Casual summer meals…al fresco!
Ever get a hankering for some good old fashioned authentic hot Italian sausage with pasta or topping a pizza, but not a traditional Italian market to be found to fulfill your cravings? Why not make it yourself!
There is no mystery to making Italian sausage forcemeat, and sparing yourself the tedium of having to stuff the meat into casings in the process, which you would be removing from purchased sausages anyway, makes it all the easier. The other alternative is to roll the sausage mixture into meatballs.
The recipe that follows is remarkably quick to prepare and makes enough for several meals. Simply divide extra uncooked sausage forcemeat or meatballs into appropriate portions for your next couple of meals and freeze.
A simple basic red sauce recipe is included that, used in tandem with the sausage, will produce a stellar Italian meal in about an hour and is sure to satisfy even the most seasoned Italian sausage aficionados.
I recently had a Pizza Night party for a friend departing for the island life which turned out to be great fun with everyone getting into the act in the kitchen; stretching pizza rounds, topping the pizzas, and baking with amazing efficiency and some spectacular results!
Of course, in the home kitchen, churning out pizzas is limited to baking one pizza at a time, unless you happen to have your own wood fired brick oven, so the party took on a very different format than the usual sit down supper. But with ample wine on hand and a continuous flow of stellar pizzas coming out of the oven throughout the evening made the party a roaring success.
With a detailed plan, what might seem to be an insurmountable undertaking is transformed into a relaxed and incredibly fun casual evening that everyone can join in on and add their personalized spin to pizzas with attitude!
The key to success is careful planning and timing! Research your recipes, create a menu, compile a shopping list, set up a preparation schedule, a timetable for pr-perpetration , a cooking schedule leading up to your guest’s arrival, and having everything ready to turn out pizzas throughout the evening as though there was nothing to it!
Of course not everyone is familiar with pizza making so it’s best you be the director of this production! Enlisting a willing “sous chef” from your guests for various tasks will make all the difference and avert chaos and confusion in the process. Stretching pizza dough and getting the pizza into the oven does take some know how, so either do it yourself, or enlist your “sous chef” who may have had some experience in stretching and baking pizzas to help you out. With that covered you are pretty much home free. Topping the pizzas is easy enough to let everyone try their hand at it, with success nearly assured.
The following is a PIZZA NIGHT party scheme, inspired by a peruse through Nancy Silverton’s Mozza Cookbook, which I encourage you to reference for recipes. Included is a walk through of every step involved in putting a Pizza Night party together from your own kitchen and being ready to bake pizzas on demand with the confidence of a pro.
PIZZA NIGHT: makes 8-10 pizzas for a party of 12
Bagna Cauda with assorted vegetables and crostoni
all pizzas are topped with Pomodora red tomato sauce
Margherita; with fresh sweet basil leaves and Mozzarella
Parma Ham with radicchio, goat feta, and rosemary
Chorizo with roasted jalapenos, red chilies, and smoked mozzarella
Roasted Bell Peppers with marinated anchovies, fontina, and arugula
Antipasti Salad with Romaine, Iceberg, Small Sweet Vine Ripe Tomatoes, Red Onion, Salami, Smoked Mozzarella, and Oregano Vinaigrette
- 1 young broccoli
- 1 cauliflower
- 1 fresh snow peas
- 1-2 heads of radicchio
- 1 arugula
- 4-6 romaine
- 2 iceberg
- 1 pound small vine ripe tomatoes
- 1 bunch fresh basil
- 1 bunch fresh oregano
- 1 bunch fresh Italian parsley
- 1 bunch fresh rosemary
- 2 heads garlic
- 1 brown onion
- 1 red onion
- 2 lemons
FLOURS and SPICES:
- 1 unbleached bread flour
- 1 dark rye flour
- 1 wheat germ
- 1 semolina
- 1 active dry yeast
- dried oregano
- flaky sea salt
- black peppercorns
- 4 28oz cans Italian plum tomatoes
- 2 tins anchovies in olive oil
- 1 extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tin chick peas
- 8 oz thinly sliced Parma ham
- 12 oz thinly sliced salami
- 6 oz thinly sliced chorizo
CHEESES and DAIRY:
- 1 pound firm low moisture mozzarella
- 12 oz smoked mozzarella
- 12 oz Fontina
- 12 oz goat feta
- 8oz unsalted butter
Preparation Schedule: Do your shopping two days before the party.
