Gretchen McKay

Pizza on the grill is easier than you think

Grilled pizza with sausage and peppers. Gretchen McKay

I love BBQ chicken, burgers and hot dogs as much as anyone, so long as the meat is juicy and charred and the franks are the good ones — all beef and kosher. Yet every summer for the past few grilling seasons, I’ve vowed to learn how to cook something a little different on my trusty Grill King gas grill.

A few years ago I tried planking; another summer I was on a grilled fruit, seafood and vegetable kick. I’ve also tried my hand at grilled desserts and fed my family any number of flame-kissed international dishes, including a memorable Iranian lamb kebab that involved shaping ground meat with wet hands onto a sword-like skewer. One July I even roasted an entire pig on a charcoal grill so big, I had to rent a trailer to haul it into my backyard.

This year, it’s all about pizza.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been mixing, kneading, tossing and saucing myself into a frenzy (kids’ words, not mine). But the effort, and occasional cuss word until I got the hang of making a decent dough, has been well worth it. Even if it meant gaining a few extra pounds from all that crust and cheese.

If you like pizza — and seriously, who doesn’t? — you’re going to love it on the grill. Pies cooked on charcoal or gas have a slightly smoky flavor that can’t be replicated in the oven or local pizza shop. And the crust, because it’s cooked on both sides, packs an awesome crunch.

As my daughter Olivia, who taste-tested every pie that came off the hot grates, puts it, “It’s crispy but it’s still a tiny little bit soft on the inside.”

We also liked the endless variety of toppings, which extend far beyond classic tomato sauce and mozzarella — everything from veggies and meat to fruit, nuts, pesto and gourmet cheeses one doesn’t necessarily associate with pizza.

“Specialty cheeses can elevate your pizza to a whole new level,” write ElizabethKarmel and Bob Blumer in the terrific “Pizza on the Grill” (Taunton, 2008), considered by many the bible of pizza grilling cookbooks. Their recipes include pies made with pesto and brie and lobster paired with creme fraiche and St. Andre, a triple creme cheese; a Black ‘n’ Blue Steak Pizza marries sirloin with Roquefort. “Think of today’s pizzas as a new kind of cheese course.”

Ashamed to admit you’re a neophyte? Don’t be. While professional chefs have been grilling pizza for a while now, it’s only in the past few years that everyday backyard cooks have started to master the technique. But do consider playing catch up, because it’s not nearly as hard as you might think. Actually, it’s pretty easy, once you get the hang of it, and no more time consuming than grilling a steak or chicken, if you prepare the dough beforehand. Plus, think of all the money you’ll save on takeout.

The key to good pizza is the crust. You want it crispy and crunchy, but not so much so that your family will suspect you accidentally burned it. Part of that involves picking a primo recipe (we offer several good options below, including a super-quick recipe from “Pizza on the Grill” in which the dough only has to rise for an hour). But if you’re like me, you may also have to practice your technique a few times to achieve a well-marked and evenly browned bottom and top that’s properly melty. The trick is using the “combo” method of cooking the pizzas on both direct (directly over the heat source) and indirect heat (the unlit section of the grill).

The jury is out on whether the best pies are grilled on a ceramic pizza stone or cooked directly on the grates; I tried both ways, and each worked great. The experts also can’t seem to agree whether you should flip the crust half way through cooking — celebrity chef Bobby Flay in his latest cookbook “Barbecue Addiction” joins the editors of “The Grilling Book: The Definitive Guide from Bon Appetit” in telling readers to grill both sides of the crust before adding toppings. But the authors of “Pizza on the Grill” instruct you to cook only one side before putting a loaded pie back on the grill to finish cooking.

If you use a stone, be sure to preheat it with the grill or it could crack. Don’t fret if you don’t have a wooden pizza peel on which to place your dough after rolling or patting it out on a work surface dusted with flour or fine cornmeal. An oiled piece of parchment or rimless baking sheet/metal spatula is just as efficient for flipping or sliding the crust onto the hot grates or stone.

A few words here about the dough, which you should try to stretch and pull into shape with your hands, making it as thin as possible (1/4-inch thick is about right) to ensure it cooks all the way through. Don’t worry if it’s not a perfect circle or rectangle — all anybody really cares about is that it tastes good — and be sure to brush a little oil on the grill grates or disks of dough so the uncooked pizza crust doesn’t stick. If you’re making the dough earlier in the day or week (it freezes for up to three months), allow it to rest for an hour or so at room temperature before using; this allows the gluten in the dough to relax and makes shaping easier. A softball-sized ball of dough will make a 12- to 14-inch pie that serves two people, or one hungry teenaged girl who isn’t afraid to not count calories. Tempting as it might be to pile them on, don’t put too many toppings on at once, as that makes it difficult for the crust to get nice and crisp.

