Posted by: Rae | April 25, 2008

Lisa’s healthy omelet

 

So Lisa wanted a healthy omelet today — all veggie.  OK, all veggie except for a little bit of Swiss cheese.  No way I could roll it; couldn’t even fold it.  But isn’t it beautiful?

So we think we need to have this as a special.  “Overstuffed Omelet,” I’m thinking.  How does that sound?

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Posted by: Rae | April 25, 2008

Cuts & Burns

Oh, I like mine sharp. I like to be able to slide the knife through an onion or a garlic clove, without pushing, just gliding, and have a paper-thin slice fall off silently. The knife never gets all the way to the cutting board. And I love to get into the groove, just down, up, down, up, slices and slices falling off to the right.

I like my knife so sharp it will cut through a tomato without tearing the skin (you know your knives are dull when you have to use a serrated knife on your tomatoes). And so sharp I can skin a salmon filet in one stroke. You know how to do this, right? Skin side down, left hand on top of the filet, knife cuts from right to left, parallel to the cutting board. If you’re right-handed.

Sharper is safer. If you’re not pushing, just moving up and down easily, then you’re not likely to slip and slice off something like your finger. People who don’t know how to hold a knife, or who haven’t practiced much (young folks!), are clumsy, as we all are when we’re doing something new.

We had a sixteen-year-old dishwasher who was dying to do prep (dying to stop washing dishes anyway), and talked the chef into letting him chop onions. I walked downstairs to get something out of the walk-in cooloer, and he was standing there, kind of gray, with his hand in the air. I asked him what was going on, and found out he’d cut himself. Cut the the nail and tip off his index finger. Should have mentioned that keeping the hand that’s not holding the knife out of the way is kind of important.

I drove him to the emergency room. There is no way that kid should have been wielding a knife. The chef, of course, was angry at him for telling me he’d cut himself (some kind of kitchen machismo I didn’t get and probably a little worried about getting in trouble himself), and angry at me for taking him to the ER! A few weeks later, after everything had grown back and he returned to his dishwashing job, the rest of the guys in the kitchen harrassed him a bit. They would deliberately burn oatmeal in a saucepan and hand it to him to wash. Stuff like that. He ended up quitting, of course.

Kitchen people are like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, showing off their scars. Take burns. I’m careful in the kitchen, but I just looked at my arms, and I have three lines on the undersides of my forearms, each about an inch long, burn scars. Probably from the convection oven.

Last summer, the guys working in the kitchen burned themselves several times a day. It is really hard to avoid being burned when you’re working fast in such tight quarters. It was always the same: they turned white, grabbed the injured arm or hand, and ran for the warm water. Yes, the warm water. “Cool water, not warm!” But each one of them had been told at some time in the past by some chef to run warm water over a burn.

So, I got on the Internet. “Maybe you’ll believe the Mayo Clinic.” Or WebMD. Ha! There is no medical authority, apparently, that trumps a chef when it comes to burns. And for all their machismo, those guys were big babies about their burns. Lots of drama, rarely a blister. The kitchen is a soap opera.

But back to knives … one of the things I catch myself doing every now and again is putting my right index finger out along the top of the knife as I cut. Some kind of childhood thing, pushing on a dull or flimsy knife with little kid’s hand. Once I cut the heck out of myself doing that — pushing down, my finger slipped and ended up under the knife rather than above it. Keep your finger on the handle! You can’t balance a finger on the back of a knife blade while you’re pushing down.

The other thing I do, something that always drove my kids crazy and impressed them at the same time, is peel, and core apples in my hand. I quarter them first the correct way — cut down to the chopping board through the stem end. But then I take an apple quarter, hold it in the palm of my left hand, and cut toward me with a paring knife to core the section, then flip it over and peel it the same way in two cuts. Then a couple of quick cuts, and it’s sectioned.  It’s really fast, and I’ve never cut myself. But you have to have a sharp knife or you end up pushing so hard it’s difficult to stop when you need to. I do this with tomatoes, too — we quarter our Romas lengthwise, then scoop the seedy center out before we roast them. I can get through 20 pounds of tomatoes in about 15 minutes that way.

