We’ve only been to the USA once, in August 2013, when we visited Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. We were there for ten days and were overwhelmed by the size of everything (security queues at Dulles Airport, hotel rooms, food portions, personalities, buildings, roads, monuments, duration of baseball games…) – but in such a good way. We crammed a lot into our relatively short stay, and fell in love with the Land of Liberty, and we can’t wait to go back!
Of course, for us, a major part of any successful holiday is the food. As well as trying to follow in the footsteps of Man v. Food’s Adam Richman wherever we went, and making sure we had Philly in Philly/New York strip in New York/Long Island Iced Tea on Long Island, and eating bologna without really understanding what it is, we dined at a farm-to-table restaurant in Washington, ate cheesesteaks and hoagies at a ball game in Philadelphia, and visited the legendary Katz’s Deli (of When Harry Met Sally fame) in NYC. Not to mention the piece of red velvet cheesecake at Junior’s Diner that defeated even Ash.
In terms of this blog, we can reminisce about a huge array of ‘typical’ American foods in the three cities we visited, but that obviously doesn’t take into account the other foodie regions of the country, such as homestyle cooking in the South, Tex-Mex hybrids and the more health-conscious West Coast. Moreover, when you search for ‘American national dish’, there really isn’t a conclusive answer: hamburgers are suggested a number of times, but that didn’t really feel like enough for us. How, then, were we to choose what to make?
We started this decision process by finding all of our cookbooks with American recipes in them (quite a stack) and shortlisting some dishes. Fortunately, we had a whole weekend at our disposal so had time to cook more than one thing. In the end, we settled on four dishes that we thought best encapsulated ‘traditional’ American cooking: meatloaf, pancakes, chicken and biscuits, and apple pie. We do acknowledge that this still doesn’t cover everything, but it seemed like a good start!
We were therefore ready to begin our American cooking quest and remembered that one morning in Washington, we picked up breakfast from a bagel shop. Aiming to be as American as possible, Miranda opted for peanut butter and jelly as her bagel filling. Those large portion sizes we mentioned before were even in operation here, and eating it was a bit of a challenge, but it was certainly filling!
On our weekend of American cooking, we thought that replicating this would be the ideal start, so we toasted some bagels and slathered them with peanut butter and jam (black cherry for Miranda; blackcurrant for Ash – we couldn’t find grape in the shops anywhere, unfortunately!). We probably didn’t use as much of either as the bagel shop did…
Meatloaf and potato salad
Meatloaf is the sort of homely American dish that you hear about in The Baby-Sitters Club or Full House but never seems to appear anywhere else in the world. Sticking with the homely theme, we opted for a recipe from the Hairy Bikers’ Mums Still Know Best book (which suggested serving it with potato salad), plus a bit of inspiration from other recipes. We didn’t think we’d ever eaten meatloaf before, but looking back through American photos whilst typing up this post revealed that Miranda in fact ordered it at Founding Farmers in Washington… oops. We blame jet lag for that memory lapse…
For the meatloaf:
1kg beef mince
1 large red onion, chopped fairly finely
2 slices of bread, made into crumbs (roughly 150g)
3 tbsp tomato ketchup, plus about the same again for slathering
1 medium egg
2 tbsp brown sauce
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Roughly 60g Parmesan cheese, grated (more if you like)
1 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tbsp milk
Salt and pepper
For the potato salad:
4-6 medium sized red potatoes
1 tbsp milk
1-2 tbsp American mustard
A few drops of white wine vinegar
2-3 tsp dill pickle juice (taken from a jar of cornichons in our case)
1/2 tsp sugar
Mayonnaise, to taste
Chopped dill pickle (we used a couple of cornichons)
1 hard-boiled egg, cut into pieces
For the meatloaf:
1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Mix all the ingredients (except the ketchup for slathering) together until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the bowl and forms a ball. Add more breadcrumbs if you need them.
3. Put the mixture into a loaf tin and bake in the centre of the oven for 50 minutes.
4. Tip the loaf out of the tin (upside-down) and slather the new top with the reserved ketchup. Return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes until the ketchup starts to colour/blister.
For the potato salad:
1. Cut the potatoes into pieces and boil until fairly tender. Drain and set aside to cool slightly.
2. Mix the milk, mustard, vinegar, pickle juice and sugar together in a small bowl.
3. When the potatoes have cooled, pour over the mixture so the potatoes are coated but not swimming. Add mayonnaise, pickle and egg. Chill in the fridge for a couple of hours before serving.
