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How to make celebrity chef John Ash's favorite American dishes

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Is there an American cuisine? And if so, what does it taste like?

With my Good Food Hour co-host, Steve Garner, I recently interviewed Yale University history professor Paul Freedman about his new book, “American Cuisine and How It Got This Way” (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2019).

It’s a fascinating read and points out that despite what skeptical foreigners and even a lot of Americans have denied — that there actually is an American cuisine. It ain’t just hamburgers and pizza!

Freedman provides lots of proof that there is an exuberant and diverse, if not always coherent, American cuisine that reflects the colorful history of our nation.

“What Americans eat reflects eclecticism and experimentation, not obedience to tradition or rules,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

“Why not have guacamole or blue cheese with that burger, or maybe try some pineapple on that pizza?”

In his book, Freedman looks at three threads woven into America’s food history — the regional traditions that existed before the 20th century, our penchant for standardized food preparation and our contradictory yearning for variety. At the end, he also folds in the artisanal food revolution of the 1970s and the rise of farm-to-table eating.

This provides the author with a framework for the flavors — think peanut butter, barbecue sauce and pumpkin-spiced everything — that have influenced the American palate.

I’m sure most of us have dishes that define who we are and where we’ve been. This, then, is a remembrance of some of those recipes that define my culinary wanderings.

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This is a traditional fish stew from San Francisco. Its origins are thought to go back to Genoa. Early immigrants who came to San Francisco from there improvised on a recipe they called Guippin.

There are other suggestions about the origin of the name. Some say that the name came from “chip in” (with the Italian “o” added), which encouraged each fisherman to throw something in the pot to feed the fishermen and their families.

Probably apocryphal but it’s a charming story. Don’t be put off buy the list of seafood below. Use whatever you have, just like those fishermen.

Cioppino

Makes 8 servings

1/4 cup olive oil

3 cups chopped onion

3 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 cup chopped carrot

2/3 cup chopped celery or fennel

1 28-ounce can whole peeled or diced tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

2 1/2 cups red wine

5 cups fish or chicken stock

3 large bay leaves

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil (2 teaspoons dried)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano (1 teaspoon dried)

2 teaspoons fennel seed

1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes (or to taste)

— Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 whole Dungeness crab (2-3 pounds), cleaned and chopped into sections

1 1/2 pounds fresh mussels (18-24)

1 pound rockfish or Pacific cod, filets cut into 2- inch cubes

16 medium deveined shrimp

8 thick slices of sourdough brushed with garlic olive oil and toasted

1/4 cup chopped parsley or basil

Heat the olive oil in a deep soup pot over moderate heat and add onions, garlic, carrots and celery. Sauté until vegetables are lightly browned.

Add the tomatoes, wine, stock, bay leaves, basil, oregano, fennel seed and chile flakes. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer and cook partially covered for 25 minutes. Strain if desired, discarding solids and return broth to pot. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add crab and mussels to the broth and cook over moderate heat until mussels open. Add fish and shrimp and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes or until fish is just cooked through.

Place a piece of toasted sourdough in the bottom of warm bowls and ladle soup on top. Sprinkle chopped parsley over all and serve immediately.

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There are many riffs on this dish, but James Oseland, former editor of Saveur, describes it best: “Joe’s Special is one of the most odd and divine scrambles known to man. Consisting of egg, garlic, spinach, and ground beef, the dish originated in San Francisco in the 1920s, at a long-gone Italian American restaurant, New Joe’s.

Later, it was the signature dish of a Bay Area chain called Original Joe’s — and a standby for countless home cooks in Northern California, including my mom.

At least once a month, we ate it for dinner, and I still make it, as there are few dishes so appealing and comforting to eat.”

When I was a young man in San Francisco, it was a go-to dish after a night of maybe too much “socializing”!

Joe’s Special

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

8 ounces ground beef chuck

1 (12 ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry in paper towels

8 eggs, lightly beaten

— Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan

— Crusty Italian bread, for serving

Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and onion; cook until soft, about 5 minutes.

Add chuck; cook, stirring, until browned and all moisture evaporates, about 10 minutes.

Add spinach; cook until heated through, about 2 minutes. Add eggs; cook until eggs are cooked and mixture is slightly dry, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper; sprinkle with Parmesan. Serve with bread.

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My Midwest-raised Grandmother made this all the time, especially during fresh corn season.

