SOMEPLACE, at least, the trickle-down theory is working: in cookbooks. The Great American Cookbook Glut began with Evan Jones' "American Food: The Gastronomic Story" (Random House, 1975; Vintage paperback, 1981), Waverly Root's "Eating in America: A History" (Morrow, 1976) and James Beard's "American Cookery" (Little, Brown, 1980). All three represented a magnificence of culinary scholarship -- pounds of food history between each cover. This year the stream of American cookbooks has trickled down to the charming, if less ambitious, and more personalized recipe books.
Bert Greene has made it his mission to preserve what he calls "honest American fare," since he turned from running a highly esteemed Long Island food shop to traveling around the country teaching, cooking, gathering recipes and writing. By now, having visited more than 70 American cities in less than two years, he has grown frustrated with his own home town -- New York -- because, he says, its food writers don't make allowances for what the rest of the country can get. What earthly use would a cook in rural Kansas have for a recipe with pink peppercorns or fresh dill? His book, he insisted, was going to present down-home recipes that could be reproduced no matter what road one's home was down. Thus, "Honest American Fare" (Contemporary, $11.95).
Greene pored over handwritten family cookbooks -- in excess of a thousand, he reckoned -- as well as twice that number of church pamphlets and Junior League bulletins. He learned that the last generation of home town cooks had given up real cooking and had turned to the can opener instead. "I look for grandmothers' recipes," he said, revealing the secret of his book's homespun collection. These days, he complained, "All anybody cares about is whether you can freeze it and how to microwave it.
"We're big devourers," not slow digesters, he observed during his travels, adding, "There's a large, heavy-breaded section of America."
Greene is far from an effete Eastern establishment food snob. "I'd rather eat in the Midwest for a whole week than eat in Paris. I'd live longer," he has boasted.
The question always arises, in an American cookbook that stretches from Swedish limpa bread to pizza: "What is American food?" Some have answered that it is anything that doesn't have a sauce, but that's stretching it. Greene's reply is that American food is a bastard, a hybrid of many other cuisines, but that's what is so fine about it. "Its illegitimacy is its legitimacy," he explained. Thus, he's not embarrassed to title a recipe "New Hampshire Borscht" or "Millie Steven's Hot Artichoke Gunk."
His book is not a dissertation on American food, but rather a collection of recipes, each with its own personalized introduction that tempts the reader to get out a few pots and pans. And the collection is a scrapbook of American cooking trends. There is Kate Almand's Heirloom Biscuit recipe, a beef and pork concoction stretched with oats to make it Depression Meat Loaf, and a more contemporary Chocolate Mayo Cake. An Indiana chocolate cake made with Coca Cola and a barbecue sauce made with the same mysterious ingredient lead one to wonder whether the Coca Cola company cookbook was slipped in with the Junior Leagues', but Greene has not bowed so low to trends as to include gelatin salads among his American favorites.
He seems, however, to have included some recipes more for their gimmickry than for their good taste: Impossible Pie was indeed clever, the whole process being nothing more complicated than 2 1/2 minutes in a blender and an hour in the oven. But the result was, under a very appealing coconut crust, so gummy as to be the last leftover in our refrigerator a week after Thanksgiving. And Greene not only has required cooks in Kansas to find fresh dill if they want to make his Gravad Bla Fisk, he has challenged cooks outside of California to come up with petrale (a Pacific sole) if they want to try Dusty Petrale Monterey.
In all, this is an old-fashioned American cookbook with some very good recipes (the apple pie and scalloped potatoes would surely have won a county fair blue ribbon). And though some are not so good, "Honest American Fare" is a book full of curious culinary period pieces, a recipe attic that rewards rummaging.
Rather than discovering a tradition, Michele Urvater and David Liederman have adapted a tradition -- nouvelle cuisine, now a decade old -- to American ingredients and tastes in "Cooking the Nouvelle Cuisine in America" (Workman, $14.95).
