In the Kitchen with Nicole Russell, creator of Last Dragon Pizza

last-dragon-pizza-rockaway-2

Previously published in The Wave.

“Push the dough out from the center, roll it lightly and don’t get too close to the edges,” Nicole instructed. “Can you believe I’m Italian and have never made pizza dough before! I’m so embarrassed” I admitted. “I’m Jamaican and I’ve never cooked oxtail, so don’t worry about it,” Nicole responded with a laugh. The conversation flowed naturally. I felt like I’d been in the kitchen with Nicole Russell for years.

Nicole is the creator of Last Dragon Pizza in Arverne. We’ve been meaning to get together for a cooking night forever, and last week it finally happened! I was eager to learn her coveted pizza-making techniques, and Nicole was interested in learning one of my old family recipes.

quiche

I brought over the ingredients to make my grandmother’s artichoke quiche*. Ironically, my family calls it “pie”. Nicole and I both agreed it would be fun to experiment using her pizza dough for the crust. As we predicted, the pizza dough worked beautifully and the dish was still authentic to my grandmother’s version. I also brought some red bell peppers for roasting. A tasty pizza topping, right? Nicole was unfamiliar with roasting peppers whole. “This way you can save some of the juice, which holds all the great flavor.” I explained.

On to the pizza! Nicole gave me a crash course on dough-rolling. The first lesson I learned was there are many variables that determine the final outcome of a pizza dough. The heat source and temperature (industrial oven, home oven, brick oven, etc.), the type of flour used (bread flour, wheat, gluten free, semolina, Caputo 00), the water content of the dough, length of fermentation and the air inside the dough, will all affect the final product. My first dough-rolling attempt went amiss. I was rolling (and sipping wine) when the dough started to stick and break apart. This happens when to much air is push out of the dough. “Dough is forgiving; don’t worry about it,” Nicole reassured. We sealed the dough (rolled it back in a ball trapping air) and  grabbed a new one. This time I payed more attention – rolling evenly with very light pressure. In the oven it went, par cooking only 4 minutes. We let it cool a few minutes and shortly after, we topped the pizza with cheese, the roasted red peppers we made earlier, spinach glazed in anchovy paste and black olives. Another 4 minutes in the oven and it was time to mangi!

Nicole Russell was awarded a grant for her first place win in the 2017 Queens StartUp! Competition, in conjunction with Citi Foundation. This program was developed by the Queens Economic Development Corporation to provide small business owners and budding entrepreneurs with business education, mentoring, access to funding and skill development.

This achievement illustrates Nicole’s dedication to her business and community. She’s truly inspirational, proving, if you have a talent to share and you’re willing to put in the hard work, you will be successful.

Last Dragon Pizza named after Nicole’s favorite kung fu cult film operates out of her home kitchen in Arverne. She’s a one-woman show, cooking all menu items herself which include  a wide variety of super fresh pizzas, Italian soul food dishes and 8 different types of wings. Impressively, Nicole also sells frozen pies nationwide. Follow Last Dragon Pizza on Instagram (@LastDragonPizza) and on facebook to learn more about her delicious eats. Order by phone (917.780.2570) or online at lastdragonpizza.com

*I’ve wrote about this artichoke pie recipe before and the story that goes along. If you missed it, find it here.

last-dragon-pizza-rockaway-3 last dragon pizza rockaway 5

tagged in community, cooking, pizza

Bagels and Backyard Birding

bagel-bird-feeder-diy

The weather has been irregular lately but we’re all feeling it – spring is in sight!  And Spring brings the bird migration. As a coastal community neighboring Jamaica Bay and it’s surrounding marshy inlets, we have a unique opportunity to spy migratory birds without going far.  Throughout the year, over 300 bird species are sighted in and around our area. I’m definitely visiting the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in the upcoming weeks in hopes of spotting rare migratory birds. But we can also find beautiful bird travelers making a stop right in our backyard. Keep an eye out for the American Woodcock performing his courting dance or the brightly colored Warblers passing through. Listen for the chirping Gray Catbird or the Red-winged Blackbird, they may be resting right outside your window.

The American Woodcock is plump with short legs and a long bill. The birds underside is cinnamon in color and the remainder of their plumage is shades of brown and black. Males perform an exceptional mating dance in the sky on spring nights. They twist in flight while singing their intricate song. Spring migration for the American Woodcock starts early so look out for them now.

Warblers are small birds with bright yellow and/or orange colored feathers mixed with black. Often they have a striped black pattern on their breast. Look for them in lower bushes and brush by moist ground. The Canadian, Yellow-rumped and Pine Warblers will arrive in New York during the first two weeks of May to start breeding.

I’ve seen several Gray Catbirds in my own backyard in past years. Catbirds are related to mockingbirds, similarly having a large musical repertoire. The birds mimic sounds from other species and their environment, stringing them together to create a unique song. As their name suggests, Gray Catbirds are moslty gray and often sound like a cat meowing!

Birds migrate for many reasons: seasonal weather, nesting, and for food abundance. The birds I mentioned above are worm, insect and berry-eaters. Keep a garden of rich soil to attract these birds and plant a Serviceberry tree or native Juniper tree in your yard to attract them.