Serve the meal with a decidedly average American merlot.
This plate of food tasted overwhelmingly like a much-improved version of a McDonald’s cheeseburger. The pickle and mustard in the potato salad alongside the meatloaf (which is essentially a mammoth baked burger patty) had us recalling childhood Happy Meals with every mouthful. This is in no way a bad thing, though! We were pleasantly surprised by a recipe that is unappealing titled ‘Mom’s Hockey Puck Meatloaf’ in the book. It was incredibly easy (two recipes that involve little more than mixing stuff in a bowl are winners for us) and really quite enjoyable. We’re not sure quite how authentically American the recipe is, given its inclusion of brown sauce and Worcestershire sauce (very English ingredients), but oh well.
To reheat the leftovers, we cut the meatloaf into slices and fried them in a pan, which gave them a slightly crispier texture but otherwise didn’t change them much.
On our last morning in America (in NYC), we couldn’t resist a diner breakfast, which had to mean pancakes. Ash went for the ‘lumberjack’ version (which added fried eggs, bacon and sausage to the plate) whereas Miranda went for the sweeter blueberry option, with plenty of syrup of course. And ‘sweeter’ is an understatement: those pancakes must have been packed full of sugar, and adding the sugary syrup (which wasn’t even the proper maple version) didn’t help. It was quite an assault. We didn’t need lunch that day…
For our Mash House American breakfast, we once more turned to Diana Henry’s ‘Roast Figs Sugar Snow’ and its recipe for mile-high buttermilk pancakes with date and pecan butter and maple syrup. We decided against the date and pecan butter though, and added a couple of rashers of bacon to our plates instead. It’s the American way!
125g plain flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp caster sugar
25g butter, melted, plus more for frying
2 eggs: 1 separated, 1 beaten and then roughly halved (we halved the original recipe)
Bacon and proper maple syrup, to serve
1. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and mix in the sugar.
2. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a jug, keeping the egg white separate.
3. Make a well in the dry ingredients and gradually pour in the liquid, bringing the dry ingredients into the well and gently whisking as you do so.
4. Beat the egg white until it forms soft peaks. Add 1/2 tbsp of the beaten white to the batter to loosen it, then fold in the rest.
5. Heat a small amount of butter in a frying pan. Use about 4 tbsp batter per pancake (we used the little measuring thing from the lid of our blender which was conveniently exactly that size; a quarter-cup would also do the job). Add as many pancakes as the pan will hold at one time.
6. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until bubbles have appeared all over the surface and the pancakes have set underneath and are golden. Flip each one over and cook on the other side until golden – about another minute.
7. Serve alongside bacon rashers and drizzle the whole lot with maple syrup (or don’t drizzle the bacon, if you’re Ash).
The jury is out on these. Ash thought they were good, but Miranda, who is usually a big fan of American-style pancakes, thought the flavour of buttermilk was just a bit too strong. That’s not to say that they were unpleasant, and we would possibly use this recipe again, although a non-buttermilk version would be just as welcome. What we could agree on was the fact that this was the ideal way to start our second day of Yankee feasting.
Buttermilk chicken with biscuits
When we were in America, there were two things Ash kept going on about wanting to eat: chicken-and-waffles and wings-and-draft. He didn’t end up managing either of them (there were just too many things to eat!) but the chicken theme was clear and he’s added chicken-and-biscuits to the list since we’ve been back in England. Well, we still haven’t managed to eat any of the three things stateside, but thanks to The Meat Cookbook, we’ve now eaten chicken and biscuits in the Mash House.
For the chicken:
2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
1/2 tbsp cayenne pepper, plus 1/2 tsp for the marinade
1 1/2 tsp salt
Oil, for frying
100g fresh breadcrumbs
100g self-raising flour
1 tsp chilli flakes
For the biscuits:
100g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Pinch of salt
3 tbsp butter (ideally vegetable fat, but in its absence, butter works as a substitute)
Mayonnaise (which we chose) or runny honey, to serve
1. The night before or morning of cooking, combine the chicken, buttermilk, 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper and 1/2 tsp salt in a large bowl. Cover with cling film and chill in the fridge.
2. When ready to cook: or the biscuits, sift the flour, baking powder, bicarb, cayenne pepper and salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Then stir in the buttermilk, a little at a time, until a ball of dough is formed.
