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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. More than a hundred thousand people all over the world have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers! I promise, I'm not going to spam anybody. I'd just like to know who's out there and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing.

Grazie mille!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Seven Simple Rules For Cooking Pasta Like An Italian

Do It The Right Way

A lot of cultures have come up with a way to combine flour with water and/or eggs to produce some form of noodle or pasta. Italians certainly didn't invent the stuff, but can there be any doubt that they are the masters of it? Italians have elevated pasta to an art form. Spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine, tagliatelle......the list is almost endless. There are more than 350 forms of pasta in Italy and about four times as many names for them. That's because the same pasta shape can be called something different in different parts of the country. According to Academia Barilla, gnocchi is the forefather of all pasta; it evolved into other shapes through the manipulation of the dough, either by hand or through the use of simple tools, to produce local variations. And if Italians are so proficient at making pasta, it stands to reason they are expert at cooking it.

And yet, whether it's human nature in general or American hubris in specific, a lot of people these days keep coming up with ways to “improve” the process. “Use less water,” they say, or “use cold water.” They're all over the place about salt and time and they're constantly foisting off “pot ready” pasta and “gluten-free” pasta and similar aberrations.

Fine. Whatever. You want to be an innovator? Go for it. You want to create your own “superior method” of doing something Italians have been doing for centuries? Be my guest. But I'm here to tell you if you want good pasta, you've gotta do it the right way and that's the traditional Italian way. With that in mind, here are seven simple rules for making pasta like an Italian.

Rule Number One: Boil It and Don't Oil It

Ignore the heretics who tell you you can get perfect pasta out of a shallow pan and two cups of cold water or some such nonsense. Pasta needs lots of boiling water. Four to six quarts. And boiling. Only boiling water will gelatinize the starches in the pasta, making it tender and digestible. And keep the water boiling from start to finish. If you turn it down to a simmer after you've added the pasta, you'll wind up with mushy pasta.

Pasta needs room to swim. The reason pasta sometimes sticks is because it gets too crowded to develop and release those starches we were just talking about. Big pot, lots of water. Somewhere, sometime, some well-meaning somebody who didn't know the first thing about pasta decided that you could put oil in the water to inhibit the sticking. Uh.......no. Basic science: what happens when you mix oil and water? The oil separates and you get an oily film floating on top of the water, right? Then you drag the pasta up through it and all it gets you is oily pasta to which nothing will stick, including whatever sauce you're putting on it. Remember: Lots of water, boil it, and don't oil it.

Rule Number Two: Salt It

Salt gets a really bad rep these days. As an essential nutrient for human life and health, salt – or at least its sodium component – is a vital electrolyte and osmotic solute. You simply can't eliminate salt from your diet. However, since excessive salt consumption – unfortunately common these days – can increase the risk of certain cardiovascular diseases, it's usually a good idea to keep your intake to a minimum. So when I tell you to add about three tablespoons of salt to four or five quarts of water, you're likely to suffer a heart attack just thinking about it. But it's true. È vero. Italians will tell you the water should “taste like the sea.” “Aaaarrrrghh!” you cry. “All that salt will kill me!” But laboratory research has determined that the pasta being cooked doesn't actually absorb that much of the salt: given three tablespoons of salt to five quarts of water, the pasta only absorbs ½ to ¾ teaspoon of the salt. The rest is discarded with the pasta water. So it's not really an issue.

What is an issue in some circles is when to salt the water. There's a great debate among the factions that say add the salt to the cold water, add the salt to the boiling water, and add the salt after the pasta is placed in the boiling water. And the answer is.....there is no answer. The problem with adding salt to cold water is that salt is corrosive and can eventually pit and damage your cooking pot if it's left sitting on the bottom while the water heats up. The problem with adding it after the pasta hits the water is one of possibly uneven distribution. So most experts agree that salting the water at the full boil and giving it a few seconds to disperse before adding the pasta is the best way to go.

Why salt the water at all? Because pasta has essentially no flavor of its own. And the only opportunity you have to add flavor is through salting the water because that's when the pasta is most susceptible to absorbing its flavor. Salting pasta after it's cooked will give you nothing but overly salty pasta. The noodles have already opened up, released their starches, and set. You have to get the salt in there during that cooking process or your window of flavoring opportunity closes.

One of my restaurant cooks prepared a batch of spaghetti that was absolutely bland and flavorless. I asked him how he had cooked it and he told me “with a little salt in the water.” How much was “a little?” About a teaspoon. In two-and-a-half gallons of water. “Throw it out,” I told him, “We're starting over.” And he watched with wide eyes as I dumped about a half-cup of salt into the fresh pot of boiling water. “Taste that,” I told him. “What does it taste like?” He replied, “Like salt water.” “Perfect,” I said. “Remember that.” And when he tasted the finished product a few minutes later, he enthused, “Wow! You can really tell the difference. I'm going to make it that way at home from now on.” Lesson learned.

