Cathy Pavlos, executive chef and co-proprietor of Lucca in Irvine, has a talent for teaming unexpected flavors to create Italian comfort food at its very best.
The restaurant’s deli features both imported and domestic meats and cheeses, and it’s often a selection from that chilled case that turns a good dish into something irresistible.
Pavlos’ prosciutto wrapped strawberries are one example. These luscious appetizers are a combination of smoky, sweet, and salty flavors. The large ripe berries are heated just-enough to caramelize the cut side. This can be accomplished one of three ways: atop the stove on a heated grillpan, in the oven under the broiler, or with the flame of a torch.
She prefers the torch method because it is quicker when you are prepping in volume. But she doesn’t use one of those sissy kitchen torches from a cookware shop. She bought her larger, honest-to-goodness-sized torch at the hardware store.
“If you like, you can use ripe fresh peaches instead of strawberries,” she says, “but make sure to adjust the addition of the sweetener (honey or turbinado sugar) depending on which technique you use.
“You can put the honey on the fruit before you broil it in the oven, but if you are using a grillpan, put the honey on after you grill it. Or if using a torch, don’t use honey. Instead sprinkle with some turbinado (coarse crystal raw sugar) and brulee it.”
She cuts the berries in quarters leaving it attached at the stem end, then pipes in a filling of mascarpone and melted white chocolate.
More on that next week …
Pavlos’ Prosciutto-Wrapped Berries with Mascarpone
Yield: 12 servings
6 large, ripe strawberries, unhulled
Honey or turbinado sugar, see Step #2
About 3 or 4 dried figs
12 very thin slices prosciutto
About 1/3 cup mascarpone placed in pastry bag with star tip
Optional garnish for platter: sprigs of fresh mint and fresh blackberries
1. Cut berries in half from top to bottom, leaving on as much of the green top as possible. Lightly caramelize the cut side of each berry; you don’t want the fruit to end up mushy, so keep an eye on the berries and don’t over-caramelize.
2. To caramelize under broiler: Preheat broiler and place rack 6- to 8-inches below broiler element. Place berries cut side up on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with just enough honey to lightly coat the top. Broil until just starting to lightly brown. To caramelize using a grillpan, heat the grillpan and brush with a smidgen of vegetable or canola oil. Grill until lightly grilled marked; remove from heat and brush the cut sides with a little honey. To caramelize with a torch, sprinkle cut surface with a little turbinado sugar and use torch to lightly caramelize cut surfaces.
3. Cut dried figs in half (or quarters, depending on strawberry size) and when cool enough to handle, place a fig half in the cavity (hollow portion) of each strawberry. Wrap each berry with prosciutto.
4. Just before serving, use a pastry bag fitted with a star tip, to pipe a smidgen of mascarpone cheese between the fig and the prosciutto inside each appetizer. Place on platter and serve. If desired, garnish platter with sprigs of fresh mint and fresh blackberries.
Husband-co-owner Elliott Pavlos serves as General Manager/Sommelier, while Cathy Pavlos oversees the kitchen and ever-changing menu. Lucca is in the Quail Hill Village Center in Irvine, 6507 Quail Hill Parkway, Irvine 949- 725-1773.
QUICK TIP FROM MELISSA’S: Kumquats are delectable stuffed with a store-bought soft herb-and-garlic cheese.
Cut off the stem end and use the small end of a melon-baller to scoop out the interior. Spoon in the cheese, and voila! Easy.
The outside is sweet and the inside is tart.
They are generally in season from November to July.