January 30, 2012
Being a gumshoe gastronomer often involves questioning the seemingly immutable facts of food and cooking. Last week I defied the laws of baking by making cake in a crock pot. This week I’d like to challenge the fundamentals of another beloved food—pizza. Specifically, is a pizza’s identity inextricably linked with cheese?
I began thinking about questions of identity in college, when I took a course on Buddhism with Robert Thurman (yes, Uma Thurman’s father). Professor Thurman is an engaging, eccentric, and brilliant man, and every one of his classes had memorable moments. One in particular has stayed with me. Thurman was trying to explain the “universal self,” a Buddhist identity construct in which all beings are one and no person has an individual self. Many of us were struggling with this concept—this was, after all, an American university full of competitive overachievers. Confronted with the wrath of a particularly incensed student, Thurman used a graphic analogy to get his point across; as I remember, he asked the student if his face would still be his face if it didn’t have a nose.
So, now I will pose a similar and equally important philosophical question: Is pizza still pizza without the cheese? You may be thinking no, but I’m hoping my recipe for cheeseless Red Curry Pizza will convince you otherwise.
Pizza is undoubtedly Italian, but other cuisines have similar (cheeseless) dishes. In France, there’s pissaladière, a pizza-like dough covered with caramelized onions, anchovies, olives, and garlic. Lebanon and Syria have manaeesh (or manakeesh), a popular flatbread topped with ground meat, oil, zaatar, and red pepper paste, and then rolled or folded. (Manaeesh does sometimes have cheese. One of the best things I ate in Lebanon was thick, soft manaeesh rolled up with tomato and haloumi cheese: simple and delicious.)
When I lived in Cairo I frequently ordered manaeesh for lunch, for even in Egypt—the gastronomic wasteland of the Middle East—it’s possible to get decent manaeesh. There’s also a surprisingly good pizza place in Cairo, which is, by the way, one of very few restaurants that serves pork. Well, I think they still serve pork. The Egyptian government, in its infinite wisdom, killed all the pigs back in 2009 when swine flu broke out, so I’m not sure if any Cairo establishments still have pork products. But I digress. The point is that pissaladière and manaeesh are both very similar to pizza and not necessarily made with cheese.
The U.S. also has cheeseless pizza, to Paula Deen’s dismay (sorry, I couldn’t resist). When I was a vegan in high school, I frequently ate salad pizza, which is exactly what it sounds like: pizza crust with salad on top. It wasn’t the greatest, but it ended up being a staple in my diet, along with French fries. I guess it’s no surprise that I ended up with a protein deficiency. Anyway, when I saw the bacon and clam pizza, I realized that dairy-free pizza doesn’t have to be either salad pizza or regular pizza with fake cheese. Why not make one with a creamy topping and vegetables? Come to think of it, this vegan pizza is the first recipe that I came across on Oh She Glows, a blog that I’ve since become very fond of.
So that’s the backstory—albeit a convoluted one—to how I came up with Red Curry Pizza, a cheeseless, Thai-inspired pizza that consists of a spicy red curry–coconut sauce, broiled eggplant, roasted red peppers, and scallions and herbs for garnish. I made Wolfgang Puck’s pizza crust recipe, which is what my mother always makes, but I used bread flour instead of all-purpose, and quite a bit more of it (the flour to water ratio in this online version of the recipe seems a bit off to me).
Red Curry Pizza needs a thick crust because the sauce kind of melts into the top of the crust, resulting in a layer of crispy crust on the bottom, a layer of soft bread in the middle, and a layer of slightly gooey dough on top. The sauce is really flavorful and complements the eggplant and red pepper well, and the generous herb garnish adds even more flavor, and a bit of freshness too.
This pizza, or whatever you want to call it, is awesome. Keep in mind that despite its lack of cheese, the dish is high in fat, due to the coconut cream as well as small amounts of oil and peanut butter. Also, my recipe calls for white-flour pizza dough; as much as I like to—and usually do—substitute whole-wheat flour for white, I don’t think that would work here, given the low-gluten content of whole grain flours. However, by all means substitute your favorite whole-wheat pizza dough recipe if you hate the idea of white flour, although maybe look for vital wheat gluten to add to the whole-wheat flour. Finally, if you fundamentally object to the idea of pizza without cheese, go ahead and add some mozzarella. Maybe a little chicken too…
Preheat the broiler in your oven. Cut the eggplant into thin rounds, about 1/8” thick. Brush the rounds lightly with oil and layer them on a baking sheet; don’t overlap. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt and broil until lightly golden and soft, turning once. Roast the whole red pepper under your broiler or over a gas burner until charred on the outside. Steam in a bowl covered with plastic wrap or a paper bag for 15 minutes. Peel the charred skin from the pepper and slice into thin strips.
Place a pizza stone on the middle rack in your oven, and preheat the oven to 500°F. (It’s possible to use a baking sheet instead of a pizza stone, but I haven’t tried this.) When the oven is preheated, wait another 15 minutes for the pizza stone heat up before baking the pizza.
On a floured work surface, pat down a ball of dough using your fingertips. Stretch out the dough a little with the palms of your hands, and then lift if off the surface and stretch it with your fists around the edges (I recommend watching a how-to video before doing this). Alternatively, roll out the dough with a rolling pin. The dough should be about ¼ of an inch thick (thick is better with this recipe). Sprinkle a pizza peel or cutting board with corn flour. Transfer the dough to the pizza peel and brush the edge with olive oil.
Spread a generous amount of sauce over the dough, leaving at least ½” of room along the perimeter for the crust. Arrange the eggplant slices and roasted pepper on top off the sauce. Carefully slide the pizza into the oven and bake until the crust is golden and crisp around the edge, about 10 minutes. Garnish with the cilantro, basil, and scallions. Eat immediately. Repeat with the remaining dough balls.
*Note: As I mentioned in the article above, I use Wolfgang Puck's pizza dough recipe, which is enough for 4 small pizzas. I follow his instructions exactly, but I use bread flour instead of all-purpose, and a significant amount more that what the recipe calls for.
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan and add the ginger and garlic. Stir fry for a few minutes. Add the red curry paste and stir fry for another minute. Stir in the coconut cream and peanut butter. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce is the consistency of béchamel, about 15 minutes. Stir in the lime juice and banana sauce or agave to taste.
*Note: Banana sauce is a Philippine condiment that can be found in Asian grocery stores. It’s kind of like ketchup, but I wouldn’t substitute ketchup here.