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.

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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A Word About Opening A Restaurant – DON'T!

It Wasn't Hell's Kitchen, It Was Kitchen From Hell

Let me warn you from the outset that this is a long, long story. And it must be read in its entirety to really be appreciated. The telling of it is something of a catharsis for me and the reading of it should be a cautionary tale for you. So go get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or a nice cold beer or something and prepare to kick back.

It was about two years ago that I turned the key for the last time in the door of a restaurant with which I was involved. It had been a frustrating experience. The struggling owner had finally agreed to my help, but too late to save the business. I had agreed to a ninety-day arrangement to try to turn the operation around but once I was fully involved, it only took me about ninety minutes to realize it was all too far down the rat hole to save. Ultimately, all I could do was slow down the bleeding as we shuttered the place once and for all. I hate failure and, despite my best efforts and some nominal short-term successes, I felt like I had failed. And as I locked that door I vowed never to do it again: no more restaurants. I'm old and retired and the restaurant business is for the young and vigorous. I've got my personal chef gig to keep my hand in the game and that's enough for me.

What is it they say? Never say never?

It started again when a friend told me he was opening a brand new restaurant. He's never run a restaurant before, but he's got this great concept. After seriously questioning his sanity, I said, “Well, when you get ready to open, give me a call and I'll come look the place over.” That was it. The extent of my commitment. “I'll come look the place over,” meaning I would make sure the “i”s were dotted and the “t”s crossed when it came to health codes and licenses and such. I'd just be lending a hand to friend, that's all.

See, I have more than average restaurant experience in my family. My grandparents ran restaurants, my uncles and aunts ran restaurants, my wife and I have run restaurants, and one of my sons is in the restaurant business. And that's just the ownership and/or management end. That doesn't factor in numerous family members who have been cooks, servers, bartenders, bussers, dishwashers and the like, my own service and my wife's experience in those areas included. So I do know a thing or two about the industry and it's this knowledge that keeps getting me in trouble. That and the fact that the words “no” and “never” don't seem to exist in my otherwise extensive vocabulary.

Anyway, a few weeks go by and my friend calls me. I get an address and meet him at his new place. And it's really beautiful – from the outside. It's a grand old building in the historic district that he has spent a year-and-a-half and nearly a million dollars buying and renovating.

I found out he had sacrificed more than a quarter-million dollars in tax assistance for which he was eligible as the owner of a historic structure because he had fundamentally altered the exterior of the building by knocking out a window and a door and replacing them with a modern electric roll-up garage-style bay door. Why? Because he thought it was cool and “upscale.” He's going to open the door on nice evenings, he says. And invite in every flying, crawling, and hopping bug in the county, I thought.

Inside, it's a nightmare of ladders, construction equipment, building materials, dirt, dust, and large empty spaces. No water, no lights, no tables, chairs, stools or restaurant equipment. I ask him when he's planning to open this “upscale” palace of his and he smiles proudly and says, “Next month.” Next month? This place isn't ready to open next year! I feel weeds beginning to grow.

You might not be familiar with the term “in the weeds.” It's an idiomatic expression in the restaurant business that basically means overwhelmed or in over your head. It happens, for instance, when your dining room is slap full on a Saturday night and two of your three line cooks, one of your two prep cooks, your dishwasher, your bus person, and half your servers all call in sick. Get the idea?

My friend is Vietnamese. And he has as little taste for Italian food as I have for Asian cuisine. “Sauce too sour,” is what he tells me. I fixed a nice baked ziti one day. He took his portion back to the kitchen, chopped up a bunch of lettuce and cabbage and I don't know what all and – as my Italian grandmothers whirled like turbines in their graves – tossed it all in with the pasta. “No good,” he said. “Must have vegetable.” Anyway, I asked him what his specialty was going to be. I figured it would be something Asian and I was half right. He did indeed plan to feature Vietnamese food and some Japanese, specifically sushi. But he was also going to have Mexican food and American food on his menu. What's more, he planned to import Vietnamese cooks from Vietnam to cook the Vietnamese food, Japanese cooks were coming to cook the Japanese food, he'd find Mexican cooks to cook the Mexican food, and local American cooks would cook the American food. The weeds were now up to my ankles.

Before we go any further, let me explain that this is a very small, very rural Southern town, crippled by the declines of the tobacco and textile industries upon which it once depended. There are a couple of mom & pop diner and cafe-style operations, a couple of chain fast casual places, the usual coterie of fast food joints, and, of course, a Waffle House. To say that the local tastes are plain and unsophisticated would be a vast understatement. One of my Italian friends found this out when he opened a place in a similar town nearby. He can sell pizza and spaghetti and meatballs to the locals all day, but even the simplest Italian dishes like spaghetti aglio e olio or cacio e pepe go sailing right over their heads. I tried to caution my Vietnamese friend that his menu was too ambitious, but he remained convinced that his Vietnamese noodles and his pho were going to revolutionize the local culinary world. And the weeds grew.

They shot up another couple of inches when he asked me to recommend the names of some good-quality kitchen equipment. I went through a list: Viking, Blodgett, Vulcan, Vollrath, Globe, Garland.....several others. “Which is best?” I told him they were all good and that a lot depended on what he was looking for. I told him there were several area restaurant supply places that could help him choose and that many of them could set him up with some good used pieces for a decent price. “Oh, no! All must be new! Top quality and new! Must match!”

I went back a couple of weeks later and saw, for the first time in my life, a whole row of gleaming, brand new, still wrapped in industrial plastic top-of-the-line matching Vulcan restaurant equipment. A six-ring range with a convection oven, not one but two double fryers, a three-burner flattop, and a big honkin' charbroiler. There was also a commercial wok range and a two-burner stock pot stove especially for his soup. Throw in sandwich units and a reach-in freezer and lowboys and prep tables and......the eye-glazing list went on. I had never seen well in excess of fifty-thousand dollars worth of matching stainless steel all still wrapped in plastic. It was amazing.

Still more amazing was the little piece of equipment I saw him fiddling with at the bar. Oh, did I forget to mention his plan for a full bar with top shelf liquor, dozens of local wines, imported and domestic beer in bottles and twelve beer taps? All surrounded by seven huge flat screen TVs? And live music nightly? Anyway, he was attaching this device to the bar. I asked him what it was for. “To chill glasses,” was the response. I pointed to the bank of refrigerators and freezers already in place under the bar. “You can chill glasses in those,” I said. “This more upscale,” he replied. I inquired, “How much?” The weeds sprang higher at the reply, “Two thousand dollars.”

Then there were the custom-made tables he ordered from California at a cost in excess of $12K. With matching chairs, of course. And the banquettes; the white leather banquettes. Not faux-leather or vinyl. No. These were real textured top grain white leather, at a cost of which I am blissfully ignorant. Doesn't he realize what's going to happen to that white leather after a few butts in blue jeans slide across it and a bunch of shoes and boots start kicking it and kids start bouncing on it and spilling stuff on it? But he doesn't care: it's “upscale.” And the weeds continued skyward.

This was quite a departure for me. The last guy with whom I had worked didn't have two pennies to rub together and we had to do everything on the cheap. This guy had to be tied down and handcuffed to keep him from throwing money at everything in sight.

He began stocking his kitchen. He had more woks than I have ever seen. And he had ordered a butt-load of sizzle plates for fajitas. But there was not a single skillet or saucepan anywhere to be seen. I pointed out this obvious shortcoming and he responded by bringing in some stuff from somebody's home kitchen. He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him it all had to go. And so did the brand new Black and Decker non-commercial toaster oven he bought and set up on the line. And the dish sponges he was using to wash dishes. And about a dozen other health code violating elements I kept finding as I slogged through the growing weeds.

