“Big Kahuna” Pizza

I didn’t have much notice to plan for it or I would have announced to all of you that this past Friday was “National Make a Ruckus Day.” My husband, Les, and I have been planning various improvement projects this spring, and we had no sooner made a final decision on the color of architectural shingles we liked for a roof revamp when his phone rang just after dinner Thursday night. The shingles were in stock and the weather was right, so the crew would arrive at the crack of dawn!

The crew arrived early, and there were either six or seven of them—it was hard to tell because they didn’t stand still long enough for a headcount, and I am still in a bit of shock that their work was completed in one day. The noise was non-stop, from the stomping overhead, to the ripping and peeling sounds of the old shingles coming off, to the banging of hammers and air nailers installing the new roofing materials, to the construction-grade boombox that was blasting lively mariachi music just outside my home office window. All day Friday, both entrances to our home were blocked, and tarps stretched out across the yard to catch the refuse that was being flung from above. Les was working from home that day, so we were sequestered into our own “zones” of the house. The dog, who is terrified of any noise she cannot see, spent most of the day crammed against my knees underneath my work desk, the cat was just plain pissed that she couldn’t go outside (she didn’t understand that her life might have been at risk), and I was so frazzled about all of the above that I started contemplating tequila shots at about 2 in the afternoon.

On top of what was happening at our address, the neighbors across the cul-de-sac had a contractor show up to replace flooring in their master bedroom, and our yard crew was running a day behind on mowing and trimming, so they showed up on Friday to pretty up the common spaces.

There were trucks and trailers and service vans everywhere, and full-on RUCKUS.

There was no way I could escape the house, even to take my daily walk, let alone to make a grocery run, and so I was thankful that dinner was already planned. The whole experience of chaos, Les said, was good practice for the excitement we will experience if we follow through on remodeling our kitchen later this year. I’ve been griping about our kitchen since I moved into the house with him a few years ago, and we are finally ready to apply solutions for our lack of counter space, poor traffic flow and shortage of pantry storage. But committing to the project is scary, not only for the cost, but the time involved. Each contractor we have spoken to has said, “plan for at least six weeks without your kitchen.” And it is true—no matter what Chip and JoJo seem to accomplish in one hour on HGTV—new kitchens take time, and that will be a big challenge. We will figure out how to eat, but how will I be able to sustain the blog?

There might be a lot of grilling recipes coming your way, or it could be a good time for me to catch up on the vast backlog of recipes I have made but not yet transformed into posts. Or I may turn my attention to other ideas I have had for Comfort du Jour, including fun furniture projects and artistic ventures. I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at upcycling tables and worn out chairs. Of course, I may also spend six weeks sharing nothing but cocktail recipes, which—given my low tolerance for ruckus—will probably be in hot rotation.

Anyway, we relaxed under our new roof Friday night with this pizza, our interpretation of one of our favorite take-out sandwiches. We have long enjoyed the “big kahuna” sandwich from Jersey Mike’s, which is a variation of a Philly cheesesteak, but with mushrooms and jalapenos thrown into the mix, and plenty of gooey white cheese. The sandwich is awesome (especially when we ask for extra jalapenos), but it’s so packed with ingredients that we knew that our usual N.Y. thin crust could not hold it all in pizza form.

This beautifully browned pie emerged from the oven with the most pleasing aroma.

We went with a deep-dish pie this time, beginning with the crust, adapted from a King Arthur Baking recipe. I followed the recipe nearly to the letter except for a partial sub-in of white whole wheat flour. You know I’m always going to share my honest opinion, and frankly, I did not love this crust. It was easy enough to make, and instructions were clear and complete, but the recipe called for oil and also quite a bit of melted butter, which I haven’t really seen before as an ingredient for pizza dough. It rose on schedule and baked up beautifully, but the end result, for me, was too similar to pie crust or biscuits, and not quite right for pizza. I would consider it again for some kind of vegetable tart, but for pizza I will stick with the formula offered by Jeff Mauro from Food Network. His recipe with all olive oil makes a wonderful, crunchy-but-soft crust that is so, so good on a deep-dish pizza.

As with most near-misses in our kitchen, this pizza was still delicious. And it was extra yummy after such an unexpectedly noisy Friday.


