I haven’t written this blog in a while. I think there are a lot of reasons, but it’s probably due in most part to the fact that I have spent the majority of the last 12 months living and working in Guadalajara, Mexico. No, this is not the only reason for not writing, nor is my return some catalyst/impetus to begin again. I think I just have been involved in a rather consuming process of finding myself again, which may or may not have involved eating a LOT of tacos. Regardless, I am back in Baltimore, back in my city, back to running my favorite streets and trails, back with my friends and family, back in my home, and back to life.
I originally started this blog as a way to share my passion for food and cooking through a creative outlet like writing. A bridge to find balance between my highly qualitative (arguably soulless) 9 to 5 preoccupations and my culinary and lifestyle aspirations (read: proletariat flights of fancy). Well, turns out Mexico called, and the 9 to 5 got the best of me for a bit, and I was honestly lacking the inspiration and direction in my personal life (the modicum that existed outside my projects and time in transit), so this blog completely fell off the map. I thought about writing about my time in Mexico, and I promise I will, but it just didn’t feel right, I didn’t have a strong enough narrative to justify a return. What was it then that made me want to write again?
Normal life, I am back to normal life. I came home (for the 5th time), the dust settled, I have an incredible boyfriend, social and family network, city and home, I fell back in love with my normal life and I am ready to start chasing umami again.
So, as one might imagine, Mexico was a calorie heavy experience. The inherent nature of the cuisine combined with my expense account empowered dining ability have led me to a place where I am forced to be carb conscious, at least until I can put on my size 29” without swearing in Spanish again. That said, I have a boyfriend to dote on, a boyfriend who has a well-documented obsession with pizza. So my carb conscious orientation is in direct conflict with my romantic intentions, pretty much all the time. The solution – “alternative” pizza crust. Unfortunately, this broad category of gummy root vegetable trendy grain based imposters is plagued by one fact, alternative pizza crusts suck.
So to make him happy, and keep myself from succumbing to caloric guilt, I needed to do this right. In a grand gesture (really I just knew I had a free evening) I decided I would attempt a cauliflower crust pizza. I had done a little research, determined it was the best among poor choices, and theorized I would just prepare enough vegetable toppings that even if the crust failed we could sustain ourselves on a plethora of eggplants, peppers etc….admittedly I have never been good at culinary contingency planning.
I got up early one Sunday, hopped out of bed eagerly ready to hit the Jones Falls Farmer’s market with all the vigor of a suburban housewife on her weekly urban forage.
The end of Summer, September into the beginning of October is the best time at the market. You can find fresh beans, peppers, eggplants, broccoli, squash, beets, and in later weeks Brussels sprouts and cauliflower all in one place. You can also people watch, as the county hoards flood the aisles with cumbersome baby strollers and contraband pets, eyeing up produce but clearly going to end up in the impossibly long lines for prepared items – it’s such a joke and believe me, I could go on... Anyway, this Sunday I managed a good haul, heirloom tomatoes at their peak, plump eggplants, brilliant bell peppers and a bag full of uncharacteristically spicy and beautifully deep green poblano peppers. Due to seasonal timing, I was forced to buy a head of cauliflower from the supermarket, this was a key ingredient for my potential love note of a pizza, so I had no choice.
Tuesday night rolled around and I was ready to give this long shot a chance. I broke out my previously unused food processor, a gift upon one of my returns from Mexico, and gave it a go. I had been reading several touchy feely and overly prescriptive “alternative crust” recipes for inspiration, and had decided to use grated parimigiano reggiano for flavor and as a binding agent. Further, as my stomach began to growl and my boyfriend affirmed of his lack of work day sustenance, I knew this crust had to work… if only to avoid the monster I become when hangry and avoid putting my relationship at risk. With the added pressure, I decided to abandon my hope of a grain free crust, and use some cooked quinoa for extra structure (and fiber), it was a carb based insurance policy.
Once I prepared the “dough” my hopes began to fade, despite my drying attempts on the cauliflower, the combination was very wet. I spread it on my pizza stone anyway, and threw it in the oven. I thought I was witness the realization of my worst fears and it baked. Like a nervous parent, I watched it take on an eggy, almost spongy aspect, something many an aspiring health food recipe reviewer had warned about. It was too late to turn back, at this point I was well over 30 minutes in and aside from a last ditch tacos order (NO MORE TACOS) I had no other choice but to see this through to avoid mutual hypoglycemic meltdowns.
About 45 minutes into the baking process, I began to see the light as the crust began to harden. I had spent the entire meantime successfully prepping my toppings so I could now give the pizza base my full attention. Faced with a moderately hard but disturbingly quiche like crust, I decided to turn up the heat, hoping the last minute surge might help achieve the browning and crispness I needed to achieve the ultimate alternative pizza success – pick-up-ability. Apparently I still have good instincts, because 15 mins later I pulled out a browned, crispy, sufficiently rigid, and thankfully un-quiche-like pizza crust.
