Thursday, September 20, 2012

Pizza: The Culinary Artist's Palette

Pizza is perhaps the most universally savored edible creation.  Finicky kids who abhor most foods love it, teenagers consider it a necessity for social gatherings and among college students, it the mainstay of their daily diet.  Give a dog the leftover crust and you’ll have a permanent dining companion.  A certain animated lovable slob pronounced pizza as the “food of kings.”  Grown-ups with a flare for culinary creativity have taken the pizza from its humble beginnings to new presentations where no pizza has gone before.

The pizza’s birth likely began in Italian peasant kitchens, a product of frugality in a quest to make use of leftover bread dough and pasta sauce.  It’s popularity surged in the United States when soldiers brought the idea home from Italy at the close of World War II.

The basic pizza, which literally translates to mean “pie,” is a round savory tart with a yeast dough that has been topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese and then baked until crisp.  For those of us who aren’t fusspots and actually like food, options of additional toppings can include peppers, onions, mushrooms, pepperoni, sausage, olives or my favorite compromise that features all of the above!

Today’s pizzas have shaken that mold and have evolved to include anything and everything, from duck or shrimp in lieu of pepperoni or sausage, goat cheese or gorgonzola instead of mozzarella, wild mushrooms, caramelized red onions and sun-dried tomatoes.  The white pie bares no tomato sauce at all.  The crust is crowned with ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese, olive oil and, hopefully, loads of garlic.
Even the crusts have varied.  Pizza that boasts a thick, bread-like base that sits in a deeper pan is aptly named the deep-dish pie.  The square-shaped pie with a thicker, crispy crust than the traditional version is listed as a Sicilian pie.  Pizza toppings now even grace other doughy palettes, such as crisp Italian bread, French bread and bagels. 

You don’t require a brick pizza oven to make pizza in your own kitchen.  You need only your imagination to conjure up the most original, delicious pie that will rival those of any pizzeria.  You also need quality ingredients.  It would be preferable to make the pizza sauce at home; I have included a recipe below. 

When it comes to toppings, the sky is the limit.  There are no rules anymore, especially with the inception of fusion cooking.  I don’t typically delve into fusion when it comes to pizza.  No, I’m not a purist who believes that all pizza must be Italian.  I do, however, tend to adhere to one ethnicity per pie policy.

For Italian pizzas, some of my favorite combinations include cremini mushrooms with mozzarella, fontina, asagio and Romano cheeses, or hot Italian sausage with mushrooms, caramelized onions, mozzarella and Gorgonzola.  When it comes to gourmet combinations, I made a pie with wild mushrooms, caramelized shallots and fontina.  Brian and I both make our own renditions of barbecue chicken pizzas.  Many times, I have served a Mediterranean pizza.  On one occasion, Brian and I even made southwestern pizzas on the grill.  That’s right, on the outdoor grill; and it was amazingly fast and easy.  The most amazing pizza that Brian ever made was topped with slices of ham, Gruyere cheese and a rich, creamy béchamel sauce.  It was sinfully delectable!

Pizzas are now being served up as appetizers and even desserts.  One cold appetizer that I have made countless times is topped with a mixture of cream cheese, fresh dill, lemon zest and creamy horseradish, then layers of smoked salmon and finished with a sprinkle of thinly sliced red onions.  Dessert variations may include combinations like goat cheese, figs and walnuts, or mascarpone topped with berries, apricots or plums.

When deciding on a pizza combination, select the source for the crust.  Pizza dough is not difficult to make at home, but if you are looking for an even speedier option, balls of pizza dough are available in the refrigerated section of many supermarkets.  The simplest option, and the one that Brian always gravitates to, is to visit the bakery department.  A fresh, crisp Italian bread will work.  Halve it lengthwise and simple top the two halves.  Last week he used a round bread, not quite a boule that he halved horizontally to create two pies.

The next step is to make the big decision: to sauce, or not to sauce?  If you aren’t up to making sauce, simply brush some good quality olive oil over the crust and it will impart a subtle flavor.  One alternative that I favor is the use of pesto; it adds a nice facet of flavor to a white pie. It also works well with toppings of roasted eggplant slices and mozzarella.

There are no restrictions on which additional toppings you may choose.  Pick a cheese that will best illustrate the ethnic flavor that you want the pie to convey.  When I make a barbecue chicken pizza, a mild cheddar works best for me.  On the other hand, those southwestern pies were liberally sprinkled with Monterey jack.

So just how did that pizza grilling session go?  We started with a ball of dough that had been rolled out.  On a large tray, bowls of various chopped toppings were set grill side.  The bowls contained things like chorizo sausage, shredded Monterey Jack, chopped red onions, sliced yellow and orange bell peppers and scallions.  The key is to have everything ready, the process is very quick!  Once the grill is ready, toss the pizza dough round onto the hot grill.  After a minute or so, it should be ready to flip.  As soon as the crust has been turned, immediately begin a race to throw all of the toppings on and then close the lid of the grill.  I cannot express enough that this all needs to be done as quickly as possible, this is not a task for slowpokes or perfectionists.  After another minute check the pie.  If the cheese is melted, it’s ready.  Slide the pizza onto a serving plate.  Now tell me that is not any slower than preheating an oven and popping one of those cardboard frozen renditions in for several minutes.

