A lot has been written about Marco Polo and pasta, but have you ever stopped to think that if it weren't for Christopher Columbus, the Italians wouldn't have gnocchi?
Of course, Columbus didn't find people of the New World eating gnocchi, but the potato -- from which the Italian dumpling is made -- was one of a number of foods indigenous to the Americas. It and the others made their way back to Europe and eventually to other parts of the globe. Many returned, reshaped by other cultures.
This great food odyssey of New World ingredients has been interestingly captured by Elisabeth Rozin in "Blue Corn and Chocolate" (Knopf, $23). Ms. Rozin, a cookbook author and lecturer, is perfect for the task at hand. She's also the author of the acclaimed "Ethnic Cuisine: The Flavor Principle Cookbook" (Knopf).
"How many of us still believe that the potato originated in Ireland? That the Mediterranean and particularly Italy is the ancestral hearth of the tomato and its tradition of savory sauces?" Ms. Rozin asks.
And if we do believe this, it's for good reason. These and a number of other foods -- such as the pineapple and chocolate, to name just a couple -- have become identified with other areas of the world.
Ms. Rozin shows how different dishes of the world -- all with origins here -- were the result of long centuries of development and refinement.
"To understand how the smorgasbord came about," she says, "is in large measure to understand what happened to the whole New World of food that Columbus opened up."
Her book is categorized by ingredient: corn, potato, capsicum peppers, tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, squashes, turkey, chocolate, vanilla, peanuts and a chapter of "odds and ends" devoted to such things as the sunflower, pecan, wild rice, avocado and pineapple.
There are nearly 200 recipes integrated with lore and history that give each dish an extra dimension. Instructions are direct and easy to follow.
Ms. Rozin has taken a complex concept and made not only good but interesting sense of it. Here are some recipes from the book:
Dim sum stuffed peppers
Makes 16 stuffed pepper pieces.
1 cup raw peeled and deveined shrimp (about 1/2 pound with shells)
1 egg white
4 scallions, chopped
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons finely minced gingerroot
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
2 large or 4 small sweet green peppers
1/4 cup peanut oil or vegetable oil
In a food processor, combine the raw shrimp, egg white, scallions, soy sauce, gingerroot, sugar, sesame oil and pepper. Process into a coarse, not fine, puree; there should be some bits of shrimp and scallion evident in the mixture.
If the peppers are large, cut them in eighths; if small, in quarters. Remove seeds and membranes. Dust inside of pepper pieces with cornstarch. The easiest way to do this is to spoon in some TC cornstarch, then tap out the excess.
Spoon shrimp mixture into the pepper pieces. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over moderate to high heat. Place the stuffed peppers, stuffing side down, in the hot oil. Fry them for about 2 minutes, until the stuffing side is nicely browned. Turn the stuffed pepper pieces and fry 2 minutes longer.
Drain the fried stuffed peppers on paper towels and serve hot.
Chicken in double tomato sauce
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 frying chicken (about 3 1/2 pounds), cut in parts
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 medium onion, finely chopped
8 sun-dried tomatoes (dry-packed, not in oil)
1 teaspoon oregano
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups tomato sauce or crushed Italian-style tomatoes
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
In a large heavy skillet or Dutch oven, brown the chicken parts in the olive oil over moderately high heat. Remove chicken from skillet, salt and pepper lightly, and set aside. In the same skillet, saute the onion until it is golden brown.
Return chicken to the pot, add the dried tomatoes, oregano, pepper and tomato sauce. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook over low heat about 30 to 40 minutes, or until chicken is just tender.
Remove the cover, add the vinegar and simmer a few minutes. Taste for salt. Serve with a simple rice or pasta.
Creole red beans and rice
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
1 pound dried red kidney beans, about 2 1/2 cups
1 1/2 quarts plus 2 quarts cold water
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
3 bay leaves
2 small dried whole hot red peppers
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 smoked pork hock, 1 to 1 1/2 pounds
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
3 cups hot cooked rice
hot red pepper sauce
Soak beans in 1 1/2 quarts of cold water for at least 4 hours or overnight. Drain.
In a large pot, combine beans, remaining 2 quarts of cold water, the onion, garlic, bay leaves, dried peppers, thyme and smoked pork. Bring to a boil, then simmer, uncovered, over low to moderate heat for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until beans are very soft and the mixture is thick and creamy.
Remove and discard the smoked pork, bay leaves and hot peppers. Stir in the salt and pepper and mix well. Taste for salt and add more if necessary.
Serve beans over hot cooked rice; pass the hot sauce.
Mexican chocolate cheesecake
Makes 10 to 12 servings.
16 square cinnamon graham crackers
3 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing a pan
1/2 cup finely chopped almonds
3 packages cream cheese (8 ounces each), softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup heavy cream
6 ounces semisweet chocolate
2 tablespoons coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons cinnamon
3 ounces or more semisweet chocolate, melted (optional)
2 tablespoons finely chopped almonds
Crush or pulverize the graham crackers into fine crumbs. In a small saucepan, melt the butter, then stir in the cracker crumbs and the almonds and mix thoroughly. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Pat the crumb mixture in an even layer over the bottom of the pan.
In a food processor or blender, combine the cream cheese, sugar, eggs and heavy cream. Blend until smooth. Process in several batches if necessary. Pour mixture into a large bowl. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Melt chocolate with the coffee over low heat, stirring, until it is smooth and well blended. Cool slightly. Stir the chocolate-coffee mixture, the vanilla and almond extracts and the cinnamon into the cheese mixture. Mix thoroughly. Pour mixture over the crumb crust.
Bake for about 1 hour, until the cake is set and center is no longer liquid. Cool, then chill thoroughly before unmolding. Glaze, if desired, with melted semisweet chocolate and garnish with finely chopped almonds.