Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Totino's Throwdown

Posted By on Wed, Nov 6, 2013 at 7:41 AM

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The culinary world adores the “elevation” of simple, comforting dishes. And there’s something captivating about the process that draws diners to such dishes. It’s the promise of something familiar, recognizable, and consoling, presented in a new, vibrant, and (hopefully) more impressive way. It’s the reason we pay $17 for a bowl of “grown-up” macaroni and cheese, $6 for a foie gras donut, and $22 for a plate of fancified fried chicken. There’s a part of you, perhaps, that recognizes the ridiculousness of it all, but there’s also something in you that hopes to find that small spark of genius. Perhaps it’s that shaved black truffle on your shrimp and grits, the crispy guanciale in your BLT, or the Gruyère and leek confit in your grilled cheese that keeps you coming back for more of these “reinvented” classics.

One cannot eat more humbly than frozen pizza. What’s more, one does not eat more humbly than a Totino’s frozen pizza—those frozen discs of delight, the circles of satisfaction many of us grew up on. They’re simple to prepare, relatively filling, and when it comes to affordable—or downright cheap—you cannot beat the $1 pizza’s price tag.

But the lowly Totino’s often gets neglected in our adult years, a time where we seldom consider the opportunities afforded by these humble pizza pies. So in celebration of this freezer isle favorite, a group of local foodies participated in, what I have deemed, the “Totino’s Throwdown.” From all over Little Rock, talented home cooks have applied their culinary creativity to create some of the most inventive Totino’s based dishes you’ll ever find.

The rules were simple. 1) Take a Totino’s. 2) Dress it up.

Each contestant sent me a photo of his or her creation. We created a photo album on our Facebook page and asked followers to vote (via the “like” button) for their favorite dish.

Here are the results...

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You may already be familiar with the talents of Zara Abbasi Wilkerson. We’ve already elaborated on her superlative skills as a baker, as she runs a homegrown cake operation from her West Little Rock home. She’s also the pastry chef at Natchez, where her desserts are so popular, she has barely finish baking them before the orders start coming in and they soon sell out. Zara was the winner in our competition, totaling 121 votes, representing a commanding victory over her other competitors. Zara submits this entry:

Zara’s “Totino’s Samosa” —- Zara takes three Totino’s pizzas, stuffs with pulled chicken and spicy kimchi, and folds them into a samosa. These get seared in hot oil, and heated through in the oven for 8-10 minutes. She then tops with a spicy cream sauce made from sour cream, kimchi drippings, garlic and seasoning. This gets finished with “Totino’s crisps,” fresh cilantro, and a dark chocolate serrano sauce.

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Louis Vasquez is a former Little Rock foodie, now transplanted to Dallas. He happened to accompany Kevin Shalin and me on our recent excursion to Big D. He also happens to have some terrifyingly fine skills with a pizza. Louis lives by the motto, “"All pizza is good, some is just better than others.” In this case, Louis’s pizza is clearly better than others. Louis placed second in our throwdown, with a total of 64 votes. His entry:

Louis’s "The Sweet n’ Spicy Maiale" —- Louis starts with a Totino’s 3 Meat pizza, tops with mozzarella di buffala and hot sopressata from Jimmy’s Italian Food Store (in Dallas). Then drizzles with a rehydrated ancho and chile arbol honey glaze followed by a spinach, basil, and roasted garlic sauce along with roasted tomatoes—all from the Dallas Farmers Market.

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Joel DiPippa operates the food/fashion/finer-things blog, The Southern Ash. He’s also the head honcho behind the Little Rock Burger Caucus. And with a name like DiPippa, you better believe the man knows a thing or two about Italian food. In fact, Joel knows a thing or two about just about everything. Joel placed third in our competition, and offered this entry:

Joel’s “Chicago Stuffed Crust Totino's Party Pizza” —- Joel uses made-from-scratch pizza dough, stuffs with a Totino’s pizza and 4-cheese blend, caramelized onions, Amy Bradley-Hole’s Garlic Sauce, bacon & prosciutto from Hillcrest Artisan Meats, and a personal Italian seasoning spice blend including hand-crushed fennel seeds.

