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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, September 14, 2017

Five Rules Of Basic Knife Care

It's Not The Sharp Knives You Should Be Afraid Of, It's The Dull Ones

I'll be the first to admit that I have way more knives in my home kitchen than I actually need. In my restaurants, I had multiples of just three knives: a chef's knife, a utility knife, and a paring knife. The only “specialty” knife I kept around was a serrated bread knife because you could use it for more than just slicing bread. For instance, it's also great for tomatoes.

At home, I've got every knife under the sun. I have chef knives in 12-, 10-, and 8-inch varieties. I have three or four (or six) different styles of utility knife and at least four paring knives. There are two serrated bread knives on my racks and I also have carving knives, cheese knives, boning knives and numerous other assorted pieces of cutlery, including a butcher knife and a Chinese cleaver I picked up somewhere. I have four mezzaluna knives; two large ones for cutting pizza and two small double- and single-bladed ones for chopping herbs and such. Oh yeah.....there's also a mandoline slicer tucked away in a drawer. A visitor looking over the naked steel hanging on two 18-inch magnetic knife strips mounted on my kitchen wall once remarked that she was “afraid of all those sharp knives.”

Thing is, it's not the sharp knives you should be afraid of, it's the dull ones.

Offering to help a friend cut up some vegetables, I was directed to the “knife drawer” and immediately knew I was in trouble. I opened the drawer and found a jumble of knives all thrown in together. I figured that finding a sharp one was going to be next to impossible and I was right. The chef's knife I wound up with was only slightly sharper than a common table knife. I had to practically stand on it to get it to cut through a raw potato. The work it took to chop up a carrot was ridiculous. And dangerous. When you have to exert that much effort and apply that much force and pressure to get a knife to perform, one slip can be a trip to the emergency room. My knives pass through the toughest of vegetables with the same ease as they do through soft butter and the reason is twofold: first, I buy quality knives and second, I take meticulous care of them.

Now, when I say “quality,” I don't necessarily mean expensive. I love to go into the fancy kitchen stores and drool over the Wusthofs and the Shuns and the Henckels and the Globals. It's not uncommon to drop hundreds of dollars on these cutlery Cadillacs. A 3-inch Henckels paring knife can run you thirty bucks. Nice if you can do it, but I can't do it. Maybe high-dollar chefs in high-dollar restaurants wield such impressive and expensive tools, but in most professional kitchens, you're far more likely to see knives by Victorinox or Dexter-Russell. You buy them at restaurant supply stores, where a Victorinox 8-inch chef's knife might cost you $30 or $40 and a Dexter 3.5-inch paring knife will go for about eight bucks.

The trick is to stay far, far away from the “bargains” you find at the big box stores. A friend went to Walmart and came home proudly displaying a brand new twenty-three piece set of Mainstays (Walmart's store brand) in a “natural” block. He had shelled out twenty bucks for the whole set. Seriously? Half the “23-piece” set was knives. The remainder were spatulas and measuring cups and such. So, allowing that the “natural” block and the cheap plastic accessories might have been worth four dollars, he paid about sixteen bucks for twelve knives. That's a buck-thirty-three per knife. I ask you, what kind of quality do you really think you're getting?

The point is to buy a good knife and to take good care of it. Knife care can be broken down into five simple rules:

Rule #1: Proper storage

Banish the idea of a “knife drawer” from your thought process. One of the quickest ways to damage and dull a knife is to store it unprotected in a drawer full of other knives or utensils. Every time you open and close that drawer, you're banging the edge of your knife blade against the blade of another knife or the handle of a spoon or even the side of the drawer itself. How long do you think the sharp edge is going to last? A knife is a precision tool. It's not like a hammer or a screwdriver or a pair of pliers: you can't just throw it in a box and let it rattle around.

The best way to store your knives is on a magnetic strip. Inexpensive and simple to mount, strips offer the maximum protection for your knives by keeping them separated while still providing easy access. Just be careful in the way you place and remove your knife from the strip. Don't angle it or drag it; place it firmly and cleanly and remove it the same way and you'll never have a problem.

Knife blocks are okay, but they pose their own set of issues. For one thing, it's hard to slide a knife into a slot and pull it out cleanly without occasionally dragging the edge. And there's the issue of sanitation: you probably don't want to know what's lurking deep in the recesses of those nice, dark slots. Oh, you can turn the block upside down, shake out all the obvious crud, get a can of compressed air and squirt it down in the slots, dip a baby bottle brush in hot soapy water and work it around in there, then rinse it all out and hope it dries sometime this year or you've just opened up a whole new bacteria breeding farm.

