Due Stagioni and Beer Dinneroni

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This is a tale of two seasons and two pizza recipes.

Kyle and I hosted a potluck vegetarian beer dinner at our house Saturday night. The theme was Farewell Summer, Hello Fall and the guest list approached twenty, for the largest Vegology beer dinner yet. For a month, we tasted and tested beers. Two weeks before the event, we began to prepare the house, yard, and décor.  One week before the dinner party, I realized that merely a wish and a dream would not get twenty people to fit into our house and around the same table, so I placed my order with Party Perfect to rent banquet tables and folding chairs for the patio. By Friday afternoon, the only thing I had not prepared for yet was what dish to make. It was the element I was least worried about, since I’ve thrown together my dishes for the last two beer dinners at the last minute.

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As I drove home from work on Friday evening, I started to think about what dishes I could prepare. The loose guidelines I imposed on myself and the guests – “summer or fall, any kind of small plate” – were not focused enough, so I had way too many ideas floating around in my head. I started to think about transitional seasonal dishes, ones that could bring you from summer into fall, and foods that I could make ahead and reheat at party time, and then it hit me. Four seasons pizza.

Quattro stagioni is a pizza with four different ingredient sections, representing the four seasons: artichokes for spring, olives for summer, mushrooms for fall, and prosciutto for winter. I decided to make miniature pizzas, or pizzettes, and do them in two seasons, due stagioni. Because I couldn’t think of a beer that would pair well with both olives and mushrooms, I did seasoned zucchini for summer on one half, and mushrooms for fall on the other, with a basil pesto base and fresh asiago melted on top (thank you,  Dany Schutte of Ellwood Thompson’s for the cheese suggestion!). The zucchini seasoning I used was the Village Garden piquant spice blend, which can be purchased locally at the South of the James farmers’ market or the Carytown farmers’ market.

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I knew the pizzette idea was a winner. I woke up Saturday morning and floated to Project Yoga at the VMFA feeling confident. After a relaxing practice in the cool autumn-like morning sun, I purchased my ingredients, some fresh flowers for the table, and a few more pieces of décor, and headed home to prepare for the party. Kyle was at work so I had to tidy up the patio, set up the tables and chairs, decorate, clean the house, and prepare the food all by myself. Everything was going really smoothly and I even had time to practice my introduction speech for the Due Stagioni Pizzettes, and decide whether to curtsy or bow when our guests gave us a standing ovation and declared the dish the most clever and delicious thing they had ever had the pleasure of tasting.

Then, suddenly, it was forty-five minutes before party time and I hadn’t made my dish yet, three people had cancelled, and Kyle was stuck at work. I frantically sliced zucchini, rolled out and cut dough, and preheated the oven. I was still assembling my dish as guests started to arrive and I distractedly pulled it out of the oven as the first course was being served. By the time my turn came around to serve, my award-winning pizzette idea had made a spiral descent down the drain and turned out to be an oily, crispy mess. A mess that left me wishing that I had chosen a stronger beer to wash down my soggy burnt crust, instead of that light, crisp pilsner, served with a side of hubris.

I made some mistakes, and I am going to outline them here so you don’t have to make them yourself. Because the next day, I repurchased all my ingredients and made the whole dish over again to prove to myself that it would work. And it was good!

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So here are the don’ts of making miniature pizzas, besides the obvious ones (don’t wait until the last minute to test your recipe, don’t cook during your dinner party, don’t shut off your brain while entertaining in your kitchen).

  1. Don’t roll out your crust too thin. I used a thinner crust the first time, thinking that a thicker crust would swallow up or spit out the delicate toppings as it rose. On the remake, I cut out the pizza rounds from a thicker sheet of dough and it worked much better.
  2. Don’t forget that your pesto has oil in it. Don’t use too much oil when sauteing your zucchini. I used way too much oil overall in the first batch, and when I pulled the pan from the oven, the oil from the pesto and the zucchini had seeped out and formed a slick on the baking sheet.
  3. Don’t second guess browned edges. I checked on the pizzettes at one point and saw browned edges but the top of the dough still looked soft and wet, so I left them in the oven for a few more minutes. Big mistake. The pesto pizzettes turned into hockey puckettes very quickly.

