Peter's Blog
Peter's Blog, A Visit with Michael Pollan
Peter Reinhart

A few weeks ago author Michael Pollan came to Charlotte to speak at a local university. Earlier that day I was fortunate to be able to appear with him for an hour on our local NPR radio program, Charlotte Talks, where we discussed many of his favorite themes. Most of you already know who Michael Pollan is, but in case you don't, he is the author of a number of best selling books on food and culture including The Omnivore's Dilemma which is, arguably, the most influential book on our relationship with food since Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring. He has a new book out called Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, a book that I think every serious food lover should own and read, especially the many pizza freaks who follow us here on our "journey of self-discovery through pizza" and who intuitively grasp the notion of cooking as a transformational act.  The Omnivore's Dilemma is one of those rare, but painful to read books (because of the subject matter, not the writing, which is brilliant) that has often been called a true game-changer in terms of its impact on so many of us. Cooked, on the other hand, is like sitting down to a great meal that you never want to end.

Regardless of which Pollan books you've read or not read, his message is clear (and I'm not referring to his now classic "Food Rules: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," which makes for a great sound bite as well as good guidance). No, his deeper message, I believe, has to do with connectivity and consciousness. His books help us connect with the whole lineage of sources -- from seed, to soil, to farmer, miller, merchant, consumer, and cook -- that transform things of the earth into things of nourishment and joy. He quotes Emerson and Wendell Berry with abandon, and in so doing connects us with them and all they stand for. He reveals our inevitable complicity in the taking of life for the sake of our own, and also the priestly (or, if you prefer, the shamanistic) dimension inherent within each of us to effect the transformation of raw ingredients into something totally other. In fact, what I love about this new book is spelled out in its sub-title, A Natural History of Transformation.  I think it is this word, transformation, that transfixes me; it as akin to transubstantiation, or transmutation -- lots of "trans" words! It is the power to change one thing into something else, whether through skill, talent, training, artisanship, or simply through seeing and knowing -- knowing that everything exists on many levels and is never only what we think it is. It is knowing that everything, ultimately, emanates from something, or from some Thing, or, as I believe, from some Being -- if only we had the eyes to see it as so; or if we knew how to perform a series of actions that reveals it as so. Because, when you think about it, transformation isn't only about changing something from one thing into something else, but in the ability to see that the "something else" was there all along, hidden behind the veil of the thing we think we see. When Michaelangelo turned a slab of marble into a David he said that he just revealed the David that was always hidden in the slab. Transformation is, in this sense, a kind of revelation, a revealing of what already is.

Now, Michael Pollan didn't say all that I just wrote above, but he writes about things that make me think of things like this. When I say, as I have in many of my own books, that the mission of the baker is  "to evoke the full potential of flavor trapped in the grain," it touches on this notion of connectivity as an act of transformation. In Cooked, Pollan shows how, throughout human history, we have learned to harness fire, water, air, and earth into tools that allow us to transform (or perhaps "evoke" or "reveal" are just as accurate here), the full potential of an ingredient, whether it be animal, vegetable, fruit, or grain, into something tasty, and also digestible and nourishing, and even more important, something other than what we thought it was while revealing what it actually could be.

So the best part of Michael Pollan's visit is that I not only got to talk about things like this with him on the radio, and then had the chance to introduce him to some of our young culinary students at Johnson & Wales, where he encouraged them to realize how much power and responsibility was within their grasp to change the world, but then, after all that, and before he spoke to a thousand people that evening at Queens University, where he continued building verbal bridges of connectivity for all in attendance -- in the midst of all of that, Michael and I broke away for lunch at Pure Pizza, where we spoke for awhile about, well, about how much we love pizza. And, of course, we spoke about a few other things too....

 

PS You can listen to the podcast of our radio interview by going to http://wfae.org/programs/charlotte-talks-wfae?page=1 Scroll down the page till you find our podcast, dated Oct. 10th, and click  "listen."