Rule Number Three: Don't Break It

Don't ask for an explanation of this rule, just accept it. It's an Italian thing and it is what it is. I tell people all the time that Italians can hear the screams of the poor pasta as it's brutally broken and tossed in a pot. Actually, there is an explanation: long pasta is long for a reason. Otherwise it would be short. The reason long pasta should be left long is so that it catches and holds more sauce as you twirl it around your fork. Of course, if you are one of the unfortunates who cuts your spaghetti into bite-size pieces that can be scooped up with a spoon, may I recommend “Spaghetti-Os” and respectfully suggest you stay out of Italian homes for your own safety.

Rule Number Four: “Bite Me”

I don't know who the whackadoodle was who first came up with the idea of testing the doneness of pasta by throwing it at a wall and seeing if it sticks. Maybe there was alcohol involved. Personally, I think such people should themselves be thrown at a wall to see if they stick. The only thing you'll get out of this ridiculous method is sticky, messy walls and pasta that says “bite me.”

Perfect pasta should be cooked al dente – literal translation: “to the tooth.” What this means is that the cooked pasta should be soft enough to bite into without feeling a crunch, but still quite firm at the center. And the only way to test if something is done “to the tooth” is to get your teeth involved. Take a piece of pasta out of the water, blow on it to cool it a bit, and take a bite. In the center of the pasta, you should be able to see a thin core that is lighter in color than the surrounding outer layer. That is called the “punto verde”, or “green point,” and its presence indicates that the pasta is al dente. If the pasta is crunchy throughout, it's undercooked. If it's the same color and texture throughout and you don't see that “punto verde,” the pasta is probably overcooked.

Rule Number Five: No Rinsing, Please

Cooked pasta is covered with a light coating of the starch it produces as it cooks. And some people erroneously believe there's something healthy and desirable about rinsing away that starch. So under the faucet the colander full of cooked pasta goes, and down the sink goes the starchy coating that helps pasta hold on to the sauce. There's really only one time when you want to rinse cooked pasta and that would be if you are using the pasta in a cold application like a pasta salad or something. Rinsing also stops the cooking process so you're not throwing hot pasta in your cold salad. Otherwise, don't rinse it. In fact, most experienced pasta cooks just lift the pasta straight from the boiling water with a pasta fork or tongs. And always remember to reserve about a cup of the cooking water. You'll see why in a minute. Using a colander to drain pasta is okay if that's your thing, but don't rinse the pasta and don't leave it laying in the colander, either. Which leads us to the next rule.....

Rule Number Six: Cook It In The Sauce

Somewhere Americans got the notion that the proper way to prepare pasta was to cook the life out of it, drain it dry, pile it on a plate, and dump a quart of runny red sauce over the top of it. And nothing could be further from the truth. The proper way to prepare pasta is to cook it until just a minute or so shy of al dente, drain it lightly, and immediately drop it into a pot or pan of simmering sauce to finish cooking for the final minute or two. If the sauce seems a little too thick, that's where the reserved cooking water I mentioned before comes in. Mixing in just a fraction of a cup of this starchy, salty goodness will “finish” your sauce like nothing else. Preparing pasta this way allows it to fully absorb the flavor of the sauce in a way that dumping the sauce on top will never achieve. The pasta and the sauce marry and incorporate for a perfect – and perfectly delicious – dish. You can't get the same results by using your fork and mixing up the sauce on top with the pasta on the bottom once it hits your plate. It just doesn't work. I know, I know – that's probably the way your local “Italian” restaurant serves it. And I'll tell you why: because that's the way Americans expect it. For example, I advertised that the spaghetti served in my restaurant was prepared “Italian style.” And wouldn't you know there were a few people who complained that, because the sauce was already mixed in, it looked “like yesterday's leftovers.” We eventually found that if we cooked the spaghetti “our” way but served it with an extra little dollop of sauce on top, people like that would accept it. Several very Italian friends of mine serve “American-style” spaghetti in their restaurants simply because they have to. Of course, when serving me they lay out a plate of properly prepared pasta because they know that I know the difference. And now you do, too.

Rule Number Seven: Serve It Hot

There is an oft-repeated Italian saying that goes, “pasta waits for no one.” Cooked pasta is at its very best when it's fresh out of the pan and piping hot. Italians drop everything when the call “è tutto pronto” is made. You'll never hear, “Okay. I'll be there in a minute.” When dinner is ready, diners need to be ready, too; ready to sit down and enjoy a plate of perfectly prepared pasta cooked in the traditional Italian way.

Mangia bene!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

How To Make Real Whipped Cream

Wholesome, Delicious Whipped Cream In Two Minutes Or Less

I cringe whenever I pass the freezer section in the supermarket and see somebody reaching in for the “whipped topping.” I just want to wail, “Nooooooo! You can do so much better!” But it is what it is. For better or worse, nowadays when people think “whipped cream” they automatically reach for the “Cool Whip.” (Sigh)

Here comes the old codger in me: “Back when I was a boy, we didn't have 'Cool Whip.' We just went out in the field and chased the cow around in circles until she gave whipped cream.” Well......actually, we went to the grocery store and bought a can of old-fashioned “Reddi-Wip.” “Cool Whip” and other “non-dairy” products were still a few years in the future.