If you absolutely must store your knives in a drawer, invest in blade guards. These plastic sheaths come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and styles. Some slide on and some snap on, but whatever style you choose, they are essential to keeping your sharp knives safe, protected, and sharp. I have blade guards for all my knives when I carry them in a knife roll. You can find them in restaurant supply stores or buy them online.

Rule #2: Hand Wash and Dry

The dishwasher is no place for a knife. I don't care if it's technically “dishwasher safe,” there's no safety for a knife in a dishwasher. The same conditions exist in a dishwasher as are present in a “knife drawer,” only worse because in a dishwasher the agitation is hydro-powered. Knives jostle and jam and rattle against each other and everything else around them, damaging blades and chipping away at delicately honed edges. The intense heat of a dishwasher is no good for them, either, especially not for wood or plastic handles.

Always wash and dry your knives by hand. I know it's “easier” to just throw them in the dishwasher, but, c'mon! Wash them with hot soapy water and dry them immediately. And don't toss them in the sink with a bunch of other stuff. A knife edge is delicate and doesn't need to be bounced around roughly among the dishes, pots, and pans. And besides, you don't want to risk your pinkies in a sink full of soapy water with a sharp knife hiding in there somewhere, right?

Rule #3: Use The Right Cutting Surface

Wow, that colorful glass cutting board that Aunt Mavis gave you for Christmas last year sure is pretty, isn't it? And you know what? That rascal will dull your knives in a skinny minute. So will anything made out of marble, granite, or hard plastic. Believe it or not, good ol' wood is still the best material for a cutting board. “Eeewwww!” you shriek. “Wood is so nasty and germy!” Actually, no, it's not.

Numerous studies have shown that wood cutting boards are more sanitary than their plastic counterparts. Wood is naturally anti-microbial. When you wipe down a wood board with hot, soapy water, the wood fibers absorb, trap, and hold residual food-borne bacteria deep inside where they cannot multiply and they eventually die.

Shiny, modern plastic surfaces, on the other hand, can only be disinfected when they’re shiny and new. As soon as you make a few cuts in them, you can't effectively clean them anymore because they trap the nasties in those hard-to-reach crevices and don't possess any of wood's natural antimicrobial qualities to kill them. Researchers at the University of California Davis found they could still recover bacteria from grooves in plastic even after hand washing it. Sticking it in the dishwasher was no good; the bacteria didn't croak, they just went swimming and landed on other surfaces. Even treating plastic boards with chlorine beach yielded unacceptable levels of residual bacteria hiding out in cuts and grooves.

Some restaurants rely on hard rubber cutting boards. Hard rubber boards, like Sani-Tuff®, are big in the food industry because they are as durable as wooden boards, they won’t trap bacteria like plastic boards, they are easy on knives, and, like wood, they can be resurfaced by sanding. But they're ugly, oversized and heavy for home use, and they're expensive.

Bamboo is all the rage these days. It's a good natural material, but it's harder than wood so it's also harder on your knives. Just stick with a good quality hardwood board and it will stick with you for many, many years.

Rule #4: Employ Proper Technique

What you cut and how you cut it are very important when it comes to the condition and longevity of your knives. For example, I don't care how many times you've seen some showy chef do it on TV, don't try to open a can with the point of your knife. How does the nickname “Four Fingers” sound to you? Assuming you don't just snap your blade, at the very least you'll dull the living hell out of it. It's possible to open a can with the heel of a decent chef's knife, but.......just.......don't, okay? Can openers are a lot cheaper and easier.

Use the right knife for the job. Don't try to slice potatoes with a paring knife and don't use a chef's knife to peel an apple.

Learn how to properly hold your knife. Don't grip it like a hammer or an offensive weapon. The most efficient grip is called the “pinch grip” or “blade grip.” Your thumb and forefinger should rest in front of the bolster directly on either side of the blade. It's a little tricky at first, but once you master it, it offers much better control and balance and is the preferred knife grip for more experienced cooks. Another grip is the “handle grip,” wherein you grasp the knife by the handle with all your fingers tucked behind the bolster. This is most comfortable and intuitive for beginners, but it really lacks control and precision.