Corn and Bacon Chowder

Makes 6 to 8 servings (2 quarts)

4 thick sliced bacon, diced

1 small onion, chopped

1 1/2 cups chopped celery

1 1/4 cups chopped red bell pepper

3 cups peeled and cubed Yukon Gold potatoes

4 cups or so chicken broth

1 teaspoon dried thyme

— Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups crème fraiche or heavy cream

5 ears husked corn, kernels cut off the cob (or 4 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed)

1 teaspoon cornstarch softened in 2 tablespoons dry sherry (optional)

— Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

In a large saucepan, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove to paper towels; drain, reserving 2 teaspoons drippings.

In the drippings, sauté the onion, celery and red pepper until tender. Add the potatoes, broth, thyme, salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil.

Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender.

Add crème fraiche and corn and stir until steaming. Stir in cornstarch mixture if you’d like the soup a little thicker. Ladle soup into warm bowls and top with reserved bacon and parsley.

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One of the hallmarks of Louisiana cooking, the Oyster Po’ Boy is probably related to Northern and Eastern sub or hoagy sandwiches but used ingredients local to Louisiana.

One story is that in 1929, during a four-month strike against the local New Orleans streetcar company, one restaurant served free sandwiches to the strikers.

The restaurant workers jokingly referred to the strikers as “poor boys”, and soon the sandwiches themselves took on the name. In Louisiana dialect, this is probably shortened to “po’ boy.”

The following recipe is called a “dressed” po’ boy because it has bacon, lettuce and tomatoes.

Oyster Po’ Boys

Makes 4 sandwiches

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups yellow or white cornmeal

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons or more store-bought or homemade Creole Spice mix (recipe follows)

— Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying

16 “small” raw oysters, shucked

4 brioche or French bread rolls, toasted

— Mayonnaise

8 thick applewood-smoked bacon slices, cooked until crisp and drained

— Iceberg lettuce leaves, whole or shredded

2 medium tomatoes, the ripest and sweetest you can find, sliced thinly

4 nice slices sweet white or red onion (optional)

Whisk together flour, cornmeal, salt and spice mix in a medium bowl. Heat 2 inches of oil in a deep saucepan to 350 degrees.

Toss the oysters in the seasoned flour, shake off excess, and fry for about 3 minutes, until lightly golden brown, then drain on paper towels.

To assemble the sandwiches, spread the toasted buns liberally with mayonnaise, then add the oysters, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion and bun tops. Consume with gusto!

Creole Spice Mix

2 teaspoons sweet paprika powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon each dried thyme, basil and oregano

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine all the spices in a coffee or spice grinder. Grind to a fine powder and store in an airtight jar in a cool place for up to 3 months.

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This dish purportedly was named for Luisa Tetrazzini, an Italian soprano who was popular in America in the early 1900s.

Beautifully plump, she supposedly once said, “I must not diet. If I diet, my face sag.” She loved rich pasta with chicken or turkey and mushrooms, and this dish was created for her by an unknown chef.

All kinds of variations exist including adding peas, toasted slivered almonds and more. This is a wonderful dish to make with leftover Thanksgiving turkey.

It was a favorite of my Grandmother Maud.

Turkey Tetrazzini

Makes 4 to 6 servings

4 cups (about 12 ounces) sliced button or cremini mushrooms

6 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 cups rich turkey or chicken stock

1 cup heavy cream

3-4 tablespoons medium dry sherry such as amontillado

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

— Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 pound dry cavatelli or pennette pasta

3-4 cups chopped or shredded turkey

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or other hard grating cheese

1/3 cup dry breadcrumbs, panko preferred

Sauté the mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of the butter in a heavy 4-quart saucepan until lightly browned and all liquid has evaporated.

Set pan and mushrooms aside.

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over moderate heat. Add flour and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes to make a roux.

Gradually whisk in the broth, cream and sherry. Bring sauce to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes, whisking the whole time.

Stir in the nutmeg and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente. Drain well.

Stir half the sauce into the turkey and the other half into the mushrooms along with the pasta.

Transfer the mushroom mixture to a buttered, 8-cup baking dish or casserole and make a well in the center. Spoon turkey mixture into the well.

Combine the Parmesan with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle evenly over the top along with the remaining tablespoon of butter cut into small bits.

Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 30 minutes or so or until bubbling and top is lightly golden brown.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food Hour,” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website, chefjohnash.com.

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