Iron Chef star Alex Guarnaschelli has some advice for cooking novices when it comes to making main courses: Don’t be too hard on yourself. After all, mistakes are inevitable. According to the chef, progress in the culinary arts is only possible through exhaustive repetition. It’s only through raw, practical experience that you’ll gain the knowledge of how to perfectly prepare a traditional main course. It’s okay if your first attempt at making a chicken dish doesn’t come out perfectly. Eventually, if you keep repeating the process of cooking something, you’ll get pretty good at making it.
The chef’s advice about finding perfection through repetition doesn’t just apply to the main dish. The first thing Alex ever made as a professional were Parker House rolls. The experience of striving to make the perfect roll had a profound impact on her development as a chef. It not only helped her understand the key role a quality starch side dish has in tying an excellent main course together, but also the value of persistence.
Now, as the executive chef of Manhattan’s Butter Midtown restaurant, Alex makes it a point to always have Parker House rolls, along with fresh butter made from scratch, in the middle of every table.
Another bit of advice Alex has for all the aspiring chefs out there is to always use fresh ingredients. Being based in New York, Butter gets all its produce from the Union Station Greenmarket. Alex uses fresh and locally sourced ingredients to reinforce the flavors of her dishes. For instance, by putting garlic and scallions on her steak, she begins a process of layering a series of seasonal flavors that build on each other until ultimately resulting in a beautiful plate of food.
It’s those details that form the foundation of Alex’s approach to cooking. For her, it’s all about using repetition and experimentation to explore the tension between the comfort of nostalgia and the allure of the new. In her experience, guests will always return to a restaurant that offers unique tastes that both remind them of the past and make them excited about the future.
Summertime Zucchini Pizza
This recipe makes four nicely sized pizzas. You can top with any summer vegetables. Chef Alex is partial to zucchini and garlic with basil and Balsamic herself.
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm (about 110F) water
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil plus some additional for coating the bowl/greasing the trays
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 scant tablespoon honey
2 cups ricotta, drained
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, stemmed
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium green zucchini, thinly sliced
3 medium yellow zucchini, thinly sliced
6 large cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons oregano
1 cup medium basil leaves, stemmed
4-5 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
- Make the dough: In a bowl, combine the yeast and warm water. Stir to dissolve the yeast and allow the mixture to rest for 5 minutes. Using a sieve or strainer, “sift” about half of the flour over the yeast mixture and blend until smooth with your hands. Add the salt, honey and remaining flour and mix to blend.
- Knead the dough: Lightly flour a cutting board or flat surface. Turn the pizza dough onto the floured area and knead for 3-5 minutes. The flour should feel smooth and the ingredients full integrated. Lightly oil a bowl and place the dough inside. Cover with plastic wrap and let it “rest” in a warm place, about 1 1/2 hours or until it has doubled in volume.
- Roll and form the dough: Press gently on the dough and turn it onto a floured surface. Divide the dough into four equal parts, rolling each quarter into a loose ball. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and allow the dough to “rest” for an additional 15 minutes. Flatten each ball, one at a time, and roll into a loose circle. Place each in a single layer on a lightly greased baking sheet.
- Preheat oven to 425F.
- Season the ricotta: Put the ricotta in a separate bowl. Stir in the lemon zest, a generous pinch salt and the thyme. Set aside.
- Cook the topping: In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. When the oil begins to smoke lightly, add the green and yellow zucchini slices and the garlic. Sprinkle them with a generous pinch salt, the paprika and oregano. Cook over high heat until tender, 3-5 minutes, and keep warm.
- Assemble the pizza: Bake the pizza doughs in the oven until it almost completely cooked, 12-15 minutes. Remove each tray from the oven, spread about 1/4 of the ricotta on the dough and top with 1/4 of the zucchini topping. Bake for an additional 2-3 minutes, or until the topping is warm to the touch. Top with 1/4 of the basil and of the Balsamic and serve each immediately.