 
Oh well, you can't win 'em all
Peter Reinhart

As many of you already know, I did not win the New Yorker Caption Contest this week, though I did get many e-mails from folks saying they thought I should have.  But the winning caption was very funny and I figured it might very well win when I first saw it in the finals, and it did. Was it because the author had more Twitter followers or Facebook fans than me? I don't know, but I bear him no malice because, well, his caption was quite brilliant and mine was, well, it's not for me to say, though I liked it.  I can't recreate the actual cartoon drawing here -- it belongs to the New Yorker and they, naturally, want you to visit it on their site (I gave the link in my previous Peter's Blog a few weeks ago).  But, for those who are wondering, it was a drawing of man in a restaurant, with a plate of fish in front of him, a whole fish, head on, mouth open, looking at him.  My caption was: "Or, I could teach you how to fish."

The winning caption was, "Just water for me, thanks."

I hate losing at anything but, in this case, I can live with it because that other caption made me laugh out loud. And, hey, there's a new caption contest every week so I'll try again -- when the muse delivers something witty. But, next time, I'll try to make it something that causes me -- and everyone else -- to laugh out loud. Till then, I will take solace in the old balm, "It was such an honor just to be a nominee...."

 

 

 
Please Vote
Peter Reinhart

Hi Everyone,

I'm taking shameless advantage of this platform to let you know that a caption I submitted was chosen as a finalist in the weekly New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.  It is only the second time I've ever tried entering and, frankly, I usually find it hard to come up with anything funny or clever, so I often pass. But this time it came to me in a flash, so I guess that's the secret!

You do not have to be a subscriber to vote but you do have to follow this link to register to vote, unless you already are registered. You don't have to choose mine unless you really think it is the best of the three finalists, but take a peek and let me know, right here in the Comments section, if it worked for you (or not). The voting ends Aug. 18th.

BTW, the prize is a full size version of the cartoon, signed by the artist, along with the winning caption. Now that seems like a mighty fine (and unique) prize to hang on the wall. Here's the link:

www.newyorker.com/captioncontest

 

Thanks!!

 
Peter's Blog, My Four Minute Steaks!
Peter Reinhart

Here it is, as promised, a pictorial guide to the best steaks I've ever had, for a fraction of the cost of Morton's, Peter Luger, Ruth's Chris, and all the others.  Of course, you need the super high heat of a wood-fired oven, such as this sweet little Primavera 60 in my back driveway next to the garden. I made these for a dinner party for my wife Susan's birthday; we served a total of twelve people (including ourselves), and I could only fit in two steaks at a time, but it was no problem getting everyone their own steak within a few minutes of each other.

My friend, Patrick Taylor, took these photos of me in action so, of course, we made our steaks last. As a result, I really only had to get the first ten up to the dinner table to get everyone else started. By the time they had filled their plates with the steaks, salad, and Susan's crispy rosemary garlic potatoes (a house specialty, served at almost every party we have), Patrick and I were on our way to the table with our own medium rare rib eyes. They cooked perfectly in one minute on each side!

I use to call this method my "four minute steaks," because they usually take two minutes per side when the steaks are cut to a 1 1/4-inch thickness. But, for this event, I had them cut to just under an inch thick, so they cooked much faster. A couple of people asked for theirs to be well done (God only knows why, but this was no time to be judgmental), so I did theirs first. Two minutes on each side.  Then the rest were mediums or medium rares, so we rolled back to 90 seconds on each side for the mediums. For the medium rares, yes, one minute per side!!

Before you view all the photos, here are a few tips that make all the difference:
--Use rib eyes, cut to the thickness you prefer. I think the marbling and flavor is ideal, even better than NY Strips or Porter Houses (but that's up to you if you prefer a different cut). Grass fed steaks, though a healthier option, tend to have less marbling and, so, come out tougher -- use a well marbled piece of meat from a reputable source. You don't need "prime" beef but don't go for the cheap grades either. "Choice," beef, from a quality meat market or butcher, will be great

 

--Get the oven roaring hot and then push back the coals and clear a space for your cast iron pan or pans (my little oven can only accommodate one pan but yours might handle two). Let the pan get white hot, at least five minutes or longer in the oven.


--Be sure to have heavy duty oven mitts and gloves. I wore a pottery kiln glove and then slipped that same hand into an oven mitt, and that just barely gave me enough protection to grip the hot pan.

 

 


--Have a metal table standing by to receive the hot pan when you set it down (or set it into another cast iron pan, not hot, to protect your table). I surround my work area with portable metal and wooden tables so that I have plenty of surfaces to work with, but only a metal table for the hot pan.


--Use a timer to keep track. A few seconds of distraction can turn a rare steak into an ember.


