It’s hard to believe it but once long ago I lived for two years in California. It seems like something out of a dream, a place oddly familiar that you know you’ve been to over and over but you can’t quite place in your current day to day existence. I never quite got over how different it all was. I couldn’t comprehend the dry hillsides and lack of rain. Every bit of vegetation seemed some exotic species I’d never seen before – giant trumpet flowers perfuming the bright sunshine days, enormous bougainvillea bushes in violent shades of fuchsia emerging in the foggy mornings, gnarled, sinewy cyprus trees leaning wildly away from the ocean below, and the enormous senatorial redwoods rising from street corners offering hints of what this land looked like before it was paved over with crisscrossing highways and sprawling homes rising and falling along the profile of hills.
The lack of seasons really threw me off. I never realized how important the seasons were to me cataloging memories. Over the course of those two years, it’s hard for me to say what exactly happened when; it all seemed to stretch together into one long morning where I was too cold that developed into an afternoon where I was too hot but somehow again too cold in the evening. Being stretched thin between grad school and a part time job all while competing at the highest levels of ultimate frisbee didn’t help any. Days really did just seem to run together into one long tired, climatically challenging blur. I do remember, however, the food.
I started to experiment with cooking when I first left college and moved to New York. But the turning point really came when I moved to Berkeley to start grad school and moved into a great little house only a few blocks from the Berkeley Bowl. I used to ride there just to walk the aisles, inventing items I needed to buy so I could linger in the bulk aisle or stand in front of the cheese department smelling every stinky cheese I could get my hands on. Between that and the Oakland farmers market, I changed the way I ate and have never looked back since. Suddenly the lack of seasons seemed like a magical thing. Who had ever heard of buying fresh, local oranges at a farmers market or picking up fuzzy, round visions of spring and holding perfect apricots in your palm in April. The exposure to fresh, delicious fruits and vegetables forever changed the way I approached what I wanted to cook and how I wanted to prepare it. I couldn’t get enough of the farmers markets and would return home laden down with enough produce for a family of four, not one over busy grad student.
That and the incredible food scene. I had already been lucky enough to eat at some of the best restaurants in New York, thanks to my mom. But here were restaurants so different in their approach and cuisine yet so equal in stature to those back east. What was new to me was the range of food artisans from great bakeries to chocolatiers to cheese makers, charcutiers, ice cream makers, and so on and so forth. The list I started compiling and slowly exploring was enormous and eye-opening. My most regular haunt besides the Berkeley Bowl became The Cheese Board. I would walk over after class and line up along with seemingly everyone else in Berkeley then order two slices of the daily special featuring seasonal ingredients and restrain myself from snarfing them down before making it out the front door. I’d sit on the grassy median out front and try to linger as long as possible over my two slices to put off the inevitable assignments and track workouts waiting for me.
While I long ago left California for the distinct seasons of the northwest, the memory of the Cheese Board’s pizza stays with me and has forever changed how I think about pizza. Before leaving town, I picked up a copy of their cookbook and use it more than most other cookbooks in my collection. Well that’s not technically true since I mostly just flip through the pizza pages and have most of those recipes memorized and don’t really need to use the cookbook anymore. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve almost never tried the other recipes in the book, which is a wrong I’ll have to right since their other baked goods are just as good I’m sure. Thanks to this great Berkeley institution, pizza has become a regular feature of our home. We eat pizza monthly and have honed our technique and branched out to find new flavor combos of our own.
I remember during a springtime visit from Mollie and her family a trip to one of our favorite farmers markets out on Vashon Island. Mollie, who was living in Oakland at the time, was shocked that in May all that was available was various greens, turnips, beets, and the very first asparagus and rhubarb. It was one of those moments where I remembered how different the world can seem when you live in California. I no longer bat an eye, although I do grumble a little, when well into June it seems like the pacific northwest could bury itself in the heaps of kale and salad greens we produce. There’s not a piece of fruit to be found and one can only dream of the full bounty that awaits in July and August.
It was just such a market overflowing with mustard greens, turnips, radishes, and various types of kale that inspired me to try this combination. I sought out nettles and bought a giant bag to take home. In the pursuit of seasonal eating, I’ve made nettle pasta, nettle soup, nettle pesto. But none of it has seemed to make its way into our regular rotation. The flavor of nettles can be a bit overpowering and too in your face so I tried to mellow the flavor by pairing it with the counter balance of the mellowing flavor of goat cheese. It worked out splendidly. Note this won’t be the last pizza post you’ll get from me, and the next one I’ll walk you through the recipe I use for dough. Consider this an introduction to pizza technique.
Tips and Tricks:
- You always want to cook pizza in a hot hot oven. I’ve cooked pizza at 400 degrees and up to 500 degrees but finally settled on 450 degrees as a good balance to char and puff up the crust while ensuring that the toppings are nice and melted without being burnt.
