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.
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Joan Nathan: An Exotic Holiday Feast

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Joan Nathan: An Exotic Holiday Feast

Joan Nathan: An Exotic Holiday Feast

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

The holidays are a time for family, friends and food, which is on the table in this part of the program literally. Joining me is Joan Nathan, the author of "The New American Cooking."

Welcome back, Joan.

Ms. JOAN NATHAN (Author, "The New American Cooking"): Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And you should explain first that the holiday season dishes that you've brought illustrate the theme of your latest cookbook, which is all about the expansion of American taste in recent years.

Ms. NATHAN: Right. Well, the food shows the--sort of this marvelous modern melting pot that we've become. And I think that we've become it not so much for the food but because of immigration and what kind of a country we've become. Because of the revocation of the McCarran-Walters Act in 1965, we have a huge influx of people from all over the world and these people have brought in new recipes and new ideas. Also, the rise of organic foods and sustainable agriculture has changed the way that we eat and the thought about health.

SIEGEL: And also the rise of the celebrity chef.

Ms. NATHAN: And the rise of the celebrity chef, absolutely. That's the third item. And all together have just made a fiery food. We have new ingredients that we never thought of before. For example, we have ingredients like pomegranates.

SIEGEL: You've brought a pomegranate, pomegranates.

Ms. NATHAN: I have a red pomegranate. Look at how popular they are for drinks, for eating, for the seeds. They're healthy. But not just pomegranates; sugar snap peas, kiwis, cilantro, lemongrass, goat cheese. We weren't eating those 20, 40 years ago.

SIEGEL: Nowadays it's Mom, apple pie and cilantro.

Ms. NATHAN: Right, exactly.

SIEGEL: ...(Unintelligible). Well, you've brought--let's see, you've brought a meat course. Perhaps that isn't where we would normally begin, but let's start with your describing what you've brought me here.

Ms. NATHAN: Well, Hanukkah and Christmas are coming. Brisket used to be with Coca-Cola and maybe onions, but now this is a fruited brisket. You can taste it.

SIEGEL: A fruited brisket.

Ms. NATHAN: It's got apples, apricots, prunes and dried cranberries. Again, a new ingredient.

SIEGEL: Mmm, it's very fruity, yeah, yeah.

Ms. NATHAN: It's very fruity.

SIEGEL: And this is something that's now typical of a lot of American cooking, fruits and meats together.

Ms. NATHAN: Right, exactly, and that's what we're learning not only from chefs but also a lot of chef's helpers, the people--the staff--the dishwashers in the kitchen that come from different countries and have home cooking that the chefs like.

SIEGEL: So the back room of the restaurant may be the really worldly place that the chef might get...

Ms. NATHAN: Right, or staff meals.

SIEGEL: In addition to the brisket, you've brought along what is either latkes, potato pancakes, or a singular latke.

Ms. NATHAN: Right.

SIEGEL: Is it one huge potato pancake?

Ms. NATHAN: Well, it's a few huge ones. And this was a recipe that I actually first learned about in the Ardeche in France. I was at a little restaurant and I had this fabulous potato pancake that filled the entire pan. And Daniel Boloud, the chef at Daniel's in New York City, showed me how to make this dish which is from his region of France. Basically, what you do is you shred the potatoes very thin. You add some chives, salt and pepper and an egg and you squeeze them out so that there's the essence of potatoes. And you carefully put them in a big skillet and then you flip them. You can make them smaller or larger. I'm of the crispy potato persuasion, and that's what these are.

SIEGEL: Now would--that's delicious. Would Daniel gag if we put applesauce on this?

Ms. NATHAN: He would...

SIEGEL: He would.

Ms. NATHAN: ...because he would put creme fraiche and smoked salmon or arugula or black olives. But you get them at his restaurant and you can make them yourself. You know, he makes them perfectly round. Mine are a little bit irregular but, you know, a home cook makes irregular food.

SIEGEL: Well, we have some brisket and some potato pancakes. We're covered for our big meals on Sunday and Monday. And you've brought along some soup, which is out of order but chronologically it's in order.

