A cinematic long shot: Men, women and a scattering of children are gathered in the shade of an apple tree at a vineyard in rural Maryland. It's an all-American setting for a truly American event: a picnic lunch. But as the camera moves closer in and pans over the food, one begins to wonder. Could this be a United Nation's bazaar?
On the grill of charcoal broiler rest Japanese rice balls, along with skewers of chicken and beef. Slices of a French fish pate are posed prettily alongside a stunning, tomato-rich Tunisian salad. The breads of three nations are on display next to a lush caponata , the Italian eggplant appetizer. There's meatloaf, but it's been flavored with curry and chutney. There's chicken, but it's been roasted with truffles under the skin. Slices of lamb, cooked rare in the French style, nestle comfortably on a plate next to a German potato salad.
International? Yes. Ethnic? Yes. But in sum, very American.
Despite our culinary shortcomings, Americans have become the world's most ecumenical cooks. The French, thinking nothing else is worth the effort, make only French food. Cooks of other nations, with limited resources or limited imaginations, make do with a narrow range of recipes. Yet national borders mean nothing in the kitchens of Home Town, U.S.A.
A family may eat lasagan on Monday night, jump continents to Mexico for tacos on Tuesday, then sail across the Pacific for chicken or beef teriyaki on Wednesday. Receipes with foreign accents are offered everywhere - in special interest cookbooks, cooking classes, magazine features and newspapers and on the wrappers of food products. Even fast-food restaurants with international themes have played a part in though usually the appeal is to the lowest common denominator on the taste scale.
Those with gastronomic ambitions will prepare home-made tortellini instead of lasagna, turkey mole instead of tacos or grilled prawns with sesame seeds instead of teriyaki. In either case, a half-dozen or more influences are playing a part in what has been a dramatic broadening of the American cook's repertoire.
It bagan, of course, with the well-documented ethnic fibers that were woven together to make up the American fabric. Italian, Jewish, German, Irish and English, Chinese food; though sometimes in sadly distorted versions. And the melting pot continues to boil in our kitchens. Most recently, it has been seasoned by immigrants from Southeast Asia.
Other factors, especially meaningful in this area, are:
Cookbooks. Beginning with the Time-Life Foods of the World series, hobbiest cooks have sought - in varying degrees - authenticity in their cooking. Dinner parties and group cook-ins with ethnic or international themes became popular. In response, the publishing industry has provided a gusher of recipe books, a few of which truly have brought the cooking of a nation or region into focus for Americans.
Travel. In the days of the dollar's dominance, Americans wandered the globe, seeing and tasting exotic cuisines at first hand. Even those who weren't rich could afford the best the country had to offer, so they returned home with tantalizing memories of the real thing and sought to recreate it.
Foreign residents. Whatever has been lacking in ethnic community food influences, Washington now has a full spectrum of residents from abroad. American guests who are invited to the homes of foreigners often will be served native food and, on the asking, receive recipes and invaluable tips on cooking and shopping. Sometimes an embassy reception or dinner will feature national dishes, though more often the fare is catered and innocuously "international."
Special ingredients and cooking utensils. Whether the availability of imported products inspires cooks or demand inspires grocery stores and cookware shops to stock exotic items, an astonishing variety of foods from around the world is sold here, as the guide to food sources that appears in this section illustrates. Cooking utensils from many lands, be they couscousieres or Mongolian hot pots, are equally accessible.
Restaurants. A vital, diverse restaurant industry adds to any city's sophistication and the remarkable boom in eating places here that offer foreign cuisine shows no sign of abating. A good dinner may lead the home cook to try to emulate a dish. Or, if the cost is high and the quality is low, it may provoke anger and a vow to produce better results at home.
Cooking as entertainment or relaxation. The hobbiest cook has the leisure and most likely the resources to explore and experiment in the kitchen. With both men and women cooking, and with singles or adult groups making meals that won't include supposedly finicky children at the dinner table, there is more room for imagination and fewer inhibitions about using exotic ingredients that may not please everyone.
Our changing national diet. Such diverse influences as inflation and nutrition research have convinced some Americans to abandon the big piece of meat as the centerpiece of every family dinner and look for alternatives to sugar-rich desserts. A search for stimluting recipes featuring vegetables or with meat used in small quantities in a supporting role soon leads the cook to look abroad.
