In Search of the Perfect Pizza Crust: Part I

Sunday night was pizza night in our family. We started, in the early 1960s, with Chef Boyardee Pizza kits. The picture on the box showed a generous pizza with a cracker-thin crust, just the right amount of tomato sauce, and plenty of stretchy cheese. chefboyardeee03292011The reality was less inspiring – especially the powdery cheese-like-food product that came out of a can and tasted like vomit. But if you used only half of the overly salty sauce and added your own cheese, they weren’t too bad. We didn’t know you could put exotic things like sausage and olives on pizza. Mushrooms were a no go. Dad didn’t eat fungus. I think we did, sometimes, go wild and add hamburger. I vaguely remember slices of hot dogs, but I’m hoping that was just a nightmare.

So, my first visit to the Capri Pizzeria in Athens Georgia was the Big Bang of my pizza universe. The pies came on huge, battered old pizza pans – the size of trash can lids. And the crusts were life changing. They were crisp but chewy; and under the toppings, you’d find a lunar landscape of bubbles and craters.

Capri made their Italian sausage. It was a revelation. It had fennel seeds in it! FENNEL SEEDS! And the pizza was topped with real mozzarella and slightly smoky Provolone that made those long, stretchy strings that you see in the movies. We didn’t dine out much, and I can’t say my Dad was a great pizza fan. Fortunately, my mother and her best friend, Denise, loved the Capri’s roast beef sandwiches and went there often for lunch. Sometimes, if I was out of school, I tagged along. I cannot vouch for the quality of the sandwiches because: Why would you go to the Capri and NOT EAT PIZZA???!!! I don’t remember that the Capri sold pizza by the slice. But it must have, because I always had pizza. And I couldn’t possibly have eaten one of those massive pies by my scrawny lonesome. Then, again. . . .

Sadly, the Capri closed around 1980 or so. This catastrophe ushered in what I now know were to be my years of pizza exodus – wandering the pizza desert in search of manna (which, I’m pretty sure, the Old Testament describes as “as delicious as the perfect pizza crust). A Food Truck owner, Bob Petrillose, had invented the Poor Man’s (later French bread) Pizza in Ithica, New York in the 1960s. He licensed the idea to Stouffer’s, which introduced its frozen French Bread pizza to the American market in 1974. I don’t know precisely when Mom cottoned on to French bread pizza, but she was definitely an early adopter. But they weren’t cheap – and Mom was – so she explored various other options for putting tomato sauce and melted cheese on bread: frozen bagels (which qualify neither as bagels, nor as pizza crust), English muffins (Thomas’s are passable, if you are trapped on a desert island; otherwise, don’t bother), Bisquick and Pillsbury crescent roll dough (no comment).

My first exposure to Tombstone frozen pizza came during my trips to visit my family in Eagle River, Wisconsin, where Sunday night is also pizza night. My Auntie Anita has always been a culinary trailblazer in our family. My mother got her very first pizza recipe in, like, 1958, from Anita. Tombstone pizza was invented in Wisconsin, you see, so it was a patriotic duty. And because it was invented in Wisconsin, it was all about the cheese. Before it was mass-marketed across the US (after the original family company sold out to Kraft), it was only available in Wisconsin. If you ordered a pizza at a tavern or bar pretty much anywhere in Northern Wisconsin, what you got was a Tombstone. It was marketed as the next best thing to homemade:

 And in the pre-Kraft days, it sort of was.

Auntie always kept a dozen or so Tombstones in her freezer, ready for an impromptu “pizza doctoring” party. A proper pizza doctoring party – and, yes, you can do this at home – involves some key ingredients:

  • Coolers loaded with several suitcases of beer, preferably Old Style and Miller Light (or your local equivalent, cheap, quaffing beer), Diet Pepsi and A&W Root Beer for the kids. In later years, family beer preferences shifted to Icehouse and Budweiser Light (which, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t beer, but one humours ones relatives). Now that we are all grown-ups, we have also ventured into craft brews, such as Leinenkugel’s. And WINE!!


    This is a suitcase of beer. Not Old Style, but at least a Milwaukee beer.

