Rustic Eating

Assemble your ingredients while the coals are heating. Here, clockwise from left, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, anchovies, mushrooms, green peppers, and cheese. Don’t be afraid to try new toppings, but be sure to make pizzas with only a few. Rather than one pizza with lots of toppings, try making several pizzas with only a couple. Your crust will thank you, and so will your taste buds.

Life brightens up as the weather gets warmer for lots of reasons, of course, but for one special and important reason: Now we can make pizza on the grill.

The first time we tried this, years ago, we were filled with trepidation. How could we put dough right on the grill? Wouldn’t it droop through the grate? Stick? Burn? Make a huge and wasteful mess?

But we persisted. We persisted because we love making—and eating—pizza, and ordinary home ovens don’t get hot enough to produce a truly high-quality pizza. Grills do.

Our courage was rewarded, and so yours will be. Pizza on the grill turns out to be surprisingly doable—even easy—and the results are delectable.

All you need is a grill and a little time. A charcoal grill works better because it gets hotter, but a gas grill will do in a pinch; in either case, a lid is essential.

You begin, of course, with the dough. I like a simple dough that gives a thin, crispy crust; the store-bought kinds tend to produce a thicker, more bread-like result.

It’s not hard. For two people, combine half a cup of warm water, half a teaspoon of dry yeast, a small pinch of sugar, a slightly larger pinch of salt, and a cup of unbleached all-purpose or bread flour. Stir it all together for a minute or two. The dough will be soft and sticky.

Now sprinkle more flour, maybe another quarter of a cup’s worth, on a flat surface and plop your sticky blob of dough onto it. After dusting your hands with a bit more flour, dig in and knead.

Fed up with politics? Vexed with your boss? Impatient with the state of the world? Kneading is the best! Shove down on the dough with the palm of your dominant hand, using the weight of your arm, shoulder, upper body and emotions; gather the dough back with your other hand, and then shove down again. Repeat over and over, rotating the ball of dough, until all the flour has been incorporated into the ball. It’s okay to mutter imprecations at the object of your wrath as you go.

At least, that is how I knead. My husband is a gentler sort, and he learned to knead at the apron strings of his even gentler grandmother. So he treats the dough tenderly, lovingly, cherishing the yeasty aroma that perfumes his meditative approach.

We both make good dough. Do it your way, but be sure to do it for a solid five minutes or more.

Then place your ball of dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover the bowl with a moistened kitchen towel, and place it in a calm warm place to rise.

After a couple of hours, the dough will have doubled. Punch it down—fiercely if you’re like me, gently if you’re like my husband—give it a couple of extra kneads, then set it aside to rest while you light the grill and assemble your other ingredients.

If you’re using a charcoal kettle-style grill, you’ll want about 40 or 50 briquettes, enough to fill one of those handy lighting chimneys that let you avoid the smell of lighter fluid. If you’re using a gas grill, you’ll want to preheat it as high as possible.

In both cases, though, think ahead. The pizza process demands a two-temperature grill: one hot side, one cooler side. So, with a gas grill, light only one side. With a charcoal grill, when you decant the glowing coals from the chimney, you will dump them onto only one side of the kettle, using a poker to round up any strays.

Think ahead as you prepare your other ingredients, too. This is not the time to go for the “everything” pizza of commercial establishments; try that here, and you’ll end up with messy glop.

But there’s no reason to deprive yourself of your favorite toppings. You’ll just want to parcel them out. Maybe one of your pizzas will focus on, say, mushrooms and sausage; another, perhaps bell peppers and ham. Myself, I’m disappointed if my pizza doesn’t include some anchovy in there somewhere, but who am I to impose my taste on you? Choose what you like, but don’t try to put it all on one pizza.

Since you’re going to the trouble of making your own pizza, though, you might as well make it good.

Instead of bottled red sauce, think about using some of those slow-roasted tomatoes from last summer that are still lurking in a bag in the bottom of your freezer. Or some of that pesto that you made when the basil was ripe and plentiful. Either one of them will elevate your pizza far above the ordinary.

Or eschew a saucy base altogether and make a pissaladière: just pizza dough, topped with a thick layer of well-caramelized onions flecked with thyme, then layered with anchovies. No cheese on this one.

If mushrooms are your thing, slice and sauté them ahead of time until they’re nice and crusty brown. That, too, will enhance the flavor of your pizza, as well as eliminating the messy juice that otherwise oozes from an uncooked mushroom during the baking process.

