Simple foods without apology
American cooking doesn't have to be bland and dull
BOSTON — With fast-food chains on virtually every street in America, one can't help but wonder: Are tacos and Big Macs overshadowing everything local?
Absolutely not, says Colman Andrews, editor of Saveur Magazine and a new cookbook "Saveur Cooks Authentic American" (Chronicle Books, $40). "Many regional differences still exist," he adds. "Just a couple days ago, I was served grits in Atlanta and yesterday, baked beans here in Boston." Andrews talked glowingly about American food and his work at Saveur, which he calls "the best job in America."
No doubt about it, this stylish food magazine has hit its stride. In just three years, Saveur has won six James Beard Awards (the industry's highest honor), two National Magazine Awards, and its circulation has swelled. It's no wonder Andrews and his fellow editors Dorothy Kalins and Christopher Hirsheimer have seized the moment to publish a book that mirrors the magazine's philosophy.
The search for authenticity is key to Saveur's approach. "We couldn't care less about trends, and we don't make a distinction between haute cuisine and simple cooking. What counts most is that it's the real thing," says Andrews.
You won't find trendy sauces or architectural desserts in his book. You will discover 175 recipes as humble as Meatloaf or exotic as Quail Jambalaya - all put into geographical, social, and historical context, with photographs, personal stories, and background information.
Making these connections is what Saveur is all about, says Andrews. We aim to inform readers about "the multitude of ways in which food is connected to just about everything else in life, and in which it in turn connects us - to our families, our heritage, to our world."
And as Americans strive to define themselves in these fast-changing times, they hunger to connect with the past, he adds. They are looking to reacquaint themselves with their culinary roots, or to establish new ones.
Either way, they'll discover much to celebrate in American culinary history, says Andrews. "We are all immigrants here, or the children of immigrants," he writes "Each wave ... brought not only their grandmothers' recipes, but their basic culinary processes, their tastes, their food tradition. Some of these they adapted to new ingredients or to the new realities of American life; others they clung to as cultural talismans, with the tenacious nostalgia of the uprooted. Either way, they enriched our gastronomy."
Of course, American food hasn't always received such raves. Many people still consider it bland or overcooked, frozen or canned.
A woman in a Saveur magazine focus group once remarked after reviewing sample pages that she'd "love a magazine like this if it had American food in it - but we don't have people and products like this in America." To which, Andrews writes that he wanted to shout from behind the mirrored glass: "Yes we do!" Proving that woman wrong has been part of Saveur's mission ever since.
FINALLY, A KIND WORD ABOUT ICEBERG LETTUCE
"There is no handsomer or more solid Cabbage Lettuce in cultivation," claimed a Burpee & Co. seed catalogue from 1894. They're talking about iceberg, cursed iceberg the butt of jokes , the bane of all true "gourmets".
"Hah!" responds cookbook writer Marion Cunningham.... "Iceberg would smile if it could - for the truth is that, round and crisp, it is a perfect creation. It is sturdy but has a surprisingly delicate flavor.
Unlike some of the frail field lettuces that wilt, swoon, and have the vapors readily, iceberg is stalwart. It's a close friend of every sandwich of note - hamburger, peanut butter, cheese, club, tuna, deviled egg, and more. And it's very cosmopolitan. It figures in the popular Chinese preparation of minced squab in lettuce leaves, and in petis pois a la francaise, among other imports. It is equally at home on the aristocratic or the peasant table."
- Excerpt from 'Saveur Cooks
1 15-pound smoked ham, on the bone
For the glaze:
1-1/2 cups orange marmalade
1 cup Dijon mustard
1-1/2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
1 rounded tablespoon whole cloves
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Trim tough outer skin and excess fat from ham. Put ham in a large roasting pan and make crosshatch incisions all over it with a sharp knife. Roast for about 2 hours. Remove ham from oven and increase heat to 350 degrees F.
For glaze, combine marmalade, mustard, and brown sugar in a medium bowl. Stud ham with cloves, inserting one at the intersection of each crosshatch, then brush entire surface of ham generously with glaze and return to oven.
Cook ham another 1-1/2 hours, brushing with glaze at least 3 times. Transfer to a cutting board or platter and allow ham to cool for about 30 minutes. Carve and serve warm or at room temperature.
Serves 20 to 30.
MACARONI AND CHEESE
We don't much hold with uptown versions of this classic American "comfort food" - the ones with fancy pasta and three kinds of goat cheese - but good cheddar does make a difference.
8 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and ground white pepper
3-3/4 cups hot milk
4 cups grated cheddar cheese
1 pound macaroni, cooked
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, for about 4 minutes (flour mixture must foam as it cooks, or sauce will have a raw-flour taste). Stir in cayenne and season with salt and pepper. Whisk in hot milk, 1/4 cup at a time, and cook, whisking constantly, until sauce thickens. Reduce heat to low and stir in 2 cups of cheese. Cook, stirring, until cheese melts, about two minutes.
Combine cheese sauce and cooked macaroni in a large bowl; season with salt. Sprinkle 1/2 cup cheese over the bottom of a buttered 8-by-11-inch baking dish. Put one-third of the pasta in the dish, top with 1/2 cup cheese, ending with cheese, making three layers in all.
Pour cream over assembled macaroni and cheese. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet. Add bread crumbs and stir to coat well with melted butter, then sprinkle over macaroni and cheese. Bake until crust is golden, about 30 minutes. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving. Serves 6.