I have already purchased my first bunch of the season from the grocery store. It has made its way into a pasta (of course) and a pizza. There is an asparagus pizza that I frequently order when I go to a certain restaurant near my house. On the occasions when it is good, it is excellent and I have for some time wanted to replicate this pizza at home. Unfortunately, I don't own a wood-fired pizza oven, so exactly reproducing this pizza is not really a reasonable goal. Instead, I decided to focus on the task of producing an excellent asparagus pizza using the equipment that I possess. And while my crust does not have the char and crunch of wood-fired crust, I think my pizza is very good.
The topping for this flavorful pizza is surprisingly simple and can be pulled together in a matter of minutes—less time even than the oven and pizza stone need to heat up. The topping is a bit unusual in that none of the ingredients need to be cooked ahead. Many of the ingredients commonly used to top a pizza will not cook through in the short amount of time that a pizza is in the oven. Furthermore, even ingredients that cook quickly can release a flood of juices as they cook, creating a soggy or undercooked crust in the process. Since asparagus doesn't release a lot of liquid as it cooks, if the pieces are cut thinly, on a long bias, they will cook perfectly in the 10 minutes or so the pizza is in the oven.
To prepare the topping, first drop the asparagus in some cold water to soak for a few moments so the grit will be released from the tips. While the asparagus soaks, grate the cheeses and julienne the prosciutto. Then, dry the asparagus, snap off the ends and cut it up. When you are ready to top the crust, toss the asparagus with a drizzle of olive oil and some salt and pepper. Toss it together with the cheeses and prosciutto and the topping is finished.
To make this into a truly fast dinner, appropriate for a weeknight meal, plan ahead and make the dough for the crust the night before (or in the morning on the day you plan to make the pizza) and leave it for a long, cool, second rise in the refrigerator. The crust is actually better this way. The flavor is more complex, the crumb more open and the exterior crisp.
One of the things I always try to teach in my classes is that yeast doughs are forgiving—easily fitting into the busiest of schedules. I think that many people who are new to the world of homemade yeast breads think that they need to alter their schedule to be able to make bread. A simple pizza dough is a great place to begin learning by experience that this is truly not the case.
Besides the fact that my pizza was not baked in a wood-fired oven, I have left off a couple of the ingredients that make up the topping of the one I order when I am out. The one at the restaurant includes caramelized onions and white truffle oil. I love the flavor and aroma of truffles, but since not everyone does, and I am going to be teaching this pizza in an upcoming class, I decided to leave it off. I did include the caramelized onions the first time I made the pizza, but I wasn't happy with the result. Even though I used a very small quantity, their concentrated flavor completely drowned out the flavor of the asparagus—possibly because the pizza lacked the counterweight (in terms of flavor) of the truffle oil. The pizza was good, but since I couldn't taste the asparagus, not exactly what I was after. The version without the onions had clean flavors and was well-balanced—rich cheese paired with the mineral-y taste of roasted asparagus and salty tang of prosciutto.
I think the Parmesan-mozzarella-goat cheese combination makes a great background for the flavors of the asparagus and prosciutto on this pizza. If you prefer, Fontina would make a nice substitute for the mozzarella. Normally I would suggest the option of substituting pecorino for the Parmesan, but I think in combination with the prosciutto it might be overwhelmingly salty. If you didn't happen to have prosciutto, and wanted to make this pizza, then pecorino would be just the ticket. As always, once you start thinking about variations, a world of possibility opens up. In fact, as I begin to think about trying this simple three cheese pizza with all of the young, green products of the spring market...herbs, arugula, spring onions, green garlic....I can't wait for next week.
Asparagus Pizza with Prosciutto & Three Cheeses
1 ball of pizza dough (see below), rested
4 to 4 1/2 oz. asparagus, trimmed, rinsed and cut thinly—1/8-inch thick or so—on a long bias (about 2 to 2 1/4 oz. trimmed weight)
1/2 t. olive oil
salt & pepper
1 oz. finely grated Parmesan
4 oz. coarsely grated low-moisture mozzarella
2 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
1 oz. (2 thin slices) prosciutto, cut cross-wise in 1/4-inch wide strips
Preheat the oven and pizza stone to 500°F an hour before you plan to bake the pizza. If you made the dough ahead, pull it out of the refrigerator when you turn on the oven.
To build the pizza: On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 12- to 13-inch circle. Transfer the dough to a pizza pan or baking sheet that has been lightly dusted with semolina, fine cornmeal, or flour. Using your fingers, push up the edges of the dough to make a slight rim.
In a medium-sized bowl, drizzle the olive oil over the asparagus and season with salt & pepper. Toss to coat. Add the cheeses and prosciutto and toss to combine. Spread the asparagus-cheese mixture evenly over the crust, leaving a half-inch rim bare.
Place the pizza in its pan on the pizza stone in the pre-heated oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling, about 8 to 10 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, after the crust has set (5 to 6 minutes), slide the pizza off of the pan to finish cooking directly on the pizza stone. When the pizza is done, transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges and serve.
1/2 cup warm water (100º-110º)
1 1/8 t. (1/2 package) active dry yeast
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt
Place the water in a large bowl and add the yeast. Let soften for a minute or two. Add 3/4 cup of the flour and whisk until smooth. Add the oil, salt and another half cup of the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough that holds its shape. Sprinkle some of the remaining quarter cup of flour on a smooth surface. Scrape the dough out of the bowl and sprinkle with a bit more flour. Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size—about 1 hour. Punch down the dough. At this point you may use the dough immediately or cover the bowl again with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 12 to 24 hours. Pull the dough out of the refrigerator. to let it warm up a bit, about an hour before baking the pizza.
When ready to make the pizza, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a ball. Cover with a towel and let rest for 20 to 30 minutes. The dough is now ready to be shaped, topped and baked.
(Crust adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins)