Sometimes, an old family tradition can inspire a new venture.
Virginia "Gina" Peterson grew up spending a lot of time in the kitchen, learning to cook with her mother and grandmother. Every Thanksgiving, all the women and girls in her family would gather in her grandmother's kitchen to make crespelle soup, chicken broth poured over a folded crepe topped with sharp sheep's milk cheese.
"I don't know if it's all Italians or just my own family tradition," Peterson says, recalling one of her fondest memories. "My grandmother would have over 30-plus people and we would all get together and make crepes and roll them up and serve them with chicken broth and locatelli cheese."
Young Gina loved helping out after school and on weekends in the family butcher shop in Drexel Hill, Pa. And by the time she had finished high school, she knew she wanted to be a chef, enrolling straight into the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
As her knowledge of food and cooking grew, so did Peterson's crepe technique. In an Escoffier class meant to teach tableside cooking techniques, Peterson says "it seemed like we made hundreds of crepes" in front of real guests who ordered bananas Foster desserts and the like.
One thing Peterson noticed was her love of interacting with people while cooking, instead of working in a kitchen far removed from her guest. She also enjoyed the creative freedom she had to play with flavors and present each crepe as a piece of edible art.
"I remember seeing the amazement and intrigue on their faces," Peterson says of the Escoffier experience. "I thought, 'How can I bring this to a larger crowd?'"
Upon graduation, she held a slew of cool chef jobs, including recipe tester and food stylist for magazines including La Cucina Italiana, and Saveur. But it was a hard time to be starting out in New York City - immediately after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 - and Peterson missed her other love, her high school sweetheart John.
John Peterson is a fisherman from Cape May County, and the couple married and moved to Rio Grande, where Gina Peterson took a bartending gig at The Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel rather than pursuing a chef's career. At first the couple enjoyed the freedom of working in summer and being unemployed and unencumbered by family in winter. They would pick a spot on the map and travel to a new snowboarding spot each year.
But Gina Peterson kept finding reminders of her lifelong dream wherever she went. A food cart stand at the base of a mountain in Colorado turned out to be the concrete idea she needed to launch her own chef's venture: a gourmet creperie.
The name, Crespella Gourmet Creperie, is a nod to her grandmother and reminder of the family tradition that got her started. But the crepe stands themselves are all Gina Peterson's idea - with a little help from her new family members, John and his sister, Liz Peterson, who Gina Peterson calls "my right hand girl." Former Ebbitt Room chef Lucas Mantecca even helped Peterson get certified to serve food from her new cart.
Crespella offers sweet and savory crepes at chic locales such as in Hawk Haven Vineyard's "Crush Pad" a grape-stomping celebration in Rio Grande featuring live music and wines to go with Crespella's creations - Merlot for her ham and Assiago crepe or a Riesling with her banana-nutella crepe - every Saturday through Oct. 26. Other places to try Gina's and Liz's crepes are at the Stone Harbor Farmer's Market on Sundays and at the West Cape May "Backyard Park" at Borough Hall on Tuesdays.
Crespella also can be found at events such as the June 1 Strawberry Festival in Wilbraham Park in West Cape May. There Peterson also will offer her homemade jams, made from her own blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. Peterson says she likes to use the jams as seasonal toppings for her crepes, too, whipping them into some cream cheese here, blending them with bananas and maple syrup there.
Peterson also grows her own vegetables, such as zucchini for her savory crepes. The fresh zucchini is grilled the day before. When cooking, she turns the vegetables several times to get those nice char marks from the grill. Then the zucchini is cooled in the fridge to lock in the flavor that comes with the marks, and served with herbed ricotta cheese in a crepe.
"You want to grill the flavor in so it comes out in the zucchini," Peterson explains. "That's why you grill it; you want to get that char on it that adds flavor."
Peterson uses a dowel to spread the batter smoothly on a stationary griddle at her stand. But if you're using a pan at home, try to get one that's at least 6- to 8-inches round, and then practice flipping the whole crepe at once in the pan.
Once you get the hang of it, crepes make an excellent snack or even a hearty meal in minutes. Peterson's 3-year-old daughter, Keira, loves them, and with a busy season for both Gina and John in summer, crepes are often what's for dinner in the Peterson household. Peterson likes to play with flavors such as bacon and Nutella spread or dark Dove chocolate with fresh orange and ricotta. In fact, ricotta works just as well with savory toppings, such as smoked salmon with fresh dill and cucumbers.
And each crepe is wrapped in paper that encourages you to "eat more crepes" while offering ways to follow Crespella, on Facebook, twitter or capemaycrepes.com
Contact Felicia Compian:
Crespella Gourmet Creperie Phone: 609-408-8593 Website: capemaycrepes.com, follow Crespella Gourmet Creperie on Facebook and twitter Locations: Hawk Haven Vineyard noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 26; Stone Harbor Farmer’s Market 8 a.m. to noon Sundays, June 30 through Sept. 8; West Cape May Farmer’s Market 3 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, June 25 to Aug. 27; West Cape May Strawberry Festival, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., June 1; catering also available
Grilled Zucchini with Balsamic and Herbed Ricotta Crepes
Savory Crepe Batter:
•1 1/4 cups whole milk
•3/4 cup water
•2 cups flour
•1 teaspoon salt
•1 teaspoon sugar
•5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
In a food processor, combine all of the ingredients and pulse for 10 seconds. Place the crepe batter in the refrigerator for one hour to allow the batter to rest. The batter will keep for up to 48 hours.
•1 large zucchini, sliced 1/2-inch thick lengthwise
•1 cup part skim milk ricotta cheese
•1 tablespoon locatelli cheese
•1/2 teaspoon fresh parsley, minced
•1/4 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
•1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
•1/4 cup balsamic vinegar of modena
•1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
•1 clove fresh garlic, minced
•Salt and pepper, to taste
Combine vinegar and olive oil in a medium-sized bowl and whisk to emulsify. Marinate sliced zucchini for at least 30 minutes or up to eight hours. Place zucchini slices on a hot grill, rotating every 3 to 4 minutes for a total of about 12 minutes cooking time.
Place grilled zucchini back in bowl to cool.
In a separate bowl combine ricotta, fresh herbs, grated cheese, garlic and salt and pepper. Fill ricotta mixture into a pastry bag or plastic bag with a small corner cut on one end.
When warm to touch, stack zucchini slices and dice, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
Heat a medium sized non-stick pan and ladle approximately 1 ounce of batter into the center of the pan and swirl to spread evenly. If using a griddle, use a dowel to spread the batter. Cook for 30 seconds and flip over so the inside of the crepe is facing up. Pipe the ricotta onto the crepe and evenly spread a spoonful of diced grilled zucchini. Fold the crepe in half, then into threes. Repeat until remaining ingredients are gone. Serve warm with your favorite bottle of chardonnay wine.