Portland, Ore. — Richard Nelson is a strong defender of American foods. A close friend and associate for many years of James Beard, Mr. Nelson is neither a chef nor has he trained abroad.
His style is straightforward and honest in his cooking classes, emphasizing what he calls down-home American cooking.
''We do have an American cuisine which many people may not recognize, perhaps because they're too close to it,'' he said, speaking at the Food News Forum of the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association.
''What we have in America is many ethnic foods to draw from and what we've done with these dishes is what makes American cuisine'' he said.
Mr. Nelson admires and prepares many regional dishes, but he doesn't believe ''American cooking'' necessarily means indigenous foods.
His theory is that the simplicity of preparation and presentation are central to the definition of the term.
''You get the fresh, natural taste of American dishes. The food is handled carefully and simply, not masked with sauces and seasonings.
''My first trip to Europe told me I was interested in what we have here,'' he said. ''I found French beef uninteresting and there were so many sauces I couldn't taste it.
''They took our spinach salad with bacon on top and copied it. And they have finally come around to sweet corn on the cob, although they don't give us credit.
''But generally we are beginning to get the credit we deserve.'' he said. ''Our food is not bland. It is a blending of many different cuisines.
''We are only just starting to develop a cuisine in Oregon,'' he said. ''We have plenty of native fresh foods here - Dungeness crabs, razor clams, wild mushrooms and chanterelles, and outstanding fresh berries. We have Indian baked salmon, which could be the start of a regional cuisine here in Oregon.''
But Nelson is no purist. He is realistic.
''I use convenience things - but I read the package first and see what's in it before I make up my mind.
''I poach fish in plain water or with water and butter. You don't need wine to poach a fish. I often add onion and a little carrot to the water.
''I'm interested in the natural taste of the fresh fish, he said.
At a demonstration for food editors Mr. Nelson cooked a West Coast fish, petrale sole, sauteing it in three seasoned butters, tarragon, lemon, and fennel.
He also cooked shredded zucchini, joking about it by saying that he was tired to death of the vegetable but was cooking it because it would just get rid of a little bit more.
One of his down-home American recipes is Spoon Bread Souffle, which he put together while testing grits and cheese souffle with June Platt 20 years or more ago, he said.
I watched as it cooked in the convection oven of his cooking school classroom. It puffed up, was golden, and looked beautiful. He insisted it would stay up even when it was cut and served - and it did.
Richard Nelson has two kitchens in his home. His classroom kitchen is designed so the students can cook, not watch him. He thinks you need to get your hands into it to learn.While everyone cooks, he circulates, encouraging, explaining, and assisting.
He is outspoken about kitchen mystique. ''It's too bad half the United States thinks you can't cook without a food processor,'' he said. ''They can be worthwhile but are by no means the most important thing in the kitchen.
His book, ''Classic American Cooking'' will be published in the fall of l983 by New American Library. He is also working on a definitive book on fish cookery and a cookbook on foods of the Northwest.
The Richard Nelson Cooking Classes are conducted on a regular schedule in Portland and Astoria, Ore. He is president of the International Association of Cooking Schools.
Here is a recipe for a cake which he told me is one of the best cakes he's ever eaten. Apple-Nut Cake 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil 1 1/2 cups white sugar 1/2 cup light brown sugar 3 large eggs 3 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 2 teaspoons cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 1/2 cups tart, raw, peeled apples, in large dice 1 cup chopped English walnuts, black walnuts, or Macadamia nuts 2 teaspoons vanilla Glaze: 3 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons light brown sugar 3 tablespoons white sugar 3 tablespoons heavy cream 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Combine vegetable oil, 2 sugars, and blend well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly all the time. Electric mixer is recommended but not essential. Sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt; add to oil-egg mixture; and blend thoroughly. Add diced apples, nuts, vanilla, and mix well, using a spoon or spatula.
Pour batter into a buttered and floured 10-inch tube pan and bake in a 325 degrees F. oven for 1 1/4 hours, or until it tests clean. Remove from oven and rest in pan 20 minutes before removing to wire rack or plattter.
Combine all ingredients for glaze in heavy pan and, over medium heat, bring to boil, and boil 1 minute. Remove from heat and spoon over warm cake. Serve warm or let cool.