Jazzing Up Plain Foods

January 08, 1992|By Linda Lowe Morris

Maybe it's a reaction to duck sausages and designer pizzas, a mass allergy to some of those fancy foods of the '80s. But Americans in the '90s have gone home, to home cooking, to American regional cuisine, the food that generations of moms brought to the table.

Tired of delicately arranged pea pods, we find ourselves craving red flannel hash, fried tomatoes, New England clam chowder, Texas chili, deviled crab and chicken pot pies.

But when we pull out the recipes we got from Mom and Grandma and Uncle Eddie and cook them up, it seems like something's wrong. Those old recipes don't taste as good as we remembered. They're bland when we remember them as savory; simple when we remember them as complex.

"We've changed," says Chef Paul Prudhomme, owner of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans and K-Paul's in New York and the person who single-handedly started the rage for Cajun food. "Our taste buds have gotten much more sophisticated and we understand food a lot better. We cook more diverse foods and we've seen so many more things. We've tasted different kinds of foods from all over the world. The old dishes don't have as much appeal as they once did."

But often, it's just a matter of adding some seasoning, changing to a richer ingredient, or altering the way the food is prepared just a little, he says.

And this is just what he's done in his new cookbook, "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Seasoned America" (Morrow, hardcover, $23).

"What I wanted to do was just give them a little more appeal, bring them up to date with ingredients, trying not to change dramatically the kind of ingredients but to change the structure that hopefully would make it better," he says.

He added a bit of nutmeg to a classic New England boiled dinner. "I like to hide nutmeg in a lot of things because it's one of those ingredients that really can lift taste. If you don't know it's in there, you don't really taste it. It's such a small amount that it really is not identifiable but it has a tremendous effect on the taste."

He put cardamom in chicken and corn pot pie. "The philosophy was the same there. I was trying to get the taste up and trying to make each ingredient stand out as much as it could without having cardamom as a taste."

Revising Brunswick stew

And in a more radical change, he took the traditional recipe for Brunswick stew, a dish that originated in the early 1800s in

Brunswick County, Va., and changed the main ingredient from rabbit to chicken.

"I tried desperately not to change ingredients," he says. "I tried to make sure that any ingredients could be found locally. And things like rabbit are very hard to find. People would like to taste the stew but they wouldn't cook the dish because of that. I decided putting chicken in it made more sense."

Chef Prudhomme, who is also the author of "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" and "The Prudhomme Family Cookbook," grew up eating traditional Cajun cuisine in the small town of Opelousas, La., in a family where everyone was a good cook. He got his first taste of regional American cuisine when he was inhis late teens and traveling around the country working in diners and restaurants.

He worked in resort towns in the Colorado mountains and a fancy San Francisco restaurant. He discovered Mexican cooking while working in West Texas and lived on a Navajo reservation for eight months.

In some places he found foods he loved. In other places he couldn't understand why people would want to eat food so bland. He began mixing up his own seasoning blends and sneaking them into the foods when the head chef wasn't looking. These eventually evolved into Cajun Magic, his herb and spice blends which are sold throughout the country.

The contrast between the complex and flavorful Cajun food he grew up with and the less tasty foods he found while traveling made him begin to analyze the differences in foods. After he began giving cooking demonstrations of his Cajun recipes, he developed the concept of "building a dish" to make the difference easily understandable.

He put this concept to use frequently when he was working to improve the flavor of traditional American dishes.

"I constantly try to explain to other people what I do," he says. "And I guess about four years ago I hit on the idea that building a dish of food was very similar to building a house or building anything. You had to have a foundation and then you had to have walls and then you had to have windows and doors and you had to have a ceiling. It had to have a look to it. It had to have a purpose."

Taking stock

The foundation for many dishes is a stock. Plain water, he explains,

will dilute the taste of every other ingredient in the dish. He compares the vegetables to the nails, rivets and wire in a building because they hold other ingredients together.

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