He began bringing in food. And the battles over properly arranging things in his walk-in cooler began. As did the constant fight to keep things off the floor. Every time I walked into the kitchen I found myself screaming, “You can't do that!” And the next day the raw food would be back above the cooked food in the walk-in and the bags of rice and sugar and what have you would be back on the floor. And the damn sponges would be back in the dish bay. And the mops would be leaned against the wall with their heads up so the dirty water could drip down the handles. And the waste baskets would be missing from the handwash sinks. And the ice scoops would be left in the ice bins. And there were always stacks of wet dishes everywhere I looked. “You have to let them dry,” I would plead. “It take too long,” was what I got in reply. I would shout, mi stai impazzire (you're driving me crazy) and he would say something in Vietnamese and the battle would rage on.

As he began to hire kitchen staff, he started listening to what everybody told him he needed to have. Some of it was stuff I had been hammering him about for weeks: pots and pans, tongs, spatulas, Cambro containers, hotel pans – basic stuff he should have had weeks ago. Now with everybody telling him to buy stuff, he went on another spending orgy and bought everything. But because his new staff had already figured out that their boss had more dollars than sense, they were convincing him to buy big ticket items like a $1,200 Robot Coupe. While those of you in the business are picking up your jaws, I'll explain to the uninitiated that this is a very expensive, very high-end commercial food processor. Did he need a food processor? Yeah. Did he need a frickin' Robot Coupe? No.

The tipping point was the menu. He had paid eight-thousand dollars to somebody who saw him coming for the design and printing of his menu. When the garish, poorly laid out but beautifully printed and spiral bound menus arrived, they were so riddled with errors that they had to be trashed and redesigned and reprinted. I handled that at a cost of less than a thousand dollars.

But it wasn't just the printed menu that was the problem. What was on that menu was the problem. Even the reps from the major food distributors were trying to tell him his eight-page menu was unsustainable. But he wouldn't listen. He plowed right ahead, buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of food that he predictably discovered overwhelmed his storage capacity.

But the best part of the debacle is yet to come. When he found – as I told him he would – that the local job pool was not neck-deep in ethnic cooks, he gave up on the idea of having a dozen chefs specializing in four specific cuisines and settled for hiring four or five local guys and gals who could cook a variety of things. But he insisted on doing the Vietnamese dishes himself. Which would have been fine had he ever spent even thirty seconds as a cook on the line and had he even known how to make the goddamn stuff himself! He hadn't a clue! He had put all this stuff on the menu based on what he liked and what he had seen in other restaurants, but he didn't know how to really make any of it!

His opening date of “next month” had long since gone by the wayside. For one thing, he had no tables or chairs: his California supplier had taken his money up front and then dragged out delivery for several weeks past the promised date. He hadn't hired any FOH staff, not the first server or host. Oh, he had a pile of applications, but no employees a week out from his new opening date. Which he planned to meet using old mismatched tables he dredged up from the basement and covered with white linen tablecloths. What he did have – besides a fractious and fractured skeleton of a kitchen staff – was his “management team.” This consisted of one semi-retired guy who had run his own country-style diner once and who had worked for a couple of chain places. And there were three young women who had been either waitresses or bartenders at local establishments. Mind you, they'd never managed a day in their young lives, but they had at least worked in restaurants. The fifth member of his team was my wife, whom he had prevailed upon at the last minute to join with and perhaps help balance out his merry band. But besides her involvement with our small personal chef business, she has a full-time job in the “big city” and had neither the time nor the interest in being anything more than a part-time “fill-in” wherever she might be needed. She made that clear at the outset.

The kicker was that none of these folks was “in charge.” There was no structure like a general manager with assistants to supervise various areas. Nope. Everybody was “equal.” Which meant everybody was running things the way they saw fit based on their own level of ineptitude and inexperience. Hiring and training staff, working out the seating, setting up the bar, learning how to operate the POS.......all this and a hundred other day-to-day details were left up to the “managers,” four of whom – including my wife – all had other full-time jobs and were only available at the restaurant on limited days and for limited hours. This left the bulk of the work to the older guy who quickly got snowed under. My wife tried to tell our friend from the get-go that this “management by committee” was doomed to failure, but he wasn't listening.

That's because he was busy back in the kitchen learning how to make the food he was advertising. As I told him, if I opened an Italian restaurant and featured bucatini al'Amatriciana or pasta puttanesca or even fettuccine Alfredo, I would damn sure know how to make the dishes before I put them on the menu! He just got pissed at me for pointing out yet another thing he didn't want to hear. And the weeds are now waist high.

Working with this guy was so maddening. There were times when even Jesus Christ would have thrown up his hands and shouted, “ME!”

There was a lot more. Like when several of us had to talk him down off the ledge because he wanted to call in the television stations for the grand opening which was to include a band and a full-fledged Chinese dragon parading around out in the street. But frankly, I'm as tired of writing about all the lunacy as you probably are of reading about it.

It all boils down to a dream. Here's a guy who has never owned, managed, or worked in a restaurant before. Hell, at this point, I'm not sure he's even been in a restaurant before. But he has a dream. And I found myself living in his dream, which – with a nod to Gordon Ramsay – was rapidly turning into my kitchen nightmare. But instead of “Hell's Kitchen,” this was kitchen from hell.

The problem with beautiful dreams is that they more often than not clash with harsh reality, and that's something I could never get my friend to see. Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes had a big hit back in 1980 with a song called “Don't Fall In Love With A Dreamer.” Truer words were never spoken.....errr...sung. I might modify the lyric a bit; change it, perhaps, to “Don't go into the restaurant business with a dreamer.”

The beginning of the end of my ride on this treno pazzo actually came when I called out his dream. Fed up and fuming beyond the usual mi stai impazzire stage one day, I told him his dream was out of touch with reality. “I know you see yourself as the smiling, genial host, circulating among tables full of happy diners consuming your liquor while your staff glides smoothly around serving them plates of delicious food to rapt and effusive praise. I know you envision stepping through the kitchen doors, where your line of immaculate cooks will be singing songs as they effortlessly prepare your exotic dishes. Even the bussers and the dishwashers will be glad for the opportunity to work in such a wonderful place.” Then I hit him square between the eyes with reality. “After the initial grand opening blush, there will be days when you won't have enough customers to make it worth opening the doors. Your servers are going to quit because they can't make enough money.” I told him his kitchen staff would break down over stress and long hours and some of them would walk without notice. When they were slammed they would be hot, sweaty, dirty and short-tempered and when they were bored they would be worse. “And nobody will be singing.” “You wrong,” he shouted. “It not be that way ever! You go too far!” Yeah, well. The only far place I went was out the door.

Good friend and damn fool that I am, I came back and stayed on through the disastrously successful opening. As predicted, he made a ton of money in the first few days. He was slammed to the walls with a butt in nearly every seat. And I found myself making trips to Walmart on opening day to replenish stocks of food he kept running out of because he hadn't listened to anybody in advance. He had to 86 mashed potatoes because he ran out of spuds and he had to 86 french fries when the freezer ran out of those. And I was buying flour tortillas by the carload because he was selling the hell out of tacos.

Burgers and tacos were his biggest selling items. His sushi did okay but his Vietnamese dishes went nowhere. Can you say “I told you so?” He changed the menu three times in the first week. Of course, by then there were hundreds of take-out menus all over town with items that weren't on the actual menu anymore and the menus on the website and Facebook were in a constant state of flux. It became kind of a game to log in and see what the “menu of the day” was. My wife and I tried to tell him to introduce the community to the unfamiliar stuff by running dishes as specials to see what caught on. But......yeah, you guessed it. He wouldn't listen.

No, that's not quite right. As the pressures and consequences of his incompetence began coming home to roost, he went from a stance of listening to nobody to one of listening to everybody. Somebody would tell him something in the morning, he would implement it in the afternoon and ditch it by nightfall after somebody else told him something different. It was quite pathetic to watch. His wife said she couldn't even talk to him about the restaurant anymore because he would just get angry.

