My Bloggin’ Friends


I’ve previously written about my friend Ben Starr, a former contestant on Masterchef.(1) Through watching the show, getting in contact with him, and trading ideas back and forth about travel, cooking and life, we’ve developed a kinship in our parallel existences. He has inspired me to further experiment with the aspects of food that I find fascinating, and I’ve been encouraged through meeting and hanging out with him to more actively pursue my goals in the kitchen.
In addition to being a friend of mine, Ben is also a travel writer, one who takes the greatest joy in combining his passions for exploration and food. Following along on his Youtube Channel, I’ve gotten glimpses of myself in what he finds so wonderful about life through his instructional videos on cooking with new ingredients such as Kangaroo Loin, how to quick thaw a turkey, (we’ve all been there), and the delight with which he hunts morel mushrooms and explores caves in Arkansas is infectious. Take a watch:

Ben is the reason why today’s post is titled thusly. Recently, he was shortlisted for a position with Tourism Australia, given the opportunity to compete for six months as Tastemaster of Western Australia, going around the country profiling where to eat and drink, foraging local bounty, and promoting Western Australia through their partnership to showcase the “Best Jobs in the World”.

When I first met Ben, he had come through Chicago on business, still maintaining ties with the cooking and television world. In between gigs, he was all over the map, and texted me from the far Northwest side of town at a pizza joint, in the loop at lunch, and a Brewpub around dinner time. Not letting the busy schedule stop him, nor the fact that he had spent the wee hours of the morning up talking with his friends and hosts, we met in Pilsen at Del Toro for a later dinner.  He showed up with a 30 lb. backpack and a phone almost out of juice. After exchanged hugs and pleasantries, he beelined to the bartender and talked his way into outlet access for a phone charge, just because that’s the type of person he is.

For the next couple of hours, we talked about all the places we’d been, all the experiences we’d had, and things that made us smile about our normal lives. The conversation flowed with ease, and there was never a dull moment, and this was a guy that we’d just met. What better ambassador for adventure than this new person who just walked in the restaurant, knowing neither me nor my lady personally at that point, but leaving the evening as though we were old friends.

A little over a month ago, he put out the feelers to find some great places to eat in New Orleans. I could have just told him what everyone else with no idea would say, “Get a Po’ Boy in the French Quarter, Go to Emeril’s”, etc. I told him to check out the restaurant where my old friend Tony was working. Sure, I hadn’t seen him in a year or two, but I hold Tony in high esteem, so anything he was associated with had to be good.

I got a text around dinner time one night when Ben was supposed to be down there, and through a little bit of wiggling, we found that Tony was indeed working that night. The messages I received from both Tony and Ben over the next couple of days were great. Ben and crew had tried everything on the menu, not wanting to miss a bite of all New Orleans had to offer, saying that Tony played a gracious host, and Tony said that they really enjoyed their meal and time there. It’s all about meeting new people and experiencing new things, from what I can gather.

We’ve kept in contact since then, talking about other endeavors, but this most recent opportunity he has is monumental. From a pool of over 600,000 people, Ben is a step away from getting a dream job, and I want to do something to help, so today I’m writing this and spreading the news. Go to his website, Youtube channel and read or view some of his material, like or comment on it, and if you’re on Twitter, further spread the word by posting something along the lines of “I hope @TheBenStarr wins #bestjobs #TasteMasterWA in @Australia! #Ben4TheWin @WestAustralia”. 

I like it when good people receive good things due to their hard work. Let’s make some dreams come true.

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I am a man of many passions when it comes to food. Over the course of my continuing education in learning about my likes and dislikes, I’ve had some polarizing statements come out of my mouth.

1) I could never date a vegetarian.  Okay, that one was asking to be broken. When I first said it, I think I meant that I could never date someone who so closely affiliated the biggest parts of who they were with vegetarianism. Yes, it shapes your eating habits, but to constantly talk about what you can and can’t, should and shouldn’t, will and won’t eat is too much of a grind if you’re in a relationship with someone whose profession and passion centers around food.

That being said, the woman who has accepted me as her own does not eat the barnyard meats. Nothing with legs, says she, and that’s fine.