Pre-preparation: Best to get a head start the day before the party and prepare what you can ahead including:
- bagna cauda
- pomodora sauce
- marinated anchovies
- oregano vinaigrette
- roasted and peeled bell peppers and chiles in olive oil
Final preparations: Day of the party.
- First thing in the morning get your pizza dough started which will need intermittent attention throughout the day.
- Steam the Bagna Cauda vegetables for 1 minute, refresh in ice water, air dry, and refrigerate
- costini baked, cooled, and stored in an airtight container
- salad greens and other salad ingredients prepared, bagged, and refrigerated
- meats and cheeses prepared for pizzas and salad, bagged, and refrigerated
- pizza cheeses cut into ½ inch cubes, stored in bowls, and refrigerated
- pizza dough portioned into 7-8oz balls, covered and refrigerated
Toss all of the antipasti salad ingredients together and refrigerate until just before your first pizza comes out of the oven. Dress the salad and serve along with the pizzas throughout the evening.
Pizzas and Baking:
Remove the portioned pizza dough from the refrigerator 1 hour before you intend to start baking the pizzas. Cover with a slightly damp dish towel to keep the dough moist.
Place a pizza stone on an oven rack in the lowest position. Preheat the oven 45 minutes before you intend to bake to the highest temperature possible.
Set up a station where the pizzas will be assembled and have all the components in separate bowls ready to go, including flour and semolina for dusting, olive oil for brushing the outer edges of the pizza, and salt for seasoning.
You will have no time to be running around looking for items once the pizzas are being readied for the oven and baking is in progress.
Working with one pizza at a time, gently pat the dough into a disc and then place the dough over both fists and begin to turn the dough clockwise allowing the dough to stretch downward as your turn the dough, stretching it into a 10-12 inch round. Don’t worry too much about the shape! You can adjust the shape once it is placed on the work surface. Have one of your “sous chefs” dust your work surface evenly with flour and a dusting of semolina over the flour before placing the dough down on the work surface. You want to be certain the dough doesn’t stick to the work surface while you top the pizza with ingredients, and that the pizza can be easily transferred to a pizza peel.
Once the pizza is stretched place it on your work surface and adjust the shape. Lightly salt the pizza round and add about 1/3 cup of pomodora tomato sauce to the center of the pizza and spread it out evenly in a circular motion to within about ¾ of an inch of the edge of the round. Brush the edge of the pizza with olive oil and call on one of your guests to top the pizza with the desired ingredients, working with some haste so the pizza doesn’t get weighted down and soft and begin to stick to the work surface. Transfer the pizza to a pizza peel dusted with semolina, being sure that it will slide easily on the peel with a backward forward motion before you attempt to slide it onto the pizza stone. Throw some additional semolina under the pizza if there are any sticking points.
Transfer the pizza to the hot pizza stone with a quick forward and backward jerk and bake for 8-12 minutes, or until the crust has risen and is nicely blistered, and the cheese has melted and is just beginning to bubble.
Remove the pizza from the oven immediately, slice, and serve along with the antipasti salad!
It’s all in the team work and once you get a rhythm going you will be able to relax and keep the pizzas coming out of the oven without a hitch for the rest of the evening!
Announce this with a flourish ….polenta alla griglia con fungi brasati e spinaci… as you present this dish to your guests at the table, alighting appetites for the woodsy flavors of wild mushrooms and spinach set atop a wedge of warm grilled polenta.
Splendid as starter, a main course, or topping for a pizza, and easy to prepare before the guests arrive so you can enjoy an evening of lively Italian food with your guests without a lot of last minute preparation.
You can prepare the mushrooms & spinach ahead of time and hold at room temperature while you grill the polenta, reheating just before serving.
Chilled polenta wedges brushed with olive oil and grilled. (Posted in Basics)
Braised Mushrooms & Spinach: Serves 4
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 pound assorted wild mushrooms (portobello, button, shitake, or other), thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon lemon thyme leaves
- 1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms (if available); soaked for 20 minutes in warm water, drained, and squeezed dry, reserving the soaking liquid
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 ½ cups finely sliced green onions including the tender green shoots
- 1 pound of baby spinach, well rinsed, stems removed and leaves torn in half
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- ¼ cup Marsala wine, or (if using porcini mushrooms) add 1/4 cup of the soaking liquid and 2 tablespoons of Marsala
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- olive oil for drizzling
- thinly shaved Parmegiano
- freshly ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large saute pan on medium heat until bubbling. Add the sliced mushrooms and lemon thyme and saute until the mushrooms release their moisture and begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the porcini mushrooms (if available), the garlic, sliced green onions and saute for several minutes until the garlic begins to color. Add the spinach leaves and toss with the other ingredients until the spinach begins to wilt. Add salt and freshly ground pepper and toss. Add the Marsala wine, or 1/4 cup porcini soaking liquid and 2 tablespoons of Marsala, and toss and cover the pan with a lid and cook for 3-4 minutes. Remove the lid and toss until most of the liquid is reduced and absorbed into the mushrooms. Remove the pan from the heat and add the lemon zest and lemon juice. Toss well and taste adding additional salt if needed.
Place the warm grilled polenta wedges on serving plates and arrange the braised mushrooms & spinach on top of the polenta. Drizzle with a little olive oil and arrange shaved Parmegiano on top. Grind some black pepper over all and serve.
Tomato season is arriving in the northern hemisphere and come September you will have more tomatoes than you know what to do with. Why not put them up in your pantry for the winter months and have summery tomato sauces available throughout the year?
Whole tomatoes and tomato sauces do require the water bath method for canning, but the process is quite simple (detailed canning instructions available online) and the rewards are worth the effort as you will be enjoying this year’s summer tomatoes until next year’s season arrives.
A kitchen tangent is in order here to simplify processing vine ripened fresh tomatoes. I discovered the amazing Super Passatutto Velox Universal/ Italian tomato press over 30 years ago and I am still using it to this day. It’s an ingeniously designed manual contraption that separates the skin and seeds from the tomato pulp. Simply cut up whole fresh tomatoes and drop them into the feeding bowl on the top of the mill and crank away. The pulp is extruded separately from the seeds and skin. Pass the seeds and skin through the press several times to extract every last bit of the pulp and… voila! Your tomatoes are processed and ready to add to your ingredients for a cooked fresh tomato sauce. The Velox tomato press is still available on line from various vendors and well worth the investment if you intend to make summer batches of fresh tomato sauces for canning or making sauces for a large parties. A food mill will essentially do the same thing with a little more effort, but there is something about using the Velox mill that defies explanation. It just produces a better tomato pulp!
Here is a simple recipe for a rustic cooked fresh tomato sauce with an added hint of natural sweetness, smokiness, and some chili heat if you are so inclined.
- 10 whole vine ripened tomatoes + 2 cups vine ripened ripe cherry tomatoes, coarsely chopped and pressed/milled to extract the pulp
- 2 yellow bell peppers + 1 fresh red chili (if using), flame roasted and peeled, seeds removed, and pressed/milled along with the tomatoes
Rustic Cooked Fresh Tomato Sauce:
Makes 5 cups/serves 4
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 8 leeks, peeled down to the soft interior and minced
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- teaspoon dried lemon thyme, crushed
- tomato pulp from 10 large vine ripened tomatoes and 2 cups vine ripened cherry tomatoes
- 2 yellow bell peppers (flame roasted and peeled) pressed/milled with the tomatoes
- 1 fresh red chile (flame roasted, peeled, and seeded) pressed/milled (optional)
- 1 teaspoon salt + more to taste when sauce is finished
- fresh ground pepper to taste (if not using chili)
Heat the olive oil in a non-reactive pot over medium low heat. Add the minced leeks and cook for 10 minutes. Add the minced garlic and lemon thyme and cook an additional 4 minutes. Add the tomato, yellow pepper, and chile pulp along with their juices and turn the heat down and bring the sauce to a simmer. No need to add additional water! Cook for about 45 minutes until the sauce is reduced by half and quite thick. As this is a rustic sauce there is no need for straining. The flavors and texture give the sauce a hearty rustic appeal.
Serve tossed with freshly cooked pasta glazed with extra virgin olive oil is my preference. The fresh tomato flavor melds deliciously with pasta on its own, but a mild grated cheese or fresh ricotta tossed into the pasta compliments the sauce nicely as well.