If you don’t have the time or desire to make dough from scratch, Trader Joe’s sells a pretty good pre-made dough for just $1.19 (look for it in little plastic bags in the refrigerated section; it comes in regular, herb and whole-wheat). I also bought fresh dough at the pizza counter at Whole Foods Market in Pine ($2.99/pound) and I’m guessing your local pizzeria would be happy to sell you a big hunk of raw dough, too, for just a couple of bucks.

As for the actual grilling, always start with a pre-heated grill — pizza dough is best when it’s cooked quickly at a very high temperature (around 650 degrees, if your grill goes that high). Also, it’s smart to have your sauce, cheese and other toppings cut, diced, shredded or otherwise at the ready. It only takes about 90 seconds for a naked disk of dough to puff up and get crispy. Since the crust will cook much quicker than the toppings, pre-cook your meats and vegetables beforehand so all they really have to do is warm up.

After it’s properly dressed, it’ll take another two to three minutes for the cheese to melt and toppings to cook through on indirect heat. Close the lid and resist the temptation to peek — every time you open the grill, you’ll lose precious heat, and your family will have to wait that much longer to eat.


 

BASIC HANDMADE PIZZA DOUGH

I liked this dough the best. It was super easy!

  • 1 cup warm water, plus more as needed
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar or honey
  • 1/2-ounce package active dry yeast
  • 3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Place water, oil and sugar in a bowl. Sprinkle yeast on top and let sit until foamy, about 5 minutes.

In another bowl, combine flour and salt. Add 1/2 cup at a time to water mixture. If dough is stiff, add more water; if dough is sticky, add more flour 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue to mix until it feels elastic.

Turn dough out onto a well-floured work surface and knead for about 1 minute, until just smooth and easy to work with, adding extra flour as needed to the surface to keep it from sticking. Do not overwork the dough or it will be tough.

Place the dough in an oiled clean bowl, turn it several times to coat the dough and then drizzle a little oil on top. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, place in a warm spot and let it rise until it doubles in size, about 1 hour.

Punch the dough down and knead on a lightly floured surface, for 1 to 2 minutes until smooth. Divide into 2 equal-sized balls and continue with your pizza making. The dough can be made ahead and frozen for up to a month; thaw at room temperature before using.

Makes enough for 2 large pizzas.

— “Pizza on the Grill: 100 Feisty Fire-Roasted Recipes for Pizza and More” by Elizabeth Karmel and Bob Blumer (Taunton, $9.99 on Kindle)

 

Grilled Pizzas with Sausage, Peppers and Herbs

Pizza crust cooks very quickly, so toppings need to be either pre-cooked or edible raw. This recipe combines spicy Italian sausage with sweet bell pepper.

  • 2 balls (1 pound each) pre-made pizza dough
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium red or green bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch strips
  • 1/2 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 8 ounces mild or spicy Italian sausage
  • All-purpose flour
  • 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced black olives
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Remove the balls of dough from the refrigerator, if necessary, about 1 hour before grilling so that the dough is easier to roll.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm 1 tablespoon oil. Add the bell pepper and the onion and cook until softened but not browned, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the vegetables from the skillet and set aside.

Add the sausage to the skillet, breaking it into medium-sized pieces. Cook over medium-high heat until lightly browned and fully cooked, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally and breaking the sausage into smaller pieces. Remove the skillet from the heat, and let the sausage cool in the skillet.

Prepare the grill for direct cooking over medium heat (350 to 450 degrees) and preheat a pizza stone for at least 15 minutes, following manufacturer’s instructions. Meanwhile, prepare your first pizza.

Using a rolling pin on a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough, one ball at a time, into rounds about 12 inches wide and 1/3-inch thick. (If the dough retracts, cover it with a kitchen towel, let it rest for 5 minutes, and then continue.) Set the first round aside while you roll out the second.

Carefully transfer your first round of pizza dough onto a pizza peel (or a rimless baking sheet) lightly coated with flour. Spread 1/2 cup of the sauce over the dough. Scatter half of the sausage, half of the pepper-and-onion mixture, half of the olives, and half of the parsley, thyme and rosemary on top. Finish by scattering half of the cheese on top of everything.