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Lucky for me, we had a beautiful evening with great food and beers and excellent company. Hopefully the nightmare of the failed pizzettes haunted only me that night, as everyone else seemed to have a wonderful time. Here is a rundown of the courses we enjoyed at our fourth ever potluck vegetarian beer dinner:

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad with Crispin Cider – Liz and Alex from I Heart Vegetables – deliciously fresh and tart, with sweet dressing and two kinds of nuts for crunch, a great start to the meal.

Eggplant, Chickpea, and Potato Curry with Three Brothers The Great Outdoors – Sydney and Andrew from chic stripes – perfect as the sun started to set and the temperature began to drop, a dish with summer vegetables and fall spices to keep us warm, and a beer that reminds you of camping.

Cracklin’ Cauliflower with home brewed rye pale ale – Brittany and Isaac from Eating Bird Food – Brittany is right that this cauliflower is great at any temperature, and the flavor went really well with Isaac’s impressive home brew. I’ve made her recipe before, and it’s a keeper.

Due Stagioni Pizzettes (improved recipe below) with Victory Prima Pils – me and Kyle – thank goodness Kyle’s sense of humor and optimism pairs well with my high-strung perfectionism, so when the first attempt fell flat we could laugh it off and have another beer. . . then try again the next day!

Cauliflower “Cous Cous” Salad with Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Wild – Paul and Leah – I need to get this recipe and I’ll link to it here. We loved this pairing of a dish and a beer that both came with a twist – the “cous cous” is actually cauliflower and the beer is actually Lagunitas Little Sumpin’, with an additional wild yeast strain.

Skillet Apple Pie with Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout – Shannon and Evan from Thirsty Richmond and Boho Cycle Studio – so decadent, this apple pie was perfect, not an exaggeration, and it elevated my appreciation of this milk stout, as well as cast iron skillets. Oh, and blogger husbands, who are (in my humble opinion) the very best.

Deconstructed Apple Pie with Cider – Brock (Isaac’s brother) and Alex from Quarter Life Cupcake – I did not know that a vegan, gluten-free homemade dessert could be so good! I am officially a believer now.

And then the after-dinner bonus beers came out, including Goose Island Harvest Ale from Al (and poor Adrienne who had to stay home with a cold), Dogfish Head Tweasonale, The Alchemist Heady Topper, Goose Island Bourbon County, and more. Thank you to everyone who made this dinner special!

Due Stagioni Pesto Pizzettes

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Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces pizza dough, homemade or store bought, rolled out to 1/4 inch thick
  • medium zucchini, thinly sliced
  • 4 ounces mushrooms, sliced – both shiitakes and maitakes are good (maitake mushrooms are our favorite)
  • 1/4 cup basil pesto, homemade or store bought
  • Italian seasoning or herb/spice blend of your choice for the zucchini
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 3 ounces fresh (soft) asiago cheese, or mozzarella, grated

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil over medium heat in a medium pan. Add zucchini to pan and saute until tender, adding seasoning to taste halfway through cooking. Remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil over medium-high heat in medium pan. Sprinkle the oil with 1/2 tsp black pepper. Add mushrooms to pan and saute until tender, then remove from heat.
  4. Using a 2-1/2 inch round cookie cutter, punch circles in the rolled out pizza dough and transfer to baking sheet. This should yield about 12-15 pizza round.
  5. Top each pizza round with pesto, dividing evenly among all rounds. Place two zucchini slices on one half of each round, and a spoonful of mushrooms on the other half. Top with grated cheese.
  6. Bake in preheated oven 10-12 minutes until edges begin to brown – then remove immediately!
  7. Can be reheated from refrigerated in 350 degree oven for 4-5 minutes if needed.
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Asian Pear Pizza with Blue Goat Cheese, Caramelized Onions and Walnut Pesto

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We picked up some Asian pears from Saunders Brothers Orchard at the farmers’ market this weekend.

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We also picked up a very fancy grape leaf wrapped ripened Chesapeake Blue goat cheese from Sullivan’s Pond Farm.

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With a little help from Serious Eats to perfect my onion caramelization method, and a batch of my basil pesto with just a few ingredient adjustments, we were in business.

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Nutty, earthy pesto made with Victory Farms basil. Crisp, slightly sweet pears from Saunders Brothers. Caramelized red onion from Walnut Hill Farm. Tangy blue goat cheese from Sullivan’s Pond Farm. It was a locavore’s late summer feast!

