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Cookbook helps to define American food

| Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Chicken Pot Tot Hotdish. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.
For The Washington Post
Chicken Pot Tot Hotdish. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.
Creamed Rice With Vegetables and Ham. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.
For The Washington Post
Creamed Rice With Vegetables and Ham. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.
Poblano Rings. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.
For The Washington Post
Poblano Rings. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

Editor's Note: This is adapted from the introduction to “America the Great Cookbook: The Food We Make for the People We Love From 100 of Our Finest Chefs and Food Heroes” (Weldon Owen, 2017), edited by Joe Yonan, Washington Post food and dining editor.

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When I was a kid growing up in West Texas in the 1970s, I loved Saturday mornings, ... because of the cartoons — and because of “Schoolhouse Rock!,” that series of animated songs that ran between shows. Millions of us learned about legislative procedures through “I'm Just a Bill,” math through “Three Is a Magic Number” and grammar through “Conjunction Junction.”

Then there was the episode called “The Great American Melting Pot.” The chorus went:

“Lovely Lady Liberty

“With her book of recipes

“And the finest one she's got

“Is the Great American Melting Pot.”

It was catchy enough, and the animation was striking: The statue flipped through her book and came to the titular recipe, and the ingredients read, “Armenians, Africans, English, Dutch. ...” Cue scenes of people of various ethnicities diving into the water in a giant pot (with a handle), apparently on a stove.

As the grandson of Assyrian immigrants, I wondered: Is that what really happens? We melt right in? Isn't that painful? I'm sure I wasn't sophisticated enough to be thinking about the true impact on my grandparents' culture, but I remember wondering about the previous lives of all those people simmering in that pot. Decades later, I thought: What about the Native Americans who were already here? Did they melt right in, too? Did they want to?

What does all this have to do with American food and American cooks? Well, when we ask the question, “What is American food?” we might as well be asking, “What is America?” Because the answer is every bit as complex — much more complex than a melting pot.

American food is native food, and it is immigrant food. It is food cooked in the spirit of openness, experimentation and reinvention, but often with a deep attachment to tradition.

American food:

• A stew concocted in Santa Fe, N. M., from the crops known as Three Sisters — corn, squash and beans — that are so important to Native American food culture.

• The fried rings of poblano chiles made by a TV personality who grew up on both sides of the San Diego/Tijuana border.

• A hamburger and milkshake served from a quintessential 1950s-era drive-in found in the heart of the Midwest.

• A burnished loaf of challah, perfectly braided in Washington by one of the world's foremost experts in Jewish cuisine.

• A bowl of creamed rice made by an ambassador of New Southern cooking in Atlanta.

• The chicken hot dish, topped with Tater Tots, made by an East Coast transplant now living and writing on her husband's family farm in North Dakota.

• The gumbo that a true icon of Creole cooking has been dishing out for decades in New Orleans.

Those examples are among the flavors and personalities — some of them famous — that are featured in “America the Great Cookbook.” I think we captured the essence of what it means to be American through the eyes and hands and mouths and words of some of our favorite chefs, producers and home cooks.

The book is more than a celebration, though. It's also a call to arms against one of the most pressing issues of our time: poverty and a lack of access to good food, particularly among the most vulnerable of our community, our children. I am proud to promote this collection as a way to benefit No Kid Hungry and its tireless work toward eradicating child hunger.

So what is this ever-evolving thing called American food? We're not a melting pot, and neither is our cuisine. We're not a salad. We're not a burger. And we're not a stew — not even, really, a gumbo. We are many, many gumbos, each one more delicious, more storied and more satisfying than the last.

Poblano Rings

The fairly mild heat of this pepper translates well to an onion-ring preparation, from a recipe by Marcela Valladolid. 6 servings

You'll need an instant-read thermometer for monitoring the frying oil. In testing, we found that roasting the peppers in the oven yielded rings that can easily become too soft for creating good poblano rings, so we recommend blistering their skins over a gas flame — or watching them closely in the oven.

