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, November 2, 2017

A Few Things You Should Know About Ground Beef

Ground Beef Basics

In recent scribblings, I've mentioned once taking over operation of a small diner in order to help a struggling friend. Forced by circumstances into the role of absentee owner, his eatery was failing fast, due in part to the fact that the people he had entrusted to run it had no clue about food or food service. This was clear to me when I found the diner's signature burgers to be absolutely terrible. And the reason they were terrible was that the inexperienced employee running the place decided to “save money” by buying cheaper ground beef. My friend had always insisted on 80/20 beef for his burgers, but now they were being made with 73/27. And if you, like that well-meaning employee, don't know the difference, read on for A Few Things You Should Know About Ground Beef.

First, the numbers: 90/10, 80/20, 85/15, 70/30. What does it all mean and what’s the difference? Those numbers refer to the percentages of lean meat and fat by weight in the ground beef you're buying. So if your label reads “90/10,” you're buying ground beef that's 90 percent lean and 10 percent fat by weight. And these ratios make a big difference in the finished product. For example, most chefs and cooks use the 80/20 mixture for hamburgers because you need a certain amount of fat in your burgers to make them juicy and appealing. Burgers made with 90/10 tend to be a bit on the dry side. And the problem with 73/27 is that with so much fat in the mix, the patties shrink up as the fat cooks away and the resulting burgers are dense and greasy. 80/20 or 85/15 are the happy mediums most people prefer. 90/10 or even 95/5 are okay if you're using them in meat sauce for spaghetti or in tacos or something, but not for burgers. And don't think that burgers made from 90/10 beef are some kind of “diet” burgers: that 10 percent fat content still accounts for a little more than half the total calories in a 90/10 mix.

The next thing that confuses beginning beef buyers is the terminology: what's the difference between “sirloin,” “chuck,” “round,” and plain old “ground beef?” Generally speaking, “ground beef,” ground from cuts like brisket or shank, is the least expensive and usually the fattiest, clocking on average between 20 and 30 percent fat. Next up is “ground chuck,” which comes from the shoulder and is generally a bit leaner, with a 15 to 20 percent fat range. “Ground round” comes from the hind legs and averages 12 to 15 percent fat. At the top of the list is “ground sirloin,” the leanest and most expensive cut on the market. Sirloin comes from the animal's midsection and contains about 10 to 14 percent fat.

The USDA regulates what producers are allowed to put in ground meat. When you see chuck, round, or sirloin on a label, that's the part of the cow the stuff in the package comes from. It may be a combination of muscle, fat, and trimmimgs, but it's all chuck, round, or sirloin. Ground beef, however, is a little more.....shall we say “amorphous” in its definition. Thanks to a recent “policy change,” product labeled “ground beef” can come from any and all parts of the animal: esophagus, diaphragm, cheek, organ meat.....let your imagination run wild. And regardless of cut, unless you actually see the butcher run the sirloin, chuck, or round steak through the grinder, when you buy packaged ground meat, you have no guarantee the meat in the package all comes from the same animal. This is especially true of those big, opaquely wrapped “tubes” of ground beef that studies have shown may contain the meat of as many as fifty different cows.

Some supermarkets sell prepackaged, pre-made “hamburger patties.” This is still basically ground beef to which a little extra fat has been added.

Let's talk about color for a minute. You'll probably notice that everything displayed in those gleaming cases at the supermarket is a brilliant shade of red. Yet when you get it home and open it up to use it, the meat sometimes turns brownish or even gray. Yuck, right? Not really. According to the USDA, that optimum surface color is highly unstable and usually quite short-lived. Without delving too deeply into food chemistry, all really fresh meat is a reddish-purple in color due to the presence of myoglobin. When exposed to oxygen, myoglobin forms the pigment oxymyoglobin, which gives meat that vivid red color. The use of special semi-permeable plastic wrap ensures that meat retains this bright red color in the store's meat case. However, exposure to store lighting as well as the continued interaction of myoglobin and oxymyoglobin with oxygen leads to the formation of metmyoglobin, a pigment that turns meat brownish-red. The interior of the meat may even be grayish brown due to lack of oxygen. This color change alone does not mean the product is spoiled. However, if all the meat in the package has turned gray or brown, it may be on the edge of spoiling.

Storage is another question. Never leave ground beef or any perishable food out at room temperature for more than two hours. Try to plan your shopping so that the grocery store is your last stop. If you're going to be on the road for awhile, invest in a cooler or an insulated bag for your meats and frozen foods. Once you get it home, refrigerate ground beef immediately and don't keep it in the fridge for more than a day or two. If you're going to use it fairly quickly, it can be frozen in its original packaging. But if you're looking at longer term storage, you need to do a little extra work. The USDA says ground beef is safe indefinitely if it's kept frozen, but quality is another matter. You should wrap ground beef in heavy duty plastic wrap, aluminum foil, freezer paper, or plastic bags made for freezing if you're going to be storing it for awhile. I usually employ a combination of either plastic wrap or aluminum foil and a heavy-duty freezer bag. And remember to put a date on the package when you stick it in the freezer. Four months is about the best you'll get before quality starts to degrade. Again, from a safety aspect, you can keep it in there for years, but you probably won't want to eat it.

Ground beef is so versatile and can be used in so many applications that I'm not going to get into cooking lessons here. But maybe just a few thoughts about preparing ground beef for cooking. First thought, don't over handle or over work your ground beef. Too much manipulation can turn your meatballs to gut bombs and your hamburgers to hockey pucks. Just do the minimum amount of prep work to get the size and shape you want, then leave it alone.

I mentioned shrinkage: All meat shrinks up to some degree during cooking. As I said earlier, part of the reason for the shrinkage is fat content and also moisture content. Another factor is the temperature at which the meat is cooked, and how long it is cooked. Basically, the higher the cooking temperature, the greater the shrinkage. Cooking ground beef at moderate temperatures rather than hammering it on high heat will reduce shrinkage and help retain juices and flavor. Overcooking draws out more fat and juices from ground beef, resulting in a dry, less tasty product. And, of course, ground beef should always be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160 °F as measured with a food thermometer.