A food scientist named George Lorant can be credited/blamed for the existence of “Cool Whip.” He created it while in the employ of General Foods back in 1966. The marketing hook was the shelf life: unlike real whipped cream or even the popular canned product, “whipped topping” – as the manufacturer likes to call it – will keep for-freakin'-ever in your freezer. Even out of the freezer, the stuff is practically indestructible. I know of people who conducted “science experiments” in which they left a scoop of “Cool Whip” out in a bowl on the counter for as long as two weeks without observing any apparent change in the integrity of the substance. Some reported that it did eventually harden into a plastic-like state. Yum, yum! Just what I want on my All-American Apple Pie; a lump of All-American Plastic.

Wanna know what it is you're slathering on your dessert? Here goes: water, hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, skim milk, light cream and less than 2% sodium caseinate (a milk derivative), natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate and beta carotene.

BTW and FYI, polysorbate 60 is an oily liquid used as a thickening agent, emulsifier, and stabilizer in cosmetics and skin care products. And sorbitan monostearate is a synthetic wax primarily used as an emulsifier to keep water and oils mixed. See why I feel like screaming when I see somebody reaching for the stuff? As I frequently say, I'd prefer to be embalmed after I'm dead, thank you.

The whipped cream sold in a pressurized can – of which “Reddi-Wip” is still the most popular – is a little better. At least there you've got a shot at a few natural ingredients: nonfat milk, cream, sugar, corn syrup, maltodextrin, inulin (chicory extract), cellulose, mono- and diglycerides, polysorbate 80, artificial flavors, and carrageenan. Of course, polysorbate 80 is yet another emulsifier employed, in this case, to help keep the whipped cream from separating. It's also used as a surfactant in soaps and cosmetics. And carrageenan, an emulsifier extracted from red seaweed, has raised a lot of red flags in health circles.

So rather than topping your dessert with a spray of chemically enhanced foam from a can or a scoop of plastic-like substance from a plastic tub, why not do the smart, tasty, and healthy – or at least healthier – thing and make your own whipped cream from scratch? It's really easy.

I admit to never having had real whipped cream until I began my culinary education. My mom was one of the convenience-addled zombies of the '60s who sprayed from a can or scooped from a tub because it was just what everybody else did. Using anything that didn't come out of some sort of package or container in those days marked you as a kind of throwback to an earlier, unsophisticated, less “modern” era. But since I turned out that first batch of homemade whipped cream, I have never gone back and now I look with pity upon those who choose, through simple ignorance, to continue using horrid, unnatural substitutes.

Please do yourself a favor and try this the next time you want to dollop some whipped cream on top of your favorite dessert: bypass the freezer case and go to the dairy section. Don't reach for a spray can. Instead, pick up a carton of heavy cream or heavy whipping cream.

Contrary to what some would have you believe, you don't have to have a $400 stand mixer to make whipped cream. In culinary school they make you do it with a whisk. That's fine if you're young and energetic and have a lot of elbow grease. I'm old and lethargic and my elbows aren't nearly as greasy as they used to be, so I use an electric hand mixer.

You're going to need a metal or glass mixing bowl; plastic won't work nearly as well. Some schools of thought say this is because plastic ions leach into the cream and inhibit its ability to whip. I know this can be true of egg whites, but I'm not so sure about cream. I think it's more a matter of temperature: cream whips better in a cold bowl. Heavy cream contains lots of fat. In the whipping process, that fat is broken up into tiny droplets that disperse evenly and begin to stick together, forming a matrix that traps air. But the whipping action also generates heat which can cause the matrix to fall apart. When you're working in a cold bowl, the cold helps counteract the buildup of heat. In fact, everything should be as cold as possible, including the whisk or beaters and the cream itself.

Okay, so you've got your chilled equipment ready; now you just need some cream. Make sure you get the heavy stuff; light creams contain less fat and don't whip as well. Unless you're in need of insane amounts of topping, a small carton – a half-pint or a pint – will suffice. Since cream doubles in volume when whipped, a pint – or two cups – of liquid cream will produce four cups of whipped cream. And unlike the plastic topping in the plastic tub, real whipped cream will break down fairly quickly, so don't make a lot more than you need.

Depending on what you're going to do with it, you might want to sweeten or flavor your whipped cream. Easily done with a little sugar and some vanilla extract. Some people insist that powdered sugar is best because it blends easier than granulated sugar. Also, there's a touch of cornstarch in powdered sugar that may help stabilize the whipped cream after it's whipped. But either one is fine as far as taste is concerned. And some say clear vanilla extract is better from an aesthetic viewpoint because regular vanilla will slightly color the finished product. Meh. Or you can just go with plain unsweetened, unflavored cream. It's up to you and your taste buds.

The process is simplicity itself. After thoroughly chilling all the components – about fifteen minutes in the freezer is good – pour the cream in the bowl, set your mixer – or your mixing arm – on “high,” and have at it. Add in the sugar and the vanilla – or lemon, or orange, or rum, or whatever other flavoring you choose – and whip until stiff peaks form. Don't go crazy and overwhip or you'll wind up with sweetened, flavored butter. Maybe it's not as simple as pushing down the nozzle on a spray can or scooping out of a plastic tub, but it's a whole lot better.