Slide your first pizza onto the preheated pizza stone and cook over direct medium heat, with the lid closed, until the crust is golden brown and the cheese is melted, 9 to 11 minutes. Using a pizza peel or a large spatula, remove the pizza from the pizza stone and let rest for a few minutes. Cut into wedges and serve warm.

Repeat steps 6 and 7 with the remaining dough, sauce, and toppings. Makes 2 pizzas.

— “Weber’s New Real Grilling: The Ultimate Cookbook for Every Backyard Griller” by Jamie Purviance (Sunset, April 2013, $24.95)

Pizza with Shallots, Wild Mushrooms, Olive Oil and Fontina

Grilled pizza with shallots and mushrooms/Gretchen McKay

I didn’t smoke the oil.

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
  • 7 cups quartered mushrooms
  • 6 to 8 medium shallots, julienned (about 1 cup)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 teaspoons coarse sea salt,
  • 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 balls pizza dough, fresh or store-bought
  • 1 1/2 cups grated fontina cheese

Turn gas grill to high or ignite charcoal. If using gas grill, once it’s hot, decrease temperature to medium-high. Set a plancha or two large cast-iron pans on the grill rack to heat.

Pour about 2 tablespoons oil onto plancha or into each pan. Let oil heat, then add mushrooms in a single layer. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the mushrooms. Cook without stirring until they’re brown on the bottom, about 7 minutes. Add shallots and stir with the mushrooms. Sprinkle on the thyme, salt and pepper and cook until lightly caramelized, another 4 minutes. Take pan off fire and put pizza stone on your grill rack to heat.

On a floured surface, roll out each ball of dough until 10 to 12 inches across. Grill the naked rounds of dough on the preheated pizza stone until dough puffs up and bottom shows some brown, about 11/2 minutes. Either using a peel or long tongs, flip pizza and grill for another 90 seconds. With a pizza peel, take pizza off heat. If you like, you can grill all 3 naked pizzas and then set them aside to be ready for the toppings.

Top each pizza with 1/2 cup of the mushroom mixture and 1/2 cup of Fontina. With a pizza peel, transfer pizza back to pizza stone, close the lid of the grill and cook for about 1 minute.

Transfer pizza to cutting board, drizzle each pizza with a little olive oil, cut into slices and serve.

Makes 3 10-inch pizzas; serves 6.

— “Michael Chiarello’s Live Fire: 125 Recipes for Cooking Outdoors” by Michael Chiarello (Chronicle, May 2013, $35)

 

Grilled pizza with pears and pecorino/Gretchen McKay

 

Pizza with Pears, Pecorino and Walnuts

This is a perfect pizza for dessert.

  • All-purpose flour for dusting
  • 2 pounds store-bought fresh pizza dough, room temperature
  • Oil for grill grate
  • 12 ounces aged manchego, parmesan or pecorino
  • 2 pears, halved, cored and very thinly sliced
  • 2/3 cup walnut pieces, coarsely broken
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

Build a medium-hot 2-zone fire in a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to high. Sprinkle 2 rimless baking sheets with flour. Divide dough into 2 equal pieces; roll out each on a floured surface to a 15-inch round. Transfer to prepared baking sheets.

Brush grill grate with oil. Place one dough round on grate on hotter side of grill and cook until lightly charred and no longer sticking, 2 to 3 minutes. Using tongs, turn dough over and grill until cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Using a spatula, transfer crust to rimless baking sheet. Repeat with second dough round. If using a gas grill, reduce heat to medium.

Thinly slice cheese and arrange on top of crusts, leaving a 1/2-inch plain border. Cover cheese with a single layer of pear slices, then scatter walnuts over.

Working one at a time, slide pizzas from baking sheets onto cool part of grill. Cover grill and cook pizza until cheese softens and bottoms are crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer pizza to work surface. Season with pepper; drizzle with oil.

Makes 2 15-inch pizzas.

— “The Grilling Book: The Definitive Guide from Bon Appetit” (Andrews McMeel, May 2013, $45)

Blue Corn and Green Chile Pizza

This pizza is a marriage between Italy and the American Southwest, where green chiles are put on all kinds of food. The crust was super easy to make and super crisp.

  • For dough
  • 1 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 cup stone-ground blue cornmeal or other cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 envelope rapid-rise yeast (about 21/2 teaspoons)
  • 3/4 cup lukewarm water (105 to 115 degrees)
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • For cilantro pesto
  • 1 cup lightly packed chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 tablespoons pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds) or slivered almonds
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 1/4 cup grated dry (aged) jack, cotija, percorino romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt or coarse sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • For toppings
  • 1 1/4 cups grated asadero, Monterey jack or pepper jack cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup shredded grilled or smoked chicken breast (optional)
  • 2 small red-ripe plum tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup chopped fresh or (thawed) frozen mild green chiles, such as New Mexican or Anaheim, at room temperature
  • Crushed red pepper (I used ground pimenton pepper)

Prepare pizza crust. In food processor, pulse together flour, cornmeal, salt and yeast.

