Broadway Books, 544 pp., $30
After years of enjoying and learning from the works of Santa Fe-based cookbook authors Cheryl and Bill Jamison, I devour each new volume they publish with gusto. Now, three years of arduous research and recipe testing has yielded one of their best books to date. American Home Cooking documents our rich and diverse American culinary heritage, presenting more than 300 recipes that reflect the vibrant flavors of great regional dishes from across the country. The authors blew through town last month on a whirlwind book tour and I was lucky enough to chat with them over breakfast at Las Manitas. They explained the work process that has produced another in a series of exceptional cookbooks. "We start by gathering recipes, both of us doing research, before we go home to cook," Bill explained. They crisscrossed the country, meeting cheese makers in Wisconsin, a catfish farmer in Mississippi, rice farmers in the Arkansas delta, and Italian-American cooks in Providence. They sampled definitive regional specialties such as Dungeness crab and salmon in Oregon, shrimp along the Gulf coast, crab in Maryland, and Maine lobster. They also spent several weeks immersed in the phenomenal cookbook collection located on the campus of Texas Women's University in Denton, pouring over 200 years' worth of community cookbook treasures.
Once the research phase is completed and a huge base of recipes has been assembled, "I test the recipes in our little home kitchen in Santa Fe and we both make notes on which dishes are winners as we work through the original pile," Cheryl told me. While she is concerned about preserving the authenticity and regionality of each dish, Cheryl sometimes finds it necessary to tinker with recipes to assure they'll work for home cooks. It's a successful process that has yielded the Jamisons a shelf full of award-winning cookbooks over the last decade, and American Home Cooking is no exception. In addition to well-tested, accessible recipes, the big new book is chock-full of historical references, educational anecdotes, and interesting quotes. It reads every bit as well as it cooks, providing fascinating background information on the evolution of cooking in American homes during the past 400 years.
When it came to testing recipes, I was inspired to try the New Orleans Court Bouillon by a headnote that pointed out that as far as flavor is concerned, the traditional Creole dish is a close "cousin to another New World favorite, huachinango a la veracruzana," red snapper in a spicy tomato sauce from the Mexican Creole city of Veracruz. The Jamisons' version is simple and delicious served on a fluffy bed of rice. A quote from former Gourmet magazine contributor Laurie Colwin next to the recipe for Creamy Jalapeño Spinach described her first experience with the dish and prompted me to sample it. Colwin said it was so good it made her "want to sit up and beg like a dog," and I agree. Try it with fresh spinach from Boggy Creek for a new treat on the Thanksgiving table. Though I'd argue with their addition of any sugar to cornbread, the Cast-Iron Skillet Cornbread recipe given here is identical to our family standard in technique (heating the skillet in the oven before adding the batter to produce a crisp bottom crust) and texture. It's great with fall soups or chili and makes a reliable base for turkey dressing.
The recipes in American Home Cooking are arranged by food item (breakfast dishes, sandwiches, poultry, pork, beef, seafood, sides, etc.) and, when necessary, augmented with technique tips such as how to reduce the portion size of Baked Vidalia Onions and ingredient tips about reliable mail order sources for things such as Camellia red beans and tortilla rollers. For an opportunity to see the Jamisons in action and sample some of the delightful American home cooking they've chronicled, they'll be cooking up an American celebration at the Central Market Cooking School on Friday, November 19, from 6:30-9pm. Call 458-3068 for reservations.
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