Shh.… can you hear it?
Wasn’t there a poet that said “unheard melodies are sweetest”? That’s what I’m hearing today, out on my terrace, dappled in mid-afternoon sunshine, a goldfinch on the distant birdfeeder, the hydrangea finally in bloom. Unheard melodies. It’s perfectly quiet. For once, this entire summer, there is nothing happening.
To be sure, this morning the air rang with the sound of Avery, Kate and neighbor Taylor’s laughing as they jumped on the trampoline (someone has taught Kate to say “boing” but no one is owning up to it). And even earlier in the day you could have heard John and me apologizing for bad tennis shots, at the court next to the pool. But right now… silence.
Actually, mostly what you hear at the tennis court are the unceasing accusations of “Leo, that was so LONG,” and “You idiot, it’s not 30/30, it’s 40/40, what are you, blind?” from the foursome we have come to call The Grumpy Old Men. Four men in their 80s, in varying stages of decrepitude, but all sharing an unerring…
Be honest: how many times have you ordered a pizza and when it comes, and you’re eating it, you think, “This tastes like nothing.” Then you start to think that you paid, what, 8 pounds for it, 15 or so pounds if you got two, and it tastes like… nothing. Plus you have to get rid of those boxes. The whole scenario is annoying. And the only reason you did it was to save time because you got home late from the stable or the skating rink and it was all you could think of. Well, that can be history. All you have to do is invest a little bit of time and a little bit of kneading, and a really fabulous pizza is in your future. Trust me: if you hate to cook, have scrambled eggs, but if you like to cook at ALL, don’t order another pizza, just do this:
Pizza at Home
(serves four today and four later in the week)
4 cups “strong flour”, like Hovis, plus more for dusting
2 cups-ish warm water
1 sachet powdered yeast (Hovis fast action is good)
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp dried thyme leaves
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp sea salt
olive oil for brushing
Veggies: thin-sliced red peppers, red onions, tomatoes
Cheeses: shredded commercial mozzarella, sliced fresh mozzarella, goats cheese
Meats: prosciutto, parma ham, salami, sausage
Sauces: fresh pesto, tomato sauce, harissa
Don’t be shy. I was shy about getting my hands messy, but it was fine in the end. Of course, I was with my intrepid cooking friend Vincent when I made my maiden dough voyage, but you can do it too. Just pretend that someone brave is standing beside you to guide you through the uncharted waters. Take off all your rings, bracelets and watch, wash your hands thoroughly, and go.
Pour the flour into a large bowl. With a whisk, mix the yeast and sugar into the warm water (the temperature should be like that of a baby’s bottle of milk). Let the water and yeast sit for a bit while you find your herbs and scatter them onto the flour. Now begin to mix the herbs into the flour, add the salt, and the water should be ready: a bit bubbly on top. Pour yourself a little mound of extra flour on a VERY clean countertop (I don’t have a pastry insert, but some lucky people do). Pour about half your water onto the flour and DIG IN. Mix it with your hands in a sort of scooping, rolling motion. It will stick to your hands like crazy, but don’t fret. It will come off. Add more water and keep mixing until the dough is elastic-feeling and sticky, but not liquidy. If you add too much water, don’t worry: add more flour. As Vincent says, “It’s its own thing, you can’t hurt it.” Gradually the ball will pick up most of the bits inside the bowl and then you know you’re done mixing. Does that make sense? It’s easier to do than to describe, I’m finding!
When the dough is a nice sticky ball in the bowl, cover it with a clean dishtowel and leave it for about an hour and a half. All you have to do to get your hands clean is to dust them with lots of flour and rub them together: the dough gets dry and falls off, very neatly.
The dough should just about double in bulk. Then give it a few nice whacks with your fist and turn it out onto your very clean, flour-covered countertop. You should have enough for two pizzas, so cut the dough in half and wrap one of them in plastic wrap to save in the fridge for the next time (this dough will stay nice and fresh for at least three days). Knead the dough, dusting with flour all the time, turning the edges under and turning the ball around so you’re constantly turning under a new edge. Knead for about 10 minutes.