Finally, for maximum freshness and quality, consider having a butcher grind your beef or grinding it yourself at home. Any real butcher shop and most decent supermarket meat counters will custom grind beef for you. Just choose a whole cut and ask to have it ground. That way you know exactly what you're getting and you know it's fresh. The same thing applies to grinding meat at home. I don't think my grandmother ever bought ground beef. She had a grinder – a big silver-gray machine with a long handle – that attached to her kitchen counter into which she would drop whole cuts of meat. A few turns of that handle would produce the ground meat she used for meatloaf, meatballs, sauces, and, of course, hamburgers. You can still buy those venerable old-fashioned grinders for thirty or forty bucks or you can upgrade to a modern electric model. Or, if you have a KitchenAid mixer, as I do, there's a very efficient grinder attachment.

Besides freshness and quality, there's another benefit to grinding your own: the ability to customize. Most of my recipes for meatballs and meat sauces call for a mixture of two or even three different meats – usually beef and pork and sometimes beef, pork, and veal. Even hamburgers often benefit from having a little extra fat added in. Try grinding some bacon into your beef for the ultimate beef and bacon burger.

Ground beef accounts for an estimated 60% of all beef consumption in the United States. The USDA website can tell you all about safety and proper handling and there are tons of recipe sites with technique and cooking suggestions. But I'm hoping that I at least provided you with an informational starting point; a little more than you knew before about ground beef.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Cooking With Wooden Utensils

Nothing's As Good As Wood

My home kitchen is chock full of the latest modern equipment. There are full-sized and mini food processors, a blender, an immersion blender, stand and hand mixers, a countertop oven with a built-in rotisserie feature, a microwave, a fryer, a Keurig coffeemaker, a vacuum sealer, a couple of crockpots, an induction burner, an array of gleaming stainless steel, cast iron, and non-stick cookware, a mandoline slicer, a yard-long magnetic strip festooned with a variety of knives, and drawers full of gadgets from apple slicers to zesters. And there amidst all the latest culinary trappings are my wooden spoons and spatulas.

“Wooden spoons?” you query. “In the age of plastic and silicone, you have wooden spoons?” Yep. And I wouldn't be without them. Oh, I have a few plastic, metal, and silicone utensils around, but their use is generally limited to specific tasks. For instance, flexible silicone spatulas are great for scraping out mixing bowls and we have some plastic turners that we use on our non-stick griddle. Plastic and metal spoons are handy as serving pieces. But my real kitchen workhorses are all made of wood.

“But isn't wood terribly old fashioned?” you ask. “Aren't modern materials much cleaner, safer, and sturdier?” The answers are, “yes,” “no,” “no,” and no.”

First, the “old fashioned” part. Yeah, wooden spoons have been around since the dawn of time and I don't think there's an Italian anywhere who doesn't have a memory of a nonna without a wooden spoon in her hand. I know a lot of those nonne – and some professional chefs as well – who swear that the wooden spoons actually contribute something to the flavor of some dishes. The theory is that a wooden spoon that's been used to stir, say, spaghetti sauce for many, many years actually picks up subtle flavors and imparts them to subsequent batches of sauce. Could be true; I don't know.

I do know I prefer wood over other materials for a variety of practical reasons, the first of which is comfort. A good wooden spoon just feels good in your hand. And if you don't think that's important, make a batch of risotto or polenta or something else that requires a lot of stirring. Hand fatigue is pretty common with clunky, poorly designed implements. Most wooden spoons have rounded handles, which makes stirring easier and more effective – and more comfortable. Wooden spoons also give you a good, strong handle to grip so you don't have to worry about it breaking if you're working with something a little stout. You can't always say that with plastic.

Wooden spoons make better tools for scraping the sides and bottom of your pan. The rounded bowl of a wooden spoon is much more conducive to effective scraping than the angled or oval edges of plastic or metal spoons. This is important for several reasons, beginning with the ability of wooden spoons to pass through more delicate foods and ingredients without smashing or bruising them the way harder edged spoons sometimes can. Then there's your cookware to consider. If you're cooking in cast iron or stainless steel, the construction and material of your utensils doesn't much matter. But if you're using non-stick cookware, metal and hard plastic spoons and spatulas are useless. They will seriously scratch and damage the surface of your pans. Wood won't do that.

Wooden spoons are non-reactive and non-conductive. If you're cooking something acidic, like tomato sauce or lemon curd, metal spoons can react with the acids in your ingredients and leave a slight metallic taste behind. Reactive metals can even affect the color of the food you are cooking. Wood, being non-reactive, won't do any of that. And because wood is a poor conductor of heat, you don't have to worry about burning your hand if your wooden spoon is in contact with a hot ingredient or a hot surface for an extended period of time.

Metal utensils can rust over time and the edges can become uneven and jagged from use. Plastic can melt at high temperatures and can also break down at the edges, leaving tiny bits of plastic in the food you're preparing. Some plastics can release toxic chemicals when heated, so if your plastic is not BPA-free, it may pose a significant health risk. None of those things are issues with wood.

Now, on the topic of cleanliness, I know a lot of people who think that wood is somehow “dirtier” than plastic or metal. That it's harder to clean and sanitize. And that's not true. Like wood cutting boards, wooden utensils have natural anti-bacterial properties. Scratches and pits that develop in plastic or metal will harbor bacteria. Not so with wood. Bacteria that get into cracks and scratches in wood become trapped within and are held there until they die and become inert. They cannot be released into whatever it is you're cooking. The same can't be said of other materials, especially plastic, which will even resist the efforts of chlorine bleach to get at germs buried deep in scratches and pits.

Wooden spoons are durable, beautiful, and better for the environment. Wood is a natural, renewable resource and a good wooden spoon can last for decades. I have spoons that served in my mother's kitchen and they're in as good a condition now as they were back then. And, I'm sorry, but you can have all the sleek, gleaming surfaces and flashy colors; give me the soft, natural beauty of wood any day. We have a big annual artisan craft show in our town every Fall and my wife and I always visit a particular booth that features hand-crafted wooden utensils. We have purchased spoons, spatulas, bowls, spreaders, honey dippers and a variety of other beautiful wooden items for home use and to give as gifts. My left-handed spouse even found a spatula designed and crafted for lefties.

As with any kitchen appliance or utensil, you get what you pay for. Always look for hardwood utensils; cherry, maple, and walnut are good choices. Oak, beech, and birch are also popular. Olive wood is widely used and bamboo, although technically not “wood,” is also good. Cheaper soft woods, like pine, tend to soak up a lot of oils and juices from whatever you're cooking and they can also leach an off, “piney,” flavor into your dish.

