Pair big flavors with these easy tips
While visiting a pizzeria near the beach in Ostia, Italy, I ordered a magnificent white pizza with Gorgonzola. The pizza was a beautiful thing to behold with the pillowy charred edges of a high-heat Neapolitan pie along with the thin, crispness of a Roman pizza made with olive oil.
The first few bites of the creamy base and melting chunks of bleu were memorable and rewarding but as I cut into the third piece, I stopped; realizing that I was flavor-bored –– not disgusted but just tired of the delicious sameness. The strong flavor made my mouth and brain cry for some difference of texture, sweetness or another flavor to break the boredom. Instead of embarrassing myself by speaking up, I nibbled the crust and left the pizzeria on good terms. That day I learned that the fine line between big flavor success and big flavor failure lies with the supporting elements. Call them condiments, garnishes, finishing agents or supporting actors, they all have the potential to put a great big cherry on a big flavor pie!
I love big flavors in my pizzeria because they form the base of any complex pizza without sending you to the poor house. For instance, I’ve noticed that the most bang for the buck in any grocery store is a 13-cent habañero pepper. But before I put a whole habañero on a pie and blow someone’s face off, I’d rather pair it with some other toppings, sauces or flavors like lemon, sugar, onions, wheat, tomato, fish or pork. I use big-flavored cheeses and pestos paired with my béchamel sauce to blast a pie into wonderland without costing an arm and a leg. Below are some of the ways you can create best supporting actors to big flavors:
Sweet and savory: Sweet and savory: Creating an “agrodolce” effect helps temper big flavors. This Italian term for sweet and sour works well on the wheaty platform of a pizza. (The added effect of a nice char rockets this flavor into heaven.) Fruit compotes and jams provide a decent finishing agent to big sour cheeses, and fat savory meats like lardo and guanciale add complexity to vegetable-heavy pies.
Texture: Pizza is a play on textures with melt, liquid and crunch. This can be multiplied by the pull of an aged mozzarella, creamy cold stracciatella as a finish, punchy arugula, crunchy walnuts or toasted pignoli (pine nuts). I even have the crunchy hot Korean kimchi in my menu mix, which works wonders with melting provolone.
Vegetable Counterpoints: After competing in Italy, I’ve fallen in love with finishing pizzas with edible flowers, stuffed sweet and sour peppers, spicy greens that hold up to the heat of a just-finished pie and salsas, pestos, pickled garlic, carrots and even dill pickles.
Color: People eat with their eyes and colorful foods add an extra “wow” factor to any big-flavored pizza. Even a bright red tomato concasse or thin yellow peppers can transform a “blah” pizza to a wow pie.
Foil: A lot of chefs, bakers and pizza makers may overlook the fact that opposites really do attract! For example, consider: cream and lemon; salty olives and jam; tuna and veal; anchovy and white truffle and chorizo and blueberry are all combinations with much history. Most of these adventurous combinations are enhanced even more when other attractive components tie them together.
Here are some cool and attractive co-stars to these big flavors:
Chorizo: Onion; blueberry; sweet peppers; eggplant; apple; beans; thyme; tomatoes; chicken; chili; kale; clams; potatoes; garlic and herbs.
Leek: Artichoke; Parmesan; dill; lemon zest; chicken; goat cheese; Gruyere; butter; chives; cream; garlic; oregano; tarragon; balsamic; chicken stock; thyme; potatoes; egg; bacon; anchovy; cauliflower; caraway; celery; oyster mushroom; black pepper; soy sauce; crème fraiche and cream sauce.
Shrimp: Basil; anchovy; garlic; coconut; arugula; avocado; bacon; crab; cream; curry; cilantro; chili peppers; celery and root; lemon; mushroom; mint; bay leaf; artichokes; basil; butter; ginger; parsley; onion,; sesame; tomato; thyme; scallions; clams and cinnamon.
Italian sausage: Fennel; orange; Gorgonzola; fontina; onion; potato; radicchio; beans; rosemary; tomato; arugula; basil; fennel; celery; garlic; pepperoni; lemon juice; cream; apples; lentil; oregano; shallot; parsley; mustard; broccoli rabe; bell pepper and carrot.
Anchovy: Manchego; Parmigiano; lemon; rosemary; olive oil; shallot; piquillo peppers; romaine; vinegar;
almonds carrots; cauliflower; bell peppers; tomato; potato; celery and cauliflower.
Jalapeño: Ricotta; onion; cheddar; jack cheese; lemon; cinnamon; ginger; cilantro; sesame oil; rice; curry; garlic; fish sauce; fennel; avocado; basil; fontina; goat; mozzarella; mushroom; parsley; pineapple and tomato.
Smoked ham/speck/prosciutto di Parma/Serrrano: Manchego; Parmigiano; asparagus; tomato; green beans; pecorino; cheddar; fontina; honey; Dijon mustard; parsley; Gruyère; garlic; lemon-lime juice; melon; figs; basil; provolone; apples; cilantro; olive oil; raddichio; arugula; peas; pine nuts and pear.
Salami/pepperoni/soppressata: Pineapple; ricotta; mozzarella; provolone; Parmigano; arugula; Italian sausage; fennel; mango; cream sauce; tomato; mushroom; onion; spinach; garlic; herbs and apple.
Gorgonzola/Stilton: Pear; walnut; pine nut; fig jam; pistachio; prosciutto di Parma et al; mint; sugar; corn; cherry; honey; thyme; apple; grape; fig; pecan; blueberry; blackberry; bacon; pasta; olive oil and pomegranate.
Pineapple: Butter; chicken; ham; cashew; banana; vanilla; cilantro; chili peppers; coconut; strawberry; brown sugar; walnut; sweet potato; oranges; sesame; mango; ginger cinnamon; sausage; hot sauce and maple syrup.
Porcini mushroom: Parmigiano; garlic; lemon; fontina; shallot; red onion; arugula; walnut; tamari soy sauce; polenta; black pepper; thyme; truffle; spinach; almond and balsamic vinegar.
Feta cheese: Bread; olives; mint; tahini; eggplant; tomato; spinach; watermelon; zucchini; honey; grapes; walnuts; fig; dill; beet; red onion; sage; lamb; shrimp; bell peppers; fig jam; chicken and olive oil.
Clams: Chorizo; butter; bacon; cilantro; parsley; chives; garlic; cream; lemon; onions; asparagus; ginger; leek; mushroom; mussels; pancetta; hot chilies; Italian sausage; caramelized onion; potato; tomato; thyme; shallot; curry; fennel; capers; prosciutto; black pepper; cumin; corn; celery and anchovy.
Onions: Garlic; rosemary; olive oil; nutmeg; chili peppers; butter; bacon; thyme; Gruyère; jalapeño; sage; apples; anchovy; sage; dill; lemon; lime; Swiss; Parmigano; herbs; balsamic; maple syrup and goat cheese.
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.