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Alimentary, My Dear

Pizza to Go? Why Not!

By Tamia Nelson

October 9, 2001

I s there a paddler who doesn't like pizza? I'm sure there is, but I've yet to meet one. And for Farwell and me, pizza is a staple food. In fact, Friday night is pizza night in our household. It's a tradition of long-standing, one we've been observing faithfully for nearly two decades.

And it's become quite a ritual. I make my own dough, and then top the crust with generous quantities of mozzarella, freshly grated Parmesan, minced garlic cloves, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil (when I can get it), and lots of dried oregano. I admit that I use canned pizza sauce, but that's because I've found one that beats anything I can make.

Of course, pizza at home is one thing. Pizza on a paddling trip is something else. For a long time, our canoeing and kayaking holidays were holidays from this family tradition, as well. For one thing, once you're away from workaday routines, the days of the week don't matter quite so much as they do when every block on the calendar has a deadline to meet or a chore to do. Must of us go paddling to get away from rigid, imposed schedules, after all. We "light out for the territory" to relax and unwind—and to find the freedom that eludes us at other times. Remember Nessmuk's words? "We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home…."

I couldn't agree more. Still, after three or four days in the bush, I get a hankering for certain foods, and that hankering gets more insistent as the days go by. Sooner or later I start thinking that it would be nice to have a green salad with tomatoes. Or cold fresh milk. Or a crunchy apple. Or pizza.

Pizza. Right. Looking back, it's hard to believe I went for so many years without trying to make a back-country pizza. But I did. Then a mouse set up housekeeping in our ancient gas oven at home.

I didn't know this till I heard the scurrying behind the stove. I'd just turned on the oven. At first I thought I was hearing things. But the noise continued, getting louder and more frantic with every minute. So I grabbed a flashlight and peered into the dark recesses between the wall and the stove. What did I see? A white-footed mouse staring back at me. And she wasn't alone. She was surrounded by a mob of tiny, pink miniatures, all squirming blindly. I quickly put two and two (and two and two…) together. Mom had built a maternity suite in the insulated walls of the oven. It probably seemed the perfect place: comfortable, safe, and warm. Then, suddenly, the temperature started to rise, and it kept rising until it became unbearable. So Mom snatched up her brood and carried them away from the scorching heat, one at a time.

Now she was standing in the beam of my flashlight, surrounded by her offspring. What could I do? I turned off the oven, just in case Mom had more miniatures to rescue. And I crossed my fingers, hoping she'd move on. No luck, though. When the oven cooled, I could hear her carrying her brood back to her carefully-prepared nest.

What was I to do? Call me an old softie, but I wasn't about to evict a new mother, let alone incinerate her. So I looked in a guidebook and learned we'd have to wait about a month for the miniature mice to grow up. Could we do without an oven for a month? We decided that we could.

But what about Friday pizza? We didn't want to give that up, and driving half-an-hour to the nearest take-out wasn't an attractive idea either. So I began experimenting. And guess what? I learned that it's possible to make great pizza on the stove top, without sacrificing either flavor or quality. I simply made the dough as usual, but formed two small crusts instead of one large one. Each crust was then "baked" in a covered, 10-inch, cast-iron skillet, directly over a burner. When the crusts were done, I removed them, added the toppings, and then "baked" the completed pizzas again, one after the other, in the same skillet. The result? "Stove-top" pizza.

Sure, this method wasn't exactly easy. It required constant attendance and some deft juggling. But it produced individual pizzas that tasted every bit as good as oven-baked pizzas. The main differences were that the crust's bottom often became a little charred in places, and the cheese—though it melted—didn't form the crusted brown bubbles of a real oven-backed pizza. Otherwise, though, my stove-top pizzas were great!

This got me thinking. If I could make pizza on a burner at home, why couldn't I do the same thing on a paddling trip? So I tried it, and I found I could. Now I really had pizza to go! And I wasn't alone. A couple of years later, the foodie magazines started running features on cooking pizza on a gas grill. Suddenly, stove-top pizza was mainstream.

OK. If I can do it, so can you. Not many people will want to make yeast dough from scratch in camp, but there are plenty of acceptable substitutes. You can enlist pita bread as a crust, or a flour tortilla, or even one of the shrink-wrapped ready-made pizza crusts. Or you can make a flatbread and use it as your base. But the simplest way of all is also the most obvious: just use a prepackaged, dry pizza-crust mix and add your favorite toppings.