Onions? Pick a size, when you slice them, which will give you the result you want. If you like a crunchy piece with some bite, slice them bigger. If you like them soft and mild, slice them smaller. Or caramelize them ahead of time for sweet depth of flavor.

Sausage? Get the best! Meaning either your own home-made version, or a store-bought version that can be counted on not to leach fat all over your pizza. A local brand of Italian sausage available in area grocery stores is my favorite; each time I peel it out of its casing and sauté it up in clumps for future pizza use, I’m awed at how lean its manufacturer has managed to make it without sacrificing flavor.

Oh, and how about the cheese? You may be tempted to buy pre-shredded cheese. Look at the label and think again: there’s nothing much tempting about a package that includes, say, “pasteurized part-skim milk, cheese culture, salt and enzymes, potato starch, corn starch, calcium sulfate, and natamycin.” You’re in the market for cheese, not a chemistry lab. Get a nice piece of quality cheese—I’m particularly partial to Parmesan on pizzas—and grate it yourself.

And those anchovies that you either love or hate? If you love them, pat them on a paper towel before using them, to get rid of excess olive oil.

Again, though, exercise self-restraint. Less is more. Particularly on the grill, too much stuff makes for a soggy mess. Try for, say, one base, one cheese and only two or three other items per pizza. You’ll be rewarded with great flavor and great texture—a crispy crust that doesn’t buckle under the weight of its load, but rather conveys its well-chosen ensemble of delights straight to your eager mouth.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Right now the coals are warming and we’re assembling our various ingredients in little bowls, ready to daub on when the moment is right.

The moment is right! Pour the grey and glowing coals out into one half of the kettle, place the grill over the coals to get good and hot, and go tackle your dough.

If you used the amount of flour and water suggested above, you’ll have enough dough for two pizzas. (This, by the way, is how you parcel out your favorite toppings. Some go on one, some go on the other. If you doubled the recipe, you double the varieties.)

Cut the dough into pieces with a sharp knife: two pieces using the quantities listed here, four pieces if you doubled it, etc. Yes, the resulting pizzas won’t be huge. But you can’t make a huge pizza on the average home-sized grill. It will have to fit on just half the available surface—first the hot half, then the cooler half.

This forces a delightful leisureliness onto the pizza meal. Say you have three friends over. Your first pizza, maybe using olives and artichoke hearts, cooks while you sit and sip and chat. The four of you share it, taking the ravenous edge off your hunger, and then turn to the second. You decide this time to go with fresh tomatoes and ham. It cooks while you sit and sip and chat some more. Then on to the third one, opting for green bell peppers, onions, and garlic. More sitting and sipping and chatting, and then the fourth—a glorious apotheosis of anchovies and onions—emerges as the climax of a splendid evening. Each pizza is enjoyed piping hot, on its own terms. No one is in a rush. The summer shadows grow long; conversations soften, laughter gentles. It’s a good evening.

Oops, I’m ahead of myself again. And I’ve been putting off the part that causes the most pre-pizza anxiety: can this business of putting raw dough on a piece of hot metal really work?

Yes, it can.

Roll out your bit of dough until it’s quite thin, less than a quarter of an inch thick. Drape it onto a cookie sheet which has been dusted with cornmeal to keep the dough from sticking. Then take it outside and slide the dough directly onto the hot grill, right over the coals.

Because everything is so hot, there is no opportunity for the dough to droop down. Instead, almost immediately, the bottom crisps up nicely. When you see bubbles start to form, after just a minute or two, flip the dough right over to the cooler side of the grill. Flipping is important; the side that started out facing up now needs to face down. And this time you need to avoid the coals; get the dough right over to the cooler edge.

Now you’re grateful that you have your little bowls of ingredients all ready at hand. Gather the guests for a circular dance around the grill: first one with pesto, then the next with bits of leftover chicken, then the next with mushrooms, and so on. As soon as grated cheese has been dusted lightly over the concoction—remember, less is more—clap the lid over the grill, with its vent wide open to maximize heat, and look at your watch.

You have about 8 to 10 minutes to relax. Less time if the coals are hotter, more as they cool. Resist the temptation to peek, which causes heat to leak away and deprives you of that fine fiery blast.

And then, voila. The best pizza you’ll ever enjoy, until the next one.

MM

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