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I served this alongside a simple salad of fresh arugula with dried cherries, walnuts, and a berry walnut vinaigrette. Fresh cherries would be perfect this time of year too. There are a few steps to get the components just right, but this pizza is worth the extra effort. It looks impressive but is easy to make; it works on a weeknight family dinner or for company on the weekend.

Asian Pear Pizza with Blue Goat Cheese, Caramelized Onions and Walnut Pesto

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Ingredients:

  • 1 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup fresh basil
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint
  • 1/4 cup walnut halves or pieces
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
  • 1 recipe pizza dough, store bought or homemade (great recipe here)
  • 5 small Asian pears (or 3 large), thinly sliced
  • 2 oz. blue cheese (I used goat cheese but any kind will do)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil over low-medium heat in a medium pan. Caramelize the red onions according to instructions here: How to Caramelize Onions.
  2. While the onions are cooking, make the pesto. In a food processor, combine basil, mint, walnuts, garlic, and 1/4 cup olive oil. Process until smooth. Add salt to taste.
  3. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add sliced Asian pears and cook for 5 minutes, then drain and set aside to dry.
  4. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  5. Roll out the pizza dough on a baking sheet or pizza pan. Top with pesto, sliced pears, and caramelized onions. Crumble the blue cheese over top.
  6. Bake in preheated oven for 8-10 minutes. Season with fresh ground black pepper.

Crabtree Falls Hike

This weekend, Kyle and I completed a hike that we had been meaning to do for a long time. When we first started hiking, we were quickly made aware of a few really popular Virginia hikes and we put them on our list. Over the last two years, we have hiked several trails in Virginia and North Carolina, yet we hadn’t made it to some of the most popular spots yet. It seems like every time I tell someone that we are into hiking, that person asks me, “have you hiked Crabtree Falls?” Until Saturday, the answer was No. And that was starting to get a little embarrassing. So we went for it.

We didn’t feel like making a 5-hour round-trip journey in one day, so we made a weekend of it. We drove out to Charlottesville on Friday evening, checked into a hotel, and had a tasty Italian dinner at a cozy spot called Fellini’s #9. We had been there before for the Bloody Mary bar at brunch, but we had never visited for dinner. The pasta was fresh, the focaccia was warm and garlicky, and pianist Bob Bennetta was fantastic. We retired to our hotel then got up for a Whole Foods breakfast before hitting the road.

Crabtree Falls is a little over an hour long drive from Charlottesville. We arrived at the $3 parking lot, layered up, and threw on our packs for a brisk hike up the falls. One of the reasons this hike is unique is that you hike up and back. Many of the waterfall hikes that we have done in Virginia have been a hike down the falls, followed by a strenuous hike back up to your car. It’s usually a nice easy stroll down to the reward, then you pay for it on the way back, as the sun gets higher in the sky and muscle fatigue starts to set in. That buy now, pay later situation is a bittersweet way to enjoy the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Several warning signs dotted the trail up the falls. I read somewhere that over 25 people have fallen to their deaths after venturing off the trail and onto the slick, algae-covered rocks. Observation decks along the well-maintained trail offer photo opportunities such that you shouldn’t need to put yourself in danger to get a closer look. A beautiful feature of this hike is that there are great views of the falls all along the way. There are some switchbacks that take you away from the falls, but you only stray so far from them that the sound of rushing water becomes barely audible, and then you double back to another breathtaking view.

The trail itself is very rocky, although there are stairs and railings in several places. It had rained the day before so we encountered icy mud in some spots for an added challenge. There is a good mix of rocks, ground vegetation like ferns and moss, and deciduous trees to make for an interesting landscape even at the end of winter, when most everything is dead. I am sure that with all the moisture in this area, the trail becomes even more lush and beautiful at the end of Spring. However the absence of leaves on the trees made for gorgeous views of the 1000+ foot falls all along the way. We could see exactly how far we had been and how far we had left to go, so we paced ourselves and had a little fun along the way.

It is 1.7 miles to the top of the falls, and of course some of the best shots are along the way. We were rewarded with the picturesque scene below just before we hiked the final stretch.

At the top of the falls, we found the final milepost right before we came to a large, flat area with benches, an observation deck, and a retaining wall. We stretched, rested and had a snack while we took in the cool mountain air.