3 poblano peppers, preferably of equal size

3 cups vegetable oil, for frying

1 cup flour

Coarse salt

2 large eggs, beaten

1 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

3 tablespoons chipotle powder

Working with one at a time, use tongs to hold each poblano pepper over a gas flame, turning to char the skin on all sides — but just long enough so the poblanos remain firm. They should take about 5 minutes per pepper. Immediately transfer to a heatproof bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap, so the skins will steam/loosen (about 5 minutes). Discard the skins, then cut the chiles into 12-inch wide rings, discarding the stem and membrane/seeds.

Heat the oil in a deep pot or large, heavy saucepan to 350 degrees (over medium heat). Place a wire rack over a baking sheet lined with paper towels.

Meanwhile, arrange 3 bowls in an assembly line: one with the flour, seasoned with about 1 teaspoon salt; one with the beaten eggs; and one with the panko and chipotle powder whisked together.

Carefully and completely coat each ring in first in the flour, shaking off any excess, then in the egg, and then in the seasoned panko.

Working in batches, fry the rings in the hot oil for about 1 minute, until golden, turning them as needed. Transfer them to the rack to drain; sprinkle lightly with salt right away. (Discard any unused flour, egg and panko.)

Serve warm.

Chicken Pot Tot Hotdish

There is something instantly comforting and wonderfully retro about this Tater-Tot-topped casserole from a Molly Yeh recipe, with its expertly seasoned sauce and vegetables cooked to a nice texture. Makes 6 servings.

MAKE AHEAD: This casserole could be assembled, cooled and wrapped for the freezer; freeze for up to 3 months. Defrost in the refrigerator overnight.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large yellow onion, chopped

3 carrots (trimmed), scrubbed well and cut into 12-inch pieces

Kosher salt

6 tablespoons flour

3 cups whole milk

About 1 tablespoon concentrated chicken bouillon, such as Better Than Bouillon brand

34 cup fresh or frozen peas

1 12 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 12- to 34-inch pieces

12 teaspoon dried thyme

Freshly ground black pepper

18 ounces frozen Tater Tots

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Melt the butter in a large saute pan or deep skillet over medium heat. Once its foam subsides, stir in the onion, carrots and a pinch of the salt. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring a few times, until they have softened.

Sprinkle in the flour and stir to incorporate, then gradually pour in the milk while you are stirring, forming a sauce that is thickening. Then add the chicken bouillon base, peas, chicken pieces, dried thyme and a few grinds of pepper, stirring to blend well. Once the mixture begins to bubble at the edges, cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and add salt and/or pepper, as needed.

Transfer this filling mixture to an 8-by-11-inch baking dish or casserole with a 3-quart capacity. Use the Tater Tots to cover the surface of the hotdish, arranging them snugly and neatly. Bake (middle rack) for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown.

Let cool slightly before serving.

Creamed Rice With Vegetables and Ham

This dish from a Steven Satterfield recipe comes together like a risotto — with lots of stirring — so it helps to have all the ingredients prepped and ready to go before you begin. Makes 6 servings.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 cup Carolina Gold rice or other aromatic long-grain rice, such as basmati

14 cup dry white wine

1 cup water

2 cups chicken broth, heated (may substitute pork or vegetable broth)

2 cups heavy cream, heated

14 cup finely chopped country ham

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

1 cup 1-inch pieces trimmed asparagus spears

1 cup quartered radishes, plus rinsed and coarsely chopped radish leaves

1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Heat the butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Once its foam subsides, add the rice and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring, until the grains turn opaque.

Add the wine; cook until it has been absorbed, then add 14 cup of the water, stirring until that has been absorbed. Repeat the additions of water until it is all used.

Gradually add 12 cup of the heated broth, stirring to incorporate. Then add 12 cup of the heated cream. Repeat with another 12 cup of each to form a risotto-like mixture that is well blended. Once those liquids are absorbed, stir in the ham, peas, asparagus, radishes and 12 teaspoon of the salt.

Continue to alternate adding the remaining heated broth and cream 12 cup at a time, until they are all incorporated. Taste and add some or all the remaining salt, as needed.

Garnish with the radish leaves; serve hot.

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