The head cook – or at least the one who knew the most about what the hell he was doing and tried the hardest – took me aside at one point and said, “I've been doing this a long time and I've never seen anybody have to learn every fuckin' thing the hardest fuckin' way possible.” All I could say was, “Yep.”

The reviews started coming in. The food was great but the service sucked. Maybe because when I tried to tell him he needed to set up actual training sessions for the servers at least two weeks before he opened, he ignored me and let his “managers” handle it. Basically, the servers were given a crash course in how to operate the POS and then handed menus and told, “Go forth and serve.” The most consistent complaint in the reviews? “The servers don't seem to know the menu.” Well, duh! And when you change the damn thing three times in a week, what do you expect?

That's where my wife began to lose it. Not only did she wear a “manager” nametag, she also donned the hat of webmaster and menu designer, something she offered free of charge because she felt so bad for the way he had already been screwed over. She has a degree in graphic design and more than twenty-five years experience operating and managing sign shops, print shops, and the graphics department of a fairly large newspaper conglomerate. But she simply couldn't keep up. He was making changes by the hour. He was watching his menu disintegrate before his eyes and there were days when the menu that was posted when the doors opened was not the same menu that closed out the day. Because she had another job and a life outside the bedlam, my wife couldn't make the changes rapidly enough to keep pace. Well, there was a girl in the kitchen who had taken a class at a community college and who had Adobe software on her computer. When she volunteered to take over managing the hourly menu updates, our “friend,” without a moment's consultation with or consideration for my wife and all her hard work to that point, let her do it.

The hosts and the servers and the bartenders started quitting. And so did the cooks. And the bussers and the dishwashers. And, finally the “consultant” and one of the “managers” called it a day. Yep. My wife and I walked for good after one of the so-called “managers meetings” where nothing was ever really managed. Between that and the menu insult, we'd had enough. We simply got tired of being ignored and superfluous. Abbastanza cazzate! Non me ne importa un cavolo! Non mi più essere il scemo, quindi vaffanculo! And that about says it all.

The day after I left, the health inspector dropped by: five critical violations and three non-critical ones. And every blessed one of them was for things I had stomped and shouted and fussed about day in and day out.

When my wife went down later that day to turn in her keys, it was a very contrite man who reluctantly accepted them. “I do things your way from now on. I listen to you. You see, I change. We talk soon.” Maybe. But next time he wants to talk, I'm not sure we'll listen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Why You Really Don't Want Copper Cookware

Superior Performance and Pretty To Look At, But.....

I got to talking cookware with my kids the other day and my daughter-in-law said something about someday wanting to have a set of copper cookware. do I tell her? No, sweetie, you really don't.

Don't get me wrong. Copper cookware is great stuff. Julia Child swore by it. Me? I just swear at it.

Okay, let's be positive about the whole thing first. A nice set of gleaming, bright copper cookware looks absolutely stunning. You don't hide it in a cabinet; you display it like art.

And when it comes to performance, copper is a Cadillac among Volkswagens. There is nothing that conducts heat better and more evenly than copper. This means your copper pots and pans will heat up quickly, retain heat longer, and there is virtually no chance of hot spots that can result in uneven cooking. All that and it's relatively lightweight, too. At least when compared to iron and steel.

And don't stop at pots and pans. Generations of fancy French and French-inspired chefs have sung the praises of using copper bowls for whisking egg whites into creamy, fluffy mounds. Here's why: when you cradle that shiny copper bowl in your arm and start hammering away with a balloon whisk, the action actually causes microscopic bits of copper to break away and incorporate with the egg whites. Since copper acts as a binder with sulfur groups (like egg white proteins), it prevents them from forming the strong disulfide bonds that can lead to gritty, dry whites when whipped. So using a copper bowl for whipping almost guarantees firm, glossy egg whites that are not grainy or overwhipped.

So with all that going for it, why do I say you don't really want copper cookware?

Wel-l-l-l-l......first there's that whole taking out a loan to buy the stuff thing. Think I'm kidding? I can get you a nice twelve-piece set at Williams Sonoma for only $1,900 plus tax. There's just something wrong about paying more for a set of pots and pans than I paid for my first car.

Then there's the fact that copper is soft and malleable, making it prone to denting and scratching.

And you're going to spend your life polishing the stuff if you want it to stay nice looking. Left to its own devices, it will tarnish, turning a lovely grayish black over time. But not for long. Acids interacting with tarnish will eventually produce the minerals azurite, malachite, and brochantite, resulting in a nice blue-ish or grey-ish green patina. Think “old-statue-in-the-park” color.

Don't even think about putting copper cookware in the dishwasher. That's an expressway to ruined pots and pans. The harsh conditions inside your dishwasher will permanently alter the color of your cookware as well as possibly damaging the lining. Nope. You've gotta hand wash those rascals. And you've got to do it quickly. If you leave a copper pan sitting around with food particles in it for even a few hours, you'll run the risk of corrosion starting. And you'd better have a towel handy: you need to completely hand dry those babies because if you don't and you just let them drip dry......yep, you guessed it; you'll start them down the spotty, streaky path to tarnish and patina.

Now, tarnished copper or copper with a green patina will cook just as efficiently and as well as bright, shiny copper, but you do need to remove any green tinge from an interior surface before you try to cook anything, lest the aforementioned minerals interact with whatever you're cooking in a very untasty manner.

My kids cook a lot of Italian food. That means lots of tomatoes. That means lots of acidic reaction with copper that will make for a corroded pot and a nasty tasting sauce.

Of course, unless you find some really old antique stuff somewhere, chances are your copper cookware will be lined with either steel or tin. That's because without a non-reactive lining it's possible to get copperiedus. Huh? Don't worry. That's just a form of metal poisoning caused by an excess of copper in the body, which can happen if you cook acidic foods in unlined copper. And if through use or abuse your pan's tin or steel lining should become scratched or pitted......well, it's pretty much the same as being unlined.

And if you get past all that and still want copper cookware, just be aware that there is a really steep learning curve involved if all you've ever used before is aluminum, steel, or cast iron. Be prepared to burn a whole lot of stuff before you get the hang of it because copper heats up really quickly. Conversely, you might get slower than expected results with low heat cooking because copper is thicker than the non-stick aluminum you're probably accustomed to. Oh, and speaking of sticking, copper isn't really noted for being non-stick.

And if you're into induction cooking......well, don't expect copper to join the party. It's non-ferromagnetic.

Still want that pretty, shiny copper cookware? Go for it. It's still great stuff. To me, though, it's like an expensive sports car or a high-maintenance lover: nice to look at, fun to play around with, and great performance where it counts. But wait until the new wears off and the bills kick in. I'll stick with my 18/10 stainless steel, my seasoned carbon steel, and my cast iron, thank you. Whatever choice you make, just make sure it's an informed one.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

How To Make Jarred Tomato Sauce Taste (Almost) Like Homemade

If You Can't Make It, Fake It

I've got bunch of recipes for salsa di pomodoro (tomato sauce) upon which I have come to rely over the years. They range from a quick “Five Minute” sauce I …..ahem....acquired from Canadian celebrity chef David Rocco to a good old traditional long-cooking sauce that requires hours to prepare. I've even got a raw sauce, or salsa cruda, I use on pizza. But every so often, in a move I'm sure sends shudders all the way back to my Italian second-great-grandmother, I have been known to grab a jar of Ragu out of the pantry. Calm down, nonna! I only said I grabbed a jar of sauce, not that I actually served it straight out of the jar.

Obviously, homemade is always your best bet. But I realize there are a lot of people out there who, for a lot of reasons, turn to the grocery store shelf for their pasta sauce. And that can be okay as long as you don't just dump, stir, and serve. In the spirit of “if you can't make it, fake it,” let me offer a few tips on how to make store-bought sauce taste sorta kinda almost like homemade.