As I mentioned, I still use many of my mom's wooden spoons. They have to be thirty or forty years old. But they're in good shape partly because they're wood and partly because they're well cared for. My wooden spoons have never seen the inside of a dishwasher. Wooden utensils should always be washed by hand and dried promptly. The high temperatures of a dishwasher, especially in the drying cycle, can cause wooden utensils (and knife handles, by the way) to dry out and crack. This is similar to the reason you should never leave a wooden spoon submerged in a liquid, be it a soup, a sauce, or hot dishwater. Wood being porous, exposure to water and liquids, especially hot liquids, can cause the wood to break down and deteriorate. That's why culinary school instructors will smack you with a wooden spoon if they find one sticking out of your soup or sauce.

And with that in mind, wooden utensils, knife handles, and cutting boards should all be treated on a regular basis to keep them from drying out or deteriorating. Every couple of months, rub your wood kitchen stuff with a little food-grade mineral oil. Let the oil sit and soak in for a couple of hours or overnight, then wipe off the excess and you're good to go. Doing this on a regular basis will ensure your wooden utensils will remain beautiful and will last as long as mine have.

Old-fashioned? Who cares! For my money, nothing's as good as wood.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Preventing Cooking-Related Fires

Cooking Requires All Your Attention

As I write this, it's cooking season. People cook more around the fall and winter holidays than at any other time of the year, with Thanksgiving being the biggest cooking day and also, according to the National Fire Protection Association, the peak day for cooking-related fires. Overall, the association cites unattended cooking as the leading cause of kitchen fires.

The NFPA says that cooking-related fires are the cause of 46% of home fires that resulted in 19% of the home fire deaths and 44% of the injuries. Two-thirds of cooking fires started with the ignition of food or other cooking materials. Ranges or cooktops accounted for the majority (62%) of home cooking fire incidents. Unattended equipment was a factor in one-third of reported home cooking fires and half of the associated deaths. And frying dominates the cooking fire problem.

And here are some statistics from Liberty Mutual Insurance that help explain the NFPA figures: Forty-Two percent of the people the company surveyed said they had left the kitchen to talk or text on the phone, and 35 percent went to use the computer to check email while food was cooking. Nearly half said they have left the room to watch television or listen to music.

Wow. That's it: just “wow.” I can't bend my brain in the direction it would take to be able to light a fire in a room and then walk into another room to do something else. But obviously people do it every day. And, like the real life crash dummies who text and drive, they wind up paying for it and, in many cases, also charging somebody else for their stupidity. I read not long ago about an imbecile who got liquored up and tried to cook. After he passed out drunk, his kitchen caught fire and killed him. And it also cost seven other families in the eight unit apartment building their homes.

Cooking is like driving a car or flying an airplane: it requires all your attention. You are literally playing with fire. Personally, I'm not comfortable lighting the oven and walking out of the room, much less turning on a stove top burner and walking away. I'm even leery of slow cookers: intellectually, I understand they are designed to be left unattended, but viscerally, I find it hard to do. You can call me paranoid, but it beats calling the fire department.

So, Number One fire safety rule is stay in the kitchen while you're cooking. That doesn't strictly apply to all forms of cooking, I suppose: obviously, if you're baking a cake or roasting a turkey or simmering a pot of stock, it's okay to leave the room for a few minutes now and then. You're not going to stand there constantly for three hours watching your bird cook. But staying in the room and remaining focused on task is vitally important if you're frying something.

As noted in the NFPA statistics, frying dominates the cooking fire problem. I honestly think people ought to have a license to fry. Or at least they should be required to take a safety class. I mean, you have to take Driver's Ed before you can drive a car and you have to take hunting safety classes before they'll let you go out and take potshots at Bambi. Shouldn't people be obliged to have some basic knowledge pounded into their heads before they're given matches and flammable substances? You can't just rely on common sense because so many folks are so uncommonly senseless. How many houses or garages were burned down in your community last Thanksgiving by idiots with turkey fryers?

Here's some basic knowledge for safe frying:

Don't overfill your pot, pan, or fryer with oil. Most deep fryers made for home use have a “max fill” line etched into the metal. Don't ignore it. If you're not using a dedicated deep fryer, use a heavy, deep pot, like a Dutch oven, or, for shallow frying, a heavy, deep skillet – cast iron is best – and make sure you leave plenty of room for whatever food you're cooking. Cold oil should never come anywhere near the top of the pot or pan because hot oil is going to bubble up when you add food to it. It's a law. It's going to happen. And if you have too much oil in the pan, it's going to bubble over. And when it bubbles over, 99.9% of the time, it's going to catch fire. Grease or oil fires are incredibly dangerous because the fire's fuel source is a liquid that can splash and spread and keep burning as it adheres to surfaces, clothing and skin.

I have a fire extinguisher right next to my stove. It's the best option if a fire breaks out. If you can get a lid on whatever's burning, that usually does the job. Salt will knock down most cooking fires. So will baking soda. Flour, however, will not. Counterintuitive as it seems, water is seldom a good solution to extinguishing a cooking fire. If you have an electric stove, it's not a real swift idea to throw water on it and if you're dealing with a grease or oil fire, water will just rapidly and randomly spread the flames around. And the first thing to do with any cooking-related fire is turn off the heat source. You can't put out a fire that's being constantly fed from a gas jet or an electric coil.

The worst thing you can do if a fire breaks out in your kitchen is panic. I was in the kitchen once when some butter leaked out of a pan in the oven and caught the interior of the oven on fire. Smoke was billowing out of the oven and flames shot out when the door was opened. Well, in the first place, don't open the door! Turn off the oven and the oven itself will contain the fire. That's what ovens do. But instinct says “open the door and see what's going on in there.” And while other people in the room were jumping around and yelling the obvious – FIRE!! – I grabbed a box of salt and threw a couple of handfuls on the flames. No more fire. I would have gone for the extinguisher next if I had needed to, but by keeping my wits about me, I was able to put out the fire. And I saved the dish.

Back to frying safety, watch your oil temperature. You want it to be a maximum of somewhere between 375°F and 400°F. Use a thermometer and don't rely on “wait until it smokes.” When oil starts smoking, it's ready to combust. Using oils with a high smoke point, like canola, peanut, safflower, or sunflower oils, can help, but even they will burn if overheated.

Don't drop wet food into hot oil. It's a boil over waiting to happen. Dry your food as much as possible before dropping it in to fry. And be extra careful with frozen food, too. Ice crystals are just frozen water.

If you're frying something on a stove top in a pan or a skillet, keep the handle turned in. A quick bump to an outward facing handle is all it takes to overturn a pan and potentially start a fire.

And, of course, don't leave a fryer or frying pan unattended.

