Well…evidently trying to wrap up fieldwork for a dissertation is a pretty time consuming affair. The past six weeks or so have been a whirlwind of conducting interviews, going to meetings and events, and poking around in archives in the great state of Oklahoma. Despite the intense heat wave and drought conditions there, this has been exciting work. The efforts of many folks laboring to rebuild locally-based food systems in that state are inspiring, to say the least. Even with the messiness, politics, and ongoing challenges. However, all of that research activity, plus a visit to Chicago for the last week or so, left us with little time to tend to our electronic garden of a blog, much to our chagrin. Now that we are ensconced once again in Brooklyn, however, we are eager to get caught up on sharing some of the stories of our adventures in food and geography this summer.
Back in the carefree days of the early summer, when we were traipsing around Valencia, Spain for several weeks, one of our regular haunts was the city’s wonderful Mercado Central. Located in the heart of the old city, the Mercado Central was built on a site where, according to Wikipedia, commercial activity — particularly trade in foodstuffs — has concentrated since at least the 12th century, when much of the peninsula was under Moorish rule. Josep Boira, a geographer at the Universitat de Valencia, pointed out to me that in the turn of the century novels of Vicente Blasco Ibañez, one finds descriptions of the site as the setting for bustling open-air markets. In 1914, work began on the more permanent structure that still stands today. This Mercado building blends the contextual elements of the 15th century La Lonja, which stands across the street, with the clean linearity and steel and glass of modernist architecture. High vaulted ceilings and a soaring dome provide ample space for light to enter through stained glass windows that are, along with ceramic tiles worked into the walls and ceilings, adorned with images of the abundant oranges of the fertile huerta Valenciana.
There are nearly 400 individual food stalls in the Mercado, offering a dazzling array of fruits, vegetables, dried fruit and nuts, herbs, spices, meats, cheeses, and of course fresh seafood. If you’re content to just wander around and buy stuff that looks good, you can easily spend hours doing just that. Going to the Mercado several days a week during our stays in Valencia, we have slowly learned our way around the place, eventually coming to remember which vendors we liked best, where to find items that are relatively rare in Valencia (spicy peppers, cilantro, tortillas), and how to find these stalls again.
We’re not quite good enough to map out in advance our path through the place, so we invariably end up backtracking and making several circuits around the building. This usually produces a feeling in us somewhere between amusement (some of the vendors are true characters), awe (the variety and quantity of food here is stunning), and irritation (navigating bustling, tight places filled with food when you’re really hungry?). I doubt we’ll ever become so rational and efficient as to avoid this wandering approach, though. Indeed, this is how we tend to approach most places, and seems to be a fundamental part of discovering the interesting stuff.
Wandering around the Mercado, one can’t help but notice the innumerable legs of cured ham hanging above many stalls. Among the many stalls specializing in ham, our favorite is that of Rafael Fuster. This soft-spoken chap is always friendly, happy to offer advice on the many kinds of ham, sausage, and cheese for sale and chat about traveling. This year, on our first trip to the market, he recognized us from our previous stays in Valencia and welcomed us back by not charging us a single céntimo for our jamón serrano. On our last visit to the stall this year, we stocked up on jamón de cinco bellotas, the best cured ham one is likely to find. These pigs roam around eating acorns, wild herbs and grasses, producing an intense flavor and a rich, creamy texture. This variety of jamón is regulated as a denominacion de origen, held to rigorous production standards and protected from just anyone selling ham and trying to pass it off as this particular variety. It’s worth noting that this kind of certification and labeling in the EU has come under the critical scrutiny of food geographers — see Depuis and Goodman’s 2005 piece, “Should we go ‘home’ to eat? Towards a reflexive politics of localism.” In any case, the jamon de cinco bellotas is definitely something to try, if you’re into such things as cured ham. And if, by the way, you’re thinking of bringing some into the US, and you’re reading online forums that mention a ham-sniffing beagle in customs and thinking, “I’ve never seen a beagle in customs,” well…it’s true: there is at least one beagle in US customs, and she does have a nose for jamón.
If you visit Valencia, the Mercado Central should definitely be on your list of places to check out. It’s an impressive, exciting place from any number of perspectives. And if you get tired, you can sit down for tapas and a beer or coffee in the little bar inside, near the back, or at the little stalls out front. If we’re lucky, we’ll be sitting in one of those spots again soon, ourselves.