 

 I quarter the apple the right way, using the cutting board. 

 

 

 Then I slice out the core. 

My cowardly thumb is as far away as it can get.

 

 

    While I’m at it, might as well slice the darned thing.

    Yeah, I’m cutting toward my left thumb. 

 

 

 

      All done — in 7 seconds.  A whole apple in 12.

 

 

Chefs really like their knives. They carry around suitcases with knives, and get knife sets when they go off to culinary school the way the college students head off with laptops. One of my lasted-four-days chefs from last summer came with his own set of knives. He didn’t show up one day (off on a bender), and forgot about them. A month or so later he left me a voice mail asking me to put his knives outside that night so he could pick them up. Didn’t want his paycheck — just his knives.

There was a nice kid who worked in the kitchen last summer, a kid with a couple of years of experience working in restaurant kitchens, who had just graduated from high school and was going off to culinary school in September. He was worried about how he would do — in his knife skills class! He’d heard that students would have to cut things with some ridiculous level of accuracy to pass. Not sure whether that’s true, but it reminded me of my ex, a medical student, practicing one-handed knot tying with hemostats on our dining room chairs. Every profession has these little things, I guess.

Posted by: Rae | April 22, 2008

Want a recipe?

We often get requests for recipes from people dining here.  In the dead of winter, I sit down and print them off.  Don’t have time in season.  Occasionally I get a request via e-mail, and I respond to those (unless for some reason it ended up in the spam folder — why can’t the e-mail providers get that right?).  I’ve also noticed lately that people wind up here because they Google “French toast without milk” or “whole-grain scone recipe” or something like that. 

If you want a recipe, leave a comment to that effect here.  I’ll give you one if I have it.  And I welcome everyone to offer their own recipes the same way.

Posted by: Rae | April 21, 2008

Fresh mozzarella on pizzas

The other day, someone Googled “fresh mozzarella makes pizza soggy” and wound up at this web site. Not because I have soggy pizza, i hope, but because I use fresh mozzarella on several pizzas. I understand the searcher’s problem — we use Gorgonzola, Fontina, and Parmesan on pizzas, and they turn out great, but fresh mozzarella just oozes water. It’s actually a worse problem in omelets, because I haven’t figured out how to get around it other than to pour off the juice before I roll the omelet. And that’s ugly. I do think we have the soggy pizza problem nailed (look at the pizza at the top of this page), and I thought I’d share what we do.

Here are the anti-sog tricks:

1. Par-bake the crust. That way it’s a little dried out before you begin to put stuff on top, and you’ll have the time to fully cook it without over-cooking the toppings.  Form the pizza crusts. Place on parchment paper-lined baking sheets, and bake. We bake for 3 or 4 minutes in a commercial convection oven at 450 degrees F.  Just bake until the crust doesn’t look soft anymore and is just beginning to turn golden brown in spots. Take it out of the oven, let it cool, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate until you need to use it. If you’re making more than one crust, separate them with sheets of parchment paper and then wrap in plastic. 

Here’s a picture of a a stack of par-baked pizza crusts, separated by parchment paper and ready to wrap in plastic wrap:

2. Spread a little olive oil on the crust before you add the other ingredients.  This puts a barrier between your wet ingredients and the crust (oil and water don’t mix, remember?)

3.  Limit the wet ingredients like sauces, especially those with a watery base.  Pesto, ok.  A tablespoon or two or chunky marinara, ok.  But roasted plum tomatoes — much better.  Keep it dry.

4.  Tear the mozzarella into small pieces.  The idea is to expose as much of the surface area as possible, so the moisture evaporates.  The convection oven is especially good at this.  Anyway, after the other ingredients are on the pizza, I cut a few slices from a mozzarella ball, then rip up the slices and put them on top.  Spread them out.  Keep in mind that the point isn’t to create one big rubbery layer of mozzarella cheese that covers the rest of the ingredients.   It’s to provide little dots of creamy cheese to tantalize the diner.