There you have it; wholesome, delicious whipped cream in two minutes or less. On the downside, I suppose, you'll have to give up the “poor man's Tupperware” you get with the “Cool Whip” containers, but believe me, it's worth the sacrifice. 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Let's Talk About Non-Stick Cookware

Nothing That Fragile Has A Place In A Busy Kitchen

Over the years I've written a lot about cookware. And even though I've mentioned it in other posts and articles, I don't know that I've ever directly addressed the subject of non-stick cookware. So here goes.

In the first place, I hardly ever use it. And when I do, it's for specific purposes only. You see, for general use, non-stick cookware is really lousy.

Oh, I know it's popular in big box discount stores and in those “as seen on TV” places. But in a real working kitchen, it's pretty much useless. In my restaurant kitchens, I kept non-stick pans in stock for one purpose: eggs. And I threatened my cooks that if they damaged the egg pans, they'd replace them. Because non-stick cookware is incredibly easy to damage. You can damage it with high heat. You can damage it with rough handling. You can damage it with improper tools and utensils. Sometimes I think you can damage it just by looking at it. Nothing that fragile has a place in a busy kitchen. Unless you want to replace it every couple of weeks.

In my home kitchen, I have a few non-stick pots and pans hanging around among the stainless steel, the carbon steel, and the cast iron. And I use them for eggs. And rice; my favorite rice pot is non-stick. Otherwise, everything else cooks in the aforementioned stainless steel, etc.

“But doesn't everything stick,” you ask? No. Largely because I know how to cook. And I know how to care for my cookware. And I guess there's a third component: I'm not afraid to spend money on my cookware.

Non-stick cookware became the rage of the age soon after it was introduced back in the 1950s. Developed by DuPont in 1938, “Teflon” was the first practical non-stick coating. “Teflon” is a synthetic fluorinated polymer, or fluoropolymer. Technically named polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, the stuff was a military secret at first. They used it to make seals resistant to the uranium hexafluoride gas used in atomic bombs. In 1944, DuPont registered the “Teflon” trademark and began developing it for commercial use.

According to legend, a French engineer started using the stuff to coat his fishing gear to keep it from tangling. His wife suggested he apply the coating to her pots and pans, and a new industry was born. The Tefal company was formed in 1956 and began turning out non-stick cookware for home use.

The question is often asked, “If nothing sticks to Teflon, how do they get Teflon to stick?” They start by roughening up the substrate metal. That allows for better adhesion. Then they apply Teflon in layers, either rolling or spraying it on over the textured surface. The more layers, the better the non-stick quality. Some pans have as many as seven sprayed-on layers. You pay money for those. Some have only a single layer rolled on. With those you get what you pay for.

Early on, DuPont realized that high cooking temperatures would cause Teflon to exude toxic gases. That's why they originally only employed it in coating bakeware. When PTFE-coated pans are heated beyond about 650°F, the coating begins to break down, releasing a byproduct called Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. PFOA was initially used as an emulsifier in the processing of PTFE-coated pans, but when manufacturers figured out that the fumes produced were harmful to humans and lethal to birds, they started phasing out the substance. In fact, the resulting polymer fume fever is nicknamed “Teflon Flu” in medical circles because it causes flu-like chills, headaches and fever along with chest tightness and a mild cough.

Pardon me if I don't get excited over the prospect of being made sick by my cookware.

In addition to the fumes, overheated non-stick coatings can become unstuck. High temperature cooking can result in blisters, pits, and flakes. Further damage can be done to the coating through improper use of cooking utensils. A metal spatula, spoon, or fork is an invitation to replacement of a non-stick pan. And you really should replace scratched or damaged non-stick because the scratching and pitting only exacerbates the fume problem and do you really want flakes of polytetrafluoroethylene mixed in with your scrambled eggs?

Another problem with common non-stick cookware is construction; it's usually made of aluminum. Aluminum has been known to leach from the cooking vessel into the food being cooked. And aluminum has been identified as a toxin for the human nervous, immune, and genetic systems. Hard anodized aluminum is a little safer, but it's usually more expensive. And it doesn't really matter once the surface gets scratched up through heavy and/or improper use. Even anodized aluminum is gonna leach.

Furthermore, aluminum is soft. Bang an aluminum pan around your kitchen for awhile. Drop one from time to time. See how nice and oval-shaped they become?

Lastly, non-stick cookware is useless for making pan sauces. Oh sure, if you're the kind of cook who makes sauce or gravy from a packet or a jar, non-stick is great. Just dump and stir. But if you like to make a real sauce that gets a lot of its flavor from the little brown bits – called “fond” – that stick to the bottom of the pan, well......you're kind of out of luck with a non-stick pan, aren't you?

Okay, so non-stick cookware is easy to clean. But don't be lulled into a false sense of security. Inattention and improper cooking techniques can screw up a non-stick surface, and once it's screwed there's no unscrewing it. Toss the pan and start over. I got distracted while working on a mornay sauce once and it burned to the bottom of my stainless steel saucepan. Five minutes with some Bar Keepers Friend and a non-scratch plastic scrubbie and my pan was good as new. In fact, the stainless steel pans I use every day are more than ten years old and I can still see my reflection in the surface. That's mostly because I paid decent money for the pans to begin with and because I take care of them. They hang from a pot rack in my home kitchen just like the ones in my restaurant. I don't throw them in a drawer or a cabinet where they can get battered and beaten up. And they've never seen the inside of a dishwasher. Oh, and by the way, the average useful life of a non-stick pan is three to five years.

