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Originally published June 23, 2009 at 4:50 PM | Page modified June 23, 2009 at 4:58 PM

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Taking pizza from the mundane to the extraordinary

Pizza dough can be dressed up with a selection of toppings that go far beyond cheese and pepperoni.

For The Associated Press

Pizza is one of those chameleon foods: It can be whatever you want it to be.

But most people — even chefs — never reach beyond the cheese, pepperoni, vegetables and red sauce.

"If I'm going to eat pizza as a meal, it's pepperoni all the way," says Christine Keff, the chef and owner of Seattle's acclaimed Flying Fish restaurant. "Don't be putting anything else on there."

But that didn't stop Keff and other award-winning chefs, bakers and mixologists from offering delicious, unconventional ideas about America's comfort food.

Use the crust as a "platter" and heap it with fried oysters or even salad. Treat it more like a pastry shell and layer it with fresh peaches or berries and cream. Or toss the dough on the grill for a manly pizza Dad can be proud of.

For all of them, store-bought refrigerated dough makes a fast and easy crust that lets you focus on the toppings.

SALAD AND DESSERT

Pastry expert and cookbook author Dorie Greenspan offers a departure from heavy, gooey, meat-lover's pizza.

Salad Pizzas: Brush the dough with olive oil, dust it with slivered garlic, Parmesan cheese and sea salt. Bake it, then top with:

— Arugula, tomato slices, mozzarella cubes, toasted pine nuts and bits of cooked chicken or leftover grilled steak that have been tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Garnish with shaved Parmesan.

— A bed of shredded iceberg lettuce tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, then topped with cooked shrimp, cubed avocado, jalapeno peppers, red onions, tomatoes and red peppers dressed with olive oil, lime juice, salt, pepper, hot sauce and chopped fresh cilantro.

Dessert Pizza: Roll the dough thin and bake until almost done. Sprinkle with brown sugar and butter and bake until bubbling. Top with:

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— Berries tossed with sugar, torn fresh mint, cracked black pepper. Serve with a dollop of honey-drizzled mascarpone, or vanilla ice cream and hot fudge.

HAWAIIAN PIZZA REDUX

You won't catch Canadian bacon and canned pineapple anywhere near Hawaiian chef Peter Merriman's pies. But this founder of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a group that celebrates the use of fresh and local island ingredients, offers suggestions for authentic island combos. Try:

— Macadamia nut pesto (substitute macadamia nuts for pine nuts in your favorite pesto recipe), shrimp, crab, lobster and Parmesan.

— Clams, Portuguese sausage (or chorizo), red sauce and fontina cheese.

BARBECUE

Cheryl and Bill Jamison, authors of "The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and Entertaining," recommend grilling everything from toppings to dough, and letting folks create their dream pie from a lavish buffet.

Keep the dough thick, grill it on one side, then turn it over to receive toppings and finish cooking. Be sure to fully cook all meats in advance, as the pizzas won't be on the grill long enough for the meats to cook there. Try these combinations:

— Shredded, cooked barbecued chicken and cooked beef brisket, grilled corn kernels, poblano chilies, cilantro pesto mixed with mild red chili sauce, and Monterey or pepper Jack cheese.

— Strips of grilled flank steak, grilled onions and bell peppers and grated provolone cheese.

— Grilled sausage and calamari, grilled bell peppers, onions, eggplant, garlic, pesto, spicy red sauce, and grated mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

SEAFOOD

Even though she's a pepperoni die-hard, Keff envisions seafood pizzas that range from snappy and spicy to rich and unctuous. Try:

— Smoked salmon, thyme-spiked bechamel sauce, capers and Grana Padano cheese.

— A salsa made from parsley, vinegar, capers, garlic, onion, anchovies and olive oil; fried oysters and thin slices of preserved lemon.

INDIAN

American-style pizza is hugely popular in India, but it's been gussied up with chicken tikka and other local flavors. Cookbook writer Monica Bhide, author of the recent cookbook "Modern Spice," says pizza's the perfect vehicle for a contemporary approach to Indian flavors. Use regular pizza dough or frozen naan for the crust. Then try:

— Thinly sliced, ripe figs, strips of pancetta, fresh basil, ricotta cheese and crumbled paneer.

— Pastry dough, walnuts, vodka-soaked figs (chopped), prosciutto and Gorgonzola. Bake, sprinkle with shaved white chocolate

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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