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Joan Nathan: An Exotic Holiday Feast

In The New American Cooking, cookbook author Joan Nathan showcases some of the more unusual items that are turning up on America's tables -- plantains, pomegranates and other once-obscure ingredients.

Nathan says the influx of Asians, Indians, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans has revolutionized the way Americans eat today. These influences have given an exotic twist to even old holiday favorites like brisket. She joins All Things Considered host Robert Siegel to sample holiday foods for those with a palate for the out-of-the-ordinary. The recipes -- and the stories around them -- are excerpted from The New American Cooking and appear below:

Brisket with Apricots and Apples

Almost everybody likes brisket, that fragrant, flavorful, and -- if you cook it right -- fork-tender cut of breast meat. There are two rules for cooking brisket: Cook it long, and cook it with the fat. Since it comes from the grainier forequarters of the steer, slow cooking is required to tenderize the meat, even more so these days, with pre-trimmed, young or "select" meat.

For the cholesterol-conscious, the thick layer of fat on "choice" meat can seem alarming. But Sanford Herskovitz, a.k.a. Mr. Brisket, a meat purveyor in Cleveland, Ohio, is outspoken on the subject: "When there is no fat you absolutely kill the taste," he says. "If you cut the fat off beforehand, your brisket is 'ferfallen.' You have defeated your purpose. The first cut or flat portion of the brisket is available, oven ready, at virtually all supermarkets around the country."

Brisket is the Zelig of the kitchen -- it takes on the character of whoever cooks it. In the early part of the 20th century, recipes for brisket with sauerkraut, cabbage, or lima beans were the norm. As American tastes became more exotic, cranberry sauce, chili, onion soup mix, root beer, lemonade and now even sake have all worked their way into recipes. I tried this fruited brisket at my sister-in-law Shelley Nathan's house in Berkeley, California.

Shelley adds more fruit, and I add more onion, but either way, it's a winner.

yield: 8-10 servings

2 onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon ground ginger

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

One 5-6 pound brisket

Salt and pepper to taste

2 apples, chopped (about 2 cups)

1 cup dried apricots, halved

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1 cup dried plums, pitted

12 cups apple juice

1-2 cups canned beef or chicken broth

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Brown the onions, garlic and ginger in the oil until the onions are golden. Then scatter the mixture in a roasting pan.

3. Season the brisket with salt and pepper and gently lay it on top of the onions. Add the apples, apricots, dried cranberries, dried plums and enough apple juice and beef or chicken broth to almost cover the brisket. Cover the roasting pan with a lid or aluminum foil and cook for 3 hours, basting occasionally.

4. Remove the brisket, cool, and refrigerate overnight.

5. Just before serving, reheat the oven to 350 degrees. While the brisket is still cold, skim off any fat that has accumulated on top of the juices, and slice off the excess fat from the meat. Slice the meat against the grain, place in a baking dish with the reserved juices, cover, and reheat for about a half hour. Remove brisket to a platter, surrounded by the fruits and the sauce. Serve with potato pancakes or noodles.

Ann Amernick's Melt-in-Your-Mouth Chocolate Chip Cookies

"All chocolate chip cookie recipes come from Ruth Wakefield's 1930s Toll House cookie recipe," Wally Amos, a.k.a. Famous Amos, told me as he was making -- what else? -- chocolate chip cookies at his beach house in Nanikai, Hawaii. With so many variations on that simple recipe, it's hard to imagine that all chocolate chip cookies share a common lineage. As Wally admits, "The only thing that is a constant is that you pay attention to your cookies."

But today, thanks to better ingredients, chocolate chip cookies can taste even better. Pastry chef Ann Amernick's chocolate chip cookies literally melt in your mouth. "You have to use butter with the highest fat content you can find," Ann told me, pausing in her work at Palena, the restaurant she owns with chef Frank Ruta in northwest Washington, D.C. "The higher the fat in the butter, the less water there is, and that means a more tender cookie." Ann, a baking purist, also suggests using the best chocolate you can buy and chopping it into little pieces with a big chef's knife.

Once an assistant pastry chef at the White House, Ann learned from former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier to mix all cookies at the lowest speed of the mixer and finish them off by hand. Another of Ann's tricks is to put the baked chocolate chip cookies in the microwave for five seconds before serving to warm them up and slightly melt the chocolate. Instead of parchment paper, you can use another fabulous new invention, the Silpat baking mat, which is so easy to clean. I keep at least two in my kitchen, one for savories and another for desserts.

yield: 24 cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup light brown sugar

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped, or chocolate chunks

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease 2 cookie sheets and cover with parchment paper or Silpat baking mats.

2. Beat the butter and sugars until creamy and pale in the bowl of a standing mixer set on the lowest speed, about 3-4 minutes.

3. Still at the slowest speed, add the eggs, 1 at a time, waiting until the first is fully incorporated before adding the second; then add the vanilla.

4. Add the flour, salt, and baking soda to the standing mixer and stir until incorporated.

5. Fold in the chopped chocolate or chocolate chunks. Using an ice cream scoop or scooping about 1/4 cup of the dough into plump rounds, arrange the dough on 2 cookie sheets, leaving about 2 inches between cookies. Bake for 5 minutes, then rotate the trays and bake for another 5 minutes.

The Ultimate Potato Pancake

Latkes, popular among Jews at Hanukkah, are now part of the common American table. But every culture has its own version: Indian, with masala spices; Californian, with goat cheese; and Vermont, with maple syrup.

The best latke I ever tasted was a crique, a paper-thin potato pancake that I ate in the Ardèche region of France. I have asked chefs and searched cookbooks, but most have never heard of this particular version. One day I mentioned them to chef Daniel Boulud of Restaurant Daniel in New York and he said, "When I first tasted a latke, I thought it was a crique." A kindred spirit, he offered to make it for me.

