My Francis Mallmann Moment
First of all, if you haven’t watched the series, Chef’s Table, on Netflix stop reading and go watch it, especially the episode I’m about to describe. If you don’t have Netflix, sign up; this post will be here when you get back!
There was a visual moment in the episode about the brilliant, iconoclastic chef, Francis Mallmann, that is never spoken about in the narration, no dialogue, but it jumped off the screen and hit me like a ton of hot coals. I hit pause and backed it up. “Did you see that?” I asked my wife. She didn’t. She was actually playing Candy Crush while sitting there watching food TV with me.
“There. Look!” He was cooking a dough right on the coals of a hot, open wood fire, in what looked like one of the most amazing spots on the planet earth to be cooking! It’s a small open shack with a deck, of sorts, by a lake on a Patagonian Island that his family owns. Crazy. The camera floats on the lake, capturing this beautifully unique place as Francis and his assistants build a fire and begin cooking things out there over this huge open fire pit. Clearly the man has this down to an art. I honestly don’t know if I’m more jealous of those who got to eat the food or the ones cooking it throughout the show. (This episode, by the way, shows one unfathomable cooking location after another.)
“He just threw the dough on the coals and look, it puffed up – charred, but with a couple wacks of his knife it looks…” I stopped as one of the next shots in the montage showed him topping the dough with some greens, sliced red onions (why are they not called purple onions?), and slices of what appear to be burnt oranges and, then, dousing it all with a generous pour of olive oil. Let me just say the whole thing caused quite an epiphany in my mind! “HE JUST MADE A PIZZA! He made a pizza on an open wood fire on the ground next to a lake in the rain!!”
My wife was less impressed than I was and tried to give me some support, until I rewound it again…and then again. Apparently, if you are playing Candy Crush while pretending to watch a show, it can be annoying to have the show rewound more than once! I’m mostly exaggerating. She knows by now that I’m insane when it comes to food.
“I’ll have to try that sometime,” I told myself. I didn’t know you could cook a dough directly on the coals. I knew you could throw a steak on the coals to great results, but a dough? Hard to believe.
So, like Mikey once did, I tried it. I had a left over dough after making my Wood Fire Roasted Seafood Pizza *Link , so I decided to throw it on the coals. Guess what? It worked. Thirty seconds or so on one side and then I flipped it over. Some coals stuck to it as it flipped. After another 30 or so seconds I pulled it out of the oven with some long tongs! A knock or two on the hearth to shake off the coals and there it was — a puffy dough with some nice char. “Cool!”
Perhaps I was lucky that I had this extra dough after making the seafood roast because of what was left over in the pan from roasting the seafood — the broth! I tore a piece of the dough and used it to sop up the nectar. There were some little roasted bits of seafood in there also. So, the next bite was a torn piece of dough dipped in the broth and topped with a shrimp and a slice of Spanish chorizo. The bite after that got a little drizzle of olive oil, a roasted mussel, a piece of chorizo, and a bit of basil. “This is a pizza!” I thought, intoxicated with the flavors. I then noticed my wife putting a little shred of fresh mozzarella on a torn piece of the dough and scraping up some tomato sauce from her plate. Aha!
“This is a pizza! It’s a fresh hot dough with stuff on it!” I blurted.
I had my next pizza making session in mind in a flash. Doughs plus toppings equals pizza party! I sent out a text to the Wildermuth’s, our good friends and partner’s in crime when it comes to all things cooking and drinking and carousing, who are always quick to say yes when I send them my crazy ideas.
Text: Come over for a Pizza Party? New idea — I’m going to cook the dough right on the coals, then serve with a bunch of sides to make “deconstructed pizzas” at the table.
As if I needed the answer — it was on!!
My Francis Mallmann Pizza Party
THE SIDES, or TOPPINGS:
Rustic Marinara Sauce: Can I call this Brad English’s Rustic Marinara Sauce? The question is, “Is this a sauce, or is it a topping?” I think it’s both. I came up with it as I was about to make pizza sauce, because I thought it was a crime to take these Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes in my hand and crush them all up. I have, sort of, started a tradition when I open up a can of these. I take one in my hand (Look at it. It’s huge!), and standing over the sink I take a big juicy bite, allowing all the juices to slide down my chin and drip into the sink with no attempt to manage the mess. It just feels right – maybe a little more decadent? A couple more bites and the tomato is resting in another, better, place and I’m cleaning up with a splash and wipe of my face and thinking, “Wow!” By the way, many so called “good tomatoes” don’t hold up to this test and tradition.
