This summer I’ve had the worst luck EVER with airline flights.  One example: A few weeks ago Vicken and I flew to Vermont for a wedding (he from Montreal and me from Sacramento) and we both got stuck in our connection cities with cancelled flights.  I was in Chicago and spent the night freezing cold, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep on the airport chairs with not much luck.  Vicken spent the night in the Detroit airport.  THEN on the way back we got stuck in Chicago again, this time for 24 hours!  We were ready to be home so we were pretty bummed, BUT several things happened that made this detour worthwhile.

1.  We spent the next day exploring downtown Chicago, a place where neither of us had spent any time.  We listened to the Grant Park Orchestra practice in Millennium Park, went to a farmer’s market downtown, and walked a LOT. It beat the hell out of hanging out in an airport.

2.  We met up with my cousin, who lives in Chicago, for dinner.  I hadn’t seen her in 4 years and got to meet her 2 daughters for the first time.  Her youngest was asleep the whole time, but her older daughter, Clara, was full of energy.  She was a blast to hang out with.

3.  We ate Chicago-style pizza for dinner (at Gino’s East) and I had the BEST pizza I have ever eaten in my entire life!  And no, I’m not exaggerating!

We got deep dish spinach pizza and it was amazing.  They make an amazing cornmeal-based crust and the pizza toppings were proportioned perfectly.  First of all, they didn’t overdo the cheese, which (in my opinion) is the easiest way to ruin pizza.  The cheese was the bottom layer of the toppings, followed by sauteed spinach, and then a fresh tomato sauce.  The spinach tasted amazingly fresh and they put a hefty portion of the tomato sauce (my favorite!) on top.

I wish I could have savored every bite more, but we were in a rush and afraid to miss our flight, so we had to eat quickly.  As soon as we left I started dreaming about recreating that pizza.  It took a while, but I finally looked on epicurious.com and found a recipe for a deep dish sausage pizza with a cornmeal-based crust.  The tomato “sauce” in this recipe had one pound of sausage to one small can of diced tomatoes, which sounded a little too sausage-y and not tomato-y enough for me.  When I made it I cut back on the sausage a bit and added sauteed spinach to at least attempt to copy the Gino’s masterpiece.

All in all, the pizza was really good.  My only complaint was that the recipe gives you enough dough to make TWO 10-1/2 inch pizzas instead of one.  The dough rose a lot so the crust was way thicker than I prefer it.  If you like thick crust pizza though, this is the crust for you.  I’ve made the pizza again and literally halfing the recipe or splitting the dough between TWO 10-1/2 inch pizzas is perfect.  I drained the sauteed spinach and garlic and the tomato sauce was also really dry, so we didn’t end up with a soggy pizza like I was afraid we might.  I made a few suggestions to change the recipe below, so feel free to try those if you give this pizza a shot.

I feel like this is something I’m going to keep making over and over until I get it just right.  I can only dream that I’ll eventually make something as good as what we had in Chicago.  If that never happens, maybe I’ll just drop out of grad school, move to Chicago, work in the Gino’s kitchen and get their recipe. Until then, on with grad school…

Deep dish pizza with sausage and spinach
Adapted from Gourmet

½ teaspoon sugar
1 cup warm water (110° – 115° F)
a ¼-ounce package (1 ½ teaspoons) active dry yeast
2 ¼ to 2 ½ cups unbleached flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal

¾ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil plus additional for oiling bowl

½ pound Italian sausage, casings discarded
28-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
½ teaspoon crushed chili pepper
1 bunch spinach, washed, stems removed and coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese (about 1/4 pound)

1. In a large bowl dissolve sugar in water. Sprinkle yeast over water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Stir in 2 ¼ cups flour, cornmeal, salt, and 2 tablespoons oil and blend until mixture forms a dough. Knead dough on a floured surface, incorporating as much of remaining ¼ cup flour as necessary to prevent dough from sticking, until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.

(Alternatively, dough may be made in a food processor. Proof yeast as described above. In the food processor process yeast mixture with 2 ¼ cups flour, cornmeal, salt, and 2 tablespoons oil until mixture forms a ball, adding more water, 1 teaspoon at a time, if too dry or some of remaining ¼ cup flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, if too wet, and knead dough by processing it 15 seconds more.)

2. Put dough, prepared by either method, in a deep oiled bowl and turn to coat with oil. Let dough rise, covered with plastic wrap, in a warm place 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk.
(**If you prefer a thinner crust, pinch the ball of dough in half, reshape them into balls and put each in a separate oiled bowl. You will need to double the portions of sauce, spinach, and cheese to make two pizzas).