With motor running, add water, all but 1/2 teaspoon of oil, and garlic. Continue processing for about 30 seconds more, until dough forms a fairly cohesive ball that is smooth and elastic. If it remains sticky, add another tablespoon or two of flour.

Knead dough a few times on a floury work surface, forming it into a ball. Pour remaining 1/2 teaspoon oil into a large bowl and add dough, turn it around and over until coated with oil. Cover with damp cloth. Set dough in a warm, draft-free spot and let rise until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.

Punch dough down on a floured surface and let rest for 10 minutes. Roll dough into two thin disks, about 10 inches in diameter, stretching and prodding it with your fingers.

Fire up the grill for high heat on one side and medium-low heat on the other. Prepare cilantro pesto by combining cilantro, pepitas, garlic and cheese in a food processor. Pulse to blend. With motor still running, add oil in a thin, steady drizzle. Add salt and pepper to taste and combine again.

Place pesto, a spoon for the pesto and remaining ingredients within easy reach of the grill. The process must go quickly once you begin cooking. Place baking sheet on a convenient work surface near the grill and have a large spatula or pizza peel ready.

Place first crust on the grill by laying it directly on the cooking grate over high heat. Grill, uncovered, for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, until crust becomes firm but is still flexible. Don’t worry about any bubbles that form as they will be flattened when you turn over the crust in the next step.

Using a spatula or peel, flip crust onto a baking sheet, cooked side up. Immediately brush with half each of the pesto, cheese, chicken, tomatoes and green chile, and top with a sprinkling of red pepper. Quickly return pizza to the grill, uncooked side down, half over high heat and half over medium-low heat. Cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, rotating it a quarter every 30 to 45 seconds. Check the bottom during the last minute or two; you want a uniformly brown, crisp crust.

Slice pizza into wedges and serve immediately. Repeat process for your second pizza.

Makes 2 pizzas.

— “100 Grilling Recipes You Can’t Live Without” by Cheryl and Bill Jamison (Harvard Common Press, March 2012, $16.95) )

Bobby Flay’s Pizza Dough

This dough also was simple to make, but required a longer proofing period.

  • 2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (a 1/2-ounce envelope)
  • 2 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
  • 5 to 5 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for dusting work surface
  • 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
  • Extra-virgin olive oil

Dissolve yeast in warm water in a large bowl. Let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in 3 cups flour and salt, mixing until smooth. Continue adding flour (up to 1/2 cup), 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring until the dough comes away from the bowl but is still sticky.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead with lightly floured hands. Start by slapping the dough onto the surface, pulling it toward you with one hand and pushing it away from you with the other.

Fold dough back over itself (use a bench scraper or a wide knife to help scrape dough from the surface). Repeat until the dough is easier to handle, about 10 times. Finish kneading normally until dough is smooth, elastic and soft, but a little tacky, about 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can mix and knead the dough in a stand mixer fitted with the dough-hook attachment.

Shape dough into a ball, transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until it doubles in volume, about 3 hours. Press with your finger to see if it’s ready; an indent should remain.

Makes enough for 4 6-inch or 2 10-inch pizzas

— “Bobby Flay’s Barbecue Addiction: by Bobby Flay (Clarkson Potter, April 2013, $35) )

Stuffed Pizza with the Works

This deep-dish pie is perfect for those who don’t want to deal with cooking on a peel or grate. Serve in wedges, with extra sauce on the side for dipping. I layered the pepperoni on top because I forgot to add it to the veggies. This is a very thick, filling pizza.

  • For filling
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups finely chopped yellow onion
  • 1 1/2 cups diced green bell pepper
  • 1 pound button mushrooms, sliced
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • For sauce
  • 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • For pizza 11/2 pounds pre made pizza dough
  • All-purpose flour
  • 7 ounces grated mozzarella cheese (about 2 cups
  • )
  • 5 ounces sliced pepperoni

Prepare grill for direct and indirect cooking over medium heat (350 to 450 degrees).