Now, you want something that's non-stick and nearly indestructible? Try cast iron. I have a Lodge 10-inch frying pan that's nearly forty years old and its surface is as smooth as glass. Nothing sticks to that rascal and it will probably wind up with one of my granddaughters someday. And if she takes care of it, she can pass it on to her kids.

When you add a ceramic coating to cast iron, you get the ultimate in durable non-stick cookware. Yeah, my Dutch oven weighs fifteen pounds, but it's more versatile than anything on the market. You can take it right from the stovetop to the oven – it'll easily withstand 500°F – and clean it up with just a wipe. Try that with cheap, lightweight aluminum cookware. No, really, don't.

The latest generation of non-stick cookware also employs ceramic coating materials rather than PTFE. It's a safer choice from a health standpoint and most of them perform pretty well. Again, you get what you pay for. If the underlying material is cheap and flimsy, no amount of ceramic coating will make any difference. I'm fond of the Bialetti brand of ceramic ware. But there are other good brands available.

Something of which to steer clear, however, is the new “copper” fad. They sell for, like, $19.95 – double your order if you order now – and are the ultimate example of “you get what you pay for.” In the first place, they're not “copper.” They're 2.5mm aluminum coated with copper color epoxy paint. I was reading over some reviews and they ain't pretty. “A crap product” was the way one guy described it. Way too light. Not heavy duty as claimed and smaller than expected, to boot. Eggs cooked on medium temperature stuck and had a metallic taste. Another satisfied customer said hers were “the worst pans she has ever bought .” They worked fine at first, but then the non-stick, non-scratch surface came off and she couldn’t get rid of the stains on the bottom and the sides. Now her pans are badly stained and scratched and she just wants to get rid of them. “Scam”was a word that got used a lot. Especially by people trying to return the things. Caveat emptor.

So here's the takeaway: By and large, non-stick cookware is okay to have around for specific purposes. You can't rely on non-stick for everything because it isn't suited for everything. It's good for eggs but it's useless for pan sauces. You can't use it with high heat, you can't put in the oven, and it'll dent, warp, scratch, and ding if you look at the wrong way. Your best bet is to buy a few pieces of the better quality stuff and stay far, far away from the cheap junk. Use it for what it's intended to be used for, care for it the way it needs to be cared for, and then go out and invest in decent stainless steel and cast iron for everything else.

Buona fortuna e buona cucinando!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Great Italian Meatballs

“Spaghetti And Meatballs” Is An Italian-American Creation

The first thing you should know about Italian meatballs is that Italians never serve them with spaghetti. If you order a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in a real Italian restaurant, they'll just look at you like you've lost your mind. Let me clarify that: you can have a plate of spaghetti as a primo and follow it with a plate of meatballs as a secondo, but Italians would never serve “spaghetti and meatballs” together. That is an entirely Italian-American creation. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it; it's just not authentically Italian.

That said, let's get on with making some meatballs.

The secret to great Italian meatballs comes from three things; using a combination of meats, using breadcrumbs in the mix, and employing good mixing and forming technique.

First the meat. The recipe I'm about to relate calls for beef, pork, and veal. That's the best combination, but I've made meatballs quite successfully with just beef and pork. Don't try it using nothing but ground beef. You really need the extra fat and flavor from another meat source.

As to the breadcrumbs, a lot of people say they're not necessary, but they are, especially if you want lighter, less dense meatballs. In the Italian tradition of “cucina di povera,” breadcrumbs were used as meat extenders or fillers, but they really do serve a purpose in determining the ultimate moisture and texture of the meatball. Some people use a “panade,” meaning they soak the breadcrumbs in milk to achieve greater moisture. Try it. You might like it.

Finally, the biggest part of proper technique comes in not over mixing or over handling the meatballs. Even if you do everything else right, this can make for meatballs that are very dense and heavy.

Okay, here goes. You'll need:

1/3 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup diced yellow onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped fine
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground veal
1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
2 eggs
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
4 to 6 cups prepared tomato sauce
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Ingredient notes: chicken broth is fine if you don't have stock. I prefer the reduced sodium variety. Fresh parsley is best, but dried is okay. Use a generous tablespoon. As I said, if you only go with beef and pork, up the proportions accordingly. Don't ever use the cheese-flavored wood fiber that comes in plastic cans. If you can't find or afford Parmigiano-Reggiano, use a wedge of domestic Parmesan. The tomato sauce can be homemade or jarred. Just use something plain like Ragu Traditional. Don't get the stuff “flavored” with meat or mushrooms or something.

Okay, and here's what you do:

Place the chicken stock, onion, garlic and parsley in a blender or food processor and puree.

In a large bowl, combine the pureed stock mix, meat, bread crumbs, eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, parsley and salt. Combine with both hands until mixture is uniform. Do not over mix.

Put a little olive oil on your hands and form the mixture into balls a little larger than golf balls. They should be about 1/4 cup each, though if you prefer bigger or smaller, it will only affect the browning time.

