Saturday, 28 August 2010
It seems in most places summer is at the height of its luxuriance. Where I grew up, this is the time when the air is practically throbbing with the drone of cicadas, and so thick with humidity it feels almost heavy. Those things mark the time of the summer to delight in the simplest things: a perfect peach, for instance, is so lush and delicious, satisfying enough to distract from the heat.
Here, though, it feels almost like summer is still just arriving. The days are sunny, but just warm, not what I'd call hot. We've had several small stretches of heat - some quite intense - but after a week or two it cools back down again. It seems very strange to find that, in the middle of August, the blackberries have just begun to ripen. Lately the morning air has been crisp and smelling of autumn.
Still, I've often been hungry for all the things I associate with this time of the year. Maybe it's learned; maybe it's instinct. A few times these cravings have brought to mind the time I spent in Italy. I suppose I have many fond culinary memories from that summer: just-plucked figs that were as succulent and sweet as honey. Bitter espresso tempered with a touch of tart lemon. The ubiquitous insalata caprese, a vivid combination of fresh mozzarella, tangy sliced tomatoes, and lush green basil leaves, all drizzled with full-bodied olive oil. That meal alone is an examination of simplicity; every flavour clear and distinct, in harmony with the others.
But perhaps most of all I remember the little restaurant in...I regret to say I can't recall which city. I don't frequently dine out when I travel; I have always preferred perusing open-air produce markets, small groceries, and (when I still could) bakeries. But this night I found myself ordering something off a menu - a pizza, to be exact. Pizza, in Italy, is offered at even relatively formal restaurants, and an entire small pizza serves as an entree for one. It is eaten with a fork and knife, and the crust is very thin. It truly showcases each of its ingredients. I remember mine was delicious.
What really shines in my memory about that meal, though, was what followed. Though I hadn't ordered them, I was brought a small dish of strawberries - but not normal garden strawberries. These were raspberry-sized, soft, and velvety red, the quintessence of freshness. The cameriere explained that they were local wild fruits and very special; they could not even be transported outside the region, he said, for they just wouldn't last.
That is one of the things I love most about summer - experiencing something so simple at the very moment it is finest, enjoying it in full. I created this pizza a few weeks ago to showcase some of the freshest flavours I could find - also pairing two classic Italian combinations that are generally not found together, but the result was delicious. The first is the aforementioned caprese salad. The other is gremolata - usually used as a sort of garnish, served with meat dishes. The ingredients, though - fresh parsley, minced garlic, and lemon zest - seemed like the perfect thing to add. It gives it a delightfully unexpected bright note to the flavour overall.
For the dough, use this bread recipe. Halve the dough to serve 2 people, use the whole recipe for a larger pizza. It also works very well to use egg replacer (powdered, such as Ener-G brand) in place of the eggs.
Stretch the dough out flat on a parchment-paper-covered baking stone. Using olive oil to coat, press it very thin with your fingers.
Make the gremolata: mince 1-2 cloves of garlic and 2 T of fresh parsley, and combine with 1 tsp of lemon zest. Cover the mixture with olive oil and spread it across the pizza dough.
Thinly slice 8 ounces of fresh mozzarella and a few Roma or Campari tomatoes into rounds. Layer the cheese and tomato slices to cover the entire pizza, and scatter chopped fresh basil over that.
Enjoy! (Oh, and by the way...the strawberries were wonderful.)