‘Tis the season to be fresh
Sixteen years ago, a farmer named Bill Shores walked into my pizzeria with a giant box of garlic. He said that he had too much and offered to sell it to me for cheap. By the end of that summer, I was marketing and selling 20 to 30 pizzas with local vegetables on them each shift. This was the start of my relationship with summer vegetables, local farmers and customers who crave this freshness that corporate pizzerias cannot offer. What I didn’t realize is that I made a whole new customer base –– the farmers, their families and friends were now ordering from me.
Nowadays, I’ve learned to ride the rising and falling tide of vegetable availability that determines the price and demand for great vegetables. I am not an expert on vegetables but I do have some recommendations for using these beauties that I’ve used in my small town menu mix.
- Beets. These are like little red gems on a pizza and great with: feta; apples; basil; Parmesan; bleu cheese; cheddar; spinach; potatoes; onions; walnuts; pasta; olives; mushrooms; celery; green beans; ricotta and balsamic. I’ve found the easiest way to cook beets is to fill a large pan with an inch of salt and place the skin-on beets in and roast in a pizza deck oven at 475 F for two to three hours. Place in a lexan to steam and peel when cooled. Beets keep for up to three weeks in a walk-in when wrapped up with the skin on.
- Potatoes. By far, these are the best value of summer. Little fingerlings are beautiful on a pizza but cost a little more. I love the dense yellow Yukon Golds. Potatoes are great with: beef; cream sauce; onions; leeks; rosemary; sage; thyme; garlic; cumin; cinnamon; mushrooms and all sorts of pork. The best way to render for pizza is to place the potatoes vertically in a slicer and slice thin into a large lexan filled with salted water. This will literally “cook” the potato and rid each slice of some starch, making it stick less. Rinse (if too salty), drain and toss with extra virgin olive oil and run through a pizza oven for 10 minutes at 475 F for a par cook. Then just spread like fish scales on top of cheese with onions and rosemary. YUM.
- Turnips, parsnips and rutabagas. These are great values from local farmers and can be a great base for any pie treated like potatoes or just skinned, mashed and added to a cream sauce. All are great with Gruyere, provolone, lemon, maple syrup, scallions, tomatoes and broccoli. I’ve found that these aren’t the best-selling A-list vegetable headliners. So to market this trio, I’ve found it best to pair with other, more desirable vegetables or –– wait for it –– bacon!
Kings of Summer
These three are both abundant and cheap when the vegetable glut hits!
- Corn. I now use a method where I cut the bottom off the ear a few inches from the end. This releases all the silk when peeled from the bottom. I then place it in a large lexan and using a sawing
motion just remove the kernels vertically. Corn roasted in a pizza oven with a little oil is delicious and fast. Corn added to a cream sauce with cheddar, Colby, feta or Monterey Jack is a delight! Chili peppers added with Cotija cheese, cumin, cilantro topped with beef, tortillas and salsa is a great Mexican pizza. Mushrooms, onions, garlic, dill, bell peppers and basil really rock with corn.
- Zucchini or yellow squash. I love to make Campo de Fiori pizza (a great pizza I had in Rome near the Tiber River) with shredded zucchini, eggs and Parmigiano simply mixed together and slathered on a dough and baked. There is no better visual pie than thin slices of zucchini placed like fish scales on top of Parmesan and aged mozzarella with a tomato sauce. A “deconstructed” ratatouille pizza is also fun and sells well. Just dice zucchini, eggplant, onions, bell pepper, fresh tomato and minced garlic and toss with extra virgin olive oil. Par-cook for six minutes in a 475 F pizza oven and let cool. Cook on a pizza with Gruyère or swiss, oregano and ham as an option. Any squash is great with chili peppers, sausage, fresh herbs, cumin and basil.
- Peppers. I use all sorts of peppers in my repertoire. I’ve found a very easy way to char-roast the sweet peppers of summer like the red Italian sweets, pimento and yellow Spanish toro peppers. I just take my 20-inch pans, oil them and the peppers up and send them through my conveyor oven twice. This will char the outer skins very fast. I then place them in a lexan while hot and close the lid for the skins to steam. This makes for easy peeling when cooled. The new customer appreciation of spicy peppers like Trinidad Scorpion, Paper Lanterns, habañeros of all colors, and even ghost and chocolate bhutlahs has made me cash in on a pizza I sell called “The Beelzebub,” a dangerously hot pizza that some hot heads just adore.
- Tomato. There are so many new types of tomatoes it can make your head spin. My favorite pizza to make in the height of summer uses the tricolored heirlooms. I just slice them thinly and let them expel some juice then top a 12-inch round with very little aged provolone and Parmigiano and basil. Then, starting at the edge, shingle them around the pie with red, yellow and green peppers, repeating until a beautiful color swirl appears. I then dollop with small amounts of ricotta and bake in a deck oven at 475 F. Cherry tomatoes are also a delight to just toss like confetti on a pie or in a calzone.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio, and has a pizza blog called Pizza Goon. He is an award-winning pizzaiolo, baker, teacher, speaker and author.
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