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, November 30, 2010

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant

A Beginner’s Guide to Italian Restaurants

There’s little doubt that Italian cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines in the world. Just a glance at the yellow pages of any big city (or not so big city, for that matter) telephone directory will testify to the popularity of Italian restaurants.

But a closer look will reveal that not all Italian restaurants are created equal. One establishment may bill itself as a “ristorante” while its neighbor down the block is a “trattoria.” You’re just looking for good Italian food, so what’s the difference?

Once upon a time in Italy, eating establishments were strictly defined by the type of food they served. These days, as the global popularity of Italian cuisine spreads to levels previously enjoyed only by its French cousin, terms like “ristorante” are more often than not just fancy words employed to enhance a restaurant’s pretensions. This is particularly true in the United States. With that in mind, for the purists among you, here are a few terms and definitions that might help you in your quest for il ristorante italiano perfetto.

A ristorante (ree-sto-RAHN-tay) should be a full-fledged, full-service restaurant. In Italy, the term came into use after the Risorgimento to describe elegant and sophisticated dining establishments. These are the kind of places that usually have a lot of forks or stars after their names in the travel guides. Usually reservations are required and the places are replete with varying degrees of “authentic” Italian décor. There should be a host or hostess to seat you. The wait staff, including a sommelier, should be experienced with foods and wines as well as with proper service etiquette. You should expect complete or à la carte offerings presented on a printed menu with fixed prices. Your food should be prepared by a professional kitchen staff and should represent selections from several ordered courses. Expect to pay a premium price for the food and the service – as well as for the ambiance.

A trattoria (tra-toh-REE-ah) is less formal than a ristorante. Here you’ll find medium-priced fare and casual service. In fact, if you were in Italy and wanted to find an inexpensive restaurant, you might ask, “Può consigliare una trattoria?” There probably won’t be a host or hostess; just pick a table and sit down. Maybe there’s a printed menu; maybe not. You might find today’s offerings handwritten on a chalkboard, or your server may just recite them. The food is generally quite good; modest but plentiful and sometimes presented family-style. Trattoria food is often available for take out. Serving local foods and wines in an open and unostentatious setting, a trattoria in Italy is frequently family owned and operated and can usually be found in neighborhoods, small towns or rural areas. In America, all too often the name is just tacked onto an average restaurant to make it sound more Italian.

An osteria (oh-stay-REE-ah) is the least formal among the formal classifications of restaurant. Originally an osteria was an inn that provided lodging and served simple food and wine. Today’s osteria is more of a gathering place that serves wine and some basic foods, much like an American tavern. Actually, the word “tavern” is derived from the Greek “taverna,” which simply meant “shed” or “workshop.” In some cases, an osteria and a taverna may be interchangeable, although conceptually speaking, an osteria is more a cousin to a locanda; that is to say an inn or a guest house. Here, too, though, the modern idea of a locanda is of a simple restaurant rather than a place that offers lodging. This type of establishment is fading a little from the Italian scene as lines between categories become more blurred, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. In America you’ll find a few places bearing the name osteria in the predominantly Italian neighborhoods of the larger cities, but more places tend to call themselves trattoria or ristorante. Surprisingly, a lot of American eateries employ locanda in their designations, but often this is merely a coat of bohemian paint applied to a pedestrian facade.

The pizzeria (peets-ay-REE-ah) has become ubiquitous not only in its native region but around the world. Originally specializing in one food only, pizza, the pizza parlor was initially popularized in Naples and spread quickly throughout the south of Italy before taking over the planet. A true pizzeria serves up its specialty, baked by a pizzaiolo, in a wood-fired oven. Pizza may be eaten on the premises or taken out. Real Neapolitan pizza is usually folded into a packet and eaten like a sandwich, making it an ideal food for “on the go” consumption. The concept of pizza delivery service is an American invention. Easily now the most popular type of eatery in Italy – and elsewhere – today’s pizzeria no longer limits its menu choices to pizza, but often provides other dishes, usually in an informal atmosphere with correspondingly informal prices.

A paninoteca (pan-ee-no-TAY-kah) is essentially an Italian sandwich shop featuring a great variety of hot and cold sandwiches and coffee.

A caffè (kaff-EH), on the other hand, is a coffee shop that sometimes serves sandwiches, although usually breakfast (colazione) is the main bill of fare. Most of these coffee shops also serve alcohol.

Tea and pastries are found at a sala da tè (sal-ah-dah-TAY), a tea room.