On that note, now I must tout.  No frozen pizzas here!  You see, I live in New York, Long Island, to be precise, but still part of the metropolitan area nonetheless.  New Yorkers know pizza.  Chicagoans think that they know pizza, and they may come pretty darned close, but no cigar.  I have had countless friends and relatives who migrated to various other parts of the country, and the world at large.  Whenever they return to Long Island, one of the first things that they are craving is a “good” pizza.  The craving is intense, even carnal.  As we set foot into a pizzeria, their eyes almost glaze over and it is all that they can do to keep from outwardly salivating.  Imagine a hungry lion that has not seen a meal for weeks.  You do not want to come between these folks and the pizza counter!  If you are not fortunate enough to live in the New York metropolitan area, I stress this because I hear that upstate is no hotbed of great pizza either, you are not presented with many options.  If all you have ever known is Domino’s or frozen pizzas, well, you have my deepest sympathies, but at least you are blissfully unaware of the experience that you are missing.  However, if you are simply an expat of this area, don’t despair.  You can have great pizza, if you embark on your culinary genius.  It really is a simple entrée to make, and it will encompass your carb, protein and vegetable.  All you will need to accompany that is a simple salad and a glass of wine or other beverage of choice.

Tomato Pizza Sauce
1 28-ounce can crushed San Marzan plum tomatoes
2 6-ounce cans tomato paste
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
3 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
1 ½ tablespoons red wine
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt

Combine all ingredients thoroughly.  This should make enough sauce for two full-size pizzas.  If you only plan to make one pie, freeze the remaining sauce in an air-tight container and you’ll be all set for the next time.

For an explosion of Mediterranean flavor, try this pizza recipe combination.  It requires no sauce at all and you can use Italian bread for a time-efficient option.

Mediterranean Pizza
1 round Italian bread halved horizontally
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
16-ounces fresh mozzarella, shredded
1 red onion, halved and then thinly sliced
2 plum tomatoes, sliced crosswise
1 cup roasted peppers (red or yellow), coarsely chopped
1 6-ounce jar sun-dried tomatoes, drained and sliced into strips
3 pepperoncini peppers, sliced crosswise
1/3 cup sliced kalamata olives
¼ cup sliced pimiento-stuffed green olives
2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil

Preheat oven to 450-degrees.  Place bread halves, cut-side up, on a large pizza stone or baking sheet.  Brush the cut sides with olive oil.  Sprinkle half of the mozzarella on both pies.  Arrange the onion, all tomatoes, peppers and olives over the cheese.  Sprinkle both pies with the basil, top with the remaining mozzarella.  Bake for 10 minutes.  Makes two pies, serving 2-4, depending on the size of the bread.

Alternately, you can make pesto instead of tomato sauce, and then try this amazing combination that I came up with:

White Pie with Pesto and Eggplant
1 round Italian bread, halved horizontally
1 cup pesto (see above link for recipe)
1 eggplant, sliced crosswise into ½-inch rounds
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
8 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
15-ounces ricotta cheese
16-ounces fresh mozzarella, shredded

Preheat oven to 450-degrees.  Arrange the eggplant slices on a baking sheet.  Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes.  Remove and allow to cool to room temperature.  While the eggplant roasts, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat.  Add the garlic and sauté for two minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the salt and allow to sit until cooled to room temperature.  Place bread halves, cut-side up, on a large pizza stone or baking sheet.  Spread the pesto over both crusts.  Sprinkle with half of the mozzarella.  In a mixing bowl, combine the garlic mixture and the ricotta, stir well.  Spread the ricotta mixture over the pesto.  Arrange the eggplant slices over the ricotta.  Sprinkle both pies with mozzarella.  Bake for 10 minutes.

I leave my fellow Long Islanders with this recommendation.  Next time you crave takeout pizza, because we all have those occasional overwhelming days when cooking may not be the most appealing option, I highly recommend the amazing pizzas of Woodbury Pizzeria & Pasta The chicken Marsala pizza is phenomenal.


Food for Thought

Make a party out of the pizza-making endeavor!  Provide enough balls of dough for each person to create a personal pizza.  Offer an array of prepared toppings, cheeses, meats and sauce.  There are two ways to approach the process.  Create a master list of as many combinations as you can come up with, keeping some options traditional and others wildly imaginative.  Have each guest pick a different one to make.  This works best with smaller groups of six or less, because then the pies can be cut into four to six slices and everyone gets to sample a little of each.  I sprung this idea on my parents when I visited them for a few days, and we had a lot of fun, some silly laughs and great eats out of that night.  The other option is to provide no guidelines and simply let everyone unleash their creative inner child.   Be ready, there’s one in every group that has to be so, um, unique and original?  That’s okay, however, you can always offer a prize, such as a bottle of wine, to the most original combination’s creator.  Either way, everybody has fun together in the kitchen, which is what cooking should be all about. 

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