Cooking as a cure for creative block?

not-pretty-pizza(Warning: This post is too long. It has profanity in it. And pizza. Fucking get over it.)

It has a been a rough week. The cause: an assignment that I should be able to turn around in a jiffy, but which has eluded me and, so, drags on. And on. And on. I’ve requested and received specific, clear, and helpful guidance from my editor, so the ball is in my court, so to speak. Still, I can’t wrap up this little shit.

Did you ever see the movie “How to Get Ahead in Advertising?” Richard E. Grant plays an ad exec who’s stumped trying to come up with the clever campaign for new pimple cream. The stress makes him develop a boil that grows into an evil twin that ultimately takes over his life until he becomes some kind of postnatal chimera.

It’s not that bad. Yet.

I would call this writer’s block, but I think everyone can fall victim to creative constipation, whatever it is they do. There must be times when accountants can’t get numbers to crunch, when lawyers can’t devise winning arguments, when salespeople can’t sell–fuck, I dunno–ice to eskimos.

So, after sitting at the computer, fussing with the story and making it worse with each pass and chanting “shit-shit-shit-shit” under my breath, I headed into the kitchen. Yesterday, a New York Times article about pizza caught my eye. The gist of it was that if you proof the dough a really long time–”at least 27 hours of resting time”–you’ll end up with pizzeria-like results. Heck, we like pizza, I thought, I should try this. I write about food, so I must try this. Right now. I had to be in the kitchen anyway, developing a couple of recipes for another project (another distraction, yes, but one that pays). As an added benefit, the pizza would be a helpful exercise in delayed gratification, something I rarely practice.

In all honesty, I wanted to make the pizza for “Real Housewives of New York” tonight. God, I love that show in all its incarnations, from the plastic Barbies of Orange County, to the low-rent crew in Atlanta, to the thick-as-thieves” inbreds in New Jersey. This season, my NYC bitches are particularly strident and menopausal. Well, Bethenny’s hormonal ‘cause she’s preggers (and oddly shocked that the news leaked to Perez Hilton after she peed on the pregnancy test stick in front of a camera crew). And I’m forever grateful to The Countess for her “hit” new single, which has become my new motto:

Money can’t buy you class. Elegance is learned. Oh, yeah!

Oh, yeah, the pizza.

I exercised a little restraint and ignored the recipes that ran with the NYTs story, since they called for two kinds specialty flours and making your own sourdough starter. I’m saving those distractions for another day and another stumped project, when I can happily waste hours hunting down the flour and baby-sitting the starter. Instead, I decided to try this with my go-to pizza dough. It’s more scientific that way, see, since I could gauge whether the technique made a difference.

Whoa! That dough is alive!

So I pulled together the dough, and it didn’t take up that much time anyway, and plopped it into a bowl to proof on the counter for a three hours. I checked on it every so often and, my, it was robust and bubbly. Those little yeast were busy! Things were happening. Then I divided the dough into two balls, which went into the refrigerator to proof for another 24 hours. This was hard, because I really wanted to roll that dough out and make pizza. But, no, all I could do was visit it occasionally, pulling it out of the fridge to prod it and inhale its yeasty aroma and admire its bubbliness. Oh my god! It looked like the evil boil from “How to Get Ahead in Advertising”!

Pizza sauce, no cooking requiredI carved out some time this afternoon (OK, it was another distraction) to make the uncooked Pizzeria Mozza’s pizza sauce from the L.A. issue of Saveur. Mozza makes the best pizza in town (I think), and the uncooked sauce comes together in a jiffy so this thing wasn’t too much of a time suck. It’s good; not spectacular, but a great result for the effort.

When it finally came time to roll the dough, after letting it sit at room temperature for 90 minutes (now going on 29 hours of proofing time), it was snappy as hell. I should have let it rest a bit, but, shit, Richard was home from work, we were hungry, and the Housewives were bickering on that boat in the Caribbean, so I shaped it by hand (because, apparently, a rolling pin “abuses” the dough), tossed it around a bit, then slathered on some tomato sauce, cheese and prosciutto and slipped that fucker onto a pizza stone in a very, very hot oven.

OK, not the prettiest but, damn, it tasted good.

The outcome: Delicious crust that was airy and chewy, but tender, and definitely an improvement over the usual drill of making dough, letting proof for an hour, and then rolling it out. Next time, I’d crank the oven even hotter, and possibly hunt down that those specialty flours. Now I’m hooked.

So here I am, feverishly writing this, thinking, “Yes! This will help!” As if pizza and blogging will act like a creative enema. We’ll see about that.

Meantime, I’ve accomplished a few things:

  1. I’ve learned that longer proofing time does make a superior crust, but you have to plan your pizza, like, two days in advance.
  2. We had a really good dinner.
  3. I realized the world has officially turned upside-down, since on tonight’s episode of RHW-NYC LuAnn was the voice of reason (surprise!), Sonja was the smart one (didn’t see that one coming), and Ramona was the sane one (that’s crazy!).I put the words “enema” and “constipation” in a post about food. Yum! Hungry now?