5.  Pour it off.   If all else fails, and the water is pooling on the top of the pizza when you pull it out of the oven. lift the pizza with a large chef knife and tip it so the water runs off. 

6.  Drain the cheese.   OK, you can always hang the mozzarella balls in cheesecloth over a bowl and drain it overnight.  We don’t do that.  It’s hard to do in a sanitary way in a restaurant our size, and it’s hard to predict perfectly how much mozzarella you’re going to need, so you end up wasting cheese.  It keeps better in salt water; pull it out and it has a short lifespan. 

Yeah, it’s all a lot of trouble.  But you just can’t beat fresh mozzarella on a pizza. 

 

It seems crazy, I know.  Every other week or so someone asks why we don’t offer a lunch special – a cup of soup and half a sandwich.  Occasionally, depending upon how receptive I think people will be to the info, I tell people that I could, but I’d have to charge more, so I’d rather just let them take the uneaten half home for dinner.  Here’s my explanation.

How do I figure out what a sandwich costs? 

Ingredients.  Raw ingredients, including waste (what you cut off, what you screw up, and what you have to throw out because you made too much).  That includes the other half of the sandwich ingredients, because they generally don’t get used.

Fixed costs.  Electricity, gas, rent, insurance, all of the other costs that have to be covered by what you pay for your food, regardless of whether you eat a piece of toast and a glass of water or a big meal with dessert.   

Preparation.  That’s labor, the biggest cost.  Think of beef:  roast it, slice it, weigh it out into portions of exactly the right size, package up the portions, and label them.  We have a special crew of prep cooks, paid less than line cooks, who do this work.  In order to get your sandwich assembled and cooked on the line as quickly as possible while ensuring consistent results, everything is portioned ahead of time.

How do I approach the half sandwich problem? 

1.  Prep half portions and use two of each thing for a whole sandwich and one of each thing for a half sandwich.  This adds time on the cook line (have to unwrap twice as many portions), it means sandwiches can’t be partially pre-assembled during the summer rush, it means the prep cooks are weighing and packaging twice as many portions, and it means we’re using twice as many bags, foil sheets, and labels.  Yipes!  Add $1.50 to the cost of a sandwich.

2.  Prep half and whole portions of everything, and keep both on hand.  I’ll need twice as much storage space (ROFL), there will be even more pandemonium on the cook line during summer rush, I’ll still have more waste because I won’t be able to keep the right number of half portions on hand, and I’ll be using more of the baggies, foil sheets, and labels.  Yipes!

3. Don’t prep half sandwiches.  Have the line cooks do their own prep for these (get a single piece of bread, cut in half; pull out a portion of chicken and cut it in half, guessing at weight; pull out cheese & sauce portions and use half; put remaining half portions away or pitch them).  I’ll have less waste than if I prep for half sandwiches, but now I’m having my most highly-paid employees do this work, and it’s going to slow down the food delivery for every order behind the half sandwich.   Every second counts on the cooking line.  Yipes!  Add $1.50 to the cost of a sandwich!  And add to the impatience of waiting customers.

4.  Always make whole sandwiches and throw half in the garbage if someone orders a half.  Yipes!  It’s morally repugnant.  But at least it doesn’t increase the cost.

So what do I charge people?

1.  I could charge more for the whole sandwiches, and let the big eaters subsidize the half-sandwich eaters, under the theory that what people don’t know won’t hurt them. 

2.  I could charge the same amount or more for half sandwiches, because my costs are higher, in which case everyone would think I had lost my mind and had something against light eaters.   

3.  Or I can offer people take-home bags (wax bags, cheap and environmentally-friendly, and better than throwing it away) for the remaining half a sandwich.  Make sure that the sandwich is something that can be reheated, and it’s so good people are happy to have more for later.  Isn’t this really the best value for my customers?

I would love to hear any suggestions or thoughts you have about this.

