Thursday, April 7, 2011

Deep Dish Pizza Casserole

Hurray! A cooking post! When it comes to cooking meals, whether simple or extravagant, I'll be the first to admit that I am not very creative. You know those people who have that capability to observe what's in their pantry and come up with these *fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-but-end-up-looking-and-tasting-simply-marvelous recipes? Yeah, I'm not one of those people. I hope that one day I will be, one day when I truly feel I have learned to cook. Until that day, I continue to feel like I am still constantly learning. A student, if you will.

*My sister Lauren is very good at this. She can take nothing ingredients and turn it into something amazing. I remain jealous as always.

Nobody taught me how to cook. I taught myself. I was never very interested in cooking at all growing up. Despite having a mother who produced dishes so delicious they could make a grown man cry, I never took much of an active interest beyond scrambled eggs. I blame it on plain old immaturity. It wasn't until around the year 2003 when my ears finally perked up. That was back when Rachael Ray was a newer figure on the scene of the Food Network--before her voice got all raspy like a truck driver and her show turned into The Yummo! Show. One day I managed to catch an episode and I was hooked. I didn't particularly care for the actual recipes she concocted--Cheeseburger Salad? Really?--but I was fascinated by her unskilled skills. Watching her chop an onion was mesmerizing, like watching a sculptor create a life size masterpiece. I wanted to be able to chop like that! I wanted to pull steaming hot dishes out of the oven like that! I wanted to make soups--or stoups, as she calls them--like that! It had been a long time since I had a real hobby, and I was excited to have discovered a new one.

I started very slowly, buying one or two cookbooks. I made one overzealous attempt to jump into the shallow end of the pool head-first when I attempted to make homemade ravioli. Not just a premade ravioli with a homemade sauce. I'm talking the sheets of pasta, the filling, the sauce, everything from scratch! Needless to say, it was far from a success--oh, those little torturous bricks of ravioli!! But I have since soldiered on and have improved greatly over the years. I still think I am far from a good cook. Endlessly, I beat myself up when I have completed a recipe. My husband gets so annoyed with me when I do this. He thinks everything I make is wonderful, but I am my own worst enemy and always find some flaw in the dish. At the same time, though, I welcome those flaws because to me, the flaws are what really teach me. So the next time I go to make that recipe, I'll know what to do or what not to do.

Hmmm...This was supposed to be a cooking post, wasn't it? Okay then....

I figure one day I'll develop a little more creativity in the kitchen. Currently I still prefer to follow a recipe. I do this so I can experience making it and tasting it someone else's way. If I want to put my own spin on it, I will do that afterwards. There is one dish though. One dish that I actually managed to come up with myself. It's been so long since I first made it that I hardly even remember how I did it in the first place. It requires so few ingredients that it's almost ridiculous, but it produces such a quick and comfy meal. It's the perfect meal for a weeknight because it takes such little time to make.

I give you Deep Dish Pizza Casserole....

Starring Players

The Supporting Players

1. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.
2. Spray a 13 x 9 baking pan with cooking spray(I prefer to use a glass Pyrex dish when making this so I can monitor the dough easier)

3. Open the dough (or in my case have your husband do it since those exploding cans scare the doo-doo out of me!) and lay it inside your sprayed pan, pulling the edges up to the top of the pan as close as you can manage with the tips of your fingers (the cooking spray makes this a bit of a chore, but unfortunately the spray is essential). Set aside.

4. In a meduim saute or fry pan, brown your ground round (1 lb.) over low to medium heat.

5. Drain off fat (and make good use of those useless Christmas mugs taking up room in your cabinets).

6. Add one can of tomato sauce to the meat and stir to combine till heated through. Add as much or as little oregano, garlic and onion podwer as you desire. You could certainly use real garlic, but come on, this is supposed to be a speedy dish!

7. Add the meat and tomato mixture to your uncooked dough shell and spread evenly. Place in your preheated oven for 10-12 minutes.

8. Remove from oven and sprinkle 1 and 1/4 cup shredded cheese evenly over meat. Put back in oven for 5 minutes or until cheese is melted. (Whoops! Forgot to document this step!)

