In search of honest American fare
New York — ''The best is now,'' Bert Greene, food writer, is saying. He's had his successes. ''I became an art director very early,'' he says, ''and it meant nothing to me. I wrote plays, almost all of them produced.'' His reminiscence about Colette, ''My Mother's House,'' was bought by Columbia Pictures. With the option money he bought a home in the Hamptons as an investment.
But it's his latest career, as a food writer, that has Mr. Greene brimming with satisfaction.
Greene is food editor for Gentleman's Quarterly and a regular contributor to Cuisine magazine. He does a weekly food column for the New York Daily News.
The newest Greene cookbook, ''Honest American Fare,'' is now available, (Contemporary Books $11.95). It follows his earlier ''The Store Cookbook'' and ''Kitchen Bouquets''.
''I'm teaching a course in creative writing at the New School,'' Greene says, adding that he has taught cooking classes and made appearances in 40 cities the past dozen months.
The delight of it all, however, seems to be that he has found his way back to Minna Cohn's kitchen.
In an otherwise dreary childhood in the depression, Bert's oasis was grandmother Minna Cohn's frame home in Queens. ''She ran a curious kitchen,'' Greene says. ''She was a wonderful, wonderful cook. She always made a rare lamb, with pin strips of garlic. Nobody cooked lamb rare then!''
It wasn't until long after, when Greene had learned the niceties of French cooking which included a pink flush in lamb, that he confronted his grandmother with the evidence of Gallicism in her cooking.
She owned she had indeed spent a year in France, when she was a bride of 19, on her way from Poland. She had never told her children, shy perhaps at having worked as kitchen help for a French family.
Greene's cooking lessons began with his grandmother at his school lunch hour, with full-fledged menus and critiques.
''That was our first allegiance,'' Greene says. ''We loved to talk about the garden - seriously. I had a tendency to overdo things. I'd use the whole spice shelf. Grandmother would temper my taste.''
Grandmother's house was near the old Durkee spice factory. On damp days the air would be heavy with exotic aromas.
''The sights and smells of a French kitchen are so exhilarating,'' Greene says. ''Grandmother must have found her year in France a revelation. In Queens she kept an herb garden . . . basil, tarragon. She always made bouquet garni.
''She was a very sensitive cook,'' he says, and still a marvel. ''She'd tie a piece of string around a clove of garlic to get the essence but not the taste in the dish.''
Greene's food writing today, is remarkable for its sensitivity to fragrances, and to accents of flour, as themes for his recipes.
Here is a recipe from his newest book, a cake that has the unusual flavoring of poppy seeds, along with lemon and orange rind and juice. The recipe comes from Adrienne Hovsepian, a baker at Dean and DeLuca's gourmet food shop in New York. Adrienne Hovespian's Poppy Seed Pound Cake 2/3 cup gray or blue poppy seeds 1/3 cup milk 1 cup unsalted butter, softened 1/2 cup vegetable shortening 2 cups granulated sugar 6 eggs Peel of 3 lemons, finely grated Peel of 1 orange, finely grated 1 teaspoon vanilla 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 3/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup milk 1/4 cup orange juice 1/2 cup lemon juice 1/3 cup superfine sugar Soak poppy seeds in 1/3 cup milk overnight. Rinse in cold water. Drain thoroughly. Reserve.
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Beat butter and shortening in large bowl until light and fluffy. Slowly beat in granulated sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Beat in lemon peel, orange peel, and vanilla. Stir in poppy seeds.
Sift flour with baking powder and salt two times. Add to batter in three parts, alternating with 3 parts of the 1/2 cup milk. Spoon into buttered and floured 10-inch Bundt pan.
Bake cake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Immediately turn out onto wire rack.
Combine orange juice, lemon juice, and superfine sugar. Spoon over cake until cake seems moist, but is not soggy. Serves 10 to 12.