 

Posted by: Rae | April 8, 2008

Dogs in the Park

If you’ve ever been to Charlevoix, you know that it’s generally a pet-friendly place.  Like many businesses, the Alcove Cafe welcomes people to sit outside with their pets, usually dogs, and we have water dishes for them.   Hal Evans, our Harbormaster, greets pet owners who arrive by boat with treats, water, little doggie-waste scoopers, and a quick summary of the city’s rules.  Dogs have always been welcome in the harbormaster’s building. 

This happy co-mingling of people and dogs has been relatively uneventful.  No one can remember a case of dog bite in our downtown parks, although there was one case of children approaching a dog tied to a picnic bench being frightened when the dog barked at them.  And of course the dogs sometimes bark and carry on when a new dog shows up.  You know, the dog greeting thing.

 

no dogUnfortunately certain members of our City Council have decided that dogs present a risk, and have proposed that we ban dogs for the entire summer, from East Park, our harbor-side park currently under renovation. 

 

 

Sanity, please!  Why fix a problem that doesn’t exist?  And in the process, give up one of the things that makes Charlevoix such a wonderful place?  Let’s replace the sign above with a one that better represents our community.

Posted by: Rae | April 8, 2008

Espresso

We have espresso drinks.  Here’s our espresso machine, and we’d appreciate it if you’d help us name him.  Right now we’re going with “Roger,” mostly to motivate people to come up with something better.

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Yesterday a lovely couple came in to the restaurant.  They used to own a bed and breakfast in a big Victorian home at the top of the hill, but sold it last year to a physician from downstate.  Anyway, they have many years of experience in the hospitality business, and they’re regular customers.  I’ll call them Mr. & Mrs. H., for “hospitality.”  Mrs. H. asked for a cappuccino, dry, lots of foam, and told the server, “Raechel will know how to do it.” 

Here’s the thing: if I don’t know something, I generally ask myself “how hard can it be?” and charge forward as though I know.  As you can imagine, this has resulted in many great adventures and a few disasters, but it’s never boring. 

So we made the espresso, and then started working on the foam.  Lots of foam.  The server wasn’t accustomed to this, so it took some time, and the espresso had cooled down a bit by the time the foam was put in the cup.  Mrs. H. then advised the server that the foam must be made first, and then the espresso, and asked us to heat up the cup, which we did (gasp! Don’t read this, Italian friends!) in the microwave.  That made the foam get even bigger, which was fun to watch.  Then Mr. H. laughed and said they’d been giving this lesson all over town.

OK, you’re saying, why the heck would I go to this bunch of yahoos for an espresso drink?  Three reasons:   Our coffee is really, really good.  We’re getting better every day.  And you can teach us a thing or two, and who doesn’t like that?

Posted by: Rae | April 5, 2008

Truth is, I’ve never liked sandwiches

I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s the mayo — never liked that either.  And most of the sandwiches I had as a child (tuna “salad”, bologna, olive loaf) consisted of some kind of meat, white Wonder Bread, and lots of mayonnaise.  It’s not that I don’t like having all of the parts mixed together for me, although I do like having my food deconstructed or stacked.  I like stew.  I like soup.  Maybe it’s that I don’t like my bread mixed up with the filling.  Maybe they’re just too dry.  Maybe it isn’t anything explicable or sensible — it just is.

As you can imagine, this makes it somewhat difficult for me to design great sandwiches.  Most of the other dishes originate in intuition, often inspired by dishes I’ve seen or tasted elsewhere, but I just know something is going to be good. 

The first sandwiches I created weren’t really sandwiches.  Our shrimp tostada is my favorite.  And people love it.  But every time I say something about ringing it up on the sandwich key, the servers look at me like I’m nuts.  “Well,” I say, “what do you think it is?”  And they say maybe a salad, maybe a meal-in-a-bowl, but not a sandwich.  When I remind the cooks that they shouldn’t fill the whole plate with greens, since this is, after all, “a sandwich,” they mutter under their breath, share quick looks with each other, and roll their eyes.

