Spinach

If you are of a certain age you will easily make the connection between spinach and Popeye, the comic book character. When he was in trouble and needed a jolt of extra power and strength, Popeye would open a can of spinach and toss it down in one fell swoop. Eating canned spinach? Hmmmm. It’s pretty obvious that Popeye wasn’t much of a gourmand; on the other hand, if the original comic strip were still around, I would bet a buck or two that Popeye would be making a spinach pizza (and gulping it down in one big bite, not by the slice).

If we go back a few years, say, around 1982 or 1983, the idea of spinach pizza was not such a strange idea. In fact, in my book “The Great Chicago-Style Pizza Cookbook,” which came out in 1983 (and is still in print), I offer a recipe for stuffed spinach pizza. The idea of spinach and pizza has come a long way since then and in recent years has become not only quite popular but also the variations on this “green” theme seem to be endless. I am going to approach the idea of spinach pizza from both the thin crust and stuffed styles.

The first and most obvious consideration is the spinach. Popeye might have liked his canned spinach, but we aren’t going there — canned spinach is pretty ugly stuff, and it doesn’t even taste like spinach. “Fresh” is the operative word when making a spinach pizza, regardless of style. I will make a concession to using frozen chopped spinach, but it has to be prepped with care.

Pre-washed fresh baby spinach is the easiest way to kick-start a spinach pizza since it needs little or no prep. Fresh spinach (not the baby kind) works fine, too, but you have to get rid of those thick stems. When using regular fresh spinach it’s a good idea to prep the spinach by wilting it (a small amount of water and the spinach in a covered pot over medium heat does the trick). Frozen leaf spinach needs to be thawed out (no need to cook it), but you must drain off all that excess moisture (squeeze and squeeze again) or you will end up with a soggy pizza.

Once the prep on the spinach has been dealt with, the road to making first-rate spinach pizza is easy.

Magnificent Greek Pizza
Yield: one 14-inch pizza (scale up in direct proportion)

1 pound fresh spinach, washed thoroughly, thicker stems removed
½ cup water
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes (optional)
1 14-inch diameter pizza shell
½ cup sliced pitted brine-cured green olives
½ cup sliced pitted brine-cured black olives
1/4 pound feta cheese, crumbled (about 1 cup)

Put the spinach and the water in a large pot and cook over medium-high heat, covered, until the spinach wilts. Drain the excess liquid from the pan. With the cover off, cook and stir the spinach for 2 minutes to allow more of the moisture to evaporate.

Add the olive oil, garlic, onion and, if using them, the red pepper flakes to the spinach. Cook and stir over medium-high heat for about 4 minutes. Add pepper to taste (no salt because of the feta, which can be salty).

This is the prep. Hold up to 3 days in the cooler or use at once.
To finish, spread the spinach mixture evenly over the crust. Sprinkle the olives evenly over the spinach. Sprinkle on the feta cheese. Bake.

Stuffed Spinach Pizza
(This is the pizza that started a whole chain of restaurants in and around the Chicago area.)
Yield: one 12-inch stuffed pizza (scale up in direct proportion)

20 ounces of dough
5 cups (about 3/4 pound) fresh, pre-washed baby spinach, chopped coarse
3/4 pound shredded low moisture, part-skim mozzarella
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups all-purpose ground tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil or 2 teaspoons dried
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 cloves of garlic put through a garlic press

In a mixing bowl, combine and toss thoroughly the spinach, mozzarella and Parmesan. Set aside.

Roll out 12 ounces of the dough and press it into a lightly oiled 12-inch by 2 inches deep pizza pan. The dough should fall over the sides of the pan by at least an inch. Roll out the remaining 8 ounces of dough to about 13-inches in diameter.

Put the spinach mixture into the pan and even it out. Put the second piece of dough on top of the filling. Press down on the dough and filling with your hand to level the top. Press the two pieces of dough against the side of the pan to seal all around to form a shallow well. Trim off the excess dough. Roll and seal the edge of the two pieces of dough all around. Cut a slit in the middle of the dough with a sharp knife to allow the steam to escape.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the tomatoes, basil, oregano and garlic. Add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle the tomatoes over the top of the pizza. Bake at 475 F for 20-25 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and starts to pull away from the sides of the pan. Let the pizza rest for 5 minutes before cutting and serving.

CHEF’S NOTES: For a unique flavor, crumble 1/4 pound of dried ricotta (ricotta salata) to the spinach mixture. To the basic spinach mixture, add sliced fresh mushrooms or artichoke hearts. Add cooked sausage crumbles to the spinach mixture. Cooked and shredded chicken can also be added. The possibilities are endless.