For most slicing and dicing purposes, you should work with what is called “the rolling technique.” You don't hack up and down with the blade. Instead, keep the tip of the blade in constant contact with the cutting board and move your knife in a smooth “rolling” or “rocking” motion, starting at the tip and rolling to the heel; smoothly cutting down and through whatever you're cutting. There are other basic techniques, but I'm not going to do “Cutting 101” here: look them up online or take a class somewhere. Bottom line: how and what you cut matters in terms of torque, pressure, and contact. Bad habits and bad technique can ruin a knife.

Rule #5: Maintain A Sharp Edge

If you have to ask why this is important, reread the fourth paragraph about cutting vegetables and remember the nickname “Four Fingers.”

There are a lot of options available for keeping your knives sharp and safe. The best one is to have them professionally sharpened on a regular basis. But you're not going to do that, are you? So at least look for a good quality DIY sharpener.

Seasoned pros use a special sharpening stone to maintain a razor edge. And clumsy amateurs use that same stone to completely ruin a knife. You've got to know all about the metallurgical compound of your knife and angles and pressure and other arcane stuff. Just go buy a decent sharpener. Either a manual “pull-through” variety or an electric one. Chef's Choice makes good ones of each type.

Don't fall for gimmicks. I looked up reviews for one of those “As Seen On TV” things: “Trash.” “This piece of crap is a joke.” “It sucks.” “Pure junk.” “Absolute garbage.” “Rip off.” A good rule of thumb is to not trust anything where they'll “double your offer if you order now.” Just sayin'.

Finally, don't try to use an often misnamed “sharpening steel” to sharpen your dull knives. Those are actually honing steels, intended to maintain sharpness longer by realigning the knife's edge. If you've got a sharp knife, a steel, when used regularly – like every time you use your knife – will help keep it sharp. But you can stroke a dull knife with one of those things all day and you'll still have a dull knife.

Be good to your knives and they'll be good to you. As I said before, a knife is a precision tool; probably the most important one in any cook's kitchen. When properly maintained, an expensive high-quality knife will likely last a lifetime. A less expensive but still good quality knife will serve you well for many years. A cheap knife will end up being an expensive knife after you replace it ten times or after it sends you to a hospital. Remembering that you get what you pay for, spend the money and then take proper care of your knives. The dividends will pay off in a long and useful life for your investment.  

Friday, September 8, 2017

Yet ANOTHER “Perfect” Way To Cook Bacon – In WATER?

Not Worth All The Internet Hype

Every now and then, some well-meaning somebody attempts, with varying degrees of success, to reinvent the wheel. Take bacon, for example. (And I'll take bacon whenever I can get it!) Seems like you can't turn around anymore without somebody telling you they've come up with yet another “perfect” way to cook bacon.

I'm sorry, but as I've written before and will write again, there is only one “perfect” way to cook bacon: slap it down on a flattop or in a frying pan, turn the heat up to medium, and let it fry. Baking it in the oven is fine if you're making massive quantities and microwaving it is okay if you're wanting to cook it up for bacon bits or some kind of garnish. But if you simply want to lay a few strips of perfectly cooked, crispy, divine, heavenly bacon out on a plate next to its natural companions, eggs, hash browns, and toast, there's really only one way to go.

Unfortunately, the otherwise reliable innovators at America's Test Kitchen have attempted to introduce a “better” way to cook everybody’s favorite porcine ambrosia: in water. Yeah, you read right; the test geeks want you to boil your bacon.

Seems the point of this pointless exercise is twofold: to appease those odd people who object to the smell of frying bacon permeating the entire house and to satisfy the clean freaks who don't like bacon spattering up their stovetop. To achieve these desired (?) results, the test cooks first immersed the bacon in water.

Why would you do such a counter-intuitive thing? According to the test kitchen experts, writing in Cook's Illustrated magazine, “The addition of water keeps the initial cooking temperature low and gentle, so the meat retains its moisture and stays tender. By the time the water reaches its boiling point (212 degrees), the bacon fat is almost completely rendered, so you’re also much less likely to burn the meat while waiting for the fat to cook off.”

And here's how they say you should proceed to accomplish this feat:

“Place the bacon (in strips or cut into pieces) and just enough water to cover it in a skillet over high heat. When the water reaches a boil, lower the heat to medium. Once all of the water has simmered away, turn down the heat to medium-low and continue cooking until the bacon is crisp and well browned. This way, the meat plumps up as it cooks instead of shriveling, leaving the bacon pleasantly crisp, not tough or brittle.”