All of which brings us back to the yard beside Ham Mowbray's home at the Montbray Vineyard.
The people gathered there were volunteer harvesters, cityfolk who come together each year for a day of work in the outdoors. Most are wine lovers and there is a shared appreciation of fine food. Each individual or family agrees to contribute something to the meal. It's not competitive, but no one would think of showing up with fast-food fried chicken or a store-bought cake.
Done with their labors, they sampled the fare, drank deep of wines both local and imported and proved the full extent of their cosmopolitan natures by gobbling up some pecan tarts from Oklahoma with the same enthusiasim they had shown many bites earlier for the French-inspired terrine of fish.
JAN LARSEN's CAPONATA
(Makes 4 quarts) 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus 1/4 cup 2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced 1 medium onion, chopped 1/8 teaspoon dried oregano 1 can (46 ounces) tomato juice 1 can (4 ounces) tomato paste 4 medium eggplants, diced unpeeled 4 large onions, peeled and chopped 2 cups chopped celery 1/2 cup granulated sugar 1 cup white vinegar 1 jar (3 ounces) capers, drained 2 jars (9 ounces each) green olives with pimiento, drained
To make the sauce, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 2-quart pan. Saute garlic and onions until soft. Add herbs, tomato juice and paste. Bring to a boil, stir together and simmer for 40 minutes, or until thick. Set aside 3 cups for this recipe and reserve the rest for pasta sauce or other uses.
Heat 1/4 cup oil in a deep pot. Add eggplant, onion and celery and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until softened, stirring. Add 3 cups sauce, bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Heat sugar and vinegar in a separate pan until sugar dissolves. Add this to vegetables, along with capers and olives. Cover pot and cook for 30 minutes at a low simmer, stirring mixture from time to time.
Serve hot or cold. The caponata may be frozen and leftovers can become a filing for an omelet or a topping for pasta or rice.
GRILLED BEEF AND CHICKEN, JAPANESE STYLE
(8 to 10 beef servings, 12 chicken) 1/2 cup imported soy sauce 1/2 cup sugar 4 or 5 slices fresh ginger, the size of a quarter 2 cloves garlic, crushed 1/4 cup (scant) orange juice 2 pounds eye of round or bottom round, well chilled 12 half-breasts of chicken, skinned, boned and cut into 1-inch cubes
Heat soy sauce with sugar, ginger, garlic and orange juice until sugar dissolves. Set aside to cool.
Slice beef into very thin, 1-by-4-inch strips. Prepare chicken. Pour soy marinade over meats in a glass or stainless steel bowl. Marinate as least 1 hour, or overnight. (Refrigerate if marinating for a long time.) Before cooking, thread meat on bamboo skewers. Cook over coals, turning until meats are cooked through. Use marinade for a sauce, if desired.
DEE MCPHERSON'S SWEDISH RYE BREAD
(Makes 1 loaf) 1 tablespoon yeast granules or 1 yeast cake 1 cup warm water 3 tablespoons safflower oil 3 tablespoons unsulphured molasses 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour 1 tablespoon grated orange rind 1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seed, ground 1 1/2 teaspoons anise seed, ground 1 teaspoon salt 1 1/4 cups rye flour
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Stir in oil and molasses and set aside. Using a mixer or working by hand in a large bowl, blend seasonings with whole wheat flour, then mix in the yeast liquid. Add rye flour and mix well.
Knead on a lightly floured board until soft and pliable, 10 to 15 minutes. Shape into a ball and place in an oiled bowl. Turn to coat dough, cover and let rise in a warm place for an hour. Punch down, form into a tight ball and place on a cookie sheet sprinkled liberally with corn meal. Cover with a bowl and let rise in a warm place for 30 to 45 minutes. After 10 minutes cut a cross in the top of the dough with a knife.
Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool before slicing.
(6 to 8 servings) 6 tomatoes, ripe but still firm 4 green or red peppers 2 or 3 onions, unpeeled 3 to 6 cloves garlic, unpeeled Juice of 3 lemons 1/2 teaspoon Harissa* 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 24 imported black olives Salt and freshly ground pepper 1/4 cup olive oil(FOOTNOTE)
* Harissa, a mixture of North African spices, is sold in specialty food stores. (END FOOT)
Heat the broiler or a barbecue grill and cook tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic, turning often to expose all sides to heat. The trick is to only partially cook them. The tomatoes will be ready first. The flesh should still be firm. Remove them from the heat, cut away peel and squeeze out seeds. Chop and reserve in a bowl. The skins of the peppers will char and the onions and garlic will turn dark brown. Remove them. Peel the peppers and cut into shreds. Peel onions and garlic and mince them.