First and foremost, buy decent sauce. I like Ragu but Prego is okay, too. They are a good middle-of-the-road balance between the “high end” sauces with the ridiculous price tags and the bottom of the barrel stuff you buy for ninety-nine cents a can. I generally avoid jars of super-cheap supermarket brands and I won't even touch anything in a can (lookin' at you, Hunt's.) The reason for this is that most of these products are made from low quality ingredients and contain lots of preservatives, salt, and sugar to make them taste like anything edible. You can usually hit a “2 for $5” sale or something on Ragu and make out pretty good in the cost department, so just stay away from the really cheap stuff.

Next, I buy the plain “traditional” version of Ragu/Prego. Whatever you do, don't buy anything “flavored” with “meat.” Same thing goes for mushrooms or vegetables or any other ingredient added for your convenience. Just buy the plain stuff and add your own extras, okay?

Now after you open the jar and pour the sauce in the pan, get ready to do some serious “doctoring.” In the great French tradition of mise en place – which the Italians probably invented – have all your ingredients stove-side and ready to go. They will include olive oil, red pepper flakes, garlic, tomato paste, dried oregano, and fresh basil. Also have some sugar, some salt, some lemon juice, and some butter handy as well as a little bit of the water in which you are cooking the pasta.

Wait a minute, wait a minute” you say. “That's almost as much work as making the stuff from scratch.” Well......yeah.......sorta. But believe me, it's worth it in the end.

So, turn the heat on under your pan to low or medium low. You want to simmer the sauce, not boil it. Add in just a glug or two of olive oil. You're looking for a layer of flavor here, not a greasy sauce. In fact, this whole exercise is about building flavors, which is what Italian cooking is all about in the first place. When you make sauce from scratch, you build layers of flavor. This is kind of a shortcut. I know, nonna! Please stop crying!

Add some red pepper flakes, to taste. In Italian, that's quanto basta, abbreviated qb, and loosely translated as “just enough.” Remember, some people have a higher tolerance for heat and spice than others. Taste as you season so your sauce doesn't go arrabbiata on you and burn out somebody's taste buds. Qb is the key. Quanto basta.

All right. Now it's time for some tomato paste. In spite of what the name implies, tomato paste is not an adhesive used to glue tomatoes together. Tomato paste is concentrated tomatoes that have been skinned, seeded, strained and then cooked down until they become.....well, paste-like. Its principle purpose is to punch up the tomato flavor in sauces, soups, stews and the like. And that's what we're using it for here; to amp up the generally bland taste of jarred tomato sauce. Again, quality counts. Stay away from the cheap stuff and look for product made by Cento – my favorite – or Amore, another decent Italian brand. Both of these come in tubes, kind of like toothpaste. The great thing about tubes as opposed to cans is that you can use as little or as much as you need, screw the top back on the tube, and stick it in the fridge for later use. Can't do that with a can. And since all you'll generally need is a tablespoon or two, the advantage should be obvious. So, squeeze out that tablespoon or two and stir it into your simmering sauce.

Garlic is optional and depends on your choice of flavor profile. Sometimes I use it and sometimes I don't. When I do, I opt for fresh garlic over some form of dehydrated powder or granules. Watch “Clemenza” make sauce in “The Godfather” or watch “Paulie” slice garlic with a razor blade in “Goodfellas.” Then do what I do: grab a microplane grater and grate up a clove or two. It's a lot easier. Jarred sauces usually have some onion and garlic in them and if what's in there is okay for your taste, leave it at that. Otherwise, use some fresh garlic as an additional layer of flavor.

Again, there's usually some Italian seasonings in jarred sauces: just usually not enough. So stir in a bit of oregano. Just a pinch; a little goes a long way especially if you're using dried oregano, which can be pretty potent. When it comes to basil, I prefer fresh and I add it toward the end of the cooking process so that it retains its fullest flavor. Taste, taste, taste. Don't just toss stuff in the pot. Taste as you go.

Which brings me to the next point. I mentioned sugar, salt, lemon juice, and butter. You may need them and you may not depending on your taste. Sometimes the manufacturer will add sugar to counter the natural acidity of tomatoes. You don't want to add more or you'll make the sauce too sweet. Taste it first and if it's too acidic, add a pinch of sugar. Conversely, if it's already too sweet, add a little lemon juice. And salt can help balance both flavors. Once again, it's all about tasting as you go.

What about the butter? In chef-speak, it's called “finishing” the sauce. Or maybe you've watched one of those fancy cooking shows and heard the chef talked about “mounting” the sauce. Get the obvious image out of your mind. The French term for finishing a sauce with butter is “monte au beurre,” and it involves adding few pats of cold butter to the warm sauce in order to make it richer and shinier and just a little bit more flavorful. You don't have to do it, but you'll impress your family and friends with your knowledge of classic technique if you do.

Another little add in I'm fond of is one of those Italian “secrets:” Parmesan cheese rind. Now if the only way you ever buy your Parmesan cheese is pre-shredded in a package or (shudder) in that execrable green plastic or cardboard “can,” you've probably never even seen the rind from a hunk of real, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano. And that's a pity that borders on a culinary criminal offense. But that's a rant for another day, so if you do actually use the real stuff, or even a reasonable domestic facsimile thereof, save the rind – you can collect a bunch of them in the freezer – and add it to jarred tomato sauce for yet another layer of real Italian flavor. Just let it sit and simmer in the sauce. But remember to remove what's left of the rind before you serve your sauce. I forgot once: explaining the misshapen, cheesy, sauce-covered lump to the person who got it on their plate was rather embarrassing.

Finally, I mentioned cooking water. This is the ultimate Italian “secret ingredient;” an ingredient known to generations of nonne. And it's just stupid simple. Before you throw away the salty, starchy water in which your pasta has been boiling for the last eight to ten minutes, dip a cup or ladle into the pot and reserve a little bit of it on the side. Not much. A half-cup or so is fine. Then, as you reach the final stages of preparing your sauce to receive the pasta, spoon in just a little of the reserved water. It's a trick that will almost magically finish developing the flavor and texture of your sauce.

There you have it. Is it more work than “dump and stir?” Yep. But it's also less work than scratch-made and when done right can be almost as good. Ouch! Nonna, stop that! I said “almost.” I know, nothing is as good as the sauce you spend hours lovingly preparing, but give people a break, okay? At least they're trying. Really, nonna, put down the wooden spoon! Please?

Ciao for now and buon appetito!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Like It Or Not, Plastic Straws Are Going Away

The World Is Suffering From A Plastic Hangover

Call me a mean old curmudgeonly boomer if you wish but I think if I read one more overwrought screed from one more hyperventilating millennial about the imminent demise of the plastic straw, I'm just going to flagellate myself with a plastic spoon until I lapse into blissful unconsciousness. Hear this, you coddled ninny-whiners who think all of recorded history began with your generation: we oldsters managed to live quite well without plastic straws – or plastic anything – decades before you were born, thank you very much. È vero! There was life before plastic!

The trendy among us are now touting the virtues of reusable stainless steel straws. They come in straight and angled varieties, often packaged together for your convenience. They are practically indestructible and are easy to clean and disinfect in your dishwasher and/or with the included little cleaning brush. And, of course, they are environmentally responsible. No sea turtle has had to have a metal straw removed from its nose yet.

My biggest question is where are all my contemporaries on this issue? Where are the folks like me who remember going down to the malt shop or the soda fountain and sipping our beverages through “old fashioned” paper straws? I don't recall even seeing a plastic straw until I was about ten years old. And yet I somehow managed to survive my childhood using plain old wax-coated paper straws.

Drinking straws have been around for thousands of years. The oldest known straw was found in a Sumerian tomb dating back to 3000 B.C.E. It was a gold tube inlaid with lapis lazuli. For ensuing centuries, people sucked up liquids through whatever hollow device was available to them. Actual pieces of dried straw worked for some folks, although such had an unfortunate tendency to fall apart when they got wet and also to make everything one drank through them taste kinda like.....straw.