Ingredients

One deep-dish pizza dough—you choose: King Arthur Baking or Food Network’s Jeff Mauro

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced

5 or 6 cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2/3 lb. thinly shaved steak*

1/2 cup pickled jalapenos, patted dry and chopped

2 Tbsp. salted butter

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

About 4 oz. white American cheese, cubed

1 1/2 cups shredded pepper jack cheese

Let’s walk through it together:

Instructions

  1. Prepare the dough for your deep-dish pizza. This will take some time, depending on the recipe you choose.
  2. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add a couple swirls of olive oil and saute the onions, bell peppers, mushrooms and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Onions should be soft and translucent and mushrooms should be browned on both sides. Transfer vegetables to a dish and set aside.
  3. In the same skillet, over medium-high heat, swirl in olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. When oil is shimmering, add the shaved steak, a few pieces at a time, and toss around to brown it all over. Don’t overcrowd the pan, or the meat will steam rather than brown. Transfer cooked steak to a dish and continue until all the steak is cooked. You may not use all of it on the pizza.
  4. Make the white cheese sauce, beginning with a butter and flour roux in a medium saucepan. Heat the butter until bubbly, then add the flour and whisk together until it appears foamy and the butter is browned. Add the milk all at once and whisk constantly until mixture is smooth, thickened and lightly bubbling. Add cubed American cheese and stir or whisk until melted. Reduce heat to very low to keep sauce slightly warm and pourable while you prep the pizza crust.
  5. Preheat oven to 450° F, with oven rack in the center of the oven.
  6. Place your prepared deep-dish dough into a 14-inch pan (or two 9-inch cake pans), and press gently to spread the dough out to the edges and up the sides about an inch. If the dough is very springy, cover the pan for 15 minutes, allowing the gluten to relax before proceeding.
  7. Scatter the shredded pepperjack cheese evenly over the pizza dough, and press down firmly to ensure good coverage.
  8. Load up your toppings, including the steak, vegetables and jalapeno peppers.
  9. Drizzle the white cheese sauce all over the top. If the sauce does not readily flow into the nooks and crannies, give it an assist with a spatula or spoon.
  10. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the cheese sauce is browned and bubbling, and crust is a deep golden brown. Check on it at the halfway point, and tent loosely with foil, if necessary, to prevent over-browning of the cheese. Rest finished pizza about 15 minutes before using large spatulas to transfer it to a cutting board or round pizza sheet.

Les is so good at this part! He uses a large spatula and a fish turner to move the whole pie.

In case you are curious about the outcome… Wow, what a difference a day can make!

Before and After!


Dilly-Dilly, Double-Heat Potato Salad

There is a common thread that runs through the culinary fabric of the U.S. South. And that thread, in a word, is sweet. Whether it’s beverages, desserts, BBQ sauces or even potato salad, the foods you find on a southern menu will surely satisfy your sweet tooth. That’s a bit of a challenge for people like me, who prefer more savory flavors. In a salad, I want freshness, with tangy, herbal and briny flavors.

When I spotted an online recipe for potato salad with dill and horseradish recently, I got excited about the brightness of flavors and especially the absence of sugar. I found inspiration in that recipe, so I made it (with my own tweaks, of course), and my husband and I enjoyed it so much I’ve made another batch and it will make its way into our recipe rotation. Me being me, though, and always pushing the envelope on flavors, I’ve adjusted it yet again. This time, I doubled down on the dill, adding chopped dill pickles to the original idea of fresh chopped dill. I heaped jalapeno heat on top of the horseradish and crowned the finished salad with chopped hard-boiled egg. Oh, happy Spring! 🙂

This salad is fresh, bright, herbal and zesty!

Best of all, for me, is that there is no sugar in sight. The salad is very dill-forward, and that freshness makes me eager for all the other light foods on the way for Spring. The heat, though doubled, is subtle in the background. The yogurt (or sour cream, if you prefer) contributes a creaminess that isn’t all mayonnaise. And the capers and chopped egg provide a little something extra, as a salad you might expect to find in a good delicatessen.

The result is this dilly-dilly, double heat potato salad, delicious as a cool, savory side to sandwiches, hot foods off the grill or anything you might be serving as a casual meal for Passover or Easter.


Adapted from The Spruce Eats: Dill and Horseradish Potato Salad

Ingredients

About 3 pounds waxy potatoes, peeled* (see notes)

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup Greek yogurt or sour cream

1/3 cup chopped dill pickles*

1/4 cup minced red onion or shallots

2 Tbsp. fresh dill, chopped*

2 Tbsp. pickled jalapenos, chopped*

2 Tbsp. prepared horseradish

1 Tbsp. capers

Salt and pepper to taste

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped (for garnish)


*Notes

The best potatoes for this recipe are those that do not fall apart too easily. Red, yellow or white potatoes are all good options. Russets, not so much. Their starchy fluffiness makes them more prone to mashing.