We eat fish from time to time, not so much as we used to in Seattle, but it’s part of the menu. I’ve learned to extract flavors from vegetables, and I have an open relationship with my meat, knowing that if she’s out of town, it’s alright to cook a burger or two. Most of the choices I make, however, have evolved into cooking things that we’d normally eat together, anyway. I don’t have cravings for red meat, nor do I go out of my way to get a pork chop or two if I want one, although the option is there at the grill down the street.

Instead, It’s a pasta, some vegetables, a sauce, maybe some shrimp if it’s around. I do like risotto. I find myself looking for more things that are green, and get a bit frustrated if I don’t come up with something a little bit healthier if I’m going to cook a meal.

I can’t eat like I used to. Burgers make me feel gross and lethargic. I really like chicken wings, but if they’re fried, I just don’t care for how they make my stomach do flips when I’m least expecting it. In times of culinary crisis, a salad can be your best friend.

This brings me to point the second.

2) Veganism is a waste of time. I used to say that your body needs animal protein, and that to deny it what it needs causes conflict in your innards. A comfortable solution to fast food and diets high in saturated fats this is not. Anything your body needs that you take out of your diet needs to be replaced with something. Veganism just sounded like so much of a hassle.

Today, though, a friend was looking to drastically change her eating habits, and decided that veganism was the way to go. Admittedly, it’s a tricky road, and one that I probably won’t go down. Still, how does one achieve a good balance of nutrients in a plant-based diet to fully function on a daily basis? Where does the protein come from? What about the energy that you would lack?

What ensued was a conversation on Facebook back and forth between a few different voices, some vegan, some not. One woman had a gluten intolerance. I think it’s fascinating to find out how people deal with certain restrictions of food consumption to come up with a suitable solution to their own dietary needs.

First, the biggest culprit is red meat. I say this working from behind the counter in a meat department, and against my better judgment from the standpoint of wanting it to be a success: We eat too much red meat. Our case would not be as bounteous if we cut everything to portion sizes that the governing bodies recommended. We would lose our porterhouses and our ribeyes. A 20 lb. ham would take a family of four two weeks to polish off. It just wouldn’t be right. Still, we have options for healthy eating where the recipe dictates a ratio of meat to vegetables that allows us to be comfortable in recommending items to people who want to eat healthy.

I realize it’s not for everyone, and I want to let people who are considering veganism to know that if it isn’t for ethical reasons, it can be a soft veganism. So long as you are doing it for health reasons, there are many options out there for living a plant-based existence.

What has two thumbs and enjoys a plant-based diet? This guy.

Somewhere out in the ether is a nutritionist, John Pierre, who touts ‘going to the source’ as a method of finding optimum nutrition. For example, if you don’t want to eat fish, but you want the benefit of Omega-3 fatty acids, look at what the fish eat: Green sea vegetables. Who says you can’t skip eating the fish and go straight to the source? If you’re not vegan, who says you can’t fortify your eating choices by adding nutrient rich greens to your diet?

I do love nutrient rich greens of the variegated kind. There’s kale, chard, mustard greens, bitter searing greens, etc. These are all excellent choices from which you can derive a large part of your total nutrition, and in conjunction with other nutrient dense plants, seeds, or nuts, you can get a balanced meal. One that comes to mind is Black Beans and seared kale. Add brown rice, a serving of nuts, and you’re on your way. It doesn’t have to be complex, and you don’t have to be constantly substituting things in and out of recipes. A lot of different countries have recipes that are vegan or vegetarian based, from the afforementioned rice and beans with kale to dozens of Indian dishes.

I found a great blog specializing in Indian dishes that stand alone with flavors and health, and they’re vegetarian by design, not because they’re appealing to a niche. That is secondary. The composition and health are the primary driving factors behind these recipes. Check it out. 

From Currylicious- Chickpeas with Grated Coconut. Click the Picture for the Recipe

Nobody says vegetarian food has to be boring. Look at granola. That’s vegan without being called vegan. Put some fresh fruit in there, a splash of alternative milk (make sure there’s no added sugar and that it’s low in added oil-that negates the health benefits), and it’s breakfast.

It doesn’t have to be boring, this food, but it should be healthy. Here’s a helpful hint: If you can’t see the food, or if it’s hidden behind multiple layers of packaging, it’s probably not the best for you. Want to know what is? Vegetables. Fresh Vegetables. Even frozen vegetables are good. Clarence Birdseye patented a food technology long ago that harnesses the nutritive value of rapidly frozen vegetables so that from farm to table they retain almost all of their deliciousness and health. Canned beans are good for you, and I know from experience that they’re cooked equal or better than I can make them at home.

