Pros: deeply flavored dishes, good cross section of ethnic influences
Cons: recipes can be long and difficult for amateurs
Written by Sara Powell
The co-owner of Aquavit restaurant in New York City may not be on everybody’s radar, but the new way he’s approaching American cuisine probably should be.
Marcus Samuelsson, Ethiopian by birth and Swedish by adoption, brings a unique perspective to bring to our mish-mash of foods and influences. Samuelsson was classically trained in the French style, and apprenticed in Austria and Switzerland before coming to the US to fill some time before he took up an apprenticeship with Georges Blanc in Lyon, France. What started as just a way to keep busy opened Samuelsson’s eyes to the amazing possibilities available in American cuisine, which includes the food contributions of all the immigrants from its founding until today. After completing his training, he returned to the US to work at Aquavit again, and his own cultural fusion continues to fuel his current work in the kitchen.
While Aquavit is primarily a Scandinavian restaurant, Samuelsson has been able to experiment with American cuisine in a way that may not have been possible if he’d followed his original career path as a traditional French chef. Samuelsson’s experimentation can also be seen in the cookbooks he releases, especially in the back-to-Africa book he penned on traditional African foods, some of which also influence offerings in the New American Table. While most Americans probably still think of apple pie and barbecue as American cuisine, Marcus Samuelsson is probably more correct in his interpretation which fuses as many cuisines as we have immigrants into one delicious melting pot of flavors and textures.
Many would argue that salads are definitely more of a Western menu item, but Samuelsson takes another look at the traditional scallop salad and plays with the flavors so that they take on more of an Eastern flair. He uses ketjap manis, an Indonesian sweet soy sauce to bring the Asian flavor, and a long list of fresh greenery and herbs keeps the salad light and refreshing. He lists lime wedges as almost an afterthought, to be a pretty decoration on the edge of the plate, but the salad benefits immensely from the addition, squeezed at the last minute over the salad. The only disappointment is that the scallops become lost in the roughage. He specifically calls for fresh bay scallops, but even when I was able to locate some that were larger than the usual supermarket offerings, they still disappeared into the background.
Something as traditional as risotto normally is difficult to be creative with, but Samuelsson doesn’t hold back because of custom. Wild mushroom risotto normally calls for a white wine, which keeps the risotto’s creamy sauce white, but in this rendition, red wine and port are used for additional flavor and the more interesting reddish tinge they also provide. This recipe is not for penny pinchers, however. It calls for such pricey items as fresh wild mushrooms in season and truffle oil. Some items in Samuelsson’s recipes will be more difficult to locate, but it’s understandable coming from a chef located in New York City, the intersection of all major immigrant groups.
Meat dishes really touch the heart of American cuisine, as many immigrants experienced, for the first time, the ability to readily afford meat when they arrived in this country. Samuelsson doesn’t hold back, including a traditional African recipe for Doro We’t his wife makes on a regular basis in his house from a recipe her female relatives provided. But such ethnic cuisine might be a little too adventurous for some American families. Fortunately, Samuelsson also gives recipes such as that for the Beer-Braised Short Ribs, which use ethnic ingredients, but masquerade behind their more familiar American origins. The ribs take several hours to complete, and were easily the most time-consuming of the recipes I tried, but the end result was a succulent tender beef rib with a depth of flavor missing from most other short rib recipes. The sauce for the ribs was a bit of a challenge, since it is never specified exactly how thick it should be, but more experienced cooks will find their own happy medium.
Overall, New American Table is a bright, beautiful cookbook with some amazing new ideas of how the fuse the traditions and foods of our many immigrant ancestors into one stunning cuisine. It’s interesting that it took an immigrant to find this delicious secret, but it just goes to show that American still is a delectable melting pot of flavors.
Beer-Braised Short Ribs
3 tablespoons red chile paste
4 pounds short ribs
½ cup soy sauce
4 cups beer, such as Brooklyn Lager
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning
1½ teaspoons toasted sesame oil
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 red onions, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
One 3-inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped
3 bay leaves
4 cups chicken stock
½ cup mirin
2 tablespoons ketjap manis
1 tablespoon honey
2 scallions, white and green parts, chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- Smear the chile paste over the short ribs. Arrange the ribs in a single layer in a baking dish. Mix together ¼ cup of the soy sauce and ½ cup of the beer and pour over the ribs. Turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 300°F.
- Remove the ribs from the baking dish and pat dry. Season with salt. Heat the sesame oil and olive oil in a large ovenproof Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pot, add the ribs and brown on all sides. Remove to a separate dish.
- Add the onions, garlic, ginger, and bay leaves and sauté until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Return the ribs to the pot and pour in 3 cups of the beer, the remaining ¼ cup soy sauce, the chicken stock, and mirin. Bring to a simmer over low heat, cover, and place in the oven. Cook until meat is tender and falling off the bone, about 3 hours. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.
- Remove the ribs from the pot. Skim the fat off the top and reserve 2 cups of the liquid. Combine the reserved cooking liquid, 1 teaspoon salt, ketjap manis, honey, and the remaining ½ cup beer in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Stir in the scallions and butter and serve over the short ribs.