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by Robin Devereaux-Nelson

My dad reminded me the other day about the first homemade pizza we ever baked. I think I was about 14, so that was in 19- ha! You actually thought I was going to tell you that? Let’s suffice to say it was "back in the day." We’d never made a pizza before, and living out in the sticks as we did, there was no way we were ever going to get pizza delivered out there. This was also back before pizza places had those hot envelope thingys they bring your pizza in now. So, even if we could have gotten a pizza delivered, it would have been stone cold by the time it got there.

Anyhow, one night we decided we were going to make a homemade pizza. This probably annoyed my grandmother, whom we lived with, and my mother more than a little. You see, the kitchen had been cleaned up from supper only a few hours before, and here we were, goofing around making a big ol’' mess. My dad and I are irritating like that.

We didn't have a pizza pan, but Dad went down in the basement and rummaged around for a little while. He came upstairs with this gigantic lid that had belonged to an old Army pot. He didn’t have the pot, mind you, (which judging from the size of the lid had to be large enough to boil a small pig in). He just had the lid. Who knows where he got it or why he kept it, but it’d had the handle removed and it was nice and round and flat. The perfect pizza pan shape. It barely fit in the oven—in fact, the edges of it just slid into the rack holders on the inside walls. We greased that Army pot lid up and got it ready for the crust.

Thing is, we weren't sure how to make pizza dough, so we decided to thawed out a couple of loaves of bread dough from the freezer. If you have never tried rolling out pre-made bread dough you have no idea how hilarious it is. We rolled and stretched and flattened that sucker. One of us would hold one edge while the other one stretched it out. As soon as we let go, it would snap back. I was laughing so hard I thought I was going to pee my pants (back in the day, entertainment was nil in Linwood). We finally got the crust anchored by hooking the dough around the edge of the pan to hold it in place. Then we stuck it in the oven fast so it could pre-bake a little before it snapped back into a ball of bread dough again.

Dad left the sauce making to me. We were starting with big jar of homemade plain tomato sauce from the fruit cellar. The first order of business was seasoning it. I have to tell you I grew up a very lucky fledgling chef because we happened to own the Mother of All Spice Cupboards. It was one of those corner lazy susan's and it was jam packed with all kinds of herbs and spices. My granny was a mail order queen back then, not to mention a Julia Child fan, so she was constantly procuring uncommon herbs and spices. By uncommon in Hicksville, that meant things other than garlic, onion salt, pickling spice and cinnamon.

I still remember the aroma that wafted out when I opened that cupboard door. I was a big-time reader when I was a kid, and the smell in that cupboard was enough to incite visions of Arabian nights, Paris in springtime, Roman boulevards, and English gardens. It was pretty amazing.

So, there I was with a gigantic bowl of tomato sauce in front of me, and no help from Dad. I kept asking him what I should put in the sauce, and he gave me the shoulder shrug. It was one of those learn-for-yourself moments. Man, I hated those moments. Then I had it: my pizza sauce strategy. I would rely on my nose.

My dad got a quirky smile on his face as I started opening jars, boxes and bags and sniffing. If whatever I opened smelled like it belonged in pizza sauce, I put it in. To this day, I have no idea what ended up in that sauce. I will assume that I added garlic, oregano, thyme, and basil to the tomato sauce, but I know there was a lot more stuff than that in there. I also know, to this day, it was the best dang sauce I ever made. Wish I had written that recipe down.

The sauce was good because I trusted my nose. Some folks use the same ol’, same ol’ from the spice cupboard because they are unsure of which herbs and spices are the "right" ones, which ones go together, or just plain don’t know exactly how they taste. Try this: next time you’re at the grocery store or fruit market, pick up a bunch of fresh cilantro. Now close your eyes and hold it up near your face and sniff. Your mouth will start to water, and you will probably conjure up visions of fresh salsa or pico de gallo, or suddenly crave a meal at El Mexicano. Your nose knows that cilantro is a great herb to use in Mexican dishes.

I've said it before, and I’ll say it again: your kitchen is your laboratory. Experiment. It's all good. Trust your nose to tell you which herbs and spices will work in the dishes you create. Your nose is your herb and spice expert.

We finished off our pizza with hamburger, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, black olives, onions, and a ton of mozzarella. I could barely lift it after it was loaded. Dad had to put it in and remove it from the oven for me so I didn’t burn myself. We all enjoyed that first homemade pizza, and I remember how proud I was that I made the sauce—that Ihad trusted my nose.

Basil Garlic Pesto

This year I had an abundance of basil, so for a cookout I made a great pesto. We put a pan of it on the grill during a party, and served it with fresh Italian bread. Each guest sliced off a piece of bread, smothered it with pesto and placed it, pesto side down, on the grill for a hot, fresh treat. This grilled bread was a huge success, and was a fabulous accompaniment for garlic burgers (made with fresh ground sirloin, compliments of Jack's Fruit Market on Bay Rd. in Saginaw, and about 8 cloves of finely chopped garlic), and ice cold Molsen’s. Fab.

Pesto is simple to make, and is a great spread or accompaniment for meats, breads and vegetables. We also make a simple, instant Italian dressing by placing one tablespoon of pesto into a bottle with 1 cup of olive oil and ¼ cup of vinegar of your choice (we like Balsamic), and shaking vigorously. Pesto doesn’t require exact measures, but here is a basic recipe:

    2 handfuls fresh, washed basil
    3 cloves peeled garlic
    ¼ cup toasted pine nuts
    ½ cup good oil 

Place all ingredients in a food processor on the high setting, blending until a paste forms. Pesto can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 10 days, or you can freeze it in ice cube trays to thaw for later use.  

© Robin Devereaux-Nelson, 2010