Preconceptions of Eats

December 2 of 31 December-ish posts

I’ve been dabbling in making pizza as of late.


Except having just been in New York City and now having a trip to Chicago planned for later next year, defining what exactly kind of pizza in which I’ve been dabbling is not so clear.

Pizza is bread with stuff, right?

After watching a dozen videos online with titles something like “ranking styles of pizza” or “why is New York pizza better than Detroit pizza” my brain has been aflutter with the actual definition of the food I’ve been trying to create, let alone setting down a strict approach that would serve me for the long term.

I have this preconception of pizza, and it comes from the fact that I grew up eating a very specific variety of medium-crusted disc with a slab of various meaty toppings sluiced between a layer of sauce and a top layer of cheese. I also worked for a summer in a pizza chain (formerly) called ‘Panagopolous Pizza’ (but now and since rebranded to ‘Panago’ likely because they got tired of people trying to order Greek food, as what happened to us numerous times over that summer in the mid-90s.)

All that is to say: pizza, at least the mental picture of pizza in my head, is something very, very specific and yet, open to interpretation.

Who or what are you leaving behind in 2022?

Preconceptions of eats.

I mean, that’s the goal, at least.

I’ve been dabbling in pizza-making lately, and none of that pizza I’ve made recently fits neatly into my former preconceptions of what my mid-90s self would have considered pizza made so-called correctly.

Up until the aforementioned “lately” I’ve long strove to make good pizza at home. I added a cast iron pizza pan to my collection about five years ago, and that fourteen inch circle of seasoned iron was the latest (and one of the greatest) additions to my pizza-making toolkit. Amazing crusts, for one. But alas, still merely another kitchen gadget geared at my goal of matching that mental image of the perfect pie.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach.

Not that seeing the thing in your mind that you want to create and striving to replicate it is at all a bad approach. Arguably, it is the foundation of understanding and education. By many measures, it is the core of becoming better at that thing you are trying to get better at. Practice by immitation.

I can’t say we ever really managed it tho.

That is, I can’t say that trying to create the pizza that existed in my mind’s eye was a goal that I ever really reached. We made great dough and in the last year our sourdough crusts have been tasty and devine. We’ve dabbled in ingredients and cheeses and sauces and temperatures. The thing is that homemade pizza in a standard home oven probably cannot ever compete with what any local pizza joint can crank out every five minutes with high-heat pizza ovens. Our idealized pizza was restaurant pizza and I don’t live in a commercial kitchen.

Preconceptions fall hard.

New York pizza is a style of pizza that seems to be as much religion as it is culinary art form.

Sitting in a little shop a couple blocks from the 5th Avenue branch of the Public Library, I don’t know if we found the best pizza in NYC, but we certainly found a great example of it. Three burly guys-guys behind the counter asked us to pick our slice and then they heated it up in a big slot of an oven before serving it on a paper disc and a checkerboard sheet of parchment. We folded it in half and bit into it and sat facing out onto the sidewalk where folks strolled by.

I could almost certainly find a recipe for that, a million recipes for everyone else’s attempt to replicate that, but there is more to it than making the dough just right or finding a spice that fits the right New York jive to call what I created New York style pie. As much as sitting on a wobbly stool overlooking a bustling street with sirens wailing in the distance, I just don’t have the tools in my house to do what they do in that Big ol’ Apple.

So what’s my point? That I can’t make good pizza as I imagine it? That good New York style is out of reach? That probably the same barriers hold true for Chicago, Detroit, Neapolitan, whatever. Just why bother?

My point is that pizza is all of those things and more. Pizza is a set of tasty food whose definition is broader than the narrow subset of examples that I happen to hold in my own personal mind. Pizza is bigger than my preconceptions of pizza.

I’ve been dabbling in making pizza lately and it looks nothing like any other pizza that I’ve ever made.

There’s probably a style, a name, a geography that belongs to whatever the pizza I’m accidentally making now most closely resembles. I’ve been making pizza that works with the tools I own. And it’s turning out really well.

Thick, hearty crusts that more closely resemble focaccia than pizza crust. Salty cheese blends. Spicy thick tomato sauce that doesn’t turn watery in my lower-temp oven. Cured meats and pickled peppers and even more cheese mostly on top, but loose along the edges of the big cast iron frying pan in which I cook it. I cook it in stages. I cook it to a crusty, crunchy dark brown. I cook it so that those cheese bits fall down the edges and fry on the sides of the pan. I cook it until the meat is curling and the cheese is bubbling and the crust is crisp and cracks when you take a bite.

If I could go back to the mid-90s and serve it to myself I’d probably like it, but I may look sidelong at my time travelling doppelganger and tell him it wasn’t exactly pizza.

So, who or what are you leaving behind in 2022?

I’m officially leaving that guy behind. I mean, I think I left him behind a long time ago. But I’m leaving him behind for reals and for good, I think.

Pizza is more than what’s in my head. Just like bread or doughnuts or cookies or other kinds of amazing food that I’ve been striving in mediocrity to replicate precisely at the cost of actual good flavours. Preconceptions of eats have been holding me back, I think, and next year, both overthinking it and completely ignoring my own brain.