Until next time, friends.
There are too many tomatoes in Oklahoma this year. One local grower said they were practically giving them away at farmer’s markets. We expected it to be hot and dry in the sooner state – quite a climactic change from our time by the sea in Spain – but we did not anticipate 108 degree days and more tomatoes than we could handle. In light of these meteorological circumstances, which have yielded copious amounts of tomatoes of all shapes and colors across the state and the insane amount of basil that is growing in our hosts’ backyard, we decided to merge two of our favorite things: Homemade basil pesto and fresh mozzarella and tomato pizza.
The idea for using pesto in pizza is something we came across during our travels last summer in Sicily, where arugula pesto was a common ingredient drizzled over many varieties of pizza. We made some arugula pesto at home a few months ago – large container of arugula (8-10 oz), 1/4 cup pine nuts, 1/2 grated parmesan cheese, a fair amount of olive oil (1/2-1 cup) all together in the food processor – and when we saw all the fresh basil growing out in back of our residence in Norman, OK we knew we had to make some with the basil.
This was straightforward and delicious: We basically sub basil for the arugula in our pesto recipe and use that as the sauce for the pizza (for a interesting pizza experiment with fresh basil versus pesto see the Pioneer Woman Cooks blog), sliced up some red and orange grape tomatoes, and sprinkled fresh mozzarella bits on top.
We made the dough slightly different this time, opting to dissolve the yeast in warm water before adding it to the flour along with some olive oil (normally I eyeball the whole deal and mix the yeast right in with the other dry ingredients of salt, flour, spices). The dough barely rose, but once I started rolling it out we had enough for two pizzas (form 2 cups of flour). The crowd was quite pleased with the result: Crusty (probably owe that to the pizza stone) and pillowy-soft on the inside of the crust.
Cooked at 500 degrees for 10-15 minutes, per usual. This was DIVINE. Pure heaven. And it was so easy to prepare straight from the garden. Make the best of the basil and tomatoes you or your neighbors have in their backyard and make this pizza!
“And what country are you going to tonight?”
A friendly question asked so often by our Spanish host in Valencia, to which we usually respond, “India, Morocco, Mexico, etc.,” Places with comida mas picante o países con sabores mas fuertes. But tonight we’re keeping it local: Estamos en Valencia, after all. So we decided to focus on what this region has to offer in the way of ingredients and culinary traditions and attempt to incorporate them into our own emerging traditions.
To begin with, toppings. Of course, we begin with tapas:Aa variety of small dishes that accompany drinks and evening conversation, ranging anywhere from peanuts and olives to jamon, shrimp and other small seafood dishes and, of course, patatas bravas with aioli. These dishes offer a seemingly endless variety of ideas for toppings. To be sure, we wouldn’t put pulpo gallego on our pizzas – a little too slimy for some of us – but a number of these dishes can be delicious on a pizza.
Our toppings : Salchichón ibérico (a kind of cured sausage), pimientos padrones (a variety of small green peppers that are typically grilled and have kind of bitter taste to them), olivas malagueñas (olives cured in a orange-infused brine), queso manchego de cabra (a Spanish variety of goat cheese).
Sauce: Roasted tomatoes Raf, yellow onions, garlic, and some random “hot” peppers we acquired from the mercado central (they look kind of like serranos, but are just called “pimientos picantes” around these parts). We used more onion than the last time we made sauce and kept the ajo cloves separate from the tomatoes (i.e. we didn’t stuff them inside the tomatoes). We also put a little sugar in the blender – as per the suggestion of our abuela-host – this time with a heaping tablespoon of herbs de provence and some salt.
Preparation and cooking: After cooking and blending up the sauce, we put it on our dough. Grated the queso and spread-out the olivas with some of the orange rinds that were in the brine and pieces of salchichón over the cheese. For the padrons, we simply cut-off the tops and put them on whole – we figured they would cook and brown up in the 500 degree oven in no time, so we didn’t cook them first. After this, we put the pizza on the lowest rack and cooked for 10-15minutes.
