Vegan Pizza 101

Sunday nights often find me winding down after the weekend, moving at ‘lazy Sunday’ speed, and feeling more inclined to read on the couch instead of get busy in the kitchen. (There is usually a good chance that I have greeted the day by baking chocolate-orange scones early in the morning, to feed my kitchen fix). For these nights, pizza and a salad are a perfect way to close out the weekend, as well as clean out the produce bin.  Another perk of Sunday night pizza is that there are leftovers, which means that Monday lunch is even easier than Sunday dinner.

I was one of those people who did not think that eating vegan could be compatible with pizza. To me, pizza had always been an excuse to indulge in an unabashed celebration of cheese.  As opposed to South America, where they load unimaginable amounts of vegetables on a ‘veggie pizza’, the mushroom and onions and pineapples atop American pizzas often serve as mere adornments. They do not do much in the way of helping you get the recommended 5 daily servings of fruits and veggies. Shocker, I know.

Anyway, once I learned a little more about the costs of my cheese consumption to animals and came to the conclusion that I could no longer enjoy my cheese in peace, I thought my pizza days were over. I mean, can you really have a pizza without cheese? Can you?

I have experimented with vegan pizzas and discovered that there is a bit of an art to them. If you do soy, you’ll be happy to know that soy (and almond and rice) cheeses have come a long way in the past decade. Some of them actually melt and taste a surprising amount like dairy cheese.  Like dairy cheese, they also have a high fat content, so they’re not exactly health food, and a lot of them rely on palm oil, which has issues of its own. The non-dairy cheese that seems to be taking the vegan world by storm right now is Daiya, which in addition to doing all those things that cheese is supposed to do (melt, shred, not be rubbery), is made without palm oil.  Daiya cheese has yet to make it to my corner of the world (I live in a remote area over 200 miles from the closest city), so I can’t vouch for it, although many vegans swear by it.

In the absence of cheese (dairy or non), the challenge is to recreate what I’ve found to be cheese’s key magical elements: moisture and saltiness.

1. Keep it moist. Dry pizza will have you looking enviously at your dining companion’s traditional pizza, while you crunch away and try to feel virtuous. Trust me, I’ve been there.  There are two ways to keep your vegan pizza moist: through the base layer and/or through the toppings. For bases, I’ve found that a tomato sauce base tends to dry out, perhaps because of the high water content in the tomatoes. So, I usually opt for (or combine it with) something with a bit more heft, say a tapenade (olive paste),  basil pesto, or a mushroom pate.  Another way to keep it moist is to top your pizza with veggies that have a high water or oil content, which means they take longer to dry out in the oven: mushrooms, olives, sundried tomatoes, spinach, caramelized onions are some of the many that will fit the bill.

2. Keep it salty. Someone once told me that a craving for cheese is often a craving for salt, and I think there is truth to that. Choosing a base and/or toppings that have that salty flavor can address your salt fix. Luckily, most of the items that retain moisture (mentioned above) are also salty. Herbs are another way to intensify the flavors, if you don’t want things to taste too salty; just be sure to follow rule #1 (keep it moist), as herbs are dry to begin with.

The pizza we made the other night was on a store-bought cornmeal crust (remember, it’s Lazy Sunday).  My husband made an impromptu tomato sauce by throwing some tomatoes in a blender with garlic, salt, and oregano, and this served as the first base. Remembering that the sauce would probably evaporate if not covered, I rooted around the fridge and came across some leftover walnut-mushroom pate I had made for an event a couple weeks ago. I spread a thick layer of this on top of the tomato sauce and then added whatever toppings we had on hand: kalamata olives, sundried tomatoes, spinach, and onions. Into the oven for about 10 minutes, which was just enough time to throw together a simple salad, set the table, and pour the wine.  Delicious!

And in the “in case you were wondering” department, the combination of pesto and sundried tomatoes evokes sausage.  I found this out by accident while making pizza years ago.