First, we'll take a dive into the misty flats of an Indiana past. Then a fast-forward into the hyper-present which, as we all know, only exists in California.
Then a look at preservation -- not of historic buildings but of what romantically inclined food writers like to call the "bounty" of summer. This bounty is what we get for suffering through the bus fumes and inversions of August, when the boredom of 95-degree days and the terror of 80-degree nights (what if the air conditioning stops working?) become almost, but not quite, too much to bear. The "bounty" is in the form of nightmare quantities of berries, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini -- especially zucchini.
Indiana, to many Washingtonians, is a concept but not really a place. Along with Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, Indiana forms the concept of flat places you have to fly over before you get to California. But places like Indiana are also the locus of that vague longing many Easterners -- who of course would never actually drive through a place like Indiana unless forced -- have for a mythical American past, where grandma stoked the wood stove before wood stoves were cute and mom wore an apron all the time.
It's hard to know which concept is more insulting to people who actually live in Indiana -- ever heard of Gary, where they make our steel? Or Bloomington, where the opera is better than in most large cities? -- but in any case a woman named Marilyn Kluger has done all of us a favor by putting together a sort of memoir-with-recipes called "Country Kitchens Remembered" (Dodd Mead, $17.95, 1987).
Kluger had the kind of felicitous, dreamy childhood -- full of orchards and snow and pie -- that many of us would like to conjur up for ourselves. If she came from anywhere in France and reminisced like this she'd be a guru, with every incipient chef from both coasts, and Chicago too, supplicant at her feet.
As it is, Kluger comes from Indiana, where grandma knew long before Alice Waters discovered it that "boiled cider" was a useful, elegant sweetener for pies, pancakes and baked apples.
Kluger's book is as much narrative as it is recipes, but the narratives are always elegantly written and usually informative as well. Her account of Mother beating the egg whites for the angel food cake, for example, is both a perfect description of how egg whites should be beaten and a lovely evocation of a mother-daughter relationship brought to life in the kitchen.
One of the best aspects of this book is that it's written from the inside -- Kluger was on the farm, helping her mother with the threshing-day meals and the canning and the chicken-plucking. And since she's inside, there is no hint of that anthropologist's murmur that always exists when city folks discover that there were sun-dried peaches in Indiana centuries before there were sun-dried tomatoes at Sutton Place Gourmet.
Somebody should have worked harder on the index -- you won't find muffins or boiled cider listed there, though they exist in narrative and recipe throughout the book -- but if what you're looking for is real American food and good writing to go with it, this is it.
Now from Indiana through a couple of centuries and about five states to California, where what's happening now is, you can be sure, what's happening now.
The title of the book in question, "Make it Easy, Make it Light" (Simon and Schuster, $17.95, 1987), sums up food publishing history in the last half of the 1980s. The picture of its author, Laurie Burrows Grad, on the cover -- blond, thin and holding a single shrimp -- embodies all the salable 80s' qualities as well.
And Grad, who appears as resident chef on the nationally syndicated "Hour Magazine" television show, demonstrates that she knows her audience by producing -- as her title promises -- interesting recipes that don't take all day to cook and don't use up the week's calorie ration either.
The graphics -- the way the type and (few) illustrations are arranged -- make the book easy to read and follow. This is not as normal a circumstance as you would think. Muddy graphics make some perfectly good cookbooks into duds by confusing the reader about what's instruction and what's just banter. There is also a refreshing minimum of psycho-food babble in this book, by the way.
Each recipe is preceded by information about how many it serves, its calorie count per serving, and its preparation and cooking time. Some respected authorities (Jane Brody is one) believe that calorie and other nutritional counts are necessarily inaccurate because of slight but inevitable variations in ingredients and exact amounts, but these calorie counts should at least serve as a relative guide.
Grad's nutritional information is well researched, serious and up-to-date. She takes no weird flights into mystical weight-loss secrets or magic feel-better food combinations.
"Make it Easy, Make it Light" is at its most interesting in the "pasta, pizza, crepes and their more exotic relatives," "vegetables" and "salads" chapters, which include recipes for interesting dishes high in that nutritional gold called complex carbohydrates. Desserts are mostly based on fruit, and meat dishes are few.
The recipes are sophisticated, but not so sophisticated as to be frightening. In other words, you can buy most ingredients in your local supermarket.
The best preserving book -- that is, book about "putting up" all those peppers and tomatoes now starring in your back yard -- is really an updated version of an old one called "Putting Food By" (The Stephon Greene Press, $7.95, 1987). This book is so comprehensive that it took three people, Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughan and Janet Greene, to write it.
This book is to preserving as "Joy of Cooking" is to general cooking. You can believe what it says in here. Illustrations have the homely quality of those in a home ec text book, and some of the information is presented that way too. There is, for example, a chapter titled "On Guard!" But when you're trying to figure out how not to poison yourself in midwinter with the chow-chow you make now, you don't want frou-frou. You want information.
"Putting Food By" covers not only simple canning and jelly-making, but also smoking, drying and freezing. Sometimes, because the book is so comprehensive, it's hard to find a recipe for, say, raspberry jam, without wading through multiple listings in the index for various jam-making procedures.
There are other books on preserving, but this one has everything all in one place, from a recipe for blackberry cordial to a listing of all the government agencies having anything to do with food safety.
