For years, high school freshman has whipped up meals

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 18, 2009

Don’t turn down an invitation to the Myers’ house for dinner.

One never knows what the chef there will be whipping up: Orange watercress salad with caramelized walnuts, seared sea scallops served on a bed of arugula and turnip puree, or perhaps molten chocolate cakes with raspberry coulis.

“If she could drive, she could do it all,” says Lori Myers.

The “chef” is actually Myers’ 13-year-old daughter Gina. When the Ferris High School freshman is not busy with homework or gymnastics practice, she’s sure to be in the kitchen of their Tower Mountain home.

“I like to make really gourmet stuff and I love to try to make a meal as gourmet as I can,” Gina says.

Lori Myers says her daughter has been whipping up eats for her family and friends for the past five years. At Christmastime, she took on something that can make even experienced chefs break into a cold sweat: She catered the holiday party her father Paul hosted for his fellow physicians at Sacred Heart.

Gina did everything herself for the guest list of about 30: She planned the small bites menu, shopped for ingredients and then cooked for two days (taking one day off school) to prepare for the party. The menu included fig jam on crostini with pecorino and apple, crab salad in endive leaves, smoked salmon canapés, caramelized and goat cheese pizettes with prosciutto, feta-stuffed bell peppers, stuffed manicotti and polenta squares.

Her desserts that night included molten chocolate cakes, apple crostata, baklava, tiramisu and peppermint bark.

It wasn’t the cooking that made her nervous, Gina says. It was the weather.

“I kept thinking it wasn’t going to happen because of the storm,” she says. They held the gathering in spite of the record snow and there were compliments all around for the young chef. Although Gina rarely has time to watch television, it’s not hard to guess which channel she picks.

“If I have time to watch TV, it’s going to be the Food Network, no matter what,” she says. “I just love it because it gives me so many new ideas.”

She prefers to improvise, working from basic recipes she’s memorized while watching her favorite television chefs Giada de Laurentiis and Bobby Flay.

“I buy her cookbooks, but they’re in the cupboard and I use them,” says Lori, who admits that she had to step up her own cooking to keep pace with her daughter.

Gina also relies on cooking techniques she’s learned from taking classes from chef Char Zyskowski at Apple Charlotte Cooking Co.

“She just amazes me… Nothing stands in her way,” Zyskowski says.

The business only allows those younger than 18 to take the cooking classes if they come with a parent. Gina took many of the classes with her father, including a series of international cooking classes.

“I really liked the Asian. Asian food is just so perfectly tasty to me,” she says. She also raved about Thai, Tuscan and Greek cuisines.

Zyskowski says Gina was willing to jump right in and try anything. “She loved to plate and loved to see everything that was going on. It was all important to her and she recognized how important it was to the meal,”

Zyskowski says. “She’s got good taste buds, too.”

When Zyskowski heard that Gina was cooking for her family and even tackling holiday parties, it reminded her of her own start in cooking. As a child, she would walk to the corner grocery store to buy the ingredients for dinner, taking care to make sure the meal was balanced and within the family budget.

“It was the very best training I ever had,” Zyskowski says.

Gina is now teaching a class of her own. Once a week, she cooks with family friend Vonnie Reed.

Gina plans the menu and then they shop together at the grocery store. “She’s extremely particular about ingredients,” Reed says. “I’ve learned a lot. I never knew how important it was to buy fresh that day.”

Reed says when they made a marinara together last summer, Gina wouldn’t let her get tomatoes at the store. “She brought them all from her garden. It was excellent. We ate it for days.”

During the summer, Gina grows some of her own food in a 50-by-40-foot garden near their home. The elevation can make growing conditions a challenge, but she tried 43 different varieties of fruit and vegetables, and ended up with a windfall of tomatoes and peppers.

“The one thing that does not grow up here is corn,” she says.

Gina, who turns 14 later this month, says she hasn’t decided whether she’ll pursue a career as a chef or caterer. She’s just having fun indulging herself and her family with handmade gnocchi and other fresh pasta, Korean lettuce wraps and butternut squash soup.