Ms. NATHAN: Right, exactly. Well, again, in my book, "The New American Cooking," what I tried to do is interview all kinds of people in America that like to cook. And one of the people that I interviewed was somebody named Alan Josef(ph), who was the cook, the chef, behind Emeril Lagasse, and he's of Haitian extraction. He told me about the story of this soup that was served by the landowners in Haiti before they became independent in 1802. And afterwards, the Haitians ate this soup symbolically as the soup of freedom. And they serve it every New Year's Day and during the holiday season. So I thought that would be a good soup for you to try. And it's got butternut squash and cabbage and carrots and it could also have mirliton, which are vegetable pears, or chayote, which again are something...

SIEGEL: Coyote?

Ms. NATHAN: It looks like--they're oval. It's got a big seed inside. It's very mild like a squash.

SIEGEL: It's a vegetable?

Ms. NATHAN: It's a vegetable.

SIEGEL: Yes. Oh, good, good, OK.

Ms. NATHAN: I'm sorry. It's not an animal.

SIEGEL: And this--let's have a taste. This is Haitian?

Ms. NATHAN: This is a Haitian soup. And what I learned writing this book is the stories about people come out through the food that they eat.

SIEGEL: We would have this on Haitian Independence Day...

Ms. NATHAN: Right, right.

SIEGEL: ...which is--this is January 1st.

Ms. NATHAN: Yes, exactly.

SIEGEL: So it's a seasonal holiday...

Ms. NATHAN: It's a seasonal holiday dish.

SIEGEL: ...seasonal holiday dish.

Ms. NATHAN: And it's very good. Or you could eat it all year round 'cause it's got meat in it. You know, it's a good, hearty stew.

SIEGEL: Well, it's very good. And we could all start observing Haitian Independence Day just for the soup. You also brought along some cookies in a bag. Is there some new exotic story to the cookies or...

Ms. NATHAN: Well, this is a chocolate chip cookie. You can open it if you'd like to, or would you like me to open them?

SIEGEL: It's closer to your mike, so...

Ms. NATHAN: It's a gift package. Again, this is a recipe that was a regular Toll House cookie recipe, right? But, you know, American chefs want to make it even better. And this one chef named Ann Amernick, who was the first woman pastry chef in the White House, likes putting big chips in her cookies. And what she does, just before--it's pretty much the same recipe--a lot of butter--it's good. But what she does the last minute--and, of course, I can't do this right now--is she puts it in the microwave for one second and then serves them at...

SIEGEL: For one second?

Ms. NATHAN: Well, one minute, one minute.

SIEGEL: You meant one...

Ms. NATHAN: One minute. I meant a second--you know, a second is like a minute, right?

SIEGEL: In radio we can't work to that crude degree of accuracy, Joan.

Ms. NATHAN: Sorry.

SIEGEL: But this is--it's a good-looking chocolate chip cookie and I'll just...

Ms. NATHAN: By putting it in the microwave it just softens it just so much.

SIEGEL: Mmm, that is one chocolatey chocolate chip cookie. Very, very good. Well, you feel that if we were having this same discussion about holiday cooking 40 years ago, 50 years ago--of course, we would have been extremely young at that time...

Ms. NATHAN: Right, extremely young.

SIEGEL: ...but in those days we would have been talking about totally different foods on the table, or at least a much narrower range.

Ms. NATHAN: Absolutely. If you took a potato pancake it would have been thick probably, wouldn't have been crispy. The same with--the brisket would have had just onions--and onion soup mix.

SIEGEL: We don't bother with the real onions.

Ms. NATHAN: Right, just use onion soup mix. Chocolate chip cookies would have been Toll House cookie recipe, would not have been big chunks. And we wouldn't have known about a Haitian soup. You know, we wouldn't have known about Thai cooking because there were very few Thais here. We wouldn't have known about Cambodian food or Ethiopian food. It was a different America 40 years ago.

SIEGEL: Well, Joan, thank you very much for talking about today's America and some holiday dishes with us.

Ms. NATHAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Joan Nathan, whose new cookbook is called "The New American Cooking." You can find recipes for the dishes we talked about at our Web site,

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