And then along came a guy named Marvin C. Stone. Legend has it that he was sipping on a rye grass straw stuck into his favorite beverage – a mint julep – on a hot Washington, D.C. day in 1888 and was somewhat unsatisfied with the grassy taste thereof. So he set about doing something about it. Stone wrapped a piece of paper around a pencil, slid the pencil out of the resulting tube, and glued the overlapping edges together. History was made! Stone later refined his design by inventing a machine that would coat the paper straw with a light layer of wax to hold it together instead of glue. And that, my friends, was the state of the straw-making art for the next seventy years or so. Oh, there were occasional innovations: a Cleveland, Ohio-based inventor named Joseph B. Friedman came up with the idea of inserting a screw into a standard drinking straw and, using dental floss, forcing the paper into the screw threads, thus creating corrugations. After he removed the floss and the screw, the now articulated paper straw would conveniently bend over the edge of a glass. This paper “bendy straw” was patented in 1937, long before its plastic descendant was ever thought of.

As I said, paper straws – straight or bendy – were the only straws I ever knew as a child growing up in the '50s and '60s. And then the entire frickin' world turned to plastic.

Plastics had been around in some form for a long time. Beginning with natural bio-derived materials and progressing through chemically modified natural substances like vulcanized rubber, plastic-like products were known as early as around 1600 B.C.E. It wasn't until 1856 that a British inventor, Alexander Parkes, patented what is considered to be the first entirely man-made plastic. Development continued over the course of the next hundred years until the “plastic age” really took off in the booming post-World War II years. And once plastic started taking over, there was no stopping it.

Now, obviously the great advances we've seen in science, engineering, medicine and other important fields would not have been possible without plastics. But I think Dante would have reserved another level of hell for the people responsible for making plastic packaging for every blessed product known to man, especially whoever came up with the accursed so-called “blister pack.” Right along with them would be the folks who developed those little plastic rings that hold six-packs together – and that choke and fatally bind wildlife who become entangled in them. And the people who make all the “disposable” plastic and Styrofoam food packaging, cups, and bottles that litter our landscape and clog our oceans. Add in the manufacturers of the now ubiquitous plastic grocery bag, without which, it seems, everyday life would not be possible. And not to be left out, of course, are those who made plastic straws a modern-day “necessity.” Of all of these miscreants I would ask one simple question: “What was so wrong with paper?”

Part of the answer, at least as far as straws are concerned, would be durability. And here's where the monster begins to feed on itself. When I was a kid, beverages were served in glass; either drinking glasses or glass bottles. Some “ultra-modern” places used paper cups. All of these vessels were compatible with simple paper straws. But then plastic and Styrofoam cups hit the market and with them came plastic lids. Now, if you've ever tried to shove a paper straw through that sharp-edged little “X” cut in a plastic lid, you'll understand why something more durable was needed. Enter the plastic drinking straw, the perfect companion to the plastic cup and plastic lid. Not only was plastic more durable than paper, thanks to advances in technology, it was becoming cheaper to produce. And since “cheap” and “durable” were among the buzzwords of the '60s, plastic had nowhere to go but up. How far up? Try this figure on: 1.5 million tons of plastic were produced in 1950. By 2015, that figure had risen to 322 million tons. And after a giddy half-century-long plastic party, the world was beginning to suffer a plastic hangover.

My generation, the “baby boomer” generation, was the first to “benefit” from plastic. My parents and grandparents and all those who came before them somehow had to muddle through life with natural materials. We booomers were kind of the transitional generation. I had plastic toys when I was growing up, things my parents would never have dreamed of. But, like them, I also had a lot of stuff made of metal, wood, fabric, and paper or cardboard. By the time my kids came along in the early 1980s, there was nothing left that wasn't made of plastic. And it's that plastic mindset, that plastic dependency, that plastic addiction that causes today's generation to weep over the loss of their precious plastic straws. In typical fashion, they believe that because they've know nothing else, nothing else has ever existed.

But it did exist. I was one of an estimated seventy-six million Americans born during the “baby boom” years between 1946 and 1964. In total there were slightly fewer than two-hundred million people in this country when the “baby boom” ended and the “plastic boom” began, events that were fairly overlapping in nature, give or take ten years. And we all made do without plastic straws stuck into plastic cups through holes in plastic lids. All of us; kids and adults, young and old, healthy and infirm.

I am not completely without empathy for those with disabilities who claim they “need” plastic straws to maintain their quality of life. I read the impassioned plea of a young woman suffering from a condition that limits her ability to drink without the use of a straw. “I have used plastic straws my entire life because I cannot pick up a cup,” she writes. “Without straws, I am unable to drink anything independently. Straws may be a luxury for some people, but for me, they are a necessity. How will I drink if straws are no longer available?”

Wow. I don't remember anyone saying anything about completely banning straws, just plastic ones. But I still have to wonder what similarly disabled people did prior to, say, 1965 or so. In fact, some of the first customers for those paper “bendy straws” to which I alluded earlier were hospitals and medical facilities because bedridden patients found them so much easier to use than conventional straws.

And I hear a lot about paper straws not being practical because they allegedly get soggy after awhile. Some folks even cite this as a safety issue, claiming that people can choke on wet paper straws. All I can say is I lived with paper straws the first ten or fifteen years of my life and I don't recall that ever being a problem. I slurped many a soda through a paper straw and I simply can't remember ever having one get soggy or fall apart before I was finished drinking. Maybe my memory is faulty or maybe they just made better paper straws in those days, I don't know. But I do have a solution: don't leave your straw in your drink for too long. Conservative estimates from straw manufacturers indicate that a common paper straw submersed in liquid will hold up for about three or four hours. And you know, if it takes you more than four hours to finish your drink, you might just have to get another straw.

Look, I've been in the restaurant business. I know how this works. In fact, even as I write I'm consulting on a new venture set to open soon. And my advice to to the owner I'm working with is this: Buy a couple of boxes of plastic straws and keep 'em in the back in case somebody really “needs” one. Otherwise, paper is the default offering.

We can go back. Natural materials are still out there and we can still use them. We just have to want to. We just have to step away from worshiping the plastic god at the altar of cheap convenience. Yes, it's probably going to cost a little more at first until our technology can be sufficiently retooled, but it will be worth it in the long run. The savings to the planet will outweigh the cost to the consumer. It's just going to require a paradigm shift and perhaps that shift begins with eliminating plastic straws. Maybe plastic bags and bottles will be next and who knows where it will go from there?

Voluntary efforts from companies like McDonald’s, Starbucks, American Airlines, SeaWorld, Disney and dozens more are spearheading the movement to eliminate plastic straws. Bon Appétit Management, a food service company with a thousand U.S. locations, says it will phase out plastic straws and hospitality giants Marriott and Hyatt are ditching plastic straws as well. Even out on the high seas, Royal Caribbean plans to get rid of plastic straws aboard its fifty ships by the end of 2018. And where a spirit of volunteerism isn't enough, bans are being enacted. Seattle, for instance, has banned plastic straws. So have Malibu and Miami Beach.

Millennial moaning aside, the shift has begun and plastic straws are going away. Maybe if we're lucky they'll take some of the other “essential” plastic products with them; the things we find strewn along our highways and beaches and filling out landfills. Things that will be there for the next fifty to a thousand years as a testament to our shortsightedness back when we all let slick marketing encase our world in plastic.

Hey, maybe I can make a few bucks on this. I'd be willing to set up classes to teach members of the current generation how to drink from a paper straw. Maybe I could throw in lessons on how to wrap sandwiches in wax paper and how to carry stuff in paper or fabric bags. I might even turn them on to the virtues of drinking soda from glass bottles. I mean, everybody knows it tastes better that way, right? Any takers?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

When You Go Shopping, Please Remember To Bring Your Brain

Your Brain Gets Lonely When You Leave It At Home


It's really hard to express primal scream therapy in print, but I do feel better, thank you. What's got me bugged now, you may ask? I'll tell you. In one word: idioti. (That shouldn't be too hard to translate from Italian.) Specifically, people who step out the door and leave their brains behind. This results in them going to shops, stores, restaurants, gas stations and the like in a completely brainless state. Not good, people, not good. Bad for society and bad for your brain. The poor thing gets lonely when you leave it home alone. Let me illustrate my point by relating some examples of folks shopping while brainless.

