American cooking's neglected roots

Richard Nelson has been poking around the kitchen since he was knee-high to a stockpot on a little farm in South Dakota. Now, some time later, he's out of the Midwest but still in the kitchen. And, after many years as a cooking teacher, food columnist, and special associate to James Beard in the West, he has come out with his first cookbook. Finally.

''Why did you wait so long?'' I asked.

''I didn't want to do it!'' came his no-nonsense answer - as straightforward as the title of his book, ''Richard Nelson's American Cooking'' (New American Library, $18.50).

Mr. Nelson has his own ideas as to what American cooking is, and it's not all steak, Idaho potatoes, and corn.

''So what is American cooking, anyway?'' I asked.

''First of all it's innovative, it's really a mixture of native and internationally adapted dishes. We're a nation of ethnics, and there's nothing un-American about adapting those recipes.

''Why, I've had better pizza in the United States than Italy, because we happen to have had better ingredients right here.''

That answered my next question, which was going to be, ''What is a pizza recipe doing in a book on American cooking?''

''And the most neglected foods in the United States?'' I asked.

''Root vegetables! Parsnips, turnips, and beets. In that order. Everyone goes bananas over asparagus. I get tired of it.

''Half the time it's been shipped from one side of the country to the other and the flavor has gone out the ends. Still people grab for it over fresher local vegetables.''

He obviously has nothing against asparagus, and does include two interesting dishes in his book, right along with his favorite dish - deviled crab.

Mr. Nelson prefers Dungeness, but king, blue, or stone crab are fine if fresh. In any case, he suggests not using canned. Deviled Crab 2 pounds Dungeness crab meat 2 cups cracker crumbs 1 cup finely diced celery 3/4 cup chopped onion 1/4 pound plus 4 tablespoons butter, melted 3/4 cup light cream or whole milk 1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard 1/2 teaspoon salt Dash cayenne pepper 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 1 tablespoon chopped green pepper Dash hot pepper sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Rinse crab meat in cold water; drain and combine with crumbs, celery, and onion.

Add melted butter and cream. Season with mustard, salt, cayenne, parsley, green pepper, and hot pepper sauce.

Mix thoroughly and bake in covered casserole 30 minutes. Serves 8.

Note: This is best cooked in a shallow casserole. For crustier top, bake uncovered.

Variations: Combine scallops, shrimps, and crab. Or substitute shrimps or scallops for crab meat, making sure the amount totals 2 pounds. Lemon-Sweet Parsnips 1 to 1 1/4 pounds parsnips 1 cup water 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons butter or margarine 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 1/4 cup sugar

Peel parsnips and cut crosswise in 1/4-inch slices. Heat water to boiling; add salt and parsnips. Cook until just barely fork-tender. Drain and keep warm.

In saucepan on low heat, melt butter and add lemon juice and sugar. Stir until sugar is dissolved.

Place parsnips in a pan. Pour lemon juice, butter, and sugar mixture over them and heat for 10 minutes to blend flavors, stirring constantly. Serve hot. Good for 4 to 6.

Try this recipe using carrots when parsnips are not available.

Here is another favorite of Nelson's, using the neglected Jerusalem artichoke. He suggests carrots or turnips may be used in place of the artichokes. Jerusalem Artichoke Souffle 3/4 pound Jerusalem artichokes 4 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour Scant 1/2 cup whole milk 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley Salt and freshly ground black pepper 4 eggs, separated

Scrub artichokes, cover with lightly salted water, and bring to boil. Cook until just tender and drain, reserving scant 1/2 cup of cooking liquid.

When cool enough to handle, peel them and puree through medium or coarse mesh of vegetable mill. Dry out puree by stirring over very low heat.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In another pan, melt butter and stir in flour. Heat milk and reserved cooking water and pour into butter and flour. Stir until smooth. Bring to boiling point and simmer 4 minutes.

Stir in puree and parsley. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat. Beat egg yolks into sauce. Beat egg whites to stiff peaks and fold into slightly cooled mixture.

Turn into buttered souffle dish and bake 20 minutes. Serves 8.

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