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Pizza Can Be Healthy? It Is, If You Make It Mediterranean

Mediterranean-style pizza. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Mediterranean-style pizza. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Pizza is health food? Yes, it is, at least in the Mediterranean, and that doesn’t mean pizza with beans and tofu, either. Make dough with part whole-wheat flour, keep the toppings simple, don’t overload the cheese, and truly you will have something good to eat, simple to make and totally nourishing. Best of all, in my experience, rare is the child who does not love pizza. Even the pickiest eaters will happily munch on a slice of pizza fresh from the oven.

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Incidentally, pizza is also a great way to introduce kids to the pleasure of making their food, especially if you give them a choice of toppings to play around with.

Good pizza starts with good dough

Basic pizza dough, according to Neapolitans who know more about it than anyone else, is nothing but flour, water, salt and leavening from dough made the day before — what we call sourdough, though it shouldn’t be sour at all.

In the absence of sourdough, I make pizza dough with a very small amount of instant yeast and add a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to make it supple.

I make a starter dough a day or so in advance to give it plenty of time to develop flavor. But this recipe works just as well if you make it all at once, just giving it an hour or so to rise. While the dough is rising, you can caramelize a couple of big, fat onions sliced very thin and make a simple tomato sauce.

What else will you need? Olives — black or green or both? Anchovies if you love them (most kids don’t)? Fresh mushrooms to slice and sauté briefly in olive oil? Fresh, ripe tomatoes sliced not too thin? Garlic sliced the same way? Sweet peppers or perhaps a little chili pepper? Thinly sliced sausage or ham? Cooked greens (kale is wonderful on pizza if handled right)? Ricotta or fresh goat’s cheese? Mozzarella (only the finest kind — not that rubbery stuff from the supermarket)? Flaked tuna? And hard cheese — parmigiano is preferable but a well-aged cheddar will do — to grate on top.

The possibilities are endless; just don’t make pizza a catch-all for what’s tucked in the back of the refrigerator. Remember, fresher is better, and simpler is best of all. The most famous pizza in the world is pizza margherita, made with garlic-enhanced tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil, the leaves torn over the top of the hot pizza when it comes from the oven. Red, white and green, the simple colors of the Italian flag.

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Pizza dough. Credit: Nancy Harmon-Jenkins

Pizza Dough

Makes enough for four 8- to 10-inch pizzas.

Ingredients     

2 cups whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon instant yeast

1½ to 2 cups warm water

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons plus ½ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

Directions

1. Combine  in a bowl 1 cup of whole-wheat flour with the yeast, then stir in 1 cup warm water. Don’t worry if it’s pretty sloppy. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a cool place to rise overnight.

2. The next day (or that evening) add the remaining cup of whole-wheat flour. Set aside ¼ cup of all-purpose flour to use on the board and add the remaining 1¾ cups to the dough along with ½ cup warm water, 2 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil and a good big pinch of sea salt. Mix all together, then knead in the bowl.

3. When everything has come together, turn it out on a board lightly floured with the remaining ¼ cup of flour. Knead, gradually incorporating the extra flour, until the dough has lost its stickiness. (If necessary, add a little warm water.)

4. Rinse and dry the bowl and smear the remaining ½ teaspoon of oil around the inside. Turn the ball of dough in the oil to coat on all sides, cover once more with plastic and set aside to rise until doubled — about 1 hour. While the dough is rising, make caramelized onions.

Caramelized Onions

Ingredients

1½ to 2 pounds fresh yellow onions, peeled, halved and sliced

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Combine the sliced onions and olive oil in a deep, heavy sauté pan or skillet. Set over medium-low heat and cook very slowly, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes, until the onions are thoroughly melted and almost dissolved in the oil.

2. Stir in salt and pepper. You may use the onions as-is on the pizza, but if you want to caramelize them, pulling out more of their natural sweetness, raise the heat to medium and continue cooking and stirring another 15 to 20 minutes, watching constantly to be sure they don’t burn. When the onions are done to your liking, remove from the heat and taste, adjusting the seasoning. While the onions are cooking, make tomato sauce.

Tomato Sauce

Use top-quality canned tomatoes with no added seasonings beyond salt.

Ingredients

2 garlic cloves, sliced very thin

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 (28-ounce) can of whole peeled tomatoes

1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Combine garlic and oil in a saucepan and set over low heat. Let cook very gently just until the garlic is softened, but do not let it brown.

2. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and raise the heat to medium low. Add in the minced fresh herbs. Simmer while breaking up the whole tomatoes with the side of a spoon as they cook down and the sauce thickens.

3. When the sauce is very thick (after 20 or 30 minutes of simmering), remove from the heat and purée the contents of the pan in a food processor or blender or using a vegetable mill or handheld blender. You should have  about 2 cups of sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper.

Mediterranean-Style Pizza

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 500 F.

2. Punch down the dough, knead it again briefly, then cut into four or five pieces (if you’re using a kitchen scale, each should weigh about 8 ounces).

3. Roll a piece into a ball then, using a rolling pin, roll it out into a disk. Don’t be concerned about rolling a perfect circle — your disk can be oblong or even totally misshapen. The important thing is that the dough should be roughly the same thickness throughout the disk. If you want to be Neapolitan, you can raise a dough edge around the disk, but it’s OK to have it perfectly flat too.

4. Lightly oil a cookie sheet. Stretch the dough on the sheet and dribble a little oil on top. Spoon on the tomato sauce in a thin layer, not trying to cover the dough entirely with sauce. Spread some caramelized onions over the top. Then add other toppings, perhaps dabs of goat cheese, feta or ricotta, maybe a few little cherry tomatoes sliced, or thinly sliced red and green peppers, or some anchovies or squares of bacon or ham. But don’t try to put all of this on top — just experiment with the different pizzas you have available.

5. When the topping is finished, sprinkle some grated cheese over it and dribble on more oil. (Note: If you use cooked kale, spinach or another green vegetable on top, cover the vegetable well with grated cheese and/or oil to keep it from burning in the hot oven.)

6. Slide the sheet into the oven and bake 10 minutes, by which time the dough should be cooked through and everything on top sizzling merrily. Remove, slice and consume immediately.

Top photo: Cooked pizza. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins



Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

2 COMMENTS
  • Kathleen 2·8·14

    Bless you – pizza IS good food.Whole wheat dough is the best, too! This is so close to how my aunties from Italy made it (although it was squared off into a baking sheet) I’m feeling nostalgic for my childhood…XoX

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