Casual Cooking: The American Diner
Originally published the week of September 18, 2000

All content copyright by World Wide Recipes.

Frankly, it was a bit of a challenge coming up with an appetizer for our American Diner week because appetizers are not commonly featured in these unpretentious restaurants. It is not uncommon, however, to be greeted by a smiling waitress carrying a basket of freshly baked breads and rolls to be munched on while you peruse the menu.

Cheese Bread

2 packets (2 Tbs, 30 ml) active dry yeast
2 cups (500 ml) warm milk
2 Tbs (30 ml) sugar
2 Tbs (30 ml) butter, melted
1/4 tsp (1 ml) salt
4 1/2 cups (1 L + 125 ml) all-purpose flour
6 oz (175 g) sharp Cheddar cheese, cut into 1/4-inch (5 mm) dice

Dissolve the yeast in the milk in a large mixing bowl and allow to proof for 5 minutes, until it begins to form a froth on the surface. Add the sugar, butter, and salt and stir to dissolve. Add the flour and beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Add the cheese and mix to thoroughly combine. Pour the batter into a well greased 1 1/2 quart (1.5 L) casserole dish and cover loosely with waxed paper. Allow to sit at room temperature until doubled in volume, about 1 hour. Bake in a preheated 350F (180C) oven for 50 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes before serving. Makes 1 loaf.

 

When given a choice between coleslaw and some other side dish, I usually choose something else because most restaurants (especially fast-food chains) insist on loading it with sugar. I prefer mine unsweetened, as in this recipe.

Classic Coleslaw

1 small head green cabbage, cored and sliced as thinly as possible
1 small head red cabbage, cored and sliced as thinly as possible
4 celery stalks, finely chopped
4 scallions (green onions, spring onions), green and white parts, finely chopped
4 carrots, shredded
1 cup (250 ml) mayonnaise
3 Tbs (45 ml) fresh lemon juice
2 Tbs (30 ml) caraway seeds (optional)
1 Tbs (15 ml) celery seed (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Place the cabbage in a large bowl and cover with ice water. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and drain thoroughly. Combine the cabbage, celery, scallions, and carrots in a large bowl. Mix together the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl and pour over the cabbage mixture. Toss to combine well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. Serves 6 to 8.

 

Nothing fills the belly and warms the soul like a bowl of chili beans at your favorite diner. Feel free to adjust the amount of chili powder in this recipe to suit your taste.

Chili Beans

1 lb (450 g) dry red kidney beans
1 medium onion, chopped
2 - 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 lb (125 g) bacon, chopped
1 Tbs (15 ml) chili powder, or to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup (250 ml) red wine or chicken broth
3 cups (750 ml) chicken broth
1 can (16 oz, 450 g) chopped tomatoes

Soak the beans in water overnight. Drain and combine with the remaining ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to low. Simmer covered for 4 hours, or until the beans are tender and the sauce has thickened, adding more chicken broth if necessary. Serves 6 to 8.

 

Although I generally avoid using the term "comfort food" because it means something different to everyone, this dish epitomizes the term as far as I am concerned. Whether made by my mother or ordered in a roadside diner, it never fails to please.

Chicken Pot Pie

1 lb (450 g) boneless chicken meat, cut into 1-inch (2 cm) pieces
4 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch (1 cm) slices
2 cups (500 ml) chicken broth
4 Tbs (60 ml) butter
1 cup (250 ml) sliced mushrooms
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 tsp (2 ml) dried thyme
1/4 cup (60 ml) all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream or half-and-half
2 cups (500 ml) frozen peas
Pastry dough for 2 pie crusts, frozen or from your favorite recipe

Combine the chicken pieces, carrots, and broth in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer covered for 5 minutes, remove from heat and set aside. In a separate saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat. Add the mushrooms, onion, salt, pepper, thyme, and flour and stir to thoroughly mix. Cook over moderate heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the chicken broth mixture and stir until the sauce thickens. Add the cream and peas and stir for 2 minutes.

Roll the pastry into 12 circles about 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter. Place half in the bottoms of six 5-inch pie pans and fill with the chicken mixture. Top with the remaining dough and pinch the edges together, trimming off the excess with a knife. Cut 2 or 3 slits in the top of each and bake in a preheated 425F (220C) oven for 35 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Serves 6.

 

The culinary term "short" refers to a pastry or dough that has a high ratio of fat to flour. Be sure to use real butter for this recipe; any substitution will be at the sacrifice of both flavor and texture.

Strawberry Shortcake

4 cups (1 L) fresh strawberries, hulled and cut in half
1 cup (250 ml) plus
2 Tbs (30 ml) sugar
2 cups (500 ml) all-purpose flour
3 Tbs (45 ml) baking powder
1/2 tsp (2 ml) salt
1/2 cup (125 ml) unsalted butter
1 cup (250 ml) milk
1/2 tsp (2 ml) vanilla extract
Whipped cream for garnish

Toss the strawberries with 1 cup (250 ml) sugar in a bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. In a separate bowl combine the 2 tablespoons sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt. Blend in the butter. Add the milk and vanilla and mix well. Grease two 8-inch (20 cm) round cake pans and divide the batter between them. Bake in a preheated 450F (230C) oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool. Place one cake upside-down on a serving platter and top with half the strawberries. Top with the remaining cake layer and the rest of the strawberries. Serve garnished with whipped cream. Serves 6 to 8.

 

If choosing an appetizer for this theme was a challenge, then narrowing the choice for a breakfast item down to a single selection was an equal challenge. American diners are well known for their numerous and varied breakfast offerings, so I decided on a tried and true classic. I like mine with butter and maple syrup, but feel free to top yours with the syrup or fruit preserve of your choice.

Buttermilk Pancakes

1 cup (250 ml) cake or all-purpose flour
1 tsp (5 ml) sugar
1 tsp (5 ml) baking powder
1/2 tsp (2 ml) baking soda
1/2 tsp (2 ml) salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup (250 ml) buttermilk
2 Tbs (30 ml) melted butter

Sift the dry ingredients together into a mixing bowl. Add the wet ingredients and stir gently just until incorporated; the batter should be slightly lumpy. Drop batter onto a hot griddle and cook until the bubbles on top have burst, forming small craters. Flip and cook until golden brown. Makes about ten 4-inch (10 cm) pancakes, to serve 4.

 

How could I do a week of American diner recipes without featuring raised donuts? Well, I couldn't.

Raised Donuts

1 package (1 Tbs, 15 ml) active dry yeast
1/4 cup (60 ml) warm water
3/4 cup (180 ml) warm milk
4 cups (1 L) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (125 ml) sugar
1/2 tsp (2 ml) nutmeg
1/2 tsp (2 ml) salt
2 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup (125 ml) vegetable shortening, melted
Vegetable oil for deep frying

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and allow to proof for 5 minutes. Add the milk, half the flour, and half the sugar. Beat until smooth, cover and let rise for 30 minutes. Sift together the remaining flour, sugar, salt, and nutmeg. In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs and shortening. Combine the yeast mixture, the sifted ingredients, and the wet ingredients in a large bowl. Mix until a soft dough forms. Knead on a floured surface for 5 minutes. Cover and let rise for 1 hour. Roll the dough out on a floured surface to a thickness of 1 inch (2.5 cm). Cut with a floured donut cutter. Cover and let rise for 1 hour. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet and fry the donuts for 2 to 3 minutes, turning when golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately. Makes about 24 donuts.