Functional food. It’s a trendy phrase and a hot topic among health-conscious foodies. But what are functional foods? Generally, this term describes foods perceived to provide value in addition to the expected calories from carbs or fats (for energy), or protein, for muscle maintenance. Man does not live by bread alone. And if he knows what’s good for him, he doesn’t attempt to live by processed foods alone, either. That’s because today’s readily available, inexpensive, convenient processed foods tend to supply fats, carbs, perhaps a little protein—and little else.
Processed foods are usually made by eliminating certain components of whole foods to create more shelf-stable, but less-nutritious, versions of the original. Flour is a classic example. Unless it’s whole grain/whole wheat, it probably lacks many of the components that serve “functional” purposes in the diet. Functional foods are typically whole, natural foods.
In essence, functional foods are those that provide multiple nutritional benefits. Take tomatoes. Tomatoes are a fundamental ingredient in most versions of pizza. Certainly tomato-based pizza sauce is the most popular “starter” topping. Tomatoes are an especially good place to start, thanks to the functional nutrient, lycopene. Lycopene is a potent antioxidant pigment found in significant amounts in tomatoes. Lycopene makes tomatoes not just a tasty topping, but a functional food.
Lycopene and related pigment compounds are found in abundance in colorful fruits and vegetables. These compounds have been linked to beneficial effects on human health. Among other things, greater intake is associated with a lower incidence of heart disease and other serious ailments affecting the skin, eyes and liver.
Other functional toppings include organic bell peppers (the brighter the colors, the more likely functional foods are to have beneficial antioxidant pigment compounds), onions, olives, spinach, kale, and arugula. And don’t forget garlic. Chopped garlic contains unique compounds called allicins, which have been associated with protection against cardiovascular disease. And what about anchovies? While they’re an acquired taste for some, they’re a rich source of the essential nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids. Dietary omega-3s help quell inflammation and may play a role in optimal immune system function.
Spring Pizza with Functional (and Delicious) Toppings
- 4 C. all-purpose flour
- 1 Tbsp. ground flaxseed
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- 1 tsp. active dry yeast
- 1 1/4 C. warm water
- 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- 48 sun-dried tomato halves
- 1/3 C. extra virgin live oil
- 1 lb. mozzarella, shredded, or thinly sliced
- 16 pitted black Kalamata olives, cut longwise in half
- 5 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1 C. packed baby arugula
- 1 C. packed baby spinach
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
- Anchovies, to taste
- Mix flour, sugar, and yeast in a bowl using a mixer fitted with bread hook attachments. Working at low speed, gradually add warm water, followed by olive oil and salt. A ball should form. Mix on low for two additional minutes. Mix at medium for two more minutes, followed by two additional minutes at low speed again. Transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean towel or plastic wrap, and allow to rise in a warm place for at least 90 minutes.
- Preheat a pizza stone on the bottom rack of an oven, at 500° F, for 30 minutes or more.
- Punch down dough, knead on flour-dusted counter, and cut dough ball into eight equal pieces. Knead each individually, then flatten into discs. Cover discs and allow to rest and rise for another 20 minutes.
- Add tomatoes to a small bowl and pour boiling water over tomatoes to cover. Allow to rehydrate for about 5-10 minutes, drain, squeeze out excess water using paper towels, and coarsely chop. In a small food processor, puree garlic with olive oil.
- Using a roller, roll out a disc to form a roughly 8-inch round of dough. It should be very thin; about 1/8-inch. Brush with garlic mixture, and top with a small portion of the chopped, rehydrated tomatoes and two olives. Top with one-eighth of the cheese, then drizzle with a little additional garlic puree. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Repeat for next seven rounds. Using a pizza peel, bake rounds on stone for approximately 4 minutes. Cheese should be bubbly. Remove and immediately top with divided portions of arugula and spinach. Serves eight.
Suggested additional (optional) spring toppings to mix or match
- Tender asparagus, ends trimmed
- chopped pecans, toasted
- Roquefort crumbles
- sliced baked golden beets
- toasted walnuts
- feta cheese
- lightly steamed, chopped broccoli