Remember the early days of the Food Network when the focus was on education rather than entertainment? My favorite host was David Rosengarten, whose show “Taste” actually taught cooking. What a concept! (Sara Moulton was a very close second.)
Coincidentally, although I didn’t know him then, Rosengarten grew up in Belle Harbor, New York, my hometown. From my house one could look across Jamaica Bay and see the New York skyline; from his, the Atlantic Ocean. So it was doubly exciting for me to talk to this award-winning cookbook author and reminisce about Far Rockaway High School, Cairo’s pizza and life by the beach in more idyllic times.
Rosengarten credits his father with nurturing his love of fine food and obsession to get it right. “He and I would discuss the menu, make a list, go shopping, and then have ourselves a grand old time cooking,” he said. “When other kids were helping their dads fix the car, I was helping my dad fix dinner.”
As Labor Day approaches, I turn to Rosengarten’s cookbook, “It’s All American Food” (Little, Brown and Company, $29.95), a celebration of over 400 ethnic, regional and classic dishes that make up our national cuisine. What better way to celebrate this holiday than with the simple, down-home foods we all love. And who better to turn to than the editor of “The Rosengarten Report,” the award-winning subscription newsletter, for menu ideas.
Americans need to get over their inferiority complex about American food, he said. “The things people eat in other places seem exotic to us. We go to the south of Italy and see somebody drizzling olive oil on a local tomato with a sprig of basil and say, ‘That’s beautiful.’ Europeans look at our tuna melt and say, ‘What an incredible sandwich.’ We use supermarket white bread, Hellmann’s mayo [Best Foods here], and think, this can’t be great, but when you bring all those things together in that sandwich, they’re a fabulous lineup of ingredients. We don’t know what a treasure we have in America.”
And it’s not just mayo, which, by the way, is the secret of his devastatingly rich chocolate cake. Boston baked beans, hush puppies, pushcart onions for hot dogs sold on the streets of New York—these are the foods Americans are really eating, and Rosengarten is passionate about preserving the recipes before they get lost. “If we don’t get people making these dishes at home, they will ultimately disintegrate into nothingness,” he said. “The most vital way to keep a dish alive is if a lot of people are cooking it, thinking about it and making it better. If the only guys making those onions are the guys preparing it every morning for stands, thinking if they make it a little less good they’ll save two pennies per serving, ultimately they’re going to go away.”
And these are not just any old versions of these dishes. “I worked very hard to make them the best versions I could so people can take them seriously once again,” he said. “Creativity is not combining bizarre ingredients. It’s taking a dish that is already established and figuring out a way to make it taste just a little bit better.”
Take french fries. Why don’t they taste at home like they do in restaurants, he wondered. “Home fries are slick. I wanted to duplicate those ‘nubbly,’ little microscopic pockets that give texture and crunch to restaurant fries. I’d always done the two fryings. I thought, what if I boiled them first to soften them. It worked. Sure, you can drizzle truffle oil on them. I’m not interested. I wanted to make a better french fry, and these are the best home french fries I’ve ever had.”
The ethnic foods we enjoy—spaghetti and meatballs, egg foo yung, cheese enchiladas—hybrids that immigrants created with available ingredients, are uniquely American versions and deserve our respect, he said.
“Chinese workers, for example, who came west to work on the railroads had no fancy grocery in Chinatown. They had to improvise. That’s why Chinese-American food is so different from the food you’d get in China today. Similarly, Italian immigrants of the 1880s and 1890s, who couldn’t find the ingredients they had back home, adapted their recipes, and it all became American food. Sure, our versions are different from what they eat in Italy, but why apologize?”
Style French Fries
The size of the potatoes must be correct for best results.
Yield: 4 servings
5 large russet potatoes, peeled
2 tablespoons table salt (plus coarse salt for sprinkling)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 quarts vegetable oil
1 Trim potatoes into rectangles. Cut lengthwise into broad slices about 3/8 inch thick. Cut each slice into strips about 3/8 inch wide. Hold cut potatoes in bowl of cold water until ready to use.
2 Place 3 quarts water, salt and sugar in large pot. Bring to a boil. Add cut potatoes, let water return to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to a gentle boil. Cook potatoes 7 minutes, or until quite soft but still holding together. You don’t want to make mashed potatoes, so check during last few minutes of boiling period. Remove with a wide, slotted utensil (what chefs call a spider would be ideal), and place on paper towels in a single layer. Bring to room temperature (about 10 minutes).
3 First fry: heat vegetable oil in deep, heavy, straight-sided pot to 250°. Using your hands, carefully place a small batch of potatoes on a spider (or another wide, slotted utensil), making sure not to break them. Slowly lower spider into oil, drop potatoes into oil, and cook 2 minutes. Remove with spider: place on paper towels in single layer. This step essentially blanches potatoes, so there should be very little color. Repeat with remaining potatoes, in small batches.
4 When ready to serve, heat oil to 350°. Using your hands, slowly remove a small batch of fries from paper towels without breaking them and place them on spider. Slowly lower the spider into oil, drop fries into oil, and cook, stirring occasionally to ensure even browning. You want french fries to have deep golden brown color and for surface to be a little crinkly, about 3 minutes. Remove from oil with spider and place them in single layer on baking pan lined with paper towels. Sprinkle generously with coarse salt. Repeat with remaining fries. Serve immediately for maximum crispness, but you may hold completed fries in a 300° oven.
For All Purposes
Serve fast, easy, reliable, delicious chocolate cake as is or embellished with your favorite frosting.
Yield: 8 servings
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup good-quality mayonnaise, such as Best Foods
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups cake flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 Preheat oven to 350°. Grease two 8 X 8-inch or two 8-inch round baking dishes with butter. Sprinkle evenly with all-purpose flour. Set aside.
2 In medium mixing bowl, whisk sugar, mayonnaise, and vanilla until blended.
3 In another bowl, sift together cake flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt.
4 In another bowl, beat eggs lightly, then add milk, whisking to blend.
5 Whisking slowly, add 1/3 of flour mixture to mayonnaise mixture. Add half the egg-milk mixture, whisking, then another third of the flour mixture. Keep whisking, then finish with the remaining half of egg mixture and last third of flour mixture.
6 Pour into prepared baking dishes and bake 20 to 25 minutes or until skewer inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool on rack.
Source: “It’s All American Food” by David Rosengarten
Jlife food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.