It is a cookbook full of interesting recipes, many of them combining meats or seafoods with fruits such as figs, pomegranates and cranberries, as nouvelle cuisine is prone to do. It has a chapter on those nouvelle cuisine favorites, sorbets, and turns vegetables into a sea of trendy pure'es. No everyday cookbook, as Greene's could be considered, this is a special-occasion cookbook, one for finding a new recipe when you are tired of the same old thing. Not that the recipes are time consuming or complicated (they aren't; many are quite fast to whip up -- or process), but they lean heavily on heavy cream and other ingredients that are extravagant calorically or financially.
Preparations exploit the food processor. That can be problem, even in this era when recipes have been known to suggest, "If you don't have a whisk, use a food processor." But more frustrating is the frequent necessity of having on hand demi-glaces -- meat or seafood stock boiled down to an essence -- to complete these nouvelle cuisine dishes. It could have something to do with the fact that Liederman produces frozen demi-glaces commercially. If you don't mind paying $15 for a self-advertisement, "Cooking the Nouvelle Cuisine in America" is worthwhile for its inventive recipes, many of which don't require such specialized ingredients. And it deserves praise for its very handy format which not only includes a short text to introduce each recipe, but notes preparation time, cooking time and number of servings, and suggests presentations and menu possibilities. While recipes such as flour-coated saute'ed grapes are questionable and some -- leg of lamb with pineapple and mustard sauce -- turn out to be less exciting than they sound in print, many of the recipes are candidates for future editions of "Honest American Fare."
"The Complete NFL Cookbook" (NAL, $5.95) managed to be complete in only 125 pages, 13 of them introductory matter. Yet, slim as it is, it must be considered in an American cookbook roundup. Where but in America would such a cookbook be published? Where else could "complete" be limited to brunches, tailgate parties, barbecues and Monday night dinners?
Gumbo to chili, the recipes are meant to be inexpensive and suitable to prepare in advance. This is not grand cuisine, just the likes of steak marinated in soy sauce and rum or artichoke hearts wrapped in bacon. As a cook, you could do without it. As a fan, though, you probably can't resist trying Redskins Roasted Herb Corn, even when corn is out of season and the barbecue coals haven't been fired up for months.
You don't have to be a Yankee to grow addicted to "Yankee Magazine." And you don't have to be a "Yankee Magazine" follower to appreciate having under one cover the recipes for Parker House Rolls, Boston Baked Beans and Indian Pudding. "The Yankee Magazine Cookbook" (Harper & Row, $15.95) reprints a list made 40 years ago of the 20 favorite New England recipes, but left out four of them from its current collection. Thus, you will have to look elsewhere for red flannel hash, Yankee pot roast, salt fish dinner and cranberry sauce. But that leaves plenty of good, plain, hearty food and a very convincing argument with full instructions for broiling a lobster.
Maybe you don't save your cereal boxes along with their boxtops. And maybe you have an inexplicable desire to reproduce those childhood kitchen experiments with Rice Krispies and marshmallows. But the best use for "Best Recipes from the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans & Jars" by Ceil Dyer (Bantam paperback, $2.50) is for some future doctoral dissertation on 20th-century urban life -- especially since it left out my college favorite, Hershey Syrup Cake. But it does clear up the mystery of the origin of Bert Greene's Chocolate Mayo Cake.
ROSY SCALLOPED POTATOES (4 servings) 1 1/2 pounds potatoes 1 cup milk 1 1/2 cups heavy cream 1 large clove garlic, mashed 1 teaspoon tomato paste 1 teaspoon dijon mustard 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper 1 tablespoon butter
Pare potatoes and cut into 1/8-inch thick slices. Place in a large saucepan. Combine milk, cream, garlic, tomato paste, mustard, salt and white pepper in a small bowl. Pour over potatoes. Heat potato mixture to boiling, stirring constantly.
Rub a gratin dish or shallow baking dish with 1 tablespoon butter. Spoon in the potato mixture. Bake potato mixture 1 hour at 400 degrees. Reduce oven temperature slightly if potatoes brown too much. Potatoes are excellent hot, room temperature or cold. From "Honest American Fare"
ALL-AMERICAN APPLE PIE (Makes a 9-inch pie) 1 recipe orange crust pastry (see recipe below) 7 to 8 medium tart apples 1/3 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 3/4 cup granulated sugar 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup honey 1/3 cup dark brown sugar Pinch of ground ginger 3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 egg, beaten
Make orange crust pastry (see recipe below). Pare and core apples; cut into 1/2-inch slices. Place in a large bowl; toss with 1 1/2 tablespoons flour. Add granulated sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, the nutmeg, orange peel and vanilla. Mix well. Stir in honey; let stand 1 hour.
