On Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend a Tastemaker Event in Huntersville, North Carolina, sponsored by Foodbuzz and Carrabba’s Italian Grill. I also got to bring a guest, so I asked my friend Staci, who lives in the Huntersville area.
First, we met the owner and our host for the afternoon, Marci Lambert. Marci told us a little about herself, describing her journey from Carrabba’s server to proprietor of the Huntersville location.
Then we met Mike Brannock, who led the cooking demonstration for us. Mike is a Food Tech for Carrabba’s and works for twenty-five different locations developing recipes and integrating new quarterly specials for the restaurants.
Mike told our group some of the history behind Carrabba’s before beginning the cooking demonstration. Did you know that Carrabba’s originated in Houston, Texas and that the style is Sicilian Italian? Or, that all of their food is made in house? Also, they still use many of the original owner’s recipes, including their sauces and bread crumbs.
The first recipe that Mike prepared for us was pesto. Carrabba’s uses only Genovese basil (12-15 lbs. per week), and Mike said the best way to prepare it is to cut the herbs with a knife before adding to the food processor for a more consistent texture. He then added pine nuts, walnuts, garlic, butter, salt & pepper (always freshly ground) and olive oil and processed the mixture. The consistency of the pesto was fairly thin at first, but Mike thickened it by folding in freshly grated Romano cheese at the end.
After the pesto was prepared, Mike and the kitchen staff made beautiful tomato caprese salads for us to enjoy:
I added a little balsamic vinegar to mine about halfway through for a little extra acidity, and the pesto was delicious! Staci and I both agreed we could eat it alone with a spoon.
Next up were two of Carrabba’s sauces, marinara and pomodoro. Mike started the marinara by sweating anchovy, garlic and onions in pomice olive oil (pomice is used for high-heat cooking, which extra virgin should be more of a finishing oil), then added scallions, red wine, oregano, chopped tomatoes and crushed red pepper. He explained that the sauce shouldn’t be overly spicy but that the red pepper will add a slight heat to finish the taste. Pomodoro is a simpler, sweeter sauce that has larger chunks of tomatoes.
After the sauce demonstration, we got to choose between two entrees – Tag Pic Pac or Linguine Pescatore.
Staci and I both chose the Tag Pic Pac with added shrimp. “Tag” is short for tagliarini, which is a flat pasta that is thinner than fettuccini. Mike told us that pastas were often named after what the look like, such as linguine means “tiny tongues” and spaghetti means “small cords.” He also said that Carrabba’s uses only imported dried pastas from Italy because Italians still use the traditional method of air drying pasta that creates a much better product.
Next, Mike showed us the preparation for Penne Franco, which includes olives, artichokes, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic in a simple oil and garlic based sauce. I was very excited because those are all some of my favorite ingredients, and also because we each got an order of Penne Franco to take home!
Penne Franco is finished with ricotta salata cheese rather than Romano like most of Carrabba’s other dishes. Ricotta salata is ricotta that has been salted and allowed to dry into a hard grating cheese rather than the fresh, spreadable version you usually see.
Penne Franco with ricotta salata cheese
We ended the afternoon with a mini version of the Dessert Rosa, which includes butter cake layered with strawberries, sliced bananas, pineapple, vanilla pudding, Cool Whip and a chocolate drizzle. Yes, I said Cool Whip – they keep in the restaurant for only this dessert, because it was in the original recipe, but they make fresh whipped cream for their other dessert selections.
Finally, we ended the afternoon with some questions for Mike and received our take-out goody bags. Mike really loaded up the bags, too – we each got a serving of Penne Franco, a loaf of bread with two containers of spice blend and olive oil, a huge container of mixed olives and a small container of pine nuts.
P.S. – You want to know what is in Carrabba’s bread dipping spice blend? Well, it’s fresh garlic, parsley, basil, rosemary, kosher salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper, granulated garlic, and oregano! Mix some up and give it a try!