The Rachel: lamb sausage and spinach pesto pizza

2016 Food Blog June-0945A 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.

2016 Food Blog June-0915Clearly, 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.

2016 Food Blog June-0917But 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.

2016 Food Blog June-0918Once 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.

2016 Food Blog June-0925Considering 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.

2016 Food Blog June-0933When 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.

2016 Food Blog June-0936Blistering 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.

2016 Food Blog June-0943

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.

Seared Salmon with Pea Pesto and Celery Root Puree

If you are a certain type of food blogger, one who is interested in trends of the food and restaurant world, not just the backdrop and vintage props Pinterest tells us are all the rage this month, then you care about and try to integrate sustainability, and seasonality, and local foods into your cooking. You are all about ramps and rhubarb in the spring, you plan zucchini dishes for late summer and early autumn when that crop is glutted. You wouldn’t dream of presenting a heavy stew or cream-based soup unless the weather has been cold. You let the year and its turning rule your kitchen.

2015 Blog August-0298I try to be that kind of blogger. I try to keep my food in tune with the seasons and plan vegetable dishes according not just to what appears at my farmers’ market, but to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone is in Southern California, so not everyone has the same plethora of options I do. I even try to plan for holidays, and get appropriate dishes out there ahead of time (sometimes barely) in case you want to make them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

2015 Blog August-0286But here’s the thing: I’m also ruled by my stomach. Sometimes I don’t want zucchini. Sometimes I would rather roast than grill. Sometimes there’s a combination I dream up that sounds so good I don’t want to wait until the “right” time to cook it and present it to you. That’s the case this week. This is, if I were being a responsible food person, without question a spring dish. The peas could be fresh out of the pod, the dill is all about feathery fronds and new shoots. I cook the salmon so the skin is crispy, then balance the flesh side atop lemon slices in the pan to keep it moist and tender, all freshness and brightness. The celery roots, on the other hand, are the last dregs of winter, knobbly and earthy and strange, adding pale richness to complement the salmon and tame the sprightly sharpness of the pesto.

2015 Blog August-0292But when I thought of it – a nutty pesto of peas and walnuts, seasoned with dill instead of basil or mint and almost on the verge of being too salty, sitting atop a piece of moist, pink salmon with crisp skin, all surrounded by the creamy celery-scented puree, I couldn’t wait half a year. It had to happen now.

There’s not much to say about this dish, story-wise. No childhood memory or restaurant meal inspired it. I just thought the combination sounded good, and it was. The pesto, in particular, though admittedly not the most appealing shade of green, is a surprising and intriguing punch. Dill works very well with peas as well as lemon, and the tannic bitterness of toasted walnuts tames the sweetness of the peas enough to keep them in the savory realm.

2015 Blog August-0295Note: the puree does take the longest time to create, since the starchy roots can take up to half an hour to soften. If you’re very efficient, you’ll be able to prep the remainder of the components while the hunks of celery root are simmering. I am not all that efficient, so I made the pesto first just in case. You know you best, so plan accordingly.

2015 Blog August-0298

Seared Salmon with Pea Pesto and Celery Root Puree
45-50 minutes prep and cook time
Serves 4
For celery root puree:
2 medium celery roots, any attached stalks removed, peeled and chopped into small chunks
1-2 cups milk
1 clove garlic, skin removed
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper (use white pepper if you don’t want flecks)
6 ounces mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
For pea pesto:
1 cup (4 ounces) peas, fresh or frozen
⅓ cup walnut pieces
1 clove garlic, skin removed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
¼ teaspoon fresh black pepper (or to taste)
¼ cup olive oil
For salmon:
4 filets of salmon, 4-6 ounces each
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fresh black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lemon, cut into ¼ inch slices


  • To make the celery root puree, place the chunks of chopped celery root in a medium pot and pour in enough milk just to cover. Add salt and pepper and toss in the garlic clove. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then immediately turn down the heat, and cook at a bare simmer until celery root pieces are fork tender, 20-30 minutes.
  • Once roots are tender, remove the pot from the heat, add the mascarpone cheese, and let sit for 5-10 minutes just to cool. Use an immersion blender or a regular blender (be VERY careful with the hot liquid) to blend to a smooth puree.
  • While the celery root chunks are simmering, remove the salmon from the fridge and its packaging and sprinkle it with the ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Then set it aside. We want it to come up to room temperature so it cooks evenly.
  • To make the pea pesto, either blanch your fresh peas by dropping them into boiling water for 1-2 minutes before a quick drain, or defrost your peas if they are frozen.
  • Toast the walnut pieces in a dry pan just until they smell roasty and are slightly darker brown. Let them cool, then toss them into a food processor with the garlic and whir these together into damp crumbs. Add in the dill and whir again to break up the fronds.
  • Dump the cooled peas into the processor and pulse at 2-second intervals 3-4 times to create a chunky, clumpy mixture that is not quite a paste.
  • Finally, add the lemon juice, salt, pepper, and olive oil, and pulse again in 2-second intervals until you have a thick, barely emulsified paste. You want this to be spoonable, not pourable, so keep your eye on the texture.
  • When you are ready to cook the salmon, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the oil is rippling and shimmering in the heat. Carefully add the salmon skin-side down (oil will likely spatter a bit in excitement when you do, so stand back!), and let it cook undisturbed for 5 minutes. Really! Don’t mess with it!
  • After 5 minutes, top each salmon piece with 2-3 lemon slices and carefully flip over so that the lemon slices, not the flesh of the salmon, are in contact with the pan. Again, this may cause some spattering of the oil, so be careful. Let the salmon cook atop the lemon slices for another 2-3 minutes, or until just done in the center.
  • To serve, pour ⅓–½ cup celery root puree into the base of a small plate or a shallow bowl. Place a piece of salmon skin-side up atop in the center of the pool of puree (leave the lemon slices in the skillet, or serve one off to the side if desired). Top the salmon with 1-2 tablespoons of the pea pesto, and serve immediately.