Since this radical information hit the streets, the Internet has gone absolutely wild with reprints of the technique. I must have seen at least ten websites and blogs touting the glories of cooking bacon in water. But does it work?

I read articles in news.com.au and in Epicurious in which testers were less than impressed. Aussie testers found that bacon cooked by this method wasn't all it was cracked up to be. For instance, as the water began to boil, the lovely, unctuous bacon fat began to dissolve into an “unappetising [sic] white foam” that floated on the surface of the water. The foam eventually disappeared once the water had evaporated, but it left a sticky sludge behind that coated the now somewhat plumper bacon. According to the Australian testers, the water method ultimately produced a drier, darker finished product that was, indeed, crisper, “but in a way that made it less enjoyable to eat.” In their opinion, “It had developed the consistency reminiscent of beef jerky.”

Epicurious testers agreed that the water-cooked bacon was crispy, but found it to be thinner and less salty in the end and recommended that you only employ the “improved” method when you want to use bacon as a garnish on another dish.

After seeing these results, I was ready to dismiss the entire silly “water cooking” notion out of hand. But I knew that in the interest of honest evaluation, I had to try it. So I did.

First off, I usually cook my bacon on a flattop. I learned to cook it that way about fifty-five years ago and through decades of home and restaurant cooking, nothing has convinced me to change my ways. But since that obviously wouldn't work for this test, I got down my reliable old cast iron skillet.

I wanted to be fair, so I didn't use highfalutin specialty bacon like my favorite from Benton's. I just used commercially produced bacon from the grocery store. I laid out two strips in a cold pan and covered it with about four tablespoons of water; just enough to cover the bacon without making it swim. I turned the heat up to medium high (I seldom cook anything at "high" heat) and waited. Sure enough, the water started boiling and the fat started floating in that “unappetising” way noted by the Australian testers. After the water boiled away, there was, indeed, a sticky residue; mostly in the bottom of the pan and not so much on the surface of the bacon. From there on I reduced the heat to medium and cooked the bacon as I normally would until it was “crisp and well browned.” I then cooked a couple of strips the “regular” way and plated both samples for my wife and me to taste and test. Here's what I discovered.

There was considerably less spattering with the water-cooked bacon. But you know what? Spatter has never been a deal-breaker for me. It's bacon! Spatter is part of the process. I learned long ago not to cook bacon naked. I learned to wear an apron and I learned how to wipe down the stovetop. In short, not an issue.

As far as not “smelling up the house,” the water method was a fail. The bacon smell, thank God, was very little diminished by the submersion technique. And, I mean, it's bacon! Along with fresh-baked bread and fresh-brewed coffee, it's one of the most exquisite, delectable, alluring aromas on the planet. What kind of misfit doesn't like the smell of bacon?

When it came to texture, neither my wife nor I could detect an appreciable difference between the two samples. Maybe – maybe – the water-cooked sample was a tiny bit moister, but not enough that I would have noticed if I hadn't been looking for it. And although the test kitchen folks claim “the meat plumps up as it cooks instead of shriveling,” I'm here to tell you my bacon shriveled and shrunk up just as much as it would have without the added water.

And there was a noticeable difference in flavor. The water washed away the salty bite that most people enjoy in bacon and left behind a rather dull, listless taste. Perhaps that's part of what the Aussies meant by “a way that made it less enjoyable to eat.” It wasn't bad. It wasn't like I was going to throw down the test strip and cry, “Omigod! That's terrible!” But it wasn't all that appealing, either.

And the water-cooking method takes longer. Even at a mere two ounces of water, the cooking time increases because you have to allow time for the water to boil off before you finish cooking the bacon in the regular way.

So, all-in-all, was it a worthwhile experiment? Was the new, “improved” water-cooking method worth all the Internet hype? Meh. Not really.

Bottom line, I suppose if you're such a clean freak that a few grease spatters send you into a tizzy, then by all means drown your pork! Make them rashers bubble instead of sizzle! You won't save any time, your house will still smell, and your bacon will be crispy in a way that makes it “less enjoyable to eat” and it'll be bland to boot. But you won't have to waste a paper towel wiping down your stovetop, so I guess that's something. For me, it's back to the flattop or the frying pan. It may not be trendy but it's close enough to perfect for me.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Silicone Dish Scrubbers

A Product That Is Just Peachy

I've probably read a hundred articles lately telling me how nasty and unsanitary the old traditional hand dishwashing methods are. The very thought of gazillions of bacteria lurking in sponges and dishcloths is enough to give anybody the willies. Statements like “your dish sponge is dirtier than your toilet bowl” are certainly evocative if not downright disgusting.

