Carla's Corner: Behind the Scenes at Pebble Beach

The season for food and wine festivals is upon us. It’s spring—the weather has broken and the farms and vineyards have a plethora of goodies to offer. I’m booked for a few festivals, but the first of the season for me was Pebble Beach. (And what a nice start it was.) It was PB’s 3rd annual food and wine festival, but my first time at the event. One of the first chefs I saw when I arrived was Jacques Pepin. I would have said hello, but by the time I realized he was the man behind the beard, he was long gone. I could have acted like a star-struck kid and run after him, but Pebble Beach just didn’t seem like the place for that—everyone looked so sophisticated and elegant. Next time though, no matter where I am, I’ll say hello if I see him. After all, it’s already pea season on the west coast and Jacques put my peas on the map when he tried them on Top Chef. After he had my peas tossed in lemon thyme butter, he said “I could die happy.” (Big smile and heart aflutter.)

One of the events I participated in was the Top Chef Reunion Lunch. It was great seeing Jaime, Hosea and Fabio again. Generally, the menus for these kinds of events have to be done well in advance, so I’ll start with a seasonal produce calendar and work from there. I couldn’t miss an opportunity to use peas, strawberries and rhubarb. I’ve been on this pesto kick lately, which is a great way to use a variety of veggies. Broccoli pesto and Arugula & Artichoke pesto have been featured on recent menus, so why not peas? But how would I use pea pesto? And then the idea came to me…tortellini. I love making pasta, and the pesto mixed with homemade ricotta would make a great filling. We punched up the flavor with more lemon zest, parmesan cheese, fresh mint and salt to taste. The pasta was served on a Chinese spoon with seared morels and a lemon thyme buerre blanc.

Here are the recipes for Homemade Ricotta and Pea Pesto. They’re too easy not to be in your arsenal of good quick fixes.

Whole Milk Ricotta
Makes about 2 cups

2 quarts milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 lemon, zest and juice (save the zest to use in pesto filling)
½ teaspoon salt
Equipment needed: cheesecloth, fine mesh strainer

In a large pot, bring the milk and cream to a boil.

Stir in lemon juice and salt. Reduce heat to a simmer until the milk curdles and you are left with solids and milky looking water.

Strain through a fine mesh strainer lined with dampened cheesecloth. Allow to drain for 1 hour. Refrigerate. May be stored for up to 2 days.

Pea and Mint Pesto
makes 1 cup

10 ounces fresh or frozen peas
1 garlic clove
¼ cup pinenuts, toasted
½ cup Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
2 tablespoon firmly packed fresh mint leaves
1/3 cup olive oil

Pulse together the peas, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan, salt, pepper and mint. With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil until well combined. Adjust seasoning if necessary. NOTE: For the tortellini filling, keep some texture to the pesto.

Still celebrating Spring, I turned to the strawberries and rhubarb. I like the taste of Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble and it’s homey, but it’s not the prettiest thing, so that was out. Most times my inspiration comes from a childhood food memory. I take something that I loved as a child and then refine it for my adult palate. In this case, the beloved Lemon Meringue pie was my inspiration. If you can make a lemon or lime curd, why wouldn’t a strawberry-rhubarb curd work? I wanted the meringue to stand out as well, so I decided to bake these separately from the mini pies. I added lime juice and zest to give them some oompah, and I baked them for about 1½ hours until they had a hard shell on the outside and were soft on the inside.

There wasn’t much room for error considering that our prep started after 5pm the night before the lunch. My sous chef and I were tweaking up to the last minute before service. About 45 minutes before plating, I realized the curd wasn’t tart enough for my taste, so we added a bit of the macerated strawberries tossed with basil (I love herbs with fruit) on top of the curd and under the meringue top. I can’t take credit for this brilliant idea, it was my sous chef’s. I love teamwork! We topped the meringue with a pinch of basil sugar, and we repeated the basil theme in a Basil Crème Fraiche ice cream. The dessert was a success. From the comments, the meringue was the highlight. I’m looking forward to doing this dish again.

It was a long couple of days, but it was so worth it. We had a great time. I awarded myself Saturday night by going to the Top Chef Masters dinner. In a word, FABULOUS!

I hope you’ll get the chance to try the ricotta and the pea pesto. You’ll be happy you did. Until next time, cook with love!


Carla Hall was a finalist on Top Chef: Season 5 and runs Alchemy Caterers in Washington, D.C.

- Carla's Corner Entertaining Tips for Your Next Party

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