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First of all, I should level with you: Proud Chicagoan though I may be, I think pizza crust is kind of a waste of space.  As far as I’m concerned, pizza is just a vehicle for an explosion of concentrated flavor in the form of toppings.  Why would you fill up on bread, I can never help but wonder, when you’re just going to crowd out the delightful, carefully assembled cast of meat/cheese/vegetables/fruit/sauce that makes a pizza, you know, a pizza?

With all that in mind, I was pretty thrilled when I got a pizza stone as a Christmas gift a few years ago and discovered Peter Reinhart’s Neo-Neapolitan Pizza Crust recipe shortly thereafter.  Neapolitan-style pizza is right up my alley: An extremely crunchy, cracker-thin crust that takes a backseat to a precise balance of toppings, all fresh, and all calculated to deliver maximum flavor from minimal real estate.  Even better?  The key to Neapolitan pizza is to get your oven rocket hot, so they finish cooking in around ten minutes.
Reinhart’s crust recipe is particularly appealing for a number of reasons: 1) It’s so ridiculously stupid-easy that even I, the worst baker on earth, have never managed to screw it up; 2) It turns out so tasty that even the crust enthusiasts among my acquaintance (and there are some) give it high marks; and 3) It freezes like a dream, which is most relevant today, as I recently unearthed a buried frozen crust and invited a friend over for dinner, which gave rise to the pie you’re looking at.

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Broiled butterflied lemon-garlic chicken over peas and mushroom gnocchi

You know how sometimes when you’re dreaming, everything makes sense?  Like, you’re flying and it’s so easy?  Or you get this great idea for a novel that you know would be terrifically compelling?  And you’re sometimes even lucid enough to think, I have to remember this when I’m awake, because if I manage to translate this experience, it’s going to be AMAZING?

And then you wake up, and you try to describe it, and you’re like, “There was something about a boat… and yet, also, somehow it worked on land, and come to think of it, I think I was back in third grade and was somehow… uh, speaking in, like, shapes…?”

That’s roast chicken for me.  I’ve had some good roast chicken, but man, the way it exists in my head is transcendent.  Crispy skin, juicy meat, all bursting with herb and savory flavor and basted in luscious chicken fat… I have this vision in my head that epitomizes gloriously simple home cooking.  Someday I’ll get there.

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Rotini Carbonara

Sometimes a girl comes home a little drunk.

Sometimes a girl waits for her friend who’s running an hour late at a bar and spends that hour drinking dry Sapphire martinis with a twist, and then has half of a rather anemic tuna sashimi plate for dinner, and sometimes that’s just not gonna cut it.

Sometimes a girl needs to do a little drunk cookin’.

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Me + dessert generally = epic disaster, but this was a dinner party, dammit.  It was the right thing to do.

Kheer 1

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Just because I like to make things a little more difficult for myself.

Vidalia Onion Relish

Dice a sweet onion (Vidalia or Walla Walla – if you’re using a regular yellow onion, up the sugar in the recipe).  Combine with 1 Tbsp lime juice, sweet paprika, 1 teaspoon sugar, and a pinch of salt.  The longer you can let the flavors combine before eating, the better – I recommend overnight.  Prepare for vicious onion breath, and make sure that if you eat it, you also feed some to anyone you plan to make out with later.

Vidalia onion relish

Cilantro Chutney

Toss 1 bunch cilantro (stems and all!  Technology FTW!) into your food processor.  Squeeze in the juice of half a lime.  Add a medium-sized shallot, a clove of garlic, a hefty pinch of salt, and a liberal sprinkle apiece of cumin and cayenne.  Start running the food processor and drizzling in olive oil until you have a good emulsion.

Cilantro chutney

I threw the Indian-themed dinner party in part because one of the guests I expected is a vegetarian and I wanted to have a robust main dish for him to enjoy (hence the vegetable curry).  But he didn’t even end up coming to the party – probably because he was at home reconsidering his inexplicable decision not to eat delicious, delicious meat.

Chicken tikka masala 1

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“Jai Ho” means “Victory to you.”  When a girl who’s whiter than a mayo and Wonder Bread sandwich manages to pull off a successful Indian dinner party, I consider that girl victorious indeed.

Indian plate

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Cubanos 1

muttonbreath is going to be here any minute to remind me that Che ain’t cool, but hear me out:  A Chicago Irish girl takes the humble Cubano on a whirlwhind tour of Europe in an homage to the emerging global economy… and knocks out some pesky leftovers besides.  Revolutionary indeed!

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Living alone is certainly not without its charm – the pleasures of walking around naked, knowing the dishes will never be left undone unless you left them, and belting out an earsplitting off-key rendition of “Our Lips Are Sealed” in the shower at 6:00 AM cannot be denied.  But living alone also means you eat a lot of the same things, over and over and over and over until you want to “accidentally” squirt dish soap all over them and go see if Popeye’s is really as bad as you remember it.  This is particularly true if you, like me, were raised in an Irish (Italian, Jewish, etc.) household and are incapable of cooking by any other quantity than “truckload.”

To avoid the dish soap garnish, you have to get creative with repurposing.  Like sex in a long-term marriage, it’s not that you don’t love the original recipe just the way it is… but if you get the occasional opportunity to pretend it’s something entirely different, you’re a lot less likely to cheat on it with some greasy fried chicken.  Or, uh, something.

Anyway, got a bunch of leftover Sweet Potato Home Fries staring you down from the fridge?  Read on.

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Mojo pork tenderloin 1

That’s mojo, specifically Cuban-style.  It’s a visual pun!

First of all, run right out and get some cheap pork right now!  Since the swine flu panic turned out to be so much ado about nothing (and, really, who could possibly have seen that coming?), I imagine the prices will go back up in a hurry.

This tenderloin, about three quarters of a pound, cost me $4.50, which is actually quite amazing for my extremely urban neck of the woods.  Generally, if you want to pay less than $30 a pound for your meat here in the down-town, you have to either cut off the green parts or kill it yourself.

As for the mojo, I have absolutely no Cuban heritage to my credit and have, in fact, never even tasted authentic mojo.  Nonetheless, I’ve had a bee in my hat to give it a try for quite some time.  So why not now?  Hey, even if it sucked, I’ve only drained $4.50.

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