Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pappa al Pomodoro (Tomato & Bread Soup)

It's finally summertime in Alaska.  The grass is green, the birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming...and it lasts, oh, roughly 9 days.  Therefore, we Alaskans have to take advantage of every single second.  Enter two regulars on the Chena Girl blog: Ma and Pa.  I gently suggested (begged and pleaded) that Mom and Dad take a brief sojourn down from Fairbanks to Anchorage to bask in the comfort of my comfortable (teeny) home and assist me (or, make Dad do most of the work) in a few projects around the house.  I told them the forecast looked great (it rained for three days straight) and it was a perfect time to put a fence up on the back end of my property.

It's really a wonder that my parents love me so much.

So Mom and Dad came down last week to spend some time with their granddog, Milo, and to help me put a little sweat equity into my home.  Ok, so Dad put in some sweat equity while I followed him around the backyard trying to act like I was helping when really I just thought he should have some moral support out there.  We all have our roles to play.

Once it was clear to Dad that I was completely useless to him, save for some political small talk and multiple comments about how many of my raspberry bushes he was killing, I went inside to bug Mom and start making dinner.  The previous day, we stopped in at Bell's Nursery near my house to find a few blooms and ended up with a 5 pound bag of tomatoes from their fantastic greenhouse.  So I channeled my inner Italian grandmother and together with my Mom (who could pass as an American-accented Italian grandmother any day of the week and twice on Sunday) whipped up a batch of Pappa al Pomodoro, or Italian Tomato & Bread Soup.

I had this soup once when I visited Italy several years ago in a small village in Tuscany.  It was heavenly!  Silky smooth and utterly delicious, I couldn't believe how much flavor was packed into a soup consisting of basically tomatoes, olive oil, and bread.  After that, I ordered it every time I saw it on the menu.  When I came home to Alaska, I realized I could only truly make this soup during the summer when tomatoes were in season.  This is the closest I've come to those incredible bowls of soup I enjoyed under the Tuscan sun.

First, start by coring the tomatoes and slashing a small cross on the bottom of each with a paring knife like sous chef Kathy did:

Using a slotted spoon, carefully place the tomatoes in a large pot of boiling water for one minute, then remove them to a large bowl of ice water.  The skins will be easy to peel after this process:

Once skinned, slice the tomatoes in half and squeeze out the seeds.  Next, chop them into smaller chunks (or tear them with your bare hands, like Mom did).

After the tomatoes are ready, heat up one 1/2 cup of good-quality olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy pot and saute the garlic for a minute or two until it is soft but not brown.  (Never let the garlic burn-it turns bitter and ruins the taste of any dish!)  Yes, the soup does require a heavy dose of olive oil, but there are so few ingredients and it's key to the soup's silky-smooth texture. 

**And now a note about "good-quality" olive oil.  I'm sure as soon as you read that, you thought, "What-- does the bottle say good quality on it?  How the hell am I supposed to know what's good quality?!"  At this point, all I can tell you is this: trust your taste buds!  Taste your olive oil!  Dip a little piece of bread in it once you get it home.  If it tastes good to you, then it will probably taste good in your food.  If it tastes sharp, or has an off-taste, then hide it in dishes where it's not the star.  It's true that you often pay for quality, but not always.  However, as a general rule of thumb, never by the cheapest bottle of olive oil you can find.  Because usually it tastes...well, like the cheapest bottle of olive oil you could find.**

Once the garlic is soft, add the tomatoes, basil, a generous amount of salt and pepper, and let it cook over medium heat until the tomatoes fall apart and became more sauce-like (stirring occasionally).

After about 30 to 40 minutes, add torn pieces of rustic bread to the pot.  The recipe I adapted says to remove the crusts, but they don't bother me a bit so I leave them in.  Fill with enough water to cover the bread, and add a few pieces of parmesan cheese rind if you have them (I always try to save mine-- they add great flavor to soup!)

Let the soup simmer for 30-40 minutes, stirring it occasionally so that the tomatoes don't stick to the bottom of the pot.  Taste it frequently, too, adding salt and pepper as needed.  If the tomatoes aren't as ripe, add a few tablespoons of tomato paste to boost the flavor.  I also add a pinch of sugar to balance out the acidity.  Once it's ready, ladle it into big bowls, finish it with a drizzle of olive oil, and add a few torn basil leaves for garnish.  From the humblest of ingredients comes an incredibly comforting meal.

And a brand-spankin' new fence! 

The great thing about this soup is that it's even better reheated the next day.  The flavors develop more fully, similar to my favorite Ribollita soup, although you might need to add a bit more water to get the right consistency.  I also prefer to eat this soup after it's cooled down in the bowl a few minutes, as opposed to piping hot. 

Pappa al Pomodoro

6 lbs. large ripe tomatoes
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
Leaves from 1 small basil bunch, washed and torn in large pieces
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 1-lb. loaves day-old course-crumb rustic bread (crusts removed if you like)
1-2 T tomato paste (if tomatoes aren't as ripe, optional)
1-2 pinches of sugar, to taste
parmesan cheese rinds, for flavor (optional)

1.  Cut the core out of the tomatoes, and make a cross incision on the bottom of each.  Plunge the tomatoes in boiling water for one minute (in batches, if necessary) to loosen their skins.  Remove and place tomatoes in a bowl of ice water.  Peel and discard the skins, slice in half and squeeze out and discard seeds.  Chop or tear up the tomatoes into smaller pieces, and put them aside.