Veggie Burgers are delicious, so long as you don’t close your eyes and hope that it tastes like meat. You’ll be disappointed if you do. If you just want something that tastes like it’s not trying too hard, be satisfied with your patties, or for a more healthful alternative, make a big batch of your own using all the good things that you can think of.

Make a pot of brown rice. Fluff it up, eat some with dinner, and use the rest for burgers. Add some cooked lentils, some finely chopped kale, a bunch of spices like coriander, turmeric, cumin, some onions, maybe some garlic. Mix it by the hand squish method until it becomes something that will hold together as a blob. Patty them, separate them with waxed paper, throw them in the freezer, and pull one out when you need it. Shopping for all this  stuff once and making a big batch is a great way to make it easier on yourself to eat healthier.

***

Even if eating vegan or even strictly vegetarian is not  for me, the conversation taught me a lot about how I think about my food. I don’t want to classify my eating habits as anything. Aside from eating takeout out of convenience once in a while, I know how to eat healthy. I need my greens, and if I choose to eat mostly vegetarian, I know where to get my proteins from: Barley, Quinoa, Rice, Nuts, and Beans. It’s not about ethics for me. It’s about health. I’m not going to shut out specific food groups unless it’s proven that I need to cut down. Moderation, as always, is key. A little cheese is not going to hurt as long as I eat some fruit and maybe some nuts.

There are so many great vegetarian dishes out there that I’ve been meaning to try, and not because they’re vegetarian, but just because they look like they taste good. Aside from eating what’s right for your body, isn’t that what matters most?

***
Hey, you. Leave a comment. Let’s continue this discussion. 

Taking a little breather here between courses. A friend recently started a blog and website for his farm in Southern Indiana, Ghostwood Farm. 

In addition to being awesomely named, it’s a working chemical free farm that began running test crops in 2011, and will be up and running with laying and meat chickens for 2012, as well as set crops of asparagus, melons, corn, and a bunch of other excellent produce.

How do I know it will be excellent? In addition to being a no-nonsense place where barnyard animals can coexist in the acreage with crops and wildlife, it’s run by a couple of hard working environmental scientists who actually care about what they raise, how they raise it, and their relationship with nature and how it affects what they choose to share with the public and their own family in terms of food.

Over at the website, read Adam’s first blog post.  It’s contemplative, articulate, and thought provoking. A lot of questions have been asked of me to show where the food comes from, and how it gets the way it does. I can do it a little bit, but Adam is your guy for this. Study up. With blogging, he’s just starting out, but I see good things coming from both the blog and the farm.

Also, check out their page on Facebook. Become a fan, and keep abreast of everything happening down on the farm.

Here’s something to think about- from whatever state or substate you live in, what would you say are ingredients and preparations thereof native to your area?

When I took on the task of making a pizza in the shape of New Jersey, utilizing ingredients native to the state they were to represent, I had it pretty easy with New Jersey. There’s a style of pizza (tomato pie), and a solid ingredient that the state is known for being a large producer of  (eggplant). However, for my second attempt at a pizza, I may have promised too much.

Wisconsin. Yeesh. My home state, land of beer, cheese, bratwurst, etc. Do they go on a pizza? No clue. Can I make them fit? Probably. How do I come up with a cohesive theme that encompasses all the great things about Wisconsin cuisine and fit them on a single pie? Moreover, how do I reconcile my desire to put everything on a pizza where the ingredients may or may not match up. Furthermore, taking from my years at the Dane County Farmer’s Market, how on Earth do I choose from the thousands of fantastic, locally grown and sourced items that were available to me every Saturday?

The local food movement is never more present than in Wisconsin, where every weekend at 6:30 AM, as I set up the bakery stall, I’d see wagons filled with local meats, cheeses, and produce, destined for restaurants around the area. There was L’Etoile, a kind of mini Chez Panisse, taking a large bit of inspiration from the mind of Alice Waters. L’Etoile spawned Harvest, whose executive chef went on to lead the Madison chapter of the Slow Food Movement. In later years, though, there was Ian’s Pizza. I’d never think that Ian’s would be so fastidious about sourcing local ingredients, as it was a late night hangout for every drunken collegiate within stumbling distance of either the Kohl Center after basketball games or State Street, the main bar thoroughfare in Madison. Still, every Saturday, Ian himself would be walking around the square, talking with the vendors, and picking out interesting ingredients for his pies.