With a flour-covered rolling pin, roll out the dough into the shape of your pizza pan (I used a nice perforated-bottomed round pizza pan, but you can use anything, even a cookie sheet). Remember to keep flouring the countertop so the dough does not stick.
Spread the dough out onto the pan. With a pastry brush, brush olive oil over the whole surface.
Now you can top your pizza. Start with the sauce, whichever you choose (or all!). Then layer the vegetables over the sauce. Avery intelligently pointed out that the onions should be under everything else, so they don’t just frizzle and get black, since they’re not very liquidy. Add whatever meats you like (or all! or none), and finish with cheese. Bake in a hot oven (400-ish) for about 25 minutes, or until the cheeses are nice and bubbly. Voila.
I guarantee you that this pizza will be more savory, more fresh, and more nutritious than anything you could bring in. Plus cheaper, and your kitchen will smell cozy and inviting. And if I can do it, anyone can. I never bake, and I can tell you that I had to buy a new pastry brush, and a rolling pin, just for the purpose of making this pizza. And I’m glad I did. Thank you, dear Vincent, for making it so easy and tempting to do on my own. I have to say, a silicone pastry brush is a dandy little item to have in your kitchen: it comes perfectly, elegantly clean every time. I’m sure in no time I’ll be glazing every flat surface in my home with egg white, but for now, olive oil on pizza crust is quite enough.
If you don’t want to go to the admitted bit of effort that a pizza takes, how about a nice shoulder of pork? So inexpensive and so delicious. And effort-free, nearly. And the cooking aromas will bring everyone in your house into the kitchen, asking, “When do we eat?” Last night Avery was curled up in the chair in the kitchen, book in hand, and said, “Gosh, it’s cozy in here.”
Roast Shoulder of Pork with Rosemary and Garlic
1 shoulder of pork, rolled and tied
four stems fresh rosemary, leaves removed and chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp sea salt
several grinds of fresh black pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
Mix all the marinade ingredients and smear (awful word) over the shoulder of pork. Place in a baking dish sprayed with nonstick spray. Roast at 350 degrees for at least two hours (if you turn the oven down lower it can roast even longer). Couldn’t be easier, and the meat is simply divine: tender, juicy, salty.
If you can get pea sprouts where you live, DO. I’m not 100% sure why they are called pea sprouts, when they look like nothing so much as little spinach leaves. But Marks and Spencer say they’re pea sprouts, and ever since I had them at E&O in Notting Hill, I have been devoted to them. You need a LOT to feed even three people, because like all green leaves, they cook down instantly into almost nothing. So count on a package per person, at least. They are so good for you, too.
Asian Wilted Pea Sprouts
4 packages pea sprouts (about 8 cups, loosely packed), washed and spun dry
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp mirin (Japanese rice wine)
juice of 1 lime
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
In a large skillet, place all the sauce ingredients and simmer until garlic is nicely softened. Pile all the greens into the skillet and hold over low heat, lifting the greens with tongs until all have been coated with the sauce. The leaves will gradually wilt down to a fraction of their volume. So simple, so delicious. The stems have a little crunch and the leaves are silky and refreshing.
All right, we’re off to make a little tour of the neighborhood that encloses our latest house possibility. It’s a former vicarage, so the estate agents say, just below Hammersmith Road. Not a location to make you sit up and sing, perhaps, and the house is so ridiculously over-priced that it makes you wonder if anything the estate agents say can possibly true. Maybe it’s not a vicarage at all; maybe it’s the former headquarters of MI6. We are getting seriously fatigued by the house hunt. Even John, who previous to this excursion could have, I would say, looked at houses infinitely, is tired of the search. We have just two weeks before we leave for the summer in Connecticut and something deep within me would like to have a house before we go. Wish us luck…