While frying and hot oil are the most egregious offenders when it comes to cooking-related fires, there are other factors to consider and avoid.

Keep your kitchen neat, clean, and organized, particularly around the stove. Having junk piled around your stove, especially flammable junk like paper, plastic, and cloth, is a good way to make the acquaintance of your local fire department. Fires start all the time when dish towels, potholders, and oven mitts are left too close to burners. A woman in the town where I live burned down her kitchen when she turned on the “wrong” eye of her electric range and caught a bag of potato chips she had lying on the stove on fire. I hate an electric cooktop for just that reason: it's way too easy to turn on the “wrong” burner. We used to keep those decorative burner covers around until we toasted about the tenth set of the damn things and said, “no more.” It's also smart to keep heat-producing appliances like toasters and toaster ovens, coffee makers, etc. away from walls and curtains.

And keep your stove top clean. Gross as it sounds, I've seen stoves covered with caked-on grease. I couldn't keep a kitchen like that, but them I'm a clean freak. However, it shouldn't take a freak to figure out that if you've got potentially flammable crap coating your cooking surface, sooner or later it's gonna go up in flames.

My mother used to be horrible about “drying” things in her oven. She'd throw stuff like wooden spoons in there “to dry.” I'd come along and flip on the oven and....... I can't tell you how many wooden spoons I cooked over the years. Tupperware does not do well in a 350°F oven, either. Bottom line: don't store stuff in the oven.

I mentioned the drunk guy. Drinking and cooking don't go together any better than drinking and driving. Same if you're taking/doing sleep-inducing drugs, or if you're just really, really tired. Statistics show that 42 percent of victims of cooking fires died in their sleep.

Keep your smoke alarms in good working order. Check and replace the batteries regularly. And don't get aggravated and yank the batteries when the poor thing does its job and goes off while you're smoking up the kitchen. Nearly a third of the people surveyed by Liberty Mutual reported having intentionally disabled their smoke alarms while cooking. Reposition the unit, if necessary or look for one made specifically for kitchen use. It's still gonna start shrieking if you incinerate a steak or something, but at least it won't go off while your trying to make toast. I did both and added an exhaust fan for good measure. Now I have to really try to make my smoke detector scream.

Avoid overloading your electrical outlets, especially in older kitchens. Back in Grandma's day, about the only electrical appliance in the kitchen was a toaster. They didn't wire older houses to handle microwaves and toaster ovens and food processors and blenders get the idea. And heat-producing appliances like toasters, fryers, coffee pots, waffle irons, electric frying pans and the like all come with specially rated cords. Don't use a common extension cord with a heat-producing appliance. Replace any frayed or cracked electrical cords immediately and never use an appliance or extension cord with a cracked, loose, or damaged plug.

Going back to those NFPA statistics for a minute, the association says clothing was the first thing ignited in less than one percent of fires, but that clothing ignitions led to eighteen percent of home cooking fire deaths. So catching your clothes on fire is not very common, but when it happens, it's usually very bad. There's a reason cooks and chefs dress the way they do and while I'm not saying you have to don a chef's jacket to cook a burger in your home kitchen, you shouldn't wear loose, froofy clothing with long, puffy sleeves and such. You might look really pretty and fashionable floating around the stove in your flowing organza party dress but if you drag one of those silky sleeves through a lit burner, you're gonna make a lovely candle. My wife and I frequently cook in other people's homes during the holidays and we always wear something practical to cook in and bring something nicer to change into for the meal and socialization that follows. Sometimes it's a pain but it's never as painful as becoming a human torch.

And finally, keep the kids and the pets out of the kitchen while you're cooking. I'm a big proponent of teaching kids to cook, and that's one thing. But having them running and playing in the kitchen is quite another. Trust me: been there, done that. I was about seven and was chasing my cousin through the kitchen. My aunt was in violation of the previously mentioned “handles in” rule, and when my cousin and I went barreling through, I clipped a frying pan handle with the top of my head and sent the contents of the pan flying everywhere. Fortunately, nobody got burned and nothing caught fire. But don't chance it. Same goes for pets. Besides being unsanitary, pets around cooking are unpredictable. Fido or Fluffy jumps up on you or in your path while you're working at the stove and it's probably not going to end well.

If a fire starts in your kitchen, you can try to put it out but don't be an idiot. If you've got something burning in a pan, throw a cover on it or throw baking soda or salt at it. If the fire is a little bigger, hit it with a fire extinguisher, remembering the PASS procedure: Pull the pin, Aim low at the fire, Squeeze the trigger, Sweep the flames from side to side. If that doesn't work, call 911 and get out of there. Once a fire leaves a pan and starts climbing the curtains and the walls, there's not much you can do about it and you'd be astonished by how quickly ceilings and wood cabinets go up in flames. You can probably control a small fire yourself, but leave the big fires to the people with the big trucks and hoses.

Enjoy cooking season, my friends, and stay safe.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Buying Celebrity Cookbooks

Is It What You Know Or Just Who You Are?

We live in a world of instant celebrity. Whereas stage, screen, music, television, radio and sports have always given us celebrities, the process has traditionally been somewhat slow to develop. Most celebrities spent years in the trenches “paying their dues” in order to achieve their elevated status. Now, thanks to shows like “American Idol,” we can create celebrities in the blink of an eye. And thanks to “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef” and “MasterChef” and “Next Food Network Star,” and numerous other shows of that ilk, we can now add instant culinary celebrities to our pantheon. Would anybody have ever heard of Carla Hall if not for her popularity on “Top Chef?” Now she's a co-host on a daily network food/talk show, along with fellow celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Michael Symon, who, while exceptional cooks, would also be unknown to the vast majority were it not for TV. Used to be when the pencils came out, culinary stars wrote cookbooks and entertainment and sports celebs wrote tell-alls and biographies. Not anymore. Now they also write cookbooks, defined by Webster as “a book of cooking directions and recipes.”