I couldn't wait. Carefully, he demonstrated how to grate Yukon Gold potatoes by hand on a mandoline, sprinkling them with salt to bring out the juices, and then pressing out the liquid. He added chives, eggs, and a few black olives, gently pressed the potatoes into rounds (no misshapen pancakes at Restaurant Daniel), and fried them in olive oil. "The trick is to cook the pancake gently on the outside until crispy on the edges and slightly soft in the middle."

He also suggested varying the crique by grating celery root, pumpkin, or acorn squash into it, and serving it warm with goat cheese or arugula and smoked salmon.

yield: 4 large pancakes (serves 4-6)

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

6 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Crème fraîche, smoked salmon, or sour cream for garnish

1. Grate the potatoes by hand or in a food processor using the grating blade with the smallest holes. Scoop up one-fourth of them with your hands and squeeze out the excess liquid and discard. Put the handfuls of grated potatoes in a mixing bowl and add the eggs, chives and salt and pepper. Mix well, until everything is very well blended.

2. Heat about 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a 10-inch nonstick sauté pan over high heat. Place one-fourth of the potato mixture in the middle of the pan and, with a spatula and your hands, spread the pancake out as thinly as possible until it covers the surface of the pan. Be careful not to burn yourself!

3. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the pancake until the bottom browns, about 5 minutes.

4. Invert a plate that is just slightly larger than the pan over the top. Flip the pan over so that the pancake drops onto the plate, then slide the pancake back into the pan. (The brown side is now facing up.) Cook for about 4 more minutes, until the underside is browned. Flip the pancake over and onto a plate. Keep warm in a low oven as you cook the others.

5. Repeat these steps for the remaining pancakes, starting with 1 tablespoon of oil for each one. Serve plain or garnished with smoked salmon, crème fraîche or sour cream.

Haitian Soupe Jaune with Butternut Squash, Beef and Cabbage

Alain Joseph is one of the new breed of indispensable chef's assistants. He is the person who makes Emeril Lagasse look good on television and at demonstrations. Trained at the New York Restaurant School, he now lives in New Orleans. After hearing his story about how this fragrant yellow squash became a symbol of Haitian independence (you can read it below), I asked Alain to give me a modernized version of the dish, using some slightly different techniques and ingredients but still holding true to the essence of the dish.

yield: about 8-10 servings

3 pounds butternut squash

1 tablespoon kosher salt or to taste

2 teaspoons cracked black pepper or to taste

4 tablespoons pure olive oil

1 1/2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

1 tablespoon Creole seasoning

1 large onion, diced small (about 2 cups)

One 3-pound cabbage, shredded (about 4 cups)

3 fat garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon minced ginger

3 quarts chicken broth or water

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 1/2 teaspoons cracked black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

8 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 3 cups)

2 cups farfalle (bow-tie) pasta (optional)

1/4-cup chopped fresh parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

2. Slice each butternut squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon and discard them. Place the squash, cut side up, on the baking sheet and season it lightly with salt and pepper. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over and roast in the oven for 1 hour or until tender. Remove the squash from the oven and allow it to cool for 15-20 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Use a spoon to scoop the pulp from the skin, then discard the skin.

3. Season the beef with the Creole seasoning and heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a wide-mouthed stockpot over medium-high heat.

Scatter the meat into the pan and sear the pieces, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Remove the beef with a slotted spoon and set aside. Sauté the onions and cabbage in the same pan, adding a little more oil if necessary and stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Toss in the garlic and ginger and cook for another 2-3 minutes.

4. Pour the chicken broth or water over the onions and cabbage and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the squash, beef, and thyme. Season with the salt, black pepper, and allspice. Simmer the soup, covered, for 1 hour, stirring occasionally to ensure that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Add the chopped carrots. Simmer 30 minutes more, then stir in the pasta, if using, and cook for another 12-15 minutes or until the pasta is al dente. If the soup should get too thick, you can thin it out with more stock or water, starting with no more than a half cup and adding more if needed.

Serve in large individual serving bowls garnished with chopped fresh parsley.

How a Soup Became a Symbol

As a child growing up in Queens, New York, I can clearly recall every New Year's Day having a bowl of soupe jaune [yellow soup]. It didn't matter if we ate at home, or at my aunt's house or with family friends, there was always yellow soup being served on New Year's Day. Being no stranger to good food, I eat it gleefully each and every year, not particularly concerned about its origins. It was only very recently that I learned of the reason behind the tradition of eating yellow soup on New Year's Day.

"My father, a journalist and authority on Haitian culture and traditions, told me that during the late 1700s, when Haiti was a colony of the French empire, and many French citizens had plantations in Haiti, soupe jaune was a dish prepared by the French landowners for special occasions. The combination of butternut squash, cabbage, beef and carrots produced a mélange of odors that were well known to the noses of the slaves, but the flavor of it was unknown to them and forbidden.

"In 1804, at the end of the Haitian revolution -- which marks the liberation of the Haitians from their French masters -- the citizens of this newly formed nation decided that now they too would enjoy the spoils of this once-forbidden food. Now, in remembrance of their oppression and in celebration of their liberation and freedom, Haitians in Haiti, New York, Miami, Montreal, and throughout the world eat yellow soup on New Year's Day. Understanding now as I do, who would I be to break with tradition and try to replace yellow soup with something with far less importance and history? I now understand, and I now, too, will keep the tradition. And I hope, after trying this soup, that you will, too." -- Alain Joseph

Excerpted from The New American Cooking by Joan Nathan. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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