Whatever crust you use, you'll need to have a large skillet with a tightly-fitting lid. I like cast iron because it's sturdy, stands up to the heat, and heats evenly. The downside is that it's heavy, but what's a few extra pounds on a canoe trip? Remember what Nessmuk said. We go to the woods to smooth it. And eating well is part of smoothing it.

A couple of tips: Keep a pot-holder handy. Cast-iron handles get very hot, and there's no ER in the back of beyond. And don't forget to bring along a big pot or bowl for mixing the dough. A small cutting board is also useful for shaping the crust and—after the crust is cooked—for assembling the pizza. A clean paddle will work fine.

What's that? You like to cook over a wood fire? No problem. Pizzas can be "baked" in a skillet over coals, too. Just be sure you experiment at home till you can control the temperature. Heap coals up for high heat. Spread 'em out for low. Then place your skillet where the temperature is right. For my part, I like the convenience of a camp stove. Balancing a heavy skillet on a small stove's pot supports can be tricky, however, so I usually set a folding wire grill over the burner and then place the skillet on the grill. It takes a little fiddling to get the height right, but it's worth it.

Campfire or stove? The choice is yours. But be sure you practice at home before you take your pizzeria on the road.

Pizza to Go
(makes 1 pizza—enough for one hungry paddler)

To feed two, simply double the amount of each ingredient. Pour two packages of pizza-crust mix together in one bowl and then split the dough in half.

1 tablespoon cooking oil (I use corn oil)
1 6.5-ounce package pizza-crust mix (I use Betty Crocker)
1/2 cup hot (but not boiling) water
All-purpose flour (for dusting hands and dough ball)
Toppings of your choice

Have your toppings ready at hand. Pour the pizza-crust mix into a bowl or pot, and then pour in the hot water. Caution: Use too much water and the dough will be sticky. Use too little and the flour mix will not hold together. (If you do use too much water, add a small amount of all-purpose flour and stir until the dough is no longer sticky. On the other hand, if you use too little water, add just a bit more.) Stir the water and mix together until you've got a ball of dough. This should take no more than a minute or so. Then cover the bowl or pot and allow the dough to rest for a few minutes.

While the dough is "resting," begin heating your skillet over a high flame (or hot coals). Let it get quite hot before coating the bottom of the skillet with cooking oil. (Do not use olive oil!) As the oiled skillet heats, flour your fingers and press the dough ball into a 9" round, using a flour-dusted cutting board or clean, dry paddle blade as a work surface. When the oil is hot enough to make a pea-sized pinch of dough sizzle, slide the crust carefully into the skillet and put the lid in place. Allow the crust to "bake" for only a minute or two—just long enough to permit the crust to brown slightly. Then, using a spatula to help, carefully flip the crust and allow the reverse side to "bake" under the lid for another 15-30 seconds. The goal is only to harden this side of the crust, not to brown it.

Now remove the skillet from the flame (or coals) and set it on a heat-proof surface, like a rock. Don't set the hot skillet on your paddle or boat, and don't shut off your stove. Working quickly but carefully, place the toppings on the pizza. (Don't overload the crust.) Then return the skillet to the stove and cover. Let the pizza "bake" for about 3-5 minutes—just long enough to melt the cheese and allow the toppings to heat up. Be sure you don't peek too often. If you do, the crust will char before the toppings get hot. Once the pizza is cooked through, remove it from the heat, cut into wedges, and serve.

If you plan to make two pizzas, combine two packaged mixes to make one dough, and then divide the dough in two. Form the first crust from one-half of the dough, and then shape the second while the first is cooking. When the first crust is cooked on both sides, slide it out onto your cutting board, pour a little more oil into the skillet, and immediately put it back over the heat. Once it's up to temperature again, cook the second pizza crust just as you did the first. Meanwhile, put toppings on the first (cooked) crust. When the second crust is done, slide it off, and place the now-garnished first crust in the skillet. Cook as directed, while garnishing the second crust. When the first pizza is completely baked, slide it out, and heat the second. (You may need to add more oil first.) Slice the first pizza while you're waiting.

Sound complicated? It is. But it gets easier with practice.

OPTIONS Toppings can include tomato sauce, grated cheese, dried spices, canned or rehydrated mushrooms and other vegetables, sliced black or green olives, sliced pepperoni, and even sliced fresh garlic. Just be careful not to overload the crust. If you do, your toppings won't heat through. Worse yet, the crust will become soggy and break when you try to lift it. And if you plan to use fresh veggies like bell peppers and onions, be sure to cook them first, before making the pizza crust. They simply don't get enough time in your stove-top oven to cook through.

There you have it. Pizza to go. And all because of a mouse!

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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