In our culture of celebrity, celebrity itself is the biggest selling point. In most textbooks and instructional manuals – which, after all, is what a cookbook is – it’s not so much who you are as it is what you know. But not if you’re marketing a cookbook these days. Then it's the exact opposite. As I’m writing this, country singer Trisha Yearwood has a cookbook and a cooking show. International singing and dancing superstars Gloria and Emilio Estefan have a cookbook. Gwyneth Paltrow has a cookbook. Freddie Prinze, Jr has a cookbook and, not to be outdone, so does his wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar. Chrissy Teigen has a cookbook. Sheryl Crow has a cookbook. Kris Jenner, Patti LaBelle, and Eva Longoria have cookbooks. You can go “Cooking With Kenny Rogers” or partake of “Dolly's Dixie Fixin's.” There’s a cookbook by noted professional Italian chef Tony Danza … well, at least he’s a professional Italian. Speaking of which, you know that famous team of kitchen experts from the TV show “The Sopranos”? Yes, even they have a cookbook. Buy it, if you know what’s good for you. In addition to being Italian and an actor, Stanley Tucci likes to cook so naturally he has a cookbook. And then there are the people who have actually done a little cooking here and there and who, thanks to TV, have achieved “celebrity” status: Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Rocco DiSpirito, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, Giada De Laurentiis, Julia Child.

I myself have compiled a great cookbook. I’ve been working on it for years and it’s chock full of recipes and tips. Some are my own creation and some are contributions from family and friends. The vast majority are personal favorites adapted from other people’s cookbooks. So what sets celebrity cookbooks apart from mine? I’m at a loss to explain it. Oh…..yeah, that whole “celebrity” part. I forgot.

What should you look for in a celebrity cookbook? A lot of celebrity cookbooks are actually “ghostwritten” or, at least, co-written by other people. (Not so in my case, I assure you.) But unless you are buying the book based solely on your affection for and appreciation of the person on the cover, you should be looking for the same things in a celebrity cookbook that you would expect to find in a book written by somebody you’ve never heard of. Like me. Things like:

Recipes. Recipes should be clear and concise. They should follow a standard format that includes measured quantities of all ingredients, as well as detailed preparation and cooking instructions. A little backstory on the recipe is a nice touch as are serving suggestions.

Pictures. Everybody likes pictures. It is widely believed that you eat first with your eyes. Pretty presentational pictures of how a completed dish is supposed to look are an essential element of a good cookbook. And, if there are some tricky techniques to be employed in the preparation of a particular dish, step-by-step instructional pictures are important, too.

Tips and techniques. In cooking, some things are very basic. This is a frying pan, this a chafing dish. Both useful items, but rarely interchangeable. What’s the difference between baking powder and baking soda? Ignorance of this can produce some really interesting results. The most difficult part of writing a cookbook is gauging your reader’s level of expertise. Some people have been preparing elaborate meals for their families for fifty years and are just looking for something fresh and new, while others have difficulty boiling water and are just looking for help. A good cookbook provides tips and techniques beneficial to both extremes. Sometimes these tips and techniques accompany individual recipes, sometimes they occupy a section of their own, and sometimes they appear as sidebars interspersed throughout the book. However they are presented, there should be lots of them and they should be as clear and concise as the recipes.

Layout and construction. Nobody wants to read a book that reads like the author is just throwing out random thoughts in no particular order. The same is true of a cookbook. The book should be laid out in a logical and progressive manner. At the very least, appetizers, main courses, side dishes, desserts and beverages should all have their own dedicated sections. These sections can then be subdivided into appropriate groups and types according to the dishes involved. A table of contents up front and a comprehensive index at the back are a must. Otherwise, you’ll just get frustrated looking for that rutabaga salad next to the rhubarb pie.

Style. Okay, you bought the book because there’s a picture of somebody you like on the cover. This person should mark the style of the book. There should be lots of elements by and/or about the celebrity author throughout the book. Again, there should be pictures. Pictures of the author cooking. Pictures of his or her family enjoying the author’s cooking. Pictures of the author in compromising situations…no, wait. Those belong in the tell-alls and biographies. But, there should be stories. Stories about how so-and-so’s grandmother’s cooking influenced their lives, and such. And, of course, there should be a dedication to all the loyal and devoted fans who have so enriched the author’s life, along with their agents and their accountants, and now it’s time to give back something personal and intimate, etc, etc. In short, if the person whose picture is on the cover is not reflected throughout the book, you might as well have purchased something crushingly generic by some wretched unknown. Like me.

Finally, consider cost. Do you really want to take out a loan to buy your favorite singer’s cookbook? Is it worth skipping a car payment to pick up the latest from your favorite TV chef? You could probably purchase the same good, comprehensive cookbook your grandma had in her kitchen for the same money or less. Then you could use the savings to buy a nice celebrity magazine and put it on the shelf next to the generic cookbook.

I'm not saying celebrity cookbooks aren't good: many of them are. A lot of famous people – especially the TV chefs – can cook. But just remember when you're emptying your wallet, you're actually buying celebrity more than recipes, tips, and techniques – things found in abundance in your grandma's Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.

To celebratize or not to celebratize! Along whichever path through the kitchen you choose, I wish you happy cooking!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Who Says Cooking Has To Be Chaotic?

Cooking Chaos? A Rebuttal

Help me, gentle reader, wrestle with a question to which I truly have no answer: why do so many people consider cooking to be such an onerous chore?

Cooking shows like “Top Chef” win Emmy awards. Crappy and derivative as it has become, Food Network and Cooking Channel programming still pulls in large numbers. A recent Nielsen survey found that one in every five households boasts a "budding gourmet chef." Cookbooks top best seller lists. Retail purveyors of fresh and/or organic ingredients are barely able to keep up with increasing demand and local farmers markets are seeing levels of support unheard of a decade ago. Obviously, somebody besides me likes to cook.

So why is it that the late Peg Bracken's time seems to have come again? A small publisher re-released her heretical “I Hate to Cook Book” a couple of years ago. I say heretical because the 184-recipe tome, first published in 1960, is to cooking what “Nuclear Physics for Dummies” is to building fusion reactors. Bracken, a Pennsylvania ad-copy-writer-turned-cookbook-author, managed to convince more than three million buyers that cooking was a matter of combining cans, boxes, mixes, and other processed foods into the palate-numbing concoctions that defined an unfortunate generation of American cooks; a standard proclaiming that busy, modern-day people have better things to do with their time than waste it in the kitchen preparing fresh, nutritious, and flavorful foods. If you can't make it, fake it. It has taken decades for the pendulum to reverse its swing.

And yet, the sentiment that cooking is a chore to be avoided at all costs still echoes and resonates in some circles. I came across an example of this school of thought in the form of an article written by someone who proclaims herself to be a writer on the topics of family life and frugal living. In my estimation, based upon what I read, she is qualified to be neither.