  • Gin, vermouth (sweet and dry), brandy, Spanish olives (unless Auntie had some of her dilled green beans), and maraschino cherries so the grown-ups can make martinis and manhattans.
  • Several pounds of grated pizza cheese (Did I say Tombstones were all about the cheese? Well, not enough cheese for us!)
  • Peperoni, sliced mushrooms, ripe black olives, crumbled pre-cooked hamburger or sausage meat (because even had the Tombstones had enough cheese, they never had enough other stuff; and everyone wanted different other stuff.)
  • Dill pickle spears
  • Potato chips
  • Lots of Aunties, Uncles, Cousins, Cousins-in-law, and other assorted hangers-on
  • An oven
  • Scissors (to cut the pizza; we never had anything as flash as a pizza wheel)
  • Oh, and lots and lots of Tombstones.

I cannot swear that this was actually a pizza doctoring party. The vintage (1980s) is right, however, as is the general vibe.

Do I really need to tell you what to do next? OK:

  1. Open a beer, or
  2. If you were born before 1945, wait for Earl and Chuck to mix the martinis and brandy manhattans
  3. Open a Tombstone, add additional toppings as desired, but at the bare minimum lots and lots of extra cheese,
  4. Open another beer,
  5. Bake the Tombstone according to package directions, or until your toppings are nice an bubbly
  6. Listen while Cousin Randy tells hysterical bear hunting stories
  7. Let the Tombstone cool briefly, then cut into slices with the sewing shears,
  8. Grab another beer
  9. Eat with pickle spears and chippies until you can’t move.

Dill pickles? Potato chips? Yes. Tombstones need dill pickles and potato chips. There is debate in our family as to who established this rule. The smart money is on my Mom. Maybe the Eagle River clan has been goofing me all these years, and when I’m not around, they leave out the pickles.


This week’s slice: Dill Pickle and Potato Chip Pizza


The inspiration for this pizza is two-fold. First, a few years ago, my Auntie J gave me a raclette grill for Christmas. Simon and I enjoyed raclette, which is an excellent excuse to eat potatoes, pickles, sweet onions, and lots and lots of melted cheese. I had to rehome the raclette grill when we moved because, as I did all my other electric appliances. So I felt a pang of homesickness when I discovered that the Stinky Cheese Man at the farmers’ market had raclette cheese. Why not, I asked myself, put the raclette ingredients on a pizza? Genius!

Second, genuinely sour, dilly, kosher dill pickles (the only pickles really worth eating) are rarer than hens’ teeth in New Zealand. The closest approximation to the flavor of dilly pickles is French cornichon, or gherkins, which are available here. But they are tiny, difficult to pick up, and generally ill-suited to the role of side dish pickles. They do, however, look pretty adorable on a pizza, and complement sweet onions (or in this case, leeks) and new potatoes that all cuddle up under a layer of nutty raclette cheese. And with the potatoes, there is no need for chips on the side!

Raclette Pizza

500g (1 lb.) smallish new potatoes(about the size of a chicken egg), red or gold

1 large or two small leeks,

12 or so sour gherkins or cornichons

120g (1/4 lb.) raclette cheese (or any mild swiss cheese)

225g (1/2 lb.) grated mozzarella

olive oil, salt, and pepper

Crust for a 30cm (12 inch) pizza

Preheat your oven to 220C or 425F

  1. Thinly slice the potatoes and soak them for 30 minutes or so in ice water. If you slice them very thin (3mm or 1/8 in.), they will be potato-chippier; if you slice them a little thicker, (4.5mm or 3/16 in.) they are more like the boiled potatoes common in raclatte spreads. I like them both ways, depending on my mood.

    I slice the potatoes and leeks on my mandolin. If you do that, try not to do this!

    I slice the potatoes and leeks on my mandolin. If you do that, try not to do this!