9. Let cool for 10 minutes. Slice into 6 pieces and enjoy some ooey-gooey goodness!

Deep Dish Pizza Casserole

Serves: 6
Weight Watcher Points Per Slice: 8

- 1 can Pillsbury brand Pizza Dough
- 1 lb. Ground Round
- 1 15 oz. can Tomato Sauce
- 1 1/4 cups Part Skim Shredded Mozzarella Cheese
- Cooking Spray
- Oregano, 1-2 tbsp. or to your liking
- Garlic Powder, 2 tsp.
- Onion Powder, 2 tsp.

- Preaheat oven to 425 degrees.

- Spray a 9 x 13 baking pan with cooking spray. Open pizza dough and spread in pan, pinching edges of dough up to sides of the pan. Set aside.

- Brown meat in a medium sized saute or fry pan over medium heat. Drain off fat.

- Add tomato sauce to meat, stirring to combine. Add oregano, garlic powder, and onion powder to meat mixture and stir to combine.*

- Pour meat mixture into dough shell and spread evenly. Make sure to pull up any dough that has slid down. Place in oven for 10-12 minutes.

- Remove from oven and sprinkle mozzarella cheese evenly over the meat. Put back in oven for 5 minutes or until cheese is melted.

- Let cool for 10 minutes and enjoy!

**I would like to add, that I purposely do not add salt to this dish. In my opinion, the canned sauce contains enough sodium to season the meal. By all means, add salt, but with watching my weight, I figure I don't need it. I didn't miss it anyway. It still tasted delicious!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Bigos. No Other Words Necessary.

Today I am back at work after a few days off. My husband, who is a teacher, was off for his spring break, so I decided to join him part of the week. We came up with this grand list of all the things we were going to accomplish around the house. Afterall, it isn't very often that we have five days off together where we aren't darting off on some vacation. Due to a lot of heavy rain and my inability to decide on what color to paint the guestroom after over a year of painting strips of color samples all over the walls, the flower beds still need weeding and my guestroom walls are still colorfully polka-dotted. Normally I would beat myself up about not getting most of the things I wanted to finally finish, well, finished, but not this time. Dear hubby and I decided it was nice to have a few days together where we got to be truly lazy and sleep in every day. We'll see if I still feel that way a week from now when I will undoubtedly wander into the guestroom and sneer in complete disgust, "Why can't I decide on a color? Why is the perfect shade of maize so hard to find?? Should I just paint the room blue? I give up. Paint the room bright orange for all I care, honey!" Put money on it. It will happen.

One nice perk this past week was that two of our neighbors, who we have become close friends with, also took the week off. We all took advantage of the situation and drove down to the lovely historic city of St. Augustine, which is only about a forty-five minute drive away, to wander around for the day. I love the rare chance to visit St. Augustine in the middle of the week when the tourists are not out in full force. The parking is so much easier, the restaurants not nearly as crowded, and you're a lot less likely to get stuck behind a horse-drawn carriage going one mile per hour. We didn't do anything or go anywhere outlandish or exciting. It's mainly nice just to mosey down St. George Street and check out all of the shops. There you'll find everything from beachwear shops to ice cream parlors to wineries to the oldest school house in America. Being the oldest city in the United States, it's a really neat little town that everybody should experience. I actually lived in St. Augustine for close to four years around 2002 to 2005 before moving back to Jacksonville, and I still have moments where I really miss it.

Walking past Potter's Wax Museum, we took a turn down Aviles Street. Aviles is lined with tiny cafes and bakeries. It's funny, I lived there for several years and I know I walked down Aviles Street many times, yet there was something I somehow managed to never notice. Right there on my left was a sign that read Gaufres & Goods, a European style cafe. On the window was a sign that said Polish Food. That stopped me in my tracks. I enjoy many foods--many, many varieties. There really isn't much I don't enjoy. But one thing that I love--and when I say love, I am referring to the deepest, darkest depths of my soul kind of love--is Polish food. I possibly even love Polish cuisine more than I do Italian, and that's saying quite a lot. I grabbed my husband's arm as tightly as I could and said, "David. David. Polish food. Right there." He was almost as excited as I was. I stress almost because, in general, I am a freak of nature and I'm not sure it's possible that anybody could be as excited about Polish food as I.

