Mesquite Pizza

Open-flame cooking delivers major flavor in this taco-pizza fusion, inspired by an off-roading adventure through Baja California.

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Fresh off an overlanding trip south of the border, when we got back to SoCal Yolo and I had the urge for more of those unique Baja flavors. We had fallen in love with the area’s colorful culture – the ingredients in local foods reflect such a rich history, from the citrusy spice of perfectly seared carne asada to the salty zing and crumbly texture of queso Cotija. It is the Old West, intermingling with laid-back, beachside surf culture.

Why were we in Baja? A little background: Yolo and I are full-time adventurers. We literally live on-the-go, traveling between base camps in our modified Jeeps and off-road trailers. And, what is overlanding? The simplest definition is vehicle-based adventure travel, where the journey itself is the goal. The challenges and surprises of overlanding constantly push us to build new skills, and we have committed ourselves to that process of discovery. 

As we move around and explore new places, putting mile after unmarked mile under the tires, we draw inspiration from our surroundings for our meals. And we prepare most of them over a campfire, using multipurpose tools that suit our mobile lifestyle, along with locally sourced ingredients. 

In this case, I couldn’t stop thinking about the street tacos we had enjoyed in Baja California, but I was also craving pizza. Tacos and pizza aren’t really so far apart, after all. They’re both finger foods, made simply and with similar ingredients, and when you fold a slice of pizza to eat it – you basically create a taco.

So, during the return trip to our base camp, when we stopped at a local farmer’s market, I picked up a large, freshly made naan flatbread and all the ingredients for a flavor-packed play on two of my favorite meals, combined. I also decided to take advantage of the well-seasoned stack of quarter-split mesquite logs we had picked up from a man in a truck selling firewood on the roadside, just after crossing over the border. 

The beauty of this recipe is that the meats and flatbread are pre-cooked, and the pizza takes on wonderful aromas and textures as it finishes. The naan has a light and beautiful flavor, and even though it’s thin, I have found that it will hold up to even the most robust toppings without falling apart. Not to mention, it crisps perfectly over the campfire.

If you’re not camping out, you can recreate this preparation method at home using either a charcoal grill and wood cooking chunks, or a gas grill with a smoker box and wood smoking chips. If mesquite is not readily available in your area, you can try wonderfully fragrant woods like hickory, pecan, cherry, oak or apple instead.

In addition to a fire pit and open flame, we often use something called a Skottle Grill, or Skottle for short. It is a versatile “outdoor cooking contraption” originally developed by resourceful South African farmers. It features a gently sloped disc, which allows you to slide ingredients to the sides and continue cooking in the central heat ring. I find it handy for tasks like keeping bacon warm while eggs and tortillas finish in the middle. You can substitute a wok, frying pan or iron skillet for comparable results on the stovetop. 

Also, please remember that open-flame cooking requires extra attention to safety to avoid burns. We encourage the use of long cooking tongs and grilling gloves. 

 

Ingredients

  • 1 extra-large flatbread – naan or khubz works especially well
  • 1.5 pounds carne asada marinated beef, thinly sliced
  • 1 pound of your favorite thick-cut bacon, cut into 2-inch chunks
  • 8 ounces of basil pesto (prepared or homemade)
  • 3 roma tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups spinach, washed
  • 12 ounces feta cheese
  • 6 ounces Cotija (“crumbling”) cheese
  • 3 cups shredded Mexican cheese mix
  • Avocado oil
  • Crushed red pepper
  • Freshly cracked black pepper

* Ingredient quantities will be dictated by the size of the pizza. Adjust accordingly or make several pizzas if using smaller flatbread.

Recommended utensils

  • Pizza pan or baking sheet 
  • Kitchen shears
  • Long cooking tongs
  • Grilling gloves

Optional

  • Skottle Grill

Preparation

  1. Start by igniting and stoking a mesquite wood fire (or charcoal grill with wood chunks; or gas grill on medium-high with smoker box and wood chips) and burning it down to achieve a uniform, white coal bed. Typically this takes 15-20 minutes, allowing you to prep other ingredients, but times will vary, so keep an eye on it. Some flames are okay, but a smoky, medium heat is ideal.
  2. Grill the carne asada steaks to medium-rare – they will finish later on the pizza – and then use kitchen shears to cut them into bite-sized chunks. Cover and let rest. 
  3. Cook thick-cut bacon pieces until crisp in a Skottle, wok, skillet or frying pan. Cover and set aside.
  4. Brush avocado oil on pizza pan or baking sheet and place the flatbread on top.
  5. Spread basil pesto evenly over the flatbread, then add the previously cooked carne asada and bacon chunks.
  6. Continue building the pizza by evenly distributing tomatoes, spinach leaves, three-cheese mix, feta and Cotija crumbles.
  7. Top the pizza with crushed red pepper flakes (optional), black pepper and a drizzle of avocado oil.
  8. Use pan or sheet to transfer pizza onto grill grate above the open fire. Cook until the crust is crisp and the cheeses melt, approximately 10-15 minutes, depending on heat.
  9. Use tongs to check frequently so that the bottom of the pizza does not burn.
  10. Transfer finished pizza back onto pan or sheet and allow to cool slightly before slicing.