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And then there was something I called “The Deconstructed.”   A sandwich in parts.  A big plate with cheeses, sausages, terrines, pates, greens, a few fruits, and a big piece of French Baguette.  It was a pain to make, was ordered rarely, and to be perfectly frank, was a flop.  More muttering in the kitchen.  It’s not on the menu anymore. 

We have four sandwiches that lots of people order.  Turkey, beef, chicken, and 4-cheese panini.   We finally have the meat roasting and slicing down.  And we’ve figured out that the cheese panino works better and loses less of its cheese on the flat top than the panini grill.  But it was quite the ordeal to figure out what to pair with the meats.  I read studies of restaurant-goers preferences.  Looked at what Panera Breads was doing.   Consulted recipe books and the Internet.  Found superior breads.  Finally we have sandwiches that people like, and that are a cut above the standard.

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Last year, mostly because I couldn’t believe that a sandwich could stand on its own, we had what we called “plate sides.”  Something interesting to go on the plate with the sandwich.  We spent an inordinate amount of time coming up with beet terrines, stuffed roasted peppers and tomatoes, polenta sticks with tasso ham, and all sorts of other things that most people tried, a few people adored, and a few more people threw away.  You know what?  People like a salad with their sandwiches.  So now we put fresh greens on the plate with the sandwich, and give them a good squirt of our homemade balsamic vinaigrette. 

And we let the sandwich be the star of its own plate.  Go figure.

Posted by: Rae | April 1, 2008

Breakfast Foods

We all love breakfast.  It’s the ultimate comfort food, the stuff our mothers made for us before they sent us off to face the world.  The Acorn Cafe served breakfast only until lunch started.  Why?  Because you can’t fix a Reuben on the same flat-top you use for pancakes.  When I bought the business and we became the Alcove Cafe, I renovated the kitchen a bit, got rid of the deep fryer (the source of much mess, cause of sewer challenges for the city, and not good for you anyway), and decided to come up with a menu that would allow us to have breakfast all day every day.

Then I tackled a really difficult challenge.  How do you keep breakfast traditional, make it healthy, and also provide some options for the more adventurous?  Here’s what I decided:

  • Eggs – we have to make them every way possible, because people like them every way possible
  • Bacon and sausage – no way we’re giving up our bacon & sausage.  So we found the best thick-sliced bacon and the best sausage (well the best reasonably-priced ones), and we serve them up, cooked to order.
  • Potatoes – it’s not breakfast without potatoes.  But frozen out-of-a-bag hash browns dumped into a deep fryer?  No way!  So we cut up real redskin potatoes, and roast them in the oven with a little olive oil and seasonings. 
  • Fruit – it’s so good for you, it comes with just about every breakfast.  Your mama says, “eat your fruit.”  If you won’t eat it no matter what we say, tell us ahead of time, because we really hate throwing those beautiful raspberries and blackberries into the trash.  We’ll give you some potatoes or extra bread instead. 
  • Bread – lots of variety, lots of quality, and lots of choice for you!
  • And lots of interesting specials for the more adventurous. 

Let’s take a look at the menu (prepare to have your mouth water).

Eggs

You can’t have breakfast without eggs.  We serve them fried, scrambled, basted, and poached.   Here is Raechel’s “one, poached, with 7-grain.”

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And a customer’s “two, scrambled, sausage side, 7-grain.”

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Omelets

Of course we have omelets.  There are as many opinions about the right way to make an omelet as there are people who eat omelets.  I’ve talked about that in a previous post (type ‘omelets’ in the search box if you want to read it).  But here are the basics:  we start with fabulous fillings, grill what should be cooked a little first (peppers, mushrooms, onions), and roll the omelet around the filling after melting the cheese.  We serve them with our famous-around-town bowl of fresh mixed fruits and our fabulous toast. 

Here is Ace’s ham & cheddar omelet (he’s a traditionalist), with the fruit bowl and a side of potatoes, which that day happened to be a combination of redskins and sweet potatoes.

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If you’ve read the menu, you know we have Cross Fisheries smoked salmon and whitefish, bacon, ham (2 kinds), sausage (3 kinds), all kinds of vegetables, and lots of cheeses.  We’ll put any combination of these into an omelet. 