It must have been at least ten degrees cooler up there. We were damp with sweat and enveloped in an endorphin high, and we laughed at how I was shedding layers while I could see my breath. After resting for about ten minutes, I re-laced my shoes for the descent (and replaced a layer or two) and we hiked back down to the car. After another few stretches, we hopped back in the car and drove to Afton for our favorite post-hike ritual: pizza and beer!

Blue Mountain Brewery is one of our favorite stops in Afton. There are so many great places to visit and beautiful sights to see in that corner of Central Virginia. I am so excited to get married this year in the area we love so much! I am still trying to figure out how to incorporate BMB into our wedding weekend. We know we’ll be serving their beer at our wedding; we just have to figure out how to squeeze a visit there too.

As we contemplated this and other things, I caught two waving hands out of the corner of my eye. Of course as I am sitting at the brewery restaurant, looking a hot mess of disaster with my makeup-free face, a sweaty topknot on my head, and muddy workout gear on from head to toe, I ran into some Richmond friends! It turned out that Brittany and Isaac from Eating Bird Food had the same idea and were chowing down at BMB at the exact same time as us. Small world, right?

After a tasty Evan Altmighty, a refreshingly hoppy Blue Reserve, and a huge veggie pizza, we hit the road again. Kyle and I tumbled inside the door just minutes before his friends showed up for a guys’ night. Then Kyle got a taste of what hosting guys’ night might look like for a married man. Beers on the back porch as Lauren hides in the office, reading a book. Revelry with the boys in the living room, as wifey hangs out in the kitchen, trying to stay out of sight while stirring a big pot of chili. As much as I tried to remain unnoticed so as not to spoil his fun, when dinner was ready the party moved to the kitchen. If you build it, they will come.

And that is how I crashed guys’ night. With free chili. Not a bad deal, right?

And so we sat after the last guest had said goodbye, snuggled up on the couch with a shared bowl of three bean chili. Tranquility had been restored to the homestead. Perfect end to a beautiful day.

Motorino, Manhattan, NYC

As you may already know, Kyle and I are on vacation in New York City. We arrived on Monday afternoon and met up with our friend Melissa for dinner that evening. Her first suggestion was Motorino, a pizza place in the lower east side. After some discussion of alternative options, we all decided that Motorino was a great choice. We arrived at the small restaurant around 7:30 and were told that it would be a ten minute wait.  No problem, we walked around the block. When we returned the host came outside and told us this:

“I hate to do this because it’s really rude but I have a table available now for you but I would need it back around 8:15. Or you can wait another ten to fifteen minutes and take your time.” We must have looked at him quizzically because he immediately began to explain.

“We have a celebrity coming in and I need your table for their party at 8:15.” We looked at our watches and looked at each other. It was almost 7:45. I thought about how we had been traveling all day and were looking forward to catching up with a good friend over a bottle of wine and a Neapolitan pizza. Now I don’t have anything against 30 minute meals, when I’m cooking them in my own kitchen out of a Rachael Ray cookbook, but on this night I just wasn’t in the mood. I suggested that we wait for the next table and take our time.

Motorino makes Neapolitan style pizza in the gorgeous oven pictured above. They have a good beer and wine list, and they offer a “perfect pizza wine” which is a sparkling red blend that we really enjoyed. I don’t know about how well this wine pairs with pizza; it didn’t seem like an earth shattering life changing combination. However it was delicious, and perfect for a warm summer evening.

We ordered three pizzas and shared them all. I loved the Margherita, which was topped with a tasty tomato sauce, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella. The crust was crispy and doughy all at once with a delicious char from the oven. As we dug in, we were joined by the celebrities of the evening. That’s right, there were more than one. Kyle played it really cool.

Melissa and I struggled to be cool too. We covertly took pictures.

We finished our meal as their pizzas were coming out. We didn’t want to leave them behind. We ordered tiramisu and another bottle of wine. It wasn’t hard to eavesdrop because although we were in a crowded restaurant, we could hear the woman of the hour loud and clear through the whole meal. For a tiny lady, she’s got a big mouth!

