A Cook's Garden

A Cook's Garden: Topping Pizza With Your Own Bounty

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sunday night is pizza night at our house, especially now that there are so many vegetables in the garden. The idea for our homegrown "pizza with everything" goes back to 2005 when we ran across a fellow named Albie Barden. Albie had brought a big copper-clad pizza oven to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, held on the Mall, so that Alice Waters could serve pizza to members of Congress while she campaigned for healthy school lunches and introducing kids to real food.

That oven featured a Le Panyol core made of special firebrick, designed to fire up quickly and hold the heat. Last year I finally ordered a core from Albie through Maine Wood Heat Co. and had our neighbor Mark Kindschi enclose it with a sculptural hood of rusted steel. It is now our hearth-outside-the-home, great for a summer evening when a pizza is called for but no one wants any part of the house to heat up.

My husband makes the dough. For many people, pizza is all about the dough: how thin or thick it's stretched, whether the grain is white or whole, whether it has the mellow smokiness imparted by a wood fire. I've had extraordinary pizza, the Waters version in particular, where the bread carried the day, the topping a simple matter of good olive oil, fresh herbs and a bit of cheese. But now, with the entire garden crying out to be sampled, our pizzas are banquets in themselves, little gardens spread out on a rolled wheat platter, then intensified with quick heat.

Hold the tomato sauce. Now's the time for pizza topped with fresh sliced tomatoes, chopped scallions, little zucchini finely sliced. We toss on small broccoli florets, thin ribbons of Tuscan kale, and eggplant salted, rinsed and dribbled with oil. While the oven heats up I might cook down some sweet onions into a jam, or lightly steam fresh-picked artichokes for their stems and hearts. Though the vegetable combinations seem limitless, traditional cheeses such as mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano remain the most satisfying.

This kind of pizza night is not for everyone. But for the many years before we hooked up with Albie and summoned the nerve to make dough, we enjoyed several easy equivalents. For me, pizza is not a dish but a state of mind, the desire to paint a culinary fantasy on a blank circle of bread. Home ovens might lack the 700-degree heat that our outdoor one attains, but if you bring home a flatbread or a focaccia from a good bakery, load it with goodies and put it under the broiler, you've got a pie that makes up in flavor what it lacks in correctness. The same might be said for my version of a Provencal pissaladiere, which is simply a buttery pie crust onto which the garden has generously emptied its best pick of the day.

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