Taste: Amazing. The flavors are all bold, reminiscent of the tradition tapas of Spain. From a base of tangy and spicy sauce, the pizza speaks up as a hearty main dish with the citrus and salt of the olives, the savoriness of the sausage, and the bitter (and sometimes spicy) accent of the peppers. The cheese melted beautifully on top of all that. Certainly a pizza to make again.
Two pizzas, two (or more) steps back so far. Time to get serious about our sauce experiments.
Why not make a sauce from scratch? Abandoning the processed tomatoes in all forms, we started our third sauce experiment with a bunch of fresh tomatoes from the fantastic Mercado Central, Valencia’s biggest ‘traditional’ market, located in the middle of the casco antiguo.
We used a mixture of Roma tomatoes and a Spanish variety called tomates Raf, which we’d been putting on bocadillos and finding quite tasty. A bit sweet, very flavorful. They seemed a good candidate for our first roasting attempt. We didn’t really weigh them or anything, but I’d guess we used a bit more than two pounds or so of the Romas and Rafs combined. We sliced them up into quarters, roughly, added about half of a sliced sweet onion, and a ton of fresh garlic cloves. We thought we’d be clever, and tuck the cloves inside the tomato quarters…a point I’ll come back to in a bit. A bit of sea salt, a large bit of freshly ground peppers, and a good coating of olive oil. All of this went into a glass roasting pan, and hung out in a 375 degree oven for about 45-50 minutes, during which we talked on Skype with our friends and their new bebe (well, the kid didn’t really ‘talk’ per se, but he was there), and watched a little neighborhood procesión (which happened to feature one of our housemate/hosts!). Here’s a shot of the vegetables, pre-roasting.
We pulled the roasted vegetables from the oven when the onions and the skins on the tomatoes were starting to brown a little. By that point, the pan was full of super aromatic, simmering juices. Mmm. We let them cool while rolling out the crust. Making sure this time, of course, to coat the metal baking sheet we used with olive oil and flour. Next, we tossed the roasted veggies into a blender, along with some salt and pepper and herbes de provence, and pureed them with a few quick pulses of the blender. Lo and behold, we had by far our best sauce yet! We spread perhaps a cup of that onto the crust, and topped it with jamón cocido (cooked Spanish ham), sun-dried tomatoes, and some kalamata olives. Happiness reigned.
And yet, in the spirit of our little ongoing experiments here, there were a few things that we could still do better. For one, this sauce had a bit of a garlicky bite. We guessed this was because we tucked the cloves inside the tomatoes, or because we simply used too much garlic. Or both. But we are both in favor of lots of garlic, so we figured that next time we would try just laying the cloves beside the other vegetables, directly exposed to the heat, in hopes that they would roast more, and come out with something more along the sweeter-and-less-biting lines that roasted garlic is known for. Secondly, we figured said bite might also have had something to do with the acidity of the tomatoes, so we planned to add a bit of sugar next time.
When all was said and done, these were minor issues with a sauce that was hugely superior to anything we’ve had from a can. The leftovers also worked nicely on some ravioli we bought from the lovely (if a bit too pricy) lone Italian stand in the Mercado (shown below, with a caprese salad. We don’t want to bore anyone with too many pizza pics). Not too shabby….
We’ll post an actual recipe for the roasted tomato sauce in the next post. Until then, friends…
Our second pizza found us in Valencia, Spain, in a kitchen that was not unfamiliar to us, but in which we did not have our usual accoutrements. A different oven, no pizza stone, etc. We’ll return to the change of scene in a bit. First, the sauce…
We bought some tomate rallado (grated tomato) from a little grocery store to use as the base of our sauce. It was basically fresh tomatoes, roughly grated, sealed in a plastic container. It kind of reminded us of a more liquidy gazpacho but not quite. Heating up this base on the stove we added garlic, onions, salt, pepper, and that was pretty much it (quite different than the ‘wedding sauce’). Cooked it for a while, probably put cayenne in it as well (these things just happen). We thought it was a little thin though, watery and not saucy enough. We hoped it would thicken if we cooked a bit longer but it never did. Alas, next the dough.
Making the dough was no thing, of course, but making crust without a pizza stone is something we haven’t done for a while. We had forgotten the differences in making dough on metal pans or baking sheets. We only put a little flour on the bottom to keep the dough from sticking to the bottom of the pan. This can change a good pizza night into a bad one in a flash. Needless to say, not enough flour: The dough got stuck. We get zero points for presentation.