When we paid the check, they were finishing up. Guy Fieri left first, followed by a gaggle of guidos. Then the rest of the guests at the table of ten stood up and started to walk out. As soon as they left, we bolted out the door. See, I didn’t want to interrupt her meal but I was eager to say hi. Blame the second bottle of “perfect pizza wine” – I walked right up to her and said “Rachael! Hey Rachael, can I get a picture please?” She whipped around with a big smile on her face and said,

“Yeah, sure. Why not? Hey guys, how’s it going?” I shoved the camera in Kyle’s hands and leaned in to pose, afraid that the moment might pass if we didn’t seize it immediately. Then Rachel Ray laughed and said, “How great is that? You didn’t even ask him to take the picture, you were just like, ‘take this’ and he did it! What a guy, huh?”

 

What a guy indeed. I’m having the time of my life with my very best friend in the city that never sleeps, and I hope it never ends!

Not Your Mother’s Pizza Crust

Lately I’ve been telling you all about where we’ve been traveling, and I thought I’d show you what we’ve been cooking since we got home from vacation.

We have had a ton of rain so far this month, with precious few warm and sunny days. This past weekend, I experienced the first night yet this year that was my idea of optimal porch weather. I took advantage of the warm evening by cooking some delicious black-eyed pea burgers to serve al fresco on the balcony.

The birds chirped, the neighbors strolled by on their evening walks, and Kyle and I relaxed in our deck chairs with a couple of cold beers, feasting on black-eyed pea burgers and toasted Israeli couscous salad with roasted vegetables, while eavesdropping on strolling neighbors’ conversations.

Oh, come on. Don’t act like you’ve never done that before.

The advent of the work week brought gray thunderclouds and stifling humidity, followed by afternoon downpours. It’s been a rough start to the week, as is the case with most weeks, and I usually find that I hit my stride in the office around Wednesday. Maybe it’s the great mood that Glee puts me in on Tuesday nights, or maybe by Wednesday I’ve stopped mourning the loss of the weekend and I’ve started to look forward to Friday and Saturday. As I find my groove with work, my cooking becomes less ambitious and more focused on survival than on culinary finesse. Such was the case with tonight’s creation, pizza with brown rice crust.

I use the title “not your mother’s pizza crust” in jest, because while my mom (and probably your mom) offered a bubbly white flour crust on pizza night, Kyle’s mom always had brown rice pizza crusts in the freezer. She cut gluten from her diet for a while and fell in love with frozen brown rice pizza crusts. I tried them once, and they were okay. I wasn’t a huge fan of the brand that she bought, but I have always been intrigued by the idea.

So when my work day shifted 30 minutes later due to a morning cake baking disaster, and a long phone conversation and a multitude of errands caused me to arrive home at 7:58 PM tonight, I gave up on making whole wheat pizza crust from scratch and thought instead about attempting brown rice pizza crust in order to save time. Glee was starting in two minutes, people!

Let me tell you, this crust was fantastic. It’s not like normal pizza crust, and a fork and knife are required, but this was a great departure from the norm for us, and I highly recommend that you give it a try. The bottom of the crust gets nice and crispy, while the top remains soft but toasted. It’s ovo-lacto-vegetarian friendly (not vegan) and gluten-free and it is an excellent way to use up leftover brown rice. While it may not be your mother’s pizza crust, it bears a close resemblance to Kyle’s mother’s pizza crust (which is reason enough to try it), and it just might be your new favorite.

Brown Rice Pizza Crust


Ingredients:

  • 3 cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 egg plus 1 egg white
  • 1/4 cup shredded mozzarella or Italian-blend cheese
  • Pizza toppings

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Beat the egg and the egg white together in a medium sized bowl.
  3. Add the brown rice and the cheese to the bowl. Stir to combine.
  4. Spread the “dough” out onto an oiled 12-inch round baking sheet.
  5. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes, then remove from oven.
  6. Add desired toppings (I used pizza sauce, roasted vegetables, freshly ground black pepper and crumbled goat cheese) and bake for another 8-10 minutes.

If you try out the recipe, let me know how it works out for you. It made me a believer in brown rice crust, but it’s not for everyone, so I’m interested in your take on it.

Escarole

To celebrate my POM Wonderful dinner party, I am serving up a week’s worth of pomegranate recipes starting Monday, November 15th. Before I get POM’ed out, I want to share a first-time recipe from earlier this month.