High-fat food worsens asthma symptoms

If you have asthma, fatty foods like butter aren't your best pal. (Photo by Alison Ashton)

If you have asthma, pass up the Happy Meal.

A new study from the University of Newcastle in Australia finds a fatty, caloric fast-food meal makes it harder for asthmatics to breathe. Even worse, the high-fat fare renders albuterol, an inhaler commonly used to relieve asthma symptoms, less effective.

The study involved 40 people with asthma, who were randomly assigned to gobble a 1,000-calorie fast-food meal (burger and hash browns) that was 52% fat or low-fat yogurt that was just 200 calories and 13% fat. It’s the first study to examine the effect of high-fat food on airway inflammation, which is the hallmark of asthma, says researcher Dr. Lisa Wood.

The results raise intriguing questions, including whether the type of fat makes a difference. Could heart-clogging saturated fat also inflame airways? And do unsaturated fats have the same effect? “We expect that saturated fat would be driving the inflammatory response, as this type of fat has been shown to have the strongest inflammatory effects in other studies,” says Wood. “We are exploring the effects of fat quality on fat-induced inflammation in asthma in our future work.”

If follow-up studies confirm the link between fat and symptoms, reducing dietary fat may be a smart–and easy–way to manage asthma.

Sustainable sippers, part 5: Ah, sake

American producers are making some mighty fine versions of the traditional Japanese rice wine, including SakeOne Momokawa certified-organic line and Takara Sake’s Sho Chiku Bai Organic Nama. As with grape wines, offerings range from those made with organic ingredients–organic rice and/or koji (yeast)–to those that are certified organic.

Benefits: There are six styles of Momokawa, from lush, fruity Organic Junmai Ginjo to the traditional-style, minimally filtered Pearl. The sake is affordable enough (about $11 a 750-ml bottle of Momokawa and $7.50 for a 300-ml bottle of Organic Nama) to host a tasting for your friends.

Drawbacks: Berkeley, California-based Takara Sake’s product is made with certified organic rice from the nearby Sacramento Valley, but the rice wine itself is not certified organic. Also, it’s made in very small batches and may be hard to find.

Sake-jito

Inspired by the Cuban cocktail, this drink uses organic sake in place of traditional rum for a cocktail that’s refreshing and subtly sweet.

8 fresh mint leaves

2 teaspoons powdered sugar

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

2 ounces organic sake

2 ounces sparkling water

1 mint sprig (optional)

  1. Place mint leaves in the bottom of a highball glass, add sugar and juice. Muddle (crush) with a muddler or the back of a wooden spoon. Add sake; stir. Add crushed ice. Top with sparkling water. Garnish with mint sprig, if desired. Yield: 1 serving.

Also in this series:

Part 1: Wine, beer, and spirits hop on the organic bandwagon

Part 2: Wine

Part 3: Vodka and gin

Part 4: Mix with Care

Part 6: Tequila

Sustainable sippers, part 4: Mix with care

If you use expensive organic spirits in a cocktail, be sure the other ingredients are organic, too. Organic spirits generally don’t belong in a neon-green apple-tini, says Square One Vodka founder Allison Evanow. “Don’t shop for your mixers in the liquor aisle; shop for your mixers in the produce aisle.”

Use organic fruit purees as mixers. Mixologist Darryl Robinson, a k a DRMixologist, who creates organic concoctions for special events and at the Hudson Bar at New York’s Hudson Hotel, always selects peak-flavor, in-season fruits. “I’ll puree them and freeze them to use later.”

“Don’t shop for your mixers in the liquor aisle; shop for your mixers in the produce aisle.” Unless, of course, it’s a bottled mixer made with organic ingredients.

Choose organic sweeteners for cocktails. Robinson uses organic agave nectar instead of simple syrup made with white sugar. He also likes organic brown sugar or organic maple syrup for cocktails made with dark-colored spirits.

Balance the flavors. Organic spirits, like a botanical gin, can taste bolder than conventional booze, says Robinson, so you may need to adjust the amount of other ingredients. His secret ingredient: organic pineapple juice. “Just a splash, even in a cocktail that doesn’t call for it, can make a difference.”

If you do use a bottled mixer, make it an organic one, like modmix or Monin’s organic line.

Also in this series:

Part 1: Wine, beer, and spirits hop on the organic bandwagon

Part 2: Wine

Part 3: Vodka and gin

Part 5: Sake

Part 6: Tequila

Pay less to eat slow

Heritage beans are the kind of food Slow Food USA seeks to preserve.

Heritage beans are the kind of food Slow Food USA seeks to preserve.

I’ve always found that Slow Food USA, the American chapter of the international organization dedicated to preserving local foodways, had a whiff of elitism. Maybe it was the pricy chef supper events, declaring expensive dry Monterey Jack cheese an “endangered” food, and the hardcore foodie membership. It’s a little unfair, I know, to say that about an entity that just wants to get people together to cook and enjoy great meals based on local cuisine, made with local products.

