The Big Chill
Winter is my busiest season to sell pizza. Unfortunately, this is also the time when produce prices soar to new heights and the quality of these veggies hits a new low. I not only struggle keeping my parking lot cleared and salted, but also battle with my purveyors over flavorless, waxy tomatoes, onions with two layers of rot and wrinkled green peppers. This is why I started offering my customers some great winter vegetable pizzas that are always available from the fall through the winter.
It is no secret that roots and nuts are the “go-to” winter vegetables of any seasonal kitchen. But in this have-it-your-way generation, a lot of pizzerias acquiesce to the public’s demands of summer vegetables in the winter and, like the large corporations, don’t vary their menus. What these pizza people are missing is an easy pivot; some heavy vegetables for a very light price. Here are five great winter vegetables with flavor profiles and combinations to make any pizza sing:
- Pumpkin and all types of squash. These are very inexpensive at 3 cents to 6 cents an ounce and enhance a pizza with sweetness, depth and color. The Italians’ use of sage, gorgonzola, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, butter, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, ham, Parmigiano, Pecorino and even braised meats is well documented. I love cooking cubes of pumpkin and squash in my conveyor oven with a pizza pan bath of water, honey, vanilla extract, cinnamon and nutmeg. I also slice them thin and pass through just enough to cook the slices. You can also grind the cooked flesh up into a pudding with some of the water to pipe on a pie with braised beef!
- Beetroot. Beets can be had between 5 cents and 6 cents an ounce, but during the beet season you’ll be able to get an even better deal from farmers. In my fast-paced kitchen I wash, trim the ends, quarter and oil them in a large 20-inch pan and send through my oven for 15 minutes until they are knife tender. After cooling, the skins come off easily with just a pinch. I then slice them thinly for a sweet pizza topping. Beets accompanied with any salty cheeses like Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Parmigiano and goat cheeses really rock. Lemon, mustard, orange zest, walnuts and balsamic vinegar are also a very good call. Chives, dill, basil, mint, tarragon and even endive or radicchio makes a salty cheese and beet pizzas outstanding!
- Potatoes. This is the most underused (and cheap) pizza topping today, but I predict not for long. If you have a slicer, you can easily slice through massive amounts of these beauties for very cool pies. My faves are the Peruvian purples, sweet potatoes and Yukon Gold because of the color, texture and ease in cooking. Sliced potatoes will not stick together when cooking if you first immerse them in salted water and then squeeze them out. Potatoes pair well with rosemary, thyme, chives, onions and garlic. Cream sauces, Gruyére, fontina, Manchego, pecorino, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola, cheddar, jack and Gouda are great cheeses to enhance the flavor of a potato pizza. Bacon, chicken, chorizo and Italian sausage and salami top my list of great potato pizzas. Potatoes come in at 3 cents to 5 cents an ounce.
- Carrots, Turnips and Parsnips. All of these roots hover around 5 cents to 8 cents cents an ounce but are rarely seen on pizza in the States. I love all three because of the ease of prep –– just wash and scrub, oil and run through your pizza oven. Cooked carrots and parsnips cut lengthwise add a spectacular spoke-wheel effect on a pizza. Turnips are perfect with Parmigiano and Asiago and are a match made in heaven with bacon, potatoes, garlic and pork. I love to pre-roast turnip matchsticks and then wrap them with Parmigiano and Prosciutto di Parma. Carrots are perfect with bacon, maple syrup, walnuts, pistachios, tarragon, cinnamon, raisons, cilantro and even chili peppers. Parsnips are the unsung hero of roots: pairing them with curry, ginger, orange and garlic makes a cool Asian pizza with provolone and teriyaki or roasted with nutmeg and served with apples, fatty meats and lots of cream!
- Nuts. I once shied away from having any nuts in my pizzeria (besides myself) for fear of getting sued by a nut-allergy victim, but over the years I have slowly entered the nut kingdom big time. Pecans, walnuts, filberts (hazelnuts), pine nuts, cashews and pistachios are now included in my menu-mix because the taste, textural quality and crunch gives my customers a “wow” factor. Walnuts and pecans are perfect with sweet and sour pizzas and can be coated with honey or maple syrup and cayenne for a classic sweet and spicy finish on any pizza or salad. Most nuts will burn, especially in convection ovens, so sprinkle these beauties under the cheese or add them after baking for a glorious pizza!
Winter is a time for reflection. And what better time to break out the TNT and explode your menu mix with affordable winter vegetables that will add finesse to your pizza repertoire?
Sweet Potato Branchie Pizza
1 20-ounce dough ball formed into an oiled square pan
2 large sweet potatoes about 11 to 14 ounces each
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of nutmeg
1 cup of Asiago cheese shreds
1½ mozzarella/ aged provolone mix
6 ounces of chevre or fresh goat cheese
3 ounces of ricotta cheese
½ cup of maple syrup
½ cup of chopped pecans
Pre-heat oven to 400 F. Bake potatoes in the skins for 40 minutes. Testing with a knife, bake until they soften but are still fairly hard in the center. Cool.
Prepare a 14-inch pizza dough and top with a cream or béchamel sauce.
Sprinkle the cinnamon and nutmeg across the sauce.
Sprinkle the Asiago, mozz/prov cheeses and half the chevre across the pie.
Peel and slice the sweet potato as thin as possible maintaining the round shape of each slice. And place across the pie one overlapping the previous, like scales. (This is the finesse part).
Place the pizza into a 475 F pizza oven for 10 to 15 minutes checking in the center of the pizza for doneness.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio. He is an award-winning pizzaiolo, baker, teacher, speaker and author and has been featured in Gastronomica, Food Arts, National Geographic, Alimentum Food Journal, Food Network and Best Food Writing, 2012.