3. Preheat the oven to 180C.
4. Reading this recipe again now, we’re realising we didn’t entirely follow the instructions here. Written as per original, not what we did – which was a considerably truncated version…) On a lightly floured surface, roll out the biscuit dough to 5mm thickness. Fold in half and roll out again. Repeat 3-4 times, then roll out to 1cm thickness. Use a 10-12cm biscuit cutter to cut out the biscuits, transfer to a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, or until raised and golden brown.
5. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a frying pan to 180C.
6. Combine the breadcrumbs, 50g flour, 1/2 tsp chilli flakes, 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper and 1/4 tsp salt in a bowl. In a second bowl, combine the remaining flour, chilli flakes, cayenne pepper and salt.
7. Remove the chicken breasts from the marinade. Dip each one first in the flour mixture, then in the marinade, and then the breadcrumb mixture.
8. Shallow fry the chicken for 7-8 minutes, flipping when necessary, until golden brown and cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain with kitchen paper.
9. Serve the chicken and biscuits alongside each other with runny honey or mayonnaise (we also added some griddled corn and courgette, for attempt-at-5-a-day purposes, as well as an American pinot grigio that was exponentially better than the previous night’s merlot).
Ash was in his element eating this dinner, and even Miranda (who doesn’t ordinarily get excited about fried chicken) had to admit that it was pretty good. The cayenne pepper and chilli flakes packed a punch, but not too aggressively, and the chicken was juicy and tender after its buttermilk bath. The biscuits were a bit of a surprise: we’d never eaten them before and were under the impression that they were like scones, but they were much lighter and fluffier than scones, and the combination of chicken and biscuit was not as dry as we were expecting. The vegetables were needed to balance the dish with some freshness, but we have to say that the flavour combination without them was spot on.
‘As American as apple pie’ isn’t a well-known simile for no reason, and who were we to ignore it? Although apples originated in England, they were introduced to America by the Pilgrims in the 1600s, and America is now one of the world’s largest apple producers. It’s also the home of mixing sugar and fat together in vast quantities, so what better food to celebrate all of those things than apple pie? (In seriousness, apparently pie crust was also brought over by the Pilgrims as a means of storing and preserving food, to be perfected when the French introduced butter, but we think our version of the story is just as appropriate.) We took our recipe from the pithily-titled Baking by Martha Day.
For the pastry:
225g plain flour
1 tsp salt
170g butter (the recipe said lard or vegetable fat, but butter worked fine), cubed
4-5 tbsp iced water
1 tbsp cornmeal or semolina (substituted for tapioca)
For the filling:
900g Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and sliced
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla essence
115g caster sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 egg yolk
2 tsp double cream
1. Preheat the oven to 230C.
2. For the pastry, sift the flour and salt into a food processor. Add the butter and whizz until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
3. With the motor running, add the water, 1 tbsp at a time, until the pastry forms a ball.
4. Divide the pastry in half and shape each half into a ball. Chill one ball until ready to use. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the other ball to a circle about 12 inches in diameter.
5. Use it to line a 9 inch pie dish. Trim off the excess pastry and use for decorating. Sprinkle the cornmeal over the bottom of the pie shell.
6. Roll out the remaining pastry to 3mm thickness. With a sharp knife, cut out 8 large leaf shapes. If you have the patience, cut the trimmings into small leaf shapes to line the edge of the pie. Score the leaves with the back of the knife to mark veins.
7. In a bowl, toss the apples with the lemon juice, vanilla, sugar and cinnamon. Fill the pastry case with the apple mixture and dot with the butter or margarine.
8. Arrange the pastry leaves in a decorative pattern on top.
9. Mix together the egg yolk and cream and brush over the leaves to glaze them.
10. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 180C and continue baking until the pastry is golden brown, 35-45 minutes.
This was the perfect end to our American cooking adventures: it was as American as apple pie indeed. Despite pastry not being Miranda’s forte at all, there’s no denying that this one worked, and the apple filling was delicious – we were glad of our decision to choose a recipe that included cinnamon. A recipe to attempt again.
So, in conclusion, things we have learnt from this experience:
– OJ: Made in America, the nine-hour documentary of which we watched part whilst eating our American meals, is a superb piece of filmmaking.
– We really need a dishwasher.
– American food is great and we want to go back there and eat some more!