Let's face it. Toscana has become a little worn out as the American dream of a temporary home away from home in Italy. Under the Tuscan Sun, The Hills of Tuscany... we had read them both in the paperback stage. But when it came time for our own Italian countryside farmhouse experience, we landed next door in the heart of Umbria, the new Toscana so to speak. Land of the truffle. Just a May weekend outside of Spoleto, by coincidence when the amazing hills of red papaveri (poppies) were in season. Only a couple hours from Rome not even, we finally connected with Valeria and Andrea at their regular retreat from the city perched on a magical hillside surrounded by a fairytale panorama. Joined by Paola and Arif and daughter Anita. Three couples all connected together in that moment through the friendship of three of us in the Roman physics scene decades earlier, needless to say when we were all much younger.
Of course one meal had to have the famous local black truffles, so Andrea picked some up at his trusted supplier, but alas they were duds, somehow lacking the usual kick. Truffles are a funny business. The dish that stuck in our minds though was a simple pizza recipe that Valeria showed us how to do. With a potato in the dough. That we later tried at home several times, initiating us into the world of homemade pizza.
But it wasn't until Miriam invited us over for a wonderful impromptu evening with her family to celebrate her newly renovated kitchen that we got the extra push we needed to take this more seriously. Whole wheat pizza. Everybody knows that whole wheat is much better for you than regular wheat flour, so it makes sense to do pizza that way AND we really like the flavor so it is no sacrifice at all as the uninitiated might expect. Eating right can also mean eating well. This time Miriam was showing us the way while we sipped on wine sitting on kitchen bar stools at the granite countertop Ani has been lusting after for some time. After preparing a batch of her famous scones in three flavors (chocolate chip was bob's favorite) for afterwards, Miriam attacked the pizza. A puffy whole wheat base with lots of yummy things on top. A little too puffy. Miriam thought it would never finish baking and was ready to call take out. We said let's give it some more time. What's the hurry? Rami backed us up. So it took a little longer than normal, it was a little puffier than normal. It was more delicious than normal and that's all that counts. Naomi agreed.
bob remembers all those food magazine feature articles on homemade pizza that he never marked, thinking we'd never do them. Lost in the archives. But fortunately pizza is popular so it wasn't long before a few more of these articles popped up. Rediscovering the rebirth of the magazine Eating Well, "Five Easy Pizzas" all based on a whole wheat crust catch our eye. With toppings like potato and artichoke or white bean and prosciutto to sink the hook. We go the potato and artichoke route, substituting some red pepper eggplant sauce from Trader Joe's for the marinara sauce. bob slices the potato with the plastic el-cheapo veggie hand slicer he'd gotten from a street vendor in Munich several decades earlier, starting out without the hand guard which is absolutely necessary for the final few passes. A little distraction and bob's thumb slides right into the blade. Not enough for stitches but enough to leave a lasting impression on his fingerprints after it finally healed. The pizza turned out swell.
Then annual fundraising for the Armenian Sister's Academy where the local niece and nephews go just down the hill provides a box of three whole wheat pizza dough crusts with fixins for even quicker production times. The tomato sauce is a bit too sweet, but we add some fresh sliced mushrooms, black olives and little chunks of feta to the shredded mozzarella in the kit for a delicious upgrade. Next time we'll replace the sauce too. And in the future we'll be marking those pizza articles. And just maybe, doing a new one once in a while.
Subject: Re: pizza?
Date: Tue, 7 Sep 1999 16:18:41 +0200 (MET DST)
From: Valeria Ferrari
To: Robert Jantzen
Dear Bob and Ani,
yes, we finally are in the new house and we are very happy because it is
nice, and our cats are very happy about the garden!
the summer was quite tiring, because we moved at the end of July,
and half of August was spent in opening boxes, cleaning and putting in
the right place furnitures, books (too many books!), dresses and every
thing is usually hidden in a house. But now almost everything is
reasonably in order.