  1. Drain the spuds and dry them as best you can (I give mine a ride in the salad spinner), drizzle a little olive oil on a foil-lined baking sheet, and spread the slices out in a single layer (or as close as you can manage, they’ll shrink a bit) and smoosh them around in the oil a bit, and sprinkle them with salt.
  1. Roast the potatoes for about 20 minutes. Turn them over (or just stir them around) about halfway through. When you take the potatoes out of the oven, nicely brown and crispy, turn the oven up to 260C or 500F.
  1. Slice the leeks, white and light green parts, crosswise, very thin. Alternatively, you can cut them lengthwise into thin shreds. Sauté them in a Tbs. of olive oil, sprinked with a bit of salt, until they are tender but not browned.
  1. Top your pizza (I always start with a slightly prebaked crust):
  • start with the grated mozzarella (I use mozzarella for the base because raclette cheese is pretty $$$, and your run of the mill mozzarella won’t compete – try not to use “pizza cheese”, which usually includes some provolone, fontina, and parmesan, which might distract from the nutty, Swiss cheesy flavor of the raclette).
  • Then add the sautéed leeks in an even layer
  • Then arrange your roasted potato chips artistically on top of the leeks.
  • Dot the pizza with gherkins. If they are very tiny, you can use them whole. I cut the bigger ones in half.
  • Finally, spread the raclette cheese over the whole thing, because it is the star.
  • If your crust is prebaked, bake the pizza for about 8 minutes. If you are starting with a raw crust, then you’ll want to leave the gherkins and raclette off for the first few minutes, and add them when you have about 7 or 8 minutes to go.


New Zealand is my new home. I felt at home here almost from the start. Kiwis get my sense of humor in ways that my fellow Americans never did. Simon and I can live 20 minutes from the center of the nation’s capital and keep pigs, alpacas, and (coming soon), chickens. Work-life balance is a real thing here, not just an aspiration. It is possible to drive from our home in the hills to the beach in 20 minutes or less. Almost nobody here goes back to work on January 2nd. New Zealand is closed in January. The January “blahs” that used to knock me sideways every year just aren’t a thing.

There has been much to learn: driving on the “wrong” side; the metric system; Kiwi English; spelling; that horizontal rain makes umbrellas pretty much pointless; that July isn’t summer, and January isn’t winter; that there are 18 hours of daylight on Christmas and 8 hours of daylight on the 4th of July; the rules of cricket; that the number 10 is pronounced “tin” while 7 is pronounced “seevin.” Footy games are “matches”, the field is the “pitch”, and it takes rugby players roughly 80 minutes to play an 80-minute match. And there are no TV time-outs, special teams, shoulder pads or helmets. So you’d better have your beer and chips ready before play starts.

New Zealand is my home. For me, though, the notion of home is bit slippery. You see, I have many “homes” in places where I’ve never actually lived. In addition to my actual homes (Virginia, Georgia and Wisconsin, New Zealand), I get homesick for, inter alia: New Orleans, Edinburgh, Paris, the Masai Mara, and Antarctica. In pondering how this is possible, I’ve come to understand for me, “home” is about memorable experiences and the people with whom I shared them.

And I remember those experiences in terms of food.

I discovered my love for jazz and zydeco over coffee and biegnets with my parents at the Café du Monde. My friend Anita and I kicked off a long-weekend sharing our love of art with glasses of red wine and the best omelets ever for breakfast (well, an early lunch) at a sidewalk café on the Rive Gauche after an all-night flight to Paris. My two chosen sisters – Susan and Elizabeth – and I ate great piles of mussels and chips (but not haggis) after exploring ruined castles in Scotland, and drank gallons of vino verde in the hot, dusty Alentejo in Portugal. I ate delicious grilled langoustines in Bali while my venerable Elder Sister, Katy, fed her grilled fish to the street cats. Simon and I drank gorgeous Argentine and Chilean wines while watching the penguins and icebergs in Antarctica. And I reveled in quaffing Tusker beers with my fellow campers after a hard day tracking wildlife with my intrepid Masai guide, Josh, at Freeman Safaris in Kenya.

In fact, sharing memorable meals is, for me, the way I end up expanding my chosen family. Conversations and experiences can create acquaintances, but for me, breaking bread creates family. And family is home.