--To prep the steaks, brush both side with olive oil (not butter, which will burn) and then generously season both sides with kosher or sea salt, and lots of freshly ground black pepper. You really don't need anything else (fresh garlic will burn). You won't need A-1 or Worcestershire Sauce, but we always put it on the table for those who absolutely must have it (but no ketchup!!). I can't overstate this: be generous with the salt and pepper -- it will make a  fabulous crust when it gets seared into the meat.


--Once out of the oven, let the steaks sit for at least five minutes before serving, and for even up to fifteen for thicker cuts, in order for the juices to redistribute back into the meat . If you like the Ruth's Chris trick of melting a pad of seasoned butter on the top of the piping hot steak, feel free, but we found no need for it.

 

 

 

 

 


--We served 8 ounce steaks, which is why they came out thinner than my usual 1 1/4 inches. If you like thick, juicy steaks, have them cut into one pound units (about 1 1/4 inches thick)  and cook for the full two minutes on each side (maybe add 15 to 30 seconds per side if you prefer well done or medium well). But, for large groups like ours, the thinner, faster cooking cuts worked out well.

If you have your own method or tricks, please feel free to share them with us right here in the Comments section. If you want to send photos, write to me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and include your shots.

Now, on to the photos….

 
Peter's Blog July 5th, 2013
Peter Reinhart

Welcome back and I hope you all had a wonderful Fourth of July!

I've been getting requests to describe again how I do the 4 minute steaks in my Forno Bravo Primavera 60 wood-fired oven (of course, these can be made in any size W-F oven but I happen to have the 60). We are just a couple of days from putting on a steak dinner for my wife's birthday so I'm going to ask one of the guests to take some photos of me in the process, which I will post next week along with explanations of the steps. As you may recall, I have called these steaks the best I've ever had and attribute it mainly to the intensely blazing 1,000 degree F. oven heat (and, of course, reasonably high quality rib eyes). This promises to be a lot of fun! Stay tuned....

Also, we have new recipes and guest columns coming over the next few weeks, as well as the ongoing video saga of our pizza challenge with The Bruery. We've been posting these webisodes gradually, to stretch out the suspense, so check back from time to time for the next installment, which should be soon.

One other request: I've noticed that there a number of "fast casual" pizzerias opening up around the country, such as Blaze, 800 Degrees, Pizza Pizzeria, Uncle Maddio's, and many others. Most of them are modeled on the Chipotle concept, working yourself down a line to build your own pizza and, then, they bake them in a wood-fired or other oven and deliver it to your table.  If you have been to any of these new concepts I would love to hear your thoughts on the quality and your overall experience.  The "fast casual" model is sweeping the restaurant world and the big question for many of us is what impact they will have on the artisan pizza world that they aspire to emulate. Will this be the beginning of a new surge in high quality pizzas or is it a lowering of the bar? Your thoughts are welcome, right here in the "comments" section. Thanks! (Note: If anyone wants to write a more extensive "Guest Column" on this subject please write to me directly at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

Finally, for those who may be new here, you can still sign up for my free video course on making artisan pizza in a home oven.  The course also includes free downloadable recipes that you can print out. If you haven't already subscribed, go to www.craftsy.com/pizza .  It even includes a gluten-free recipe. We're up to nearly 43,000 subscribers already, and I think nearly every question that can be asked has been asked, in the Q&A section (though you may think of a new one), so it really is a wealth of useable knowledge and a great connection to a growing community of fellow pizza freaks.

I'll be back in a few days with the steak report!

 

 
Peter's Blog: Charlotte Mini-Quest Part Two
Peter Reinhart

A few weeks ago I posted about the first part of a local mini pizza quest I went on here in Charlotte. In that post I focused on Wolfgang Puck's new Pizza Bar, but that was only the first stop of the day. From there, journalist and fellow pizza lover Michael Solender, along with photographer Tonya Russ Price and went to three other places, which I want to tell you about now and in upcoming posts. Unfortunately, I can't seem to get the photos up but I wanted to post this now since it's long overdue.