3. While dough is rising, in a heavy skillet cook sausage over moderately high heat, breaking up lumps, until no longer pink and stir in tomatoes, oregano, crushed chilies, and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer sausage mixture to paper towels to drain and cool.
(** I didn’t drain the tomato sausage mixture and instead cooked the sauce until all of the excess liquid had cooked off.)

4. In another large skillet heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over med-low heat. Add the minced garlic and cook until garlic is fragrant, but not browned, about 30 seconds. Add the chopped spinach and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is wilted and most of the excess water has evaporated. Transfer spinach to a fine mesh colander and press to remove excess liquid. Set aside.

5. Preheat oven to 475° F.

6. Punch down dough and knead 4 times. In an oiled 10 ½-inch cast-iron skillet, press dough with oiled finger until it comes 2 inches up the side and is an even thickness on bottom. Let dough rise, covered loosely with plastic wrap, in a warm place 15 minutes.

7. Sprinkle dough with mozzarella and spread the spinach evenly over the cheese. Top with tomato-sausage mixture. Bake pizza in lower third of an electric oven or on floor of a gas oven for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 400°F and bake 10 minutes more, or until crust is golden.


I know.  I’m really dragging out this one dinner I made almost a month ago.  It’s just that I got busy with field work, didn’t have the recipes with me at the field station to post, and then did all this other cooking that got me distracted.  Good thing I started readying The Help.  If you haven’t read this book, go get it at the bookstore or library!  Yes, like right NOW!  I’m only half-way done, but I can already tell it’s going to be one of my favorite books of all time!

So what does this book have to do with southern cooking?, you’re probably wondering.  Well, not much, other than the fact that it is set in Jackson Mississippi during the civil rights era and portrays the relationship between white families and their hired “help” (African American women) who do pretty much everything–including cooking–for them.  Aside from all the talk of cornbread, fried chicken, and caramel cakes, just reading the dialogue’s true-to-form southern accents makes me crave southern food.  So anyway, I have been inspired to tell you about the other side dish I made to accompany the blackened catfish and black-eyed peas in my southern feast: collard greens!

Ironically, I never knew I liked cooked greens until I moved to California.  In the south, people tend to boil them for a long time, so you end up with limp greens that have lost most of their “greenness.”  When I came to California I discovered swiss chard and how delicious it can be when sautéed simply with olive oil and garlic.  This opened my eyes to the wonderful world of greens and a new cookbook I recently bought, Greens Glorious Greens!,  has introduced me to a ton of new ideas for how to prepare them.  I came across several collard green recipes in this cookbook and decided to try the quick southern-style  collards with bacon.  You do boil these greens, but only for 6-10 minutes, so they retain their shape and a bright green color.  Then you sauté leeks and the quick-boiled greens in rendered bacon fat.  ooooooh yeah.

Another fun thing to try is the cookbook’s recommended technique for quickly chopping the greens into strips.  After you remove the midrib from the leaf, you roll a stack of leaves into the shape of a cigar and then slice it crosswise into 1/2 inch thick strips.  I don’t know if this saved me any time since I took so many pictures of the process, but it at least made the chopping more interesting!  So there you have it: a complete southern meal.  Wait, did I just say complete?  Surely, SURELY you know there’s a dessert post coming soon…


Quick Southern-Style Collards and Bacon
from Greens Glorious Greens!

Serves 2-3.

3 strips bacon
3/4 pound collard greens (6 or 7 cups, chopped)
2 cups water
1 cup thinly sliced leeks or onions
pinch of salt or to taste

1. Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet. Fry the bacon until golden and fat is rendered. Remove bacon from fat to paper towels to drain. Pout off rendered fat to a metal container to reserve. Wipe out pan.

2. Wash collards, remove stalks, and stack 4 to 5 leaves. Roll like cigar and slice into thin strips, approximately 1/4 inch wide (note: I did 1/2 inch strips). In a large skillet with a lid, bring water to a boil. Add the greens and cook on high heat, covered, for 8 to 10 minutes for tough, older greens, 4 to 6 minutes for tender baby greens. Cooked greens should be tender but still bright green. Remove greens from cooking liquid to a bowl, using a slotted spoon. Save “pot likker” to drink.

3. In a large skillet, heat 1 teaspoon of the bacon drippings over medium heat. Add leeks or onions and sauté for 5 to 8 minutes, until softened. Stir in collards to coat with leeks and drippings.

4. Season with salt, if desired. Crumble cooled bacon over the hot greens.