I’m going to try to change that. Not just for pizza, but for a lot of things. Bring on 2023.

Creative Cooking: Rolling & Wrapping

Yesterday I wrote about my philosophy of hacking the grilled cheese sandwich: that it was part of an effort  to learn to fix (or improve a recipe) by taking it apart, breaking it, and trying to make it better. Hacking it.

Not everyone thinks about food that way, however. So I thought I’d start a simple (probably irregular) series of inspirations for how readers can do their own creative cooking.

Today? Food wrapped or stuffed or rolled into other foods. Think of the list below as a recipe prompt or the seed of a bigger idea from which you can cook something interesting. Start with a prompt, add your own spices, garnish, and cook style. And make some notes about what you’ve just created!

Now don’t overthink it. Hack that recipe.

Meats up.

A bit of chicken or steak, wrapped in ham or prosciutto.

Floured chicken slices wrapped around some spicy chorizo or other sausage.

A marinated beef strip twisted around a different kind of marinated beef strip.

Fish, fileted or whole, wrapped in bacon.

Get cheesy.

Roll thin slices of spiced chicken breast around a soft cheese before baking.

Stuff homemade burger patties with chunks of cheddar and swiss before grilling.

Shred salty parmesan into ground sausage and cast iron grill into breakfast rounds.

Baked potato halves double cooked with cheddar and some kind of smoked meat.

Veggie Out.

Peppers cored and stuffed with spiced ground beef bake savory single servings.

Fish stuffed with nuts, peppers, onions, mushrooms or even citrus fruit.

Eggplants stuffed with crumbled meats and spices are a creative cook’s dream.

Big or small mushroom caps are perfect baking receptacles for a variety of fillings.

Comment or tag me on social media with your creative cooking creation. If you send a picture and a recipe, I'll happily feature you with credit in a future post! #CreativeCooking

Hacking Extreme Grilled Cheese

Even if you have been a reader of my blog and fan of Cast Iron Guy since it’s very early days, chances are high that you didn’t know me before the pandemic.

I used to be a guy who spent ten to twelve hours per day either downtown, or transporting to and from downtown for work. My home kitchen was something that was reserved for Saturday pancakes, Sunday dinners, and a few home-cooked meals each week between when we we’re dashing about here, there and everywhere.

But the last two years has set a lot of people up with new routines, lifestyles and habits.

I not only started baking a lot more sourdough bread, but my kitchen also got regularly used for the preparation of lunchtime meals: quick foods to be cooked and consumed in time to squeeze a walk in with the dog before heading back to the computer for work.

It’s probably not surprising then that I started making a lot of sourdough grilled cheese sandwiches. Quick, easy, and filling.

It’s probably also not surprising then that I got very bored very quickly with standard cheese on grilled bread fare that is the obvious grilled cheese sandwich recipe for most fans of this dish.

Don’t get me wrong: the classic bread, cheese, butter, heat combo is still a tried and true standard for any time and anywhere.

Yet, even greatness risks becoming mundane in high enough volume. It didn’t take too many months of pandemic-days working from home before I found myself experimenting with this great recipe, bending the rules, pushing the boundaries, and testing the limits of what could be grilled on or between two slices of bread and still taste good and not stray too far from this formula. Simple grilled cheese was no longer sparking my culinary curiosity the way it had, even with fresh sourdough and a hot cast iron griddle to work with.

Now, as much as I’d like to make this a simple post with a great recipe for readers to follow I think the point here is that culinary curiosity and creative cooking is not something that is reserved for highly trained chefs nor does it required elaborate recipe bending.

It can be something as simple as trying new things with something as standard as a grilled cheese sandwich. Adding ingredients (like in the attached photo which includes a fried egg, ham and hot sauce into a tasty grilled sandwich) or changing the order of things (like putting the cheese on the outside of the bread!)

Creating extreme versions of your favourite meals is about pushing the edges of the recipe, understanding what makes it work and cook properly all the while testing the edges of what could make it better, tastier, spicier, crunchier, more satisfying, or changing any variable that makes you happier cooking and ultimately eating it.

My comfort in doing this came from the simplicity of the standard grilled cheese sandwich which is tough to ruin even with a mediocre chef at the helm, but simultaneously can take on new tasty twists even with minor adjustments. It’s a safe food on which to experiment.

My joy came from pushing the boundaries of grilled cheese, changing the cheeses, dusting with spices, and adding or substituting other layers… but still ultimately grilling cheese inside buttered bread on my cast iron griddle.

It is said that in order to learn how to fix something, take it apart and break it first. I learned how to fix computers as a kid by frantically trying to repair the damage I did installing games, trying to get the machine working again before my parents found out. It seems some kind of similar sentiment exists in cooking: learn to fix (or improve a recipe) by taking it apart, breaking it, and trying to make it better. Hacking it.

I didn’t break the grilled cheese sandwich, but during the pandemic the grilled cheese sandwich broke me … enough that I wanted to pull it apart and make it into something better, if only for myself. I wanted to hack the recipe into something more exciting, something more extreme.

I think it worked.

I think it’s still in the works and probably will be for a long time.