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Whole Gourmet Natural Cooking

Alison Anton's Natural Cooking Blog offers healthy recipes, inspirational food articles and culinary advice for the natural chef, and features dessert recipes from her upcoming cookbook, Desserts for Every Body.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Homemade Pizza - Pizza Crust Video

When we think of pizza, most Americans think cheese and pepperoni. Of course there are many popular toppings that branch out from these staples, but in general, we tend not to stray too far from the occasional artichoke heart or sundried tomato.

But think about it... pizza crust is just a simple flatbread. Flatbreads are a staple food all over the world and are eaten with all kinds of traditional ethnic foods, such as Indian curries, peppery African stews, Moroccan harissas, and even with a simple South American breakfast. For these folks, flatbreads are used in the same way that Westerners use forks. So why not make a pizza out of it?

3-In-1 Homemade Pizza Crust Recipe

Since the vast majority of Western kids have a positive association with pizza, "making a pizza out of it" is a fabulous way to introduce young children to new and exotic flavors. Not only will the pizza look appealing, the bread will act to soften strong, ethnic spices that may be foreign to the uninitiated palatte. Cheese, of course, can also help soften the blow.

A pizza doesn't have to have cheese on it to make it a "real" pizza, though. Cheeseless pizzas aren't just for vegans and lactose intolerants. My personal favorite is a simple cheeseless pizza loaded instead with pesto, caramelized onions and walnuts (see recipe below). It can be topped with just a dot of feta for the occasional burst of flavor, but cheese is not the highlight of the pizza, as it would be for nearly all American-style pizzas.

Here are just a few creative examples of what can be done for healthier, ethnic or cheeseless pizzas:

Thai Pizza
Base: Thai peanut sauce
Toppings: shredded Napa cabbage and carrots, marinated baked tofu, splash of soy sauce and lime juice, chopped peanuts
Herbs: minced garlic and ginger, fresh cilantro and Thai basil

Fajita Pizza
Base: refried beans, olive oil
Toppings: fajita-style vegetables or meats, quacamole, sour cream, splash of lime juice
Herbs: minced garlic, fresh cilantro

Polish Pizza
Base: saurkraut
Toppings: Polish sausage (or veggie sausage), onion, green pepper, olive oil
Herbs: minced garlic, caraway seeds

Curry Pizza
Base: saag paneer (pureed spinach with cheese)
Toppings: chicken or vegetable curry, cashews
Herbs: minced garlic and ginger, fresh cilantro

Making Pizza At Home

Isn't pizza dough hard to make, though?

Actually, no; quite the contrary. Making good crust isn't nearly as much of an art as making good bread. Many people see 'yeast' in the ingredients list and get scared. They think, "Uh oh! I'll have to knead it, and rise it, and shape it and bake it." Yes, but it needs only a few minutes of kneading, and the rising happens by itself. Shaping takes all of a minute and most pizzas only need 12-15 minutes in the oven. The only time-consuming part is waiting for the dough to rise, which happens in about an hour.

It's also cost efficient to make a homemade crust; all that is needed is some flour and water, a packet of yeast, salt, sugar and a touch of olive oil.

With the right equipment, making pizza at home is fun, fast and friendly. Here are two inexpensive items recommended for homemade crusts that brown evenly and stay light and airy on the inside:

Pizza Stone - A pizza stone is a slab of stone used for baking pizzas and other flatbreads. A pizza stone is the next best thing to a wood-fired brick oven. It helps distribute heat evenly to the bottom and top of the crust, ensuring a perfectly crispy crust that's soft on the inside.

Since it is made of stone, it should be placed in a cool oven and preheated with the oven so that it doesn't crack from the rapid change of temperature. Once preheated, the stone will evenly transfer the heat to the crust. The raw pizza crust is then placed directly onto the stone, without having to remove the stone from the oven.

If you don't have a stone, you can use a pizza pan or the back of a sheet pan for baking pizza. The crust can be shaped right on top of either of these, as these pans do not need to be preheated.

Pizza Peel - This baking shovel has a long handle to keep your hands safe while transporting your pizza to and from the oven. It is a large, thin, wooden or metal spatula that slides the pizza quickly and easily to the pizza stone in the hot oven. The crust can be made directly on top of the pizza peel and then transported to the hot stone.

To help with ease of transport, cornmeal is usually sprinkled on the surface of the shovel before preparing the crust. But wait... move over Mama Mia, a piece of parchment paper on top of the peel works even better! Shape the crust on top of the parchment, then slide the pizza, along with the parchment, onto the pizza stone in the hot oven. The parchment goes right into the oven and easily slides from the pizza peel to the stone. No more smooshed pizzas!

If you don't have a pizza peel, use the back side of a sheet pan with the parchment. The crust will slide right off.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Barbecue and Grill - Let the Grilling Begin!

Memorial Day is the national kick off of the barbecue season. So now is the time to wheel it out, scrape it off and get it fired it up. The first round of the season is always a little clumsy, but you should get warmed up in no time!

Although barbecued food did not originate in America, this convenient slow-cooking technique was utilized in the late 1800’s by cowboys during western cattle drives. The hungry men were fed the tough and stringy cuts of meat that often needed several hours of cooking to tenderize. Barbecuing was the perfect remedy - they not only had a low-temperature heat source for slow cooking, but could also do the cooking in the great wide open.

And then came the invention of the charcoal briquette in 1920. Interestingly enough, Henry Ford and his cousin E.G. Kingsford are credited for popularizing this innovation. The bi-product of the wood scraps and sawdust from the Ford automobile factory was used to make the briquettes and soon they were put into commercial production. And so was the birth of an American legend. Now from the west coast to the east, the backyards of millions of Americans are up in smoke.