Luisa's Brick Oven Pizza

I've written about Luisa's Brick Oven Pizza in the past (there is a brief essay in Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, by Ed Levine, that tells of my discovery of Luisa's when I first moved to Charlotte as part of the requisite check-list of things anyone must do when they move to a new city: find a doctor, dentist, bank, Chinese restaurant, and a great pizzeria). And, even after nine years I still feel that it is my favorite New York Style pizzeria in Charlotte. I use the term New York Style loosely, though, because it such a big, all encompassing term that it really can mean anything or even nothing. I  need for some of you hard-core NY pizza freaks to chime in here with your idea of what it means, whether narrowed to "by the slice" versions, or classic Neapolitan inspired coal-fired versions like John's, Lombardi's, or Totonno's, or just plain old Ray's and all the Ray's clones and doppelgängers.

For me, though, it's just a way to differentiate from Boston-style (thicker crust, sometimes referred to as Greek-style), Sicilian (focaccia-like, baked in pans), Americana-pizza that focuses on breadier crusts and heavy on the toppings, Detroit and St. Louis-styles with their cracker thin crusts and cross-cut servings, and of course, Napoletana-style pizzerias (attempts to recreate the VPN, or rival associations' pizzas) of Naples, of which only a few American pizzerias do a decent job. In other words, when I say New York pizza what I mean is pizza, round, thin to medium thin crust, nice tomato or other sauce and gooey cheese, aka "Neapolitan" pizza, which means, in my opinion, Naples-inspired pizzas as interpreted by the American pizzerias originally in New York City and thereabouts. Whew, does that make sense to anyone but me?  It can be baked in any kind of oven; therefore, most pizza as we know and love it in America is, for the most part and with infinite nuanced permutations, New York-style pizza. But that's just a digressive rant.

My main point is that I love Luisa's because the crust is thin (but not cracker thin), and it's baked in a twenty year old combination wood-fired/gas forno, and I always eat all my crust "bones," and at least four slices more than I should. The owner, Jeffery Russell, had been the manager for a number of years when it was still owned by Luisa herself, and later, when she decided to focus on her wonderful neighborhood osteria Dolce, Jeffery bought it from her -- I think this was about seven or eight years ago -- and he has done a great job keeping the wheels spinning, the quality high, and continues building a very loyal clientele.

Generally, I'm not a big fan of pizza buffets, but the weekday lunch at Luisa's is one of the greatest bargains in town: all the pizza, salad, and soft drinks you want for $8.00. The day we went there on our mini-quest (I wanted Michael to experience it for himself, and for the article he was writing -- God knows, I'd been there many times already)  the line was the longest I've ever seen it there and the pizzas were flying out of the oven to keep up, and the giant salad bowl kept getting replenished with more lettuce and fixings. My favorite "specialty" pizza on their menu, The Luisa (made with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and ricotta cheese, pesto, and garlic) is prominent in the buffet rotation, so I was in heaven.  When I go for dinner with a small group of people, I often recommend that they also order the Fiorentino, which has spinach, garlic, mozzarella, Parmesan, and Fontina. But the specialty toppings are not the point here and not the reason Luisa's is about the only local pizzeria I go to frequently (other than my own, Pure Pizza, which we'll get to in a future posting). There are a few other reasons: Lori Flanigan has been our server for ten years (and there are other servers too, of course, but Lori is always there for lunch service) and you can't underestimate the value of a consistent and friendly face when it comes to establishing customer loyalty (refer to John Arena's Guest Column series on "going pro" for other such difference makers). Until recently, the pizzas were always made by the same guy, Ray, who said very little but always knew just how much char I liked -- he recently got a better paying non-restaurant job that he couldn't turn down, but his sidekicks, Oro and Marco, provide a seamless transition. As we've often cited, a memorable pizza is in the hands of the pizzaiolo and it bodes well for a place, at least in my estimation, when the employees stay and the turnover, whether front or back of the house, is minimal.  While the most important thing at a pizzeria is the quality of the pizzas, they are not the only factor in making a place memorable. In the end, it's more about the connectedness we feel that reels us back in, and connectedness works on many levels. So, for all these reasons, Luisa's keeps reeling me back.

Which brings me to another successful operation, just a few blocks from Luisa's, that has figured out a formula for success using a trifecta of compelling lures.  Mellow Mushroom, a small franchise concept that began in Atlanta about thirty years ago has developed a brand loyalty among its regulars that is as passionate as Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix even though the two concepts are as different as night and day. We'll explore that in my next Peter's Blog.

 



 

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Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.

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