This summer, I’ve reviewed, dissed, and re-purposed Asian-inspired prepared food products from frozen dumplings and Chinese barbecued pork to rice paper rolls. Last weekend, I decided to take a non-Asian Trader Joe’s product to make a Vietnamese-style dish. Trader Joe’s excels at western flavors and products, and I’ve been using the Trader Joe’s pizza dough for several years whenever I want a quick pie. It’s not the best pizza dough you can make but it’s darn good for a convenience food. And for less than $1, you get a pound of great dough. Plus, you can keep it refrigerated for a couple days.
I typically cook pizza in a hot oven, stretching it into super thin crust pizzas and baking it on a stone preheated for 30 minutes to 450F. But it was warm last weekend and I didn’t want to heat up the house. Rory wanted pizza and he suggested that we try grilling it as prescribed in the August issue of Sunset magazine. I checked out the article and noticed that Sunset’s grilled pizza technique came from Jamie Purviance, a seasoned cookbook writer and author of the excellent Weber’s Way to Grill. We followed Jamie’s technique, and working together, in less than 45 minutes, we make 4 amazing grilled pizzas, topped with goodies from our garden and leftovers in the fridge. That’s as fast as going to a pizza joint or calling out for a pizza.
What did I do to create a Vietnamese-style pizza? I took the same culinary license as Trader Joe’s has with items such as tolerable Vietnamese-style chicken wraps and used my Vietnamese jerky (I have a lot on hand) like Italian salumi. As you can see in the photo above the strips of Vietnamese beef jerky cut using scissors topped a rich foundation of avocado, then some shaved asagio cheese for salty notes and once the pizza was done, I sprinkled torn Vietnamese balm (kinh gioi) and purple perilla (tia to) on top to underscore the lemongrass in the jerky. I nearly drizzled on some homemade Sriracha sauce but refrained at the last moment. My first Vietnamese pizza was tasty but a tad dry. Next time, I’ll use more avocado and use Italian fontina as it melts wonderfully.
You can top grilled pizza just like regular pizza with practically anything. You don’t need much for the toppings, about 2 tablespoons of each item per pizza. Given that, aside from the Vietnamese beef jerky pizza, our other three grilled pizzas featured a Wolfgang Puck-ish leftover stir-fried chicken with black bean sauce finished garnished with white garlic chive flowers; New Mexico-meets-England in grilled Hatch chiles with Cotswold cheese finished with purple chive flowers; and the Marco Polo of sliced tomato, fresh mozzarella, Chinese eggplant, and Italian basil. My point is this: go crazy.
Tips and tricks I learned from Jamie’s grilled pizza technique:
- The idea is simply this: Grill the pizza dough first so that you have foundations for the toppings. Once the dough is grilled it can sit for up to 2 hours until you’re ready to top and re-grill them to finish the pizzas. (Guests, come on over!)
- Use oiled hands to stretch and pat the dough out onto oiled parchment paper (use about 1 teaspoon of oil on the paper). The paper is your malleable pizza peel. An occasional small hole or tear in the dough is forgivable. There’s no need to make perfect rounds. Mine were oblong. Holding your hands as fists, use your knuckles and the top side of your hand to work the dough.
- Aim to make the pizza about the size of a large human head. You have to hold it on your hand and invert it onto the hot grill and anything bigger will feel unwieldy.
- When inverting the dough onto the grill, hold your hand steady and flat and aim with your eyes then your hands. I grilled two dough rounds at a time.
- Once the pizza dough is on the grill, peel off the paper but keep it nearby for replacing the pizza dough.
- Grill the dough, covered, for 1 to 3 minutes, moving the dough around with 1 or 2 metal spatulas (a large fish spatula works fabulously well) after the dough has set and can be released from the grill. Move it around so it doesn’t burn. Expect the pizza to quickly puff and bubble up a la Nancy Silverton’s pizza dough at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles. I’m serious. The extreme proximity of the heat on a grill allows you to get big lift in the dough.
- Once the dough has puffed up and there are char marks underneath, you can briefly flip it over and sear the other (pale) side, if it looks underdone. Jamie just has you cook 1 side and that’s fine too.
- Remove the pizza dough from the grill and set on a baking sheet to cool. Below you see raw and grilled dough:
- Top the grilled side of the dough when making the pizza so you’ll be putting the ungrilled side of the dough down on the grill grates.
- Grill the pizza over medium-hot heat, for 4 to 6 minutes, moving it around the grill to avoid burning up the dough before the goodies are melted.
- Slice the toppings thinly as they won’t be cooking for long.
- Add fresh coarsely chopped herbs after taking the pizza off the heat. This allows the oils to release and remain fragrant right before you eat. I learned this trick from watching a pizza maker at Zuni Café in San Francisco.
Tips for working with Trader Joe’s pizza dough
Regardless of whether you’re baking or grilling Trader Joe’s pizza dough, I’ve learned the following about working with the dough:
- Check the date on the dough before buying it. If there are different dates, select the one that’s freshest.
- Take the dough out of the refrigerator a good 20 minutes before you plan to make pizza.
- Remove it from the bag, put it on a well-floured board (use bleached or unbleached all-purpose flour), and cut it into the number of pieces required. Grilled pizza should be made small so I cut the 1-pound hunk of dough into 4 pieces.
- Gently shape the dough into balls and coat each one with flour. Set aside on your work surface and loosely cover with plastic wrap or a dry dishtowel to prevent drying.
- Trader Joe’s pizza dough is NOT salty and a little dry so before topping it, lightly brush on some oil (olive, peanut, etc.) and sprinkle kosher salt onto the dough.
- I've not tried out the pizza dough recipe in Sunset but one of my current favorites is a dough recipe from Saveur.The A16 Food + Wine cookbook also has a magnificent pizza dough recipe. Also check out Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking for fabulous pizza dough.
- For a great pizza topping, try making melted onions, a recipe by Saveur magazine's Test Kitchen Director Hunter Lewis. I've used the same slow cooking technique with a combination of yellow onions and fennel with fennel seeds and touch of tomato. You can eat the stuff as it's like marmalade! It freezes well too.
Have fun and let me know what you concoct with TJ’s pizza dough!