On Slowing Down in the Kitchen

Cut up vegetables on a platter

Does anyone else get an immense sense of satisfaction from a thoughtfully arranged mise en place? I get completely obsessed with making my ingredients look pretty before I dump them all into a pot of soup or roll them up in a salad roll. I think it’s like how I used to spend 4 hours making cover pages for reports in elementary school, the entire time spent shading and colouring with a pack of Laurentian pencil crayons and a pencil sharpener. Or the way I practiced my handwriting over and over again after school, I have entire workbooks left over with pages full of practice upper and lower case S’s and C’s and Z’s. I will say though, that if I feel confident bragging about anything it’s the fact that I have impeccable handwriting.  I also used to draw square root symbols (√) and long division symbols with a ruler, even when I was just doing scrap paper math for a test. It’s always been about the small things and the supposedly hidden and unnoticeable things and that’s probably part of the reason I like cooking as well as writing; each step is its own little process and they all gradually build to form something large and obvious. I’ve also learned that I cook best when I’m not in a rush. I used to cook seeking an end result without taking very much time to hone the skills necessary to becoming a great home cook. The biggest skill of all, at least for me, was developing a better understanding of patience and how it applies in the kitchen. By slowing down and concentrating with an intentional mind I was able to actually get better at something I thought I was pretty good at, my knife skills improved and I had fewer accidents and mistakes. I don’t always have the luxury or even the desire to give myself this kind of time but when I do, and when I’m enthusiastic about the recipe, it really shows in my mood and my completed meal.

Cut up vegetables for salad rolls on bowls

On Crudités

Christmas crudites

There are few things that make me as happy as a beautiful plate of crudités. I’m aware of the ridiculous nature of that statement, but I’m one of those people who gets incredibly excited at the prospect of a salad bar well equipped with pre-cut vegetables and fruit (I was in absolute heaven on our honeymoon in Hawaii, each new morning meant mountains of fresh cut watermelon.)  If I’m being fussy and it’s my  get together I like to make a plate of crudités that focus around one or two colours, there’s so much room to be creative within those parameters. I also like to buy a tub of hummus and dress it up; in this photo I’ve added Greek yogurt, za’atar, cumin, a drizzle of olive oil, pomegranate seeds, lime juice, an extra pinch of kosher salt, and fresh cut mint leaves. Another combination I like is grilled or roasted and pureed eggplant, dark sesame oil, black sesame seeds, dried mint, za’atar, lemon juice and zest, Greek yogurt, and finely chopped black or green olives sprinkled on top. Sometimes when I know it’s just me for dinner I’ll make a massive platter of my favourite raw vegetables (endive, cucumber, red pepper strips, snap peas, cauliflower) and make a customized dip of some sort to accompany it and I’ll still arrange them in an aesthetically pleasing way. At the end of the day, if you have the inclination and the time, it can be wonderful to sit down to a plate of super fresh food featuring a wide array of colours and textures.

Very Vegetable Pizza

I don’t know about you, but I often find the vegetable quality (and quantity) on delivery pizzas somewhat lacking. Nothing seems to be very fresh and what does look fresh often tastes bland and becomes lost in the cheese and the sauce. By cooking the vegetables first, I have sautéed them here but roasting would also be delicious, the flavours of even not-in-season vegetables seem to awaken and hold their own against the rest of the pizza. You could use any vegetables here, I picked the ones that looked most vibrant at the grocery store this afternoon. Baking your own pizza dough is incredibly easy as it doesn’t require very much kneading nor a very intense rising period. At most, your dough will double in size so you don’t have to worry about it reaching astronomical yeast-fuelled heights in order for it to work. Lastly, I find that a mixture of regular pizza mozzarella and small balls of bocconcini successfully produce that oozing, elastic textural sensation that one covets in delivery pizza.

VERY VEGETABLE PIZZA:

for the pizza dough:

2 cups of all-purpose flour

1/4 cup of cornmeal

1 tsp. salt

3/4 cup of warm water

1 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast

1/2 tsp. white sugar

1 Tbsp. olive oil + more for coating the dough

1. Proof your yeast by pouring the warm water over the yeast and sugar and allowing to sit for ten minutes. By this time the liquid should be foamy with a fairly strong yeasty smell.

2. In the meantime, combine the remaining dry ingredients in a large bowl. When the yeast, water, and sugar are ready add them to the bowl with the oil and stir until a sturdy dough is formed. Using your hands knead the dough until elastic and smooth, about ten good kneads.

3. Coat the dough in a small amount of oil and place in a bowl in a warm place for an hour to let rise. As I’ve written before, I like to allow my oven to reach 200 degrees and then I’ll turn it off and let the dough rise in the still-warm oven.

4. When the dough has roughly doubled in size punch it down and give it a few quick kneads. Roll it out to about a 1/2 an inch in thickness directly onto a baking sheet and allow to rest while you prepare your pizza toppings.

for the pizza toppings:

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1/2 of a large red onion, sliced into thin rings

1 red pepper, cut into strips

1 zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and then sliced into thin moons

1 cup of cherry tomatoes, halved

1/2 tsp. hot chili pepper flakes

1 tsp. dried oregano

2 Tbsp. fresh basil

Kosher salt, to taste

1/2 cup of basic tomato sauce

1/2 cup of cubed mozzarella

1 cup of mini bocconcini balls

Parsley, as a garnish if desired

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cook the vegetables over medium heat for ten minutes until softened. Add the oregano, chili flakes and the salt to taste.

2. Spread the tomato sauce over the pizza dough, sprinkle the cooked vegetables on the top evenly, and then distribute the cheeses over the entire surface.

3. Bake for 20 minutes, checking to make sure that the cheese doesn’t brown too much. Once out of the oven, let the pizza sit for a few moments before slicing into pieces, garnishing with minced parsley if you’d like.

Ah yes, sometimes nothing but gloriously slow Chet Baker will do when you’re making a pizza. Maybe it’s the methodical chopping and the visceral feeling of the dough between your fingers, I’m not really sure, but there is something sensual about working with your hands. Chet Baker may have had his faults as an individual and even as a musician, he lost his teeth due to drug use and couldn’t play the trumpet for a period of time, but his music is so haunting to listen to. When I listen to Chet Baker I slow down and pay attention to the task in front of me. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard, and that is written without any hint of hyperbole.

Chet Baker – Almost Blue