Prepare filling: In a large skillet over medium heat, warm oil. Add onions and pepper and cook until slightly softened, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add mushrooms and cook until tender and liquid is evaporated, about 12 minutes. During last minute, stir in garlic, salt and pepper. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the oil. Add onions and bell pepper and cook until slightly softened, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add mushrooms and cook till tender and lightly browned and any liquid they have released is evaporated, about 12 min. During the last minute, stir in the garlic, salt and pepper. Remove the filling from the heat and set aside to cool. Combine the sauce ingredients. Remove dough from refrigerator, if necessary, about hour before grilling so that it’s easier to roll.

Lightly coat 10-inch cast iron skillet with oil. Divide dough into 2 balls, one with 2/3 of the dough and the other with the remaining 1/3. On a lightly floured work surface, roll, pat and stretch larger ball into a 14-inch round. (If dough retracts, cover it with kitchen towel, let rest for 5 minutes, then continue rolling.)

Transfer dough to skillet, letting excess hang over sides to keep dough from sliding into skillet. Gently stretch dough to fit skillet, pressing into corners but being careful not to tear the dough. Spread 1 cup of mozzarella on top of dough. Spread one half of filling on top of cheese and place one-half of pepperoni in a single layer on top of the filling. Repeat with another layer using remaining filling and remaining pepperoni.

Top evenly with 1/2 cup of the mozzarella. Roll, pat and stretch remaining piece of dough into 10-inch round. Place round on top of the filling and press down to remove any visible air pockets.

Brush some water on the edges of the top and bottom pieces of dough where they come together and then roll and pinch the edges to seal them. Prick dough in several places to release any new air pockets. Spread sauce over top crust, leaving edges where dough is sealed uncovered. Top sauce with remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella.

Place skillet over direct medium heat. Close the lid and cook until the edges of the dough look set and somewhat dry, about 5 minutes. Move the skillet over indirect medium heat and continue cooking, with the lid closed, until crust is golden brown, about 35 to 45 minutes. (My pizza cooked in about 20 minutes.) Remove skillet from grill and let pizza rest for 10 minutes. Using wide spatula, slide onto serving platter. Cut into wedges, and serve warm.

— “Weber’s New Real Grilling: The Ultimate Cookbook for Every Backyard Griller” by Jamie Purviance (Sunset, April 2013, $24.95) )

 

Into the woods in Cook Forest

Kayaking on the Clarion River is a favorite summer activity in Cook Forest State Park in Clarion County/Gretchen McKay

LEEPER — Summer weekends in Cook Forest, a registered national natural landmark known for its old-growth hemlocks, usually involve this:

Paddling or tubing on the lazy Clarion River. Climbing the teetering, 87-foot fire tower built as a firemen’s lookout in 1929 and then scrambling across the rocky ledges at nearby Seneca Point Overlook. (You can see for miles at both locations.) There’s also the mandatory licking of hand-dipped Hershey’s ice cream cones at The Cooksburg Cafe on River Road, souvenir shopping at Parker’s Indian Trading Post, hiking, fishing, antiquing …. The list of family-oriented activities visitors have been enjoying for generations goes on and on.

So the fact I’m sipping Pennsylvania-produced red wine on a Saturday afternoon at a sweet little winery deep in the woods comes as a happy surprise to this veteran Cook Forester. It’s a little surreal, even.

I always thought Bud was the drink of choice among outdoor types.

No way, says Kate Hall, who a year ago opened the tiny R• • Bandana Winery (redbandanawinery.com), at which my husband and I are drinking, after falling in love with and marrying a native.

She laughs and says, “We have a lot of happy locals,” not to mention a “very strong following” of city slickers like me, who keep the winery’s cozy tasting room and back deck buzzing on weekends.

Made with local organic grapes and fruit, R• • Bandana’s offerings include an assortment of reds, whites, fruit and berry wines. A tasting of four at the charming oak bar costs just a buck, but most customers enjoy it by the glass ($4.25-$6.50) or bottle ($9.99-$15.99). For non-drinkers, there’s a French press coffee bar, organic grape and cherry juices and bottled root beer, and you also can enjoy cheeses from Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District. By the door, there’s a selection of premium cigars.

R** Bandana Winery in Leeper, near Cook Forest State Park, features Pennsylvania-made wines in a relaxed, wooded setting. It was started a year ago by Pittsburgh artist Kate Hall, who markets her work under the name Kathleen Flaherty/Gretchen McKay

“Once people find us, they come back,” says Ms. Hall, whose painting studio is nestled on the second floor. “It’s not unusual to have 100 people on a weekend night, it’s such a destination.”

