Guest Chef Pilar Sanchez BerridiBy Dennis Linden
Chef Pilar Sanchez Berridi, executive chef for Levy Restaurants at STAPLES Center and Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE in Los Angeles, uses a very simple Italian dessert tradition to capture some delicious fresh flavors of the season
Order a crostata in an espresso café in Italy and you will be served a tart with a jam filling. Chef Pilar takes what she needs from that dish, namely its rustic yet surprisingly light dough, to deliver some fruit and vegetable favorites from the August harvest.
This writer admits to usually walking quickly away from the word pastry, but Chef Pilar’s dough really does not require a Le Cordon Bleu pastry chef degree to be successful, so do not be intimidated. In fact, due to that fear of flour syndrome, my pantry lacked Chef Pilar’s suggested mixer paddle attachment to combine the butter and flour for this recipe. So I let my fingers do the kneading for about twenty minutes until the necessary cornmeal consistency was achieved. Even so, this confidence-building dough formula came out perfect!
The filling in Chef Pilar’s Savory Vegetable Crostata matches the consistency of the dough, hearty without being heavy. The simple combination of zucchini, specialty onions and sweet heirloom tomato flavors, along with a few simple herbs and just the right amount of flaky dough simply works beautifully together. All three vegetables that the chef employs in this dish are peaking right now in both seasonal production and summertime goodness. This crostata could be a side dish or a vegetarian entrée, as it really needs no accompaniment beyond Chef Pilar’s suggestion of a nicely chilled dry Rosé. Chef recommends: Elyse Winery in Napa or a French Château Routas from Provence.
Building on the sweetness of white nectarines during the height of the summer season, the chef’s White Nectarine Crostata takes this fruit tart dessert to sublime levels of scrumptiousness with very few ingredients. The white nectarine is the star here, one needs little else than what Mother Nature provides. Well, maybe just one tiny flavor additive. The chef suggests a dollop of fine vanilla ice cream over the top! In the interest of culinary accuracy, a comparative taste test was diligently performed. It was a tough but necessary job! While the dish was wonderful served all by itself, it is hard to not be swayed by the fruity sweetness and flaky dough suffused with the rich creaminess of a high quality cream of vanilla! This is definitely a comfort food in motion.
This recipe can be done in about three hours, including the two hours required for chilling in the refrigerator. However, it is also a very host-friendly dish for entertaining since it can be prepared a day ahead, then popped into the oven for the final bake and served without fuss. While Chef Pilar submitted one basic recipe with two filling options, my taste test required a two course meal of tarts and I would not hesitate to serve them this same way to guests. Even the dough takes on a different character in each, as the texture of the pastry supports the vegetable flavors as an entrée, while the sugar sprinkle (and ice cream!) definitely announces the serving of dessert.
Chef Pilar moves with seeming ease and calmness through the hectic schedule and stream of culinary challenges that come with being the Executive Chef of one of the busiest entertainment complexes in the country. On a daily basis, the chef oversees the culinary needs of 150 luxury suites, three private clubs, a full restaurant and several upscale lounge venues plus the menus offered at the arena’s many general concessions. Even with a little pre-planning in her schedule, it turned out that Chef Pilar still had to put together the crostata recipes for this feature in the midst of an extended basketball season at the Center as the Lakers played their way through the NBA Playoffs, eventually winning the Championship.
In fact, the email Pilar sent in response to my acceptance of her offer to supply a second filling option for her crostata recipe is a great snapshot in the life of this multitasking master chef: “I am doing a private party for 10,000 today. Tomorrow is a NBA Finals home game, then more catering the next day and, hopefully, the last game of the playoffs on Thursday. But I'll get you the savory filling recipe tomorrow.” As promised, I received the recipe the next day; I guess the chef did it in her spare time!
Pilar’s main focus, and challenge, is to plan new and separate menus for all the eatery levels for every event staged at the complex. The NBA basketball fan has a completely different set of culinary tastes and expectations than, say, an audience attending a Lady Gaga concert; and neither of those menus would work for the age range drawn to the arena when the circus is in town. Graciously, Pilar gives special credit to her talented crew of sous chefs who each head the four levels of foodservice being orchestrated at the Staples complex at any one time.
