Cooking as a cure for creative block?

not-pretty-pizza(Warning: This post is too long. It has profanity in it. And pizza. Fucking get over it.)

It has a been a rough week. The cause: an assignment that I should be able to turn around in a jiffy, but which has eluded me and, so, drags on. And on. And on. I’ve requested and received specific, clear, and helpful guidance from my editor, so the ball is in my court, so to speak. Still, I can’t wrap up this little shit.

Did you ever see the movie “How to Get Ahead in Advertising?” Richard E. Grant plays an ad exec who’s stumped trying to come up with the clever campaign for new pimple cream. The stress makes him develop a boil that grows into an evil twin that ultimately takes over his life until he becomes some kind of postnatal chimera.

It’s not that bad. Yet.

I would call this writer’s block, but I think everyone can fall victim to creative constipation, whatever it is they do. There must be times when accountants can’t get numbers to crunch, when lawyers can’t devise winning arguments, when salespeople can’t sell–fuck, I dunno–ice to eskimos.

So, after sitting at the computer, fussing with the story and making it worse with each pass and chanting “shit-shit-shit-shit” under my breath, I headed into the kitchen. Yesterday, a New York Times article about pizza caught my eye. The gist of it was that if you proof the dough a really long time–”at least 27 hours of resting time”–you’ll end up with pizzeria-like results. Heck, we like pizza, I thought, I should try this. I write about food, so I must try this. Right now. I had to be in the kitchen anyway, developing a couple of recipes for another project (another distraction, yes, but one that pays). As an added benefit, the pizza would be a helpful exercise in delayed gratification, something I rarely practice.

In all honesty, I wanted to make the pizza for “Real Housewives of New York” tonight. God, I love that show in all its incarnations, from the plastic Barbies of Orange County, to the low-rent crew in Atlanta, to the thick-as-thieves” inbreds in New Jersey. This season, my NYC bitches are particularly strident and menopausal. Well, Bethenny’s hormonal ‘cause she’s preggers (and oddly shocked that the news leaked to Perez Hilton after she peed on the pregnancy test stick in front of a camera crew). And I’m forever grateful to The Countess for her “hit” new single, which has become my new motto:

Money can’t buy you class. Elegance is learned. Oh, yeah!

Oh, yeah, the pizza.

I exercised a little restraint and ignored the recipes that ran with the NYTs story, since they called for two kinds specialty flours and making your own sourdough starter. I’m saving those distractions for another day and another stumped project, when I can happily waste hours hunting down the flour and baby-sitting the starter. Instead, I decided to try this with my go-to pizza dough. It’s more scientific that way, see, since I could gauge whether the technique made a difference.

Whoa! That dough is alive!

So I pulled together the dough, and it didn’t take up that much time anyway, and plopped it into a bowl to proof on the counter for a three hours. I checked on it every so often and, my, it was robust and bubbly. Those little yeast were busy! Things were happening. Then I divided the dough into two balls, which went into the refrigerator to proof for another 24 hours. This was hard, because I really wanted to roll that dough out and make pizza. But, no, all I could do was visit it occasionally, pulling it out of the fridge to prod it and inhale its yeasty aroma and admire its bubbliness. Oh my god! It looked like the evil boil from “How to Get Ahead in Advertising”!

Pizza sauce, no cooking requiredI carved out some time this afternoon (OK, it was another distraction) to make the uncooked Pizzeria Mozza’s pizza sauce from the L.A. issue of Saveur. Mozza makes the best pizza in town (I think), and the uncooked sauce comes together in a jiffy so this thing wasn’t too much of a time suck. It’s good; not spectacular, but a great result for the effort.

When it finally came time to roll the dough, after letting it sit at room temperature for 90 minutes (now going on 29 hours of proofing time), it was snappy as hell. I should have let it rest a bit, but, shit, Richard was home from work, we were hungry, and the Housewives were bickering on that boat in the Caribbean, so I shaped it by hand (because, apparently, a rolling pin “abuses” the dough), tossed it around a bit, then slathered on some tomato sauce, cheese and prosciutto and slipped that fucker onto a pizza stone in a very, very hot oven.

OK, not the prettiest but, damn, it tasted good.

The outcome: Delicious crust that was airy and chewy, but tender, and definitely an improvement over the usual drill of making dough, letting proof for an hour, and then rolling it out. Next time, I’d crank the oven even hotter, and possibly hunt down that those specialty flours. Now I’m hooked.

So here I am, feverishly writing this, thinking, “Yes! This will help!” As if pizza and blogging will act like a creative enema. We’ll see about that.

Meantime, I’ve accomplished a few things:

  1. I’ve learned that longer proofing time does make a superior crust, but you have to plan your pizza, like, two days in advance.
  2. We had a really good dinner.
  3. I realized the world has officially turned upside-down, since on tonight’s episode of RHW-NYC LuAnn was the voice of reason (surprise!), Sonja was the smart one (didn’t see that one coming), and Ramona was the sane one (that’s crazy!).I put the words “enema” and “constipation” in a post about food. Yum! Hungry now?

