May 1, 2012 |

Pizza Toppings: Garden Fresh

By Jeffrey Freehof

Think outside the tomato when it comes to fresh veggies on pizza


Artisan pizza is booming right now thanks to an influx of upscale ingredients that are more readily available than ever before. One of the latest trends which I believe is here to stay is to “buy local” in areas that we can, especially when it comes to local farming. The community –– your customer base –– loves to support local businesses that support local businesses. It makes perfect sense. I recently started buying from a local dairy, and you won’t believe the response from my community. I’ve recently discovered a whole community of farmers who have gotten together to market locally grown produce. Now I know some of you out there are in communities where this has been going on for years, but the concept is growing in popularity in places that aren’t your typical farming communities. I suggest you jump on this bandwagon –– or should I say the vegetable cart –– ASAP.

Artisan pizza is more of a craft when it comes to creating amazing pizza, where sometimes the “less is more” mentality fits perfectly. This is especially true when a high quality thin crust pizza is baked in a hotter-than-average pizza oven topped with carefully selected premium toppings. Although there is an amazing array of meats and cheese that could and should be used on this type of pizza, high-end vegetables shouldn’t be overlooked. This transcends the run-of-the-mill peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and olives. Let’s focus on some different upper echelon vegetables that can certainly be found from your local farmers.

I suggest cooking your vegetables ahead of time to keep your crusts in tip-top shape. I love roasting, grilling or caramelizing veggies because it brings a whole new dimension to their flavor and texture.

Caramelizing onions is as simple as cutting your onion uniformly (thickly sliced is fine). Simply get a sauté pan or small pot crazy hot with just a very small drizzle of oil and then add your onions and keep them moving by stirring. Don’t burn them, but simply cook them down until they are golden to dark brown. Now don’t go adding any sugar to sweeten them because onions have plenty of sugar in them and you won’t find that sweetness until you cook and caramelize that onion. The same goes for garlic cloves! Try it and you’ll see how incredibly these will enhance your pizza.

Let’s talk about grilling some vegetables. As a chef, for years I would prepare steamed asparagus. But once I discovered grilling fresh asparagus, I wouldn’t cook it any other way. Once you remove the white ends from the stems, drizzle a little olive oil over the asparagus. Then lightly sprinkle it with some salt, pepper and garlic. Now you simply need to lay them across a char-grill, rolling them so they don’t burn. If your grill is hot enough this process will only take 60 to 90 seconds. Make sure you get at least a little char on it. I prefer the thinner asparagus when it’s available because it’s more tender. This is amazing to eat and looks fantastic on a pizza.

Grilling zucchini and eggplant planks are quite spectacular as well. I like to coat the veggies with oil and seasoning just like the asparagus, but keep in mind eggplant is like a sponge and will need a little bit more oil than any other vegetable. I like to cut these vegetables lengthwise into half-inch-thick planks. When I grill them, I like to cross-hatch them to get some nice diamond marks on them (just as I would a steak) to give that visually stimulating appearance.

While we’re talking about grilling veggies, I’d like you to grill some corn as well. Obviously, peel the husk back and clean the corn well and give it a very light spritz of olive oil — then grill it until you get some light char to it. Once it cools, use a knife or one of those fancy corn-removing tools and now you’ve got another beautiful, colorful and flavorful topping for your artisan pizza.

Finally, let’s move on to one more method of preparing veggies for our artisan pizzas –– roasting them. Washing, peeling and then roasting some fresh beets in the oven for about 20 minutes truly brings out the natural sugar and is great on artisan pizza. I’d slice or dice the beets for use. Also, an awesome winter squash that is perfect for roasting is butternut. You’ve got to get that thick skin off and seed it, and then you can dice the squash, give it a light drizzle of oil and a dusting of salt and pepper and roast them just until they start to become tender. You don’t want them over roasted or they will become too soft. If you accidentally over cook them, don’t worry. Just add a little butter, brown sugar and cinnamon, mash them up and invite me over, because that is one vegetable that I like to make taste like dessert.

At Thanksgiving time I make a pizza that I call “the Great Thanksgiving Pizza.” I make a special batch of stuffing-flavored pizza dough by adding some chicken base and ground sage. Then instead of pizza sauce, I puree some cranberry sauce and use that as my base. I add some cheddar to my pizza cheese and then add diced cooked turkey breast, caramelized onions, cranberry raisins and roasted butternut squash. Sprinkle with a little garlic salt and sage, then top with just a little more cheese blend and celebrate with this awesome pizza! So get into the garden or get to the farmer’s market and start creating some amazing Artisan Pizza and become the talk of the town.

Jeff Freehof owns The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia. He is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today and a speaker at the Pizza Expo family of trade shows.