“I feel like I have my own live-in chef,” says Lori Myers. “How did I get so lucky?”

Gina shared some of her favorite recipes:

Smoked Salmon Canapes

18 thin baguette slices

4 ounces cream cheese

12 ounces smoked salmon filet

3 tablespoons red onion, minced

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon fresh tarragon, chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon capers

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Salt and black pepper, to taste

3 tablespoons chives, chopped

Toast baguette slices in a 400-degree oven for 7 to 8 minutes.

Cool baguette slices and spread with cream cheese.

Chop salmon into small cubes and combine with remaining ingredients, except chives. Heap salmon mixture atop cream cheese on each baguette slice and garnish with chives.

Yield: 18 canapes

Feta Stuffed Bell Peppers

2 chunks fresh feta cheese

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped rosemary

1 tablespoon chopped thyme

1 tablespoon minced garlic

4 small red bell peppers

Slice each chunk of feta in half to make 4 rectangles of cheese. Combine olive oil, rosemary, thyme and garlic. Cover feta with herb and oil mixture and marinate 1 to 2 hours.

Roast bell peppers under broiler, turning every 3 minutes until blackened. Cool, peel, seed and stem. Split the peppers so they lay open flat.

Place the cheese inside the pepper and fold it closed. Bake stuffed peppers in a 375-degree oven for about 5 minutes, or until heated through.

Serve with baguette slices.

Yield: 4 peppers

Butternut Squash Soup

1 large butternut squash

Olive oil

1/2 yellow onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and black pepper, to taste

2 sprigs thyme, chopped

1 bay leaf

4 cups chicken broth

Cream (optional)

Fresh parsley, chopped (optional)

To prepare the butternut squash, remove the top and bottom and peel. Slice lengthwise, remove seeds and dice into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the squash, onion, garlic, salt and pepper, until the slightly softened.

Add the thyme, bay leaf and broth and simmer until the squash is tender. Remove bay leaf and puree soup in a blender.

Stir in a bit of cream if desired. Serve with chopped parsley to garnish.

Yield: Varies

Ricotta Cheesecake with Raspberry Coulis

For the crust

5 ounces (about nine whole) graham crackers

5 tablespoons butter, melted

1/3 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

For the cheesecake

2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, at room temperature

1 (12 ounce) container part-skim ricotta cheese, room temperature

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 lemon, zested

3/4 teaspoon vanilla

4 large eggs

For the raspberry coulis

2 pints fresh raspberries

1 lemon, juiced

2 to 3 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Wrap the outside of a 9-inch springform pan with 3 layers of aluminum foil.

Finely grind the graham crackers in the food processor, and then drizzle in butter until mixture resembles sand. Add sugar and salt and pulse to combine.

Evenly press crust onto the bottom (not the sides) of the prepared springform pan. Bake until the crust is golden, about 15 minutes. Cool completely.

Blend together the cream cheese and ricotta in a clean food processor bowl until smooth. Add in sugar, lemon zest, vanilla and eggs, one at a time, until smooth.

Scrape down sides of the bowl to be sure everything is well combined. Pour mixture over the crust and carefully place springform pan in a large roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan to come two-thirds of the way up the springform pan. Bake until the cheesecake is mostly set, but moves slightly when pan is gently shaken, about 1 hour and 5 minutes. Cool cheesecake and then refrigerate for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight. If the cheesecake doesn’t sit in the fridge long enough, it won’t set and it will not hold when cut.

While the cheesecake is cooling, blend the raspberries, lemon juice, and honey, adding water to thin if necessary. Run mixture through a sieve to strain out the seeds and chill until ready to use.

Carefully lift the sides of the springform pan away from the cheesecake. Dip a sharp knife in hot water, then wipe it off and carefully cut the cheesecake. Serve drizzled with raspberry coulis.

Yield: 12 servings

Reach staff writer Lorie Hutson at lorieh@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5446.

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