Ian’s made a name for themselves as an inexpensive yet inventive pizza joint in Madison, staking claim to pizzas like the Macaroni and Cheese, the Steak Frites, and more recently, a Thanksgiving pizza, with mashed potato sauce base, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and bits of turkey as a topping. This is where I drew a bit of inspiration from.

Wisconsin

Here’s a map of Wisconsin: It’s much larger than New Jersey, with topography that goes from rolling glacial hills with incredibly fertile black soil in the south to sandy, evergreen forests in the middle, and cranberry bogs in the north. What to do?

In Wisconsin, there’s a tremendous amount of old growth forest-a mycological playground for wild mushroom foraging. Morels, trumpets, hedgehogs. You name it, and with enough asking and searching, you can find someone who knows just the right place to find some. Unfortunately, the only thing as sacred in Wisconsin as the allegiance to the Green Bay Packers is usually the location of one’s secret mushroom area, so good luck with that one.

***

In my head, I’ve got some ideas. I waited a couple of weeks for the first signs of real spring produce to show up. I did not want to use hothouse tomatoes, root vegetables, or anything that could have been kept in a cold store for the winter. Around April in Wisconsin, we see the first shoots of green pop up: In our gardens, we have the patches of asparagus that grow like weeds. In the forests out behind the house, we have my personal favorites, ramps. As I walked through the store the other day on my way out, I noticed we had some ramps on the shelf. I grabbed two bunches, their twist ties reading Harmony Valley Farms, a longtime Dane County Farmers’ Market staple and huge advocate for new and different local foods. They were selling sunchokes and yellow carrots long before they were foisted on us by the Food Network. They were nutty, soft, and as good then as they are today.

I found some dried apples. In the Kickapoo Valley in the Southwest corner of the state, there is a town called Gays Mills situated among the bluffs along the Mississippi. It’s known for its Apple Festival every September, where all the orchards harvest their finest crops and come together to celebrate the agriculture which sustains this three block long Main Street and the surrounding area.

In the meat department, I grab a bratwurst. Unless you know where to find Johnsonville, or you make your own, you cannot find a good, raw bratwurst in this city outside of Lincoln Square, the heavily German neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. The bratwurst we have at work is pretty good. Flavorful, and a close cousin to a Sheboygan.I also grab a little bit of bacon.

As I mentioned before, cranberries in northern Wisconsin grow abundantly, and driving through the state, if you avoid the turnoff to Minneapolis, you pass bog after bog of cranberries destined for a bottle of Ocean Spray. In the store, it’s difficult to find a dried cranberry these days that is not sweetened with sugar, so I found some that were a bit more pricey that were sweetened with apple juice.

Up to this point, I have not talked about cheese. Cheese is a touchy subject, especially if you need to find something that is going to be representing the entire state. Do you do cheddar? Muenster? Brick? Wisconsin, specifically the cheese Mecca of Monroe, has more Master Cheesemakers per capita than any other state in the country. In Monroe alone, there are 9 Master Cheesemakers, one of whom, Bruce Workman of Rothkase, has certifications as a Master of eight cheeses. You study one at a time, for two years before you’re even considered for your certificate.

Fun fact: There used to be over 100 dairy operations in Southern Wisconsin that made limburger cheese. Now, there is only one in the United States, and it is located in Monroe, Wisconsin.

Okay, back to the cheese. Which one to choose? I wanted to go with something fresh and something from Wisconsin. In my state, Dairy farming still sustains many, many families, and although times are tough, there are many farmstead operations around the state  where farmers can take their milk to be processed. One such operation is Crave Brothers Cheese. Makers of fresh Mascarpone, ripened cheeses, and Fresh Mozzarella, I found out a few years ago that a former classmate of mine had married into the family. When shopping for local ingredients, it makes me feel good to know that I’m supporting not only area businesses, but families and friends who are working hard and making a living by showcasing the agricultural heritage of Wisconsin. From the fresh case at work, I picked up a container of Crave Brothers Ovoline.

