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Famed chef Alex Guarnaschelli creates sophisticated, down-to-earth dishes

| Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010

When Paris Hilton decided to have her 28th birthday party at Manhattan's trendy Butter restaurant, its executive chef, Alexandra Guarnaschelli, got a mention in the local celebrity sightings columns of Variety and other Hollywood trade papers.

She's used to notoriety as part of her position at the New York City hot spot, but says she doesn't alter her menu, not even for Paris and her friends.

Guarnaschelli, who will visit Giant Eagle Market District's Robinson store on Saturday, is dedicated to buying green and local. Her 3-year-old daughter regularly accompanies her to the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan within walking distance of their home, where she selects fresh produce for the restaurant.

"Buying food from farmers and people that I know adds that human element that I love," she says.

Two of her favorite signature dishes at Butter are Cavatappi Pasta with Spicy Lamb Sausage and Raspberry Beignets with Vanilla Dipping Sauce. Other menu features include Seared Hudson Valley Fois Gras served with toasted cornbread and huckleberries, Poached Maine Lobster with sweet corn, scallions and roasted sungold tomatoes, and for dessert, Local Peach Cobbler accompanied by bourbon pecan ice cream.

In addition to her restaurant position, Guarnaschelli is the host of a Food Network cooking show, "Alex's Day Off," and is chef and instructor at New York City's Institute of Culinary Education.

She will head back to the studio in a few weeks to start filming the second season of her cooking series, which, she says, "focuses on me and the different places I like to go -- and the connection between buying ingredients that are unique and special."

"Alex's Day Off" is her second Food Network project after "The Cooking Loft with Alex Guarnaschelli," in which she taught groups of cooking enthusiasts how to prepare simple, classic dishes.

She credits three culinary experts -- world-renowned chefs Guy Savoy of France, Daniel Boulud of New York and Joachim Splichal of Los Angeles -- for teaching her skills in the kitchen that influenced her cooking style. She worked with each of them at various stages of her career and says they make up "the trifecta that made me who I am" as a chef and teacher of culinary arts.

And, she was influenced by her mother, cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli, and says she has fond memories of time spent by her side in the kitchen as a young girl, baking pies, coffee cakes and Christmas cookies.

"My mother was always coaxing me away from my Barbie dolls to peel potatoes, knead bread or assemble a trifle," Guarnaschelli says.

After graduating from Barnard College in 1991 and taking a job with American chef and restaurateur Larry Forgione, she was encouraged by the chef to travel and explore her culinary interests. She moved to France to study at La Varenne Culinary School in Burgundy and eventually settled in Paris, where she worked as a chef at Guy Savoy's La Butte Chaillot.

She returned to the United States seven years later as an established chef, spending time at positions with Daniel Boulud at the Manhattan restaurant Daniel, and with Joachim Splichal's Patina restaurant in West Hollywood before returning to New York to open Splichal's first east coast eating establishment. She became executive chef at Butter in 2003.

She is looking forward to opening a new restaurant on Manhattan's West Side called The Darby, planned to open in September. The new eatery will be different from Butter with "an American slant and a raw bar with a lot of fresh fish," she says.

Before launching "Alex's Day Off" last October, Guarnaschelli served as a challenger and a judge on Food Network's "Iron Chef America," a judge on the primetime series "Chopped" and host of "The Cooking Loft."

When she gets an occasional actual "Alex's Day Off," chances are she won't be found in her kitchen creating dishes for her family and friends.

"I entertain people in my restaurant and on TV. I definitely like to take a break," she says. "Food is the kind of field that constantly submerges you in your craft. It's a real treat for me to have someone else prepare and serve me a meal."

My Mother's Chicken with Barbeque Sauce

Prep Time: 25 min

Cook Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes

"My mother would combine everything into a pot, and the sauce would just sit and simmer on the stove forever," says Alex Guarnaschelli. "I remember the smell would be somewhat acrid at first, like vinegar. Then the ginger, spices and lemon would take over and create this wonderful aroma. Doused on chicken and cooked in the oven, this sauce was amazing hot and cold leftover."