Pour about 1/2-inch of extra virgin olive oil into a straight-sided, 10-inch sauté pan and heat over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs to the pan (working in batches if necessary) and brown the meatballs, turning once. This will take about 10 to 15 minutes.

While the meatballs are browning, heat the tomato sauce in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Lift the meatballs out of the sauté pan with a slotted spoon and put them in the sauce. Stir gently. Simmer for about an hour.

Smaller meatballs make a great antipasto. Larger ones can be served as a secondo, or an entree course of their own. And, of course, you can serve them over spaghetti if you feel you must. But if you do, you'll need to use the larger amount of sauce in the preparation.

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Cooking Together: A Recipe for a Successful Relationship

Play Together To Stay Together

In an age where so many relationships seem so fragile, my wife and I have found the ideal place in our home for bonding and building. It's a place where things can get really hot really fast. It's a place where both sugar and spice come into play. It's a place where we can be as wild and creative as we want to be. It's a place where we use special techniques and equipment to achieve ultimate satisfaction.

Hey, I don't know where your mind went, but mine is in the kitchen.

My wife and I love to – as she puts it – “play in the kitchen.” And that's really what it is. For us, cooking is not a chore or a task or a drudge. It's playtime, baby, and we do it almost every day.

For example, we sleep in on Sundays and then do a brunch. We take turns doing the heavy lifting from week to week. Sometimes I turn out bacon and eggs and hash browns while she makes fresh homemade biscuits. Sometimes we simplify and she makes pancakes while I cook up some bacon or sausage. On rare occasions we just do cereal and toast or English muffins. But even then, one of us preps the bread while the other gets the cereal. Simple or complex, we do it together. And we couldn't imagine any other way.

Weeknight suppers are the same. We usually decide the menu in advance and then go about preparing the courses together. I set up a mise en place for her, laying out all the ingredients and equipment she needs for whatever she's going to prepare and then I go about setting up and prepping my dishes. The other night, for instance, we banged out Pork Chops Forestière with herb roasted potatoes and garlic cheddar biscuits, served with a little fruit on the side and ice cream for dessert. Took us a little over a half-hour from start to finish. And since I'm an absolute fanatic about cleaning as I cook, the only dishes we had to do after the meal was done were the plates, flatware, and glasses from the meal itself. Everything else was cleaned up before we sat down to eat. Then we settled in for a relaxing evening of our favorite TV shows. And that's the way we always work – together.

I'm her sous chef and her dishwasher when she hits the kitchen for one of her big baking projects and she backs me up when I'm turning out sauces or soups or pasta dishes or whatever. We work together.

We've worked together cooking professionally, as well, in two restaurants and a small catering service. We sometimes talk about missing our professional kitchens. In one place, the kitchen was set up where she had her side and I had mine. We had our own ovens, our own cooktops, our own refrigerators, and our own prep areas. We worked on opposite sides of a big prep table that divided the room. Stuff that we both used – salt, pepper, sugar, olive oil, etc. – was lined up where we could both grab it. We'd spend eight or ten hours a day bouncing around each other without having to worry about bouncing into each other like we sometimes do in our small home kitchen. But when it happens, we lightheartedly bitch about it and move on. It's our playground and I haven't had a fight on a playground since the fifth grade.

I guess our secret is that ever since we met and married in 1998, we have never found anything we didn't enjoy doing together. She has worked in theater with me, where I've gotten her into some weird situations, believe me. And she has taken up hobbies that I would never have seen myself involved in, but I supported her and drove all over hell and half of Georgia (literally) with her and had a blast doing it. We've worked together professionally and we continue to work together at things we mutually enjoy. Simply put, not only do we love each other, we like each other, too, and find our greatest joy and fulfillment in being with each other in everything we do.

We're both artists of different sorts, but we both enjoy the creativity of the kitchen. Cooking is, after all, as much an art as it is a skill. But more than being just another creative outlet for us, cooking together affords us valuable time together during which we pool our talents and abilities in a common pursuit. Ideas flow, conversations are carried on, decisions are made. A lot of love goes into a well made meal and preparing that meal with someone you love makes the experience much richer and much more meaningful. Cooking together is the highest form of teamwork. And the results are always worth the effort.

I've recently discovered that we're trendy. That which we have been doing naturally for these many years is actually being marketed as a form of relationship therapy. It's called “couples cooking.” There are several websites devoted to the concept and couples cooking classes are springing up all over the country. Many of these classes are aimed at young couples and newlyweds just getting started in their relationships. Others are designed with older couples in mind as a way of adding a new element to an established partnership. Still others are planned to provide a unique dating experience.

Amazon offers numerous cookbook titles for couples interested in cooking together; “Dinner Dates: A Cookbook for Couples Cooking Together,” “Table For Two: The Cookbook For Couples,” and “The Newlywed Kitchen: Delicious Meals for Couples Cooking Together” to name just a few.

According to a survey sponsored by relationship expert John Gray and appliance manufacturer Kenmore, and quoted on a pertinent website, www.couplescooking.org, “A recent survey of 1,500 couples found that couples who cook together view their relationship more positively than those who said they did not spend time together in the kitchen.....The survey showed these couples also were more satisfied in every aspect of their lives, from family relationships to sex.”