Taste is my most evocative sense. Music is a distant second. Christmas isn’t Christmas until I’ve had one of Auntie Janice’s nutmeg logs and a slice of my mother’s stöllen. Passion fruit (a key ingredient in New Orleans’ famous hurricane cocktail and also popular in New Zealand) makes me hear Dixieland jazz and zydeco. My cheese and nut loaf evokes Thanksgiving dinner with Pete, Anita, Mike and Mary Beth, even in New Zealand in July. Peaches take me take me back to the battered old formica kitchen table at my grandparents’ farm where Tanta comforted me with peach küchen after a run-in with the wasps in the outdoor privvy. Every time I eat oatmeal, I hear Grandpa Saltenberger saying: “If you don’t eat your oatmeal, you won’t grow hair on your chest.” Somehow, that arugment worked for him: I ate the oatmeal. It never occurred to me, at 7, that I might not want hair on my chest.

Not all the memories are happy. I was eating baklava the moment my appendix ruptured, and I still can’t face the stuff. When I was about 6, I ate whipped cream until I was sick (they warned me), and it still gives me pause. At about the same age, I went to the fridge and took a big slug out of what I thought was ice water. It was martinis. Please, never order me a martini! And tuna casserole will forever take me back to the hours and days I spent by my father’s bedside when he was dying in hospice.


Dad’s winter greenhouse, circa 1969.

With absolutely no disrespect to my loving and all-around-wonderful mother, my Dad was (and remains, eight years after his death) the center of my universe. He was a World War II veteran, a brilliant scholar, and a venerated teacher. But in his heart of hearts, he was a farmer. Not a gardener – he had no truck with roses or posies. That was my mother’s realm. He grew food. Every summer we drowned in bell peppers (capiscums), green beans, snap peas, shelly beans, okra, eggplants, radishes, spinach, and lettuces. He even grew summer squash (courgettes) – crooknecks and zucchini – even though he hated it, because he knew I loved it. Half of the back yard was covered in raspberries – because Mom loved them. His fig tree was legendary – it was the fig tree equivalent of the loaves and fishes. It fed the ten thousand hungry southerners with figs. And with my mom’s famous fig pizzas. Yum.

But what I most associate with my father and, hence, with love and family, is tomatoes: his huge, ugly, sweet, juicy heirloom tomatoes. When I moved away from home, he would pick them green, wrap them in newspaper, and ship them to me. One bite of a vine-ripened tomato, warm from the sun, transports me right back to summertime Saturday afternoons, when we three sat down with a couple of big, fat tomatoes, a jar of mayo, salt, pepper, and a loaf of squishy white bread – no lettuce, no bacon – and ate tomato sandwich after tomato sandwich, washed down with unsweetened grape Kool-Aid. I’m sure, when I die, my last thought of my father will be those tomato sandwiches.167185_10150125454908410_190088_n

I only know how to tell my story, and my family’s story, through food. Family, love, life, and home are all embodied, for me, in food: in the making of it and the sharing of it. In this blog, I will share what I have learned about living and cooking as a vegetarian, and living and cooking as a vegetarian in New Zealand. I will also share my stories: the ones I remember from my past homes and the ones I am making here in my new home. Some are funny, others are sad. All are, for me, full of the kind of meaning that makes ordinary food a meal, makes meals into memories, and makes memories into home.

The Making of a Kale Whisperer, Part I

On 2 August 2013, at the age of 55, I entered New Zealand as a new migrant.

Five years earlier, I met the love of my life on a train crossing the Nullabor Plain – 2,300 miles of mostly nothing in the Australian outback. The trip was an homage to my train-buff Dad, who had died of Alzheimer’s a few months earlier. Before I left the States, my mother, fretting as she always did before one of my many work-related trips, said she just knew I was going to meet someone and move to the other side of the world. “Mom,” I replied, “You’re worrying about nothing. No one really travels halfway around the world to meet the love of their life on a train. That only happens in movies.” Famous last words.

Simon was living in Invercargill, on New Zealand’s South Island. Leave it to me to find a soul mate who lived as far away from my home and job as geographically possible. After a brief courtship consisting largely of sleepy, 5am trans global phone conversations, we navigated the treacherous frozen terrain of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), secured a fiancé visa for Simon, and married on Waimanolo Beach, Hawaii in July 2009 – almost exactly a year after we met. Shortly before the wedding, my mother passed away leaving me – an only child – a rootless orphan.