One customer’s favorite is smoked salmon with fresh tomatoes and goat cheese.  Another loves smoked salmon with capers, red onions, and goat cheese.  Another customer has us chop fresh herbs (basil, rosemary, sage, parsley, cilantro, thyme, …) and add those.  And yet another asked for chorizo with salsa.  Bottom line:  if you can think it up, we’ll put it in an omelet for you. 

We’ll make it an egg white omelet if you prefer.  One of our regular customers likes an all-veggie egg white omelet, with a side of sausage.  There are so many veggies in his omelet we can’t roll it, and have to fold it.  Here it is:

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He likes to get a side of hemp oil, which he mixes at the table with Clancy’s Fancy sauce.  And then he dips his omelet in it.  

The Mexican Connection

We used to offer a breakfast tostada.  But tortillas just don’t “puff” reliably, and you can’t really get this dish to go.  So we’ve changed to the breakfast burrito — same thing, just a soft flour tortilla instead of half a crisp one.  That, of course, makes the breakfast more portable — you can get it with the salsas inside the burrito, and maybe even eat it on the way to school or work.  Here it is in its tostada version (so you can see what’s inside the burrito):

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This is a great way to get your eggs — mixed with chorizo sausage and scallions, topped with cheddar cheese, and served with two salsas.  And, oh yeah, our wonderful fruit bowl.

Croque (say “croak”) Maison

This is the “house crunch.”  It’s a French bistro classic, the subject of considerable black market trading when the French implemented price controls on it after WWII.  We figured anything with a history like that would have a great reception in Charlevoix, and we were right.  It’s an open-faced sandwich with multi-grain toast, bechamel sauce, ham, roasted tomatoes, Swiss and Parmesan cheeses, and a fried egg on top.  It comes with a small side of our oven-roasted redskins and — you guessed it — a bowl of fruit.

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French Toast and Pancakes

If you have the sweet tooth, you can order our French toast.  We have customers who come to the restaurant several times a week just for the French toast.  It’s baked, it’s topped with pecans, and it’s too good to believe.

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Did I mention that it comes with a bowl of fruit? 

Our pancakes are whole-grain, but light and delicious!  We put real blueberries in them, or not if you prefer not.  We’ll cut fresh strawberries into them as well, and we’ll even add chocolate chips (real dark chocolate, the kind that’s good for you).

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Oatmeal

Our oatmeal is the best we’ve ever tasted.  It comes from Homestead Mills in northern Minnesota, an old farm mill.  They send it to us in 50-pound bags.  We top it with dried berries and nuts, and you can add brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, Splenda, milk, soy milk, cream, cinnamon, or whatever else you want.   Yum!

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Yogurt

We serve wonderful plain non-fat yogurt, topped with our dried berry and nut mix and crunchy granola.  Try something delicious and new:  ask us to mix fresh grapefruit sections into your yogurt.

Tarts

Most days we have a fresh breakfast tart.  It almost always has bacon and/or sausage, sometimes potatoes, and a scattering of vegetables.  And of course, eggs, cream, and cheese. 

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Scones

We bake scones every day.  Here is one of our favorites, “Lisa’s Coffee Shop Scone,” with dried apricots and dates, and candied pecans.  Yum!

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Smoothies

Try a breakfast in a glass.  We make wonderful fruit smoothies, each one packing a full half-pound of fruit!  They already have green tea.  We add yogurt or soy milk.  Delicious, great for you, and ultimately portable. 

Beverages

We have lots of juice options, lots of teas, and great coffee, including espresso drinks.  Our coffees and teas are all fair-trade and organic.  We’ll take this up in more detail in a week or so. 

Posted by: Rae | March 30, 2008

Pizza

It seems simple. Most people just order it to go or delivered, scarf it down, maybe eat some cold in the morning. If you make your own, though, you start to notice things — starting with the crust. The pizza you order from your local pizza place has crust with all of the flavor of cardboard. So they add salt and cheese (inside the crust, ugh!) But the crust itself has no taste at all.

