A Friendly Medium for New Flavors
By JiJi Russell
Few comfort foods rival a fresh pizza, hot out of the oven. Taking its place as a great diplomat in the hierarchy of foods, pizza crosses boundaries of age, geography, and social status with ease. Simply put: Few folks can resist a good pie.
Judging by consumption levels, pizza ranks as one of America’s top comfort foods. According to data from The Pizza Marketplace, 93 percent of Americans eat at least one piece of pizza per month. Furthermore, the group estimates that three of the five billion pizzas sold each year worldwide are sold here in the U.S.
In my perpetual effort to “healthy up” a favorite dish, I thought I’d take something that many people consider tasty to begin with, and alter it to serve our nutritional needs even better. Pizza offers a friendly medium for those who wish to broaden the palate and “eat more vegetables.” If you make a homemade crust, just about anything will taste good on that freshly-baked pie.
Lately I have been making a homemade pizza crust with my children on Friday afternoons. This was my solution to becoming progressively less enthused about the weekly pizza dinner, which had been promised to the kids. Before we went fresh, I would buy a thin, prepared crust from the grocery story. I would load a large crust with sauce, veggies, and light cheese; the kids would make their own smaller versions, usually with just sauce, cheese, and sometimes pesto. The whole thing had become very ho-hum. Once we started making the crust, though, the meal and the process were both transformed into something fun, creative, and delicious.
For several years now, I have been known to add secret, nutritious ingredients to my children’s foods, in the form of purees. Several cookbooks out there specialize in this style of cooking, which does, indeed, make for delicious and satisfying dishes (see “Resources” below). I have found in my nutrition coaching experiences that even adults who tend to be vegetable-shy in their diets like these “sneaky” foods. For the record, I do reveal my sneaky ingredients to those who eat them . . . after the food has been gobbled down. It’s my little way of encouraging a friendly attitude toward things people did not think they would like.
So, my idea is to offer you a simple homemade crust; a few nutrient-dense sauces; and a suggestion for toppings and cheese. If you have some kitchen helpers and/or can do a little preparation ahead of time, the process won’t take too long, and the homemade goodness might surprise you.
Diplomatic Pizza Ingredients
· Tomato sauce pureed with white beans
· Dollops of pesto-spinach puree
· Lightly-sautéed vegetables of your choice
· Shredded “Mexican cheese blend” and/or other more adventurous cheese like Asiago scattered about
If you want to add meat, I suggest cooking up some of Smith Meadows’ breakfast sausage links, and slicing them thin: kind of like a mini-pepperoni, but better. (See “Resources”).
Here’s the How-To (time-saving tips included):
Leave about three hours from the time you want to eat your pizza to begin making the crust. The making of the crust is easy, yet the time required for the dough to rise takes a little planning. Be creative with your time. No one says you can’t cart that dough around to after-school soccer practice if you need to have it handy when the time comes to “punch it down.”
Make your sauces the day before your pizza debut. The same day is fine, but will require more time in the kitchen. Ditto for the vegetables you plan to use. Chopping them in the morning and having them ready to toss into a skillet will save you time at the end of the day.
Tomato sauce for base:
Take your favorite tomato sauce; add a little tomato paste; add some canned, rinsed white beans (like cannellini), and puree them together.
Proportion suggestion: 1 cup tomato or marinara sauce (fresh or canned); about two tablespoons of tomato paste; about 1/4 cup canned, rinsed white beans such as cannellini.
Puree until smooth. Find the consistency that you like, and write down your proportions so that you remember for next time. If you opened a whole can of tomato paste, freeze the remainder in a Ziploc bag for your next pizza. Try adding your leftover cannellini beans to top a salad; or puree and add to soups, stews, and/or sauces to amp up the nutrients density.
Take a jar of prepared pesto, add some chunks of frozen spinach, and puree.
Proportion suggestion: about three tablespoons frozen spinach (estimate the spinach by cutting off chunks of packed, frozen spinach after letting it sit out on the counter for about 10 minutes so that it’s easy to chop). One tablespoon of prepared pesto (Smith Meadows makes a delicious one; the grocery store offers various canned versions).
To save time, chop them the day beforehand, or early in the morning of the day that you intend to use them. Think of seasonal veggies, if available. And/or go with some great standards: mushrooms, black olives, bell peppers, broccoli, etc. Once they are chopped, you can easily give them a quick sauté before placing them on the prepared dough/crust.
The Mexican cheese blend that’s available shredded in the dairy aisle offers a quick and easy option, and a little change from standard mozzarella. Add a little shredded Asiago, parmesan, or small chunks of goat cheese for more intense flavors.
Once you have the prep complete, let your creativity flow. Roll out your dough, and enjoy the non-circular shape it becomes. Brush with a thin layer of olive oil. Spread a layer of your enhanced tomato sauce on top. (I use a very flexible, perforated rubber spatula to do this, but the back of a spoon works too.) Dollop the pesto-spinach puree around, making beautiful emerald dots over the red sauce base. Scatter your sautéed veggies, add meat if you wish, and finish with your choice of cheeses. I typically go heavy on the veggies and light on the cheese.
Of course, if you are making pizza with children, you can give them their own dough to roll out. Help them enjoy the weird shapes that form. It’s all part of the homemade effect. The tomato sauce and the pesto-spinach puree offer more of a nutritional bang than straight sauce would. And, maybe children and adults alike will experiment with new vegetables and flavors when packaged so nicely in the goodness of a homemade pizza pie.
· The Sneaky Chef, a cookbook by Missy Chase Lapine
· Deceptively Delicious, a cookbook by Jessica Seinfeld
· Smith Meadows farm just outside Berryville makes homemade marinara sauces, pestos, and more: SmithMeadows.com
JiJi Russell, a yoga instructor and Integrative Nutrition health coach, is wellness coordinator for American Public University in Charles Town, W.Va. She teaches a children’s yoga class at the Barns of Rose Hill in Berryville. Reach her at email@example.com.
Easy Pizza Dough
4 cups King Arthur all-purpose flour
1 cup warm water
1 packet Rapid Rise yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbs olive oil
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. With a spatula, stir in olive oil and water, adding more flour if necessary to handle the dough. Kneed for 2 minutes, then set aside for 2 minutes, then kneed for 30 seconds. Form dough into a ball and place in a bowl coated in olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap. The dough will double in size in 1 to 1.5 hours. When ready to bake, cut ball into 3 or 4 pieces and roll or hand-shape the dough to desired size. Add toppings and bake on a sheet or heated stone at your oven’s highest temperature (heat the stone for an hour). —From Cook’s Illustrated