Spring finally seems to be here in New Hampshire. The daffodils are just beginning to peak out although we might still get another foot of snow! The snow-blower is at the ready as we remember digging out an igloo for our car from a 12-foot white mountain piled up by the trusty ploughs that barrel along our lanes throughout the winter storms. It took three more days to finally find the garage!
This is always our busy time for traveling and visiting with our distributors. We try and have much of it finished by the time summer comes around. Travel can be hell at those times with thousands of families trying to get through security loaded up with prams, whimpering babies and surly teens. Lines go out of the airport into even longer lines outside.
So far this year we spent time in California, Texas, New York, Maine. Massachusetts, Colorado to name a few. Mel usually travels alone when it is for just 2–3 days but if longer he insists on including yours truly. I cheat, of course, by only going to the sunny spots in the winter and cool spots in the summer!
We had a wonderful evening when in Los Angeles with our old friends Leslie Bricusse (the oscar-winning composer, lyricist and playwright who wrote Candy Man, Goldfinger, Victor-Victoria, Scrooge and many others) and his stunningly beautiful wife Evie (one of the Bond girls) together with our mutual buddy from wines days of yore, Dennis Overstreet, the infamous owner of the Wine Merchant in Beverley Hills. Leslie gave us his last bottle of 1976 Jordan cabernet (the first vintage produced when Mel was the Marketing Director and I was in charge of entertainment with Sally Jordan). The dinner was cooked by one of our favorite chefs from Mel’s restaurants in Denver, Don Gragg. The star of the evening, however, was the Jordan 1978 (first vintage with ALL Jordan grapes). Mesmerizing, soft and unctuous (like me!).
We also had another great evening at Red-O owned by Rick Bayliss (Frontera Grill and Topolobambo in Chicago) with our dear maitre-d’ Warren Coulter from our Jams Restaurant, NY days and some of the still gorgeous-looking talented waiters we worked with there. I nearly wet my knickers laughing at the old stories. We lay back like Romans in deeply cushioned seats surrounded by the rich, famous and almost famous Hollywood glamour-set and I just stared at all the tanned and buffed bodies surrounding us and wished fervently that I had had plastic surgery, chemically altered hair and personal gym trainers like they did!
In Colorado we had a reunion dinner at the old Mel’s Bar and Grill space in Cherry Creek, the restaurant we owned in Denver for 15 years. It was a charity event for keeping open a special private house for orphans in place of an institution. All our pals, customers and press-folk came to the event cooked by our genius past chefs from Mel’s who lost half their body weight in doing a loaves-and-fishes miracle meant for 85 but nearly 200 turned up!! After just 2 hours Mel and I bumped into each other and said in unison, “Wow! Are we glad to be out of the restaurant business!” Our voices were hoarse, our bones ached and our muscles screamed for relief. For a further 4 hours, Mel poured cases and cases of our wines and we both bussed tables, smoothed over ruffled feathers and shouted over the chaotic noise of laughter and general goodwill. Our old staff from all of our restaurants joined us in the bar and the next day we crept around in a fetal position and whispered to each other that the restaurant business is definitely for the young—not ancient old farts like ourselves!
We are very excited by our new Tortoise Creek Zinfandel “The Chelonian” that we launched this year. One of its best attributes is that it is not too heavy or over alcoholized. At just over 14% it is quite tame for a Zin and doesn’t melt your teeth on impact. It is, in fact, a terrific food wine. Do try it if you haven’t already done so.
We have also been enjoying our organically farmed Tiamo Chianti which is showing splendidly right now. We use NO oak in making this wine and so it really has a brightness to it and is delicious. Speaking of Chianti, what better way to enjoy it than with a great pizza. Here is my own personal story of pizza!
In ancient days pizza was called hearth-bread because it was cooked directly on the hot stones of the open fire and as a result was usually slightly burnt on the bottom which I find delicious. Pizza making is akin to pancake making. After a dozen or so wobbly tries they turn out perfect. But, just like soufflés, homemade pasta or sex, there’s always the first time!