Actually, there’s a lot of wine drinking these days in these parts of Pennsylvania. At least a half-dozen wineries selling a variety of sweet, dry and fruit wines are within easy driving distance of Cook Forest, and all offer tours and tastings — a perfect diversion when you’ve overdosed on nature or the weather’s not cooperating. To name a few: Deer Creek Winery in Shippenville specializes in raspberry wines, while Allegheny Cellars Winery in Sheffield makes an award-winning sweet Concord red. Rather spice the tongue? Laurel Mount Vineyard in Falls Creek has among its offerings Groundhog Grog, an apple wine spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg.

For one-stop tasting, all of the above, plus several more, will be part of the fourth annual Wine Fest in the Forest on Aug. 17 at Majestic Farms & Hall in Leeper. Tickets cost $20 in advance at cookforest.org or $25 at the door, and attendees also will get to sample chocolates from Dan Smith’s Candies, along with a variety of cheeses. This year’s event also will include a dozen vendors selling everything from jewelry and rustic furniture to homemade jellies and dips.

If you’re expecting a snooty, highbrow wine experience, you may be disappointed on a visit to R• • Bandana. Built with salvaged materials from Construction Junction and decorated with tanned hides and an eclectic but comfortable mishmash of thrift-store finds, this is a pretty laid-back place. And that’s before you discover a side room filled with hats and costumes so customers can play dress-up when the mood strikes.

“I think most wineries get it wrong,” says Ms. Hall, whose landscapes and paintings — marketed under the name Kathleen Flaherty — hang on the walls and also decorate the wine bottles. “They want to make people feel uncomfortable. We don’t.”

A professional artist who trained and taught at Carnegie Mellon University, Ms. Hall has been visiting Clarion County since she was a toddler; she grew up in Bethel Park and for a while had a gallery on Pittsburgh’s North Side. But it wasn’t until she met husband-to-be Mike, who works in the gas industry, that she came up with the idea to combine art with winemaking. They were inspired, she says, by their trips to Lake Erie’s wine country.

Securing financing through The Progress Fund and constructing, with local labor and timber, the winery, which sits on 22 acres across the road from her mother’s 1870s farmhouse, took three years. It was a hit from the get-go.

As Ms. Hall explains, “People come up here for nothing but they also want just enough of something.”

That “something” includes offbeat activities such as an upcoming Crappy Car Cruise on Aug. 10 and a swing dance the night of the wine festival benefiting the Clarion Area Trail Towns Co-Op ($18 in advance, $25 at the door). The winery also has live entertainment on Fridays and Saturdays, “and we get really good bands,” such as Tom Zeller’s Jazz Lite Quartet from Clarion, which rocked the house July 6, and local artist Robyn Culp Young.

Expect also to be greeted by the Halls’ Shetland sheepdog, Olivia, who, like the bandana-wearing West Virginia coal miners of old for which the winery is named, wears a bright red handkerchief.

“You come as a stranger and leave as a friend,” she says.

The winery is open from noon to 7 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Drive

Cooksburg/Cook Forest is two hours by highway if you don’t get stuck in summer construction on Interstate 80. Take I-79 North to I-80 East and get off at Exit 60 toward Shippenville. Follow Route 66 North 15 miles to the light at Route 36; turn right on Route 36 South and go 7 miles to the park.

Or, go the “long” way via Route 58 through Butler and the tiny town of Eau Claire to avoid the construction. It has the fringe benefit of driving past Zimmerman’s ice cream stand on Main Street in Evans City. (Get the hand-dipped chocolate.)

Stay

There are campsites galore near Cooksburg, as well as private cabin rentals in the woods and on the water. In addition, Cook Forest State Park (1-814-744-840; dcnr.state.pa.us) has 210 camping spaces (some ADA accessible) plus 18 rustic cabins (outdoor plumbing and bathrooms) that sleep four to eight people. The Inn at Cook Forest, a Victorian farmhouse built as a Cook homestead in 1870 (theinnatcookforest.com), is the area’s premier bed and breakfast. Across the street from the river, with a picturesque covered porch, it features nine rooms (some with antique furniture and river views) and a gourmet breakfast each morning. Prices range from $100 with a shared bath to $130 for the king-sized Cook suite with a fireplace. More upscale is the Gateway Lodge (gatewaylodge.com), which has luxury suites with king beds and private balconies ($199 and up) in addition to eight original rooms furnished with antiques ($95 and up).