Simon is an ethical vegetarian. He hasn’t eaten meat or worn leather for most of his adult life. I’m a slacker vegetarian. I like the idea of living “cruelty-free,” but over the years I’ve lost the plot, done in by convenience (it is easier to grab a burger and fries at MacDonald’s than to cook vegetarian meals in an electric kettle in the graduate student dorm), travel (how can I say no to a platter of fried fish heads or roast goat offered in a spirit of hospitality by Palestinians or Africans who barely have enough to eat themselves), genetics (I’m part German and part Italian: sausage is in my blood!), and, of course, the universal bane of vegetarians everywhere – BACON.

Wee Charlie, one of our kune kune pigs.

Wee Charlie, one of our kune kune pigs.

[Now that I am the proud mother of three kune kune pigs, I wouldn’t even think about eating bacon. Really, Wee Charlie, I promise!] Since my first husband and I decided to go veg after reading Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, in 1982, I reckon I’ve lived about half of the time as an herbivore.

While I have not always been a vegetarian eater, I have – for the most part (excluding the odd bit of bacon thrown into a nice mess o’ greens) – been a vegetarian cook. Again, I can’t claim the moral high ground. I just prefer to cook vegetables. Raw chicken gives me the creeps. While I do occasionally eat seafood, the only thing I know to do with a raw fish is Monty Python’s fish-slapping dance. My bestie, Susan, taught me to cook live lobsters; but if I cook them, I can’t eat them. And I usually cry. I grew up in terror of dying horribly, consumed by worms, as a result of undercooked pork. I haven’t even thought about eating beef since I saw those slaughterhouse videos – you know the ones. Offal? We won’t even go there. [Although I accidentally ate sweetbreads once, at a three star restaurant in France, when my French companion translated ris de veau, misleadingly vaguely, as a special cut of meat. I resolved, on the spot, to learn French.]

Over the years since I bought my first vegetarian cookbook (Mollie Katzen’s The Moosewood Cookbook), I’ve developed into a competent and, I think, creative vegetarian cook. I’ve taken cooking courses to master the basics, and spend almost as much time reading cookbooks as I do reading detective novels. Liberated from the tyranny of recipes, I can go to the farmers’ market, buy what looks fresh and beautiful, and turn it into something good to eat. I embrace the challenge of creating meat-free versions of classic comfort foods and pub grub. And PIZZA.


All our worldly goods packed into a shipping container in Annandale, Virginia to make the long voyage to New Zealand.

By the time Simon and I married, I had become disillusioned with my career as a Washington, DC-area policy analyst. In the midst of what had become increasingly common collapses in my professional morale, I would joke (usually after my second or third glass of wine) that, perhaps, I should just quit my job and write a pizza blog. Instead, I decided to move to New Zealand to try my hand at education. In the ensuing, not always pretty and, ultimately, disastrous process of discovering that tertiary education is definitely not my calling I discovered that food is.

So, in the space of two years, I’ve come from being a defense analyst with a six-figure salary, to being an academic with a five-figure salary, to end as an amateur vegetarian cook and part-time food blogger with a zero-figure salary. I live on the top of a hill with Simon, three dogs, three pigs, six alpacas, and uncounted Tuis, geckos, hedgehogs, and the occasional morepork.

I’ve never been happier.

The Making of a Kale Whisperer, II

Not surprisingly, pulling up stakes and moving to the bottom of the world has presented some personal and culinary challenges. It was easy to be vegetarian in Virginia, as long as I remembered to take detours around the most tantalizing barbeque joints. Most restaurants had a variety of vegetarian options. The frozen food section in most grocery stores had extensive vegetarian sections, with a plethora of vegetarian meals and play-meats. And the rise of “foodie” culture meant, if you had the dosh, there were plenty of sources of fine and exotic produce and vegetarian staples either close to home or a few clicks away on the Internet.