***

As I assembled the ingredients back at the house into something that I might actually want to eat on a pizza, I felt good. I sauteed some mushrooms and dried apples in butter, and in a pan on the other burner, I fried up some bacon and bratwurst. The smell hit me. My apartment started to take on a new olfactory dimension, and I became intoxicated by the bacon. As they were caramelizing, I made a quick ramp pesto using the ramp leaves, some oil that I had infused with pureed basil, and a shred of parmesan cheese. I now had the smell of bacon, mushrooms, apples, and the garlicky smell of the pesto floating in the air.

Ramp Pesto

It smelled like home, but something was missing.

I set aside the apples and mushrooms, took out the bratwurst, and sliced the browned bacon into small strips. The bacon grease came out of the pan, and there, I saw it. On the bottom of the pan was the answer to my missing ingredients.

To the fridge, where we had a cheap can of beer. (It was Old Style. Had I planned a little better, it would have been Pabst). Into the pan went a few splashes of beer, lifting the golden bits from the cooking surface. Back into the pan went the bacon, followed by the cranberries and a splash of the bacon grease. Tossed around, they got glossy and exuded a smell that I could not deny was uniquely Wisconsin.

Bacon, Cranberries, and Goodness

I did the same thing with the Bratwurst. I returned it to the pan, sauteed it with some mushrooms, and hit it up with some beer and bacon grease.

I had been putting this pizza recipe off for too long, and I knew tonight was the night, so I had to make one concession. I was not going to put it off for another day, but I didn’t have the time to make the dough. I bought a dough ball from work, which actually seemed to work out fairly well. It was easy to work with, and I didn’t mind it one bit.

Saying that, the dough was quite stretchy, and airy. I haven’t tossed dough like that in 15 years, but it worked out well enough that I could put it on our pan and cut it into a basic shape of Wisconsin.

For organizational purposes, keeping in mind that the lady doesn’t eat meat, despite being equally as enthralled by the scent of bacon as nearly any good American should be, I decided to break down the map of Wisconsin regionally. Apples and mushrooms  were to go in the southwest,  with a stripe of beerbrats and mushrooms stretching from Milwaukee/Sheboygan/Green Bay up Twin Cities way. We followed it with our cranberry and beer bacon mix in the north. As the base, we used the verdant ramp pesto, to celebrate the state’s pastoral place as America’s Dairyland, and to top it off, a good measure of the Crave Ovoline.

Into the oven. Twenty minutes at 425°.

When it came out…

A little puffy, not to say anything bad as we’d say back home. Nothing to complain about. I can see that it’s Wisconsin, and I can smell that it’s Wisconsin, but how’d you think it tasted? I’ll tell you right now- It tasted incredible.

It tasted like home.

Here’s the first of hopefully many guest appearances by my food blogging acquaintances. First up, we have P. Soutowood, of Handmade. A father, husband, architect, and baker of extraordinary curiousity, his blog posts are some of my favorites, and have influenced a lot of what I like to think about and talk about when I think food. If you’re ever wondering what blogs I read to get some inspiration for writing a bit of my own, his blog is a great place to start. First, a big thank you to him for sharing his talent and ideas. P, I’m honored to share my little blogging corner with you and to introduce your creativity to everyone who may be out there reading. That being said, anonymous readers, please enjoy this, the first guest post on Mulligan Stew, and don’t forget to visit his blog, Handmade.

***

Baking bread is not that difficult, I’ll get that out of the way up front.  Buy some yeast, mix up water, flour, and salt, give it two rises and bake it.  If you’ve spent any time in a kitchen, or even seen one on TV, if you know the difference between a tablespoon and a hectare, and you don’t make violent spastic movements when working with your hands, you can go from raw ingredients to baked bread in a few hours.  But…making good bread is a little more tricky.

I’m going to assume you’re a foodie since you are here at Mulligan Stew, and can tell the difference between a fresh baguette and months-old Wonder Bread refusing to mold.  So you know good bread has to score high marks in several areas:  beautiful plump form and expert scoring, caramelized and crispy crust, open structured crumb, creamy color, nutty and wheaty flavor.  A good piece of bread is a gold medal in the baking decathlon.  Over the last couple years I’ve gone from baking one bread to twenty different breads and am now working my way back down to one:  sourdough.  Simple is difficult, but can be fantastically rewarding.