The Gateway Lodge in Cooksburg offers luxury in the woods/Gretchen McKay

Play

Cook Forest State Park’s grove of old-growth white pines and hemlocks, called the Forest Cathedral, is one of the largest stands of old-growth timber in the state. It’s great for hiking; also be sure to check out the fire tower and Seneca Rocks. If you’d rather play in the Clarion River, several companies rent canoes, kayaks and inner tubes, including The Pale Whale (cookriverside.com) and Cook Forest Canoe Rental (cookforestcanoe.com). The Verna Leith Sawmill Theater at the Sawmill Center for the Arts (sawmill.org) offers local productions of plays and musicals throughout the summer.

Shop

If you believe one man’s trash is another’s treasure, the flea market behind Leeper Market (free, intersection of Routes 36 and 66 in Leeper) can be fun. It can have upward of 30 venders selling knickknacks, clothing and household items on a busy weekend, and there’s also a concession stand with homemade french fries. At least one Amish family usually is selling homemade jellies, pickles, pies and bread.

If you happen to be in the area the first weekend of the month, worth the half-hour drive is the flea market in nearby Hazen, just north of Brookville on Route 28. It’s huge (and exhausting), featuring more than 300 vendors. There are also several antique stores on Route 36; be sure to check out Mountain Mercantile.

Eat/Drink

Just because you’re in the woods doesn’t mean you won’t eat well. The Gateway Lodge has gourmet farm-to-table dining both at dinner and breakfast. The Forest Nook features burgers and Italian food, and it also has a great deck for outdoor dining. Knotty Pines has sandwiches, nachos and an outdoor tiki bar. For terrific pizza, try Fox’s Pizza Den in Tylersburg. And ice cream? Some of the best soft-serve in the state can be found at the Sawmill on Route 66 in Leeper, across the road from Leeper Market.

For more info: cookforest.com, dcnr.state.pa.us or VisitPaGo.com.

 

Bruschetta: Carbs on the grill

Roasted Pepper Bruschetta/Gretchen McKay

 

Fresh vegetables are starting to roll into local farmers markets, and what better way to whet summer appetites than by firing up the Weber for a quick and easy appetizer? You know you want to be outside after sitting behind a desk all day, and carbs on the grill are so much easier than you might think.

All you need to make the primo Italian dish bruschetta (pronounced broo-SKE-tah) is a loaf of crusty bread, some olive oil, a clove or two of garlic and a couple great toppings. That, and a sharp knife to cut the bread on the bias into thick, grillable slices and a pair of tongs so you don’t singe your fingertips when you’re crisping it to perfection on the hot grates.

It’s that easy.

I’d go so far as to argue bruschetta is the backyard griller’s dream, because it looks and tastes absolutely amazing with so little work.

In its purest form, making bruschetta can be as simple as toasting a piece of bread on the grill or over a fire’s embers, rubbing it with a cut clove of garlic and then drizzling on top a fruity extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkling it with salt.

For a more substantial dish, thoughts immediately go to traditional diced tomato-based toppings. But why stop there? Consider each slice of toasted bread as a crisp blank canvas, just waiting to be painted to life with an artist’s palate of different colors, textures and flavors. Savory, sweet, tangy, spicy — bruschetta lends itself to any number of ingredients and combinations. Everything from roasted peppers, mushrooms and eggplantto salty anchovies, delicate cheeses and fruit.

Yes, fruit. You even can serve bruschetta for dessert, as the recipe below for Peach and Blue Cheese Bruschetta demonstrates.

Any rustic, open-textured bread will work just fine for bruschetta, but keep in mind it should be coarse enough that pools of olive oil can sit on the surface. It also should be sturdy so the toppings, which can be juicy, especially if tomatoes are involved, won’t drip through and end up on your chin or lap. Breadworks’ ciabatta is my favorite, but you can use thick slices of Italian. I’ve had great successes with sourdough and Frenchbaguettes, too.

And if it rains? Simply brown up the bread under the broiler, toast it in a hot oven or do like I do in winter and fry it on the stove in a little olive oil. Magnifico!

Below, we offer a few favorite recipes to help you savor the season.

Classic Bruschetta

My favorite way to eat tomatoes in summer. If you’re feeling adventurous, add a generous pinch of hot red pepper flakes.

  • 3 to 4 vine-ripened tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 small handful basil, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 baguette, halved lengthwise
  • Freshly ground parmesan cheese

Combine chopped tomatoes, garlic, basil and parsley. Add a dash or 2 of balsamic vinegar and a few teaspoons of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Let it sit for a while so the flavors combine.

Grill bread on both sides until slightly charred, about 30 seconds per side. Remove from grill, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Top each half with the tomato mixture. Sprinkle a generous amount of parmesan cheese on top. Slice crosswise into 1-inch-thick slices, and serve.

Serves 4.

