December 21, 2011

Weeknight Pizza

In this part of the South, it's rainy and spring-like. The clouds are low and gray; it feels more like March than Christmas week. Cars are backed up on major highway exits, their drivers desperate to finish last-minute shopping. The mere sight of wet, headlight-bleary traffic sparks exhaustion. But isn't it a wonderful feeling when you step out of that traffic-induced stress and into the comfort and peace of your own home? Especially when that home has cookbooks strewn over the coffee table and a North Carolina Christmas tree in the living room? And when one of the presents for you under that tree is a set of ladies' St. Louis Cardinals pajamas? This is how I felt last night when I decided to make a weeknight pizza.

The thing about a weeknight is that the actual post-work evening goes by very quickly. By the time you go to the gym, grocery, prep dinner and cook dinner, it's already late and the day is gone. My general cooking philosophy is to make as much from scratch as possible. If I had a farm or even a large yard, I would learn how to prepare my own meat and raise my own chickens. As a townhouse-dweller, I have to settle for local farm goods from my very well-stocked Harris Teeter. But for this weeknight pizza, I made the very serious decision to buy my own pizza dough rather than make my own.

Making pizza dough in advance takes a considerable amount of time just to plan. I have to weigh how much time I have to let that dough rise at least once (and twice for some types of dough), shape, roll, flour, and stretch into pizza form. Usually by the time I finish just thinking about the process I've lost all the energy I had in the first place. Luckily, my dear Harris Teeter stocks their fresh food section with homemade bags of white and whole wheat pizza dough. Double luckily, said bags were on sale for $.99 each. All signs pointed towards the merits of store-bought dough.

I rationalized this decision by using all fresh ingredients for the rest of the pizza: local sausage, buffalo mozzarella, fire roasted tomatoes, and fresh spinach. Olive oil and dried rosemary complemented my pizza dough deliciously. In the meantime, so many things happened during the time I would have been slaving over a homemade pizza dough.

What to do with all this free time? Excellent question. I have multiple answers.

1. Put your candy canes in a mason jar and photograph them.

2. Continue to edit and format your dissertation. Take library books out from under your Christmas tree and put them on the dining room table (which you won't be using tonight anyway).

3. Do a couple of loads of laundry. When the washer and dryer run together it sounds like productivity.

4.Read the Oxford American, music edition. 

5. Teach a piano lesson to a precocious 6-year-old and watch her skip out the door to welcome Christmas break.

6. Go to the gym. Go to the store. Open some presents (among which are the ladies' St. Louis Cardinals  pajamas). Then make this delicious pizza and treasure that time you had when you could have been waiting for dough to rise.

Weeknight Pizza

1 wheat pizza dough (the unbaked kind; please no cardboard circles in plastic.)
1 14-ounce can fire-roasted tomatoes
Sea salt
Rosemary (fresh or dried)
3-4 ounces good-quality hot sausage (I use Neese's from Greensboro, NC)
3 cloves garlic, diced
1 shallot, diced
4-5 ounces Buffalo mozzarella (about 12 miniature mozzarella rounds)
1 cup fresh spinach

Position pizza stone in middle rack of oven and heat to 500 F. Roll dough out onto square cookie sheet pan until even and thin. Edges should be slightly thicker than the middle. If dough is difficult to stretch, let it sit for a few minutes and then try again. Drizzle dough with olive oil and spread it over whole crust with a pastry brush. Sprinkle with course-ground sea salt and rosemary (I used Penzey's Spain-cracked rosemary). Let pan rest on top of oven while stone heats through.

Drain fire-roasted tomatoes through a fine-mesh sieve into large bowl, for at least 30 minutes. Drizzle with about 1 teaspoon of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt. Stir in sieve with wooden spoon until tomatoes are completely drained.

In a frying pan, brown sausage until completely cooked. Drain and cool on a plate covered with a paper towel. Return pan to heat and add garlic, cooking only until light brown and fragrant. Set aside.

When pizza stone has finished heating (about 30 minutes), reduce oven temperature to 450 F and bake pizza crust until firm and hot, about 6 minutes. 

Spread tomatoes evenly over warm crust. Add sausage, garlic, and shallots. Slice mozzarella into small discs and place evenly over sausage and shallots. Return pan to oven and bake for about 8 minutes, until cheese starts to bubble and brown. 
Remove pizza from oven and cover with spinach. Cook for 2 minutes more. Cut and serve immediately!

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