Our son, Charles, makes fabulous pizza and some years ago my sister and I had read his recipe together and were anxious to try it. She lives in a picture-perfect farmhouse in Somerset in England. She owns an Aga stove, which is a cast-iron furnace the size of the Titanic boilers! It runs all year round and heats her water for the radiators and does all the cooking. It has 6 ovens of varying temperatures, the hottest one belting out 580-degree heat like a steel mill! It has heavy cast-iron doors you open with a metal hook and each oven has a flat bottom like a bread oven. Perfect for pizzas!
We made up a batch of Charlie’s famous pizza dough recipe (see below) and put it into a cloth-covered bowl to proof above the Aga. On returning from doing a spot of weeding in the garden an hour later we found the kitchen full of blue smoke. The dough had risen too fast and poured over the edge of the bowl taking the cloth with it down onto the surface of the Aga. Both were burning merrily. We started again.
This time we placed the dough in a slightly cooler place above the refrigerator and remained close at all times.
After it had risen sufficiently (actually doubled in size) we punched it down and divided it into 6 balls. We then started the mysterious but graceful process of moulding it into pizzas. Hilarious workout! It fell apart in our clumsy hands. After 5 minutes, mine looked like a profoundly ugly Thomas’s English muffin and my sister’s looked like a bedpan! We tried spinning and tossing them in the air like Neapolitan professionals and they took off like Frisbees or fell apart in the middle leaving us with hoola-hoops of dough draped over our elbows. After losing 75% of the dough we carefully stretched the last 2 balls flat on the floured kitchen table and slid them onto our newly purchased wooden pizza paddles. We smeared on our delicious sauce, prettily arranged our toppings and opened the furnace door. An inch of my hair and both my eyebrows singed off in the smoky heat. The mascara on my eyelashes glued together and so I blindly dropped my pizza onto the floor. Lupa, her adorable Alsatian dog, was gratified!
Eventually, we managed to get my sister’s halfway into the oven and pulled away the paddle. The other half draped itself slowly down the front of the furnace like one of Salvador Dali’s melting clocks!
Hours later and weeping with laughter we had 3 more burnt Frisbees and three 4″ wide raw pancakes for our trouble with blue smoke everywhere. We cooked ourselves omelets for supper!
PROBLEM: Undercooked pizza or one with a raw pasty crust
SOLUTION: Spray or rub the bottom of a large cast-iron skillet or a heavy-bottomed frying pan with light oil. Place it over medium heat on the stovetop until hot. Slide your pizza into the pan and fry uncovered until the bottom crust is golden brown and cooked through. Place briefly under a hot grill if the top isn’t colored enough.
PROBLEM: Burnt bottom crust
SOLUTION: Cover a plate the size of your pizza with aluminum foil. Turn the plate upside down over the top of the pizza and flip so that the pizza is face down on the foil-covered plate. With a filleting knife or bread knife, scrape off the burnt parts of the crust and then brush with melted butter or oil. Invert the pizza onto a clean plate and serve.
PROBLEM: Burnt toppings AND crust
SOLUTION: Feed to your dog!
Charlie’s Perfect Pizza!
1 packet (one and one half tsp) dry or fresh yeast
4 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
1 level tbsp sea salt
3 tbsp virgin olive oil
2 tbsp raw honey
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup mixed fresh Provençale herbs or 1/4 cup dried variety (thyme, rosemary, sweet mint, and lavender or any combo)
Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water with the honey. Allow to sit for 7 minutes. Warm a large bowl. Put 1 cup flour and the yeast in the bowl and mix until incorporated. Add 2 tbsp olive oil, salt, a cup more of warm water/milk mix and 2 more cups of flour alternately to make a soft but not sticky dough.
Place in mixer bowl with dough hook and knead for 5 minutes until shiny. Smear with more olive oil and allow to rise in a warm place, covered with a damp towel, for about an hour until doubled in size.
Punch down and lightly knead in herbs and the remaining olive oil. Allow to rise again for about 45 min or overnight in the refrigerator.
Divide into 3 or 4 balls and stretch. Sprinkle a pizza stone with cornmeal, lay the pizza dough on top. Cover with your favorite toppings.
Bake at your oven’s hottest setting (450°–500°) 8–10 mins
I HOPE THAT YOU HAVE MORE LUCK THAN I DID! Bon Appetit to all!