Many of the popular dishes that I grew up eating now seem like distant memories. They fell out of favor in the restaurant world, and home cooks don’t know what the authentic dishes should be like. At my Monday Night Family Dinners at Campanile, I love to evoke a particular era in American gastronomy, circa 1950. I’m intrigued by dishes known collectively as “continental classics,” such as veal picatta, lobster Newburg, spaghetti with clam sauce and peach melba. These dishes were extremely popular in America in the 1950s and ’60s, but eventually became overdone, under-prepared clichés. To turn out quantities of these dishes, too many restaurants cut corners, using lousy ingredients and shortcuts. Finally, nothing was left.While restaurants are responsible for the death of many beloved continental classics, food companies can take the credit for killing off some of the home-cooked favorites that I grew up eating. My mother, who was not a great cook, did know how to make macaroni and cheese. She made it the way it’s supposed to be made, a cheese and pasta casserole that’s baked until the edges of the pasta are crispy and the top is browned. Then Kraft came along and ruined it, turning this classic into a top-of-the-stove mixture of overcooked pasta and gummy “cheese food,” mushy on bland (or bland on mushy).
What Kraft did to macaroni and cheese, Swanson did to chicken potpie. It mass-marketed a mediocre version made with overcooked chicken and vegetables in a gummy sauce inside a pasty crust. This became the benchmark for potpie.
But a dish doesn’t end up on thousands of menus if it doesn’t have some kind of core value. I’ve made it a mission to find those core values and bring these dishes back to life. Here are some of the classics that I make at the restaurant and at home, and here’s how I do them.
Veal picatta, which no restaurant could avoid having on its menu from about 1947 to 1977, is absolutely delicious when done right. Take a good-sized juicy lemon, cut away the skin and pith and, holding it over a bowl, cut away the supremes from between the membranes and cut them into small pieces. Squeeze what remains of the lemon over the bowl (make sure to remove all the seeds). Take small veal cutlets and pound them to less than ¼-inch thick (this is essential). Season and lightly dredge them in flour and cook them quickly in hot canola oil, less than a minute per side, until nicely browned. Add white wine to the pan to deglaze, add the lemon juice and segments and stir together, then whisk in some butter and capers and parsley. Stir until the lemon segments have softened and the sauce is velvety. Add parsley, spoon over the cutlets and serve immediately.
This ended up along with eggplant in the museum of bad “Parmesans.” Too often what was served in red-sauce Italian restaurants was a thick piece of veal, heavily breaded, buried under a heavy, stale-tasting tomato sauce with mozzarella glopped on top. We top ours with mozzarella too, but it’s a very thin slice and it’s fresh. And our veal Parmesan actually has Parmesan. As in veal picatta, take care to pound the cutlets very thin, a crucial step. Season them well and bread them with fresh breadcrumbs. Cook them quickly in hot oil so they’re nicely browned and crisp, and place them on top of a spoonful of freshly made tomato sauce in a baking dish. Top with thin slices of fresh mozzarella. Spoon some more sauce over the top, sprinkle with a little Parmesan and heat through in a hot oven just until the cheese melts.
Macaroni and cheese
I firmly believe that macaroni and cheese is one of the great American dishes. A true macaroni and cheese is a creamy casserole with a crisp, cheesy crust. We gild the lily by adding fresh and reconstituted dried wild mushrooms to the mix. Make a classic béchamel and stir in chopped reconstituted dried porcinis and some of the porcini soaking water. Sauté reconstituted dried morels and assorted fresh wild mushrooms in olive oil and butter with shallot and garlic. Season with fresh thyme, parsley, salt and pepper, and add to cooked macaroni or shells, along with the béchamel, grated Gruyère and Parmigiano- Reggiano (sometimes I go over the top and add a little mozzarella as well). Turn into a buttered baking dish, top with herbed breadcrumbs and Parmesan, dot with butter and bake until bubbly and golden.
This beautiful French classic should get the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in “Julie & Julia.” It should always be like the one presented to Julia Child in that little bistrot in Rouen on her first day in France. But too many lousy French restaurants have done it badly. They’ve killed it by using cheap frozen fish that probably isn’t even sole, bottled lemon juice, margarine and dried parsley. I know restaurants where they’ll precook the sole to get it out faster, even though sole only takes a couple of minutes to cook! At Campanile we often make the dish with sand dabs, a local variety of sole. They’re so delicate, you must cook them on the bone. Season with salt and pepper, dust them lightly with flour and cook quickly in very hot oil in a heavy pan until crisp and golden, which should take no more than a minute on each side. Remove from the pan, pour off any fat remaining in the pan and add butter and a pinch of salt. Allow the butter to foam and turn golden (this will happen quickly), stir in lemon juice (we also add some pulp, like in veal picatta) and parsley. Pour over the fish and serve.
Mark Peel’s “New Classic Family Dinners,” written with Martha Rose Shulman, is released this month by J. Wiley.