There is an old saying that much like sex, there is no such thing as bad pizza.
By TYLER FOX
Even when it is bad, it’s still… pizza.
While there are shreds of truth to this saucy proverb, I would point out that there are exceptions to every rule.
Anyone who has experienced the dangerous combination of a cell phone and a glass or three of Cabernet has no doubt indulged in a questionable bit of “drunk dialing” at some point. After 30 minutes of agonizing hunger pass, your delivery arrives in a grease stained cardboard pizza box of shame and regret.
But pizza is a sacred and beautiful thing, a meal to be enjoyed and celebrated beyond the cheapened realm of so called convenient chains with garbage ingredients pumped out like red sauce drenched planks on an assembly line.
Pizza can be so much more, particularly when paired with the finest of seasonal ingredients and the thoughtful care one might afford something like steak or a gorgeous piece of fish.
Pizza is one of the most democratic of foods. It can be as high minded and gourmet as you care to make it, or as simple and easy as a cheap meal marrying the merits of cheese, dough and endless potential.
It is pizza’s vast possibilities that make it a perfect vehicle to highlight the bounty of nature’s seasons. We find ourselves currently riding the cresting tidal wave of summer produce, each week bringing new gifts in the form of fresh fruits and deliciously ripe vegetables.
Tomatoes are flooding the farmers markets, taking their throne alongside other treasures from corn, summer squashes, squash blossoms and okra to peaches, plums and watermelon.
As the hot weather brings peak harvest for so many ingredients, the embarrassment of riches can bring stagnation behind the stove for some. After all, there are only so many dishes to use up that summer squash and even the most ardent of maize fans can tire of endless ears of buttered corn on the cob.
While tomatoes are a classic pairing with pizza, a little know how and a dash or two of ingenuity can take those other seemingly disparate ingredients and turn them into a bevy of delicious pizza possibilities for summer flavors.
There are a few key elements to taking pizza from snack to transcendent feast. First is finding a balance within the three main players of pizza — the crust, the toppings and the cooking method. Each facet informs the other.
There is a “more is better” tendency to far too many things in society, and pizza should not be one of them. A good pizza is like a good song, you should be able to hear and appreciate each part distinctly. A minimalist’s hand with cheese and topping will allow the crust to both cook properly and serve to highlight the stunning vegetables, meats and cheeses you no doubt will be using.
Be mindful of different flavors and how they interact or compliment each other. Whether it’s a classic combo of tomato and basil or a more modern amalgam of goat cheese, rosemary and corn, let your taste buds and common sense help guide you. A salty meat like sausage may play well with an earthy compliment like eggplant or sweet onion.
Begin by buying the best seasonal ingredients you can find. A good rule to remember is if it grows together, it probably goes together. Try different types of cheeses or sauces. Experiment and see what tastes good to you and your friends or family.
As I said, pizza is democratic. There are no rules except “make it taste good.” The vote will be cast with the palate of the populace, and that rarely lies.
One other key component to unlocking pizza’s potential is heat. You know why that wood oven fired pizza tastes so good at the local “mom and pop” pizzeria? It’s the heat. Plain and simple.
That oven is burning embers and raging temperatures upwards of 800-1,000 degrees. If you have a brick oven in your backyard, great. What time should I come over?
If not, you can do a passable fabrication utilizing your oven and a couple of fairly cheap components — namely a pizza stone and a pizza peel. Put that pizza stone in the bottom half of your oven and crank it high as it will go (most home ovens top out at 550 degrees), and get to rolling dough and getting your ingredients prepped and organized. Use the pizza peel to assemble your pizza on, then to transfer to and from the hot pizza stone.
Making pizza at home is not a complicated process, it just takes a little practice and a bit of creative thinking. Following a few simple rules will open up a whole new world of seasonal pizza possibilities and who knows, maybe you can find your own perfect little summer slice.
The Summer Market Pizza
Makes 2 pizzas
This pizza is designed to highlight the finest of our current summer ingredients. It is a kind of whole summer squash or “nose to tail” pizza, using every part of the plant from flower and fruit to the tendrils, leaves and buds. If you can’t find all of these, just use the best ingredients you can get your hands on, especially organic local vegetables and real, freshly made cheese.
Similarly, use the best dough possible, homemade or store bought. If seeking Gluten Free or Vegan alternatives, I recommend Udi’s pre-made Gluten Free dough and Daiya dairy free vegan cheese.
2 portions prepared pizza dough
8 ounces of local fresh mozzarella
2 ears summer sweet corn, kernels shaved off of the cob
4 to 5 pieces of okra, sliced in 1/2-inch pieces on the bias
1/2 bundle of black kale leaves, thinly sliced
8 to10 summer squash blossoms
4 summer squash branches, leaves, buds and curly tendrils
1 or 2 sunburst summer squash, sliced in 1/2 inch thick rounds, lightly sautéed
1 medium sized Japanese eggplant, sliced in 1/2-inch thick pieces on the bias, lightly sautéed
2 tablespoons toasted walnut pieces
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Calabrian chile oil (or standard chile oil, optional)
Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, grated fresh to finish
4 tablespoons semolina flour, for dusting pizza peel or baking sheet
Preheat pizza stone on a rack in lower half of oven at highest setting (convection if you have it), 500 degrees is standard, for at least 30 minutes. If not using pizza stone, line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper, dusted with coarse semolina flour. On a lightly floured surface, begin rolling dough ball out evenly by hand. It does not need to be a perfect circle, but try to keep it round and even thickness. The goal is to stretch dough to roughly 10 to 12 inches in diameter and 1/8-inch thick (thinner the dough, quicker to cook) with the edges slightly thicker for the crust. Transfer pizza dough to semolina dusted pizza peel or parchment lined baking sheet.
Sprinkle half of kale and drizzle olive oil onto each pizza evenly, leaving room at edges. Tear pieces of mozzarella cheese and spread around pizza. Place rounds of summer squash in the middle, with squash blossoms, eggplant and okra pieces around it. Finish with a bit of corn and the walnuts.
Slide pizzas onto hot pizza stone gently, using a slight jiggle to allow dough to slide off with aid of semolina to prevent sticking.
Bake for 5 to 8 minutes, monitoring and checking — ovens vary — to see a rise in dough and melting and bubbling of cheese. Remove from oven by sliding pizza peel under pizza securely, and pulling out. Finish with a bit more raw corn and drizzle with chile oil (optional, but the heat plays off ). Slice into pieces, serve, eat and smile. Repeat with other pizza.
Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes “nose-to-tail” cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.