To make a crumb mixture, combine remaining 1/3 cup flour, remaining 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, the brown sugar and ginger in a small bowl. Work in 2 tablespoons butter with your fingers until mixture is mealy.
Roll out half of the orange crust pastry; line a 9-inch pie plate. Trim.
Drain apple slices, reserving liquid. Set 1/4 cup crumb mixture aside. Layer apples with remaining crumbs in pastry shell. Use crumbs like mortar to build fruit up. Dot apples with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons butter. Sprinkle with 5 tablespoons reserved apple liquid.
Roll out remaining dough. Cut with a sharp knife into 1/2-inch wide strips. Weave strips into a lattice pattern over apples. Flute edges. Sprinkle remaining crumbs in holes of lattice. Brush pastry edge and strips with beaten egg.
Bake pie on aluminum foil-lined baking sheet in a 450-degree oven for 5 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees; bake 50 to 55 minutes longer.
ORANGE-CRUST PASTRY (Makes 1 double-crust or 2 single-crust pies) 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup cold unsalted butter 1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening 1 teaspoon grated orange peel 4 tablespoons cold orange juice
Sift flour with salt into a large bowl. Cut in butter and shortening; add orange peel. Blend with a pastry blender until the texture of coarse crumbs.
Using a fork or knife, cut orange juice into flour mixture to form a soft dough. (Do not overwork.) Refrigerate 1 hour before using.
This recipe makes enough for two 9- or 10-inch single crusts, or one 9- or 10-inch double-crust pie. From "Honest American Fare"
PECAN-BREADED CHICKEN BREASTS WITH MUSTARD SAUCE (4 servings) 2 whole chicken breasts, skinned, boned and cut in half Salt and freshly ground pepper 10 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons dijon mustard 5 to 6 ounces ground pecans 2 tablespoons safflower oil 2/3 cup sour cream
Between 2 pieces of waxed paper, lightly flatten the chicken breasts with a meat pounder. Season the chicken with salt and pepper.
Melt 6 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat and whisk in 2 tablespoons mustard.
Dip each piece of chicken into the butter and mustard mixture and heavily coat each with the ground pecans by patting them on with your hands.
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a 12- to 14-inch skillet. Stir in the oil. When hot, saute' as many pieces of chicken at a time as you can without crowding them. Saute' for about 3 minutes on each side. Remove to a baking dish and place in a 200-degree oven to keep warm. Continue cooking the chicken pieces until all are done. (This, of course, can be done in half the time if you have 2 tablespoons of oil in each skillet.)
Discard the butter and oil. If you find that the pecans that are left in the skillet are too burnt, discard them; otherwise spoon them onto the chicken while it is being kept warm in the oven.
Deglaze the pan with the sour cream, scraping up all the browned particles.
Whisk the remaining tablespoon mustard, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper into the sauce. The sauce should retain a strong mustardy flavor. Remove it from the heat.
To serve, place a dollop of the sour cream sauce in the middle of warmed dinner plates and cover it completely with a portion of chicken. Only a small portion of sauce should accompany each piece so as not to overpower the chicken. It should not be visible on the plate and, thus, will be a surprise to the diner when he or she discovers it. From "Cooking the Nouvelle Cuisine in America"
REDSKINS ROASTED HERB CORN (6 servings) 6 ears fresh corn 1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted 1 teaspoon crumbled dried parsley 1/4 teaspoon crumbled rosemary leaves 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon paprika 1/2 teaspoon salt
Remove husks from corn. Place each ear on a square of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Combine remaining ingredients. Spread over ears of corn. Wrap each ear tightly.
Place on grill four to six inches from hot coals, or in medium oven. Roast, turning very often, 15 to 25 minutes or until cooked.