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A fresh look at American foods by James Beard

Just how much American cooking has changed in the last few years is summed up by the 78-year-old master of American cooking in his new cookbook, The New James Beard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $16.95).

''Something has been quietly happening in the kitchens across the country,'' he told me at lunch at Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel with Richard Nimmo, who has worked with Mr. Beard for about eight years.

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''There's been a shift straight across the whole spectrum of my cookery,'' he said, ''It goes all the way from menu-making right down to the way I'm writing recipes today.''

The new cookbook, with 1,000 recipes, is a healthy size; it originally was planned as an addition to Mr. Beard's last book, ''The Theory and Practice of Good Cooking.''

''But when I started to write I realized so many things had changed that I had to start a new book from scratch,'' he said.

The result is impressive. It is without question one of the best of the year. He told me about some of the changes.

''I've taken a fresh look at some of this country's resources, like beef, and reevaluated them. Yogurt, which most people treat as a dish, is most adaptable in cooking as cream.

''My new style of seasoning involves less salt and more use of major ingredients that heighten each other.

''I want to stress a new flexible approach to ingredients, to the way we put them together and the way we plan a meal,'' he said.

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Almost any dish in the first six chapters can be served either as a main course or an appetizer, including the soups, salads, and vegetables.

''People are making a lot of things from scratch rather than buying them,'' he said. ''The commercial product is often disappointing and with modern equipment you can make your own in less time than it takes to go out and buy it.''

So the book includes recipes for what were formerly ''store'' items.

''On the other hand, people nowadays feel free to serve store-bought items if they're good.''

His salads are different. He suggests small, decorative, well-arranged salads as a first course.

He suggests using bread crumbs or vegetable purees as thickening for soups.

He includes some of his newest bread recipes as well as his basic loaf for beginners.

''Overall we're not thinking in the same stiff categories we used to, '' he said. ''Meat can be a seasoning not a prime ingredient. A main dish of grains or a robust combination of vegetables, sufficiently anchors a meal.

''More and more we're composing menus by instinct rather than by rule.

''Dessert doesn't have to be at the end. Nor soup at the beginning. I find many people serve what they like best, first.''

James Beard has been writing about food a long time, traveling around the country giving food lectures and demonstrations as well as running his own famous school in New York City. He has recently given classes with Marion Cunningham, the San Francisco cooking teacher who revised the twelfth edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook.

I saw him in California this summer at the Garlic Festival in Gilroy. His book has in it his famous recipe for chicken with 40 cloves of garlic.

He is consulting with a big hotel chain that plans to open in Florida serving American cuisine to foreign tourists. He has also, in the last 20 years, written a couple of dozen excellent cookbooks.

His newest one is a beauty and it will be usable, practical, and valuable for both beginners and accomplished cooks. One recipe from the book is a sponge cake with an apricot glaze, which makes a nice dessert either plain or with fruit or ices. Sponge Cake with Apricot Glaze 1 1/4 cups sifted cake flour 1 1/2 cups sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 cup egg yolks, 6 or more, depending on size 1/4 cup cold orange juice 1 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 teaspoon almond extract or 1 tablespoon grated orange rind 1/4 cup egg whites, about 4, depending on size 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar Apricot Glaze 1 cup sieved apricot jam

Sift flour with 1 cup sugar, salt, and baking powder. If using an electric mixer, sift into small bowl. Add egg yolks, orange juice, and flavorings, but do not stir mixture at this time.

Put egg whites in large bowl of mixer, or into good-sized mixing bowl, and beat until fluffy. Add cream of tartar and continue beating, then gradually beat in remaining 1/2 cup sugar and continue beating until very stiff peaks are formed.

With rotary beater or electric mixer on low speed, beat flour, egg yolk, and flavoring mixture until well blended, about 1 minute. Gently fold - do not stir - this mixture, about a quarter at a time, into egg whites. When batter is smooth, turn into ungreased 10-inch tube pan.

Bake in preheated 350 degrees F. oven for 40 to 50 minutes. If cake springs back when pressed lightly in center, it is done. It should also have begun to shrink from sides of pan. Immediately invert and allow to cool before removing from pan. Heat sieved apricot jam in saucepan until boiling. Pour hot glaze over cake.

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