— Gretchen McKay

Grilled Eggplant Caponata Bruschetta with Ricotta Salata

Grilled Eggplant Caponata Bruschetta/Gretchen McKay

This dish has both sweet and sour notes. It’s best to make the topping at least an hour before, so the flavors can meld. I left out the raisins and celery because my kids don’t like either cooked. You can find ricotta salata, a Sicilian goat cheese that’s similar in texture to Greek feta, at Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District. Or simply substitute regular feta or another tangy, crumbly cheese.

  • 1 large eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch-thick slices
  • 4 plum tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large celery stalk, finely diced
  • 1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup Sicilian green olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • 2 tablespoons brined capers, drained
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1 loaf ciabatta, halved lengthwise
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 ounces ricotta salata cheese, grated

Heat your grill to high for direct grilling.

Brush eggplant and tomatoes with 1/4 cup of canola oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill eggplant until golden brown and cooked through, about 4 minutes per side. Grill tomatoes until charred all over, about 8 minutes. Remove both to a cutting board and dice.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons canola oil in large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add celery, onion, and pepper flakes and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add vinegar and sugar and boil until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Add eggplant, tomato, olives and raisins and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in capers, parsley and basil and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl and let sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour before serving. (Caponata can be made 1 day in advance and stored, covered, in fridge. Bring to room temperature before serving.)

Grill bread on both sides until slightly charred, about 30 seconds per side. Remove from grill, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Top each half with some of the eggplant caponata and sprinkle with ricotta salata. Slice crosswise into 1-inch-thick slices to serve.

Serves 4 to 6.

— “Bobby Flay’s Barbecue Addiction” by Bobby Flay (Clarkson Potter, April 2013, $35)

Roasted Pepper Bruschetta

The original recipe calls for sweet brioche, but you certainly can use Italian or French bread. You can make the topping up to three days in advance, but be sure to bring it to room temperature before spooning it onto toasted bread. To make garlic oil, mash 1/2 clove of roasted garlic and mix with 1/2 cup olive oil and juice of 1 small lime.

  • 3/4 cup roasted red, green and yellow peppers
  • 3 teaspoons finely chopped kalamata or Nicoise olives
  • 1 teaspoon garlic olive oil
  • 3 basil leaves, rolled and chopped into thin ribbons (chiffonade)
  • 3 pieces toasted brioche

In a medium bowl, combine peppers, olives, garlic oil and basil. Mix well to form a spread. Evenly divide topping and spread it on the toasted brioche. Cut the bread in half on the diagonal, arrange on a dish and serve.

Serves 4.

— “Latin Grill” by Rafael Palomino (Chronicle, 2012, $19.95)

Bruschetta of Cherry Gold Tomatoes and Anchovy

Easy, and just a bit salty.

  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, preferably Sun Gold
  • 1 clove garlic, grated or very finely minced
  • 2-ounce can oil-packed anchovies, drained (reserve oil) and roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • 12 small slices grilled Italian or French bread

Slice tomatoes in half. Combine them with garlic, anchovies with reserved oil, and a pinch of salt in a plastic bowl with a tight-fitting lid. Cover bowl and shake vigorously.

Spoon tomato mixture over freshly grilled bread and serve immediately.

Serves 4.

— Adapted from “Where There’s Smoke” by Barton Seaver (Sterling, April 2013, $30)

Peach and Blue Cheese Bruschetta

Looking to hit your sweet spot? This recipe pairs fragrant grilled peaches with crumbly blue cheese and a drizzle of honey. If you can’t find good, fresh peaches, substitute nectarines or apricots.

  • 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 8 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 4 firm but ripe peaches, each cut in half
  • 8 slices Italian or French bread, each about 1/2-inch thick
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • 4 ounces crumbled blue cheese (about 1/2 cup)
  • 3 tablespoons honey

Prepare grill for direct cooking over medium-low heat (about 350 degrees).

Stir cream cheese, sugar and thyme until blended. Set aside. Lightly brush peach halves and bread slices on both sides with oil.

Grill the peach halves over direct medium-low heat, with the lid closed, until lightly charred and beginning to soften, about 8 minutes, turning once. During the last minute of grilling time, toast the bread slices over direct heat, turning once or twice. Remove peaches and bread from grill.

Spread each bread slice with an equal amount of cream cheese mixture.

Cut peach halves into 1/2-inch slices. Divide peach slices among the bread slices, overlapping them slightly. Top with blue cheese and drizzle with honey. Serve right away.

Serves 4.

— “Weber’s New Real Grilling” by Jamie Purviance (Sunset, April 2012, $24.95)