Summer ingredients make perfect LTO menu offerings
Summer brings the sun, fun and relaxation of life to my small town. It also harkens the advent of barbequing, home cooking and my customers vacationing away from town. When I first opened, this meant fewer sales, less cash flow and less profitability … until I did something about it. Instead of fighting the heat, I embraced all the foods that summer had to offer.
If you can make friends with your local farmers, you might be able to turn the dog days of summer into a sales spike of epic proportions by offering your customers local and fresh pizza toppings. Over the 15 years I have been in business, I have used the following local fare in my pizzeria:
• Rhubarb. This springtime beauty can be a surprising treat on a pizza. Any time you cook the ribs, they turn mushy and viscous, but don’t get discouraged! I go with the flow and reduce rhubarb with copious amounts of maple syrup or sugar to get a sweet-tart finishing drizzle on some melting burrata or with its best friend, the strawberry.
• Strawberries. Biting into a locally picked strawberry can renew anyone’s faith in how beautiful life is! My favorite activity is freaking folks out by making a pizza with stinky Gruyere or white cheddar. After the oven, top with julienne of country ham, speck or prosciutto below sliced strawberries and toasted almonds! Also toss sliced strawberries with a balsamic glaze and coarse black pepper for a beautiful topping.
• Asparagus. Oh, let me count the ways! My ultimate favorite treatment for asparagus is either making a pinwheel on a pizza for dramatic effect or mixing ricotta, whole grain Dijon mustard, crushed pistachio and Parmigiano-Reggiano into a wonderful pudding that is stuffed into a fougasse (a calzone variant with more slits).
• Blackberries. I used these to win the trophy at the 2013 European Union Championships in Belgium. Depending on the season, the choice is simple for me as I sell a lot of what I call “Berry Me in Bacon” Turkish-style pizzas called pide (Pee-DAY). The simplicity belies a perfect match: aged mozzarella and provolone mix, guanciale (or smoked pork jowl), blackberry and maple syrup. Boom!
• Sweet red peppers. Farmers are growing all sorts of peppers; the pimento, Italian sweet and Toro are some of my favorites. I just run them through my ovens at 500 F to roast them almost black, and then I stick them in a lexan to steam the skins off. After peeling, deseeding and slicing them, the peppers are perfect with goat cheese, fontina, Parmesan, basil, garlic, white beans and zucchini. If you add a little balsamic, just toss this sweetness on any pie after the oven for a real shocker.
• Romaine lettuce. The beginning of summer brings large boulders of romaine to my door. After stripping this hardy lettuce of its outer leaves, the heart is all mine! The crunch of the inner core leaves is perfect for braising in butter or a combination of oil, anchovy, fresh garlic and lemon juice.
• Cherry bomb peppers. These aren’t for blowing toilets up at school anymore. Cherries are medium-hot peppers perfect for cutting the top off of and stuffing with polenta and baking for a killer look on pizza and a delicate balance of savory-spice flavor. They also make great pickles.
• Garlic. Getting whole garlic cloves seems like a pointless task in any pizzeria, but because I get “dumped on” with massive garlic hauls from local farmers, I’ve devised a simple plan: I cut the top off the garlic clove ensuring to just cut into each clove. Then I place them face-up in a large pan and drizzle extra virgin olive oil on each one and pass through my conveyor or deck oven at 475 F for an initial bake of seven minutes, then a rest of 15 minutes, then back in for another 10 minutes until the cloves are tender. When cooled, just squeeze the whole bulb and the cloves just pop out. Grind up with potato for a fabulous pudding then add cream for an unforgettable sauce for pizza.
• Grapes. Nothing beats a local, seedless grape. I love to make a flatbread with grapes that is so popular in Tuscany. I just make a high-hydrated dough and press the individual grapes by the handful into the dough, let proof, press the grapes in again and bake at 550 or 600 F. The grapes pop and leave a beautiful taste and color with the focaccia. Sometimes I will put peanuts in the dough for a PB and J flavor profile.
• Peaches and apricots. Late May and June bring on these sweeties. I like talking up my orchard guy to give me deep discounts on the hard, second-hand ones he has hidden and then let them sit for a week or two until they ripen. Peaches get a little mushy in a pizza oven so I usually toss them on after the fact. One of my favorites is a pizza with aged mozzarella and lardo then topped with ricotta, peaches and jalapeño!
Coca De Recapte
This is an old, Spanish savory pizza that usually doesn’t include cheese. It means a “collection,” which can include anything — especially during the summer. It is one of my favorite summer pizzas because it costs next to nothing. I make it when I can literally get cases of local summer produce for pennies on the dollar. The addition of white anchovies, salsa verde, olives, mushrooms or fresh herbs makes this a real crowd favorite.
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.