I picked up this escarole at the SOTJ Market a couple weeks ago. I had seen something on TV about escarole as a traditional Sicilian dish, so when I saw the bright green leaves at the Victory Farms stall, I had to try it for myself. When Kyle and I were lured in (again!) by the Bombolini Pasta stall, I started thinking about serving the escarole alongside a pasta dish or incorporated into a one-pot pasta meal. However, inspiration struck when I least expected it: a weeknight on which I had planned a very involved dinner and I had not planned to work two hours late.

When I burst through the door of my apartment just after 7:00 and kicked my peep-toe heels under the coffee table, I knew that a cooking marathon was not about to happen. I HATE it when this happens because we usually end up ordering greasy subs packed with sautéed vegetables, delicious oily dressing, and melted mozzarella from the Italian place around the corner, or picking up white paper takeout containers stuffed with vegetable fried rice or mock beef and broccoli, dripping with spicy brown sauce. And while the local takeout options are delicious, I always feel like I have failed to put a nutritious meal on the table. I also wonder if the thick slices of sautéed zucchini or the chunky broccoli florets dripping in oil even count as a vegetable serving once you factor in all the fat and sodium they are swimming in. 😦

With limited time and a random assortment of ingredients, I made it my mission to make this night different than the others. On this night, we got plenty of greens. We enjoyed the last of the season’s local heirloom tomatoes. We got the satisfaction of a home-cooked meal with almost the convenience of takeout pizza. I present to you…

Pesto Pizza with Escarole and Heirloom Tomatoes

Because this was just thrown together, the measurements are not exact. Here is a rough outline of the process; you may adjust it to your tastes.

Start with a bunch of fresh escarole. This stuff can get pretty gritty, so make sure you wash it thoroughly by submerging the leaves in a bowl of cold water and shaking the leaves to get the grit out. Remove them from the water and rinse under the tap. Pat dry or use a salad spinner (I need one of those!) to remove excess water. Do a rough chop on the escarole before cooking.

I have found that this process can be made a lot easier by using a cutting board with a built-in colander. See the colander in the corner of the photo?

Next I started a pot of boiling water on the stove. I added a pinch of coarse salt and then threw in the chopped escarole when the water reached a rolling boil. After 8-10 minutes, I poured the escarole and water over a colander and squeezed the water out with a spoon.

Because the escarole was still really watery and that would make for a soggy pizza, I squeezed it between some paper towels, like you would do with frozen chopped spinach.

To make the pizza, start with your favorite pizza dough recipe. I use the Martha White Pizza Crust Mix packets from the grocery store that are just add water and olive oil. They are fool proof which is great because I have a fear of yeast that I haven’t quite conquered yet.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees while you assemble your toppings. Top the pizza with fresh pesto. You can use the store-bought stuff, but the homemade pesto I made this summer is absolutely divine and freezes well for use year-round. I have included a link to the recipe at the end of this post.

On top of the pesto, add mozzarella cheese, escarole, sliced heirloom tomatoes, and the Italian seasoning of your choice. Mine was oregano, basil, garlic powder, and crushed red pepper. Finish with freshly grated parmesan cheese. I used aged parmesan and it was excellent.

Bake in the preheated oven for 10-12 minutes or until cheese is bubbly.

Buon appetito!

Homemade Pesto

I use the recipe posted here on Savory Sweet Life. This summer, I made a huge batch and then dropped portions of 2 tablespoons each on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. Then I froze it overnight and rolled up the wax paper with the pesto blobs and sealed it in a plastic freezer bag. Every time I want “fresh” pesto, I pop a blob or two off of the wax paper. It is so much better than any store-bought pesto I have ever tried!

Now I am off to package pomegranate arils for freezing and portion some out for my coworkers. I’ll start rolling out the POM party recipes tomorrow, so if you ever find yourself in the situation that I was in (proud owner of 36 pomegranates), you’ll know what to do!

18 Hours in Charlottesville

This Friday evening I traveled to Charlottesville for some good food and a great hike in the beautiful surroundings of Autumn in Central Virginia. Kyle and I soaked up the beautiful weather while visiting family and we made some great stops along the way.

I met Kyle in Charlottesville, just over an hour’s drive from Richmond. On Friday night, we visited with family members and then grabbed a bite to eat at our favorite pizza place in Virginia. Our Cville adventure started around 7:00 PM with cold beers and hot pizza.

