Nowadays, no matter what our ancestry, our kids want to eat chicken satay as they do in the cafe down the street, our spouses want to serve a pesto as good as the one sampled on vacation in Liguria and we'd all love to master not only a perfect roast chicken but also a mean tarte Tatin.
But encyclopedic cookbooks are updated infrequently and sometimes suggest kitschy or bland versions of ethnic dishes. Meanwhile, chefs' cookbooks too often pair great ideas with frighteningly complex techniques. We're ready for an updated but streamlined standard repertoire of recipes, and Anya von Bremzen takes a stab at just that in "The Greatest Dishes!: Around the World in 80 Recipes" (HarperCollins, $25.95).
Her goal is to create a new American home cook's canon, one that reflects today's taste for authenticity but is made up of classic dishes that "keep a grip on our taste buds through changing fashions and fleeting fads."
In alphabetical order from apple pie to Wiener schnitzel, Von Bremzen offers 80 recipes and their "biographies." The food-history passages and on-the-trail-of anecdotes make for lively reading, but Von Bremzen's real contribution is in the way she redefines the dishes she writes about. Through careful hands-on testing, she discovers — or rediscovers — for herself the heart and soul of many dishes. She offers a real reason to try each of the resulting recipes.
Von Bremzen identifies "brash marine essence," for example, as a defining characteristic of bouillabaisse Marseillaise, but instead of insisting on authentic ingredients (scorpionfish, conger eel), she concentrates on helping the reader sort out the "two-act drama" of broth and poached fish that makes bouillabaisse fun to serve when entertaining.
Or take fried chicken. By passing along a recipe from Scott Peacock of Watershed restaurant in Decatur, Ga., she reminds us why the stuff used to be on so many Sunday dinner tables. Soaked overnight in buttermilk, fried crisp with a touch of bacon in the pan, this version of a once-beloved dish sweeps away the shortcuts and compromises of a couple of generations and resurrects a flavor combination that deserves the classic status Von Bremzen bestows on it.
Sometimes she creates a recipe combining the best of several versions of one dish. In at least one case — chocolate-glazed lemon cheesecake — it's an inspired decision.
A food and travel writer who grew up in Moscow under communism and lives now in Queens, N.Y., Von Bremzen is the author of three previous cookbooks (on Russian, Asian fusion and Latin cuisines). She travels widely, sampling dishes in their place of origin and then gathering or developing recipes. For this book, she "first made a list of dishes whose greatness would not be contested: cassoulet, paella, bouillabaisse, hamburgers, potato salad, apple pie, tandoori chicken " and then tried to make or find the perfect recipe for each.
Her list is decidedly personal, eschewing chile con carne and including sancocho, a Latino meat-and-tuber one-pot dish. Any greatest-hits list is debatable, of course, and the decision to include some surprises enhances the book. Part of the fun is the persuasiveness with which the author presents each selection, quoting authorities from Julia Child and Diana Kennedy (on the origins of Caesar salad) to the "Forme of Curry," a 14th century recipe collection.
Some recipes are, if not hard to prepare, dauntingly time consuming. For cassoulet (which, she explains, is "built around traditional southwestern French techniques of preserving pork, duck and goose for the winter"), Von Bremzen suggests a game plan that starts two days before the dish will be served.
There are a few misfires (a just-sits-there hamburger recipe), no breads (though polenta and arepas, Colombian corn cakes, make the cut) and precious few desserts.
Most of the recipes, however, are appealing and practical enough for everyday cooking and seem destined to become the kind of favorites that home cooks will turn to again and again: Chinese "lion's-head" meatballs flavored with soy and ginger, a pad Thai that's delightfully spicy, a pan-seared rib eye steak with Argentine chimichurri sauce, a straightforward matzo ball soup, carnitas made with Coca-Cola and lime juice.
Some dishes, like the Russian winter borscht with beef and pork, reflect the author's roots; others are drawn from her travels. And anyone who's tried to duplicate elusive flavors that are so thrilling when encountered on the road will be grateful to Von Bremzen for — in these 80 examples at least — bringing them all back home.
Scott Peacock's fried chicken with tomato gravy
Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes plus 8 hours brining and marinating
Servings: 4 to 6
Note: From "The Greatest Dishes." The author writes, "The gravy makes the recipe that much more special, but you can omit."