So at the end our vacations were only ten days in Spoleto, where we had
the chance of enjoying the olive-tartufo sauce several times. I agree
it is really special.
The pizza I do is very easy to prepare:
the secret is that it is made not only of flour, but also of potatoes.
what is important is not to exceed the right amount:
about two potatoes of medium-small size for one kg of flour.
You first cook the potatoes in water, peel and smash them, and then add to
the flour, mix together with 25-30 grams of yeast (the one is used to
prepare bread, we call it lievito di birra) previously melt in warm water
like if you were doing bread. The dough must be smooth, elastic and not
too stiff. Dont forget salt.
Then you put the dough in a big cup, cover with a towel and live it there
for 2-3 ours to make it grows. In summer 2 ours are enough.
when it is ready, make the pizza in a pan with olive oil, put tomatoes
on top and put in the oven (medium temperature) for a while (about 15
minutes). when it is close to be cooked (I lift one corner with a fork:
if it is golden and does not bend it is ready) add the sliced mozzarella
and put it again into the oven for another 5-8 minutes until it melts.
At the end the pizza must be soft inside, but quite crunchy outside.
That is all!
I hope you will be able to come to Italy before next summer so that we can
enjoy your company and make some other "cultural" exchange.
Incidentally, I am still waiting the recipe of the yoghurt-mint soup!
Un grosso abbraccio da me e da Andrea
Supporting kid's school fundraising campaigns led to several years of buying frozen ready-to-use whole wheat pizza crusts following our initial well-intentioned efforts in this direction. One really good and quick topping we stumbled upon was the result of not having had any pine nuts left on hand to finish off some basil-garlic-oil pesto from the local excess basil production at several in-law yard plantings. We had been freezing the pesto minus the cheese for future use as a rule, but this batch remained in the fridge awaiting some further elaboration in the nut department. And so was ready to help get rid of the last frozen crust to finally use up some of the stuff robbing us of freezer space. We brushed some olive oil on the crust, and then spread very sparingly some of this almost-pesto mixture over the interior with a fork, then slices from one (real) mozzarella ball sliced as thinly as the texture allowed were symmetrically placed on top, with a sprinkling of crumbled blue cheese. And then 5 peeled medium white mushroom halved and thinly sliced. Topped off by some baby spinach leaves and a little bit of olive oil sprinkled on top. About 20 minutes in the oven at 375° F and it was ready. Tasty enough to inspire this end note. And repeat again.
Meanwhile a little lobbying at the University had led to a regular offering of really crispy whole wheat pizza crust at the student center. The public has to demand better from the food supply people. Sometimes small successes reward individual efforts. We have to all do a better job of pushing on the system. The next local step in food agitation was the food court at the previously family-owned local supermarket chain bought out by the big national chain Safeway (that in 2004 had been in a bitter strike situation in California as it tried to cut employee pay and benefits to "compete" with WalMart). When the carb revolution was explained to the food court manager and the suggestion of introducing a whole wheat pizza crust option was made, she said it was a good idea, why didn't they think of it? (Exactly.) Months later bob asks the pizza grunts behind the counter about whole wheat and they say all the dough comes from corporate, nothing they can do. So bob fires off a letter to the person who receives company product suggestions and eventually gets a polite answer but no real commitment. Meanwhile hundreds of carb revolution product lines are selling in their stores and they cannot connect the dots. Not only would it be the right thing to do but it would be good for business. Idiots. To be continued.
Years later: continued poor Safeway management of the once popular local supermarket chain eventually causes them to start closing some Genuardi stores due to fierce competition from stores with a better reputation (Wegmans, Whole Foods, ...).
bob puts ground flax seeds into his 1/4 c of oatmeal flakes and 1/2 c of room temp water every day when he makes his microwaved breakfast, so this add-in is always on hand. Gives us an added impression of healthfulness. But this is a delicious thin crust any which way you slice it.