Here’s the thing:  sourdough is flour, water, salt, heat, and time.  All the variables in starting a culture, keeping it fed, rising and judging your dough, and getting the right baking environment, they are all plates you’ve got to keep spinning.  Making naturally-leavened bread is what people have been doing for thousands of years—utilizing the bacteria found in grains floating like dust motes in the air to coax flavor out of flour and fill it with some air bubbles.  It’s just in the last hundred years bakers have begun using commercial yeast, which I should add is for the baker’s convenience and not for the benefit of the end user.  Yeast vs. natural levain, the title match will be over in the first round.  Yeasted bread goes moldy in a couple days, natural levain keeps bread fresh for weeks—BAM!  Yeasted bread doesn’t have the complex acids and salts of natural levain making the flavor profile one dimensional—POW!  Natural levain converts sugars in flour in a way that makes it more digestible and less likely to raise the glycemic index of diabetics—OOF!  In three hits, natural levain beats out commercial yeast, but it’s so much more than that.

If you want to experience the elemental nature of creating food, it’s hard to beat making your own sourdough.  It’s not that difficult to get a starter going, and after a week of building your own culture, you can keep it in the fridge and feed it once a week when you need to make more bread.  I’ve had mine about two years, but some bakeries in San Francisco have kept mother cultures going over 150 years.  Now that’s even-death-won’t-part-us commitment.  I’ve got some direction on making sourdough here.  If you think making bread is too daunting, try this on for size:  no-knead sourdough ciabatta.  Use the recipe for the no-knead ciabatta, substituting 1 tablespoon of sourdough starter for each ¼ t of yeast.  Basically you mix up some batter, leave it out for 12 hours, then give it a few mixes with a spoon, pour it onto some parchment, and slide it into a hot oven.  C’mon, even Spastic-hands McKitchen Disaster could bake this!

The first time you bake your own bread you’ll think, “This is ten times better than anything I could buy at the store,” which is true of almost every food you make yourself.  Don’t forget that the industrial food complex is not about making delicious food, it’s about making shelf-stable food that plumps up the bottom line.  Bake your own naturally-leavened bread and your body and hungry friends will thank you!

Remember Iain? Of course you do. Well, this week, I made a pizza for his blog project. I know Wisconsin would be the easiest pie for me to tackle, but according to those who live up there, stuff just isn’t ready. I still have to wait a little bit for ramps, asparagus, berries of all kinds. It’s okay. I just didn’t want to make a turnip pizza.

anyway, I thought about what pizza I’d really like to make. With Iain’s completion of Pennsylvania, I decided to do a little companion puzzle piece. A little bit of Googling pointed me to New Jersey’s favorite foods.

Maybe I’m one of the only people to realize this, or maybe I just remembered because Zach Braff wouldn’t shut up about New Jersey for a few years and probably mentioned it, but New Jersey is the nation’s leading supplier of eggplant. Also known as the Garden State, New Jersey is the birthplace of the Tomato Pie, with Trenton staking the earliest claim to the recipe.

Tomato pie is a pizza with the toppings in reverse. Crust-Cheese-Topping-Sauce. It ends up looking like a stuffed pizza. The tricky part for this pizza is that the Trenton style of tomato pie is thin crust. There’s no place to hide the sauce. Just goes right on top with no retaining wall on the sides.

***

I needed things. I knew I had, in the fridge, my basil pesto from last week. That was going to be the base. Brushed on as a thin layer directly between the crust and cheese layer, it was my way of saying to New Jersey that even though people may only remember them for being dirty and giving the world the idea that only greasy, fried Italian things come from the shore, that underneath it all, there’s a tiny patch of green that I know is there, and it makes everything alright.

I picked up the following- Provolone (mozzarella uses the same curd as what becomes provolone. Plus, sliced thin, it’s easy enough to place in an even layer on the pizza), tomatoes for sauce, onions, garlic, and baby eggplant. I thought about getting a large one, but these were about the size of a juice glass, and we only had to have enough for one pizza. Also, parmesan cheese for sprinkling.

Conspicuously cut to not show a label, but I really made the Pesto. Really.

So, I came home to my standby pizza dough rising in the oven. I sliced the eggplant into 1/2″ thick rounds, breaded them in parmesan breadcrumbs and egg, and fried them. Setting them aside, I made the sauce. Onion and garlic, sweat in olive oil for five minutes. I added some leftover capers from a few nights before, and a can of seasoned tomatoes, just because it doesn’t have to be great. Just sauce.

