Glorious Toppings Make For Autumnal Treats
I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love pizza. Happily, it’s almost as easy to make as it is to eat, and nothing tastes better than straight-from-the-oven pizza. There are lots of variables, of course, starting with the kind of crust you prefer. I am firmly in the Northern Italian crust camp, especially as made in Florence, where I went to school for a few memorable summers.
My friends and I had a little apartment on Via dei Neri, just around the corner from the Uffizi gallery, which I visited on an almost daily basis. Also just around the corner was a tiny neighborhood pizzeria, too small for tables. To order, you walked up to a tall wooden bar and told the cheeky young men who made the pizza what kind you wanted. The result came back fast, served on a piece of brown paper, sizzling hot and tasting totally unlike anything I’d ever eaten in America.
Learning To Love The Difference
Back in the 1960s and 70s, most ‘ethnic’ food was a pale imitation of the real thing. I vividly recall eating my first ‘taco’ at the 1963 Worlds Fair in New York. It consisted of a crunchy, pre-folded and stiff shell filled with Iceberg lettuce, ground beef, and shredded orange American cheese. Yikes! At the time, it seemed amazingly different and delicious, mainly because of the contrasts of cold crisp lettuce and hot ground meat.
Today, of course, we are able to access ingredients from all over the world, and it’s possible to find ethnic restaurants that serve up reasonable approximations of food from many lands. Even so, there are still thousands of crappy restaurants serving millions of dreadful meals that bear no resemblance whatsoever to food from China, Thailand, Mexico or Italy (etc. etc. etc.).
So What’s My Point?
OK, here’s what’s on my mind (and table). Northern Italian pizza is one of my favorite things to make and eat, especially in fall, when so many garden ingredients are available. This pizza begins with a thin, crisp crust, baked on a pizza stone at very high temperatures (up to 800 degrees F in a real pizza oven). At home, we can get a similar effect with a 500 degree oven. Tempting as it is to eat super-hot pizza, let it cool for a minute before eating, to avoid burning your tongue. Ask me how I know!
Northern Italian Pizza Dough
This is a very easy recipe if you use a food processor.
1 cup lukewarm water
1 packet or 1-1/4 teaspoons dry instant yeast
1-3/4 cups (8-3/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons sugar
Adjust oven rack to lowest position and place a pizza stone on it. Heat oven to 500 degrees F. (if you have a convection oven option, use it). Stir yeast into water, set aside. Place the metal blade in your food processor and process the flours, salt, and sugar until blended (a few seconds). With machine running, drizzle in yeast water through the feed tube and process until dough forms a sticky ball that clears the sides. If dough is too sticky and clings to blade, add flour 1 tablespoon at a time. If dough is too dry, add water 1 tablespoon at a time.
Divide dough into 2 equal balls, cover with a damp cloth and let sit until doubled in size (about an hour). When ready to shape, dust dough with flour and roll tin on a sheet of parchment paper dusted with flour. Roll from the middle out to the sides, reducing pressure as you get to the edge to keep dough even, and turning the parchment each time. Add a thin layer of sauce, then slide a baking sheet under the parchment paper and use it to help you slide the pizza onto the baking stone (dough remains on parchment during baking) . Bake until edges begin to brown (5-6 minutes). Remove and add additional toppings, then return to the oven and bake until cheese melts (5-6 minutes). Slice and serve at once, then repeat with second ball of dough.
Speedy Pizza Sauce
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 tablespoon fresh basil OR 1 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
In a food processor with a metal blade, process tomatoes to a coarse puree (2-3 brief pulses). Drain in a fine mesh sieve for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. When drained, combine in a bowl with sugar, garlic, basil, sea salt and fresh tomatoes. Refrigerate any extra and serve over hot pasta or rice.
Italian cooks mash, grind, mince or otherwise mingle fresh basil with coarse sea salt to keep the basil from discoloring.
1/4 cup pine nuts OR almonds OR walnuts
3 medium cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 cups fresh basil, stemmed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In a food processor with a metal blade, process nuts and garlic to a coarse paste. Add basil and 1/4 teaspoon salt and process for 8-10 seconds. Add cheese and process lightly. Drizzle in oil through the food tube while processor is running. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep refrigerated in a tightly covered glass container, topped off with 1/2 inch of olive oil. Replace oil topping each time you use some pesto, and use it up within a month.
Make Your Own Salt Blends
Many Italian cooks use herbed sea salt blends to add subtle warmth and depth to vey simple dishes. Here’s my current favorite:
Savory Sea Salt
1/2 cup coarse sea salt
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons rosemary, stemmed
1 teaspoon lavender
In a blender with a metal blade, process for 3-5 seconds. Store in a tightly sealed jar.
My very favorite pizza was named for an Italian queen who loved this pure, basic pizza. This remains the classic pizza eaten in every Italian town.
1 batch Pizza Dough
1 batch Speedy Tomato Sauce
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
8 ounces fresh (soft) mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons Parmesan or Romano cheese, coarsely grated
1 pinch sea salt, preferably Seasoned Sea Salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
Press each dough ball out to an 8-inch round, then flatten and stretch (or roll) to a 12-inch round. Top with a thin layer of sauce and bake at 500 degrees until the edges are browned (5-6 minutes). Remove from oven, add additional toppings, always ending with cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt, return to oven and bake until cheese melts (5-6 minutes). Serve at once.
Crimini or brown field mushrooms, thinly sliced
Kalamata olives, quartered
Yellow or sweet onion, thinly sliced
Roasted sweet or spicy peppers, sliced
Fresh cherry tomatoes, halved
Roasted green tomatoes, halved
Soft (fresh) goat cheese
Note: To reduce moisture that can cause soggy pizza, cook raw vegetables (such as peppers, zucchini, or eggplant) in 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a large frying pan over medium high heat until reduced in size by about half (5-7 minutes), then drain before adding to pizza.
Make as above, spreading a thin layer of pesto instead of red sauce.
Each recipe serves at least one. Remember to share!