A few weeks ago, N. opened the fridge, snooped through the shelves, looked at me. “What’s for pizza? Wait. I mean, what’s for dinner?” Sometimes you don’t have to ask them what they’re craving.
Clearly, the following week I made pizza. We each have a favorite variety – though lately my favorite is becoming N’s favorite as well – and we’ve lent our names to them; whenever I write “The Chelsea” on the weekly meal plan, N. gets quite excited. This got me thinking about what toppings would constitute other members of my family. “The Dad” would certainly have red pepper flakes in some quantity, and my mom informed me on Sunday that hers would have plenty of vegetables.
But I decided to go first with my sister, and that meant lamb. I’m not sure whether it outweighs her affection for seafood, but lamb is certainly her red meat of choice. She stalks the meat counter to find it on sale; she buys the toughest cuts (often the cheapest) and grinds them up herself to make lamb burgers; she manufactures ways to integrate it into even traditionally vegetarian dishes. R’s pizza, then, would feature lamb sausage.
Once lamb sausage was on the menu, and some crumblings of feta had joined it in my imagination, I realized there was no way of avoiding a very Mediterranean flavor profile. Neither R. nor I are particularly interested in tomato-based sauces for pizza – “The Chelsea” has only a brush of garlic infused olive oil over its surface – so there would need to be an alternative. I gravitated toward pesto, and despite R’s declaration that she is “devoted to basil,” she’s also a rather non-traditional person in an interesting and glorious way. Given that, a pesto on her pizza couldn’t very well be the standard, and since this pizza was already leaning in such a Greek direction, I had to reach for the spinach, and added some parsley, some sundried tomatoes, some lemon zest, in addition to the standard garlic and pine nuts.
Considering other personality features, I decided to add some heat. R. is a spicy person: she’s quick, she’s feisty, she’s fun; she speaks her mind. Thinly sliced pepperoncini joined my collection of toppings, though some near-transparent wafers of jalapeno would also do the job.
When you construct “The Rachel,” you have some choices, and those choices depend on how much char you like on various ingredients. Obviously the pesto goes on first, in a generous layer. If you want your peppers and green onions to stay soft, they should be next, so they can hide out under the protective coating of mozzarella. If you prefer a bit of color on these greens, let them ride out the quarter hour in the oven right on top. I like to put the sausage underneath the mozzarella; since it’s already cooked, the cheese bubbling over it seems to prevent the meat from drying out.
Blistering hot from the oven, this was glorious. The lamb sausage I used was a merguez, which carries some heat of its own, so between that and the pepper slices the pizza was perfectly spicy. The spinach pesto is a solid base – not too aggressive in flavor on its own, just pleasant support for the well-spiced lamb and the briny feta. But interestingly (delightfully), the pizza came into its own as leftovers. When I unwrapped the remaining slices today in my office, door closed and light off as though I were getting away with something, the pizza had been out of the refrigerator long enough to come to room temperature, and though the cheese was no longer stretching into long strings and the crust had lost a bit of crispness, the flavors had come together so compellingly that I’d suggest doing one bit of advance planning: if you can, make the pesto a day in advance. Then, when you spread it thickly over the crust, it will already have had a day to slow dance in your refrigerator.
The Rachel: lamb sausage and spinach pesto pizza
Makes one 12-14 inch pizza
16 ounces pizza dough of your choice
8 ounces lamb sausage (I used a nice, spicy merguez)
2 tablespoons pine nuts
3 cloves garlic
zest of one lemon
¼ cup oil-packed sundried tomatoes, drained
6 green onions
6 ounces baby spinach leaves
½ cup parsley leaves and stems
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1-3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
8-12 ounces whole milk mozzarella cheese, grated
3 ounces crumbled feta cheese
3-4 pepperoncini or other pickled peppers
*Note: if possible, I recommend making your pesto a day ahead so the flavors have time to meld. Otherwise, proceed as below.
- About 45 minutes before you are ready to cook the pizza, preheat your oven to 500F, or as high as it will go. If you are using a pizza stone (highly recommended), be sure to put it in the oven at this point to preheat as well. If your pizza dough is refrigerated or needs time to rise and relax, this is a good time to set it out as well.
- Cook the lamb sausage in a medium skillet over medium heat. Use the flat edge of a wooden spatula to coerce the lamb into small pieces. Stir and flip frequently until cooked through and lightly browned, then set aside to cool.
- For the pesto, add the pine nuts and garlic to a food processor along with the sundried tomatoes, lemon zest, and the white and light green portions of the green onions, reserving the green stalks until later. Process for 4-5 seconds to break down the big chunks of vegetables. Pack in the spinach and parsley and process again, agitating the machine a bit to try and coax the leaves down into the blade. When it is simply not making any progress, add the lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil with the machine running. If that’s not enough liquid, add the remaining tablespoons of olive oil one at a time, pausing between each. You are looking for a very thick, paste-like “sauce” – the less moisture we add to the top of the pizza, the better. If things still aren’t coming together after all 3 tablespoons of oil, add a splash of water, but try to keep this to an absolute minimum.
- Once the pesto is a thick but spreadable texture, taste and season with salt and pepper accordingly. I suggest under-seasoning a bit with the salt, since the feta cheese is quite salty.
- Slice the greens of the green onions and the pepperoncinis into thin slices.
- To assemble your pizza, stretch out the dough to your desired size (I put it carefully right onto the hot pizza stone), then spread generously with the spinach and parsley pesto. Add the remaining ingredients above or below the mozzarella cheese depending upon how browned you want them to get. I suggest lamb sausage underneath, to keep it moist, then the two types of cheese, then green onion and pepperoncini slices.
- Carefully maneuver the loaded pizza back into the roaring hot oven, and bake for 15 minutes until the crust is crisp and the cheese is nicely studded with golden blisters. Remove from oven and let sit 4-5 minutes. Then sprinkle with additional parsley leaves if desired, slice, and serve.