- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

I’ve got pots and pans older than the host of the new Food Network show “Good Deal With Dave Lieberman.”He is 25. So I was understandably skeptical when I heard about his program teaching low-cost and quick cooking. Really, how could a guy barely old enough to buy wine have anything to teach today’s savvy TV audiences?

Mr. Lieberman didn’t go to culinary school, and he has never taken a cooking class. He’s a self-taught chef. “At 5, I’d mix ingredients, spices and vinegars into what I called ‘potions.’ I thought cooking was magical,” he said.

While other children were out playing stickball, Dave was reading cookbooks. He watched chefs such as Julia Child and Jacques Pepin on TV in the days before there even was a Food Network. He was further inspired by his dad, who was the family cook.

Mr. Lieberman graduated in 2003 from Yale University, where he majored in political science. During his senior year, he hosted a public-access cable television program, “Campus Cuisine,” which garnered the attention of a publisher and the Food Network. The result was a TV show and a cookbook — not bad for a recent college grad.

I was curious, so I arranged for Mr. Lieberman to cook lunch. Because his show is about easy cooking with inexpensive ingredients, I set a $20 grocery budget — assuming pantry basics such as salt, sugar and olive oil would be on hand. I even added a hurdle: He couldn’t use any combinations from his new cookbook, “Young and Hungry: More than 100 Recipes for Cooking Fresh and Affordable Food for Everyone” (Hyperion). Instead, he had to make up the menu as we shopped. The restrictions didn’t seem to bother him. “No problem,” he said. “This’ll be fun.”

I had read that Mr. Lieberman spent a year in Tuscany before starting college, so on the way to the market, we chatted in Italian. At the market, I suggested that he cook pasta. Would he take the challenge and dare to prepare pasta for an Italian? You bet — and without batting an eyelash. “Good idea. I love pasta, too,” he said, earning an A for courage.

He saw some bright red and yellow peppers but crinkled his nose, saying, “I don’t like smooth things in pasta.” After checking my opinion of artichokes, he tossed two into our basket.

Next, he grabbed a head of garlic. “Essential for good pasta sauce,” he announced. He checked out the fresh herbs, zooming in on thyme. “I love thyme. I’ll use it in the salad dressing and with the pasta sauce.” Next into the basket went salad ingredients: baby arugula (“It’s expensive, but we only need a little”) and radicchio.

When he spotted a pile of gorgeous Sicilian blood oranges, he snagged two. “The juice will make a great salad dressing, and we can grate the zest into the pasta.” To the cart he added tiny grape tomatoes, dried hot peppers, a shallot, a lemon, hard Asiago cheese, imported dry pasta, rhubarb, slivered almonds and pears. The last three ingredients were for a pear-and-rhubarb compote he was planning as dessert.

He explained to the checkout clerk that we had only $20 and asked for a subtotal part of the way through. We were over budget. Two large stalks of rhubarb alone were almost $4. Some stuff had to go, but he was reluctant to part with anything. “Dave,” I chided, “you can’t afford rhubarb.” Reluctantly, he returned the rhubarb. He looked sad, and I felt like a mom telling her son I couldn’t afford the bike he wanted for his birthday.

Still over budget, we also ditched the grape tomatoes. Yet neither one of us dreamed of exchanging the imported pasta for a cheaper domestic brand, even though the pasta alone represented a fifth of our budget.

He got an A-plus for pasta savvy, but because selecting the groceries had taken almost 40 minutes, I gave him a D for shopping speed.

We took our bag to the Food Network test kitchens in New York, where he started cooking. He spread the almonds on a baking sheet and popped them into the oven.

I looked for a timer so he wouldn’t have to worry about cooking times, but he said he didn’t need one. He put a pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta. “I salt the water really well but don’t put olive oil in,” he told me. “If you don’t want it to stick, just add olive oil after it’s cooked and drained.”

He began expertly chopping off (A-plus for knife skills) the tough outer leaves of the artichoke to get to the heart. Part way through the second artichoke, we smelled something burning. The almonds. They were black and beyond hope. He smiled and shrugged, earning an F for almond toasting but an A for attitude. The Food Network folks came to the rescue by lending him some already-toasted almonds.

Next was the pasta sauce, which he started by using the classic Roman technique of crushed garlic and whole hot chilies sauteed in olive oil.

He put about 5 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil in a large nonstick skillet; turned the heat to medium; and tossed in a few whole sprigs of thyme, some whole chilies and 4 large smashed garlic cloves, skins and all. “The skin will just come off as the garlic cooks,” he said. After the garlic was golden and the room fragrant, he took the pan off the heat and removed the garlic skins and tossed them in the trash. To the sauce, he’d later add sliced artichoke hearts, which were steaming over salted water.

Next he turned to dessert. “No rhubarb, so the compote is out. How about a pear-and-almond free-form tart?” My “yum” set him in motion. He eyeballed quantities and mixed the ingredients for the dough — flour, our borrowed toasted almonds crushed in a mini food processor, cold butter, sugar and a pinch of salt. After the dough had chilled, he pressed it out and added the filling of pears, sugar and cinnamon, which he baked at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.

While the pasta was cooking, he made the salad dressing of blood orange juice, lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper. He chopped the radicchio but when he glanced at the bleak-looking artichoke sauce in the pan, he decided to toss the radicchio into the sauce rather than use it in the salad (A for improvisation).

The recipes that follow are all from Mr. Lieberman’s “Young and Hungry.”

Cuke with a kick

1 small cucumber

4 tablespoons cream cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

3 tablespoons red horseradish, plus more for garnish

Large pinch of salt

Several grindings of black pepper

10 slices very thin white bread (such as Pepperidge Farm), crusts removed, cut in half

Peel cucumber, and slice it as thin as possible.

Mash cream cheese, dill, horseradish, salt and pepper together in a small bowl until well-blended. Spread bread slices with horseradish-dill cream cheese. Then top each with a cucumber slice or two and garnish with a dab of horseradish. Makes 20 sandwiches.

Potato-chip-crusted salmon

1 side of salmon (about 3 pounds)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 5.5-ounce bag kettle-cooked potato chips

Zest of half a lime

1/3 cup chopped fresh dill

2 tablespoons olive oil

Place salmon, skin side down, in center of baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Crush potato chips, lime zest and dill together in a bowl until chips resemble coarse crumbs. Mix in 2 tablespoons olive oil until incorporated. Coat salmon with a thin, even layer of potato chip crumbs. Pat gently so they stay put.

Bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the chip coating is lightly browned. Use two spatulas to transfer salmon to a serving platter, putting one at either end and lifting them up together so that salmon is in one piece.

Lay salmon gently on serving platter, and put a fork and a spoon on the table by the platter so that people can serve themselves. You can also serve the salmon right on the baking sheet. There’s no shame in that, either. Makes about 12 servings.

Mini fudgy chocolate cakes

4 ounces semisweet baking chocolate

4 tablespoons butter, plus more for preparing tins

1 large egg

1/3 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon flour

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a small saucepan. Whisk egg, sugar and salt together until yellow and light. Fold in melted chocolate and butter. Mix in flour until fully incorporated.

Lightly butter cupcake tins that are 3 inches in diameter. Pour batter into tins and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for about 12 minutes, just until the tops crack.

Remove cakes from oven. Using oven mitts, place aluminum foil on top of the cupcake pans and seal on all sides. Turn over onto flat surface and bang the bottom of the cupcake pan.

Remove the pan to leave the cakes turned upside down on the aluminum foil. Carefully turn right side up and place on a plate. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

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