For the seed loving birds like Jays, Woodpeckers and Chickadees, hang a birdfeeder. This DIY birdfeeder is made from a bagel and peanut butter! It’s a fun craft for kids and adults alike!

What you’ll need:

1 plain bagel
Rope or twine
Peanut butter*
Bird seed
Knife, scissors and a plate

Directions:

Cut the bagel in half
Place about 1 cup of bird seed on a plate
Tie rope through the hole and around the bagel leaving some length for hanging
Cover the bagel completely with peanut butter
Place the bagel on the dish and cover/press the bird seed on. Continue until both sides of the bagel half is covered.
For two bagel bird feeders, repeat the process with the second bagel half.
Secure the feeder in a tree at least 5 feet above the ground.

 * My goodness, I forgot how good peanut butter is.

 

tagged in garden bagel, nature

Grow an onion.

onion-sprout

I’m sure this has happened to you before. You buy too many onions because they’re on sale; you end up not using all of them and they sit for a while. Then, like magic, they start to sprout. While you can still eat sprouting onions, the flavor isn’t as sharp since the energy (sugar) is being used to grow the leaves. So what can you do with it besides composting?

Plant it!

Spring is in sight – and thank goodness because I’ve been antsy. I want to get out there in the garden but it’s still a bit too cold. That’s why I thought to plant my sprouting onion bulb and watch it grow indoors.

An onion won’t grow mini-me baby onions like a potato. They grow from seed. But an onion flowers! And the white flower is beautiful, looking similar to a Globemaster, as they’re in the genus Allium*.  You’ve seen Globemasters before. They have a long 3-5 foot skinny stem and a large, usually purple globe shaped flower. The appearance is unconventional. The plant looks like it belongs on the set of a Star Trek Original Series episode.

Onions are exceedingly hardy and there are several ways to plant an onion indoors**.  The onion can be sprouting already or you can use young onions or discarded onion roots of any kind: yellow, red, pearl, or green scallions!  Consider planting several kinds for an interesting arrangement.

Growing onions indoors – 3 ways:

  1. Set a whole onion in a clear glass bowl or cup with about an inch of the onion root (flat bottom side) in water. Set in a sunny location. I mention to use a clear bowl because it’s really neat to see and watch the roots grow.

  2. Don’t discard onion roots after using the bulb for cooking. Take the 1 inch root end and plant it in a pot at least six inches deep.

  3. For the already sprouting onion, plant the bulb in at least a 6 inch deep pot leaving the  tip of the sprout side exposed.

For all methods, water weekly or when dry and set in a sunny location. Onions need 6-7 hours of sun a day to flower. Expect your onion to start growing in about two weeks. It will flower shortly after.

*Leeks, garlic, and chives also belong to the  genus Allium.

**Consider planting onions in your garden outside, now before it warms up.  Onions are often overlooked as a garden ornamental but they’re stunning, deer resistant and easy to grow. Best of all, you can pick them up at the supermarket for cheap.

Young Local Artists Brighten Up Beach 91st St. Community Garden

As a child, I naturally gravitated towards art. I always loved putting the pencil to paper, making collages, making a mess and using bright colors to paint my Barbie dolls!  As a teenager, my passion for art continued. Instead of sitting in the cafeteria with my friends on a free period, I’d go to Ms. Carrion’s room, my art teacher, to continue working on my class projects. I’m not creating art now so much and I miss it. Last summer I volunteered to seasonally update the Beach 91st Street Community Garden bulletin board. It would be a nice way to contribute and also a way to get inspired and start creating again.

I’ve worked on several bulletin boards thus far and they’ve been well-received. This month I was thinking of what I could draw. My mind wandered back to being a kid and the arts and crafts I enjoyed making for Valentine’s Day. Then it hit me: I should ask children in the community to contribute their artwork! It’s a community garden after all and everyone should be able to participate.

I reached out to a few of my friends in the neighborhood with children and they were on board (after getting permission from their children of course!). Our local artists are: Augustine Falt, age 6; Bettina Sherwood, age 6; Connor McNeil, age 4 (almost 5!); and Valentine (especially appropriate) age 4. They created beautiful drawings for the display, which will be on view through mid-March at the Beach 91st Street Community Garden (beach block).  There’s something truly special and uninhibited about children’s art that I find so exciting and inspiring.

If your child is interested in contributing their talents to the Beach 91st Street Community Garden bulletin board please contact me here.

Augustine caption here

 

Artist Augustine Falt’s use of bold color for her “flying heart people” makes for an impactful graphic design. Her overall style is detailed (those teeth!!)  and humorous all in one!

Bettina

Bettina Sherwood’s heart drawing expresses happiness. Look at that wink! Her use of a simple line drawing and minimal color is understated and thoughtful.
Connors caption here

Artist Connor McNeil’s style is gestural. The action and animation of his technique is full of life. Note the heart eyes and heart dress, great sense of creativity there!

Valentines-caption-here

Valentine, who goes by his first name only, is an abstract artist. This work is bold and brightly colored. Valentine’s use of texture is beautiful and engaging. It’s clear that his technique is influenced by Mark Rothko paintings.

 

tagged in art, community