Since I’m living right in the middle of the country, and right off i80, I become a rest stop for weary, traveling vegans. This weekend, some friends on their way from Pennsylvania to Portland stopped by, bearing gifts from a farmer’s market all the way in Madison, Wisconsin. I had just enough notice to conjure up a couple of pizzas, using some of the fresh produce they gifted me. The grill had run out of gas, so it was an indoor affair, but no one complained.
When it comes to pizza, I’ll make the occasional soy cheese pie, but what I’m really down with, what puts me in that state of eye-rolling bliss that only pizza can, is if you make mine cheeseless.
Now, “cheeseless” does have this dull sounding quality to it, since instead of focusing on what it has, we’re describing what it doesn’t. But even without cheese, I still like a richness to my pie. Sure, I enjoy a simple slice doused in a good tomato sauce and topped with veggies, but the more decadent Brooklyn girl and pizza-lover in me wants to have some fun, especially when I’ve got company. And so I make the base of the pizza thick and rich. It’s sort of reverse of what a traditional NYC pie would be, which is a light sauce topped with rich cheese.
There are so many different bases you can use. A creamy pesto, or a cashew-based alfredo, but here I went with romesco. Romesco is a Spanish sauce, made of roasted red peppers and toasted almonds, with flavors that are at once deep and roasty but still fresh and light.
My visitors brought along some beautiful yellow squash that I knew exactly how to use since I’d been ogling a pizza on the cover of Vegetarian Times in June, which had pretty ribbons of zucchini that looked as light and graceful as petals. I took that idea and used the yellow squash, and while mine didn’t come out quite as flowy, I love the thin veil of vegetableness that you bite through to get to the lush spread underneath. I also added caramelized onions, for another burst of sweet richness.
But there are a million possibilities with this sauce. Something as simple as fresh basil would even make a great topping, but you can pile on heartier items, like roasted mushrooms, tempeh bacon, toasted pine nuts, breaded eggplant…the world is your pizza.
I used a store-bought whole grain crust from Whole Foods, but feel free to use your favorite double pizza crust recipe. Maybe the Pizza Dough from Vegan with a Vengeance if you’ve got that book.
The recipe looks really long, but I’m telling you how to caramelize onions and roast red peppers, so if you’ve got those two things down already, just skip over those parts.
2 balls of pizza dough, for 2 large pizzas
Olive oil for brushing
For the caramelized onions:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large yellow onions
big pinch salt
For the sauce:
1 1/2 cups slivered almonds
4 red bell roasted peppers (you can also drained, jarred roasted red peppers)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion
5 cloves garlic, minced
Fresh black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/2 teasoon salt
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon agave nectar
For the squash:
1 large yellow squash, sliced into paper thin ribbons (with a mandoline or knife)
To make the caramelized onions:
The basic idea here is that you sweat the onions, which means you’ll be gently cooking them covered over low heat, and a lot of the cooking will be done from the steam as the water is released. You’re coaxing the sweetness out of them and locking it in. It looks like a lot of onion, and it is, but everything will cook down to manageable proportions, I promise. If you’ve never tasted caramelized onions, you might be surprised that an onion is even capable of this deep, sweet complexity, and with only two ingredients.
Preheat a heavy bottomed, preferably cast iron, skillet over low heat. Add the oil and the onions and toss the onions to coat. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, leaving a little gap for steam to escape. Stir occasionally, every 5 minutes or so. Onions should turn a nice mellow amber, but not burn, although a couple of darker spots are fine.
Remove the cover and turn the heat up just a bit, to a medium setting. Stir often for 10 more minutes. Onions should become a darker amber, and some of the moisture should evaporate. Transfer to a bowl until ready to use.
To make the romesco:
If your red peppers aren’t already roasted, then do it now. Just place them on a rimmed baking sheet, into a 425 F oven, and turn occasionally. They’re ready when they’re blackened and collapsed, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove them from oven and immediately place in a paper bag. This will steam the skin off as they cool. Place in the fridge and once cool, remove from bag, peel off skin and remove seeds.
Now toast the almonds. Preheat a large, heavy bottomed pan over medium low heat. Spread the almonds out in a single layer and toast frequently until fragrant and honey brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer almonds to a food processor. Now we’ll prepare the rest of the sauce.
In the same pan over medium high heat, saute onions in olive oil for 5 to 7 minutes with a pinch of salt, until lightly browned. Add garlic, several dashes fresh black pepper, dried marjoram and salt, and saute for 30 seconds more, then turn off the heat.
Now pulse the almonds in the food processor until they’re a finely ground powder. Add the roasted red peppers, the onion mixture and the red wine vinegar and agave nectar. Puree until fairly smooth. Taste for salt, and set aside until ready to use.
To assemble pizza:
Preheat oven to 500 F.
This post is getting really long, so it won’t be a treatise on how to perfectly roll out a pizza crust. But I’ll just say, use a lightly floured, cold surface and I’m just fine with using a rolling pin.
Roll dough out onto a large, lightly greased pizza pan. Spread a cup or so of romesco sauce onto the pizza. Place squash ribbons artfully over the sauce and drizzle with a little olive oil. Also, brush the crust with olive oil.
Place pizza on the bottom of the oven (yes, right on the bottom, no rack required) preferably on a pizza stone, but it’s ok if you don’t have one. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until crust is golden. Remove from oven, top with splotches of caramelized onion, sprinkle on some fresh black pepper if you like, slice and serve. Then prepare your next pizza the same way!