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Published: Tuesday, 1/1/2008

American foods offer choices

What do you consider "American food"? The answer sounds easy.

We all know it's hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie, fried chicken, pizza, and Coca Cola. It's the pot roast your mother made, green bean casserole, and cream of tomato soup, right out of the can. It's apple butter in the fall, canning tomatoes in the summer, and pumpkin pie at the holidays.

In addition to the foods common to most Americans, we have regional foods that are dearly loved.

American food includes crab cakes from Baltimore, Key lime pie from Florida, a lobster boil from Maine, enchiladas from Texas, sourdough bread from San Francisco, and home canned bread-and-butter pickles.

But cooking authentically American food is so much more, as the paperback edition of Saveur Cooks Authentic America:Celebrating the Recipes and Diverse Traditions of Our Rich Heritage by the editors of Saveur (Chronicle, $24.95) attests.

Even the matzo ball, an Eastern European tradition, has had regional American influences. Cookbook author Joan Nathan writes of a Dallas version made with pecans, and a Louisiana improvisation that uses hot pepper and scallions. A recipe for Beef Borscht was adapted by the Mennonites while in religious exile in Russia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: this version is hearty with beef and cabbage but has no beets.

Uptown versions of macaroni and cheese might have goat cheese and other gourmet cheeses, but good cheddar does make a difference, especially when the baked dish has fresh bread crumbs on the top, which crisp up in the oven. If you've never had it you ought to try it. Too many Americans think mac and cheese comes out of a box.

There's red rice from South Carolina, wild rice from the upper Midwest, White Beans with Linguica Sausage, Portuguese-style, from Rhode Island and Massachusetts, black beans from the Southwest, and pinto beans from Texas.

Poke is a raw fish specialty which is described as the Hawaiian ceviche, although it doesn't marinate long enough to "cook." Shrimp and Crab Etouffee smothered in pungent sauce is a classic Cajun dish.

Two dishes that I think are very Michigan/northwest Ohio are smelt and frog legs. Neither are included in this book, but truly should be called American foods. Ditto for ground cherries.

Chicken pie - the kind you make yourself - has leftover cooked chicken and turkey combined with a gravy or sauce and cubes of potato, carrot, peas, onion, and maybe a little corn ladled in a dish and topped with a pastry crust and baked. You don't have to make the pastry yourself; use a frozen or puff pastry crust. If all you've ever had is frozen pot pie from the supermarket, you really ought to make your own in the new year.

Country ham is a dish I was served when I lived in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It's not that different from Italian pancetta, Spanish jamon, and Serrano ham.

Chili Texas-style (no beans) or Cincinnati style, or white chili, or the chili made with kidney beans or black beans: they are all real American foods. Chile rellenos, stuffed artichokes, red cabbage, fried eggplant, and morels that drive many Ohioans and Michiganders wild in the spring are all-American.

American food includes flat breads, corn bread, tortillas, Swedish Coffee Bread, and hard breads and baking-powder biscuits that are served hot so the butter melts into the nooks and crannies. American food is far more than hamburgers and hot dogs.

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