Maybe that explains why I’m excited to see Slow Food showing a more populist side. They recently sponsored Eat-In events around the country for their Time for Lunch campaign to bring better food to America’s schoolkids as part of the Child Nutrition Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress. And anyone can join Slow Food USA for any donation through the end of this month (rates return to a minimum membership of $60 as of Oct. 1). There are chapters all over the country, and if there isn’t one in your neck of the woods, they’ll help you start one.

Go ahead, be blue

Blue- and red-hued foods may help improve cholesterol.

Blue- and red-hued foods may help improve cholesterol.

If you’ve been gorging on summer-fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and other red and purple foods, good for you. They’re loaded with anthocyanins, flavonoids that lend these foods their distinctive shade. Anthocyanins have been credited with fighting cancer, diabetes, inflammation, and neurological disorders.

Now the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports the flavonoids may also improve cholesterol. Chinese researchers found that twice-daily supplements containing 160mg of anthocyanins raised blood levels of  helpful HDL cholesterol and lowered harmful LDL cholesterol in study volunteers. Of course, you could just eat some berries–100 g (about 3.5 ounces) of blueberries contains 208 mg of anthocyanins–and enjoy other benefits, like the flavor and fiber. They’re great out of hand, or in all manner of sweet and savory recipes.

What we’re drinking now

 

Heady and yummy, Pascual Toso malbec is a delicioso find for 15 bucks a bottle.

Heady and yummy, Pascual Toso malbec is a delicioso find for 15 bucks a bottle.

Yesterday was one of those Mondays when we needed a treat at the end of the day. “Surprise me,” said the text from my mate. That’s a tall order, so I stopped by our favorite bipolar wine merchant in Marina del Rey. We affectionately refer to him as Angry Man. As in, “I’m going to buy some wine from Angry Man.” 

Now, let me put in my 2 cents about wine merchants. I’ve noticed they tend to be a cranky bunch. I think it’s because they open a wineshop with the hopes and dreams and excitement about sharing their love all things grape with the public only to have people turn up demanding, “What do you have that’s under 10 bucks and good?” The merchant is left thinking, “I didn’t open my dream shop to compete with effin’ Trader Joe’s.” So their good stuff gets pushed to the back of the store while they end up promoting the cheap stuff at the front. It’s like opening a cheese shop where people only want to buy Velveeta.

But I also know that people who love wine can appreciate good sippers across the price spectrum. (My friend, wine and spirits writer Jeffery Lindenmuth, is particularly good at sniffing out great, food-friendly value wines–check out his roundup of box wines.)

I’ve also found that nothing makes a cranky wine merchant’s face light up like the words, “I’d like to buy a case today.” That was the case a few months ago, when I went in to purchase a case of French Cahors malbec (the so-called “legendary black wine of France,” which my mate had discovered at Angry Man’s shop). Angry Man only had about 6 bottles on hand, so I asked him to recommend something in a similar vein (and price). He was practically giddy as he offered up a bottle of Pascual Toso Malbec from Argentina. “This is a fantastic wine for the price,” he said of the $15 bottle. Sold!

When we sampled the wine, we were immediately seduced by its rich, plummy, berry qualities. It became our new favorite wine. And yesterday a bottle of it paired beautifully with the leftover filet mignon with Bordelaise sauce I brought home from school. 

Thank you, Angry Man.

A trio of smart strategies

This has been a week when some clever tips came my way–things to help improve my life in the kitchen. So, of course, I want to share them:

cimg07761. Peel and cube raw beets before you roast them. Melissa Clark shares that nugget in this week’s Dining & Wine section of The New York Times. The smaller pieces roast quickly and caramelize beautifully–without the mess of peeling and chopping whole roasted beets (especially if you’re dealing with the red variety). I’m mad for roasted beets and can’t wait to try this strategy in her recipe for Beet and Radicchio Salad with Goat Cheese and Pistachios.

2. Use a small measuring cup instead of a coffee scoop to measure coffee. This one comes from professional organizer Krista Colvin, of the whole shebang: “After scooping coffee into the pot for the umpteenth thousand time I measured out those scoops and replaced the lil’ scoop with a larger full serve-1 timer scoop.”

 

(Dreamstime photo)

(Dreamstime photo)

3. Make a perfect cup of green tea. Green tea is more delicate than black tea, so you should never pour boiling water over green tea leaves. That will make it bitter. Instead, use water just before the boiling point, says Rona Tison, of the Japanese tea producer Ito En. And allow the leaves to steep only a minute or two before sipping.

Fun ways with pasta

picture-11The New York TimesDining & Wine section gets plenty of attention, and they do a terrific job. But since I’ve returned to Southern California, I’m really enjoying getting reacquainted with the weekly Food pages of the Los Angeles Times. The staff turns out consistently enjoyable features that make me want to get into the kitchen. And isn’t that the point?

This week, Food Editor Russ Parsons kicks off the weekly Get Cooking series that focuses on simple weeknight dishes. The online version is accompanied by a nice video. The first installment focuses on pasta, and I love the way Russ makes a case for the affordable luxury of high-quality dried pasta and tries to explain what, exactly, is meant by “al dente” (a tall order, since it’s an elusive, highly subjective quality). I’m bookmarkin’ it.