The Rocky Mile High Road to Spring

by Marina Chotzinoff

March in Denver is a tease. Though our winters can vary between bitter and snowy cold to milder, sunny days, the landscape is still one of bare trees and browned grasses. Seeing the first bulbs pop from the hard soil and the buds appear on the lilacs make me giddy though I try to remind myself that we still have at least two and sometimes three (!) more months of possible blizzards. I worry for the new growth that will struggle under the weight of the next heavy, wet snow. But then the first real summery warm winds make an appearance and all that sensible logic is forgotten.

Last weekend we had a couple of those luscious days. Warm winds, sparkly sunshine, the smell of spring. We brainstormed garden ideas, ate sweet, sweet asparagus and wore t-shirts. And then, of course, we had a foot of snow dumped on us the very next weekend. And I did not mind so much this time. Perhaps because we have not really had a big snow this year or maybe because the sun is finally warm enough to melt it quickly or more likely because we discovered the pure joy of sending our four year old down our hill in a giant mixing bowl…

That night called for a dinner of shepherd’s pie stuffed with lamb, mushrooms, carrots, leeks and gravy which was comforting and delicious in front of one of the last fires of the season. But even scooping up the last tasty bite I was ready for fresh peas, tender baby greens and springtime. And so yesterday as the mile high sun melted the snow and the weather promised to get warmer, I decided to make a springy fennel pizza.

Being allergic to celery, I typically freeze the stalks of the fennel bulbs I have roasted or thinly sliced to eat raw. But this time I wanted to use the whole plant. I decided to cook the stalks with leeks to fold into a ricotta base with some roasted garlic and orange peel, use the roasted, caramelized bulbs on top and garnish with the raw fronds. As the pizza was cooking in the oven, I noticed the naked orange and decided to make a quick drizzle of the juice and some olive oil and more, fresh zest for the top. I will not pretend this pie could not benefit from some crisped bits of bacon or pancetta, but as is, it was sweet, creamy, crispy, earthy and truly satisfying.

Serves 4

1 portion pizza dough (or baguette)
2 fennel bulbs with stalks
3 garlic cloves with skin
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 leek
1 cup ricotta, part skim
1 egg
1 orange
1/2 cup parmesan, finely grated
Urfa or aleppo pepper for garnish
4 fried eggs for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 425°. Trim stalks from fennel and cut in half lengthwise. Cut slices 1/4″ thick across each bulb half leaving a bit of the root end intact. Drizzle on some olive oil and salt and carefully rub between slices and all over bulbs. Rub garlic with oil as well. Put all in a baking dish in the oven. Flip the garlic after about 10 minutes and spread the fennel slices out slightly. Check the garlic after another 5 minutes or so and remove when soft, then chop. Continue to roast fennel another half hour (or until nicely browned), flipping over about half way.

Cut the fennel stalks in half and then crosswise into thin slices to measure 1/2 c. Do the same for the leeks to make 3/4 c. Rinse well and blot dry. Sauté in 1 T each butter and olive oil until softened and just starting to brown. Let cool. When fennel is done, crank heat to 500°.

Roll out pizza dough until it is very thin and brush with a bit of oil. If using baguettes, cut in half and brush with oil. Cook until crisp and just starting brown.

Mix ricotta, egg, leek mixture, garlic, salt and pepper. Zest the orange and fold in 1 T zest and parmesan. Mix 2 T orange juice, 1 t zest and 1T olive oil and set aside. Spread ricotta mixture on pizza dough. Carefully cut root end off fennel bulbs and arrange slices on top of ricotta mixture. Put back in oven for 5-8 minutes until ricotta mixture starts to brown and feels set.

Remove from oven, drizzle with orange juice mixture. Garnish with fennel fronds and black pepper. Also great with urfa or aleppo pepper. Cut into four wedges and serve with a simple salad.

At this time you can also add a fried egg, over medium per portion.

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