Thursday, November 19, 2009


Marcus Samuelsson has been a member of New York's culinary elite for years through his famous restaurant, Aquavit, and later Riingo and C-House. He became the youngest chef ever to win two three-star ratings from The New York Times. I admired his previous cookbook, The Soul of the New Cuisine, an exploration of mostly African foods, but I was totally unprepared for the pizzazz, diversity and sheer fun of his newest work, NEW AMERICAN TABLE (Wiley; November 2009; ISBN: 978-0-4702818808). This is a thoroughly contemporary cookbook that celebrates the diversity of foods so many in America are eating today--ethnic, regional, international, spicy, exotic, small plates, casual and formal and often fused into new tastes and flavors.

Who better than Marcus Samuelsson to take us on this fascinating culinary journal? Born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Samuelsson's initial culinary training was in Sweden. Before finishing his training at a Michelin three-star French restaurant, he got his first exposure to the food melting pot of New York by working at Acquavit (long before he took over ownership). From the cooks there he found himself immersed in many ethnic cuisines. He was thrilled by the Korean, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Jewish delicatessans and other international foods he encountered, and soon began to cook these new ethnic dishes for his friends. After finishing his training in France, he signed on as a cook for a luxury cruise ship which took him all over the world where he experienced the markets and cuisines of Barcelona, Casablanca, Trinidad, Rio de Janeiro, Rhodes, Singapore, Sydney and other ports. As a famous chef, Samuelsson's education was further enhanced by his visits to various food festivals where he experienced the rich diversity of this country's regional foods.

In NEW AMERICAN TABLE, Marcus Samuelsson has synthesized so much of what he's learned in this book. His range is prodigious. While some of the chapters are conventionally labeled such as salads, poultry, meat and game, desserts and drinks, there is equal emphasis on condiments, dips and sauces, small plates, everyday dishes, relaxed weekend recipes and holidays. The book is loaded with many color photographs illustrating this range from home cooks, finished dishes, regional foods and wines to bakers, eaters, farmers's markets, ethnic neighborhoods, ranchers, fisherman, brewers and personalities that both inspire and inform on nearly every page.

In the chapter on condiments, dips and sauces, a Cuban-inspired Avocado "Mayo" caught my eye. I lavishly painted this addictively rich yet tangy emulsion on grilled fish, a turkey sandwich, a salad of romaine lettuce and radishes, and grilled pork sausages over a three-day period. A friend of mine prefers her breakfasts on the savory side rather than sugar-loaded foods and would adore the Morning-After Sandwich, a tasty restorative that will get you back on your feet after a night on the town. It features fried eggs, garlic, baby arugula, sourdough bread, white sardine fillets and sliced tomato. It is anchored by an intriguing condiment called Sambal Oelek, an Indonesian concoction of two different chilies, salt, brown sugar and garlic. Empanadas with Peanut-Mango Sambal combines an Agentinean snack food with an Indonesian-style sauce. Other ethnic match-ups include Chinese Soy-Glazed Dumplings with a Thai-style Sweet Chilie Sauce, Corn Pancakes from the American Southwest are paired with Chili Covered Gravlax from Sweden, and an American style Banana Bread Pudding with Hazelnut Kulfi from India.

Some of the recipes found in NEW AMERICAN TABLE are reminiscent of street or cart food. This style of eating has exploded of late, with carts serving ethnic and popular American quick meals in cities as diverse as New York, Portland and Los Angeles. Small plate dining is also on the rise, where eaters can sample and share a number of small dishes for variety and different flavors. Most of the recipes are just fascinating and made me want to hit the kitchen: Noodle Paella with Pistachio Aïoli uses vermicelli instead of rice in this updated version of the Spanish seafood classic. Lentil Soup with Pork and Lamb Meatballs is not only economical but a wonderful winter dish. The New Orleans-style Head-On Shrimp pairs wonderfully with Bacon Orzo. Braised Pork Roast with Grilled Chile Vinaigrette features a host of international ingredients including Indian fenugreek seeds, Hungarian paprika, and Scandinavian caraway seeds. "The grilled chile vinaigrette served on the side is pure American Southwest," says Samuelsson. The holiday section spotlights foods to celebrate Christmas, Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year, Father's Day, as well as fused regional dishes.

I don't think there is anything quite like this eclectic book. Samuelsson's enthusiasm for all of this food is as infectious to read about as it will be to cook. Lidia Bastianich says in her introduction to NEW AMERICAN TABLE that Marcus Samuelsson has a "unique view of our 'culinary landscape'". Indeed he does, which is why I think this magnificent book belongs in every cook's library.

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