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Merry Graham: Pizza & family make for happy birthday

Posted: November 16, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: November 16, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Veggie pizza at La Toscana Italian Restaurant in Valencia was handmade by guests at the surprise birthday party for Rick Graham.

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My husband loves camping and pizza. These don’t usually merge, but this year, for his birthday weekend, I combined the two.

Turning 58 isn’t usually something to make a fuss about, but our son-in-law and daughter were arriving from Texas to show off their baby for the first time. Now, all fellow grandmas know, a first grandbaby is most definitely something to shout about.

Their arrival motivated me to have a two-day family party. I’m sure my hubby wondered at times if the party was about him or our sweet lil’ Scrunchkin (our granddaughter’s nickname, as she scrunches her face a lot). No matter. I just wanted lots of fun family time, and that is exactly what we got.

My daughter asked if we could start the celebration Saturday at 8 a.m., as her friends were stopping by for an early breakfast. I whipped up the omelets and served six.

Word got out, the phone began ringing and by noon, I was expecting 17 people for an unplanned barbecue. Hubby was good about pretending everyone wanted to celebrate him, but with Scrunchkin charming the troop, we all knew who the main attraction was.

I planned the barbecue menu on the two-minute drive to the grocery store. I’ve recently discovered if you mix bratwurst with ground chicken, you can make a flavor-packed burger with ease. The recipe is a no-brainer: Just mix the meats together, add a splash of Worcester sauce, form patties and grill. I call my concoction the bratty chicken burger — a title with a little sass.

When the troops stormed the front door, burgers, fruit, chips, homemade and store-bought cookies were ready. After cleaning up the lunch mess and waving goodbye to most of the guests, hubby and I decided to take a rest upstairs.

This was my grown children’s cue — camping gear started flying out of the shed and was strategically placed in the backyard. A tent, sleeping bags, lanterns and camp chairs encircled a $39 summer clearance fire pit. Long sticks, marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers were placed on the camp table.

To add the finishing touch, a sign reading “Welcome to Aspen Group Site” hung to honor my hubby’s heart’s desire. Aspen Group Site is where we take our annual family camping trip. There is only one problem: The majority of the family never shows up because of busy lives.

Our backyard camping party was perfect, except for one thing. With the commotion of guests throughout the week, along with lots of time given to Scrunchkin, I failed to come up with groceries for our campsite dinner. When I panicked in the late afternoon, my oldest son came to my rescue and stated, “Mom, don’t worry. We will find something in your freezer.”

My reply was one of disbelief: “I have nothing in the refrigerator or the freezer.”

My son has such faith in me as a cook: “Mom, your empty freezer and fridge is like most people’s well-stocked kitchen.”

He began pulling frosty packages out, as if he was competing in a fill-your-shopping-cart contest.

The winning meal was most definitely a group effort. We started with my son’s mouth-watering appetizer avocado cups with spicy raspberry shrimp. I had leftover mashed potatoes, so I added cheese and bacon and stuffed the fluff into charred sweet mini peppers — tasty.

We moved on to mesquite smoked pork tenderloin, thanks to my son-in-law’s grilling ability and my son’s tantalizing Dijon mustard sauce.

Added to the entrée menu: grilled herb sprinkled petite lamp chops. I made a huge pot of homemade Alfredo mac and cheese and a small pot of peas.

An ancient loaf of frozen sourdough was transformed into garlic butter sourdough drizzled with rosemary olive oil. Our flavorful fun freezer meal served 14 at the campsite and received rave reviews. (Of course, the night ended with making s’mores).

On Sunday morning, our next activity was family photos. We met up with new Santa Clarita photographer Tiffany Mather from Mather Photography. She captured us beautifully. Although instead of a family photo shoot, I should call it a Scrunchkin photo shoot, as once again she stole the limelight.

After photos, the family snuck off to La Toscana Restaurant in Valencia, where I had arranged with Chef Carlos a surprise pizza making-class for 22 friends and family, while I stalled Hubby.

The birthday boy arrived and was very surprised to see all of his favorite peeps smiling and ready to celebrate his love of pizza. The chef took us into the kitchen to demonstrate how he mixes 30 pounds of pizza dough. He showed us how to stretch the dough and invited others to give it a try. My son and one of the little munchkins made their pizzas with great success. Since everyone else preferred to chat, Carlos saved us by making the rest.

Every style of pizza you could imagine came flying out of the kitchen: pesto with vegetables, double pepperoni, sausage and artichoke hearts with white sauce. We could order any combinations of pizza just by saying our favorite ingredients; the result was the best pizza I have ever had in Santa Clarita.

Hubby was so happy. The party truly was a pizza-loving man’s fantasy. And for his wife, an easy, yet yummy way to host a party.

To top off the flavorful fun, I brought in an ice-cream cake. Did I tell you my hubby loves ice cream as much as camping and pizza?

Birthday celebrations are a great way to beckon the family to gather. In my language, gathering is a synonym for memories.

Our weekend gathering created long-lasting memories infused with the message that it is good to honor our loved ones by creating a party with what they enjoy most — and that’s usually time with family.

Veggie pizza with artichoke hearts
Serves 4
 
1 lb. fresh pizza dough
1 jar pizza or spaghetti sauce
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup pepperoncini slices
1/4 cup sliced black olives
1/2 cup thinly sliced sweet red pepper
1 cup marinated artichoke hearts
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
 
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Divide dough into two balls (or make one large pizza) and roll into 9-inch circles. Spray two pizza pans with oil and sprinkle cornmeal. Place pizza dough on pans and bake for five minutes.

Spread pizza sauce on partially baked pizza crust and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese, pepperoncini, black olives, red pepper and artichoke hearts. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Bake pizza for 10-15 minutes or until cheese has melted and crust is golden brown.
 

Mashed-potato-stuffed mini peppers
Makes about 48 appetizers
 
4 cups potatoes, peeled, cut in 1-inch cubes
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 dry pints sweet mini peppers, split length-wise, seeds and vein removed
1/4 cup Italian herb cooking crème
3 tablespoons low-fat Greek Yogurt
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided
4-5 slices crisp bacon, cut in 1/2-inch pieces small basil leaves or cilantro leaves
 
Adjust broiled rack six inches below coils. Heat broiler on high.

Place potato cubes, water and salt in a microwave-safe container and cover with plastic wrap. Microwave on high for five minutes, check and microwave for an additional five minutes or until soft.

Place cooked potatoes in a food mill (potato ricer) that has the smallest insert, or mash with a potato masher. Add potato water, cooking crème, yogurt and 1 1/2 cups cheese. Mix just until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

While potatoes are cooking, place pepper halves on a cookie sheet outside up. Broil for three minutes or until just beginning to brown. Flip peppers over and fill with mashed potatoes, sprinkle with remaining cheese and broil until cheese has melted. Garnish stuffed peppers with a piece of crisp bacon and a basil leaf.

Merry Graham is a Newhall resident, fantastic home cook and winner of numerous recipe contests.

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