Her basic premise in this execrable scribbling is that eating out is preferable to cooking at home. She begins her assault on common sense by stating that “the whole dinner routine is an exercise in chaos.” She substantiates this opinion with a litany of whines about how time wasting it is to have to figure out what to eat, check the pantry for ingredients, drive to the store, walk the aisles, stand in line at checkout, drive home, put away the groceries, and then start to cook. Cooking takes an hour, she states, and then there's the time involved in eating (?) and cleaning up. This “expert” on family life considers all this activity to be a waste of time. “You could be doing anything else in the entire world with that time,” she opines, “maybe something more productive or beneficial to you, your family, and your world.”

I'm sorry, but what could be more productive or beneficial than preparing a delicious, healthy meal to share with your family and friends? In her questionable point of view, it's better to spend two minutes ordering take out, enjoying thirty minutes of “free time” while you wait, and then taking one minute to toss the containers. At least she doesn't begrudge her family the time it takes to eat the food, something of a reversal of her earlier position.

My wife and I shop together every week. We love searching the aisles for new things to try and hunting for bargains on the foods we enjoy. And we cook together nearly every night. After busy days spent in pursuit of a dollar, cooking – or “playing in the kitchen,” as my wife calls it – is an integral part of our shared time together doing something we both enjoy. Isn't that rather the definition of “family life?”

Our benighted “frugal living” correspondent goes on to praise the “value” in eating out, stating that she could never make a meal at home for the cost of a restaurant meal. She can get a steak dinner with a baked potato and vegetables for about fifteen dollars, she crows, and it's all cooked and seasoned and ready for her to pick up curbside to take home and enjoy. The same items purchased at a grocery store would cost her more, she says.

I'm a former restaurateur who now cooks primarily at home, so I know a bit about both sides and I have to ask, “My goodness, lady, where do you shop?” In my world, a potato and an ear of corn or a couple of carrots are going to cost less than two dollars, which, according to her reckoning, leaves me with about thirteen bucks to spend on a cut of meat, which I can do with change to spare. Of course, what she doesn't bother to mention is how that fifteen dollar figure relates to a family of, say, four. This “expert” wants me to believe that sixty bucks for a single meal for four people is “frugal living?” C'mon, get real. Let's expand this idea to its ridiculous conclusion. Sixty dollars a night times seven nights a week equals four hundred twenty dollars a week. For dinner alone. That doesn't include breakfast and lunch. Lets allow five bucks per person per fast food meal. Seven breakfasts and seven lunches times four people times five dollars comes to an additional 280 dollars a week. Seven hundred bucks a week to eat out? Sounds “frugal” to me.

Catch this one: this “supermom” says she can only cook maybe five things and none of them well. So she “improves” her family's life by exposing them to “a plethora of new foods” courtesy of various ethnic restaurants. She says she's not about to spend “tons of time and money” on ingredients only to mess up the dish or to find that her kids don't like it. So she heroically offers them a varied diet and the opportunity to “ expand their palettes” (I know; that's not the correct form of “palate,” but she's a professional writer, after all) by not cooking for them. That's just weird. How about this option: learn how to cook!

Far from serving the nutritional, educational, social, and cultural needs of her family, this “family life” writer is sentencing her kids to a life of inadequacy and dependence. I look back on my early life and remember a mother (and a grandmother) who could, would, and did cook anything I wanted. And they imparted their knowledge and skills to my sister and me. As a result, either of us can step into a kitchen anywhere, anytime, and prepare almost anything for anybody. What kind of legacy does the “family life” writer leave for her kids? The ability to read a take-out menu and dial a phone?

Kitchens don't need to be scenes of chaos and cooking doesn't have to be a chore. Whether in a big professional kitchen or a tiny home galley, organization is the nemesis of chaos. I don't have to scramble around looking for ingredients because I know what's in my pantry and fridge at any given time. I “stock up” on basics once a week and hit the store for fresh meats and produce a couple of times during the week. I don't necessarily write out a full menu for every meal – although I know people who do – but I always have some basic meal ideas planned out a few days in advance.

And my kitchen is organized. I don't have to hunt for every pot, pan, and utensil I own because I always know where they are located within my working space. I know people who store their breakfast cereal in the same cabinet as their mixing bowls and their canned goods in with their pots and pans. Yikes! I wouldn't last two minutes in that environment. That truly does represent chaos. A well-organized kitchen takes a lot of the “chore” factor out of cooking.

So does a well-stocked pantry. Inventory is everything in a restaurant kitchen and it should be the same at home. Knowing what you have on hand is essential to efficient planning and cooking and eliminates the chaotic element introduced by the last minute discovery that you're out of milk.

And then there's self-confidence. My mom always told me that Dad used to eat a lot of Jell-O the first year they were married. With a few years of practice under her belt, she was able to run a home kitchen like a pro. I admit that forty or so years ago, I was a “Peg Bracken” cook. There was little that came out of a box or a can that I couldn't “cook.” But as times changed, I learned better techniques. And once you have a sense of confidence in what you're doing, it stops being a chore and becomes something in which you take pride and find joy. You know what they say about the person who loves what they do never having to work again? It's true in the kitchen, too.

Going back to the idea of stocking up and planning, if you're really so time-crunched that making meals every night is an exercise in “chaos,” how about preparing meals in advance? For example, I had family over for ravioli not long ago. I made enough fresh pasta and fillings that I could portion out some ravioli and freeze it. Whenever I make fresh tomato sauce, I always put some up in the freezer. So, a few days later, I transferred some sauce from freezer to fridge in the morning. That night, I put some water on to boil, warmed up my sauce, and dropped some frozen ravioli in the water. While it was cooking, I toasted a little bread, drizzled it with olive oil and rubbed it with garlic while my wife threw together a little salad, set the table, and poured some wine. In about fifteen minutes, we were sitting down to a perfectly delicious meal. So why does it take the “family life expert” an hour to cook? I don't know.

On Sunday mornings, I grab a couple of potatoes from the bin and slice 'em or dice 'em, depending on my mood. I toss them in a pan with a few seasonings and move on to laying out a few slices of bacon on a griddle. While that's going on, I scramble a couple of eggs and drop some bread in the toaster. The eggs hit the pan as the potatoes and bacon come out and head for the plate. Butter the toast, plate the eggs and pour some orange juice. Twenty, twenty-five minutes tops. Better than a Pop-Tart, cheaper than IHOP, and, excuse me, did somebody say something about an hour?

Let me really put a kink in our correspondent's case: I do the dishes as I go. Takes about ten seconds each to wash out the pans as I empty them and by the time I put breakfast on the table, the kitchen is clean. All that's left to wash post-meal are the plates. Chaotic, eh?