I just got back from my local Pizza Hut. (Yes, sometimes I get desperate.) I had ordered my pizza online, paid for it in advance, and timed my trip to the local store so that I could just whiz through the drive through window to pick it up. That was the plan, anyway. What I didn't take into account was the moron who pulled up to the drive through window just ahead of me to place his frickin' order and WAIT FOR IT!! I sat there in stark disbelief for several minutes as it slowly dawned on me what was happening. Fortunately, there was no one behind me, but still I can assure you that backing an SUV out of a severely curved drive through lane without benefit of a rear view camera is no picnic. I went inside, ranting about already being old and only getting older sitting out there behind that fool. I picked up my rapidly aging order, which was ready, of course, and the transaction took me all of thirty seconds; a thirty second transaction I could have accomplished from my vehicle were it not for some random idiota who left his brain at home.

Then there's the grocery store checkout. Here's where the brain-free phenomenon is really prevalent. First let me share how I handle the checkout experience. I bring my loaded cart to the checkout stand and place the contents thereof on the conveyor. When I'm done, I pull the cart forward and through so that anybody behind me can start doing whatever they need to do. Then – and this is the tricky part, apparently – I get out my wallet and remove my credit card and any store rewards card or coupons I might have. That way, when the cashier hits the total, I can immediately hand over the discount card, the coupons, and the payment for the purchases. Ideally, while I'm doing that, the next person in line is going through the same procedure and thus the world continues in an orderly fashion. Sadly, such efficiency gets all bolloxed up and grinds to a halt when the nitwit in line ahead of me – and there's always one ahead of me – waits until all the groceries have been totaled and most of the order is bagged before they even give the first thought to the fact that they are expected to pay for it all and start to make slow, lugubrious progress toward their pocket or pocketbook. After locating their wallet, they spend half a minute or so figuring out which form of payment to employ. They know they have a discount card, but either can't find it or don't seem to have it with them, forcing the cashier to use an alternate means of obtaining the information. If they have coupons.....somewhere.....well, all bets are off. And if they are still stuck in the stone age and are writing a check, you might as well get comfortable because you're going to be there for awhile. Instead of having pre-written everything but the amount on the check while they were waiting, they wait until the cashier presents the total before they even begin searching for their checkbook. Then they have to find a pen and fill out the check and wait while the cashier processes and approves it, which usually involves rummaging around for ID......all this while you stand there watching your ice cream melt. What is it the Boy Scouts say? “Be prepared?”

Oh, and before we leave the supermarket, how about this: you need a brain in order to be able to read, right? Okay. So I guess that when five lanes are open and four of them are clearly marked "Full Service" while the fifth one reads "Express Lane -- 12 Items or Less," only a brainless dolt -- like the woman at my local market earlier this afternoon -- would unload an overflowing cart full of groceries onto the "Express" conveyor while I stand in line behind her with eight items in my cart. I actually moved over to a "Full Service" lane, not too quietly proclaiming something about the sign as I did so. The cashier at the "Express" lane grinned and the one at the register to which I moved outright smiled and said, "We're not allowed to say anything." To which I replied, "Maybe not, but I sure can." 

How about the line at the fast-food place? Lot's of empty heads there. You can easily spot them because they are the ones who wait until the counter person says, “May I help you?” before they look up at the menu and proceed to stare at it as if it has somehow miraculously changed since they were in yesterday. Or perhaps since 1958. And, of course, you're stuck behind them, watching your lunch hour tick away while they ponder this most ponderous decision.

Oh, and while we're at the fast food place, if you had your brain with you would realize how incredibly rude it is to be talking on your cellphone while you're in the process of ordering or paying. This is actually true at the grocery store as well or anyplace where face-to-face human interaction might occur. Dust off your brain and put yourself behind the counter. How would you feel if the person you were trying to help by taking their order or ringing up their purchase was so completely engaged in talking to someone miles away that you – standing right there in front of them – might as well not exist? And it's not just the rudeness factor: your engrossment in your electronic conversation usually impacts those in line behind you, too, slowing down service and subjecting others to intimate details about your affairs that they'd probably rather not know. If my phone rings while I'm working with a cashier, I quickly excuse myself and answer the call by saying, “Hold on a second. I'm ordering lunch” or “paying for groceries” or whatever the case may be. I then put the phone down and continue to interact with the person standing in front of me. I figure they are already waiting on me, so I'm not going to make them wait for me.

I love the convenience of an ATM. And that's just “ATM,” by the way, and not “ATM machine.” The “M” in the acronym “ATM” stands for “machine,” so by calling it an “ATM machine” you are actually saying “automatic teller machine machine.” And why, unless you are an operative within the Department of Redundancy Department, would you need my “PIN number?” Wouldn't my “PIN” or “personal identification number” suffice? Why must it be my “personal identification number number?” Hmmm? Same thing applies to may car's “VIN number (vehicle identification number number)” or the “UPC code (universal product code code) you might find on the back of an “LCD display (liquid crystal display display).” But I digress.

Back to the ATM. Assuming I'm doing what most people are doing, i.e. using the machine to get some quick cash, I don't understand how I can accomplish the task in under forty seconds – yes, I've timed myself – while it seems to take others forty minutes. Again, remembering to bring your brain to the banking machine helps a lot. Because, see, if you do that, you'll have your card in your hand as you approach the device rather than waiting until you get to the keypad before you start fumbling for your wallet. I can drive up, get out of my car when necessary, slip my card into the slot, enter my PIN, select “English,” select “Withdrawal,” opt out of getting a receipt, punch in my transaction amount, remove my card, collect my cash, and be back in my car in less than a minute. That is, of course, unless some boob got there first. Said boob took an eternity to extract a wallet from its place of concealment and an infinity to locate their ATM card within the wallet and is now staring at the screen as if it were a control panel aboard a space shuttle. Boob will finally decide upon a course of action and the course will invariably involve doing a week's worth of banking business that could have and should have been done at an actual frickin' bank. Then they will meander back to their car and sit there while they check over the transaction record, count the cash, put their card back in their wallet and return the wallet to their pocket or purse before putting on their seat belt and starting up the car, engaging the transmission, and s-l-o-w-l-y pulling away, leaving me sitting in my car with my electric razor, shaving off the beard that has grown during what should have been a less-than-a-minute-long transaction and popping my blood pressure pills as the steam from my labored breathing fogs up my windshield.

Walmart is a place my wife and I both love to hate. Either of us would rather be subjected to Ernest Tubb singing opera than to shop at WallyWorld. (If you're unfamiliar, find any classic Ernest Tubb tune and you'll immediately understand.) But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, and it's best to just prepare in advance for the cadre of the clueless you will doubtless encounter within the walls of Walmart. I'm not talking about the obvious “People of Walmart” people, the ones you see online in all their outlandish fashion glory. No, I mean the regular folks, your neighbors and fellow citizens who do to the aisles of Walmart what kids in the '50s and '60s did to the parking lots at the malt shop, the drive-in, and the pizza parlor. I go to Walmart when I need something I can't conveniently find somewhere else. “Low prices” be damned, I would rather pay a few pennies more and not be driven to a state of nerve-wracked, drooling catatonia. There is no price tag on my sanity. And the people who drive me insane are the ones who view Walmart not as a place to shop for goods and get out but rather see it as a social gathering venue in which they all mill about, narrowing the already narrow aisles, talking to friends they apparently haven't since since at least earlier today and discussing at length everything from Junior's soccer practice to Mom's “female” problems. All completely oblivious to their surroundings, a direct result of having left their brains at home. If they had brought their brains to Walmart, they would realize that there are people there who want to get what they came for in a swift and orderly fashion without having to take on aspects of Alabama's Harry Gilmer or some other famous halfback adept at broken field running. Shop like you mean it, people! And if you absolutely must engage in a coffee klatch in the cereal aisle, at least have the common sense and common courtesy – both of which are extremely uncommon anymore – to pull your cart out of the middle of the aisle so people who aren't part of your gabfest can get by. I always carry bail money to Walmart in case I need it.