Pesto Parmesan Pull-Apart Bread #TwelveLoaves

Food Blog August 2014-0476I’ve put off writing this post. I wasn’t sure how to begin. Every time I sit down to think about it, I end up surfing the net, scrolling through Facebook, seeing more and more headlines, reading more and more articles about the terrible things our world has been going through recently. As one of my friends and former colleagues put it recently, “the entire internet needs a trigger warning.”

Food Blog August 2014-0450I don’t often offer political or moral commentary on this site. That’s not its job. And I don’t often try to convince you that seeing things my way is the way you should see. My truths are mine, and yours are yours. But when terrible things happen, and when death and tragedy are instigated and framed through questionable motives – sometimes on both sides of the event – I question my own job here.

Food Blog August 2014-0451Food Blog August 2014-0454I’m not going to espouse to you what I think. Not today, and probably not ever, unless it’s something frivolous and food-related. I’m just going to say, with caution, that unless you have cut off access to emotions, to moral codes, or to the internet itself (I know, gasp!), over the past week or two – certainly over the past month – the world has been pretty depressing.

Food Blog August 2014-0457So that makes a food blogger wonder where she stands. When people are suffering, when people are angry and dying and struggling, for me, there is uncertainty: is it disrespectful or willfully unaware to coo over the cuteness of a cupcake or speckle my posts with just the right adjectives to describe the lusciousness of a sauce? I’ve considered this before, written about it before, and I always come back to the same conclusion: no. Food is important. Food means things, not just about nurturing our bellies but nurturing our hearts and our minds and, depending on what you believe, our souls. I talked to N. about this the other day, thinking again of how to write this post, and he said “we have to have some things to be happy about.” Food seems like one of those things.

Food Blog August 2014-0458Finally, what helped me figure out what to write so as to be aware of, respectful of, but not overwhelmed by these events I’ve found troubling, was the introduction to Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s cookbook Jerusalem. Looking back through this lovely book, I was struck by a short section they have titled “A comment about ownership.” In a place – whether that is a city, or a nation, or the world itself – where we feel a need for the power that ownership and control bring us, it is hard to share. We pull ourselves apart from one another in an effort to feel safe, or right, or justified. Ottolenghi and Tamimi argue that searching out the true “owner” of a dish through its national or personal origin is not only difficult, but futile. Either it has been made before, or there exists another, or three, or a dozen, similar dishes claiming different origins: a “variation on a theme” (16).

Food Blog August 2014-0459Though Ottolenghi and Tamimi are commenting on dish origination – which makes sense, as they like to provide a little background about the meals they offer – what struck me was not just where a dish comes from, but where it goes. For a long, long time, sitting down at a table, or a fire, or a bowl, has meant something more than filling your stomach. It means trust, or love, or a forging of bonds. You eat together and you end up sharing more than a meal. I’m not sure that’s still true, but I think it should be.

Food Blog August 2014-0461So weirdly, when it came time to sample this month’s loaf for the Twelve Loaves project, I had chosen something divisive in its very name: pull-apart bread. When you tear into it, this loaf peels into separate bits, as I see happening so often in our world. Yet its richness, its docile tendency to give up layers and hunks and edges, suggests it is meant to be shared. We pull it into soft fragrant pieces, but we’re doing that together, and the act of sharing brings us comfort and happiness.

Food Blog August 2014-0464I’ve wanted to try a pull-apart bread for a long time, particularly after seeing Deb’s nod to Welsh Rarebit on Smitten Kitchen. To answer the call of summer herbs for Twelve Loaves, I settled on pesto, blending the sharp-sweet, fresh licorice scent of basil with the usual garlic, pine nuts, and lemon juice. I amped up the parmesan quotient and included it not in the spread itself, but as a separate layer to melt and cling.

Food Blog August 2014-0468There seem to be two schools on pull-apart bread. One involves rolling little spheres of dough and jamming them into a pan together, so when they cook they swell into one another and form tenuous ties. This is also commonly called Monkey Bread, especially when it is sweet. The other, which I haven’t seen as frequently but which I chose to work with after seeing Deb’s offering, results in something more like a Pillsbury Grands biscuit or puff pastry stood on end. It involves rolling the dough thin, slicing it in long strips, layering those strips and slicing them into squares, then levering those stacked squares – like servings of lasagna or birthday cake – sideways into a loaf pan like a deck of cards to rise into one another and smash together during baking. As you peel the warm layers apart, you get the bite of pesto and the salty richness of parmesan.

