A Birthday Feast

When Charles turned eighteen he asked if I’d cook for his birthday party. Nothing, I replied, would make me happier. My family’s home in Washington, Connecticut, has an oak slab countertop and a big brass sink for washing dirt off vegetables. It’s where I fell in love with cooking.

It was a chilly Friday in October, and my parents put the extension on the dining room table so we could fit all of Charles’s friends. It reminded me of prep work on Thanksgiving – the kind of task I’d try to knock out while one of the apple pies was baking. Charles asked for a bunch of pizzas and some salads to wash them down. Pizza is what we make when we want people to eat our garden veggies: everyone likes pizza, and pizza likes any vegetable you top it with.

My mom was thrilled. More mouths to feed meant more mouths to eat the leeks we harvested that week. They’ve been out of the ground for five days now. And those zucchini and onions are starting to look old. And all the pesto you jarred this summer—can you find a way to use that too? She didn’t mention all the kale my dad cut that morning. She probably didn’t even know it was hiding in the fridge. (That’s what she gets for keeping the clippers up at the garden.) Yes, mom: it would all be used, it would all be enjoyed. After all, Charles asked for pizza.

Cooking in Connecticut is never about preparing a recipe; it’s about using up what’s in the garden. In July it’s berries and in August it’s peaches. September brings tomatoes and wax beans (we thought we planted fewer this year) and October brings apples, leeks, and winter squash. And then there’s kale. Always. Every single month of the year. Kale salads are summer lunches, kale quiches taste best in the winter, and kale pesto looks great dolloped on pizzas. Luckily, the pantry was stocked with glass jars of it from last summer. I’d make a kale pesto pizza with our chicken eggs baked on top.

On the afternoon of his birthday, Charles returned to the warm kitchen wearing a hat and scarf, arms filled with vine ripe tomatoes. As he rolled them onto my cutting board, I smiled. A month before all he was wearing was a bathing suit.

My family planted the garden on a southward facing hilltop. It seemed like good place for the 10×10 plot of land. The direct sunlight makes our radishes too spicy to eat raw, but it works wonders for our tomatoes come October, when Northwest Connecticut starts cooling down. We’re always in awe at how much food our little plot of land can yield—way more than enough for a family of six. Summer days are spent stirring pots of blackberry jam, stewing tomatoes, and boiling water to seal it all shut in mason jars. The garden gives us more than enough with which to nourish our bodies—it begs us to cook and asks us to share.

So when the garden peaks in August, there’s company over for dinner almost every night—neighbors, cousins, friends, their dogs. On Charles’s birthday night, his friends all gathered around the countertop, giddily opening bottles of Budweiser in front of a mom and a dad. Chuckles filled the air—Charles hadn’t ever used a bottle opener. While my dad showed him how to open his beer, his friends poked at the dough and told me how cool it is that I make pizza. Do you have to knead it? What is kneading anyway? My mom rummaged through drawers looking for tongs to toss the salads, asking me to do something with the zucchini.

“Hey guys,” I said, “wanna slice these up for me? They can go on one of the pies. And someone can grate this block of parmesan.” They nodded eagerly and set their beers down on the counter. “And wanna tear up these mozzarella balls too? So we can scatter them on the pizzas.”

The kitchen hummed with warm voices and sizzling pans. When we needed an extra handful of basil or head of garlic, we would send my little brother Peyton up to the garden. He always came back with double what we asked for: “Well you never said what variety of garlic you wanted. I brought hardneck and softneck. Just in case.” My mom and I laugh because we know he’s just looking for a reaction. He knows garlic is garlic no matter what kind of neck. We don’t care and neither will the pizza.

My little assistant agreed to do whatever I asked, as long as he got to design one of the pies. He made six trips up to the garden while I rolled out the dough. We had just enough of last year’s jarred tomatoes to make the lineup we decided on:

Red pies:

  • Tomato, buffalo mozzarella, basil (This was Peyton’s. He’s a purist.)
  • Tomato, mozzarella, zucchini, roasted garlic
  • Tomato, mozzarella, caramelized onions, parm

White pies:

  • Caramelized onion, leeks, mozzarella, pancetta
  • Leeks, chopped kale, parm, sunnyside eggs
  • Leeks, squash, mozzarella, thyme
  • Pesto (kale or otherwise), goat cheese, zucchini, parm
  • Pesto, mozzarella

My dough recipe makes four balls, enough for six people. For Charles’ birthday, I doubled it: more mouths to feed and more places to put the leeks.

  • 3 ¾ cups all-purpose flour. I use white for the 3 cups, and whole wheat for the last ¾ cup. I like the brown flecks in the finished dough, and the slight extra sturdiness it adds.
  • 1 envelope active dry yeast. But buy a few more and stick them in the fridge for your next pizza night.
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt. My teaspoons are always hefty, so it’s probably more like 3. I like to finely grind the salt so it distributes well through the dough.
  • 1 ½ cups of room temperature water
  1. In a big bowl, blend together the flour, yeast, and salt with a fork. Add the water and mix thoroughly with a spatula until a shaggy dough forms. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel, and let it rise at room temperature for as close to 18 hours as you can get. I make it at night before going to bed so it’s ready for dinner the next day. The warmer the room, the quicker the rise.
  2. Flour your countertop and your hands, and scrape the dough out of the bowl. Divide the dough into 4 portions, and shape into a neat circular mounds. You can let the teenage boys do this part; it’s hard to mess up. Tell them to dust the mounds with flour if they are sticky to the touch.
  3. Heat your oven to 500 degrees, and let it continue heating for at least 30 minutes while you roll the dough balls and prepare your toppings. Do this part on your own.
  4. Slide the crust onto a floured baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes, or until it firms up and takes on slight color. Then pull it out and rub it with a head of garlic.
  5. Share the pizza line-up with your eager kitchen helpers, and let them do the topping while you turn on the broiler. Make sure they don’t overdo it with the cheese.
  6. One pie at a time, stick the pizza back in the oven until the crust is slightly charred and the cheese is bubbling (5-8 minutes, depending on your oven; keep peeping inside).

One kid had a thing for rolling the metal pizza slicer through the crisp crusts, so I let him do that while grating some extra parm to bring to the table. The pizzas were for Charles’s birthday, but his friends went home with gifts. One of them asked how the heck you caramelize onions, I gave him instructions (heat, a pan, butter, vinegar) while Charles took a flashlight up to the garden to get some onions to send his buddy home with. I had the others chopping kale for the salad, garlic for the dressing, sautéing pancetta, or salting the eggs. That’s cooking together—you get roped in whether you like it or not. My dad made a point of getting the quiet kid in the corner to rally troops to the table. By the time we were seated, everyone had contributed something to the meal.

Maybe that’s what it is: the garden’s abundance brings people together. It brings people to the kitchen, around the countertop; it sends them running up to the garden in dark to get the basil we forgot, and hurrying back to rejoin the meal and the company. It shows them they can crack an egg or slice a squash. The garden makes every meal a celebration—of the food itself and the hands that touched it. It makes us pause to admire the greens in our salad, the garlic in our dressing; it makes us smile at the runny yolks atop our pizza.

Hallie Meyer appreciates ice cream, dogs, good ideas and good people. Send her an email at hallie.meyer@yale.edu.

 

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