AMERICAN CUISINE

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Croissants and sushi, enchiladas and tortellini may be the current gourmet crazes, but there's also a search on for good cooking with a fresh, all-American taste and flavor. People are looking to old-fashioned, homespun dishes for the roots of the American culinary heritage.

There's a return to foods served in the days when most of the country was rural, when people ate unpretentious foods fresh from their own backyard garden, eggs and milk from a neighbor's chickens and cows.

Corn and Pumpkin Chowder, Southern Ham Stuffed with Greens, Philadelphia Pepperpot, Minnesota Wild Rice, and Apple Brown Betty are some of the old American favorites. They are nostalgic perhaps, but also good eating.

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American cooking is, in fact, a mixture of all the ethnic influences in America over the last 200 years. Much credit goes to the first settlers and immigrants, with proud histories of their own. They provided good family meals using old-world cooking methods adapted to native foods available in the new land.

New immigrant groups continue to add to the rich variety of foods we call our own, especially in new restaurants offering the foods of Ethiopia, Thailand, Cuba, Vietnam, and other countries.

In addition, interest in exotic foods from around the world is growing. Purple or yellow peppers and miniature vegetables command high prices. Star fruit, mangoes, kiwi, and passion fruit are considered ``chic'' these days.

But exotic fruits and vegetables are not everyday fare for Mr. and Mrs. America.

While gourmet groups analyze the merits of fresh salmon or seabass grilled over lilac and mesquite wood, the rest of America is chuckling over the fast-food slogan ``Where's the beef?''

Fast food cannot be ignored. Life-style trends make it a necessary thing. Even committed cooking-from-scratch cooks enjoy and rely on fast food to get them through the busiest days.

But while ``cooking all day over a hot stove'' is a thing of the distant past, many so-called old-fashioned dishes, once thought of as time-consuming, can turn into time-savers with today's equipment. Most are not difficult to prepare.

The old recipes can be brought up to date to accommodate those who are eating lighter, using less sugar and more grains, and perhaps not eating quite as many sweets and snack foods. Corn and Pumpkin Chowder 1/2 cup butter 4 leeks or 2 onions, trimmed and chopped 1/2 cup all-purpose flour 6 to 8 ears corn, kernels cut off 2 cups cooked pumpkin 1 1/2 cups chicken broth 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 pound bacon, cooked and crumbled 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice Few fresh grinds of black pepper 1 quart light cream

Melt butter in a soup kettle and cook the leeks until soft. Blend in the flour, then add corn, pumpkin, broth, and salt and simmer over low to moderate heat for about 10 minutes. Add bacon and mix.

Pour half the chowder into a blender or food processor and mix until smooth. Return mixture to soup kettle, stir, and simmer 30 minutes. Add allspice, pepper, and cream. Heat 2 or 3 minutes more until completely heated, then serve.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings. Time: 15 minutes preparation, 45 minutes cooking. Minnesota Wild Rice 2 tablespoons butter 1 cup chopped onion 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms 1 cup raw wild rice, rinsed 3 stalks celery, chopped 1 teaspoon seasoned salt (optional) 4 1/2 cups chicken broth (homemade or canned). Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Melt butter and cook onion until soft. Add mushrooms and cook until just warmed through. Combine with remaining ingredients in 2-quart casserole, cover, and bake for 2 hours or until rice is plumped and fluffy.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings. Time: 15 minutes preparation, 2 hours cooking. Harvard Beets 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1/4 cup sugar 1/8 teaspoon black pepper 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup vinegar 1/4 cup water or beet liquid 2 cups sliced, cooked beets or baby beets 1 tablespoon butter (optional)

In a saucepan, combine cornstarch, sugar, and seasonings.

Add vinegar and water, bring to a boil over medium heat, and cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add beets to saucepan and heat thoroughly, about 5 minutes or less. Just before serving, add butter and mix well.

Yield: 4 servings. Time: 5 minutes preparation, 10 minutes cooking. Chicken and Oysters over Cornbread 4 tablespoons butter 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1 3/4 cups chicken stock 1/2 cup light cream 1/2 teaspoon salt 4 or 5 drops Tabasco 1 1/2 pints shucked oysters 2 cups chopped cooked chicken 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley Cornbread 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal 1 cup all-purpose flour 1/4 cup sugar 3 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 cup milk 1 egg, well beaten 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Prepare cornbread. In large bowl, combine and mix cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.

Add milk, egg, and butter; blend well. Pour into a greased, 8-inch square baking pan and bake 20 minutes.

While cornbread bakes, make a white sauce by melting the four tablespoons butter, adding flour, and stirring until smooth. Remove from heat, add stock, and blend. Simmer over low heat about 5 minutes. Add cream, salt, and Tabasco.

Poach the oysters in their liquid until the edges curl and they are plump, about 5 minutes or less. Drain and add to sauce with chicken. Serve on squares of freshly made cornbread, split like shortcake, with sauce in the middle and on top. Sprinkle with parsley.

Yield: 6 servings. Time: 30 minutes preparation, 20 minutes cooking. Apple Brown Betty 3 cups coarse bread crumbs 1/2 cup butter 4 large apples 1 1/4 cups sugar 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Toast bread crumbs. Cut butter in small pieces. Peel and core apples, and cut in thin slices. Combine and mix sugar and spices. Divide crumbs into 3 parts, butter into 4, apples into 2, and sugar mixture into 3.

Use 1 part butter to grease a 2-quart baking dish. Arrange 1 part crumbs in a layer on bottom and top with bits of another part butter. Layer in 1 part apples and sprinkle with 1 part sugar mixture. Dot with more butter, sprinkle with more crumbs, dot again with butter, and layer in remaining apple. Sprinkle over more sugar, dot with remaining butter, and sprinkle over remaining sugar.

Bake 30 minutes until apples are tender. Serve hot with whipped cream.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor. These recipes are from her book, ``Old American Favorites'' (Barron's Educational Series, $4.95).

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