I've never been much of a sponge user. My mother and my grandmother took me down the dishcloth route at a young age and I've always followed that path. Sponges just seemed nasty to me: a sponge is great fresh out of the package, but after a couple of uses......yuck. Proper use of a dishcloth always seemed preferable. Cleaner, somehow. “Proper” being the operative word.

I know people who wad up their dishcloths and leave them in a damp, smelly heap on the counter beside the sink. That's not exactly “proper use.” That's a cabana for a bacterial pool party. If you wring out your dishcloth and place it on a rack of some sort to thoroughly dry between uses, it'll be good for a few days. Then you toss it into the laundry to be washed in hot water and bleach and you put out a fresh one. Pretty simple.

But even if you follow such a regimen, eventually you're going to wind up with a stinky dishcloth. It seems like the older mine get, the more quickly I have to replace them and there are a few that even bleach doesn't seem to help anymore. Those are the ones that get turned into floor rags. After several decades, I had pretty much resigned myself to that cycle of use. Then I discovered something new.

I came across an article touting silicone dish scrubbers as the latest and greatest thing. They're non-porous, so they don't collect bacteria. They're easy enough to clean when you do have to clean them, and they're durable, so you don't have to toss and replace every week. I'm not really one to jump on a bandwagon every time one passes by, but I figured, “what the heck,” and ordered one of the newfangled gizmos online.

I'm impressed. What's more, my mother and my grandmother would be impressed. These things are great.

There are several varieties of silicone scrubbers on the market. The particular one I initially saw reviewed was the Kuhn Rikon Stay Clean Silicone Scrubber. Here's the product description: “Say goodbye to your smelly sponge. Over 5,000 Silicone bristles clean dishes and multiple surfaces. Cleaner than your typical sponge. Non-porous Silicone dries faster and won t harbor bacteria. Better for the environment, this fun and flexible scrubber will stand the test of time. Collect them all. Use dry to remove lint and hair.”

The most common complaint among people who tried this eight or nine-dollar gadget was that it didn't create a lot of suds, causing more soap use, and that, due to the soft, flexible nature of those “5,000 Silicone bristles,” it was practically useless for actual scrubbing. But I liked the concept, so I kept looking.

What I found was really peachy. In fact, it's called “Peachy Clean.” It was developed and is manufactured in Georgia, the “Peach State,” and comes peach-scented. All well and good from a marketing standpoint, but does it work? In a word, yes.

Here's the company's spiel: “Peachy Clean® is the world’s only silicone dish scrubber, perfect for everyday kitchen use. It is designed to provide long lasting antimicrobial resistance to odors caused by bacteria, mold, and mildew. It is fast drying to prevent a moist environment that may facilitate bacteria, mold, and mildew growth. Peachy Clean® is designed to stay cleaner and be easier to clean than traditional products. Simply put, it’s just not as gross.”

The “Peachy Clean” scrubber is shaped and textured like an actual sponge. Because it is made of silicone, of course, it is not absorbent in any fashion as a regular sponge would be. You can't use it to wipe up spills or whatever. But it is fantastic for washing dishes. It's got just enough texture to get most jobs done. Is it going to scrub burned-on cheese out of the bottom of your pan? No. You'll still need a heavy-duty scrubber for that. (Better yet; stop burning cheese to the bottom of your pan.) But for general dish duty, it's pretty darn effective.

The “Peachy Clean” should last for three or four months. It actually comes with a three-month warranty. The manufacturer guarantees it won't stink for three months. I've been using mine every day for about a month and so far, so good. Clean up is a snap: just run it under some hot water and shake it dry.

Best of all, it's cheap. I got a three-pack on Amazon for about ten bucks. Walmart has them online for about the same price. They're available in select stores, but mostly stores in the Southeast, so Amazon or Walmart are your best bets.

Like I said, I'm about a month into using mine and I'm very happy with it. It does what it's supposed to do – clean the dishes – without doing what it's not supposed to do – stink. I've still got a dishcloth next to the sink for wiping down countertops or sopping up spills. And I keep heavy-duty scrubbers under the sink for use as needed. But for everyday dish washing, the new Peachy Clean® is just peachy.

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!