Last but certainly not least, let's stop by the gas station. Most everybody these days pays at the pump. Most, but not all. There are still those who, for whatever reason, pay cash. I do it myself sometimes if I'm only getting a couple of bucks worth of gas for the lawn mower or something. This, of course, involves leaving your car at the pump and going inside the building. And that's fine. Go on in there and pay for your gas, then come back out and pump it. When you're finished, move your car out of the way so the six cars lined up behind you can access the gas pump. That's what your brain would likely tell you to do if you had it with you. Only a brainless idiot would go inside to pay for his gas, get some cigarettes, buy a few lottery tickets, grab a drink, pick up some chips, snag a candy bar, pop into the rest room, and then get into an extended conversation at the cash register with ol' Billy Roy who just happened to be in there doing all the same things. I know they call it a “convenience store” but it's not just there for your convenience. Think about the people sitting outside in their cars waiting for you to finish your all-important business. It might be raining or snowing, it might be hot or cold, they might be late for work or trying to get home for supper, But, of course, you can't think about such things if you left your brain at home.

Earlier I alluded to having a brain in your head at all times as being important to society, which the dictionary defines as “the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community.” And etiquette – or “good manners,” as the country folk say – is defined as “the set of rules or customs that control accepted behavior in society.” So it's not all about me. It's not all about my rights and my privileges and my ability to do whatever I want to do anytime and anyplace I want to do it. It's about what's best for the “aggregate of people living together” under a “set of rules.” And whether you're religious or not, the greatest of those rules is the one that tells us to respect our fellow human beings and to treat them in the same manner in which we would expect to be treated ourselves. And that requires thinking. Thinking about others. Thinking about whether or not something you're doing is creating a problem for somebody else, whether it be in a checkout line, a grocery store aisle, or a gas pump. The kind of thinking which requires a brain to be present at all times. Ergo, your brain should be like an American Express card: don't leave home without it.

I'll see you at Walmart.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Cheesecake Factory's Failed Four Cheese Pasta

Good Thing They Don't Call Themselves “Pasta Factory”

You ever wonder why some restaurants choose to name themselves some sort of “factory?” In this day and age of “handcrafted” and “artisan” goods, doesn't the “factory” designation ring a little industrial and uninspired? defines a “factory” as: “a building or group of buildings with facilities for the manufacture of goods; any place producing a uniform product, without concern for individuality.” Hmmm.

We recently decided to spend a Cheesecake Factory gift card my wife had received for her birthday from a coworker. We'd never been to a Cheesecake Factory before and, after this past weekend's experience, we will likely not be going again. At least not for anything other than the cheesecake.

The atmosphere and décor at the restaurant we visited were stunning; very art-deco and upscale. And we were impressed if somewhat nonplussed by the twenty page menu. That said, let me offer a little insider tip: elaborate window dressing like dramatic décor and gargantuan menus are rapidly becoming passé in the industry. They are holdovers from an era when “if you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit” held sway. Give me a little hole-in-the-wall place with a single page menu of extraordinary food and I'm a much happier camper.

Anyway, we were shown to our table promptly by a smiling hostess and immediately attended by a very friendly, personable, and knowledgeable server. So far, so good. Undaunted by the daunting menu, my wife decided to go a little outside her usual comfort zone and try the Chicken Pot Stickers, classic pan-fried Asian dumplings served with a soy-ginger sesame sauce. I opted to stay close to my Italian roots and go with the Four Cheese Pasta, a dish consisting of penne pasta in a marinara sauce with mozzarella, ricotta, Romano and Parmesan cheeses, topped with chopped fresh basil. Of course, the server asked me if I wanted chicken with my pasta because Americans simply can't wrap their heads around the idea that pasta is a dish in and of itself and that Italians do not mix chicken – or any other meat – in with their pasta. So I politely declined the offer.

Our beverages arrived quickly and we were presented with a basket of delicious assorted breads while we were waiting.

My wife's pot stickers surprised, pleased, and satisfied her very much. Despite the typically Brobdingnagian American restaurant portions, she cleaned her plate quite effectively and was ready to move on to the signature cheesecake offerings.

It was not, however, love at first bite for me. In the first place, the dish came with a rather unappealing glop of wet ricotta and chopped basil on top. The consistency of the ricotta was such that I at first mistook it for sour cream. After I mixed it into the sauce, turning the red marinara rather pink in the process, I was ready to dig in. Well, my mama always taught me that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, so let me say that the bread was delicious.

Look, I'm not a big one for complaining to the kitchen. Generally, if I don't like something, I don't finish it and I don't go back. But this was different. This was so egregiously awful I had to say something. The last time I remember being so offended by a dish was about fifteen years ago when some chain steak joint served me a fettuccine Alfredo rendered absolutely inedible by the heavy-handed adulteration of nutmeg and God knows what else in the sauce. At the Cheesecake Factory, the sauce was inoffensive enough, but the pasta was simply the worst I'd ever been subjected to from either a professional or a home kitchen. Although properly cooked for texture, it was indescribably bland. There was more salt in the tears I shed over this affront to Italian cookery than there was in the water in which the pasta was prepared.

In case you have never read anything that I or any other Italian cook has ever written about cooking pasta, you have to, have to, HAVE TO add generous amounts of salt to the water in which you cook the pasta. Some cooks say to “aggressively salt” the water. Others will tell you the water must “taste like the sea.” In any case, salt is essential to flavor in pasta. And that flavor must be imparted during the early cooking process when the pasta is opening up to release its starches and absorb flavors. Once the pasta is cooked, no amount of salting will give it flavor. Salting badly cooked pasta after the fact will only result in salty-tasting but otherwise bland pasta. And that was most definitely the case here. I literally took the top off the salt shaker in an attempt to infuse some semblance of flavor into the pasta set before me, but it was impossible. I had my wife try a bite. She could taste the sauce and the salt I'd dumped onto the noodle, but she agreed that the underlying pasta was hopelessly underseasoned.

I spoke to the server who sent over her supervisor who sent over the kitchen manager. I wasn't trying to be an obnoxious jerk; I genuinely wanted to know if this grievous, flagrant abuse of perfectly good pasta was the result of some corporate policy limiting the use of salt for “health reasons” or if it was just a preposterous lack of experience in the kitchen. Hey! It happens. I had to retrain one of my restaurant cooks once because he was using half-teaspoons of salt where half-cups were called for.

I think word about me must have made it up the line because the first question the kitchen manager inexplicably asked when he arrived at the table was about my occupation. I told him. And he admitted they were, indeed, required to “control” the use of salt in their kitchen. (Sigh) Why is it nobody understands that pasta only absorbs a minuscule amount of actual salt from the water? That the rest of the salt goes harmlessly down the drain? That nobody's going to get hardened arteries or have a stroke as a result of eating properly seasoned pasta? I don't know. (Sigh)

My wife properly explains that restaurants are really over a barrel on this issue. There are some salt-nazis out there who will raise holy hell if they taste the slightest hint of salt in a dish. “What are you trying to do, kill me?,” they screech. And then you have folks like me on the other side of the equation who will crucify a cook for attempting to bore my palate to sleep with bland, tasteless food. Working upward from the lowest common denominator, some restaurants choose to properly season food and suffer the slings and arrows of the outrageously palate-numbed masses while others – apparently including Cheesecake Factory – opt for pandering to them.

