Sunday, January 2, 2011

Pizza for pennies

One sure way to make something delicious with tidbits from the fridge is to cobble up some pizza. Its really a no-brainer, as the original idea was to make use of leftovers and unused bits of this or that that were lying around in the kichen.

For this post, I'll go through the three basic elements that make a basic pizza, that is: the dough, the sauce and the toppings. On that basis, its pretty similar to the breakdown of a Ramen soup, just on a somewhat higher budget, if a quarter can really make a difference on he overall dish.

The dough, or bread forms the basis of the pizza, the structure on which the whole dish is based. You can have awesome toppings, but if the dough is screwed up, you'll end up with a mess. If you want to make it quick and easy, just use some flat bread. Pita bread is the easy choice, with different results whether you use the traditional thin Arab version
or Greek style
 The difference is that the Greek bread is designed to be both flat and fairly thick, while the Arab
version is thin and puffy. If you like thin crust then go for the Arab one, which will cook faster, but if you over cook them they'll be quick to break apart as you eat them.

Having found a good platform on which to build our dish, its time to think of the sauce. The sauce is there to provide a base of flavorful moisture to the bread base. With a good enough bread and sauce, you could very well forgo the cheese and just make it a meal after setting it to warm up in the oven.

There are two general branches for sauces on a pizza: tomato and oil based: 

-the tomato sauce is the definite Italian signature, with many variants depending on the region, and nona's secret recipe. If you want something really quick and no fuss, just use a few spoonfuls of premade pasta sauce. Just made sure that you're not going to waste it just because you wanted some pizza real quick. Depending on what you've got on hand you can also simply use bruscheta topping, if you like that extra hit of fresh tomato and garlic.

If you feel like making your own sauce, you can use this simple recipe: thinly slice half an onion which you soften up in a pan set at medium-low in enough olive oil to keep it moist. Sprinkle a pinch of salt on the onions to help them sweat; when they go soft and translucent add as much crushed or sliced garlic as you want. Just be sure to cook the garlic just enough to soften it and not burn it. Add the equivalent of one or two chopped tomatoes, whether fresh or prediced in can; in that case make sure to add a little bit of the juices to make sure that your sauce is moist enough. Season with some ground black pepper, basic and oregano.

-the oil based sauce is quite French in origin. While using pesto does wonders, you can well just finely chop up some fresh herbs a bit of garlic and blend it with some good olive oil and brush your bread with it. If you have the time, you can use poached onions, which the natives of southern France use in their version of pizza, called pissaladiere.

Finely slice one of two onions split in half. Slowly cook them in plenty of olive oil (they have to swim in it) with a few pinches of salt over low heat for forty-five minutes, or until they have sweetened and softened up. You can add some crushed garlic and a touch of balsamic vinegar, depending on your tastes or inclinations.

Bread and sauce dealt with, its topping time.

The primary topping is cheese. If you just put cheese on, you could just cook it and call it a day. As a matter of fact, that is pretty much the original version, if you add garlic, fresh basil or oregano. We are used to thinking that mozzarella is the most important and only cheese to use on pizza, but mozzarella has one major flaw, it has no flavor. It serves primarily as a bonding agent between the bread and the toppings, making sure that everything stays on board.

The cheese you'll use will mostly have to do with what you have on hand and what toppings you will use. I find that its a convenient way to use all those bits and pieces of cheese that are lying about going dry or getting a little shifty. You don't need to put massive amounts of it, just enough to cover the sauce and allow the other toppings to bond.

As for the rest of the toppings, its pretty much like the cheese, use what you've got on hand: slices of tomato, zucchini, sliced mushroom, bell pepper, pulled meats, cured meats, deli bits of goodness, anchovies, capers, its all up to you. You can overload it, just like you can just sprinkle it on top. If you have some dry cheese, like parmigiano or a bit of dried up cheddar, grate that finely on top, maybe a pinch of oregano and drizzle of olive oil.

Once that you have the beast assembled, toast in the oven till cooked to your liking. The fun thing about pizza is that its pretty easy to scale it to your needs or to your tastes. If you just need to whip yourself up some quick lunch for work or school, then a quick spoonful of pasta sauce on a pita bread, a handful of shredded cheese on top, with maybe some fresh herbs, or bits of salad, or some leftover Chinese, or some pulled meats, or some deli slice... by the time you're out of the shower your lunch is cooled down enough to quickly pack it and you're out of the door.

And all that you really need is a toaster oven and a few staples.

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