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'New American Cooking' offers delicious dishes for the melting pot

The New American Cooking: 280 Recipes Full of Delectable New Flavors From Around the World as Well as Fresh Ways With Old Favorites, By Joan Nathan, Knopf, 448 pp., $35

Though the book is not the first of its kind, it's a good time for ''New American Cooking," a compendium of recipes from around the globe, all of which made their way to this country with varying degrees of authenticity. For Joan Nathan, who built her reputation mainstreaming the Jewish kitchen, this is a large and daring step away from her own roots.

In this book, each page is full of surprises: Recipes hail from Ecuador, Cambodia, Nigeria, Iran, and so forth. Nathan's use of the term ''new American cooking" is not to be confused with ''New American cuisine," the 25-year-old revolution in high-end eating that celebrates local and seasonal ingredients treated in traditional, sometimes highly technical, ways. Although Nathan, too, celebrates the fresh and the local -- who doesn't? -- her point is that our culinary frontiers have expanded beyond all expectation.

With six cookbooks under her belt, Nathan has a sure touch in making recipes simple for home cooks. Grilled salmon with goat cheese and roasted tomatoes takes advantage of the rise in quality of local goat cheeses and guarantees moist, luscious-tasting fish. Indian tandoori chicken is a decent facsimile, getting the flavors right even if the heat of the traditional 800-degree clay oven isn't an option.

Sides are equally rewarding. Greens with ginger-maple vinaigrette call for three different vinegars (balsamic, sherry, and rice) in addition to maple syrup and mustard. Yet the dressing harmonizes beautifully, glazing baby beets and mushrooms scattered in the mix. There was enough dressing left for another meal.

Abobrinha, which is a Brazilian dish of zucchini with tomatoes, peppers, and lime, was brighter and sweeter than your typical mixed-vegetable dish. The least interesting recipe turned out to be Israeli couscous with pine nuts and herbs, in which the predictable Mediterranean flavors (rosemary, parsley, aromatics) cried out for something colorful and striking to make them lively.

For desserts, Nathan favors unfussy country sweets -- cobblers and cookies rather than exotic imports. Chewy, tart oatmeal dried-cherry cookies became an instant classic in our household. Cocadas (more or less South American macaroons) were almost impossible to work with; full of coconut flakes and chocolate chips, the dough fell apart like sand. Eventually, wet hands solved the problem, and the results were worth it.

For such a mammoth undertaking (more than 400 pages), ''New American" has spotty patches. The vegetable section leans heavily on starchy roots, and leafy greens are basically limited to spinach and collards. This is a particular shame given the explosion of greens (from dandelion to tatsoi) in American markets. Don't look for broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts either.

Still, Nathan's enthusiasm is infectious; dispersed throughout this optimistic volume are breezy anecdotes about farmers, cooks, and restaurants. Clearly, the answer to the industrialization of the food supply and the nutritionally challenged American diet is to fall in love with real food. In an age when the family table all too often gathers dust, Nathan strongly promotes eating well at home. That's probably a good thing.


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