Finally, always popular in Italy and catching on fast in America is the gelateria (jay-lah-tay-REE-ah). This is the Italian ice cream parlor. But rich, creamy Italian gelato is so far superior to its pale American relative as to be barely comparable. In fact, it would be illegal in the United States to call Italian gelati ice creams, as ice cream is defined by the FDA as a frozen product with no less than 10 percent butterfat. Gelato is usually made with whole milk which is 3 to 4 percent butterfat. Unlike ice cream, gelato ingredients are not homogenized, resulting in a product that melts faster. If you are, say, a hundred years old and remember how real ice cream used to be made, then you’ll have an idea of why there’s a gelateria in the heart of downtown Austin, Texas, for example. Buy it by the cone or by the cup in a delightful variety of flavors.

So whether you’re planning to dine at Alfredo’s in Roma, Italia or at Alfredo’s in Atlanta, Georgia, I wish you buon appetito! Mangiare bene e mangiare felice!

Secrets to Successful Italian Cooking

How to Cook Like an Italian (Even If You Aren’t One)

As our population diversifies, ethnic cuisines are becoming ever more popular. If you live in a medium to large city, you probably have restaurants specializing in French or German fare right around the corner. Chinese restaurants are everywhere and Japanese, Thai and other Asian eateries are carving footholds in places where Mexican and other Hispanic restaurants have long been established. Indian food is on the upswing and Greek, Lebanese, Polish, Creole and a host of other cultural cuisines dot the culinary landscape from coast to coast. But it is almost impossible to visit any American village, town, or city and not encounter an Italian restaurant of one sort or another. Maybe it’s a four-star ristorante or maybe it’s a mom and pop pizza place; nothing beats Italian cuisine for sheer ubiquity.

On the home front, Italian cooking far surpasses any other. How many average American families do you know of that have “sauerbraten night” or “coq au vin night” on a regular basis? Ahhh, but “spaghetti night” or “pizza night” are almost required by law.

But there is so much more to Italian cooking than pizza and spaghetti. And you don’t have to go to a fancy Italian restaurant to find it. The beauty of Italian cuisine lies in its simplicity and versatility. You can be – Latvian (or insert any ethnicity you prefer) – and still be a better than average Italian cook. I suppose it helps to be Italian. After all, most of the great and famous Italian chefs have names that contain “de,” “di,” or “la,” and end in “a,” “e,” “i,” or “o,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t be an Italian cook if your name is “Smith.” Culinarily speaking, blood is not thicker than tomato sauce – (don’t dwell on that particular metaphor for too long) -- and genetics are not as important as skills and techniques.

That said, let’s explore a few of the “secrets” of good Italian cooking.

Secret number one; freshness. Once upon a time, truly fresh ingredients in the kitchen were more a matter of luck than design. In medieval times, food was heavily spiced for two reasons; one so that the founder of the feast could really impress his guests with his conspicuous wealth and two, so that his guests wouldn’t know how rotten the food they were eating really was. It took the Renaissance – and an Italian cook – to drag the culinary world out of the dark ages of disguising bad food into the light of freshness.

Maestro Martino was the personal cook to the bishop of Aquileia in the early part of the 15th century. He wrote a book called “Liber de arte coquinaria” (On the art of cooking) that, in a later, slightly edited form, went on to essentially become the world’s first bestselling cookbook. In it, Maestro Martino placed strong emphasis on the use of simple, fresh, widely available ingredients. He also advocated bringing out the natural flavors of foods through better cooking techniques. No more roasting or boiling meats for hours and then covering up the results with heavily seasoned sauces and such. His fresh approach to cooking remains the basis of Italian cuisine to this day.

Celebrity chef Mario Batali is fond of saying that Italians feel it is their birthright to have only the freshest ingredients possible at their disposal. This slight exaggeration is not far off the mark. Good Italian cooks go to market daily and choose the best produce, picked at the peak of its freshness. And they shop around. It’s not uncommon for an Italian cook to travel across town to find perfect tomatoes.

I have brought home some real nightmares from the produce department of my neighborhood grocery store. Especially when I took advantage of “bargains.” You know, 25 pounds of potatoes for two dollars, buy one – get one free. There’s a reason they do that, people, and it’s not because they really care about your family budget. The last time I took advantage of a BOGO deal on spuds, I wound up going back to the store at 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning as my guests were rising and expecting breakfast and tracking down the produce manager to show him the peeled and cut – and basically rotten – potatoes I had purchased the previous day. He replaced them with a higher quality – and more expensive – product and I never went back there for produce.

