Food & Dining

This pizza is flat-out delicious

This is pizza with asparagus, ricotta and basil.
This is pizza with asparagus, ricotta and basil.

One of my favorite convenience ingredients that I always have on hand in the freezer is whole-grain pizza dough. Most grocery stores carry it nowadays, and many pizzerias will sell you a ball of their dough.

I consider it a staple because -- way beyond just a vehicle for red sauce and piles of cheese -- a pizza crust can be a blank canvas for all sorts of fun, creative and healthful combinations that reflect any season of the year.

The following recipe is for a pizza that says "primavera" simply and elegantly because it's topped with creamy, lemon-spiked ricotta cheese, asparagus and fresh basil. To make it, you give the asparagus a head start by roasting it in the oven, then you use the same (now conveniently preheated) baking sheet to build and cook the pizza on.

The whole-grain crust is stretched thin so the pizza is not overly bready and it crisps nicely in the oven. Over the years, I have come to relish this stretching process. As with other doughs, if it is fighting you and keeps bouncing back into shape, take a break for a few minutes to let the dough relax (it's a good time to take a sip or two of wine). Or try Sara Moulton's trick of lightly oiling the work surface before rolling out the dough. When you pick the dough up again it will be more supple and amenable to stretching.

After the crust is laid on the baking sheet, the lemon-zest-laced ricotta cheese is spread on, then piled with the roasted asparagus and a generous shower of Parmesan cheese. Once it's baked and the cheese is melted and golden brown, the pizza is crowned with ribbons of fresh, perfume-y basil leaves for a pizza at once light, fresh and satisfying.

What you need:

  • Twelve asparagus spears.

  • One tablespoon olive oil.

  • An eighth of a teaspoon salt.

  • One tablespoon cornmeal, for the work surface.

  • Twelve ounces whole-wheat pizza dough, defrosted if frozen.

  • Three quarters of a cup part-skim ricotta cheese.

  • One teaspoon finely grated lemon zest.

  • One ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated (half a packed cup).

  • Freshly ground black pepper.

  • Six large or 12 small basil leaves.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim any woody ends from the asparagus. Place the spears on a baking sheet, drizzle with the oil and toss to coat, then sprinkle with the salt. Roast for about six minutes or until the asparagus is just tender.

Transfer to a cutting board to cool slightly, then cut the asparagus into three-quarter-inch or one-inch pieces. Reserve the baking sheet, with the oil still on it, to use for the pizza. Increase the oven temperature to 500 degrees.

Sprinkle a work surface with the cornmeal and use a rolling pin and/or your hands to stretch the dough into a 12-inch round. Place the dough onto the baking sheet that you used to roast the asparagus.

Stir together the ricotta and the lemon zest in a medium bowl, then use the back of a spoon to smear that mixture over the dough, leaving a one-inch border for the crust. Arrange the asparagus on top, sprinkle with the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a few turns of black pepper. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or just until the cheese is melted and browning, the asparagus is softened, and the crust is browned.

While the pizza's in the oven, stack the basil leaves, roll them and then cut crosswise into very thin ribbons (chiffonade).

Garnish the just-baked pizza with basil, then cut into eight wedges. Serve hot.

Yield: eight slices.