Sauce cooked down, reduced until it was pretty chunky with little excess liquid. That’s when I hit it with the immersion blender. After blending, it thickened and reduced pretty quickly. Instead of a runny sauce, I had one that I could dollop onto a pizza. The consistency was great, and the sauce was not going to run anywhere.

I rolled the crust out, and pinched my way to a vaguely jellybean-shaped crust. I took all the pesto and spread it across the crust, layered the provolone, and put the eggplant parm on top. Two small eggplant yielded about 16 small slices, which fit the pie perfectly all the way down from Hackensack to Cape May.

Adding the sauce, I used the eggplant as a natural barrier for spills, and it seemed to work out fine. By the time it was sauced, the makeshift marinara had thickened up to a paste.  It worked so well. With a flourish of grated cheese, it went in the oven for 25 minutes at 425.

It turned out perfectly. As it was in the oven, I got a call from my lady friend, who said that she was bringing guests over, and she hoped that there was enough food. I looked at the pizza, which while filling seemed deceptively small in surface area, and immediately grabbed the other dough ball in the fridge. The oven was still on, so I didn’t have to worry about anything but making enough food to feed everyone.

Pizza number two, the other one, was what I had in the fridge. Orange peppers, capers, kalamata olives, a little sauce, feta, more provolone, roasted garlic. Into the oven it went, and I was happy when it came out and everyone was able to enjoy more than a couple slices of pizza.

I enjoyed both pizzas, but the Jersey Pizza held a special place in my heart. I did it to help out a friend, to feed my household, and to utilize the fresh bounty of a state not normally associated with freshness. Here’s my pizza. I hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I enjoyed making and eating it.

New Jersey-Now available in Pizza!

Don’t forget to check out the 50 State Pizza Project at: http://www.the-muffin-man.com

You’ll be very happy you did.

Hey Guys. Have you met Iain?

This is Iain. He lives in Pennsylvania. He likes to bake. What kind of things does he like to bake? Boy, I’m so glad you asked. Iain likes to bake muffins. Iain likes to bake just about anything, but one of the reasons why I like Iain so much is because he likes to bake pizza.

Iain is known in the blogging community as “The Muffin Man”. Some people call him the Sufjan Stevens of baking. If you’re really wondering why he’s called the Muffin Man, and if the apron isn’t a dead giveaway, maybe this will help:

Mmmmmmmuffins

This is a batch of Iain’s apple streusel muffins. Really, who doesn’t like muffins? Don’t they look great?

Well, that’s not why I’m writing about Iain. Muffins are one thing, but back to Sufjan Stevens. In an endeavor that can only be described as Herculean, Iain has taken it upon himself to create and execute something that every man has dreamed of, but few ever attempt. Even fewer, I might add, document it on the internet for the world to see. What is it, you ask?

Here’s how it works: According to the Muffin Man himself, the 50 State Pizza Project, hatched out of a lengthy latenight Facebook conversation with friends and family, is “An exploration of the American food identity, and my attempt to create a pizza for each state, in the shape of that state, using ingredients native to or associated with that state.”

What a great idea. As a fellow blogger, and a mostly food-oriented blogger at that, I fully support this idea. Pizza number one is from his current state, Pennsylvania.

For the purpose of authenticity, he used a map of the state, with its unique east/west geographical culinary divide, for the mold. To the east, representing the City of Brotherly Love, Rocky Balboa, and all things that fill us with a swell of pride whenever we hear the word “Liberty”, an homage to Cheesesteak. To the west, an ode to the legendary Pittsburgh institution, the Primanti Brothers Sandwich- Steak, Coleslaw, and French Fries. Ladies and gentlemen, you are what you eat. I give you the State of Pennsylvania:

Up next is Washington State, where I hung my hat for two years. It is the land of beautiful waters, pristine seafood, and apples as far as the eye can see. What does the future hold for the 50 State Pizza Project? Check out the link on my blogroll (on the right hand menu bar and down), or find all the excitement at http://muffin-man-blog.tumblr.com/.

I’ve offered my services to assist with Wisconsin at some point in the near future, but I don’t yet know how ramps, cranberries and bratwurst will all fit on the same pie. We shall see. Indeed we will.