New Zealand is more challenging. True, most restaurants here offer at least one vegetarian option, but that option almost always involves one of two alternatives: make lasagna, take out the meat and replace it with kumara (sweet potatoes), or make lasagna, take out the meat and replace it with pumpkin (the generic Southern Hemisphere term for the entire family of winter squash). If, as Simon and I both do, you dislike sweet potato and/or pumpkin (unless it’s in a pie, and then, only on Thanksgiving), you are out-of-luck. Our local paper once ran a piece about a shop in a nearby town that made the best kiwi pies in New Zealand (and that’s saying something). The next time I was passing through, I stopped to check it out. “Do you have vegetarian pies?”, I asked, hopefully. “Yes: savory kumara and coconut.” Three words that, as far as I’m concerned, have no business being in the same phrase. There are plenty of Indian and Asian restaurants. For the first few weeks we were here, while I was shell-shocked and drowning in my new job and Simon was busy arranging for us to buy a house, we lived off of Thai and Indian takeaways. New Zealand’s deservedly famous Hell’s Pizza has some quite good vegetarian pizzas, but week after week of eating the same couple of combinations got old.
What New Zealand has in abundance is farmers and, as a result, awesome farmers’ markets. [Oh, and vineyards, but we’ll get to that in future posts.] I am a regular at the year-round Saturday morning Riverbank Farmers’ Market in the Hutt Valley, where I can buy reasonably-priced, fresh fruits and vegetables, raw honey, free-range eggs, crunchy baguettes, manuka-smoked garlic salt, sheep milk feta, fresh Thai herbs, New Zealand olive oil, handmade extra-firm tofu, chewy Chinese noodles, lovely Stewart Island smoked salmon (yes, I know, salmon is not a vegetable: mea culpa) and used paperback books and one-dollar DVDs.

There are some up sides. In northern Virginia, if you are lucky, you can get fresh-picked local asparagus for about three weeks between the last frost and the first 90 degree day, when the stalks bolt and become inedible. The season for lovely, tender,DSC_0949 if somewhat bent (it’s very windy here in the springtime) Levin asparagus lasts at least two months, sometimes longer. Ditto: strawberries. So, it is possible to be a confirmed locavore and ethically serve asparagus and strawberries for Christmas dinner.

On the other hand, okra is not really a thing here. Neither are collard greens, heirloom tomatoes, jalapeno or poblano peppers, fresh Asian mushrooms, white field corn, spaghetti squash, shelly beans, or turnips – what they call turnips here, I call rutabagas, and they don’t come with greens. One of New Zealand’s favorite vegetables is silverbeet, a sort of nuclear-mutant version of white chard. It is a lovely, slightly sweet green – flavor-wise, a cross between spinach and beetroot. It is lovely, but it isn’t chard. I haven’t seen durian here, either, but, to be honest I wasn’t looking.

So, what’s a Southern girl to do, adrift in the Antipodes without her collards? The answer: kale. Over the past two years, kale has emerged from oblivion at the Riverbank Farmers’ Market. And I buy it in abundance: Tuscan, Russian, blue, and good old-fashioned curly green. On the rare Saturday when the beetroots come with the greens attached, I go nuts.

I assumed no one paid any attention to how much kale I bought. Then, one Saturday, the smoked salmon lady asked me what I do with all those lovely greens. “Do you make smoothies? That seems to be what everyone else does with them.” Gasp! Why would I take a gorgeous bunch of lacinato kale, throw it in a juicer, and turn it into something that tastes like steeped compost? A seed of a new calling took root in my mind – I would spread greens enlightenment.

A few weeks after my conversation with the smoked salmon lady, I was at the Asian greens stall where I buy most of my kale when I overheard a conversation that went something like this:

Asian lady to Asian farmer: What is this?

Farmer to Asian lady: It’s kale.

Asian lady: How you cook?

Farmer: I don’t know. I think they make it into juice.

Maori gentleman: It’s an American thing. It’s real popular in the States.

His Pakeha (Caucasian) companion: Yeah. I hear Americans in the South really like their beans and greens.

Me: I resemble that remark! I’m an American, from the South, and I live for greens! Greens are my life!

Asian lady, Mrs. Maori, and Mrs. Pakeha: How you cook?

The Kale Whisperer was born.