2.  Heat 1/2 cup of the oil in a large, heavy pot (like an enameled cast iron one) over medium heat.  Add garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes to soften, but don't let it brown (or it will get bitter).  Add tomatoes and basil (saving some for garnish), and season generously with salt and pepper.  Simmer, stirring occassionally until the tomatoes fall apart and become sauce-like, about 30-40 minutes.

3.  Tear or cut bread into small chunks and add enough water to cover the bread, about 5-6 cups.  Stir occassionally to make sure the tomatoes aren't sticking to the bottom of the pot.  Add remaining 1/2 cup of olive oil.  If you have any leftover parmesan cheese rind, add it to the pot for extra flavor.  Simmer over medium heat until bread and tomatoes fall apart and soup becomes thick and smooth, being sure to check seasoning periodically.  If the soup needs stronger tomato flavor, add a few tablespoons of tomato paste.  If it tastes a bit acidic, add a few pinches of sugar (I almost always do this to any tomato-based dish).  Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a garnish of basil leaves.


xo H

Friday, June 1, 2012

Mexican Pizza

Growing up in Fairbanks as a kid in the 80s, we didn’t exactly have access to the freshest ingredients or have the most diverse array of restaurants.  I mean, when Boston’s Pizza came to town it made front page news. get the idea.  Despite that, my parents did their best to expose us kids to a broad spectrum of cuisines.  Or rather, their idea of a broad spectrum of cuisines.

Which is to say, we ate a lot of Mexican food.      

Not just any Mexican food, but my parents’ spin on Mexican.  My parents met when they were very young in Los Angeles.  My mother moved there in high school, but my dad was an L.A. native and has had an appreciation for Mexican cuisine ever since.  Going out to dinner was a rare and expensive treat.  If we did, we usually piled into the Suburban and went to a local Mexican haunt called Los Amigos off South Cushman, where I inevitably ordered a cheese enchilada and a chicken taco…for roughly 15 years.  My sister Holly and I would fight with our brother Erik over who got to pick the song in the tableside jukebox.  Yes, we would literally fight.  (One time, we were so ill-behaved that my Dad made us get up and leave before the waitress came to take our order!  You don’t have to teach kids that lesson twice.)  But if Holly and I were allowed to order Shirley Temples with our meal, we knew Dad was in a good mood.  Those were the nights we usually just let Erik pick the song (because let’s face it, he always won that battle anyway!)

At home, my parents each had their specialties.  Mom made a delicious chili relleno casserole (I’ll dig out that recipe and post it sometime) and was constantly frying up quesadillas for us to scarf down.  My dad made homemade tamales, enchiladas, and his unique specialty:  Mexican Pizza.  I remember it was around the time that Boboli pizza crusts became popular in the grocery stores.  I have no idea where Dad came up with the idea, but it was one of the most requested recipes from our family kitchen.

Last week I was home in Fairbanks with my family and asked Dad if he would make his old specialty in order to post it here on the blog.  He was more than happy to oblige, and came home from the grocery store with all the fixings for one of my favorite childhood meals.  (He was astonishingly patient when I took all my pictures, asking things like, “Do you want me to move this over here for better light?” and "Wait until I scatter the green onion.")  My Mom was less so. (“How many pictures do you need of a slice of pizza?  It’s a slice of pizza!  I’m hungry already- let’s eat, people.”  To those who know and love my Mom, this should come as no surprise.)
At first we hadn’t planned on adding any tomato, as you'll see in most of the pictures.  But Mom insisted that Dad used to add it, and I think she was right.  The fresh tomato was the perfect finish.  You could also add some fresh chopped cilantro if you happen to have it, but cilantro wasn’t exactly plentiful at Fairbanks grocery stores when I was a kid and I wanted to stick with tradition.

I have to say, taking a bite of this pizza for the first time in years brought back a lot of happy memories from a kitchen full of good food.  Thanks, Dad!

Mexican Pizza
(Makes 2 whole pizzas, which is just enough to feed a small Alaskan family)

2 Boboli thin pizza crusts
1/2 medium onion, diced
2 t. olive oil
1 pound lean ground beef
1 t. salt
1 T. chili powder
2 t. cumin
1 cup of salsa
1-15 oz. can pinto beans, drained & rinsed
1-2.25 oz. can sliced black olives, drained
1-4 oz. can diced green chilies
2 c. shredded cheddar cheese
3-4 green onions, white and green parts both chopped
1 large tomato, diced (or two small)
hot sauce, to taste

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  In a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil to the pan and saute the onion for 4-5 minutes, or until soft.  Crank up the heat on the stove a touch to medium-high, and add the ground beef, salt, chili powder, and cumin, making sure to break up the meat well with the back of your spoon.  Cook until all the meat is browned nicely, about 8-10 minutes.  Turn off the heat and set aside.

Spread 1/2 cup of the salsa evenly over each Boboli crust.  Divide the cooked ground beef, beans, olives, and green chilies evenly between both crusts.  Top each pizza with 1 cup of the cheese.  Transfer the pizza carefully to the oven (a pizza paddle would come in handy here, but it's not necessary).  Bake the pizza directly on the oven rack for 8-10 minutes, or until all of the cheese is melted and the pizza has a crispy bottom crust.  We bake one at a time, for maximum crispyness.

Remove from the oven and top with as much of the diced green onion and diced fresh tomato as you like.  Cut slices, top with hot sauce if you prefer, and enjoy a little Mexico in Alaska!

Enjoy! xo H