The site goes on to quote a chef who teaches couples cooking classes, “Cooking together works as a relationship-builder because it excites all of the senses.”

Other sources note that couples cooking classes provide a social outlet for those seeking the company of like-minded people. And, of course, a lot of folks take the courses just to improve their cooking skills. In one instance, the wife was a cook of, shall we say “limited ability,” while the husband was quite proficient in the kitchen, having learned to cook at an early age. Couples cooking classes brought her skill level up to equal his, giving her increased confidence in the kitchen and a greater sense of equality in the relationship.

These classes are great if you can find them in your area. Otherwise, just start from scratch. All it takes is willing enthusiasm, especially if you both have at least a little kitchen experience. If not, the partner who is more adept can bring the other member of the team along by teaching him or her how to prepare a favorite meal. Then proceed from there, venturing into more advanced recipes and culinary challenges as abilities develop.

There's an old proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The same can be said of cooking with your life partner. You can satisfy an immediate hunger with a meal you cooked yourself or you can feed your relationship for a lifetime by living, loving, learning, growing, planning, cooking, and “playing” together in the kitchen.


Vita bella, buon amore, e buon appetito!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Gelato – It's Not Just “Ice Cream”

Gelato Is Definitely Something More

It's summertime. Temperatures are in the 90s around here and folks are actively seeking ways to cool off. Air conditioners and swimming pools are the order of the day, and so is ice cream. I'm fortunate enough to have a little ice cream stand within walking distance. But, alas, as refreshing as a scoop of good ol' classic rocky road ice cream might be, it still pales in comparison to Italian gelato.

“Now wait a minute,” you say. “I thought 'gelato' was just the Italian word for 'ice cream.'” Ah, not so. You have much to learn, young Padawan.

Ice cream and gelato share one thing in common – they're both frozen. Beyond that, there are a lot of differences. Oh sure, they'll both cool you off, but so will a glass of ice water. No, you want something more out of your frozen confection, and gelato is definitely something more: more creamy, more smooth and silky, and more flavorful. Why? Glad you asked.

Scientifically speaking, any frozen confection – whether ice cream, gelato, sorbet, custard, or yogurt – is a mixture of water molecules and fat molecules. Doesn't that sound cool and refreshing? Freezing these molecules causes crystals to form. The longer you freeze the mixture, the bigger the crystals get. And then you factor in air, which is introduced through the churning process. The more air you pump into the mixture, the softer and fluffier the mixture becomes. American ice cream producers call this “overrun” and American ice cream can contain as much as fifty percent air. Gelato, on the other hand, contains only twenty to thirty percent air.

Both ice cream and gelato contain cream, milk and sugar. But the ratios are quite different. Ice cream goes heavy on the cream and also uses egg yolks as a binder. Gelato is more milk than cream and it rarely, if ever, uses eggs. Because ice cream uses more cream, it also produces more butterfat. In order to qualify as ice cream, a product has to contain at least ten percent butterfat. Most American ice creams weigh in at anywhere between fourteen and twenty-five percent. Gelato, on the other hand, is only four to nine percent fat.

Less air means a denser, creamier texture and less fat makes for a lighter mixture. And since fat tends to coat the palate, gelato's lower fat content allows more flavor to come through.

One more technical factor: temperature. Gelato is usually served slightly warmer than ice cream; about ten to fifteen degrees warmer. Colder ice cream actually numbs your tongue and inhibits flavor intensity. Warmer gelato brings out the full flavor potential of the confection.

It used to be you'd have to hop a plane to Florence or Rome in order to find gelato. Not so anymore. Sales of the frozen treat are blazing hot in the US, where gelato sales rose from $11 million in 2009 to an estimated $214 million in 2014. Industry analysts projected gelato would garner a 32 percent share of America's $14.3 billion ice cream market by the end of 2016.

Gelaterie (that's the proper Italian plural for gelateria; you don't just add an “s” to make things plural in Italian) are popping up all over the country. Sure, you'd expect them in places with large Italian populations; cities like New York or Chicago. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a great gelateria in downtown Austin, Texas and a chocolatier who served delicious gelato in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The real inroads, however, are being made in the supermarket, where increasing shelf space in the freezer case is being given over to a product that was a niche market curiosity just a decade or so ago. Talenti is the largest producer of gelato in America. Headquartered in Minneapolis and named as a tribute to Bernardo Buontalenti, the Florentine artist credited with inventing gelato, Talenti products are probably the easiest to find in most American supermarkets, but Breyer's and other ice cream makers are also jumping on the gelato bandwagon in a big way. And while that's good from a product recognition standpoint, it's not always so good from a product quality standpoint. A lot of what's being marketed as “gelato” these days is nothing more than thinly disguised ice cream with a fancy label and a fancier price tag.

So how do you find good gelato? To begin with, you're probably not going to find it in a supermarket. For one thing, it's all thrown in the freezer with the ice cream. Remember what I said about gelato being served at a warmer temperature? So that means seeking out a gelateria or at least an ice cream joint that offers gelato. Many of them do. But what should you look for?

