Saturday, October 4, 2008

Pardus does Pizza...sort of



My CSA is the Huguenot Street Farm (www.flyingbeet.com) Ron and Kate Khosla are the owners/farmers/brains+brawn behind the operation, and they do an incredible job of growing great product and creating great community.

Early this season they constructed a cob oven using materials from the farm itself. The Wallkill River runs through the property and they collected clay and river rock for most of the construction.

Anyway, throughout the summer, on Thursday evenings - Thursday is "distribution day" when members come to pick up their shares - fresh bread and pizzas topped with just-picked ingredients were made and sold to augment the produce.

Apparently, the guy who did the actual baking wasn't very flexible or open to suggestion, he and Ron had a falling out, and the guy quit...6 more weeks in the season...no more pizza or bread....not good.

So, I was recruited to fill in..."Guest Chef"...what a riot!

We got together on Sunday afternoon and brainstormed a plan and divided up the work. Ron and Kate would supply the raw ingredients and wood,Laura, another member, would prep the toppings (cheese,roasted veggies, etc.), I would make the sauce,dough, handle logistics, and work the oven. On the way out, I culled through a pile of soft tomatoes and came up with enough to make 2 gallons of tomato sauce.

On Wednesday I made 20kg. of dough using Ruhlman's 5:3 ratio, adding in some crushed red wheat berries and spelt for texture. Ron and I portioned them into 340 gram rounds and set the produce cooler to 34F to keep fermentation under control over night. Laura, roasted about 15# each of eggplant, and peppers, and a whole bunch of garlic and onions. Kate roasted some cheese pumpkin, sliced a few bosc pears, shredded 4# pounds of locally made smoked mozzarella and some blue cheese, and hand picked her beautiful baby arugula.

The plan for Thursday was for Ron to light the fire at about 1:00 and slowly build it up to baking temp - 600-800F - until I got off work and could start making pies. Service was set to begin at 4:30.

When I arrived at 3:45 it was a gorgeous Hudson Valley autumn day...blue sky dotted with clouds over the mountains, baking-friendly 60 degrees temperature...everything seemed damned near perfect. Except...

Being a farmer on distribution day is like being a cook on Saturday night - you focus on your mise en place and your station and anything else gets done later. Like lighting the oven...the oven didn't get lit shortly before 3:00.If you've ever made pizza, you know that the crucial part is having a hot deck to bake on. Pretty much everything else can be tweaked, but if that deck ain't hot the pizza sticks like glue to the cool bricks.

I stoked the fire with a bunch of small oak logs, got a roaring blaze going - hoping I wouldn't bring the temp up too fast and crack the dome - and went about setting my station, silently praying that the oven reached temp before the customers reached the farm. Didn't so much work out that way...

At 4:30 everything was in place, it looked great.A perfectly set up station under an awning, a wide array of toppings picked from the land we stood on, a wood fire crackling in the rustic oven...and the deck of the oven cool enough to rest my hand on.

I raked the coals to the back of the oven, stoked them with more wood, mopped the deck free of soot, and ran a few test pies - as I feared, they stuck to the cold deck, refusing to be turned without ripping, tearing and leaking sauce and topping everywhere.

Customers were arriving, most, I'm sure, expecting to find a laid back dude, standing in the bucolic field, happily and leisurely making pizzas and chatting about the choices of toppings and the beautiful day. What they got was a frenzied, frustrated cook trying desperately to look cheerful and laid back while explaining that there were "temperature problems" with the oven and that we hoped to be able to start baking soon.

The people were pretty cool about it, it was, after all, a CSA, and they were enjoying the day - "no hurry, we'll just leave our order with you and come back in a little while"...by the time the oven was even CLOSE to being hot enough, we already had a backlog of twenty pizzas, and as I started working down the list, another page was started and the weeds got deeper. Laura had come with the vegetables and helped by taking orders, shaping dough and talking to customers while I worked the oven, face and arms covered in soot, cursing as quietly as I could...

By about 6:00 pm we'd managed a few pies and the deck was finally hot enough to really cook on. The list dwindled quickly,by 7:00 we were pretty much done; night was falling, customers were leaving, happy with their pizzas. We heaved sighs of relief and made a dinner from the left overs...standing out in the field, warmed by the oven, under the starry sky.