• 3 cups ketchup

• 2 cups cider vinegar

• 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce

• 1/2 cup light soy sauce

• 1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

• 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

• 2 tablespoons dry mustard

• 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

• 1 cup chili powder

• 1 knob fresh ginger (about 4 inches), peeled and cut in 3 pieces

• 5 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped

• 2 lemons, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

• 4 to 5 pounds chicken parts, a mixture of light and dark meat, all relatively the same size

• Kosher salt

Prepare the barbeque sauce: In a medium-size saucepan or a large, high-sided saute pan, combine the ketchup, cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, light brown sugar, dark brown sugar, dry mustard, Dijon mustard and chili powder. Whisk to blend. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the ginger, garlic and lemon slices and stir to combine. Simmer until the vinegar mellows slightly and the flavors start to meld, for about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Discard the ginger pieces.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Position the rack in the lower third of the oven. Line a baking sheet (or, if needed, 2 baking sheets) with foil. Season the chicken parts on both sides with salt. Pour about 1 1/2 cups of the barbeque sauce into a large bowl. Reserve the remaining sauce on the side. Submerge the chicken pieces in the sauce and arrange them on the prepared baking sheet with some of the lemon slices. The chicken should all be in a single layer with a little space between them. If additional space is needed, use the second baking sheet. Brush with barbeque sauce.

Put the baking sheet(s) in the oven and bake, undisturbed, for 20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven and use a pair of metal tings to turn the pieces to the other side. Use a pastry brush to coat the second side of the chicken with the barbeque sauce from the bowl. Do not reuse that bowl or brush again. Return the sheet(s) to the oven and cook for an additional 15 to 20 minutes. Poke a thigh with the tip of a small knife and verify the chicken juices run "clear" and not pink. Turn the broiler on and broil for a minute until the chicken is charred on top.

Warm the reserved barbeque sauce in a small saucepan over low heat. Pour into a serving bowl.

Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and serve immediately with the warm sauce on the side.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Charlotte Russe with Raspberries

Prep Time: 20 min

• 2 1/4-ounce packets unflavored gelatin

• 2 Tablespoons water

• 4 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped

• 2 1/2 cups whole milk, warmed

• 8 large egg yolks

• 1/2 cup granulated sugar

• 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

• 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• About 18 ladyfingers (12 ounces)

• 1 cup heavy cream

• 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

• 2 cups fresh raspberries

• 1 tablespoon orange-flavored liqueur

Sprinkle the gelatin over 2 tablespoons water in a small bowl and let stand until softened, for 3 to 5 minutes. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pot of barely simmering water (do not let the bowl touch the water), stirring occasionally. Remove the bowl from the pot and slowly whisk in the milk until incorporated; cover and keep warm.

Whisk the egg yolks, granulated sugar, salt and 1 tablespoon vanilla in a large heatproof bowl. Place the pot of water over medium-low heat (the water should be hot but not simmering). Set the bowl with the yolk mixture over the pot and cook, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until smooth and slightly custard-like, for 3 to 5 minutes.

Slowly stir in the warm chocolate mixture, a little bit at a time. (It's important to keep the yolk and chocolate mixtures at a similar temperature.) Continue to cook until the custard coats the back of a spoon, for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the gelatin mixture until dissolved. Transfer to a clean bowl, cover and refrigerate until the custard just begins to set but still jiggles, for about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, line the walls of an 8-inch springform pan with ladyfingers, standing each cookie up lengthwise around the inside off the pan (trim the bottoms, if desired). Beat the heavy cream in a large bowl with a mixer until it holds soft peaks. Fold 1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar and the remaining 1 teaspoon vanilla into the whipped cream. Gently fold 1 1/2 cups whipped cream into the chocolate custard with a rubber spatula until smooth. Carefully fill the pan with the chocolate cream. Refrigerate until set, for at least 3 hours or overnight.

Remove the sides of the pan and transfer the dessert to a platter. Gently toss the raspberries with the liqueur and the remaining 1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar in a bowl; arrange on top of the cake.

Makes 6-8 servings.

My Mother's Marinara Sauce

Prep Time: 15 min

Cook Time: 17 min

• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

• 2 small yellow onions, peeled, halved and cut into thin slices

• 2 medium-size carrots, peeled and cut into thin slices

• 5 cloves garlic, peeled, halved and cut into thin slices

• 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper

• Kosher salt

• 1 teaspoon granulated sugar

• 1 can (28 ounces) whole tomatoes

• 1/2 cup basil leaves, washed

In a medium-size skillet, over medium heat, add the olive oil. Stir in the onions, carrots, garlic slices, and crushed red pepper. Season with salt, and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the sugar and the canned tomatoes, breaking them up with a spoon, and mix well. Cook for an additional 10 to 15 minutes over medium heat, stirring from time to time. Taste for seasoning, then stir in the basil leaves.

Makes 2 1/2 cups.

Additional Information:

Alexandra Guarnaschelli

What: A visit with the chef and Food Network host

When: Noon Saturday

Cost: Free

Where: Giant Eagle Market District, Robinson

Details: Website

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