One of the first things is color. Good quality gelato is made up primarily of natural ingredients. There are no artificial preservatives, additives, or dyes. So any neon-colored gelato you encounter is likely not very high quality. I saw some bright green “pistachio” gelato in an ice cream shop. Sorry, but natural pistachios are brownish in color and pistachio gelato should be too. Although brightly colored berry gelati are pretty to look at, they should really be more muted in color. Natural fruits are seldom as brilliant as their artificial counterparts. And while you're looking at the gelato, take note of whether or not it looks shiny. It shouldn't. Shiny gelato either has too many sugars in it or it has oxidized, a sign of age.

Check out the selection of flavors. Simple, natural flavors are always best. Plain, for instance, or what Italians call fior di latte or fior di panna. This is just gelato with the natural flavor of milk or cream. Maybe vanilla, but be careful that the producer isn't trying to mask inferior milk or cream with vanilla flavoring. Chocolate is good, as are seasonal fruit flavors. Italian gelatiers introduced Parmesan gelato at a festival in Rimini a couple of years ago. Goofy novelty flavors like bubblegum and tutti fruitti are usually loaded with artificial ingredients. Whatever the flavor, tasting it should be a very forward experience. The flavor is up front in a quality gelato. It should grab you by the taste buds. If you can't quite figure out what you're eating, it's probably not very good quality.

There should be a marked textural difference between gelato and ice cream. Gelato is smooth, silky, and dense. If what you put in your mouth is light and airy with noticeable crystals, you've either got poor quality gelato or you've got ice cream.

Finally, look at the container from which the gelato is served. Is the product piled high in fluffy mounds? If so, it probably contains a lot of fat and/or emulsifiers. Is it being served from a plastic tub? That's pretty much a no-no when it comes to good gelato, which is usually served from a metal tub or tray. And because gelato is denser than ice cream, a flat metal spade is a better serving implement than a round metal (or plastic) scoop.

Summertime, and the livin' is.......sticky. Cool off today with some delicious gelato. It's way more than “ice cream.”  

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Is Romantic Lighting Bad For Your Health?

Be Alert!

Picture the ultimate setting for a romantic dinner: a nice Italian restaurant. Soft music gently plays in the background as you take your seats at a quiet table in the back. And, of course, there's candlelight. Ya gotta have candlelight. The ambient lighting should be so dim that the flickering glow of the candles casts dreamy shadows in your lover's eyes. (Sigh.)

Wake up, pally. It's time for a dose of cold, harsh reality.

In the first place, I'm old, capisci? I took my wife to one of those faux-Italian places. It was so dark I had to break out both my reading glasses and the flashlight on my iPhone just so I could read the menu. Nothing dashes romantic fervor like squinting.

In the second place, a bunch of scientists have come out with a study that says people who eat in dim lighting are more likely to make unhealthy food choices. Okay, so maybe science is worse than squinting. Anyway, a group of unromantic spoilsports, publishing in Science Daily and the Journal of Marketing Research, have recently come to the conclusion that people eating in well-lit restaurants are sixteen to twenty-four percent more likely to order healthy food than those who dine in dimly lit rooms.

Researchers went to four fast-casual chain places and examined the orders of 160 patrons. They found that people who ate in brighter light made brighter choices; things like white meat, grilled or baked fish, and vegetables. Dimly-lit diners, they averred, ate more fried foods and desserts.

Interestingly, when they replicated the results in the lab, using 700 college-age students as lab rats, the researchers discovered that jacking up the dimmer diners on caffeine caused them to make better choices, too. So, the conclusion concludes, it's not really the light level but the degree of alertness that influences eating decisions. That said, University of South Florida lead study author Dr. Dipayan Biswas explains, “We feel more alert in brighter rooms and therefore tend to make more healthful, forward-thinking decisions.” Hmmm..... I wonder if the good doctor has ever seen a dimly lit McDonald's. But I digress.

So should you assiduously avoid restaurants that are not lit like a high school cafeteria? Not necessarily, says study co-author Dr. Brian Wansink, Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. “Dim lighting isn't all bad,” says Wansink. “Despite ordering less-healthy foods, you actually end up eating slower, eating less and enjoying the food more.” Which is kind of why nice restaurants use dim lighting in the first place: they're not really trying to kill you with unhealthy food choices, they just want you to hang around and enjoy the dining experience. Notice that on the other hand, brightly lit eateries are usually the ones that try to hurry you out the door.

What's the takeaway on all this? According to Dr. Wansink, the best way to avoid overindulging and making poor food choices when dining in dimly-lit places is to do what you can to make yourself feel alert. Now whether this means dumping ice water over your head when you sit down at the table or putting in earbuds and blasting yourself with heavy metal music, I don't know. Neither option is really conducive to romance, you know what I mean? Coffee works for some people, but you're kind of out of luck in a real Italian place where they don't serve coffee until after the meal. Crafty Italians. They put you in a food coma and then jolt you with espresso just in time to pay the bill. Caffeinated soda? Sure, if you don't mind ingesting a pound of sugar and packing on an extra gazillion calories. Maybe you could just pop a NoDoz before you order. I don't know.

I say go for it. Make a reservation at the place that's so dark the maître d' wears a miner's helmet. Just keep science in mind and remember the old adage: “Be alert! The country needs more lerts.”