I topped the crust, first with the feta cheese so the moisture therein would flavor the base as it went back in for final cooking, then layered grilled eggplant, poblano, bell peppers all brushed with garlic-herb oil, then fresh heirloom tomatoes in various hues (because it has to look good for Instagram) and finally dusted it off with more parmigiano (because, well, cheese). Back in the oven for 15 minutes and then the final test – dinner with the pizza fanatic. How did it turn out you ask?
Well, we are still together, my gram had enough likes not to be taken down, and I didn’t feel like I broke any carbohydrate rules – win win win. In all reality, it was delicious, and totally pick-up-able. The crust was super time intensive, but if planned right, the baking time can easily be used for even more elaborate topping prep, like searing steak tips for a chimichurri pizza or even grilled shrimp for scampi iteration. There are a lot of possibilities that will come out of this crust, which bodes well for me in many ways. That said, I probably won’t blog about pizza again for a while, I am ready to get back in the kitchen and back in the pages of magazines looking for the next challenge or fantasy. I am happy to be once again Chasing Umami!
Harvest Pizza – Cauliflower-Quinoa Crust with Grilled Eggplant, Peppers & Heirloom Tomatoes
This recipe is the perfect way to savor the end of the summer produce and celebrate the beginning of fall favorites! Featuring juicy heirloom tomatoes, vibrant eggplant , crispy bell and spicy poblano peppers, and as well as the autumn hallmark cauliflower, this pizza is the perfect bridge meal to enjoy as the seasons change and the local market offerings reach their peak. The pizza crust is gluten free, and the toppings can be varied based on what you find in your local market. As the crust takes a while to bake, use this time, to prepare your ingredients, if the weather permits you can enjoy the outdoors by grilling these summer and fall staples.
- 1 large head of cauliflower (rough chop into similarly sized florets)
- 1 ½ cups cooked quinoa (cook ahead and chill)
- 1 ½ cup grated parmigiano reggiano
- ½ cup crumbled feta cheese
- 2 eggs beaten
- 1 medium eggplant
- 3 heirloom tomatoes – sliced horizontally
- 1 poblano pepper, halved and seeded
- 1 red bell pepper, halved and seeded
- Dried oregano, basil, ground black pepper, garlic powder, and crushed red pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- Sea Salt to taste
Pre-heat oven to 400F, then in a food processor, pulse cauliflower until it is rice or breadcrumb sized. Boil in salted water for about 4 minutes, and strain in a fine mesh strainer or extra fine colander. Place in the center of a large clean kitchen towel. Gather the corners together securely, and twist over the sink to remove as much water as possible, you want the “cauliflower crumbs” to be as dry as possible. In a large bowl, combine 1 cup parmigiano reggiano, garlic powder, eggs, and “cauliflower crumbs” until evenly incorporated. Form a large ball and place in the center of your pizza stone or baking try on parchment paper. Using your hands, or placing another piece of parchment on top, form the ball into the desired circle or rectangle shape. Take care not to allow any very thin spots or holes in the crust to form. Pinch up the sides to form a crust edge. Bake for 45 mins at 40, then turn up to 450 for another 15 until browning, and using a spatula you confirm the crust is crisp and rigid enough to be picked up.
While the crust bakes…. Slice the eggplant into ½” thick rounds, score each side in a cross hatch pattern, lightly salt and allow to sit in the open air for 15 mins. This allows the excess moisture in the eggplant to come to the surface and evaporate, making cooking faster and flavor richer. After 15 mins, brush off salt and eggplant “sweat” over the sink to prepare for cooking. I prefer to use a grill with these ingredients, but you can easily prepare your toppings on a stove top, just be aware that sautéing eggplant can be an evoo heavy endeavor as they tend to absurd a lot of oil as they cook. Please note, you can follow similar steps adding sweet onions or zucchini cut on a bias if you have those items available.
Heat grill to medium and place eggplant and pepper halves on the grilling surface. Combine ½ cup evoo with your dried seasonings and carefully brush the top side of each vegetable. Flip the vegetables every 5 minutes, brushing the top side accordingly, until the peppers are soft and get a slight char, remove them from heat. Eggplant will require more time, and a few more flips/brushings. You may want to use tongs to press some of the additional water content out of the eggplant, the more tender and cooked the better the flavor. After 20-25 minutes remove from heat. Once peppers have cooled slightly, remove as much of the outer skin as possible by hand. Slice thin lengthwise. Once eggplant has cooled, cut each round in half.
Once crust is crispy, you can add your toppings. First, place feta crumbles directly on the crust. The little bit of moisture they will release during cooking will flavor the crust and help retain a bit of tenderness. Then place the eggplant, peppers and tomatoes evenly on top. Use the remaining ½ cup of grated parmigiano to dust the entire pizza. Finish with spicy crushed red pepper and/or dried oregano to taste. Place in oven at 450 for 10-15 minutes until the feta has melted and the parmigiano begins to brown. Allow to cool just 5 minutes before cutting and serving.