And not just for the cowboys either... Since the dawn of the gourmet 80’s, you can find grilling recipes for just about anything, even pizza. From hot dogs to haughty cuisine, there’s something for everyone on the grill.


Grilled Chicken Sandwiches with Pesto and Apples [print recipe]
Yield: 4 servings

1/2 cup pesto
4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
4 rectangles focaccia bread, sliced in half horizontally
Mayonnaise and stoneground mustard
1 cup baby spinach
2 apples, thinly sliced

Preheat the grill (charcoal, gas or stovetop) to medium heat.

Place each chicken breast between sheets of waxed paper. Pound each to 1/2-inch. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill the chicken until cooked through, about 5 minutes per side.

brush the bread with olive oil and grill until lightly browned, about 1 minute per side. Spread each half of bread with the mayonaise and mustard. Top each with sliced apples, spinach and a chicken breast. Drizzle with pesto and serve.

Grilled Pizza Crust [print recipe]
Yield: 1 pizza crust

1 uncooked pizza crust
Your favorite toppings

Preheat the grill (charcoal, gas or stovetop) to medium heat. Brush the grill with olive oil.

Place the uncooked crust on the rack and grill for 5 minutes, until the dough begins to puff up and starts to turn golden. Flip the crust with tongs or a heat-proof spatula. Brush the top of the crust with a generous amount of olive oil and top with your favorite toppings. Let the pizza cook another 8-10 minutes, until the toppings are bubbling hot and the crust is crisp and golden.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Taste of Mother's Day

Our palates inherit the tastes of our mothers - the foods, the flavorings and even the style and culture from which she comes. Although some of us proclaim that we will never be like our mothers, sometimes there's just no getting over those formative sensory imprints.

A gourmet chef and cooking instructor with an Iowan upbringing and German descent, my mother has an eclectic culinary style that engages her mid-western roots but also gives highlights to the many diverse cultural customs from all over the world. Amidst her rearing of Crisco, Jell-o molds, hot dogs and potato salad, she also managed to adopt a sort-of European panache, exchanging Wesson with extra virgin olive oil, American cheese with aged Gruyere, and a can of beer with a glass of pinot noir.

I am thankful that my taste buds are following in my mother's footsteps; I choose a variety of diverse foods and spices, experiment with new tastes and textures, and enjoy learning about the many culinary traditions from all over the globe. Variety seems to be the spice of life for the both of us!

My mom's outlook is that food is about coming together; it's about the friendship, the traditions, the good conversation and warm camaraderie that a good meal brings out in people.

Take a look at your own mother's style. What are her tastes? Where does she come from? What kinds of flavors or cultural influences imprinted upon your own taste buds?

Roasted Whole Chicken Breast with Fennel Spice
Asparagus in Tahini Sauce
Everyone's Favorite Carrot Cake (agave and fruit sweetened!)

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Healthy Kids - Give 'Em Choices

“Would you like carrots, corn or beets for our vegetable tonight?”

Having kids choose between 2-3 kinds of vegetables can help foster self-esteem by giving them a role to play in the preparation of their meals. This gives them a certain boundary ("we're definitely having vegetables") yet enables them to choose for themselves from what has been offered.

Kids usually have a good intuitive sense of what their bodies want - forcing them to eat something they don't want can have a negative effect in the long run, defeating the purpose altogether. The ultimate goal should be to spark a positive association with healthy food at an early age; allowing kids to have a say in the matter can do the trick. Even a two year old can decide between carrots and beets!


Glazed Butter Babies [print recipe]
Yield: 6 kid-sized servings

These sweet and tender bite-sized carrots have a glossy glaze that's sure to entice even the most finicky eaters.

2 tablespoons ghee or butter
1/2 pound baby carrots
1/4 cup orange juice
1 teaspoon maple syrup or agave nectar
pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon arrowroot powder or cornstarch

Heat the buttter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the carrots, orange juice, maple syrup and salt. Cook for 15 minutes, until the carrots are very tender.

Whisk the arrowroot with a teaspoon of water in a small dish. Slowly pour the paste into the carrots, stirring as you pour. Cook another 3 minutes, until the liquid thickens slightly to make a glossy glaze. Serve warm.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Fava Beans In Season

By Sarah Wood

Like budding trees and chirping birds, fava beans announce the arrival of spring. The beans thrive in cool, damp spring weather, peaking before the summer heat sets in. Often a favorite crop among small growers, fava beans are more readily available at local farmers’ markets than grocery stores.

While they may seem new to most Americans, fava beans reigned as the main crop for much of the Old World and continue to be a prominent ingredient in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes. And for good reason: the beans are high in protein, fiber and calcium and low in calories. According to Chinese medicine, the beans improve blood circulation and water metabolism.

The first harvest usually produces smaller pods, providing smaller beans and a more delicate, sweet taste than larger, more mature beans. The bright green beans, slightly bigger than lima beans, require a bit more effort to prepare as they are doubly protected (see instructions, next paragraph).

Preparing favas for cooking: First, the beans need to be shelled from the slightly hairy outer pod and downy inside. Then, the thin outer coat of the bean needs to be removed, except for the smallest of beans. This can be done by parboiling the shelled beans for one to two minutes to loosen the skins, then plunging in ice cold water. Use your thumbnail to peel away the outer layer to reveal the bright green bean inside.

Look for firm, bright green pods, usually five- to seven-inches in length, with minimal discoloration. One pound of pods will yield about a cup of beans. Use the beans as you would peas, adding them to salads, pastas or trying one of the recipes below.

A word of caution: Some people, primarily boys, of Mediterranean descent (along with some Asians and Africans), lack an enzyme to digest fava beans and can experience a toxic reaction to eating the beans or inhaling their pollen. This disorder, called favism, is genetic in nature and very rare.

Favas - 3 Ways!
Fava Salad with Shallots and Mint