This author of misguided missives claims she can only cook five things. Whose fault is that? Used to be I could only drive a vehicle with an automatic transmission. When I got a job that required me to “drive stick,” I learned how. There are formal and informal cooking classes taking place in culinary stores, restaurants, community colleges, recreation centers, and other such venues in towns and cities all over the country every day. And they cater to every skill level. It's not that you can only cook five things, lady. It's that you're too lazy to learn how to cook more.

Hey, “family life writer.” How about taking a class with your kids? Or are there more “productive” and “beneficial” things you could be doing? Maybe we just see the world differently, but I think that teaching a child to feed himself – by means other than dialing a telephone – is pretty damn productive and beneficial.

Okay. The soapbox is starting to catch fire under my feet, so I guess I'd better jump off.

Demosthenes said it: “A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.” And my point is, mealtimes are only as chaotic as you allow them to be and cooking is only a chore if you make it so.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Why Do Chefs Wear Those Funny Hats?

An Explanation of the Elements of a Chef's Uniform

Chefs. You've seen them on TV. You've seen them in advertisements. And you've probably seen a few in real life. But how did you know they were chefs? Why, because they looked like chefs, of course!

Just as police officers, firefighters, doctors, and other professionals sport iconic uniforms that immediately identify them, so, too, do members of the food service industry. And in the same manner that garments and accoutrements worn by these other professionals serve specific purposes, so, too, do the components of the chef's uniform.

Easily the most identifiable component is the chef's headgear. Although referred to by most people as “that funny hat that chefs wear,” it is actually called a toque (pronounced “toke”). More precisely, it is a toque blanche, which is French for “white hat.” Marie-Antoine Carême is probably stirring in one of his sauces because I occasionally wear a black one. In fact, he's probably whirling all the more vigorously because so many modern, high visibility chefs don't wear anything on their heads at all. When, for instance, have you ever tuned into the Food Network and seen Bobby, Guy, or Emeril wearing a toque? Hmmm? Not only is Carême aggrieved, various health officials are probably none too pleased either. But, hold that thought for a minute.

Since I chose to reference “those funny hats” in the title, perhaps a bit more about them is in order. There are as many stories about the ancestry of the toque as there are people to tell them, but here are a few of the more common ones.

One tale includes 6th century chefs among the ranks of freethinking artists and artisans being persecuted – and often executed – for their radical beliefs. In order to escape the ax, these revolutionary cooks took refuge in the monasteries of the Orthodox Church and disguised themselves, adopting the same tall headgear as that worn by the priests. But in order not to appear too blasphemous, they wore gray or white hats instead of the ordained black. Now, the logic of hiding oneself away while at the same time doing something to obviously distinguish oneself escapes me, but that's the way the story goes.

Another probably apocryphal tale relates to some poor schmuck who cooked for Henry VIII. It seems that the hapless chef began losing his hair and he had the misfortune to lose some of it in a dish served to the king. The enraged monarch supposedly had the Royal Chef's male pattern baldness cured at the neck by the Royal Executioner. Henry hence decreed that the next head of the royal kitchen should have a hat on it, and so the tradition began. If you know much about the hygiene of the time, about Henry's personal grooming habits, and about the quality of food that came out of his kitchens, you would seriously doubt that something like a hair in his soup would cause him much consternation. But that's the way the story goes.

A more lofty legend goes back to ancient Assyria, where chefs were highly regarded members of the royal court and were entitled to wear their own version of a crown, albeit one made of fabric rather than precious metal. In this charming fantasy, the pleats in the chef's “crown” were said to emulate the jewel-encrusted metal ribs of the regal chapeau.

It is most likely that the modern toque developed from the woven “stocking caps” worn by cooks throughout the centuries. By the 18th and 19th centuries, members of the French culinary disciplines were becoming more aware of cleanliness and basic hygiene and so decreed that head coverings should be worn in the kitchens. Since white was generally considered to symbolize purity and cleanliness, it was chosen as the appropriate color for the culinary artist. When Marie-Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier, those paragons of all that is French cuisine, began codifying the kitchen, the toque emerged in its present form. It was a symbol of kitchen rank and status: the taller the toque, the higher the stature of the chef wearing it. Today's pleated toques are usually about eight inches in height. Higher-flown chefs can choose a ten or twelve inch variety. Carême is said to have worn an 18-inch toque. This may also have been a reflection of social fashion outside the kitchen, where the height of a man's top hat was commensurate with his social standing.

The same standard applies to the pleats in a toque; the greater the number of pleats, the higher the ranking of the chef. According to tradition, a real chef's toque must have a hundred pleats, symbolizing that a real chef can cook an egg a hundred different ways. I haven't ever actually stopped to count the pleats on any I've acquired or worn, but I have seen paper toques proudly advertised with forty-eight pleats.

The sartorial stratification continues in the style of the toque. There are tall round toques, flat floppy toques, pointy toques, and toques that look like mushrooms. Theoretically, each style represents a different type of chef. Practically speaking, however, many modern chefs eschew the traditional toque and opt for a more functional head covering.

Now, your mama always told you that you lose more heat through the top of your head than anywhere else on your body, right? Right. So from a functional point of view, the tall, stiff, traditional toque acts like a kind of chimney, funneling that heat up and away from the wearer's head – a good thing in a hot kitchen. Even so, many kitchen pros now wear flat caps, sometimes made of disposable materials. Or they wear bandanas, berets, or ball caps. Some just slap on a hairnet of some sort. Although doing so does not necessarily make them look like chefs, it does satisfy the aforementioned health officials, most of whom share the same negative reaction to hair in food as that mythically ascribed to Henry VIII. Perhaps not as extreme. Usually.

Still holding that thought from a few paragraphs ago? Good. That's why it sometimes bugs me to see TV chefs running around bareheaded. It's not “reality television.” In real life, you can bet your bottom dollar they have something on their heads when they step into their kitchens or the local health inspectors will have those bare heads on platters. (A rather unappetizing thought, when you think about it.) The same rules apply in a five-star establishment as apply in your local deli. Believe me. I once fired a cook who wouldn't keep his head covered. His services were not worth the points off my health inspection report.

The TV guys don't always get away with it, either. A recent episode of one of those cooking competition shows featured a hatless chef with long, stringy dark hair, which he kept brushing back out of his face as he prepared dishes for the panel of judges. Sure enough, one of those judges got a hair and the offending chef got a lecture on national television. Good thing old Henry wasn't a judge.

