I try not to get in culinary ruts, which can be a real challenge. When cooking on a budget, a rut is a pretty easy thing to get in to.
Chicken and rice, for example, is a comfort zone for me (and many other home cooks, really).
To save money, we purchase whole chickens and break them down. I find that the chicken I butcher myself goes much further than a package of just breasts, or just quarters, and it costs less. I end up cooking a chicken dish with rice at least once a week.
So, in order to stay out of a rut, we decided to have a little fun with dinner the other night and made pizza with a homemade dough.
As my husband and I stretched the dough out into un-perfect circular shapes, I was reminded of the trip I took with my mother across Europe a couple of years ago; more specifically, I remembered our time in Italy.
We began our Italian leg of the trip in Rome, then we traveled to Florence by train; then on to Pisa and, lastly, Venice. But it was our time in Florence that made the biggest impact on my mom and me.
I realized early on that my mother, though on an adventure traveling through Europe, was not ready to venture out of her comfort zone. We were in Rome when we sat down to eat and I asked her if she wanted to have some pizza.
“We’re in Italy, mom! We have to have some pizza!”
But she simply refused to eat pizza of any sort. She said that she didn’t like it.
So in Rome, we enjoyed other Italian foods – pastas, breads, calzones, carbonara, etc.
In Florence, we stayed in a hotel that was in a centralized area and were able to leave and walk wherever we needed to go.
We walked into and out of different local shops and locals would speak to us – not knowing we didn’t speak Italian. Though I was learning the language, the only word my mother knew was “ciao,” so she constantly said hello and goodbye to people.
One day as we walked around looking at the beautiful architecture of Florence, we ventured into a shop and struck up a conversation with the shop’s owner. I told him my mom was bringing me across Italy; he said he wished he could bring his mother to Mexico and explore.
Then, in a very broken Italian language, I asked where my mother and I should go to eat. I told him I wanted to go to a restaurant that locals enjoy – not where only tourists go.
He pointed us toward the Piazza del Duomo – the plaza near the Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori (the Duomo) – and told us of a restaurant where his friend was the owner. He said he often eats there and promised we would enjoy it.
The guy walked us to an esplanade area – to the right of us was the Duomo and to the left was a slew of restaurants, all with outdoor seating, which was so Italy, and so perfect on a day with beautiful weather like that one we were having.
As we walked out into the esplanade, I did what I always do when searching for a good place to eat: I looked for the restaurant with the most people.
What a coincidence – the place with the most customers just happened to be the place our new friend had recommended.
So mom and I found a table and sat down.
When our waitress came to take our order, she told us of the day’s specials, one of which was a special price for pizzas. I excitedly turned to my mom and said “this is your opportunity, mom! You can try the pizza!”
She finally started to cave in. My goal of the trip through Florence was to get my mother to try pizza, and I could tell I was beginning to wear her down.
“If I try pizza,” she explained. “It has to be something simple.”
I nodded in understanding.
“I don’t like all those toppings,” she added. “And the dough has to be thin. I don’t like the thick dough.”
She didn’t even know she was describing an item I was already familiar with, but I let her talk and then I told her I was going to get the Pizza Margherita, which is a thin, crispy dough with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil.
She ordered some type of pasta, but said she would try my dish and she would share some of hers with me.
The waitress noticed my mom’s hesitation at the mention of pizza and immediately told her, “you will like this pizza! If you don’t like it, you don’t pay for it. I promise you will like it.”
When the food arrived at the table, I still had to do a little convincing to get my mom to try the pizza, but when she finally bit into a slice, her eyes lit up like a perfect moonlit night in Rome.
“This is not pizza!” she exclaimed. “This is something I’ve never tried before.”
It was perfect, from the crust to the dough to the sauce and toppings; everything was like a culinary sonata.
The sauce was sweet, but perfectly balanced to meld with the fresh ingredients and exploded with flavor. And the crust was amazingly crisp.
When the waitress came back and asked us how the dining experience was, my mother chimed in with a few new Italian words she had learned.
“Bella!” she shouted. “Bellisima!”
The waitress was delighted by her response, which sparked a friendship of sorts between the three of us. My mom tended to get that reaction everywhere she went – everybody seemed to genuinely love her and showed a great deal of respect to her.
The waitress came back with a special dessert, saying it was courtesy of the restaurant.
After another brief conversation with her, we realized that the woman who had been waiting on us the whole time was the owner – the same person who was friends with the man we’d met earlier that day.
From that point in the trip forward, my mom didn’t want to eat anything but Pizza Margherita, everywhere we went.
We revisited the same restaurant several more times before our time in Florence was done, and my mom was treated like a superstar each time. She really connected with the people of Florence, even though she didn’t speak the language. It was beautiful to see how communication can transcend words.
I was really happy to see my mom really happy. I smile just thinking about it.
Our time in Florence is something I’ll not soon forget, and it helped me understand that sometimes a thing’s simplicity can show a real complexity.
The items with the simplest ingredients are sometimes best. In the world of pizza, and in life; you may not think you have a lot, but what you do have, you can make it the best quality.
Just like this recipe for Pizza Margherita!
1 Package of active yeast
2 1/4 Cups of all-purpose flour
3/4 Warm water
1 tsp salt
1/2 Tsp Olive Oil
5 Whole peeled tomatoes or a can of tomato puree
2 Garlic cloves
A bunch of Fresh Basil
2 Tsp Olive Oil
1/3 Cup Mozzarella cheese. If it is fresh cut into slices
1. In a mixing bowl stir yeast, 1 tablespoon of flour, and 1/4 cup warm water, cover and let it rest for about 10 minutes (it should get a creamy texture).
2. Slowly add the other 1/2 water, 2 cups of flour, olive oil and salt, mix until smooth and a little sticky. By hand, stir to blend and knead for about 5 minutes. The texture should be soft, elastic and a little sticky.
3. Place in an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rest in a cool place for about 2 hours.
4. Pre heat oven and set to 475*F and set the rack as low as possible in oven.
5. If you have a pizza stone, place it into the pre heat oven (475*F)
6. If you don’t have a pizza stone, You can use a cookie sheet.
7. Cut a sheet of parchment paper the same size of the cookie sheet on a large cutting board. Sprinkle corn meal and place the dough on top of it.
If the edge of the crust tops the cookie sheet, try placing the pizza on a cookie sheet that has been turned upside down.
In a large skillet heat (medium heat) the olive oil. Sauté onion and parsley until golden, then add the garlic and oregano for a few seconds. Add tomatoes, smashing them, and add salt and pepper. Stir and let it boil until it gets thick. (5-7 minutes)
Forming the dough:
Once you are ready to bake the dough. Knead it, form it into a ball and flatten, shaping and patting it with your fingers and stretch into a thin round disc. If it is necessary, re-flour your fingers. Try to make the dough as thin as you can, about 1/16-inch or less.
Spread over pan (or sheet parchment). Let it rest for about 10 minutes.
Assembling the pizza:
Spread the sauce, not in excess and taking care of the borders. Then spread the cheese, and bake it for between 10-15 minutes.
When the dough is browned, crispy, and cheese is golden and you see bubbles is ready!
Carefully, take the pizza out of the oven and transfer it to a cutting board, in order to serve it. Let is cool for several minutes.
Sprinkle your basil leaves before slicing and enjoy!