Mix together lemon juice, seasonings, salt and pepper in a large salad bowl. Add vegetables and olives, then pour olive oil over all and toss well. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
COLETTE VIVIEN'S EGGPLANT GRATIN
(12 to 16 servings) 5 medium eggplants, peeled and sliced Salt 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil 5 tomatoes, peeled and seeded 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced Freshly ground pepper 2 red chiles, each the size of a little finger Pinch thyme 1/2 bay leaf Several sprigs fresh basil (if available)
Sprinkle salt on eggplant slices and let them rest for 30 minutes. Rinse and pat dry while heating 1/4 cup olive oil in a large skillet. Fry pieces in hot oil until golden on both sides and somewhat limp, adding more oil if necessary. Drain on paper towels. Taste a slice for salt, then place in a blender or food mill, add pepper and purce. Spread puree in a baking dish to a depth of at least 1 1/2 inches. (Depending on the water content of the eggplants, use a 9-by-13-inch dish or an 8-by-8-inch dish.
While eggplants are draining, prepare the tomatoes. Coat the bottom of a saucepan with olive oil, add the tomatoes, garlic, chiles, some salt and pepper and, as desired: a generous pinch of thyme, half a bay leaf, several sprigs of fresh basil. Cook at a boil, crushing tomatoes frequently with a wooden spoon until liquid has evaporated. Puree tomatoes in a blender or food mill.
Spread tomato puree over eggplant mixture and run dish under the broiler until the top darkens. It needn't cook through and shouldn't be allowed to burn. May be served hot, but tastes better if refrigerated and served that evening or the next day - still chilled - as a first course or side dish.
LYNN MEISTER'S OKLAHOMA PECAN TARTS
(Make 24) 1 package (3 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon, softened 1 cup all-purpose flour 1 egg 1/3 cup granulated sugar 1/3 cup light corn syrup 2/3 cup chopped pecans 24 whole or half pecans
Mix cream cheese and 1 stick butter, then work in flour to make a dough. Line the bottoms and sides of 24 miniature muffin molds in a pan.
Mix the egg, sugar, remaining 1 tablespoon butter, corn syrup and chopped pecans. Fill molds to within 1/4-inch of the top. Place a whole or half pecon atop each and bake in the middle shelf of a preheated, 350-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Allow to cool in the pan for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove and cool further on a rack.
AL VACARRO'S TERRINE DE TROIS POISSONS
(12 to 16 servings) 1 pound sole fillets 3 egg whites Salt, white pepper Freshly grated nutmeg 1 to 1 1/2 cups heavy cream 1 pound shrimps, shelled 1/3 pound (about) strip of rockfish, red snapper or salmon, 9 inches long, 2 inches wide and 1 inch deep Fresh basil leaves, or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon or dill
Puree sole in a food processor, then incorporate 1 1/3 egg whites, salt (1/3 teaspoon), pepper and nutmeg. With machine running add 1/2 to 3/4 cup cream. Set aside.
Puree shrimps in the food processor, then incorporate 1 1/2 egg whites, salt (1/2 teaspoon), pepper and nutmeg. With machine running add 1/2 to 3/4 cup cream. Set aside.
Lightly oil a 9-by-5-by-3-inch mold. Spread the sole mixture evenly over the bottom. Prepare the rockfish. (You may want to join or overlap two pieces to achieve the desired size.) Lay a few basil leaves, or sprinkle 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon or dill, down the center of the mold. Place rockfish in the center, running lengthwise. Cover with bay leaves, or sprinkle on remaining tarragon or dill. Cover with shrimp mixture, spreading it to the top is even.
Lightly oil a piece of waxed paper and position it atop the mold. Put the mold in a baking pan and place both in the middle of a preheated, 350-degree oven. Pour boiling water into the baking pan to come half way up the mold. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a toothprick inserted in the terrine comes out clean. The terrine will puff up during cooking, but will settle as it cooks. When cool, cover and refrigerate at least 1 day before serving.
Unmold, cut slices across the terrine and serve by itself or with a green mayonnaise.