So why would this well-known chef who has operated successful restaurants in Paris and Napa, as well as managed the kitchens of the most prestigious resorts, hotels and restaurants in Napa, San Francisco and Santa Barbara choose to subject herself to a life in the fast lane of a Sports and Entertainment Center in downtown Los Angeles?
“Well, firstly, I am a huge Lakers fan,” declared the chef. “Not that I have much of a chance to watch play during the actual games, it is still a dream come true for me to be associated in some way with my team of many years. Also, since much of my career has been in the hotel industry, the move into this dynamic, multifaceted venue appealed to me as the next logical professional challenge that I could take on. Certainly, there are times when I am just too tired to think anymore, but it’s a very satisfying tired that comes at the end of a job that I know was well done. I simply love what I do and would not trade this position for all the spas in Napa. Well, maybe for just one week, but as a guest not in the kitchen, and I would probably start wondering how my kitchen was going back home by Tuesday!”Savory Vegetable Crostata & White Nectarine Crostata
(One crostata = 8 slices)For the dough of one crostata
1 cup all purpose flour
1 stick cold butter (8 oz., salted)
6 Tablespoons cold water
Using a stand up mixer with the paddle attachment or food processor with the dough blade, place the flour in the bowl along with the cold butter, which you have cut up into small cubes. PULSE to cut the butter into the flour until you achieve a course cornmeal consistency. Slowly add the water while the machine is running but stop before it forms into a ball. Pour the mixture onto a clean surface and with lightly floured hands, bring the dough together and form into a disk that is about 1 inch thick. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and smooth the dough’s edges and surface with your hands. Refrigerate for at least one hour.Savory Vegetable Filling
For 1 crostata (8 servings)Ingredients
2 red torpedo onions
1 large organic zucchini
½ pt. mixed heirloom cherry tomatoes
¼ cup olive oil
1 Tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1 Tablespoon finely chopped thyme
1 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper
Peel and cut both ends off of the onions, then julienne them lengthwise about ¼ inch thick. Wash and cut the zucchini lengthwise. Cutting at an angle, slice the entire zucchini into half moons about ½ inch thick. Wash and remove the stems from the tomatoes. Slice the bay leaf into very thin julienne. In a sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Place the onions in and cook for about 2 minutes then reduce flame to low and cook another 5 minutes until translucent and caramelized, stirring frequently. Add the zucchini, garlic, thyme and bay leaf to the pan. Cook over high heat for about two minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool.
Prepare the dough and tart as you would for the nectarine tart but do not sprinkle with the sugar.
This crostata can be served warm or at room temperature.
White Nectarine filling
For 1 crostata (8 servings)
1 ¼ pound organic white nectarines
5 Tablespoons sugar
A pinch of salt
3 quarts of water to a boil in a saucepan.
Prepare an ice bath that will accommodate all of the fruit, submerged completely. Using a paring knife, make a criss-cross incision at the top of each nectarine (stem end). Drop the fruit gently into the boiling water for about one minute. Using a slotted spoon, gently remove the fruit and place immediately into the ice bath. Allow to cool completely for a few minutes, then strain. Using the paring knife, peel the skin off the fruit. Cut the fruit in half, remove pit and then cut each half into ½ inch wedges. Place the wedges into a clean mixing bowl and sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of the sugar and the pinch of salt. Coat the fruit gently, but do not handle too much. Let rest at least 5 minutes.
Let this dessert crostata cool a few minutes, but serve while still warm and topped with a rich vanilla ice cream.
Place the cold dough onto a clean, floured surface and allow to rest out for about 5 minutes. Using a floured rolling pin, gently roll the dough into a 10 inch circle, turning and applying more flour as needed. The edges need not be perfect as this tart is meant to be rustic in appearance. Transfer the prepared dough onto a flat cookie sheet that is lined with parchment paper.
Arrange the fruit or vegetable filling on the center of the dough, leaving about 2 inches around the edge; fold over the edges all the way around. Refrigerate for at least one hour. Just before baking, prepare an egg wash using one egg and a few drops of cold water. Brush the edges of the crostata with the egg wash thoroughly. For the white nectarine crostata only, sprinkle remaining sugar over dough edges. No sugar on the veggie crostata. Bake in a pre-heated 375° oven for 40-34 minutes, until the pastry is crispy and golden.