- I describe below the sequence we’ve happened on for transferring the pizza to a pizza stone. We happened on this because you’re supposed to pre-heat the pizza stone in an oven but then we could never transfer a soft, uncooked pizza dough onto it successfully. Feel free to totally ignore this and cook the pizza entirely on the back of an upside down cookie sheet and that will work just fine.
- My husband is brave and talented enough to be able to stretch out the dough using his hands. I’ve never mastered this technique and end up tearing the dough so I use a rolling pin. You want to use as small an amount of flour as you can when rolling the dough out. You don’t want the dough to stick, but if you put down too much flour, the dough will become more elastic and keep shrinking back instead of stretching out. If you have it on hand, I find that rice flour is great to use since it’s less sticky than regular flour and you can use less of it.
- Make sure you use lots of cornmeal or rice flour as a layer on your cookie sheet to prevent the dough from sticking. There’s nothing worse than putting in all the work to a pizza and then having to scrap it off in jagged pieces from the back of a baking sheet.
- I have a rule of two for pizza – always use one layer of cheese followed by toppings covered with a second layer of cheese and always try to use at least two different types of cheese for more nuanced flavor.
- For a truly Cheese Board finishing touch, while you’re rolling out the dough and prepping the ingredients, soak a clove of chopped garlic in a little dish of olive oil. Once you pull the finished pizza out of the oven, brush the crust with the garlic oil.
- It’s worth the extra care needed to handle stinging needles. These pesky, stinging weeds are an excellent source of vitamins A and D and also contain very high levels of minerals including calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous, manganese, silica, iodine, silicon, sodium, and sulfur. They also have high levels of easily absorbable amino acids. All in all, these stinging leaves provide a boat load of health benefits and a new and interesting taste. To use stinging nettles, you’ll need to take some care to handle them. Bring a large pot of water to boil and then cook the leaves and stems for 3 – 4 minutes until wilted. The boiling water will render the nettles harmless. Drain them in a colander and squeeze out any excess water before using.
A versatile base that highlights the fresh, herbal taste of nettles paired with earthy goat cheese. Feel free to change to any seasonal greens with paired cheese. Some of our favorite combos include potatoes with gouda, corn and zucchini with feta, and peach, pancetta and blue cheese. In the summer we make three pizzas at a time and throw them right on the grill. In the fall and winter they warm our house and fill our bellies.
Quantity: 1 pizza serves 2 – 4 people depending on how hungry you are, usually 2 pizzas is good for a group of 4
Time to Prepare: 30 – 40 minutes
1 pizza dough at room temperature
3 cups of shredded mozzarella cheese, whole milk
roughly 4 cups of fresh nettles (one small bag)
2 1/2 tablespoons goat cheese
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
flour for rolling out pizza dough
cornmeal for preventing sticking to cooking surface
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, place the pizza stone on the lower rack in the oven.
But a large saucepan of water on to boil. Once it reaches boiling, using tongs, transfer the nettles from the bag directly to the water, making sure not to touch any of the leaves as you’ll learn why they’re called stinging needles. Boil for 2 – 3 minutes until wilted, then pour the cooked nettles into a colander and leave to drain/cool off while prepping the dough.
Place a large cookie sheet upside down next to your work space and sprinkle liberally with either cornmeal or rice flour. This will ensure that the pizza crust doesn’t stick to the pan. Next sprinkle a light layer of flour on the counter and roll out your crust using a rolling pin to an oval roughly 12 inches long with the crust about a 1/4 inch in thickness. Transfer the rolled out dough onto the back of the cookie sheet.
Sprinkle a little more than half of the mozzarella cheese evenly over the dough leaving 1/2 an inch of space around the edge. Then squeeze out the nettles of any remaining moisture and roughly chop. It’s okay to use the stems along with the leaves. Spread the nettles out over the cheese. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella on top of the nettles then sprinkle the red pepper flakes. Using a fork or your fingers, drop small 1/2 inch to 1 inch pieces of goat cheese over the pizza. Finish with salt and pepper.
Transfer the cookie sheet to the top rack of the oven. After 5 – 8 minutes check the pizza. You are going to transfer the pizza once it’s crisped up some to the pizza stone to finish it off. You want to make sure you can run a spatula under the dough easily and that the pizza will hold its shape once lifted. Using an oven mitt, pull out the bottom rack with the pizza stone on it. Use one hand to hold the cookie sheet with the pizza next to the pizza stone and the other hand to gently scoot over the pizza using a spatula from the cookie sheet to the pizza stone. Leave the pizza in the oven on the hot stone for another 5 minutes or so (a total cooking time of 10 – 15 minutes). Once the crust is nice and golden and the cheese is bubbling and has some areas that have browned, you’re ready. The pizza should be easily transferred now to a cutting board without having to handle/remove the hot pizza stone from the oven.