Photo by Charles Diaz
No wonder there’s been so much written about pizza: how to grill it, wood or coal-fire it; how to make it at home; how to do the cheese, the crust and so on. It’s understandable because pizza really is the greatest blank slate for your creativity. It flexes for the simple or the elaborate, the classic or regional. (But come on, pineapple and ham? Tuna and egg?) And you can make a very nice pizza both from scratch and from the refrigerator case.
The two challenges I’ve had making pizza at home are a) how to make it really thin and b) how to simulate the super-hot pizza oven. A friend described it this way:
“Pizza dough has a memory. You have to make it forget it was once fat.”
To make a thin-crusted pizza pie entails bringing the dough to room temp, stretching it on a greased surface (sprinkled with cornmeal, too, if you like) and then letting it rest. Then repeat: Stretch and rest three times, until the dough gets the picture and lets go of its sproingy need to retract into fat edges.
To get the crust really crisp, crank up the oven as high as it goes. (Turn off your smoke alarm first!) Prick the stretched-out dough, and prebake for 10 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 400 degrees F, cool the crust slightly, and add the sauce, fillings and cheese. Bake again for 15 to 25 minutes. You may not get the authentic burnt edges, but at least the middle of the pizza won’t be soggy.
Or try grilling your blank slate. Brush it with olive oil; lay it on the hot barbecue for five to seven minutes on one side. Turn it over and slide it onto a big plate where you can deftly spread on the sauce and the toppings. Then slide the pizza back on the grill, close the grill top and cook for three minutes more, until the cheese melts. Oh boy!
For the sauce, I’m a purist. A few quick spoonfuls of crushed tomatoes with salt and pepper. No cooked or jarred sauce necessary. My friend mixes in some tomato paste to thicken it, but I don’t mind a thin pizza sauce. In fact, omit sauce completely if your toppings clash with tomato. In season, sliced, fresh tomatoes can be enough.
As for cheese, I confess that I’m not a huge mozzarella fan. I find it bland. Still, slices of whole-milk or buffalo mozzarella on top of the fresh, sliced tomatoes that I suggested above, are pretty yummy in the summer. I like feta, Asiago, good grated Parmesan, goat cheese or Gorgonzola a lot more.
What goes in between, over the sauce under the cheese? The better question is: What doesn’t? Here’s where any locavore can knock herself out.
During the winter, you must settle for pantry pizzas: capers, sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies, onions and olives. Fall brings roasted winter squash (like acorn squash or butternut squash) with caramelized shallots or thinly sliced potato with rosemary and Parmesan. Wonderful.
Right now, I’m thinking spinach and Swiss chard; I don’t even need to sauté the moist leaves. I just layer them on the prebaked pizza dough and let the natural moisture and the cheese wilt them. Ditto a fines herbes pizza draped with prosciutto and topped with Asiago or Fontina.
For an arugula pizza, bake the dough at 400 for 20 to 25 minutes with just sauce; then throw the fresh arugula and finely crumbled goat cheese on afterwards and bake no further.
How about the green-peppers-still-in-the-freezer pizza? The slathered-with-last-year’s-pesto pizza, with or without tomato sauce mixed in? Any ratatouille still knocking around your freezer? Just drain it a bit. This is just the beginning: The same obedient dough will welcome sautéed eggplant and zucchini, roasted beets, red pepper rings, slices of grilled sausage or chicken, and more.