I arrived at my friend Kristin's house on Saturday evening to find a large, gorgeous, and abundantly fragrant basil plant on the kitchen table. Not having the resources to shop with any frequency these days, I hadn't considered stopping at my favorite money-sucking nursery - and I say that in the nicest possible way - to see what was on offer - it is only March, after all. But Kristin's daughter had requested pansies for her playhouse windowboxes, and therefore, Kristin had scouted the nascent growing-season nursery scene for me.
Kristin's plant was in a half-gallon pot, and cost her six dollars. I thought, "even a financially embarrassed person such as myself can swing six bucks for fresh basil in March!" Ok, well, the thought was perhaps a bit more coarse than that and probably involved a cuss word or two, but you get the idea. And so JR and I took a ride to the Nursery of the Early Basil yesterday morning. Alas, they were fresh out of half-gallon pots of basil, but not to fear - I found a smaller pot, still perfectly adequate for early spring use, and it cost a mere $3.95. This, my friends, is a small price to pay for fresh basil when the daffodils have yet to bloom. If you were to purchase packaged basil at the grocery store, it can cost anywhere from $1.99 for a small pack, to $3.95 for a large container. So for the same price as a large container of basil - portions of which would be destined to grow frowzy in the refrigerator while awaiting use - I have a pot of basil that I can use now, and that I can plant in the garden at the end of May. Even if you don't have space for a garden, herbs can easily be transplanted to a larger pot and placed in a sunny indoor spot or on your balcony for summer use. Just think of the savings (she says, truly enthusiastic at the prospect).
To celebrate the flavor of fresh basil, I made a Pizza Margherita - pizza with tomato, basil, and fresh mozzarella - for lunch yesterday using a dough recipe from Sur la Table's Things Cooks Love. The recipe yields enough for two 12-inch thin-crust pies, and also yields many WOWs from people like JR and me. Totally worth the effort, and would make a good rainy day activity with the kids.
Pizza dough, adapted from Sur la Table's Things Cooks Love:
1 cup lukewarm water, 110 to 115 degrees
1 teaspoon yeast
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup tipo "00" Italian flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup coarsely ground corn meal for dusting pizza stone, baking sheet, or pizza pan
In a large mixing bowl, combine the lukewarm water and the yeast. Be careful that the water is in the 110 to 115 degrees range lest excessive heat kill the yeast. Allow the water and yeast to stand for five minutes, until the yeast is dissolved. If the yeast is not dissolved after 5 minutes, stir to assist the dissolving.
Mix the flours and kosher salt in a bowl and then add to the water and yeast mixture. Mix on low speed until a dough forms, 1 to 2 minutes. Knead on a well-floured countertop for 8 to 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth. When you first start to knead the dough, it will be very firm and stiff. Do not let this discourage you - your very own upper body strength will prevail and a smooth dough shall materialize. Or you can continue to use the machine to knead the dough to a smooth consistency, whichever you prefer.
Transfer the dough to a greased bowl, cover with a clean dishtowel or plastic wrap, place in a warm, draft-free location, and let rise until doubled in bulk, approximately 1 1/2 hours.
Once the dough has doubled in bulk, divide in half using a dough scraper or large, sharp knife. Gently press out any air bubbles that have formed, and shape each half into a smooth ball. Place on a lightly floured countertop or baking sheet, cover once more with that still-clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and allow to rise for one hour, or until doubled in bulk once again.
Forty-five minutes before the pizza is to be baked, place a pizza stone, baking sheet, or a cast-iron pizza pan into the oven, and preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
Generously dust a rimless baking sheet - or pizza peel if you are so lucky as to have one - with flour. Place one of the dough balls in the center of the pan, and carefully stretch out the dough to 12 inches or so, leaving an edge that is approximately 1/4-inch thick around the perimeter. I found that stretching from the center worked best, though I did make my best attempt at knuckle-stretching the dough off of the baking sheet as though I was a pizzeria professional - without tossing it in the air, however. Alas, I am not a pizzeria professional, and so, that method was slightly more difficult than the center-stretching option. If you do happen to make a small tear in the dough as you stretch it, you can usually seal that wound up by pinching the edges of the tear back over themselves. Just be careful as you continue to work the dough in that area so as to not reopen the gash.
Dress the pizza as you see fit. In the case of the Pizza Margherita made at my house, this is what I used per each pizza (so you will need this multiplied by two for two Pizza Margheritas):
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup tomato sauce
1/2 of a ball of fresh mozzarella weighing 3/4 pound - cut into (4) 1/4-inch slices which were then cut in half
8 basil leaves, washed
Spread the teaspoon of oil over all but the edge of the pizza. Slather the tomato sauce over the pie, leaving the edge free of sauce. Arrange the 8 pieces of mozzarella over the top of the tomato sauce, and then begin the task of transferring the pizza onto the preheated pizza stone, baking sheet, or cast-iron pan. Just prior to placing the pizza on the baking surface, spread the 1/4 cup of corn meal over an area roughly as large as the pie you are about to bake. For the pizza transfer, I used a large spatula and JR's assistance in holding the rimless baking sheet to move the pie to the preheated pie pan. If you are using a peel, you should be able to gently and gradually shake the pie off of the peel onto your preheated baking implement. Seal up the oven and let bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the crust is crisp and lightly browned. Remove from the oven - it will be easier getting it out than it was getting it in now that it is crispy - place a fresh basil leaf in the center of each piece of melted mozzarella, and salt and pepper to taste. Now allow it to rest for 5 minutes prior to cutting into it so that you can avoid a slippery, gooey mozzarella mess.
While the first pie cooks, construct the second pie, and repeat the whole sliding into the oven process once more. If you'd like, you can wait to serve both pies at once, but why make your family wait when they can start bestowing pizza pie superlatives upon you even before the second pie emerges from the oven? Why?
This was so well worth all that effort and all that gentle, careful stretching and transferring, that I am already plotting out a breakfast pizza for next weekend. Makes my mouth water, the thought of it does. Yours too? Yes. I thought so.
Dinner tonight: Roasted Chicken with Beets and Beet Greens. Estimated cost for two: $6.55. The chicken is from my local poultry farm, and cost $4.99. We will eat no more than half of it tonight, and JR will be the happy recipient of leftover chicken in his lunch for a couple of days. The beets cost $2.50 for the beet roots and greens. I will use around 67-cents in olive oil for both, plus the juice and zest of one 88-cent orange for the roasted roots. There will be leftover beets and greens, but I'll err on the side of rounding up and count them in their entirety.