American food defined: It's what we eat

July 05, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

What is American food?

Food historian and writer Lorna Sass says, "It's everything that Americans eat."

Here's a sampling of American dishes that reflect the exchange of foods and techniques between the Old World and the New.

The first recipe is from "The Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking," by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1991, $35). The authors note that the traditional Northeastern "Indian pudding" would have been made of cornmeal and dried fruit or berries, cooked with water and nut butter, and sweetened with maple syrup or honey. "As new ingredients became available," they note, "milk or cream often replaced water, and eggs, molasses, and more spices were added. Our version falls somewhere in the middle of this evolution and is surprisingly light and delicate."

Indian pudding

Serves six.

4 cups milk

1 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup butter

2/3 cup cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon dried ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 1/2 cups dried currants or raisins

ice cream (optional)

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Butter a 2-quart casserole. In a saucepan, combine 3 cups of milk and the maple syrup over medium heat. Heat until just boiling and add butter. In a separate bowl combine cornmeal, ginger and nutmeg. Gradually stir corn meal mixture into hot milk mixture. Reduce heat to low and cook until thickened, about 10 minutes. Fold in the currants. Spoon mixture into the casserole. Pour remaining milk over pudding; do not stir. Bake pudding 2 1/2 hours, or until all the milk has been absorbed and top is golden brown. Serve warm, and top with ice cream if desired.

The next recipe shows French, Spanish and Oriental culinary influence combined with foods native to southern Louisiana. It's from the "Smithsonian Folklife Cookbook," by Katherine S. Kirlin and Thomas M. Kirlin (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991, $15.95). This particular recipe was contributed by Louise Perez, of St. Bernard, La., who says in the introduction, "I have my grown family and their children over every Sunday for dinner -- sometimes we have as many as 40 people. I love cooking and seeing them enjoying my food. In Louisiana, this jambalaya recipe is often varied by adding oysters or meat."

Jambalaya

Serves six.

1/2 pound sausage (smoked or pork), sliced

2 onions, finely chopped

1 bunch shallots, finely chopped

1/2 head garlic, minced

2 green peppers, finely chopped

4 stalks celery, finely chopped

oil, for cooking

1 4-ounce can tomato sauce

1 8-ounce can stewed tomatoes

2 bay leaves

2 pounds shrimp

1/2 pound crab meat (optional)

1 cup water

salt

pepper

2 to 3 cups cooked rice

soy sauce

hTC chopped parsley, for garnish

Saute sausage, garlic and chopped vegetables in a small amount of cooking oil.

Stir in tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes and bay leaves; simmer for 15 minutes.

Add shrimp, crab meat and water. Cook until shrimp is tender, about 15 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Remove from heat. Add cooked rice. Mix well and sprinkle with soy sauce. Add fresh parsley. Let stand for 15 minutes or more before serving.

Here is the technique for classic pommes de terre frites -- French fries -- from "Larousse Gastronomique," new American edition, edited by Jenifer Harvey Lang (Crown Publishing, 1988, $50). The potatoes can be cut into thick strips or very thin strips (potato straws). "Larousse" says, "These can be cooked in oil or vegetable fat. Immerse in deep fat at a temperature of 350 degrees. This temperature will immediately drop to 302 degrees, and the fat should be reheated to 350 degrees. Continue cooking until the potatoes turn golden.

"Pont-neuf potatoes, commonly known as chips (French fries), are removed before they have turned brown and drained in the basket; the oil or fat is reheated until smoking and then the potatoes are immersed again to crisp brown.

"When potatoes are cut very finely into potato straws, they will cause only a small drop in the temperature of the fat and will therefore need to be immersed only once."

Oil at such temperatures should be handled very carefully. Or, of course, you can use an electric French-frying device.

The last recipe is from "Blue Corn and Chocolate," by Elizabeth Rozin (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992, $23). She notes in the introduction, "This cake is Mexican not by virtue of its origin but because of its unique flavor. Since Spanish colonial times, chocolate in Mexico has almost always been compounded with sugar, cinnamon, and ground almonds."

Mexican Chocolate cheesecake

Serves 10 to 12.

16 square cinnamon graham crackers

3 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup finely chopped almonds

3 8-ounce squares cream cheese (1 1/2 pounds), softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

6 eggs

1 cup heavy cream

6 ounces semisweet chocolate

2 tablespoons brewed coffee

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 to 4 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted (for glaze; optional)

L 2 tablespoons finely chopped almonds (for garnish; optional)

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