All of us in this business are well aware of the excellent canned tomatoes at our disposal, so it goes without saying that we use them –– a lot –– in various ways, whether it be a sauce for pasta, or to ladle onto a pizza crust. For a different flavor, however, keep in mind that a signature pizza using fresh tomatoes offers a nice change of pace.
There are now a number of fresh tomatoes –– slicing, grape, Roma, plum, Strawberry and Campari –– that give the pizzaiolo any number of options to create a range of pizzas. And most of those tomatoes are now available all year long.
A few issues to keep in mind, however, when using fresh tomatoes on pizza. Slicing tomatoes (those are the big round ones) provide the greatest coverage, but they give off a lot of moisture, so you have to protect the crust from getting soggy. The best way to prevent a soggy crust when using slicing tomatoes is to first lay down a base of cheese on the crust (note that technique in the recipes that follow).
Smaller tomatoes, such as plum and Roma, have less water content, but you still need to avoid the soggy crust syndrome. In using these tomatoes, I like to slice them in half and scrape out the seeds using the tip of a small spoon. Now I can use them as a slice (each half) or dice before scattering over the cheese base. You can prep a large amount in a short time, so don’t worry too much about the time involved.
Fresh plum tomatoes were the tomato of choice when I was doing pizza-consulting work in Mexico City. It was less expensive to use fresh plum tomatoes than to bring in canned tomatoes from the states. So another option at your disposal is to process fresh plum tomatoes as a sauce to use on pizza. I am not suggesting that you go whole hog on this, however. On a limited basis, let’s say during the peak fresh tomato season, you can do a special “Fresh Tomato Month.” Feature several pizza specials using fresh plum tomatoes. The idea draws attention to the “fresh” aspect of your restaurant, and gives you an edge over competition.
To process, wash the tomatoes thoroughly. Next, crush or process the tomatoes and drain off the excess moisture and use as you would a tomato puree.
The real small tomatoes, such as grape or strawberry, can be either cut in half (a labor intensive deal) or used whole (a much better way to go). In using these smaller tomatoes, I sometime like to toss them in olive oil before putting them on the pizza. Again, though, I lay a base of cheese over the crust and then add the other toppings (if used), then more cheese and the tomatoes. With these smaller tomatoes, the heat of the oven actually chars the tomatoes, and that releases a very interesting and intense flavor (in fact, these smaller tomatoes work great when baking a pizza in a gas-fired or wood-burning oven). In the recipes below, feel free to substitute grape or other smaller tomatoes if they are available at a reasonable price.
Another option when using fresh tomatoes is to roast, say, plum tomatoes in the oven. To process, cut the tomatoes in half and lay them cut-side-down on a sheet pan. Brush the tops with olive oil and roast in the oven until the skin chars. Pluck off the skin with the tines of a fork, and use them the same way as noted in the recipes below. You can jazz up these tomatoes and the resulting flavors even more by sprinkling on herbs or chopped fresh garlic.
Pizza with Tomatoes & Eggplant
Yield: One 14-inch pizza (scale up in direct proportion)
1 small eggplant (about 3/4 pound)
½ cup olive oil
½ pound shredded part-skim low moisture mozzarella
1 14-inch pizza shell
6-7 (about 1/4 pound) fresh plum or Roma tomatoes, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick
2 teaspoons dried oregano
Trim the stem end of the eggplant and slice lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices. Put the eggplant slices on a sheet pan and brush each slice liberally with olive oil. Broil the eggplant (or run them through the oven) on one side only until each slice turns a russet brown. Set aside.
Sprinkle half the cheese evenly over the crust. Arrange the eggplant over the cheese. Lay the tomatoes evenly on top of the eggplant. Sprinkle the oregano over the tomatoes. Scatter the remaining cheese evenly over the tomatoes. Bake.
Roasted Pepper & Tomato Pizza
Yield: one 12-inch pizza (scale up in direct proportion)
1 12-inch pizza shell
½ pound shredded Asiago or fontina cheese (about 2 cups)
6 (3/4- 1 pound) large fresh plum or Roma tomatoes, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
¾ cup roasted red bell peppers cut into strips
15 (About) leaves fresh basil
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sprinkle half the fontina evenly over the pizza crust. Arrange the tomatoes evenly over the cheese. Sprinkle on the Parmesan. Lay the bell pepper strips in a pattern on the pizza. Add the remaining cheese. Bake the pizza.
After the pizza comes out of the oven, tear or snip (with scissors) the basil leaves and scatter them over the pizza. Drizzle some olive oil over the pizza. Serve.
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