Listen to Sheila Lukins. She is waxing poetic about Al's Breakfast. "It is heaven on earth," she says, tipping her head back, speaking about the Dinkeytown, Minn. eatery. "It's a long, narrow place, and a million people stand on line and wait to get in." And the pancakes? "They are the best."
Such experiences inspired Ms. Lukins to write "Sheila Lukins USA Cookbook" (Workman, 605 pp., $19.95). One need only glance at the book's cover - red-white-and-blue (with raised stars) - and feel its weight (you'll need two hands) - to conclude that it's chock-full of Americana. Lukins refers to it as "...a paean to our fearless style of cooking, free to be anything it wants in a brave new culinary world."
After her last book, "Sheila Lukins Around the World Cookbook," Lukins came full circle and re-fell in love with American food. Her globetrotting gave way to a newfound appreciation for US foodstuffs celebrated at festivals and harvest fairs and served at diners, inns, fine restaurants, and homes.
To Lukins, the one thing that makes food American is, quite simply, star-spangled-banner pride.
Speaking over lunch in Boston, Lukins says, "The core of American cooking is the pride Americans have in their local ingredients. That is the thread that ties all of American food together."
She should know. The award-winning chef, well-known cookbook author of "New Basics," co-author of "The Silver Palate," and food editor of Parade magazine, took 50 journeys across the nation over three years gathering material, recipes, and anecdotes for the book.
Mention a region in the United States, and she has a story to tell. "What really knocked me out was Southern food," she says, particularly New Orleans and beyond. During and in between her trips, Lukins, along with her "kitchen soulmate," Laurie Griffith, gathered, refined, and added signature twists to more than 600 recipes.
There's the Philly cheese steak sandwich "Sheila style" (substitute quality grated Cheddar cheese for the Cheez Whiz please), Aromatic Meat Loaf, Larry Smith's Mother's Pork Chops, and Petoskey (Michigan) Sour Cherry Salsa. Another sampling turns up La Tasha's Jambalaya - the Real Thing, Dixie Banana Pudding, Wende's Blue-Ribbon Apple Pie with Candied Ginger, and on it goes. Interspersed are menus, tips, and tales, such as Lukins's account of "How I came to catch a halibut" in Alaska.
Whether it's Al's Breakfast in Dinkeytown, or Sonny Bryan's in Dallas - where barbecue devotees eat "in rapt silence, like appreciative museum goers before the world's greatest paintings" - Lukins invites cooks and their tastebuds on sumptuous journeys, some of which might have been discovered in your own hometown.
We asked Sheila Lukins to come up with a Fourth-of-July menu The following recipes are based on a few from her new book:
Zesty Picnic Slaw
If you prefer a non-creamy slaw, this is the one to pick (We added onion for some extra zip.)
1 small clove garlic
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1-1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1-1/2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups very thinly sliced red cabbage
2 cups very thinly sliced green cabbage
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and julienned
1 green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and julienned
1 yellow bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and julienned
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
1 large onion, thinly sliced (optional)
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
Dressing: Finely mince the garlic with coarse salt. Place the garlic and salt in a bowl with the mustard, orange zest, orange juice, vinegar, and sugar. Whisk throughly.
Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly until thickened.
Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
Slaw: Combine all of the vegetables and caraway seeds in a large bowl. Add the dressing and toss well, cover, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Just before serving, taste for salt and pepper and toss with the snipped chives.
Serves 8 to 10.
Lula Mae Green's
Super-Crispy Fried Chicken
2 frying chickens (about 2-1/2 pounds each), each cut into 8 pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup buttermilk
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons paprika
1-1/2 cups (or more) solid vegetable shortening
Remove excess fat from the chicken pieces and trim off the wing tips. Rinse the chicken pieces and pat dry.
Place the chicken in a large bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Add the buttermilk, and toss to coat the chicken thoroughly. Let rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
Put the flour in a large plastic bag; add the paprika, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper.
Heat the shortening in a deep, heavy 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until hot (you will want enough shortening to reach halfway up the chicken pieces as they are frying).
Remove the chicken from the buttermilk and dredge it in the seasoned flour, shaking off any excess.
Add the first pieces carefully as they may spatter in the oil. Fry the chicken, covered, in batches, starting with the skin side up, until golden brown and cooked through, about 12 minutes per side. Breasts and thighs will take the most time; legs and wings will take less.
Drain on paper towels.
'School's Out' Strawberry Shortcake
3 pints ripe strawberries, lightly rinsed, patted dry, and hulled
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups heavy (or whipping) cream
(We added a half-cup of blueberries for a Fourth-of July look)
6 Sally McArthur's Shortcake Biscuits (recipe follows)
Slice 1 pint of the strawberries in a medium-size bowl.
Place the berries from the second pint between the palms of your hands, and lightly crush them by gently rubbing betweem your palms. The object is to break the berries and release the juice but not to smash them.
Combine the crushed berries in the bowl with the sliced berries and stir in the 1/4 cup sugar. Let stand for about an hour.
Just before serving time, slice the remaining pint of strawberries into the berry mixture, reserving 6 berries for garnish. Whip the cream with the 1 tablespoon of sugar until it holds soft peaks.
To serve, split the shortcakes by cutting off the top third of each biscuit.
Place the bottoms on six dessert plates and top each with approximately 1/3 cup of the prepared berries and juice and a spoonful of whipped cream.
Cover with the top of the shortcake. Spoon over more berries and more cream, then garnish with a reserved whole strawberry and drizzle with strawberry juice; add optional blueberries.
2 cups self-rising flour
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
3/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons light cream
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Grease a baking sheet.
Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the flour mixture with your fingertips until it resembles coarse meal.
Stir in the milk until a very soft dough is formed. Do not overwork.
Drop the dough in six equal portions onto the prepared baking sheet. Lightly pat each portion into a round shape and lightly brush the tops with cream.
Bake the biscuits in the center of the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden. Cool on a wire rack.
- Recipes from 'Sheila Lukins USA Cookbook,' by Sheila Lukins, Workman Publishing, New York, $19.95