero says. “You can use a rolling pin, but the texture will be a little different.”

He scatters some semolina meal on a long-handled wooden paddle and lays the pliant dough on top. (Bertucci’s has three sizes of peels and three weights of dough to make the three sizes of pizza on the menu.) Then it’s time for the fun part: topping the pizza.

Getting dressed for the show


Bertucci’s has dozens of toppings, all neatly arrayed on the counter of the open kitchen. But Del Nero says, “When it comes to toppings, less is more. You don’t want to overwhelm your pizza.”

Rosario Del Nero slices pizzaHis personal favorite combines chunky tomato sauce, a sprinkle of pecorino Romano cheese (in part for its saltiness), freshly roasted thin slices of eggplant, and some small balls of fresh mozzarella crushed between finger and thumb. When it comes out of the beehive brick oven (about three minutes), he sprinkles it with a chiffonade of fresh basil and brushes the bare edge of the crust with olive oil. “The oil releases its aroma when it touches the warm bread,” he says. Bertucci’s uses an olive oil that volatilizes at 140°F—about the temperature of pizza crust as it comes from the oven.

Under Del Nero’s direction, we made a similarly restrained pizza with tomato sauce, artichoke hearts, crushed cloves of roasted garlic, and the same small balls of mozzarella. He guided us to wiggle the soft pizza off the paddle onto the oven floor, then to use a metal peel to retrieve it from the 600°F oven. The oven is so massive, he says, that it takes two days to get up to heat. At home, the best (though still not adequate) substitute is to use a pizza stone and make sure it is preheated a long time.

In the glass


Del Nero endorsed our artichoke and garlic pizza, bestowing the Bertucci’s black olive seal of approval. As we sat down to eat, he said that he prefers wine with pizza. “Beer is too yeasty,” he believes.

We tasted a few of the wines he was about to introduce with some new menu items. Both were from the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. The “Votre Santé” pinot noir is named for Coppola’s grandmother, who grew up in French Tunisia and always offered the classic toast when she raised a glass. The Diamond Collection “Claret” is a Bordeaux-style blend dominated by cabernet sauvignon and lightened by petite verdot. The fruitier pinot noir was spot-on with the eggplant, while the more austere claret cut through the unctuousness of the roasted garlic.

Given that both Coppola wines are widely available and reasonably priced, we may try the same combinations at home. They won’t be the same, of course, without the brick oven—or the passionate good company.

10

02 2017

Perfecting pizza, one ball of dough at a time

Melissa Surber delivers chicken marengo pizza at Bertucci's in Medford
Rosario Del Nero bites into a slice of pizza and savors it for a moment. “It’s not Neapolitan, it’s not Roman,” he says. “It’s rustic, provincial Italian pizza. It’s not as wet as Neapolitan, which is what most people have, or as thick as Roman.”

He is not even considering the toppings. Del Nero focuses on the dough that cooks up into the crust. It must be just so. “Flour, water, yeast—it’s simple,” he says. “But the secret ingredient is time. You cannot rush the yeast.”

He pulls out a piece of paper and a pencil and draws a graph. “X is quality,” he explains. “Y is time.” He draws a curve that peaks at about 40 hours. “Anywhere between 36 and 48 hours of slow rising in the cooler, the dough makes perfect pizza.”

Rosario del Nero enjoys a slice of Bertucci's pizzaA native of the Valtellina valley in Lombardy, Del Nero was the original chef of Bertucci’s when the chain began expanding beyond the original pizzeria with bocce court in Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. After more than a decade away from the group, he returned to Bertucci’s last August as executive chef and culinary vice president. Ever since, he has been infusing the 85-restaurant group with his passion and his discipline to make a superb and consistent product. He invited us to the Medford, Massachusetts, location for a lesson in his philosophy and practice of pizza.

The wrong way


Del Nero certainly turned around our perceptions of pizza crust. Given that we use a home gas oven that works hard to reach 550°F, we thought we had experimented sufficiently to make a pretty good home crust. It used 210 grams of mixed white and whole wheat flour, a teaspoon of sugar, a quarter teaspoon of instant dry yeast, and 150 grams of ice water. We would whirl it up in a food processor and let it sit at least 10 minutes before adding three-quarters teaspoon of sea salt and a tablespoon of olive oil. We’d whirl it up again, then let it rise in an oiled quart container all day, pressing it down when it threatened to spill out.

Listening to Del Nero, we quickly learned that we were doing a few things right and a couple of critical things wrong. Using very little yeast was a plus, but oiling the dough was a no-no.

“You have plants at home? Trying oiling their leaves and see how fast they die,” he said. “Dough is the same way. It has to breathe.”

The right way


Rosario Del Nero inspects pizza dough at Bertucci's Our biggest mistake was rushing the dough. “It has to rise very slowly so it forms tiny air bubbles. The flavor won’t be as good if the dough is rushed,” he said. “You don’t want to punch it down. That’s fine for bread, but you want pizza to be soft and pliable. Punching it makes it tough.”

We felt as if we’d been beating our kids. At home the next Friday, we made dough and let it rise in the vegetable crisper drawer of our refrigerator until after lunch on Sunday. We left it covered on the counter—because “the dough hates air,” as Del Nero told us. It warmed to room temperature in time for us to shape it into pizza for dinner.

The resulting pizza was a revelation. The same recipe was easier to shape and cooked up with a crisp but not crunchy texture. It also tasted much better.

So we went back the next week for more instruction.

06

02 2017

What to eat at the airport at LAX

Puck breakfast pizzaOver the years we’ve bypassed a lot of Wolfgang Puck Express eateries in many an airport in our quest to find restaurants and meals that truly speak of their place. But finally we found ourselves in the right place at the right time: LAX at breakfast. Or more specifically, LAX Terminal 7, the location of one of the two Wolfgang Puck Express restaurants at the sprawling airport (the other is at Terminal 2). Although Puck long ago went global with his fine dining, we think that his casual yet inventive food epitomizes the lifestyle of southern California, where he’s been based since 1975.

Luis delivers Puck breakfast pizza His Breakfast Pizza, which is big enough for two to share, is an easy-to-eat remix of of the bacon-egg-toast breakfast. The nicely chewy thin crust is topped with scrambled eggs, mozzarella, cheddar, bacon, caramelized onions, and chopped chives. It’s available to eat in or take out. The kitchen exercises restraint with the toppings, making it possible to consume the pizza in cramped airplane seats without mishap. But we had enough time before our flight to sit down and relax in the restaurant and spread out over breakfast.

“Would you like some dessert?” our waiter asked us when we had finished. “A nice latte would be perfect.”

He was right.

15

11 2013