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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

As I'm sure many of you are tired of hearing, the weather in parts of the east coast this winter has been, well, pretty miserable. So, a few days ago, I asked "Top Chef" finalist and caterer Carla Hall if she could whip up a bright and sunny dessert to take away some of the winter blues. She said yes, and so we met up at a local Safeway here in Washington pick up the ingredients.

Ms. CARLA HALL (Caterer, "Top Chef" Finalist): We're going to make a grapefruit panna cotta with mint and tarragon. And we're going to do a pomegranate reduction. So, just imagine those colors.

RAZ: And we're doing grapefruit now because why?

Ms. HALL: Well, because it's in season. And you think sort of in the winter all the citrus

RAZ: Right.

Ms. HALL: that are (unintelligible).

RAZ: And I'm looking out the window and I'm seeing, like, piles of snow.

Ms. HALL: Yeah, yeah, piles of snow and rinds of citrus. That's where we are. Oranges, grapefruits. So, I chose grapefruit because so often, it's kind of forgotten.

RAZ: Yeah. It's like you sprinkle sugar on it and you give it to your kids for breakfast.

Ms. HALL: Exactly, exactly. I mean, the skin is bitter, but when you're just concentrating on the pulp itself, it is amazingly wonderful. Yeah, so, I'm excited.

RAZ: Awesome. All right. Let's go. Now, this panna cotta we're about to make also needs mint and tarragon. But this morning, we run into a problem.

Ms. HALL: Okay. They don't have tarragon. I happen to have some at my house. But if you have this recipe and there was no tarragon, you still move forward.

RAZ: Could you use basil?

Ms. HALL: You could use basil. It has that, you know - tarragon has that sort of licorice-like taste, and the basil has another sort of minty, a different minty-type taste. So, shall we get - want to get some basil?

RAZ: Why not?

Ms. HALL: Why not?

RAZ: Why not.

Ms. HALL: Let's do it.

RAZ: A panna cotta is basically milk and cream with some gelatin to help it set.

(Soundbite of mixing)

RAZ: Back in Carla's kitchen, she starts to work on the sauce first. It's a simple reduction of port wine and pomegranate juice. But you can use any fruity wine if you don't have port handy. While the wine and the juice reduce down, Carla takes in a grapefruit and does something she insists is crucial before the juicing process.

So, you're rolling the grapefruit right now.

Ms. HALL: Mm-hmm. I'm rolling it and you

RAZ: You're just rolling it on top of the cutting board.

Ms. HALL: Exactly. I'm rolling it. Put some pressure to burst those little, I don't know, citrus bubbles. So, you see how squishy it is now? Feel that. It's kind of squishy?

RAZ: Oh yeah.

Ms. HALL: Yeah, softer. Okay. I'm cutting it in half crosswise.

(Soundbite of cutting)

Ms. HALL: Ooh, look at all that juice.

RAZ: That juice goes into a saucepan on medium heat. You want to cook it down to about five tablespoons of intense grapefruit flavor.

Ms. HALL: Now, while we are doing all this, you need to get another pot. Going to have you measure out a cup of cream and a cup of milk.

RAZ: Carla suggests you add the vanilla just as the milk starts to warm. But you don't want to cook that mixture too long, especially if you're using vanilla extract, because a lot of the flavor will simply boil off. With the milk and cream warming on the stove, it's time to chop up our basil and mint.

(Soundbite of scraping)

Ms. HALL: I want the texture of the herbs in the panna cotta because the panna cotta is so smooth you're going to get that nice little bite of the herbs, which will cleanse your palate at the end of dinner, which is oh so fabulous.

RAZ: Hmm. Yeah.

Ms. HALL: All right. So let's measure our reduction.

RAZ: Carla measures out the grapefruit syrup that's been simmering on the stove.

Ms. HALL: Now, I have a bowl that's pretty wide here to put the juice in. Because when you sprinkle the gelatin over, you want a wide surface. 'Cause if your surface isn't wide enough, then it's all going to plump up and you have this thick layer as opposed to a thin layer.

RAZ: She sprinkles two teaspoons of gelatin over the juice, gives it a quick whisk and pours it into the warm cream.

(Soundbite of bubbling)

RAZ: That mixture gets another few whisks and then it all gets poured through a strainer.

Ms. HALL: We want to make sure that when we are enjoying our yummy dessert that we're not hitting globs of gelatin or any

RAZ: Any globs.

Ms. HALL: Yeah, any globs. And that's just

RAZ: Who wants globs in their food?

Ms. HALL: Who wants globs?

RAZ: Finally, we stir in the herbs and take a taste.

Ms. HALL: Mm. I'm sorry, I just love the basil, right?

RAZ: That's awesome, yeah. It's great. I think that might even be better than tarragon. What do you think?

Ms. HALL: I love it. But you know what, I have one in the refrigerator because I had to make one before you all came and you can taste it with the tarragon and you've tasted this. So, I am happy that they didn't have tarragon at the store.

RAZ: Yeah.

Now, the mixture we've been working on will have to spend a few hours in the refrigerator. Carla pours it into greased bowls and then puts them away and she takes out the finished version of the one she made the night before. She adds some pieces of grapefruit, the wine pomegranate reduction and bits of candied lime peel as garnish.

Ms. HALL: Does this sound like lime peel?

(Soundbite of lime pieces pouring out of container)

RAZ: No.

Ms. HALL: That's candied lime peel.

(Soundbite of shaking)

RAZ: And now, it's time for a very important taste test: basil or tarragon?

Ms. HALL: Oh, this looks so pretty. Let's dig into this one.

RAZ: All right. That's delicious.

Ms. HALL: I like it. You know what, it feels really good in your mouth. The silky texture and...

RAZ: And, you know, the tarragon is really nice. It does, it has a licorice-y sweetness. That is really nice.

Ms. HALL: Yeah.

RAZ: You know what's nice about it? Is we're here in the middle of winter, right, and there's like still a foot-and-a-half of snow on the ground, on your roof and mine, and this is so sort of, like, sunny and happy and warm. It's like spring has arrived early.

Ms. HALL: I know. Spring has arrived early in my kitchen.

RAZ: Well, Carla Hall, thank you so much.

Ms. HALL: It was my pleasure.

RAZ: If you want to try making panna cotta yourself, Carla Hall's recipe is up at our Web site. That's npr.org.

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