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Jerry Puryear is the mad scientist of the frozen pizza world. The guy made a Totino’s cake. Yeah, you heard me. Totino’s. Cake. He’s also a regular here on Eat Arkansas, and sometimes goes by the moniker, “Hillbilly Pharmacist.”

Jerry’s “Totino’s Cake” — This 8-inch pizza cake uses every Totino's flavor available in the local Kroger. As an icing and between pizzas, Jerry uses his favorite ricotta mix for lasagna: a pound of ricotta, a pound of low moisture mozzarella, two eggs, spices and herbs. Topping the cake as an ersatz fondant is two pounds of good mozzarella. Each pizza weighs 10.5 oz. This brings this beast's weight up to 9.25 lbs, plus a couple of eggs and minus some water. Jerry says it tastes “really, really good.”

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Melissa Sawyer is a Little Rock lawyer and fellow foodie who I’ve had many opportunities to dine with around town. Melissa submits this entry:

Melissa’s “Chicken Club Totino’s” — Grilled chicken, shredded, with bacon, sharp cheddar and mozzarella cheeses.

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Kevin Shalin is no stranger to the Little Rock food scene. He operates one of the most renowned and well-written food blogs in the city, The Mighty Rib. Kevin has often told me that he and Totino’s go “way back,” and that he feels that “mankind will never be able to fully unlock all the mysteries of the majestic Totino’s pizza.” Kevin submits this entry:

Kevin’s “Totino’s Taco” —- Seasoned ground beef with cheddar cheese, diced fresh onions, tomatoes and lettuce…inside a Totino’s.

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Kelly Gee is a barbecue mastermind. I will unabashedly declare that he has served me the finest barbecue I have eaten in Arkansas. But Kelly’s talents really know no bounds. Here, he extends his skills to pizza, and offers this entry:

Kelly’s “Ol' Hickory” — Smoked Pork, caramelized onion, sliced Fuji apple, baby arugula, toasted pine nuts, with smoked gouda and shaved fontina cheeses, all on an original Totino's cheese pizza.

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Megan Boyd is the brains behind the wildly entertaining Bacon Selfies. She reports being an “avid consumer of Totino’s for most of adult life.” She also states that in strategizing for the competition, “You know I had to add bacon.” Megan delivered this entry:

Megan’s “Totino's Benedict Florentine” — Megan takes a cheese Totino's pizza and tops with sautéed spinach, crispy peppered bacon, a soft and runny poached egg, and rich, creamy hollandaise sauce. (With special assistance from Nikki Bonner)

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Steve Shuler is another knowledgeable, well-respected foodie in town. I’ve heard wonderful things about his barbecue (but I’ve yet to sample it) and his skill with the grill is evident with his throwdown entry:

Steve’s “Totino's Steak Sliders with Pickled Jicama and Bacon Guacamole” — Steve takes two Totino’s three-cheese pizzas, bakes in the oven, then throws them on a grill pan, and cuts them into small pizza rounds. These form the foundation of these sliders. Inside he puts ½-inch thick teres major steak medallions from Hillcrest Artisan Meats. On top of the steaks he places a jicama slaw pickled with vinegar and sugar and adds a scoop of fresh guacamole made with diced bacon chunks (from HAM), avocado, jalapeño, lime juice, and cilantro.

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And I took a stab at things…here’s what I churned out:

Dan’s “Pizza Grilled Cheese Sandwich” — Take two “combination” Totino’s pizzas (with pepperoni and sausage bits), and bake them in the oven. Then square them off to form the “breading” of this sandwich. The pizzas are stuffed with caramelized onions, red tomatoes, pepperoni and hard salami (crisped in the broiler), a few slices of bacon, and three cheeses—provolone, sharp cheddar, and white Vermont cheddar. The whole thing is then thrown in the frying pan and “grilled” in butter until crispy.

Interested in competing in our next “food hack” competition? Want to showcase your abilities by upgrading chicken nuggets, fish sticks, or Kraft mac and cheese? Follow us on Twitter or email me (danielpwalker22@gmail.com) and we’ll keep you updated.

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