Food Blog August 2014-0473I want you to make this. It’s a bit of a project, but it’s so, so delicious. And when you make it, I want you to share it. Pull it apart, by all means. But let that action by extension pull you together.

Food Blog August 2014-0480

Pesto Parmesan Pull-Apart Bread
Makes a single 9×5 inch loaf
Adapted heavily from Smitten Kitchen
For dough:
2 teaspoons yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
½ cup milk, warm but not hot
2 ½ – 3 cups bread flour, divided
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons soft butter
2 eggs
For filling:
3 garlic cloves, skins removed
¼ cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to your taste
4-5 cups packed basil leaves
½ cup (approximately) olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups parmesan cheese (I know, but it’s so fluffy!  2 cups is practically nothing… besides, you’re sharing…)


  • In a glass measuring cup, warm the milk. I like to pop it into the microwave for 20-30 seconds. When it is just warmer than body temperature (poke your fingertip in – it should feel just warm to the touch), add the sugar and the yeast and stir it up. Let this sit for 5 minutes or so while the yeast wakes up and begins to bubble.
  • Meanwhile, combine the salt and 2 cups of the flour in the bowl of a stand mixer and stir to combine. When the yeast and milk mixture is bubbly and smells like bread, add it to the flour and salt and mix on low speed using the paddle attachment until damply crumbly. Add the butter and the eggs and mix on low speed again.
  • Add an additional ½ cup flour and mix to combine. As soon as the dough starts to come together and there are no longer dry swaths of flour, switch from the paddle attachment to the dough hook.
  • Knead for 3-4 minutes until a soft dough the consistency of play-dough forms. If it looks really sticky or is not coming together or pulling away from the sides of the bowl at all, begin adding the additional flour 2 tablespoons at a time, kneading for a bit in between each addition. You may not need all of the additional flour – I only used 2 ½ cups total.
  • Lightly grease the inside of the bowl (or switch to a clean, lightly oiled one), flip the dough over a few times to ensure it is lightly greased as well, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside for 50-60 minutes to rise. We are looking for the ball of dough to double in size.
  • While the dough rises, make the filling. Drop the garlic and the pine nuts into the belly of your food processor and let it run for a few seconds, until the garlic and pine nuts become a fragrant crumble. There is still some blending to go, so they don’t have to be a smooth paste yet.
  • Add the lemon juice and as many of the basil leaves as will comfortably fit, and turn on the processor. Most of the basil will almost instantly be shredded into tiny bits. If it isn’t, or if nothing seems to be happening, take out the lid from the food chute and begin pouring in the olive oil through this chute in a slow, steady stream.
  • Once there is room in the food processor bowl again, add the remaining basil leaves, if there are any. Repeat the olive oil streaming process until you have a thick paste. I usually end up adding my basil in two or three batches. You may use more or less olive oil – this is somewhat according to preference, but you do want a fairly thick pesto that you can spread, not pour.
  • Taste for seasoning; add salt and pepper and pulse to combine. Set aside until dough is finished rising.
  • When the dough has doubled in size, punch it down by gently depressing your fist into the center. Let it rest for a minute or two, then turn it out onto a well-floured board and, using a floured rolling pin, roll it out to a rectangle of about 12×20 inches.
  • Spread pesto over the entire rectangle of dough, right up to the edges. We don’t need a bare margin for this loaf.
  • Cut the rectangle crosswise into 5 strips of 12×4 inches (so the short edge of the initial big rectangle becomes the long edge of each of the 5 strips). Sprinkle one with about ½ cup parmesan cheese – this will be the bottom of the stack.
  • Carefully, using a spatula with a long blade or a dough scraper to help you, top your parmesan covered base with another strip of dough. Sprinkle another ½ cup parmesan atop this new layer.
  • Repeat until you have a stack of five layers, though the final layer will not have cheese on top, which is fine.
  • Gently, exceedingly gently, use a serrated knife to cut the dough layers into 6 segments of about 2 inches each. Turn each segment layer-side up (showing off its stratigraphy) and snug it into a greased 9×5 inch loaf pan. You can turn the pan up on its short end to make this a bit easier – take a peek at Deb’s images (link above) for a visual. Follow this with another segment, and so on, to create a stack of layers. When you finish and set the loaf pan back on its base, Deb says this looks a bit like a full card catalog drawer, and I think this is a good assessment.
  • Cover your strange, layered loaf with plastic wrap and set it aside to rise again for 30-45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350F so it is ready when you are.
  • Once the dough has risen again, which will squash the layers together a bit, remove the plastic wrap and stow your loaf it in the 350F oven for 25-35 minutes until it is puffy and nicely bronzed on top.
  • Cool a minimum of 10 minutes in the pan (though 15 or even 20 is probably safer; mine collapsed upon removal), then carefully flip it out and serve warm for best flavor and “pull-apart” effect.