My special someone is out of the country for the next eleven days. I can certainly fend for myself nutritionally, but, I'm probably not going to get too culinarily ambitious. I find I either want to cook for lots and lots of folks (hence my two dinner parties over the weekend), or not really mess with it. I mean, who I am gonna impress and treat? Myself? Nah. Plus, I gotta do all the cleanup myself.
So, while I promised myself I won't get take out every night, I'm prolly not gonna make a big mess in the kitchen with fancy fixings. And, probably at least once, when spending an evening huddled away in the basement working on a project, I'll resort to that single-guy staple: the frozen pizza.
Not that I like frozen pizza, of course. But, it does do in a pinch, requires little effort and clean-up, and sorta feels like a treat. But that bland blagh from a box doesn't have to be all bad. Especially if you take it up a notch with some fresh ingredients and clever techniques.
There are four major components on any pizza: the crust, the sauce, the cheese, and the toppings. Unfortunately, in most frozen pizzas, each of these components is usually lacking, resulting in a substandard pie. So, address each element individually, and you're well on your way for a passable, even respectable, meal.
1. Frozen pizza dough is totally different than fresh dough. Since it's flash frozen and has been hanging out in the freezer for whoknowshowlong, frozen dough tends to turn out limp, no matter how hot your oven, since there are so many ice crystals in the dough, sauce, even the cheese and toppings. The pizza essential steams, rather than bakes.
So, in this case, it's best to let it touch as little of a surface as is possible, and that means the oven rack. Forget your pizza stones, your baking sheets, your special pizza pans. Just slide the frozen pie directly onto the rack, positioned in the "second from the bottom" position. Going from the dry cold of your freezer to the dry heat of the oven is your best bet for any hope of a crispy crust.
2. If your pizza comes wrapped in plastic (which they almost always do), try this trick: Before you unwrap it, flip it over onto the box or other flat surface, and take the plastic off just the back. Use a fork or paring knife to punch little holes, or "dock" the dough in the center, where the toppings are. This will allow the steam to escape, and result in a much less-limp crust.
3. Up the flavor of your outer crust just before finishing cooking. When there's about two minutes left, brush the outer ring of crust with garlic butter, garlic oil, or a bit of olive oil and a sprinkle of black pepper, and parmesean cheese. Allow it to brown in the oven, which should also help the crispiness factor. Lastly, rub a clove of raw garlic over the browned crust, garlic bread style, for a big flavor boost.
4. Unfortunately, this is the toughest one, since you simply can't get at that lake of frozen sauce stuck between the crust and the cheese. So, the trick is: add sauce-like things to the pizza when done. A drizzle of high quality extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of fresh herbs like basil and oregano, some dried chile flakes, or fresh tomatoes all work wonders. Yeah, sure, they're technically toppings, but they bring an extra punch of sauce-y flavor, whether red or white.
5. This is the most obvious one: add more cheese. Or rather, add better cheese. Throwing in some fresh mozzarella (beware the water content), or at least a higher quality Italian cheese blend (what you'd use on a homemade pizza) will getcha that ooey, gooeyness that we know from, you know, good pizzas. These are never gonna be artisinal pies that let the simplicity shine, so you might as well enjoy yourself and go cheese crazy.
6. In addition, try adding more complex cheeses to the relatively overly sweet taste of most frozen pizza. You may be tempted to salt a frozen pizza. DON'T. The sodium content on these guys are already out of the roof. If your pizza is bland, it's not cause it isn't salty. It's because it's very, uh, "one-note"...namely, packaged, low-quality pizza. So add some complexity with different cheeses. A grating of good parmigiano or romano will bring that saltiness you're looking for, but also a bit of nuttiness and even some sour notes that will cut through that overly sweetened, corn-syrupy sauce. Or, try some soft feta or farmer's cheese for a contrast with the melty.
7. More is more. Here's where you can really improve these frostbitten beasts. Basically, any fresh ingredients you can add here will be an improvement over the frozen little nuggets that came with it. Go classic, or use your imagination. Adding traditional flavors like tomato, fresh herbs, higher quality meats and salumi will always be tasty. Fresh or lightly sauteed/grilled veggies are a must, and frozen veggies like peas and corn work quite well.
Try raiding your fridge: look for olives or capers, and use up those leftovers. Rostiserrie chicken or leftover lunch meat will bring some protein, and some chopped onion always adds a nice crunch. If you can't stand the strength of raw onion, try rinsing it in a sieve or colander under cold water for about twenty seconds. It'll take away the sting, and leave you with a good balance of flavor and texture.
One of my favorite tricks is to squirt a basic red and white pizza with some homemade or jarred pesto. It's a great way to use up pesto before it oxidizes, and brings plenty of flavor to the party.
8. Go nuts. Or, well, add some. Toss on some toasted pinenuts, walnuts, slivered almonds, etc, for a big protein boost, plenty of roasty flavor, and a bit of texture.
9. Get jet set! Sure, pizza is traditionally understood as having Italian-like flavors, but tomatoes and cheese are everybodys friends. Add some goat cheese, thyme, and figs for a French flair, or plenty of olives, feta, oregano, and a squirt of lemon for a taste of Greece. I often add fresh cilantro, black beans, corn, Mexican-style hot sauce and a bit of queso fresco for a Latin punch. It works. Really!
10. Add a salad. Fresh greens atop a pizza is a tasy thing, indeed, and a surefire way to make frozen pizza a complete meal. Toss some tender greens like argula, spring or mesclun mix in fresh lemon juice (or light vinegar), olive oil, course salt, and lots of black pepper. Then, just plant it atop your slices, and enjoy!
Do you have any favorite tricks for amping up frozen pizza? Post 'em in the comments below.
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