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OUR ANNUAL COOKBOOK SPECIAL

An American Cook

December 12, 1996|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

Yes, there are too many cookbooks being published. Too many recycled low-fat ideas, too many cute books, too many recipes and not enough real writing, too much packaging and not enough passion. Still, it wasn't easy for each writer on the Times Food staff to choose just one favorite book from the year. Many worthy cookbooks are not mentioned--though we will describe several notable ones in next week's issue. What follows on the next few pages is a highly subjective list of the cookbooks that pleased us most this year.

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Can chicken a la king make a comeback? If Larry Forgione has his way, the dish that could be called the Rodney Dangerfield of the banquet circuit will finally get some respect.

In "An American Place" (William Morrow: 1996, $30), named after his New York restaurant, Forgione sets out to right the wrongs of careless cooks and restore the culinary reputations of tarnished American classics, including Waldorf salad, baked lobster Savannah (a lesser-known but equally maligned cousin of lobster Thermidor) and, yes, chicken a la king.

Forgione likes olive oil as much as the next chef, but he's not afraid to reveal that he uses old-fashioned cornstarch--and that he uses it in a lot of his best dishes.

To those who have eaten his food at An American Place--and before that at the River Cafe in Brooklyn, where he made his reputation--it's not news that Forgione, possibly the most talented of James Beard's proteges, can bring new life to tired classics. And many of the dishes he's come up with on his own have been copied so much they seem like revived classics.

As one of the leaders of the New American Cuisine movement in the late '70s and early '80s, Forgione worked with farmers and fishermen, even hunters and gatherers (called foragers these days) to get the freshest, best-tasting ingredients. When he couldn't get good chicken from the usual suppliers, he got a weekend egg farmer to start raising free-range chickens, a radical idea at the time.

Now that home cooks have access to many of the products that chefs finally take for granted, the time is right to explore Forgione's excellent restaurant cooking in the home kitchen. Unlike so many chef cookbooks that are mere souvenirs, Forgione's book has a point of view--that real American cooking, when prepared with the same care and quality ingredients used in European kitchens, is among the world's great cuisines.

His recipes, rather than being a random collection of dishes served over the years at his restaurant, are the building blocks of his argument. Make Forgione's amazing strawberry shortcake--the secret is hard-boiled egg yolks in the dough--and you will agree with James Beard, who upon tasting the dish years ago told Forgione, "There can be no dessert better, only fancier."

Forgione approaches American cooking almost as if it were an ethnic cuisine to be mastered. Where other cookbook writers travel abroad to discover the authentic versions of the dishes they want to re-create, Forgione goes back in time through extensive research of early American cookbooks. Ginger, for instance, is the key to his oyster bisque not because it is trendy but because Forgione discovered that colonial recipes called for it. (Ships bearing West Indies spices regularly passed through Boston Harbor.)

Forgione is not lost in the past, however. One of the most interesting groups of recipes in the book is his set of boneless chicken breast dishes. He manages to make this extremely popular but boring cut of the bird something to look forward to.

Try his creamy chive sauce, which is terrific served over grilled chicken and sticky rice cakes. Of course, boneless chicken breast is used in Forgione's re-engineered chicken a la king--he sautes the chicken instead of poaching it but keeps the cream sauce close to the original. It uses a teaspoon of cornstarch.

OLD-FASHIONED STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE

It's dumb to top a shortcake this good with anything but great-tasting strawberries. Yes, you can find out-of-season strawberries in the stores right now, but taste them before you serve them. If they're not full of flavor, the way they almost always are during the peak of the season, don't use them. Choose a winter fruit--either fresh or stewed with sugar--instead. And when spring and summer bring the year's most perfect berries, you will discover the the best use of all for Forgione's shortcake.

SHORTCAKE

2 cups flour

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

6 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

3/4 cup whipping cream

2 hard-boiled egg yolks, mashed

2 tablespoons melted butter

FILLING

3 pints strawberries, washed, hulled and halved or quartered (depending on size)

2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup whipping cream

SHORTCAKE

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