A Chef's Perspective on Preparing America's State Dishes

By: Lindsay Damast

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By now you’ve seen our list of 50 dishes (plus one for D.C. and an election year-themed cake) that represent American cuisine, and have read our behind-the-scenes blog post all about the creation of this huge project. (Oh, you haven’t? Trust us — it’s worth a couple clicks.) Our chefs up in the Kitchens were super busy (and sometimes super stumped) preparing regional dishes from all 50 states, from classics like peach pie and lobster rolls to some crazy-sounding dishes like Lefse, Pastys and Chislic.

We sat down with Chef Young Sun Huh to walk us through her recipe development process, and share some of her favorite memories from this fun collaborative project.

Cooking Channel: You prepared and tasted a lot of dishes. Which one were you most surprised to find yourself going back for second (or third) helpings?

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

Young Sun Huh: I was most surprised by the Funeral Potatoes from Utah. Based on the morbid-sounding name, I honestly didn’t know what to expect! This dish — traditionally served at the meal for grieving mourners after a funeral — turned out to be the ultimate comfort food: a creamy, cheesy, downright delicious casserole. Though I don’t normally cook with a lot of convenience products, I found that it’s much easier to use frozen potatoes and the dish is no less delicious for it.

CC: What was the biggest challenge you faced in trying to replicate a local dish’s authentic flavors?

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

YSH: I was assigned the task of developing a recipe for Runzas, a meat-stuffed pocket bread from the Nebraska-based food chain, but had never eaten one before. Fortunately there are a lot of passionate Nebraskans who try to re-create their favorite state dish at home and like to blog about it online. Of course, there are just as many opinions about what ingredients make up a definitive Runza — beef only or beef and pork? Cabbage or sauerkraut? — so I just tried to create a basic but tasty recipe that covered most of the bases. Still, I didn’t know whether I had an authentic-tasting product on my hands. Luckily, we managed to find a native Nebraskan on staff who just happened to be available to taste my attempt at the Nebraska Handheld Meat Pie. When she gave it the thumbs up, I knew I could rest a little easier!

CC: Which was the easiest dish for you to develop?

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

YSH: The easiest dish to develop was the Pork Roll Sandwich With Egg and Cheese from New Jersey. There are so few ingredients that the hardest part about writing this recipe was describing how to construct the sandwich. Also, I could confirm every detail — the type of bread, the cheese, the meat, how to cut the meat, etc. — with Ali Clarke, a born-and-bred New Jerseyan who works with me in the Kitchens.

CC: Choosing one recipe from this project, can you walk us through your process of recipe writing, development and testing?

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

YSH: The Salmon Candy for Alaska was an interesting recipe to develop. The first step was to research salmon candy in books and online. We have an extensive cookbook library and it is an excellent resource for such projects. The research unearthed different recipes, techniques and flavor preferences, so my main goal was to develop an authentic recipe that tastes good and makes sense culinary-wise.

Salmon candy is usually cured first and then smoked and basted at very low heat for a long time in a smoker. Since most people don’t have a smoker, we decided to develop a recipe that’s more accessible for the home cook. Instead of a smoker, the salmon in this recipe is dried out slowly in a regular oven.

Before I start cooking, I always begin by writing the recipe. It’s best to think through the recipe and get all your thoughts organized on paper. When I reach this phase of the process, I try not to consult specific recipes, since I don’t want to copy someone else’s recipe. I want to make it my own. Once the recipe is written, I send it to the project head for review. Next, I send a shopping list to our purchasing department. Once all the ingredients are in, usually by the next day, I can start cooking.

I try to follow my written recipe, but I’ll make changes if I sense that something isn’t going to work. For example, I originally didn’t have any soy sauce in the recipe, but I found that the salmon needed this salty, umami component to offset the sweetness of the maple syrup and brown sugar. Once I had finished a first pass of salmon candy, I took a picture of the finished dish for a visual reference and scheduled a tasting for later in the day.

The culinary project head, director of the test kitchen, and members of the Cooking Channel Web team attended the tasting and made comments. We decided that the salmon was a little too crumbly in texture and the glaze should be cooked onto the fish a bit more. We discussed extending the curing time from four hours to 12 hours and basting the salmon earlier in the oven-drying process. I revised the recipe, ordered more salmon, and attempted a second pass the next day.

Once the second batch was ready, the same group gathered and tasted it again. This revised batch was approved and the recipe was then moved to the cross-testing phase. I handed off the approved recipe to the cross-tester, in this case Ali, who approached the recipe from the perspective of the average person. If anything was confusing or didn’t work, Ali took notes on how the recipe should be modified. Then another tasting was scheduled to taste the cross-tested salmon candy. I believe Ali had to cross-test this recipe twice. The culinary editorial team then proofread the recipe for punctuation and grammatical errors and to make sure it followed the Cooking Channel format.

For even more behind-the-scenes content, check out these photos of the recipe development and photo-shoot process.

See all 50 dishes and the completed project here: Across the Country in 50 State Dishes.

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