We make our own crust. We start with an Italian flour, low-moisture, no additives. Add yeast, water, olive oil, and yes, salt. Simple recipe. Like all bread-making, the process is time-consuming, and a little hard on the arms. Sometimes we do the mixing with our trusty Kitchen Aid mixer, but today we mixed by hand. I had to divide the dough into three large balls and knead each of them for about 10 minutes. You have to knead bread to understand — it’s a form of mediation.

Then we let it rise, punch it down, and cut the dough ball into 15 pieces (5 ounces of dough per pizza). We form each pizza by hand — a total of 45 oval-shaped pizzas. We par-bake them on parchment-lined baking sheets, for just a few minutes and refrigerate or freeze them. When someone orders a pizza, we build it and bake at 450 degrees F. We used to have a pizza stone, but one of the chefs dropped it, threw it, lost it, stole it — not sure because no one would admit to knowing where it went. So we bake them right on the oven rack.

We never build a pizza ahead of time. When the order comes in to the kitchen, we quickly cook anything that needs to be cooked or warmed up (chorizo sausage, for example, or grilled onions), assemble & chop all of the toppings, and then we build the pizza like this:

1. Wearing gloves, spread a tiny bit of olive oil on the par-baked crust. If the pizza has marinara sauce, squirt a small amount on the pizza, and spread that around. Ditto pesto. Add any chopped fresh herbs.

2. Scatter the meats and vegetables (fresh, always!) on. We do roast our Roma tomatoes ahead of time — 20 pounds at a time, 60 pounds a week in the summer! Many of our pizzas use these rather than tomato sauce, so we grab them, usually with a fork, and scatter them on the pizza. We roast our butternut squash slices ahead of time so they’ll be completely cooked on the butternut squash pizza, so we grab those from a container as well.

3. Top with the cheeses. This takes longer than at your typical pizza joint, because with very few exceptions, we don’t use grated cheeses. If mozzarella goes on the pizza, we grab a fresh mozzarella ball, slice it, and then tear the slices into small pieces. This is necessary because fresh mozzarella is very wet and will cause the pizza to be soggy unless used sparingly. We buy Fontina in big wheels, so we dice it in 3/8″ pieces and put it into baggies, enough for the day. If you need to put Fontina on the pizza, you have to grab the baggie and dump out 6 or 8 chunks and scatter those on the pizza. We keep Gornonzola in big wedges, so you have to cut a slice off and crumble it on the pizza.

I tried quite a few pizzas when I was in Italy last fall. All were light on toppings — it’s a good idea to use a small amount of wonderful ingredients. My favorite was the squash blossom-anchovy, and I don’t like anchovies.

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Our staff likes to make up new pizzas. One of my favorites is the smoked salmon-red onion-caper-Gorgonzola. The Michigan tart cherry with Gorgonzola cheese was popular last summer.  “Emily’s” is my daughter’s variation on the margherita, with basil pesto, roasted garlic, and lots of Parmesan cheese.  It’s the one at the top of this website.

The guys in the kitchen had fun making shrimp pizzas until I realized we were going through $100 worth of shrimp in a day, just for these staff-only pizzas.

Last week a customer asked for a chorizo-green olive-chef’s choice cheese pizza. (I chose a combination of goat cheese and Fontina.) And a customer last summer asked for a smoked whitefish-pine nut-Fontina pizza. So it’s not only staff, but customers as well, who love to make up their own combinations.

Today Lisa made herself a pizza. She started with basil pesto, added chopped scallions, roasted tomatoes, garlic, and fresh mushrooms, and then topped it with Parmesan cheese, fresh mozzarella, and Gorgonzola. She likes her pizzas with crispy crust, and that’s how I baked it. It was terrific.

Bottom line: forget that stuff that sticks to the bottom of the cardboard box, the stuff with the mass-produced crusts, the rubber cheese. Make yourself some pizza crusts and put whatever you want on them. Is it art? Is it food? Who cares? It’s perfect!

Or come to the Alcove Cafe and let us do the work for you.

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