Ron apologized profusely, I light-heartedly threatened his life, we all hugged, counted the money (we sold 45 pizzas...) and agreed to do it again next week - with a hot oven - maybe even adding bread to the menu. I'm a glutton.

11 comments:

Jon in Albany, NY said...

There's something about cooking outside with a wood fire. It's just fun. Well, it doesn't sound like you were having "fun," but it's a good story and that should count for something. Maybe not much, but something.

Sounds like quite a place. The oven looks great. I have a pit that is for roasting meats directly over coals. I love messing around with it when I get the chance. You get to tame the flame and then you eat. Great way to spend a Saturday. Throw in kids playing with dogs, a nice view, and a few beers...life is good.

Mike Pardus said...

jon - I was having fun. The adrenaline high of being slammed behind the line is good - even when things don't go exactly right. "A bad day cooking beats a good day fishing" is my motto.

We learned a lot and we'll do better next time - Ruhlman's ratios rock, that's what saved the day - 5:3.

Bob del Grosso said...

Yeah, I loved this story too. And seeing those pics of the gunks on the horizon made me seriously homesick.

But look, part of the reason you had trouble with those pizza is that you sinned against the craft and were being made to pay for your transgression by Focus, the goddess of the hearth.

Your sin? Making dough with "crushed wheat berries and spelt flour" and the use of inappropriate garnishes like "cheese pumpkin" and "blue cheese."

Look, just because you are cooking for hippies does not mean that you must cook like one. Have a scotch, clear your head, apologize to Focus and get back to work.

:)

Mike Pardus said...

Don't tell me you're turning into one of those stoggy old chefs who think that people who don't like what THEY like don't know how to cook or eat.

"Pizza" is a generic term these days meaning "flat bread with stuff on it". OK, I wasn't making pizza from Napoli. But the dough worked fine - 1t was only about 5% adjunct added; and the toppings - tomato sauce, mozzarella, roasted eggplant, peppers, garlic - were all pretty traditional, and then a little fun stuff 'cause it was there. Actually, the pumpkin with sage and blue cheese was pretty f'in good - when you get YOUR oven finished, you might try it - oh, wait, pumpkin won't be in season anymore by then.

Next time, I'll just make little talisman and call it "Bob"
;-)

Scotty said...

What we have here is failure to communicate. Like Bob, I am a purist when it comes to pizza, but I am with Mike in that I to try different stuff on my flatbreads. Why does every flatbread with toppings have to be called pizza?

Just as an observation - if you two keep bickering like this, you will have to invite me to the wedding! ;-P

Maura said...

Your sin? Making dough with "crushed wheat berries and spelt flour" and the use of inappropriate garnishes like "cheese pumpkin" and "blue cheese."

Indeed. And what's with the pears? :)

I should remember Ruhlman's 5:3 ration, but please refresh my memory.

Mike Pardus said...

5 parts flour/3 parts water. Yeast is variable by type, salt by taste. My standard is
500g flour
300 g water
13 g salt
7 g fleishmen's dry active yeast or 3 grmas Saf-Instant.

The pears were sliced thinly, brushed with walnut oil and placed on a circle of dough dotted with walnuts and blue cheese. When the PIZZA came out of the oven, we sprinkled fresh baby arugula leaves over it...it was RFG. And you can call it a frisbee if you want to - Bob - I'll continue to make and eat them.

Mike Pardus said...

5 parts flour/3 parts water. Yeast is variable by type, salt by taste. My standard is
500g flour
300 g water
13 g salt
7 g fleishmen's dry active yeast or 3 grmas Saf-Instant.

The pears were sliced thinly, brushed with walnut oil and placed on a circle of dough dotted with walnuts and blue cheese. When the PIZZA came out of the oven, we sprinkled fresh baby arugula leaves over it...it was RFG. And you can call it a frisbee if you want to - Bob - I'll continue to make and eat them.

Cameron S. said...

Great story and I would totally eat that Pizza.

josh smith said...

hi chef p--check this out and let me know what you think...good times!
http://jhenrysmith.wordpress.com/2008/10/07/chef-pardus-and-rememberances-of-things-past/

Mike Pardus said...

And people ask me why I like teaching....thanks, Josh - made my week.

BTW - I have a small group of only ten students this block. After a few rough days, they've pretty much got it...clean, on-time, good food; sometimes the beatings pay off.