(A side note to home cooks: If somebody buys you a novelty toque of some sort, don't laugh and stick it in a drawer. Wear it when your kitchen gets really hot. If family or friends joke about your toque, tell them, "Hey, it's this or I sweat in your soup." Seriously, cover your head if you tend to shed or sweat. There may not be a health inspector lurking at the door to your home kitchen but, honestly, is hair in the sauce any better at home than it is in a restaurant?)

Moving south, the traditional chef's uniform includes a neckerchief. Go look at a can of Chef Boyardee. I'll wait. There. See that white thing knotted around his neck? That's how you know he's a real chef. That and the hat. (Ettore Boiardi, the real guy in the picture, was a real chef, by the way.) Chef Tony wears a red neckerchief when he sells kitchen stuff on TV. Funny, you never see Bobby, Guy, or Emeril wearing one of those either. How are we supposed to know they're real chefs?

Emeril actually comes close. He usually slings a towel over his shoulder while he cooks, mimicking the original purpose of the neck scarf. Chefs used to use the scarf primarily to mop the sweat off their faces, foreheads, and necks. Then they might give your plate or silverware a wipe with it before knotting it back around their necks again for later use. Along came those killjoy health inspectors and now the neckerchief serves the same purpose as a necktie – which is to say, none at all. But, as Chef Tony will attest, it does make you look like a chef. And the silly things are required wearing at most culinary schools.

Next in the ensemble we have either the chef's coat or the apron. Let's start with the chef's coat, because, after all, you can put an apron over a chef's coat, but you'd look downright silly doing it the other way around.

Chef's coats – or jackets – are generally double-breasted garments made of a sturdy, non-flammable material. Cotton is most popular, but lighter, cheaper, poly blends are also available. The coats come in long, short, and three-quarter sleeve lengths, depending upon individual preference. Long-sleeved coats usually have a wide cuff that can be worn turned up for comfort and safety. Some have breast and/or sleeve pockets for stowing pens or pencils and small implements like instant-read thermometers. The double rows of buttons are often made of knotted fabric, considered by many to be the most durable option. Plastic or even wooden buttons are common.

Besides looking very cheffy, the jackets are extremely functional. The double-breasted styling offers a double layer of protection from spills and burns. It also affords the wearer the option of re-buttoning to present a clean front in the event of stains or spills.

Naturally, they have a French name – veste blanche – and are traditionally white in color for the aforementioned reasons of looking neat and clean. But if you remember when nurses dressed all in white and you take a look at the rainbows displayed in hospitals and medical offices today, it will come as no surprise to you that vivid colors are also taking over kitchens according to personal tastes.

Onto the subject of aprons. Aprons pre-date chef coats by centuries. Illustrations from medieval times depict kitchen laborers in aprons. Indeed, cooks and kitchen workers in the vast majority of common eateries today wear aprons over some kind of comfortable shirt, as do most home cooks. At least those who value their wardrobes. I never saw my grandmother without one. I think she may have slept with an apron over her nightgown.

Be that as it may, the apron is an integral part of the chef's uniform. Its purpose is obvious, I hope. Its major benefit is in the ability to quickly strip it off in case of emergency and to easily replace it should it become damaged or soiled.

Some chefs like 'em long, some chefs like 'em short, and some chefs are in-betweeners. It depends entirely on individual comfort and the desired extent of protection afforded. Most chefs who forgo jackets choose full bib aprons that loop around the neck and cover to just above the knee. However, I do know chefs and cooks who occasionally wear bib aprons over chef coats. I happen to be one of them. Generally, fully jacketed chefs wear aprons that cover from waist to mid-thigh, to the knee, or all the way to the ankle, again depending on preference and on the job at hand. The principle of “the messier the work, the longer the apron” often applies.

Once more, white is traditional, but the rainbow effect is prevalent here, too. Pockets or no pockets are a matter of choice. Unlike the homemaker's apron that ties in a bow at the back, most professional aprons are designed with ties long enough to wrap around the back and tie in the front, thus allowing for a place to hang a handy side towel. More importantly, if your apron catches fire or something, you don't want to be futzing around behind your back trying to untie the thing.

Pants are another area where personal taste rules. Mario Batali wears shorts, but that's because he's Mario Batali. Most kitchens would frown on that practice for safety reasons, even if you did have the legs to get away with it.

Traditional chef pants are of the long-legged variety. Some are equipped with snap closures rather than buttons or zippers so they can be easily torn away in case of fire or hot liquid spills. They are usually straight-legged with no cuffs to catch and hold hot spills. Chef pants are generally rather roomy in cut to allow maximum freedom of movement. (No mooning the staff when bending over the oven, please!) Since they are most often covered by an apron, the pants are comfortably lighter in weight than the jackets, but still are constructed of materials designed for protection.

Black and white houndstooth checks are the traditional pattern. Theoretically, this arrangement camouflages stains. (It's also appropriate if you're a fan of University of Alabama football.) Narrow black and white stripes are popular as well. Solid black pants are often reserved for executive chefs while solid whites are the choice of bakers. I've seen designs that include chili peppers, smiley faces, and other expressions of the chef's sartorial preference. To each his own, I guess.

At the ground floor are the shoes. There are only two constants here: comfort and safety. Full heel-to-toe support is essential to the chef on his feet for long hours every day. But safety is a major consideration, as the feet are the final destination for spilled hot liquids, dropped heavy pans, and the occasional extremely sharp knife headed to the floor after a brief but painful stop at the big toe. No open-toed shoes or sandals in the kitchen, please. They are accidents waiting to happen. Clogs have gotten very popular in recent years. They are comfortable and easy to slip out of in case of emergency. But if clogs are the footwear of choice, they should be completely enclosed. Ventilation holes on the tops will keep the feet cool and comfortable, but will do little to prevent the progress of hot oil.

Escoffier took great personal and professional pride in the crisp, clean image presented by his kitchen staff. He even encouraged them to wear suits and ties on the streets and to project that professional image and attitude wherever they went. Their profession, he felt, was something to be proud of.

I was working at a small community outdoor market a few summers ago, selling fresh baked goods. I was wearing as much of my “chef whites” as was practical for the situation, wanting to present a clean, professional appearance. I was approached by an unshaven and unkempt-looking young man with a cigarette dangling from his lips. He was wearing a stained sort-of-white tee-shirt and a pair of loose-fitting striped pants. As he looked over my wares, he introduced himself as the “head chef” at one of the nicer restaurants in town. Funny, thing; I never went there again.

And I think I heard Escoffier sobbing.

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.