Two other books also come to mind. One is called "Fancy Pantry" by Helen Witty (Workman Publishing, $11.95, 1986), and it's one of the best-written and best-edited cookbooks around. It's not so businesslike as "Putting Food By," but you might find the recipes more modern and the format a bit more accessible. It's an especially good book to have if you want to make some nice little tidbits to give away at holiday time.
The last book of interest to preservers, called "Preserving," is part of the old Time-Life Good Cook series (by the editors of Time-Life Books, 1981). You may be able to find it in the library, but otherwise it will be hard to locate. In it there are lovely -- many of them European-style -- recipes for things like brandied cherries, along with thoroughgoing information about preserving food safely.
JEWEL'S CREAM PIE (Makes one 9-inch pie)
1/3 cup sifted enriched flour or 4 tablespoons cornstarch
2/3 cup sugar plus 6 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk, scalded
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
9-inch pie shell, baked
3 egg whites, beaten until stiff
Mix flour, 2/3 cup sugar and salt. Gradually add the milk, stirring well. Cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and boils. Cook 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat.
Add a small amount of boiling mixture very gradually to the egg yolks; then stir the egg yolk mixture into the hot custard. Cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add butter and vanilla. Cool slightly. Pour into baked pie shell and let cool.
Cover with a meringue made of egg whites beaten with 6 tablespoons sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.
Banana: Slice 2 bananas into the bottom of pie shell. Add filling and meringue.
Chocolate: Increase sugar to 1 cup. Melt two 1-ounce squares of unsweetened chocolate in the scalded milk, or stir 6 tablespoons cocoa into the sugar before combining it with the other ingredients.
Fresh coconut: Grate the meat of one coconut. Add 1 cup fresh coconut meat to the cooked cream pie filling. Sprinkle 1/2 cup fresh coconut over the meringue before browning.
From "Country Kitchens Remembered," by Marilyn Kluger (Dodd Mead, $17.95, 1987) PEACH BUTTER Scald and peel very ripe peaches and remove the pits. Cook the peaches until tender, using only enough water to start the cooking. Press the pulp through a food mill or pure'e in a blender or food processor.
To each cup of pulp, add 1/2 cup sugar. Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon or 4-inch stick to each 4 cups of pulp. Cook the peach butter slowly on top of the stove, stirring frequently, until thick, or about 1 hour. Or bake at 325 degrees in an uncovered shallow pan until thick, stirring two or three times an hour, for about 2 hours.
Pack the boiling-hot butter into sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch space at the top, and adjust the lids. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Peach butter is done when only a tiny rim of liquid forms around a spoonful dropped onto a cold saucer.
From "Country Kitchens Remembered" by Marilyn Kluger (Dodd Mead, $17.95, 1987) FUSILLI WITH EGGPLANT AND GARLIC SAUCE (6 servings)
The eggplant in the sauce is grilled with a light brushing of oil to reduce the fat content in the sauce.
1 medium eggplant, unpeeled, cut horizontally into 1/4-inch thick slices
5 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 1/2 cups canned crushed tomatoes packed in pure'e
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil, or 1/2 teaspoon dried, crumbled
2 teaspoons finely minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound dried fusilli
FOR THE GARNISH:
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Preheat the broiler. Coat a broiling pan with vegetable cooking spray.
Place the eggplant in a single layer in the broiling pan, brush lightly with 2 teaspoons oil on one side and broil for 3 to 4 minutes, or until golden. Turn, brush with 2 more teaspoons oil and broil as before. Remove, slice into strips, and set aside.
In a nonstick skillet, heat the remaining 1 teaspoon oil and saute' the onion and carrots over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, or until softened. Add the tomatoes, basil, garlic, red pepper, and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the eggplant strips and continue to cook for an additional 10 minutes.
In the meantime, cook the pasta in a pot of boiling water until just tender. Drain.
Toss the hot pasta with the sauce, top with parmesan cheese and parsley, and serve hot.
If tomatoes packed in pure'e are unavailable, use regular whole juice-packed tomatoes; chop, drain off most of the liquid. Return the tomatoes to the can, and fill to the top with canned tomato pure'e.
Broiled zucchini can be added to the sauce along with the eggplant.
You can use fresh rather than dried pasta: Cook only 2 minutes, or until just cooked. Do not overcook.
Calories: 373 per serving
From "Make It Easy, Make It Light" by Laurie Burrows Grad (Simon and Schuster, $17.95, 1987) MOROCCAN CARROT SALAD (8 servings)
This spicy salad, redolent of cilantro, contains only 1 tablespoon of peanut oil in a quantity to serve 8 people.
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (coriander)
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 tablespooons lemon juice
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste *
1 teaspoon chile powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Salt to taste
1 pound carrots, shredded
In a food processor, blender or by hand, combine the parsley, cilantro and garlic and process until finely chopped. Add the lemon juice, peanut oil, tomato paste and seasonings. Process just until all the ingredients are well-combined.
Place the mixture in a large glass or ceramic bowl, top with the carrots, and toss until the carrots are coated. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours or overnight.
Adjust the seasonings and serve chilled or at room temperature.
Variation: The salad can be prepared using half carrots and half shredded jicama.
Make-It-Easy Tip *Tomato paste is available in squeeze tubes, which are easier to use than canned paste. Simply squeeze out the required amount, replace the lid and refrigerate until the next use.
Calories: 46 per serving
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Chilling time: 4 to 6 hours or overnight.
From "Make It Easy, Make It Light," by Laurie Burrows Grad (Simon and Schuster, $17.95, 1987)