Going back to granny food. Old-fashioned favorites are the new culinary stars

By , Norwich, Conn.

COMMON everyday American dishes are appearing in some of the toniest restaurants around the world. American meat loaf is now one of the ``newest'' items on Paris menus. It is being served appropriately with pur'ee de pommes de terre (mashed potatoes) and gravy!

``Granny food is everywhere -- in London as well as Paris,'' says Paul Levy, food editor of the London Observer.

``These dishes go along with other trends. Young people today furnish their houses with gaslights, old-fashioned furniture, and clothes from another era. Why not old-fashioned food as well?'' he says.

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Mr. Levy calls these people ``young fogies'' in his book ``The Official Foodie Handbook,'' to be published in the United States in the fall.

``Simple mashed potato strikes just the right note of anti-romantic rebellion after the 12 years' reign of nouvelle cuisine. Grandmother would approve,'' Mr. Levy said at a food seminar called Innovations 85, sponsored by Ocean Spray at the Norwich Inn in Norwich, Conn.

According to Mr. Levy, nouvelle cuisine, which everybody talks about but few understand, is a movement whose day has come and gone. It started as a new, lighter style of cooking in 1973 when the artful arrangement of a very small portion of expensive food on the plates became important and ``chefs everywhere made pictures on plates,'' he explains.

``It was a romantic movement. Its emphasis on creativity and originality was a reaction against postwar austerity and the rule-bound classical restaurant food.

``Now, of course, the whole world has gone conservative,'' he says. ``We are all fed up with little pur'ees, sorbets, and warm duck salads.'' But Victorian values won't dictate a return to Victorian puddings. ``The interest in lighter foods is too strong to tolerate suet and custard,'' he says.

One New York City restaurant, An American Place, has had great success serving American foods -- bringing back some of the traditional family dishes. Although the chef-owner, Larry Forgione, started out with eclectic and unusual combinations of American ingredients, he now admits his food has evolved into an approach he defines as ``more homey.''

``When I re-create the classic, old-fashioned dishes, sometimes I reproduce the dish exactly, but in other cases I improve on it,'' he said at the Norwich seminar as he made and served his strawberry shortcake to food editors.

Strawberry shortcake is one of the three most popular desserts at Mr. Forgione's restaurant, along with apple pandowdy and bananas layered with gingersnaps. Fried clams are the most popular item on his menus.

Mr. Forgione explained that prices are high for these simple, old-fashioned, American foods, and said he was amazed that his customers are willing to spend $52 for a dinner of fried clams and strawberry shortcake.

There was a murmur in the audience at this remark -- amazement that the price is so high for ``simple food.'' One food edi tor interrupted Mr. Forgione's talk. ``You're amazed people will pay that much, but how do you justify charging that much?''

Mr. Forgione explained that he searches the country far and wide to find foods that are grown naturally. He uses only the freshest quality ingredients, and the finest free-ranging chickens. His vegetables are often grown or picked especially for him, he says.

Mr. Forgione uses a Strawberry Shortcake recipe from James Beard, and it has become one of his signature dishes. He has revived croquettes and makes them with chicken and mushrooms, garnished with cranberries.

He also serves Saratoga chips in the traditional American way, with a hearty T-bone steak. Potato pancakes, corn pudding, and Brown Betty are also on the menu.

The Forgione touch includes using traditional dishes as garnishes. Deviled crabcakes are used to garnish cod cheeks. Chicken and wild mushroom croquettes are served with grilled chicken breasts and cranberry sauce.

Mr. Forgione sees this return to traditional American dishes as part of a movement toward ``simpler'' foods with a more ``homey'' touch. James Beard's Shortcake 4 cups all-purpose flour 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar 1 3/4 teaspoons cream of tartar 1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda 2 teaspoons salt 6 ounces unsalted butter, chilled and cut in small bits 1 1/2 cups heavy cream 4 hard-cooked egg yolks, mashed 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted 3 pints berries, such as raspberries, black berries, or strawberries 2 tablespoons sugar 1 pint English double cream or 1 cup heavy cream, whipped

For biscuits, sift flour, sugar, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt into a bowl. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter or by working quickly with finger tips. Pieces of butter should be quite small. Add cream and mashed yolks and stir quickly until dough clings together.

Turn out on a floured board, knead a few times, and pat or roll out to 1/2- to 3/4-inch thickness. With a 3-inch, floured cookie cutter, cut 6 rounds, and with a 2 1/2-inch cutter, cut another 6 rounds. If needed, use scraps to reroll.

Arrange larger rounds on lightly buttered cookie sheet. Brush each with a teaspoon of melted butter. Top with 2 1/2-inch rounds and brush tops with butter.

In a small bowl, mix berries and sugar, toss, and let sit while shortcake is baking.

Put biscuits in oven preheated to 375 degrees F. on middle shelf. Bake until firm to the touch and golden brown, 12 to 16 minutes.

Transfer to serving plates and remove top (smaller) layers very carefully. Spoon berries over bottom layers and put a dollop of cream on each one. Place smaller layers on top of cream and serve immediately with cream on the side. Serves 6.

At the seminar Mr. Forgione prepared Saratoga potatoes, and explained that the potato chip, according to John Mariani's ``Dictionary of American Food And Drink, was supposedly created in 1853 at the Moon's Lake Lodge in Saratoga, N.Y. Saratoga Potato Chips 3 all-purpose potatoes 3 quarts peanut oil Salt

Wash potatoes under cold running water; do not peel.

Cut potatoes into 1/4-inch slices. Wash briefly; pat dry. Deep fry in peanut oil at 325 degrees F. until golden brown.

Drain on paper towels and season with salt as desired. Serves 6 to 8. Chicken With Wild Mushroom Croquettes 2 chickens (2 1/2 to 3 pounds each), roasted 1 1/2 teaspoons butter 1 tablespoon minced onion 3 tablespoons wild mushrooms, finely diced 1 1/2 teaspoons flour 1/2 cup heavy cream 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh herbs 1 egg, lightly beaten 1 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs 1/4 cup vegetable oil 3 1/2 cups rich, brown chicken stock 1/2 cup fresh or frozen cranberries 16 asparagus spears, cleaned and trimmed, 4 inches long

Remove leg and thigh sections of chickens, dicing two for croquettes. Save others for another dish. Remove breasts and place in refrigerator. Chop carcasses into l-inch pieces.

To make croquettes melt butter in large pan, add onion, and cook until transparent. Add chicken and mushrooms. Stir in flour and cook slowly 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in cream until thickened.

Add herbs and 1/2 cup crumbs. Season with salt and pepper. Chill in a bowl, then form into 8 equal oval shapes. Dip into beaten egg and remaining crumbs. Chill again.

Meanwhile heat oil in heavy saucepan and add chopped chicken carcasses. Turn to cook evenly until golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Pour off grease. Add 1/2 cup stock, scraping all particles stuck to bottom, then add remaining stock.

Bring to boil and simmer, skimming surface as needed. Simmer and reduce stock by 1/3 to end with about 2 cups. Strain through fine strainer into small saucepan. Add cranberries and keep warm.

Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Brush lightly with oil and grill over moderate charcoal fire.

Fry croquettes in a shallow pan or deep-fry at 325 degrees F. until golden brown. Steam asparagus tips until al dente (cooked but crisp). Arrange 4 asparagus tips, 2 croquettes, and a grilled chicken breast on each plate.

If cranberries have not softened, heat slightly until they plump and spoon around chicken breast.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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