Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Summer Vegetable Pizza (and Why I Don't Put Tomato Sauce on My Pizza)

There is a moment every summer when the market quietly switches into high gear. It is the moment when the eggplant and peppers begin to make their appearance. Thriving on the heat of mid-summer, they will carry us into early fall as the corn, beans and summer squash begin to fade. But for now, all of the vegetables of mid and late summer are present and abundant. This is truly the time of year when I bring home more than I can possibly eat. It is all so beautiful and fresh. And the variety of intensely flavorful foods that can be made with different combinations of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, summer squash and onions is seemingly endless.

I taught a farmer's market class this week that featured these vegetables of high summer. One of the recipes was for a roasted bell pepper and potato pizza—similar to the kale and potato pizza that I posted about earlier in the season. Although the class also included salad and pasta and dessert, for some reason it was a pizza that I was hungry for the following evening. Maybe it was because I was still thinking about a question I had been asked during class. Someone had wanted to know if I ever made my pizzas with tomato sauce. When I said that I didn't (I can only think of twice in the past several years when I have made a pizza with tomato sauce) they then wanted to know why.

I hadn't really thought much about this before, so I said the first thing that came to mind, which was that a tomato sauce on a pizza seems to be a bit limiting—that it narrows the field of choice for other toppings. As I have continued to think about the answer to this question, I keep coming back to that same thought. To me, the question is—why would I choose to add tomato sauce? What does it contribute? Am I using it out of habit or because it adds to a harmonious whole? There are many classic Italian pizzas that do use tomato sauce—Pizza Margherita and Pizza Napoletana, for example. In each of these cases, the pizzas feature a great tomato sauce. It isn't just a perfunctory supporting player.

The world of possible pizza toppings is so much larger when you think beyond tomato sauce. I want a pizza that I make to be more than an imitation of the typical pizzeria-style pizza. There is of course nothing wrong with pizzeria-style pizza. But when I make a pizza at home, what I'm after is a nice, yeasty, crusty round of thin bread topped with the current season's grilled, sautéed or roasted vegetables. I usually include cheese, possibly some salty condiments like olives or capers and I might even include a little meat. A light coat of olive oil under all of these ingredients (perhaps infused with some garlic, herbs and/or pepper flakes) adds moisture and flavor—flavor that compliments rather than competes with my chosen toppings.

The pizza I ended up making for dinner was topped with eggplant, summer squash, roasted red pepper and the cheeses I had on hand—Fontina and Parmesan. Underneath the toppings I brushed some olive oil to which I had added a minced clove of garlic. It is interesting to me that after the question of tomato sauce came up, the next pizza I made would actually have been nice with the inclusion of a little tomato. But this brings up the other reason I don't generally think to put tomato sauce on a pizza: it adds another step. Pizza is a quick meal for me and it is just easier to brush some olive oil over the crust than it is to make a tomato sauce. Even when I have homemade tomato sauce in my freezer, I still don't think to put it on the pizza...I must have some kind of mental block. If I want to add tomato to a pizza, I will use fresh, cherry or oven-roasted tomatoes.

I should mention that if you like fresh tomatoes on your pizza, they require a little extra attention. Since they exude a lot of water as they cook, you need to get rid of as much of that water as possible before you put them on the pizza. The best way to do this is to slice them thinly, spread them on paper towels and then salt them. Let them sit for 10 to 15 minutes while you prepare the other toppings. The salt will draw out some of the excess moisture. Use another paper towel to blot the tomatoes. Tomatoes treated this way can be successfully added as the top layer of vegetables (under a light layer of cheese) so that any more moisture released by them will evaporate into the oven. Fresh cherry tomatoes don't need to be salted. They can be added to a pizza as long as they are halved and placed cut side up.

I hesitate to give a recipe for the pizza I made, because even a recipe for a pizza like this seems limiting. If you follow the recipe below, you will have a tasty pizza. But if you don't have one of the ingredients, substitute something else. Maybe add a scant layer of sautéed onions under the eggplant and omit the peppers. Or, take away the summer squash and the peppers and replace them with some thinly sliced tomatoes (salted and blotted dry as described above) for an all eggplant and tomato pizza. Feel free to add herbs (minced rosemary, oregano, or marjoram to the oil) or black olives or a scattering of capers or some julienned anchovies. Use any good melting cheese you have on hand—I think 3 to 5 oz. is a more than sufficient amount of cheese. The basic idea of this pizza is a successive layering of sliced summer vegetables, mixing and matching to please your palate and being careful as always not to overload the pizza with a lot of heavy ingredients. A pizza like this should be a celebration of the vegetables of summer on top of a crisp, fully cooked crust.

Eggplant, Zucchini & Pepper Pizza

1 medium eggplant (10 to 12 oz.)
6 to 8 oz. summer squash
1 red bell pepper, roasted, seeded & peeled and cut into bite sized pieces
Olive oil
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
pinch of red pepper flakes
2 to 2 1/2 oz. coarsely grated Fontina cheese
1 1/2 oz (about 1/2 cup) finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino Cheese
Pizza dough for one pizza (see below)

Top and tail the eggplant and summer squash. Slice each eggplant crosswise into 1/3-inch thick slices. Slice the summer squash on the diagonal into 1/3-inch thick slices.

Spread the eggplant and squash on a baking sheet and brush both sides with olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper.

Broil the vegetables until golden brown; turn and broil the other side in a similar manner. Transfer the vegetables to a plate to cool, stacking the eggplant slices so that they will continue to steam one another and cook through. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine 1 T. of olive oil with the garlic. Roll out the pizza dough into a 12- to 14-inch round and transfer to a floured baking sheet or pizza pan. Drizzle the garlic oil over the dough and spread out to the edges with the back of a spoon or your fingers. If you like, scatter a generous pinch of red pepper flakes over the oil. Scatter all but a few tablespoons of the Fontina over the oiled crust. Beginning with the eggplant and continuing with the squash and then the peppers, arrange the vegetables in layers over the crust.

Scatter the remaining Fontina over the vegetables, followed by the Parmesan.

Place the pizza in its pan on a pre-heated pizza stone in a pre-heated 450° to 500° oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is deep golden, about 12 to 15 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, slide the pizza off of the pan to finish cooking directly on the pizza stone for the last minute or two of cooking. Serve immediately.

Pizza Dough (adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins):

1/2 cup warm water (100º-110º)
1 1/8 t. 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 and turn it onto a lightly floured surface and roll it into a tight ball. Cover with a towel and let rest for 15-20 minutes. The dough is now ready to be shaped and topped.

General Pizza making tips:
• Anything that you put on the pizza should be able to cook in 15 minutes or less; or, should be pre-cooked to get it to that point. Any ingredient that produces a lot of liquid when it is cooked (zucchini, for example) should always be pre-cooked. Some wet ingredients—like tomatoes—should be drained of excess liquid first.
• Have all toppings ready and at room temperature before you roll out the crust.
• Don’t pile on too much topping—too much and the crust will not cook in the center. Sauces should be spread thinly and if there is no “sauce” other than olive oil, you should be able to see bits of the crust through the various toppings.
• Pre-heat the oven and pizza stone for at least one half hour and preferably an hour.

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