If you do prefer a slightly sweet flavor, substitute bread and butter pickles for the dills. The dill flavor will still be present, but the sweetness will help to soften the savory edges of this salad.

This is the right time of year to find fresh dill in the supermarket, but if you do not have access to it, substitute dried dill leaves, but only about a teaspoon. Remember that dried herbs are much more potent than fresh.

Can’t stand the jalapeno heat? I promise it is subtle, but if you don’t want or like jalapenos, leave them out. This is my recipe, but you are always in charge of the decisions in your own kitchen, so make it the way you like. Want it hotter? Well, now you sound like my husband. Go ahead, add more. 😊


Instructions

This is one of the simplest recipes, but I’ll share the steps in pictures anyway. Keep scrolling for written instructions and a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.

  1. Cut up the potatoes into large, “three-bite” size. Boil gently until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Drain them and cool completely before cutting them into smaller pieces. If you wish, cook them a day ahead and refrigerate overnight. Cut the cooked potatoes into cubes about the size of croutons.
  2. Combine all remaining ingredients, except eggs, in a large bowl, seasoning the dressing with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Fold the cut-up potatoes into the dressing. Chill in the refrigerator for several hours.
  4. Serve with chopped hard-boiled eggs scattered on top of the salad.

Want to make it?


The Cool Jerk

Just before Christmas last year, my husband and I took a trip to the Washington D.C. area for a concert and a weekend away from home—just a getaway kind of thing. My, how things have changed. During our visit there, we stumbled upon a bourbon cocktail that used a special kind of chocolate bitters, and we couldn’t stop thinking about how to re-create that drink at home (if only we could figure out where in the world to get chocolate bitters). Thanks to our high-speed internet connection and a quick scan of the credit card, I placed an order and our fab cocktail experiment was about to begin. A funny thing happened, though.

Along the way to finding the chocolate bitters, I inadvertently uncovered an entire world of cocktail ingredients that I barely imagined existed. I’m always 100% in favor of trying something new—especially in my glass—and lately my cocktail game is like a game of roulette. With a steady schedule of FaceTime happy hours with friends and family around the globe, we have plenty of opportunities to play with drink recipes. And, to be honest, there’s a bit of vanity in me when it comes to choosing our drink du jour. After the obligatory back-and-forth of “can you guys hear us?” and “how do we make this full-screen?” I live for the moment when we clink glasses at the screen. And in that moment, my Leo nature wants to be asked, “Whoa—whatcha drinkin’?” No, this lioness will not be caught dead with a boring drink.

I’m having my own personal cocktail awakening and finding it crazy fun to tinker with new spirits and mixers—especially infused simple syrups and so many unusual cocktail bitters. Thankfully, my husband, Les, is a willing participant for this journey (well, unless it’s gin). Buckle up for a crash course on what I’ve learned so far.

What are bitters?

Cocktail bitters are a blend of various roots and herbs, usually preserved in a high-proof neutral grain alcohol and sometimes spiked with fruit and spice flavors. They are used in very small amount—a “dash” of bitters is only a quick couple of shakes or drops from the bottle, which has a special top to prevent overpouring. These blends are extremely concentrated, so a little goes a long way. To compare it with something familiar, bitters are kind of like vanilla extract—but with more than one flavor because of all the components in them.

Do bitters make your drink taste bitter?

Not really, but they do bring depth and character to an otherwise predictable drink. Most bitters tend to have an underlying “key” flavor, such as orange or anise, but others may be highly complex—for example, Angostura’s brand of “aromatic” bitters carries notes of juniper berry, cinnamon, orange zest, clove and even cocoa. But you don’t taste all of those things individually. The combination just makes your drink taste more interesting, without losing the character of the spirit ingredient. Kind of like the horn section in a really great song.

What is a simple syrup?

A simple syrup is generally a blend of equal parts sugar and water, boiled just enough to dissolve the sugar and perhaps steeped with other ingredients to add flavors. It’s the easiest way to add a splash of sweet to a cocktail, or even to sweeten up a glass of iced tea because sugar on its own doesn’t blend well in cold liquids. I’ve found it easy to infuse a syrup with just about anything—fresh herbs, hot peppers, citrus peel and even tea bags. It gives me a vehicle to add all kinds of flavor to a cocktail without watering it down. A thin simple syrup would have higher ratio of water to sugar, and a rich simple syrup would be the opposite—more sugar and less water. Don’t feel limited to plain sugar, either—you can make simple syrup from brown or coconut sugar, honey or even maple syrup. Go wild with it!

Are bitters the same as mixers?

No, but some mixers have bitters blended in them. I recently purchased a product called “Proof Syrup,” in a maple bacon flavor (it sounds more incredible than it was), and one of the key components in the syrup was bacon-infused bitters. Mixers are generally used in greater proportion, equal to or slightly less than the spirit ingredient. With bitters alone, easy does it or they overpower the drink.

Where do you buy bitters?

This is the million-dollar question I keep asking myself, and these days, I skip the brick-and-mortar and go directly to online retailers. The garden varieties—aromatic and orange bitters—are widely available in supermarkets in the cocktail mixers section. But if you want to find something exotic or out of the ordinary, such as rhubarb, celery or black walnut bitters, online is the way to go. I’d recommend starting here at AwesomeDrinks.com because they have a good selection from a variety of brands. This is the same site where I bought my Nick and Nora cocktail glasses for the Sassy Comeback cocktail that still visits my dreams.

How many flavors of bitters are there?

Heaven only knows! I spent a good hour narrowing my choices from the online store mentioned above, and I am quite sure I’ll go back for more. Here’s what I purchased most recently:

Fee Brothers’ Cherry Bitters, because Les is wild about cherries. It’s great in bourbon drinks, which is also his new favorite.

I went a little crazy for the selection of Scrappy’s Bitters, purchasing both the cardamom and lavender bitters. The cardamom is intense, but delicious in a most exotic way. I like it with a small batch pear-infused rye produced by one of our local distillers. The lavender? Well, let’s just say I’m still trying to figure out how to further reduce the amount I use because even one drop in a gin drink makes me feel like I just licked a bar of Grandma’s fancy soap. I’m open to suggestions.

Aromaticus bitteris. Now, that’s funny.

Finally, there’s these Bitter End Jamaican Jerk Bitters, because the idea of spices and heat in my drink is pretty much sending me head over heels. Honestly, everything Jamaican jerk is dialing my number right now (perhaps you’ve noticed with these pizzas and this stuffed pepper recipe), so I’ve been working on new ways to get this flavor into my life.

And that brings us full circle to this cocktail, which I’ve named the “Cool Jerk.”

Back in another decade, when I wore pinstriped jeans and big permed hair, it was “cool” to have a fuzzy navel, Alabama slammer or some sweet frothy rum drink with an umbrella, basically the only drinks I knew how to order. But I’m all grown up now and so is this drink. It’s still fruity and tropical, but there’s complex spice instead of just sweet. Rather, it leans toward the sophisticated side of things, especially in a crystal cut, double rocks glass.

There was never a doubt which spirit I’d use—it had to be Jamaican-born Appleton Estate rum, smooth and lightly sweet, with hints of warm spice. I was fortunate enough to visit Jamaica in the late ‘90s, and a full bottle of this rum smuggled itself into my bag for the plane ride home (remember when we could put more than 4 oz. of liquid in our carry-on)?

Lime is the only citrus juice to use with rum (think daiquiri or mojito), and I’ve used a combination of two simple syrups to bring it back into balance—a jalapeno syrup (which is frankly still rocking my world after the pineapple jalapeno ice cream) and the same lemon-ginger syrup I debuted with the Sassy Comeback drink.

The Jamaican jerk bitters are hitting all the right spice buttons, with nutmeg, quassia (a bitter wood native to the Caribbean and parts of South America), habanero, cinnamon, allspice and thyme. The bitters are labeled “extremely spicy” (and I’m quite sure they would be if we took a swig from the bottle), but the little bit we are putting in the drink is not going to set you ablaze. For us, it feels like a perfect balance, about a 3 on a 1-10 spicy scale.

Feeling adventurous?

To make this drink, you’ll need a cocktail mixing glass and spoon, measuring jigger and some big-as-your-face ice cubes. Garnish it with a slice of lime or, if you’re lucky enough to have some leftover from the Jerk pizzas, a wedge of grilled pineapple. This recipe will make 2 generous cocktails.

“Cheers!”

Ingredients

4 oz. Appleton Estate rum

1.5 oz. lemon-ginger simple syrup (recipe below)

.5 oz. jalapeno simple syrup (also below)

Juice of 1 lime, freshly squeezed*

8 drops Jamaican jerk bitters

*Notes

I hate fussing over the garnish for a drink, so here’s how I saved time on our second round of this one. I cut the lime in half, then stole a slice for garnish from the middle before squeezing the halves into the cocktail mixing glass. Done.

Combine the rum, syrups, lime juice and bitters. Add regular ice cubes and stir for 20 seconds, until the mixing glass looks frosty. Strain over giant cubes into double old-fashioned glasses and garnish with slices of lime.


