Beyond Pizza And Popcorn

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Karen Egbert could just picture it. Her 19-year-old son, who will be a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, moves into his first apartment, exhausts his cooking repertoire (scrambled eggs, grilled cheese, tiramisu) in the first week and begins a steady diet of deadly delivery food.

What's a mother to do?

Egbert figured that her son, Noah Kraft, was a perfect candidate for Chef on Call. In Herndon, Stephanie Ruth was thinking along the same lines and wrote to us about her college-age daughter.

A class was coming together. Had it been fall already, the session would have transpired at CulinAerie, a cooking school due to open then in downtown Washington. But a few weeks ago the Northwest home kitchen of chef Susan Holt, one of the school's two founders, had to stand in. (The other founder is Susan Watterson; she and Holt are alumnae of and former instructors at L'Academie de Cuisine in Maryland.)

By the time the lesson took place, Ruth's older daughter had left town for the summer, but her 17-year-old, Ali, who will be a senior at Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson High School, was thrilled to take her place.

The two students have a lot in common. Both are athletic, fit and interested in science. Ali Ruth spent the summer studying watersheds with the Chesapeake Bay Trust; Kraft mentioned that he might major in molecular biology.

Holt put together what Ali Ruth described afterward as "a cooking lesson that focused on a set of very doable recipes with a whole lot of tips, history and science thrown into the mix." The students eagerly scanned the curriculum, making sure the basic food groups were represented:

Pasta? Check! Chocolate? Check! Cheese? Check!

As in: linguine with shrimp and garlic; raspberries, ganache and shortbread in phyllo purses; and grilled fontina and prosciutto sandwiches.

They might not sound particularly healthful, but Holt dispelled that notion at the get-go. She is all about moderation, keeping good fats in the diet and not robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"I don't believe in scrimping by not eating something and then going overboard by eating a box of Snackwells," she insisted. Besides, also on the list were tomato, cucumber and pepper salad; vegetable couscous; and two simple fish dishes.

She started off with the cucumber salad, which gave her the opportunity to talk about knives and how to use them correctly, the difference between dicing (uniform) and chopping (random), and how to deal with various vegetables.

"I suck at this," Kraft said as they worked on peppers. Ruth's pieces were sticking together.

Holt encouraged them gently, teaching them how to avoid "the accordion effect" that results when the knife doesn't cut all the way through a vegetable. "Use the entire blade," she said. "It's long for a reason."

As many chefs do, Holt maintained that the most crucial lesson she'd impart would be the importance of seasoning. To her, there was no debate over salt use, and she stated unequivocally that "salt is your friend."

So is sugar. Both condiments, Holt said, draw moisture out of anything they touch and can guard against bacterial growth, which is why they are often main ingredients in preserved foods.

There was so much information in Holt's brain, it was a wonder the motherboard didn't melt; with less-enthusiastic students, she'd have risked sounding pedantic. Kraft and Ruth easily kept up, even interjecting their own ideas about surface tension, the role of sodium in neuron function and protein denaturing.

Along the way, Holt touched on myriad subjects: how to turn garlic and salt into a puree with a knife; why the starch in refrigerated potatoes turns to sugar; when to stop cooking processes and let residual heat take over; why unsalted butter is better. She even elaborated on how to fill food storage containers with leftovers and how to ladle soup into bowls without making a mess.

In other words, the kind of information that, once upon a time, one generation would pass to another.

It took more than an hour to get through the cucumber salad, but then Holt hit her stride, guiding Kraft and Ruth through the preparation of ganache (hot cream whisked into chopped bittersweet chocolate), shrimp linguine and oven-toasted sandwiches oozing with fontina cheese.

Kraft claimed grilled cheese as one of his own specialties; his version, like Holt's, requires lavish amounts of butter. "That's the key!" Holt concurred.

She was unabashed in her use of butter throughout the day, rolling her eyes from time to time to begrudgingly concede, when asked, that olive oil could take its place in certain dishes in whole or in part.

But even butter didn't help much to mitigate the difficulties that past-their-prime sheets of phyllo dough presented as they stuck together stubbornly. Holt turned it into a lesson about dealing with a disaster.

"Don't fight it," she suggested. "Use what you can and throw the rest of it away."

But because her efforts had yielded only one usable purse, she came up with another idea, one probably more practical for college students than the original plan: "Don't even use the phyllo. Just take the shortbread, top it with ganache and raspberries, and garnish with ice cream."

The day ended on a lighter note. Holt showed Kraft and Ruth how to: make an Indian-spiced vegetable couscous; oven-steam a fillet of ultra-fresh red drum in an aluminum foil packet with aromatic herbs, lemon juice and olive oil; and sear salmon fillets in a smoking cast-iron skillet.

She managed to sneak some butter into the salmon dish, whirling it into the pan with orange zest and basil as she quoted famed chef Pierre Troisgros:

"He said, 'If you buy a beautiful piece of fish, season it well and cook it perfectly, already you're a great chef.' He felt if you could do this, you had what it took."

Or as Holt put it, "It's better to stick to the basics and do them really well."

Those words resonated for Ruth.

"College kids would be less dependent on ramen noodles if they could learn what we learned about dicing, seasoning and cooking pasta and fish properly," she deduced.

"You guys are much more knowledgeable than we ever were!" Holt exclaimed. "Are your friends like you, or do you find that there are kids who really don't care what they eat?"

Ruth responded without hesitation.

"A lot of kids don't care because their parents don't care. I don't want to be a snob, but if someone brings in brownies and they used a mix, I know it's really quick to make them from scratch, and they taste so much better."

"Good chocolate, good sugar, good eggs," Holt began.

But Ruth finished the sentence.

"And butter."

"And butter!" Holt said, beaming.

David Hagedorn, chef and former restaurateur, can be reached at His Chef on Call column appears monthly.

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