The Mellow Mushroom (website)

We had a medium Mega Veggie pizza to share. The piping hot pie was loaded with delicious veggies and it was perfect as the night was getting colder. I had waited too long for dinner and was starving for that perfect crispy-doughy crust. And their pizza sauce is unbelievable; the combination of crust and sauce is what makes this pizza special.

We washed it all down with a few cold beers, including a new one that we had not seen before: Midnight Project #3, Oxymoron. The Midnight Projects are a series of collaboration beers created by Terrapin (GA) and Left Hand Brewing (CO). As the third installment in the series, Oxymoron was a highly anticipated beer that made its debut this Fall. Kyle and I were BIG fans of Midnight Project #2, Depth Charge, which was an espresso milk stout that was released in the Fall of 2009. Oxymoron is an India Pale Lager, which appealed to us because Kyle is really into IPAs and I love a good lager. It was very interesting and I think we will try it again when we are more focused on tasting beer and less focused on tasting pizza.

The service was excellent from the hostess and the wait staff. At the end of our meal, the owner/manager stopped by our table to make sure we were having a good time. We were very impressed that he stopped to check on us, especially on a busy Friday night. The Mellow Mushroom, as usual, did not disappoint these hungry travelers. It remains one of our favorite places to visit while in Charlottesville.

Humpback Rocks

On Saturday morning, we got up bright and early to make the 30 minute drive to Afton and hike up to the Humpback Rocks Overlook. We did a longer version of the same hike 6 months ago, and this time we just climbed up and right back down because we were pressed for time. It was about a 1.5 hour hike that we completed while the sun was rising over the mountain. I had to stop to catch my breath several times on the ascent, but the view from the top was worth the climb.

The views were spectacular and we wanted to stay all day at the top of those rocks. But our stomachs were growling and we had a tight schedule so we had to hike back down. On our endorphin highs, Kyle and I brainstormed how we could fit more hiking into our schedules. I hope we get at least one more good one in while the leaves are still changing.

We got back to our hotel with 25 minutes to shower, pack, and check out of the room. I made it out with wet hair, a crumpled mess of clothing stuffed into my overnight bag, and a fistful of cosmetic products in my hand to hide my dark circles during the car ride back to downtown. Kyle drove towards UVA with the single goal of calorie replacement.

Boylan Heights (website)

We had been meaning to visit this “gourmet burger bar” at the Corner in Charlottesville for awhile. Our timing was perfect as we ducked in for an early lunch. The place filled up with students in the hour that we were there; the crowd grew from two tables to twenty and we were glad we got out orders in when we did.

I must have had 40 ounces of water while we were there because I was so thirsty after our hike. We both ordered veggie burgers, and the patties were unlike any others I’ve ever had. They were homemade patties formed from a mixture of quinoa, black beans, and fresh vegetables and then deep fried so that the outside was crispy while the inside was soft.

The taste of the burger was great, and my only complaint was the consistency. It fell apart while I ate it, and I think the burger could be made better by either the addition of lentils or more mashed beans to the mix, or a reduction in the size of the veggie pieces. The recipe includes white beans but they don’t stick the patty together very well. I just like my burger to stay on my bun while I’m eating it. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t eat every last errant crumb with my fork after the bun was history. I was not crazy about the fries on the side, but I will be back for that burger again. I even caught myself daydreaming about it earlier today.

Another note on Boylan Heights: I really liked the concept of the restaurant and the prep-school theme was integrated throughout the experience in a creative way. I was also impressed by the branding, which was done very well with a clean and academic looking logo emblazoned on every inch of the restaurant space, from the menus to the napkin dispensers to the toothpicks that poked out of the tops of our burger buns. The folks at Boylan Heights know a lot about burgers, but they also know a thing or two about marketing, which helps them stand out.

Home Sweet Home

After about 18 hours in Charlottesville, we drove back home to get some other weekend chore stuff out of the way. Again we took advantage of the beautiful weather and walked to dinner in the Fan. The excitement of our quick trip woke up the travel bug in us and caused us to talk about vacations, school, our careers, and the future. It was a great conversation and as we walked the streets of our own beautiful neighborhood, we reminisced about exploring Richmond when it was new to me (Kyle grew up here), and we dreamed about exploring other cities too. Although after a healthy meal and a stroll back home, with the comforting smell of freshly baked cookies wafting over from our tiny oven in our little apartment kitchen, in that moment we were happy to be right where we are.