Use current ingredients to expand your menu in new directions
OK, friends, International Pizza Expo has come to an end and what an exciting time it was! It just gets bigger and better each year. While I am busy with my involvement with Expo, you probably also saw me buzzing up and down each isle just like you, frantically looking at products and services. That’s because I am an operator, just like you! I love to see what new products are on the market and find ways to save me time and/or money. But, more importantly, I’m always looking for ways to overwhelm my customers. Although we can certainly do that with great décor, comfortable furniture, and a well-trained staff that uses a POS system that keeps track of what our customers like, it really all boils down to one thing … the food! That’s really what they’re after. While all of those other things are important, I prove my point by mentioning some of the biggest dive’s you’ve ever seen and how they pack ’em in because the food is the best around!
I don’t want to discount the importance of all of the amazing new appetizer ideas and menu “value-added” (meaning fully prepared) items. However it’s my responsibility as a chef of more than 30 years to teach you about Culinary 101. When I went to culinary school I learned that the definition of a chef is someone who can make something out of nothing (meaning nothing special). That’s my focus with you right now. Our customers surely have their favorites, but they are interested in trying something new and intriguing. Why do you think the chains are always introducing something new? Because customers crave new stuff to eat, and if you don’t create it for them, someone else will. Fried cheese sticks have been popular forever, but now we’re seeing more variations of them like the new pretzel-coated cheese and the like. I understand you may not have a creative bone in your body when it comes to food, but that’s why I’m here.
By now, you’ve come to understand that making breadsticks out of your pizza dough is a high profit item made out of the most plentiful ingredient in your refrigerator. That’s the premise behind this whole concept of creating something new out of the ordinary ingredients that are already kicking around. It’s funny to me when I see restaurants with a garden salad on the menu and Feta cheese as a pizza topping –– but they don’t offer a Greek salad.
Sticking with the ingredient pizza dough, what else are you using it for? Garlic knots are such an easy sell. How about calzones? Are they available in your restaurant? You’ve got the dough, and ingredients like Italian cold cuts and cheeses. Why not offer an Italian cold cut calzone by stretching out a 12-ounce dough ball and loading in six ounces of meats and cheese, then folding it over, crimping it and baking it in you pizza oven.
Let’s talk about ricotta cheese. I think it’s one of the most versatile cheeses around. Sure, it’s perfect for lasagna, stuffed shells and even in your calzones, but if you’ve already got it in house then you should be using it for other great menu items like your own cannoli filling by adding confectioner’s sugar and a touch of almond extract to fill into some crisp cannoli shells. How about a nice ricotta pie (either pizza pie or dessert pie)? I even use my super smooth ricotta in my tiramisu instead of mascarpone, which is the traditional choice.
OK, let’s look around your kitchen. What’s that, you’ve got some fresh mozzarella for a Pizza Margherita that’s on your menu but that’s all you use it for? This is when I gently slap you upside your head and say, “let’s get a Mozzarella Caprese on your menu layered with slices of fresh ripe tomatoes and basil leaves drizzled with a little olive oil and freshly ground black pepper and sea salt.” Now there’s a dish to delight everybody.
Fresh mozzarella is amazing incorporated into sandwiches and diced up and tossed into a hot pasta dish in the last few seconds before serving, so it can melt before the customers’ eyes.
I see so many great pizzerias offering some high-quality cold cuts on subs, in calzones, even on a salad, but an Antipasti platter is a beautiful array of sliced meats and cheeses, perhaps with an assortment of olives, roasted vegetables and some bread crisps that makes for a sharable appetizer that you can truly make a beautiful presentation out of.
Zeppoli are fried pieces of dough topped with powdered sugar and can be drizzled with caramel and chocolate sauce. I have shared other great dessert ideas with you from the Pizza Today test kitchen, and they can still be found on Pizza Today.com.
I hope you’re not throwing away any sub rolls when they don’t seem soft enough for your great sandwiches when you can be cutting them into croutons or even soaking them in a sweet and creamy custard and baking a warm and soothing bread pudding as a great dessert. It will surely increase your check average in seconds.
If ingredients that you have are being underutilized and regularly being tossed because they have spoiled, then you can certainly think about removing that ingredient from your menu. Or, you can find other ways and menu items to incorporate that item into to keep it from spoiling, which will also increase your bottom line.
Once you start tapping into some of these ideas of utilizing the ingredients you have to create new and exciting menu choices, it will start to become more natural to see what you have in a new light.
If you haven’t noticed, more than likely, you have some staff that really do have great ideas. I implore you to encourage them to share ideas. Make a contest out of it. You may be surprised!
Rigatoni with Chicken and Ricotta
1 pound rigatoni
½ cup chopped pancetta
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup finely chopped onion
2 boneless, skinless, chicken breast halves, sliced into 1/4-inch strips
1½ cups part-skim ricotta cheese
½ cup chopped fresh basil
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Cook the pasta in 5-6 quarts of boiling, salted water until al dente. Just before the pasta has finished cooking, scoop about 1 cup of water out of the pot. Scoop out the pasta and reserve, but keep the water in which the pasta was cooked warm.
Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, cook the pancetta over medium-high heat, stirring until the fat is rendered and it is slightly crisp. Add the olive oil, onion and chicken to the sauté pan. Cook and stir until the onion is soft and the chicken is cooked through, about 8 minutes. Keep warm, over low heat.
In a large pasta serving bowl or mixing bowl, combine the ricotta, basil, Parmesan, salt and pepper.
Add the pasta to the bowl with the ricotta mixture. Add the onion and chicken mixture. Add a small amount of the reserved pasta water –– just enough to make a loose “sauce.” Toss to combine. Portion. Serve.
Jeffrey Freehof owns The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia. He is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today and a speaker at International Pizza Expo.