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Scrumptious Summer Meal, On A Shoestring

Leah Cohen has a real passion for cooking.

She's the executive chef at New York hotspot Centro Vinoteca, and her drive to be the best helped got her selected as a contestant on this past season's "Top Chef," leading to national prominence.

Leah accepted The Early Show Saturday Edition's "Chef on a Shoestring" challenge and attempted to make a delicious, three-course summer meal for four on our recession-busting budget of just $35.

And in so doing, she was automatically entered in our "How Low Can You Go?" competition. The "Shoestring" chef whose total ingredients costs are the lowest will be invited back to prep our whammo year-end holiday meal!

Her menu includes: Grilled Watermelon Salad with Ricotta Salata, Potato Wrapped Tilapia, and Berries & Custard.


Ricotta Salata is the pressed, salted and dried variety of the traditional milky ricotta cheese. Ricotta Salata is a milky-white hard cheese used for grating or shaving, ricotta salata is sold in wheels, decorated by a delicate basket-weave pattern.

Tilapia are a white fish, though red skinned Tilapia will have a reddish colored meat. This fish is very low in fat, free of saturated fat and high in protein. Tilapia, which is a farm raised fish, can make even the non fish lover take notice. Tilapia has a mild flavor and lends itself easily to any kind of seasoning you want to add.


Grilled Watermelon Salad with Ricotta Salata

1 seedless watermelon
1/2 pound ricotta salata
1/4 bunch basil cut into thins strips or torn
1 bottle balsamic vinegar
Olive oil


Cut the watermelon into 1/2 inch thick slices.

With a ring mold, cut a circle of watermelon about 3 inches in diameter.
Repeat same step for the ricotta salata.

Brush each side of the watermelon with olive oil and grill each side for about 1 minute.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan reduce the bottle of balsamic to a nice syrup consistency, similar to honey.


Take one watermelon round as the base, top with ricotta salta and repeat step. Drizzle reduced balsamic reduction and olive oil over the plate. Garnish with basil.

Potato Wrapped Tilapia

6 Yukon gold or Idaho potatoes
4 tilapia filets
1 lemon
1 bag baby spinach
2 cloves garlic finely chopped
1 shallot finely chopped
3 tablespoons chicken stock
olive oil


Preheat oven to 375°F degrees.

Peel the raw potatoes and with a mandolin or sharp knife slice the potato into very thin, uniformed slices.

Wrap the tilapia fillet with 2-3 layers of the potato slices to make a crust.

Coat skillet with 3 tablespoons olive oil and pan fry the tilapia until the potato crust is golden brown.

Place skillet in the oven to finish cooking the fish for approximately 4-6 minutes.

In a separate pan sauté garlic and shallot in olive oil and add spinach.

Remove the fish from the pan, drain excess oil and add chicken stock. Add zest and juice from one lemon and a couple of tablespoons of butter.


Place spinach on plate, top with Tilapia and finish with lemon butter sauce.

For Leah's dessert recipe, go to Page 2.

Mixed Berries & Custard

1/2 cup raspberries
1/2 cup strawberries
1 pint heavy cream, whipped
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
Balsamic reduction (from grilled watermelon)


Cook the egg yolks and sugar over a double boiler whisking constantly until they are a nice pale yellow shade.

Once this mixture has cooled, fold in whipped heavy cream.


Place 1/3 cup of the custard at the bottom of a tall glass, top with berries. Drizzle with balsamic reduction.

So, how did Leah do in our "How Low Can You Go" competition?

Grilled Watermelon Salad
watermelon $5.99
ricotta salata $3.00
basil $1.49
balsamic vinegar $2.49
total $12.97

Potato Wrapped Tilapia
potatoes $2.71
tilapia $7.99
lemon $0.59
baby spinach $2.00
garlic $.39
shallot $.16
chicken stock $1.39
total $15.23

Mixed Berries with Custard
raspberries $2.99
strawberries $1.99
heavy cream $1.19
total $6.17

Grand total: $34.37

"How Low Can You Go?" leaders so far:

1. Paul Liebrandt $32.35

2. Scott Peacock $32.60
Watershed Restaurant

3. Joey Campanaro $33.27
The Little Owl