The sauce is simple: Hand crush some of the tomatoes, add some sliced garlic, fresh oregano and sprinkle with a little sea salt. To go rustic, I then toss in some bigger chunks and even a couple of whole tomatoes and, when it’s time, slide the pan into the WFO and simmer it all for a little bit before serving. Delicious!
Wood Fire Roasted Sausage with Beer n’ Things: I have a number of recipes on the site for this simple delicious pizza topping.
I tear up a few sausages into bite size pieces and toss them in olive oil in a cast iron skillet and add anything that sounds like fun: chopped red onions, some red Fresno chili peppers, fresh basil, some of my whole or torn up Bianco DiNapoli’s, and finish it with some beer to keep it juicy and have it all ooze together and become one. It’s sort of like taking sausage and creating a marinade for it. Definitely one to include anytime you are making multiple pizzas. Could also be an interesting topping on a pasta – with more tomatoes, it could become the sauce as well. Play with it.
Wood Fire Roasted Spicy Seafood: *Link here mentioned above for a recent post about this amazing dish and pizza topping! It’s a mix of available fresh shellfish such as mussels, clams, scallops, shrimp with some Spanish Chorizo, Fresno chili peppers, chopped red onions, chopped Italian parsley, all drenched in olive oil and surrounded by a good beer or wine to coordinate their trip to glory, and finished with a little sea salt and squeezed lemon.
Sliced Heirloom Tomatoes with Torn Fresh Mozzarella and Basil: Thin slices of fresh tomatoes layered with pieces of fresh mozzarella and fresh basil leaves are drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of sea salt and maybe some pepper to taste.
This is both a salad and a pizza topping. A warm dough out of the oven topped with this cool tomato salad is near perfection by itself. When the roof of your mouth feels the coolness of the toppings and your tongue is working from the warm bread upward, the place where it all meets is a place I like to call Pizza Quest!
Roasted or Grilled Veggies: This just seems like something to have. Drizzled with olive oil, sea salt, and balsamic.
Oven Roasted Figs: I walked by this fig display at Whole Foods. How do you pass this up? I cut the figs in half and drizzled with a good amount of olive oil and a little sea salt and then sprinkled some brown sugar on them. Into the oven, roast, flip, roast and they come out shrunken and shriveled and charred and delicious! I serve them on a plate with some creamy gorgonzola, some wild baby arugula dressed with olive oil and sea salt, and some torn pieces of prosciutto. A little of each on some of the dough and this turned out to be the WOW pizza of the night.
All of these sides cook fast – a few minutes will do it in a wood fired oven. Alternately, some of them could be prepared on the stove or in a home oven. You prepare all of the sides first because the doughs are going to cook fast and you want them hot, right out of the oven. This was a lot to do as a “test”, but we often just dive in and go for the “whole enchilada,” don’t we?
The Pizza – or should I say The Dough: I used a traditional 00 Neapolitan Dough recipe. Any will do. First, I stretch them by hand; they don’t have to be perfectly formed. It was fun tossing the doughs into the oven onto the coals that I had spread out across the floor. Just like my test, I cooked the doughs for a bit and flipped them and then pulled them out and knocked off any coals that stuck. Amazingly, not that many stick.
We sat down as I arrived with a plate of pizza crusts hot from the oven. Everyone took a crust and began to build pizzas. Instead of building a whole pizza on the crust, we all seemed to get into tearing a piece off the crust and building an individual pizza bite, or slice. I found it was best to drizzle my torn pieces of crust with some olive oil and then place the toppings on. It was fascinating. There was a flurry of conversation as we all set up our plates with the sides, but then something interesting happened. It got silent. We were all exploring this new concept and thinking about this pizza experience in a different way. Then you’d hear an, “Oh! That’s good!”, or, “Have you tried the Figs?!” and the conversation would start up again.
This was amazing! All of these toppings would make killer traditional pizzas that go into the oven as a pizza and come out of the oven a pizza. However, the fact that this pizza party was sort of a backwards pizza, it made us all experience what pizza is in a different way. My take away was that what makes great pizza is the dough. It’s all about the dough. Our Francis Mallmann-inspired “pizza on the coals pizza party” was about having great food with great bread! It made me think about eating so many other things like Indian food with torn pieces of Naan. Or, even turning my breakfast into a pizza-like open faced sandwich when I take my runny eggs and bacon and place it on my jellied toast to eat it.
Thank you Francis Mallmann and the makers of the great Series Chef’s Table for getting me to think differently about something I love, and experiencing it in a new way. Will I throw all of my pizzas onto the coals from now on? Definitely not, but my wheels are still spinning on this one…
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Pizza Quest Info
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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