1/2cup coarse kosher salt
2 quarts cold water
1 (3 1/2-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces, rinsed well
3 cups buttermilk
1 1/2cups flour
2 tablespoons potato starch (optional)
Fine salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound lard or solid vegetable shortening, for frying
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces sliced bacon
1/2cup finely chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
4 cups diced drained canned tomatoes (from three 14-ounce cans)
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups milk
1. In a large bowl, dissolve the kosher salt in the cold water. Add the chicken, cover and refrigerate for 4 hours.
2. Pour off the salt water, rinse the chicken and drain. Put the chicken in a bowl, add the buttermilk and turn the pieces to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
3. In a large, sturdy plastic bag, put the flour, cornstarch, potato starch if using, 1 1/2 teaspoons fine salt and one-half teaspoon pepper and shake to combine. Set aside one-half cup flour mixture for the gravy. Lift the chicken from the buttermilk, wiping off any excess liquid. Arrange the pieces on a wire rack and let dry for 5 minutes. Add the chicken to the bag, a few pieces at a time, and shake to coat. Shake off any excess flour and return the chicken to the rack.
4. Meanwhile, in a large cast-iron skillet, melt the lard and butter. Add the bacon and cook over moderate heat until crisp, 5 to 6 minutes. Reserve the bacon for another use. Add the chicken, in batches if necessary, and cook over moderate heat, turning, until golden, crisp and cooked through, about 30 minutes. Lower the heat if necessary. Transfer to a wire rack to drain.
5. Transfer one-fourth cup cooking fat to a large saucepan and add the onion and garlic. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the reserved one-half cup seasoned flour and cook, whisking, for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and thyme, and stir constantly until blended. Whisk in the cream and milk until the sauce is smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 10 minutes.
6. Transfer the fried chicken to a platter. Serve with tomato gravy.
Each of six servings: 861 calories; 43 grams protein; 45 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 57 grams fat; 27 grams saturated fat; 255 mg.cholesterol; 406 mg. sodium. *
Russian winter borscht with beef and pork
Total time: 3 hours
Serves: 10 t o 12
Note: From "Greatest Dishes." Says the author, "Borscht, like most peasant soups, improves tremendously as it stands and is usually made in huge quantities. It will happily keep for four to five days. Baking the beet in its skin is the secret to a beautiful ruby color. A thick slice of sourdough pumpernickel or rye (rubbed with a little garlic) is a must, and borscht without sour cream is simply unthinkable."
1 pound beef chuck or shin, trimmed of excess fat
1 pound meaty pork spareribs
14 cups water
2 medium onions, peeled
2 medium carrots, peeled
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black
2 to 3 medium beets (about
1 pound), washed and stemmed
1 slice good smoky bacon, chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and
1 large green bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
2 cups chopped green cabbage
3 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
1 (16-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 small Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and diced
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon freshly ground black
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons distilled
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons sugar
Chopped fresh dill and
scallions, for garnish
1. Combine the beef, pork and water in a large stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim thoroughly and reduce the heat to low. Add the peeled onions and carrots, the bay leaf and peppercorns and season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer partially covered until the meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Strain the stock; you should have 10 to 11 cups. Discard the marrow bones. Cut the beef and the pork into 1 1/2-inch chunks, discarding the pork bones. Set the meat aside.
2. While the stock is cooking, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Wrap the beets individually in aluminum foil and bake until the tip of a small knife slides in easily, about 45 minutes. Unwrap the beets, plunge them into a bowl of cold water, then slip off the skins. Grate the beets on a four-sided box grater or shred in a food processor, and set aside.
3. In a large, heavy soup pot, cook the bacon in the butter over medium heat until it renders its fat. Add the chopped onion, carrot and green pepper and cook until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the cabbage and cook, stirring, for another 7 minutes.
4. Add the stock, potatoes, tomatoes, apple and the reserved meats. Season with salt and simmer until the potatoes are almost tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in the reserved beets and cook the soup over medium-low heat until the vegetables are soft and the flavors have melded, about 25 minutes more.
5. With a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic, pepper and parsley to a paste and add it to the soup. (If you don't have a mortar and pestle, use ground pepper, crushed garlic and minced parsley.) Stir in the vinegar and the sugar, adjusting the balance of sweet and sour to taste.
6. Let the borscht stand for 10 minutes before serving (or better, serve the next day). To serve, add a teaspoon of sour cream to each bowl and sprinkle liberally with dill and scallions. Instruct the diners to mix the sour cream well into the soup.
Each serving: 304 calories; 17 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 17 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 66 mg. cholesterol; 152 mg. sodium.