At any rate, the kitchen manager went on to explain that they followed fairly standard restaurant procedure in that they par-cooked big batches of pasta first thing in the morning, stored it in the reach-in until needed, and then finished it portion by portion in hot water and sauce before serving. No problem. That's the way I've done it, too. BUT, the pasta gets its flavor in the first few minutes of cooking. If the water in which the noodles were par-cooked wasn't salty enough, all bets are off when you reheat them. He told me he was going to go back and taste the water they were using to reheat the pasta. Too late, dude! The damage was done by the prep cooks this morning. You get a little wiggle room with something relatively fine like capellini or even regular spaghetti. But with big honkin' pasta shapes like penne, you just get flavorless, bland, inedible chunks of chewy cardboard. And that's what I was served – in a four-cheese marinara sauce with a wet glop of ricotta.

But on the bright side, the chocolate mousse cheesecake was decadently delicious. And, as I said, the bread was good, so the meal wasn't a total loss.

I know I'm an opinionated, hyper-critical old fuddy-duddy when it comes to Italian food. And I know Cheesecake Factory is a very popular place. The one we went to was packed to the doors, so obviously somebody likes it. My wife liked it. She's now a confirmed consumer of pot stickers. And who's to say the next Cheesecake Factory down the road might not have a kitchen a little less stringent in its “control” of salt? The fact remains that for my money – even though it technically wasn't my money – it all amounted to a rather disappointing dining experience. Except for the cheesecake: I'll definitely go back for the cheesecake.

Which is why, I guess, it's a good thing they don't call themselves “Pasta Factory.”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Can Your Kitchen Towels Really Make You Sick?

It's Just Common Sense, Folks

I'm kind of shocked by a new study revealing that kitchen towels can make you sick. To me, the shocking part wasn't the bacterial growth on the towels so much as how it got there.

The study was recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. CNN reports that, according to a lead study author, Susheela D. Biranjia-Hurdoyal, senior lecturer of health sciences at the University of Mauritius, nearly half of the common kitchen towels examined – 49 out of 100 – exhibited growth of bacteria normally found in or on the human body. Nasty stuff like staphylococcus aureus, normally found on skin and in the respiratory tract, and e. coli and enterococcus, usually found in.....well, most everybody knows where you usually find those. The point being that any and all of them can make you sick as a dog.

The study broke things down a bit: researchers discovered that the type and amount of bacteria differed based on a family's size, socioeconomic status and type of diet. For instance, the aforementioned “staph” germs were more likely to be found on towels from big families and those of lower socioeconomic status, while the intestinal bugs were more likely to occur among meat eaters. The logic behind the latter statistic is that people who prepare meat regularly tend to grab a handy kitchen towel to wipe down cutting boards and countertops.

The paragraph that got me was this one: “The bacteria were also more likely to be found on wet towels than dry towels and on towels that were used for multiple purposes, such as wiping utensils, drying hands and cleaning surfaces, according to the study.”

Wait a minute. The wet towel thing is obvious and I get that part. But what's with the “used for multiple purposes” thing? “Wiping utensils, drying hands and cleaning surfaces?” You mean there are people out there dum......errrr....uninformed enough to use the same towel for all that? My mother the clean freak who would even wash and sanitize paper towels before she threw them into a carefully compartmentalized and segregated trash can – wet stuff in one plastic bag, dry stuff in another; food scraps in one container, paper trash in another – is absolutely spinning in her grave at the thought!

In my restaurant kitchen, there was a progression. In the first place, you can't use “dish towels” to dry dishes in a restaurant kitchen. Nope. Health code violation. Points off your score. If you don't have a dishwasher with a heat cycle, hand washed dishes have to air dry on racks. That's always one of the hardest things to get across to new employees who are used to using “dish towels” at home. But we did use towels to wipe down surfaces. Once you used a “clean” towel to wipe down a countertop or a table a few times, the by then “dirty” towel moved down the ladder to be used to wipe up spills on the floor. Then it went into the laundry hamper. Towels for drying hands were always of the “sanitary roll” type, or came out of a paper towel dispenser mounted at the handwashing sink.

My home kitchen works pretty much the same way. I usually air dry dishes in a dish rack just because I'm lazy. But if I do dry them with a towel, it's a dedicated “dish” towel. It gets used for dishes and nothing else. I won't even dry my hands on a “dish” towel; I have “hand” towels looped over the oven door handle and on a metal towel rack that fits over one of my cabinet drawers. “Dish” towels are for dishes and “hand” towels are for hands. I have special bar mops – thick, super-absorbent terry cloth towels designed for the purpose – hanging around to wipe down countertops, stove top, appliances, etc. And I either use dedicated “floor rags” or dirty dish or hand towels or bar mops to wipe up floor spills and such, depending on how nasty the spill is. I can't wrap my brain around people using the same towel for everything. Although I know they do it. They're the same ones who use filthy, smelly, raggedy dishcloths over and over again and then leave them wadded up wet beside the sink in an open invitation to any nearby bacteria to set up shop and party. Those are also the people in whose houses I will not eat anything.

Another story I was reading on the subject inferred that some people were not regularly changing out their kitchen towels; as in they were using them for weeks without washing them. Yikes!

There have been numerous articles published about changing out your dishcloths or sponges or scrubbers or whatever every couple of days at most. But I guess dish towels kind of get overlooked. Okay, so lets look. I do a load of “kitchen laundry” every week. Towels, dishcloths, aprons, bar mops – anything made of fabric that I use in my kitchen – go in the wash on “hot” with bleach every week. Potholders and oven mitts get the treatment from time to time, as well. And I don't do endurance testing to see how long I can go without washing something. If a dish towel or hand towel or whatever has seen extra heavy use for some reason, into the laundry hamper it goes and a fresh one comes out of the linen drawer. I don't try to “make them last” for a whole week.

I also keep a spray bottle of the same sanitizing solution I used in my restaurants (and still use for catering) in my home kitchen to wipe down surfaces so I'm not just spreading germs around with those nice clean towels. Add about a quarter teaspoon of liquid chlorine bleach to two cups of water. Pour into a one quart spray bottle. This yields a mixture that equals approximately the 100ppm concentration recommended by most health departments for low level disinfection.

The FDA says: “Consider using paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. Then, throw the germs away with the towels! If you use cloth towels, launder them often, using hot water. Note: Don't dry your hands with a towel that was previously used to clean up raw meat, poultry, or seafood juices. These raw juices may contain harmful bacteria that can spread to your hands and throughout the kitchen.” (The agency also says, “keep pets off kitchen counters and away from food,” but that's a topic for another time.) I can get behind the paper towel notion, too, but many environmentally conscious folks are vehemently opposed to it. When I do use paper towels, I use the heavy-duty, thick, absorbent variety. Yes, they are more expensive, but they are cost effective and relatively “greener” because you need fewer of them to do the job: one or two sheets as opposed to half a roll of the cheap dollar store brands. But I'm cheap too and I tend to limit the use of paper towels to food prep and use cloth towels for cleanup.

It's just common sense, folks. I know someone who changes out bath towels and wash cloths after every single use. Germs, you know. Yet that same person will leave a dish towel on the counter by the sink until it resembles a battle flag from the field at Gettysburg. Go figure.

Bottom line: heed the advice of scientists, the FDA, and yours truly. Wash your dish towels regularly. Heat dry or air dry your dishes as much as possible, but if you do take a towel to a fork, plate, or glass, make sure it's not the same one you just used to wipe the floor. Or the one you used to wipe your hands after you handled raw chicken. Or the one with which you wiped your toddler's nose. (I swear, I've seen it done.) Multitasking is fine for some things but not for kitchen towels. Try my method of separate towels for separate tasks. Or don't. After all, dealing with food-borne illnesses will give you lots of opportunities to check out the condition of your bathroom towels, too.

Just sayin'.