Lidia Bastianich may be one of the greatest Italian chefs around, but she’s American through and through. So much so, that for her latest PBS special, airing June 28 at 10 p.m., Bastianich uses Independence Day, the most American of holidays, to tell the stories of immigrants.
"I originally went all over the United States researching Italian food, and I noticed all the different ethnicities and how everybody incorporated something of their own no matter what their holiday occasion," Bastianich told The Daily Meal over the phone.
So in Virginia, she tells the stories of immigrants becoming U.S. citizens in Monticello; in Connecticut, she celebrates Bastille Day with Jacques Pépin; and in Texas, she learns about "Juneteenth" for Emancipation Day in the South. And finally, in New York she learns about Philippines Independence Day.
Although all these celebrations took place in America, "their culture would always permeate the table through food," Bastianich said. "It’s a great story about America, because it accepts us all, but in addition it lets us celebrate and be who we are."
Take Jacques Pépin, for example. His Bastille Day celebration may be very French (complete with a brioche dessert in honor of Marie Antoinette), but his family celebrates both July 4 and Bastille Day (July 14). And the menus? "Well, at least now, I mix one with the other, frankly," he told The Daily Meal over the phone. "The foods are always the types of things I like to eat, which are summer things, and they’re very similar. So in that sense we do a fair amount of hors d'oeuvres that we pass around… [and] I think roast chicken, served with a salad and garlic in it."
The trick, Pépin said, is not serving what is supposed to be served, but what your guests love. His New York-born wife of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent loves salami and rabbit pâté, while Pépin will serve grilled baguettes with lamb, pickled onions, and cilantro. "When you cook, it’s to please someone and you give them what they want," Pépin said. "I know what my wife likes, what my daughters like, my friends like… This is not the type of party where you do something big. No, it’s more to make people be happy and comfortable with the food."
But if you want to try a little multicultural flair this Fourth of July, Bastianich suggested choosing one flavor profile and sticking to it. "Use the meats and the vegetables that you usually do, but use the spices and herbs from that country," Bastianich said. "So if you use a lot of avocado and cilantro, you’re talking Mexican and south of the border. If you’re using let’s see, lemongrass, ginger, I think that’s kind of Asian peninsula kind of food and cooking."
Oftentimes, she said, you’ll find that a classic American cookout can easily be jazzed up with some herbs and sides. So if you find sauerkraut on your table, go Northern European, and have some potatoes on the back of your grill. "Especially with hamburgers, you can incorporate the meats you like, just do something different in spices in your rubs and your marinades," Bastianich said. "I wouldn’t mix it all up — don’t put rosemary and lemongrass together — but respect the differences [and] I think you could spice up your traditional meal quite easily."
So how does Bastianich prepare her July 4 menu? With plenty of balsamic vinegar, some sun-dried tomatoes, and a hint of basil. "I took all the Italian elements and made it with an American texture," she said. And a touch of multiethnicity is perhaps the ultimate American way to celebrate Independence Day.
LIDIA CELEBRATES AMERICA "Freedom and Independence" premieres June 28 at 10 p.m. on PBS.