High-fat food worsens asthma symptoms

If you have asthma, fatty foods like butter aren't your best pal. (Photo by Alison Ashton)

If you have asthma, pass up the Happy Meal.

A new study from the University of Newcastle in Australia finds a fatty, caloric fast-food meal makes it harder for asthmatics to breathe. Even worse, the high-fat fare renders albuterol, an inhaler commonly used to relieve asthma symptoms, less effective.

The study involved 40 people with asthma, who were randomly assigned to gobble a 1,000-calorie fast-food meal (burger and hash browns) that was 52% fat or low-fat yogurt that was just 200 calories and 13% fat. It’s the first study to examine the effect of high-fat food on airway inflammation, which is the hallmark of asthma, says researcher Dr. Lisa Wood.

The results raise intriguing questions, including whether the type of fat makes a difference. Could heart-clogging saturated fat also inflame airways? And do unsaturated fats have the same effect? “We expect that saturated fat would be driving the inflammatory response, as this type of fat has been shown to have the strongest inflammatory effects in other studies,” says Wood. “We are exploring the effects of fat quality on fat-induced inflammation in asthma in our future work.”

If follow-up studies confirm the link between fat and symptoms, reducing dietary fat may be a smart–and easy–way to manage asthma.

The new Dirty Dozen

Blueberries: No. 5 on the EWG's Dirty Dozen to always buy organic

Is organic better than conventional?

That depends on what you mean by “better.”

Maria Rodale, author of Organic Manifesto, led the panel discussion “Why Organic Matters” at last month’s Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif. Thus far, she noted, much of the debate has been over whether organic food is more nutritious than conventionally produce food. The jury is still out on that–some studies suggest organic is more nutritious, while others find no significant difference.

“Forget nutrition,” Rodale said. “It’s time to shift the debate.”

Her argument: Organic is undoubtedly healthier for the environment. It’s better for the soil, and better for people, since agricultural chemicals may be linked to cancer, diabetes, infertility, and other diseases. Despite what the Environmental Protection Agency might claim, “there really is no safe dose,” Rodale contends.

In this respect, every shopper can be a food activist. Whenever you buy certified-organic food, you’re voting for a system free of pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs.

One way to start: avoid the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen–the 12 fruits and vegetables most likely to be laden with pesticides, and which you should always buy organic.  Their latest version includes:

  1. Celery
  2. Peaches
  3. Strawberries
  4. Apples
  5. Blueberries
  6. Nectarines
  7. Bell Peppers
  8. Spinach
  9. Kale
  10. Cherries
  11. Potatoes
  12. Imported Grapes

Avocados, like buttah!


Bacon-Avocado Tartine: A whole mess of issues on one plate. (Photo by Alison Ashton)

Avocados have been on my mind lately, though, of course, I welcome any excuse to eat them.

This current obsession started a few weeks ago with late-night dinner at a swanky pan-Latin eatery in downtown Los Angeles. I ordered “Tortillas Florales with Indian Butter” because I adore handmade corn tortillas under any circumstances.

“What is this Indian butter?” I wondered. Then I was served a plate of pretty handmade tortillas laminated with edible flowers–this was a swanky-danky place, indeed!–with a sidecar of pureed avocado. Of course! Creamy avocado could be considered the New World Indian version of butter (as opposed to Old World East Indian ghee, which is made with…butter). Whatever, it was tasty, and I gobbled it down, though the cynic in me couldn’t help thinking it as a fine example of creative, price-boosting menu writing.

I was at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market last week, searching for ripe avocados for a recipe that needed testing. This being Southern California, ripe fruit of several varieties was plentiful. I picked up a Bacon avocado, which has thin, smooth skin and mellow, exceptionally creamy, even buttery flesh. No, it doesn’t taste like bacon, though you know I had to ask, but is named for the California farmer who developed the variety in the 1950s. Still, the words “bacon” and “avocado” reminded me of my brother’s all-time fave treat (well, next to fried shrimp, anyway): bacon and avocado sandwiches. Fat on fat, what more could you want?

print recipe

Bacon-Avocado Tartine
Tartines seemed to be everywhere while I was on a recent trip up to Northern California’s Wine Country. These little open-faced sandwiches are simple to make and visually appealing. This one, inspired by one of my brother’s favorite childhood meals, is a big, ole schizophrenic fat fest, with heart-healthy omega-3 fats from the avocado undermined by artery-clogging fat from the bacon. Aww, well, it’s delicious. I used crunchy pink kosher Redmond Real Salt from Utah but any kind of fancy-pants salt you have on hand will do.
  • 2 slices applewood-smoked bacon
  • 2 slices sourdough bread
  • 1/2 ripe avocado
  • 1 lime wedge
Cook the bacon in a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat until crisp. Drain bacon on paper towels. Pour off excess fat from pan. Return pan to burner, and increase heat to medium-high. Add bread to pan; cook on 1 side until toasted.Mash avocado with juice of lime wedge. Spread avocado evenly on toasted bread slices. Sprinkle with finishing salt. Tear each bacon slice in half; top each bread slice with 2 bacon halves.

Prep time: 5 mins Cook time: 10 mins Total time: 15 mins Yield: 2 servings