I converted David to Polish food when we last visited New York City. There is a true treasure of a restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhatten called Little Poland. My oldest sister, a groovy Brooklyn dweller, took me there several years ago, and I found it to be not only one of the most delicious spots I've ever stepped foot in, but the closest I've tasted to my mother's own schnitzel--basically a breaded and fried chicken cutlet (mind you, my mother was not Polish, but Ukrainian, and the cuisines are extremely similar).
I dragged David in there for lunch, determined to make him a fan. I already knew I was ordering schnitzel with egg noodles and cucumber salad, but David didn't know what to try. I suggested a combo plate so he could try a variety of items. He ended up with a plate of peirogies, stuffed cabbage, and something neither of us had ever heard of--bigos, otherwise known as Hunter's Stew. When the plate was set in front of him, bigos appeared to be a pile of sauerkraut mixed with different types of meat and mushrooms. We each took a taste of it and nearly fell out of our chairs. It was, despite its rather unsavory appearance, one of the most comforting and exquisite things we'd ever tasted. My schnitzel paled in comparison (but of course I still ate it...what are you, crazy?). From that moment on we were officially bigos-lovers.

So as we stood in front of Gaufres & Goods, I had high hopes. It's a tiny place with only a few tables. The small menu was a mix of Polish, Greek, Italian, and a few others. We immediately asked the owner, who was also our waitress, about bigos. She seemed very surprised that we knew what bigos was. It was actually rather funny--maybe we don't look worldly enough to know about the novelties of European fare (hmph!). However, to our delight, bigos WAS on the menu. David and I split a serving, while our friends split a plate of peirogies. Our bigos was served in a bread bowl, which it wasn't in Little Poland. This bigos was good, but sadly, nowhere near as good as in New York. Bigos is one of those dishes that is rarely made the same way twice. Everybody in Poland has their own version, especially considering the dish dates back centuries. The bigos we ate at Little Poland was a little meatier and loose, where this bigos was filled with more mushrooms and prunes, very little meat, and was somewhat soupier. It was still tasty, and I certainly enjoyed the bread bowl, but I wasn't thrilled with it. The peirogies on the other hand, were fantastic! David and I have a wedding anniversary coming up soon, and I decided that I think a lovely and quiet dinner out at Gaufres & Goods might be the perfect place for the occasion. Only that time I'll be sure to order the pierogies.

I've never attempted making bigos at home. Supposedly, the true way to prepare it takes about a week. I cannot fathom my house smelling like sauerkraut for a week. My dog would probably roll over and die. Plus, if I attempted it and it tasted awful, I fear that the mysticism behind the dish itself would die. I could not do that to bigos. I owe it to the bigos gods, and to Little Poland, to keep it as a special treat only when I visit up north. Bigos, you complete me.

For anybody who wants to take a crack at it, here is an example of a simpler recipe for bigos. Good luck!

Bigos (a.k.a. Hunter's Stew)

1/2 pound of bacon
1 pound lean pork or wild boar meat
1 large onion
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 cups cooked dried Borowik wild mushrooms (Boletus)
2 apples, cored and cut into chunks
2 or 3 prunes, cut up into pieces
2 root vegetables (swede, turnip, or carrot), cut into chunks
1 pound smoked sausages (Kielbasa), cut into small chunks
1 can of plum tomatoes
1/2 pound of sauerkraut (pickled cabbage)
1/2 cup of red wine
1/2 cup of stock (vegetable or meat)
A few Allspice Berries
Salt and pepper

1). Chop the bacon into ¼ inch pieces, cook until crisp, remove from the fat, and set aside.

2). Cut the pork or wild boar meat into small cubes, add to the fat in the pan, and brown the meat lightly.

3). Mix in the onion and cook it until it is tender. Cover the meat with hot water and simmer, covered, until it is well done.

4). Add the garlic, apples, prunes, Borowik mushrooms, vegetables, and tomatoes and continue cooking for about 5-10 minutes.

5). Combine the sauerkraut with the meat along with sausages and the reserved bacon. Add the red wine and stock. Mix these ingredients together and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook, uncovered, until the sauerkraut is tender and the bigos is of the consistency you prefer. Serve with crusty white bread or if you prefer traditional Polish bread.