Lemon-ginger Simple Syrup:

Bring 1 cup water to a light boil, then turn off heat. Steep 4 lemon-ginger herbal tea bags in the hot water for about 2 minutes, then remove and squeeze the tea bags (discard them). Add 1 cup sugar to the hot tea blend, and stir until dissolved (return to heat a few minutes, if necessary). Cool completely, then pour into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge a couple of weeks. For this syrup, I use Bigelow brand lemon-ginger tea.

Jalapeno Simple Syrup:

Bring 1 cup filtered water and 1 cup sugar to a light boil over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and syrup begins to lightly boil at the edges. Add 2 small chopped jalapeno peppers and stir, cooking about 2 minutes at low heat. Turn off heat, cool completely, strain jalapenos (reserve them for another use, if desired) and keep syrup in a covered jar in the fridge up to 2 weeks.

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Watermelon-Jalapeno Mule

Ah, watermelon. It has always been one of the most refreshing flavors of summer, and versatile as well. I remember being happy to just grab a wedge of freshly sliced, juicy watermelon and dash back outside to play. That was when watermelon still had oodles of black seeds running through it—you know, before genetic engineering was the norm for our food. And as a kid, I always wanted someone to make me one of those watermelon baskets that’s filled up with fruit salad.

As a grown-up, I still love the flavor but I’m more inclined to elevate it to something more special. Last summer, I made a watermelon-basil sorbet that was freaking delicious. Watermelon and feta salad is always welcome on my summer table, and I’m still fantasizing about grilled watermelon gazpacho. For the over-21 crowd, this adaptation of a Moscow Mule will make you appreciate watermelon even more than you did in your carefree childhood years.

All my recipes are adjustable to your comfort zone for heat and flavor, but if I may suggest, don’t omit the jalapeno syrup in this cocktail. On a 1 – 10 spicy scale, this is only hitting at about 2. Without its seeds and membranes, jalapeno has a bright and fruity flavor that isn’t all that spicy (especially in such small amount as this) and it dances a fine little foxtrot with the juicy watermelon. I’ve used vodka in this cocktail, but if you substitute a white tequila, I’m betting it would be reminiscent of a paleta, the delightful summer treat from south of the border. Pick your poison, then amp up the refreshment even further with a touch of fresh muddled mint, if you so desire.

Let’s raise a copper mug to summer!

We’ve made this a summer go-to for casual backyard downtime this summer. Use the ginger beer you like best, or even ginger ale. The recipe below makes 2 cocktails, perfectly refreshing for summer sipping.

Ingredients

3 oz. Vodka

3 oz. Watermelon puree*

1 oz. Jalapeno simple syrup*

Juice of 1/2 lime

Ginger beer* to top off

Crushed ice

Fresh mint (optional) for muddling and garnish


*Notes

The watermelon puree is a breeze to make—literally, just throw some cut-up pieces of it into your blender or food processor and let it spin. I then run it through a mesh strainer to remove some of the pulp but that’s optional, a benefit, I suppose, of the new-and-improved “seedless” varieties.

To make the jalapeno simple syrup, combine 1 cup each filtered water and cane sugar in a saucepan and bring to a light boil. Remove from heat, stir in a chopped jalapeno (seeds or no seeds, depending on your love for heat) and let it steep until the syrup is cooled. Use a mesh strainer or slotted spoon to remove the jalapeno pieces and keep the syrup in a sealed jar in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Ginger beer is not “ginger-flavored” beer, and it does not have alcohol. It’s a stronger, zippier version of ginger ale soda, and it is a typical ingredient in a classic Moscow Mule cocktail. You may find it in the soda section of your market—if not, look in the cocktail mixers section where you’d find tonic water and club soda. Fever Tree brand has gained popularity recently, but I favor the Reed’s brand, which is all-natural and sweetened with honey. In particular, I look for the “Extra,” which has a higher concentration of the spicy ginger. If the spice doesn’t sit well with you, use regular ginger beer or try ginger ale.

Instructions

Fill your copper mule mug or 10 oz. glass halfway with crushed ice to get it chillin’.

Combine the watermelon puree, vodka, lime juice, a couple of mint leaves (optional) and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes and shake for 20 seconds or until the outside of the shaker is frosty. Strain over the crushed ice into your mugs or glasses and top with ginger beer. Garnish with lime wheel, jalapeno slice or additional mint if you’re feeling fancy.

Cheers, from our backyard to yours!
Which one is sweeter? ❤

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