Our ingredients this time: Albóndigas (meatballs cut into little meatballs), shredded mozzarella, kalamata olives, and the sauce. Maybe we put in some ruccula at the end. Baked for 10-15min in the mysterious celsius-toid oven.
The dough was a little thin in spots, in addition to a thin sauce, and not coating the pan properly with olive oil and flour all led to our crust sticking in places. No beautiful slices of pizza. And, right on cue, our abuela-host lady came into the kitchen and proceeded to explain to us how we needed to put more oil on the pan — she then took the spatula and started to hack away at the pieces still stuck to the pan. Our pizza trembled.
Despite all this messiness, we ate and enjoyed our pizza (in strange shapes). Don’t think we’ll use this kind of sauce again, and certainly will prepare our baking pan better next time. First pizza in Spain this year: A lot forgotten, a lot remembered.
P.S.- We didn’t take any pictures of our pizza disaster, but the photos included in the post are a result of our google images search “pizza disaster.”
For the first phase of our planned year of experimenting and developing our pizza skills, we decided to begin by focusing on sauce. Summer was almost upon us, and that meant traveling…from Brooklyn to Spain, then back to Brooklyn, then Oklahoma, then Chicago. And any other places that we might be able to scrape and scrounge our way towards. These nomadic months would put us in a range of kitchens, away from our own pizza stones, our oven (which is nothing special, but at least we know its quirks), and our normal places to shop for ingredients. But, it’s summertime, and all of the places we’re going will be replete with good, fresh tomatoes and other vegetables, herbs, and other stuff that might make for some good sauces. Plus, in pizzas past, we’ve tended to just go with canned tomato sauce — we found one (Muir Glen organic something or other) that was quite good at Bob and Betty’s Food Market (a.k.a the Bourgie Mart) in our neighborhood — so it seemed like a pizza area of improvement for us.
We searched online, settling on a recipe that had lots of positive reviews, and had a good story: it was written inside the cover of a recipe book given as a wedding present. We perhaps imagined some grandmother from Napoli inscribing some recipe passed down for generations…or maybe we just thought it looked good. Here it is, if you’re curious: http://www.food.com/recipe/ultimate-pizza-sauce-114392
If you checked out the recipe, you probably noticed there is quite a bit of tomato paste involved. As in 6 oz of paste to 8 oz of tomato sauce. We imagined, with help from some user comments, that this would be a particularly robust, zesty sauce. We also worried that it would be too thick. We were right on both fronts. It was bold, and it was thick. Too bold, and too thick, to be exact. And that was even after adding probably a cup of water as the thickness problem became apparent. So, strike one against this recipe, from our perspective, was that it was too thick. It didn’t spread across the crust too well, and the pizza came out on the dry side. Strike two, as alluded to above, was that the flavor was so concentrated as to be overpowering. Too tangy, too robust. I know, lots of flavor sounds like a good thing. But to our palates, this over the top sauce proved to be cloying.
On the positive side, I’ll note that the fennel seeds called for in the recipe were in fact a nice touch. Something to experiment with in the future for sure.
As for toppings, we tried to keep it rather sparse and simple, so as to let the sauce stand out. A light dusting of grated mozzarella, some chunks of fresh mozzarella, a few kalamata olives, and some fresh basil added at the very end of the cooking process. (I admit that I had the idea of throwing some anchovies on my slices, but I abandoned that idea quickly when I realized how strong the flavor of the sauce was). By the time this pizza came out of the oven, the fresh mozzarella was browned and dried out…whoops, we should have remembered that it’s best to put the fresh mozzarella on with the basil at the very end of oven time. This memory lapse is the kind of thing we are embarking on this 52 pizza project to counteract…
In short, our first pizza of the project was kind of a step back. But hopefully the kind of step back that enables us to make a bigger step forward. Any anyway, everyone knows that it’s hard to make a pizza that’s so bad that you don’t still enjoy eating it. And we were particularly hungry that evening, having spent the afternoon at the lovely Brooklyn Botanic Garden, down the street from our apartment. If you know the BGG, you know why it’s awesome. If you don’t know it, be sure to check it out, given the chance. Here’s a shot of a pizza we made later in the week, in which the fresh mozzarella was added at the last minute or so of cooking. With fresh jalapeños!