Avoid substandard product like the plague. Learn to distinguish what is unacceptable – and don’t accept it. You’ll do much better for yourself – and your family or guests -- shopping at fruit stands and farmers markets, as well as at local butchers and fishmongers. You know, the way we used to before everything got so “convenient?” The possible exception might be higher end grocers like Whole Foods and Fresh Market, who frequently buy their produce locally. I’ve never had bad experiences with those establishments and, contrary to popular myth, you don’t have to have a line of credit at the bank to shop there. I certainly don’t! I recently purchased some bacon at a Whole Foods store while visiting friends in North Carolina. There were two choices in the fresh meat department; one was labeled “national” and the other said “local.” I inquired as to the difference and was told that the “local” product was 100 percent North Carolina produced while the other came from a national supplier. I opted for the “local” bacon. After using it, I only wished that I had bought 50 pounds more! Easily the best bacon I had ever purchased outside of a butcher shop. And it was 20 cents a pound cheaper than the Oscar Meyer bacon in my refrigerator back home.

A final thought on freshness; shop often. I know it’s a pain. It’s just so much easier to pick everything up once a week and then expect that the lettuce and tomatoes that had already languished in the grocer’s bins for goodness knows how long will still be nice and fresh a week or so later when you finally get around to using them. Now, I’m not necessarily advocating going to the store every day. What I like to do is “stock up” on non-perishable items once a week, but visit the meat and produce areas two or three times during the week to get the freshest stuff available. One of the side benefits of shopping locally and often is that your greengrocer, butcher, fishmonger or whatever will get to know you and what your likes and dislikes are. And you’ll get better service. I needed a couple of pounds of ground pork one day and I went to the store that sold me the rotten potatoes. (Hey! It’s close by.) They didn’t have any ground pork on display and when I asked for some, the meat man said, “I ain’t got nothin’ I can grind up right now.” O-k-a-a-y. Another reason I won’t be going back.

The next thing that sets Italian cooking apart from other cuisines is its versatility. Going back to Mario for a minute, another thing he’s fond of reminding people is that there is no such thing as “Italian cooking.” What exactly does that mean? Well, the answer is twofold.

Understand that Italy, as a unified nation, is younger than the United States by almost a hundred years. Prior to the Risorgimento, which resulted in a unified Italy in the 1860s, the Italian peninsula was a collection of independent regions, each of which had its own political and cultural distinctions. These distinctions extended to the kitchens. Each region had its own cuisine based upon what was grown or produced in that region. Even within the regions themselves there was a great degree of culinary diversity among the towns and villages, sometimes filtering down to the neighborhood levels. Unification among the political leaders did not translate to the cooks, who remain as strongly diverse today as they were in Garabaldi’s time.

In short, what we call “Italian cuisine” is actually an amalgamation of twenty regional cuisines. Whereas one region may utilize olive oil as the fat of choice in its cooking, another region will rely on butter. Pasta rules in the south, but rice is king in the north. We can’t even be certain what to call some dishes. Even though standard Italian as we know it today is based on the Tuscan dialect, particularly as spoken in and around Florence, each region retains its own flavor in speech as well as in cooking. The same dish can have different names depending upon where it’s prepared.

This diversity, however, also contributes to the next aspect of Italian cooking; Italian cooks are very adaptive. Unlike some other cuisines, recipes, or ricette, are guidelines in the preparation of a dish rather than hard and fast rules. Italian cooks base their creations on what’s fresh and what’s available, not necessarily on the dictates of a recipe. For example, let’s say an Italian cook wants to make halibut for supper, but when he gets to the fishmonger’s, the halibut doesn’t look so good. But the flounder, a similar type of fish, looks great. So flounder it is. When it comes to pasta, my wife is not big on fettuccine, so all my fettuccine recipes contain linguine instead. The recipe calls for Parmigiano-Reggiano, but all you’ve got on hand is grana padano, non problema! Go with what you’ve got.

Another secret to Italian cooking is the layering of flavors. An Italian cook is like a culinary architect. He or she builds their dishes from the ground up. A good tomato sauce, for example, is made up of layers of flavor. You start by heating a good olive oil. Then you add the onions. When the onions have contributed their flavor, you add the garlic. When the garlic has infused, you add carrots and celery. Then come the tomato products. Then come the dried spices and, finally, the fresh herbs. Layer upon layer of flavor. You can’t achieve that by gathering up a bunch of ingredients and throwing them all into a pot at the same time. Even though you can vary the ingredients in a recipe, don’t try to vary the technique. If a recipe says to simmer on low heat for an hour, don’t try to speed up the process by turning the heat to high for fifteen minutes. You won’t get the same result.

There is very little waste in an Italian kitchen. Wars, floods, famines, and periods of abject poverty have endowed the Italian people with an unparalleled sense of frugality. Nothing goes to waste; everything gets used until there are no practical uses left. And then they might even try some impractical ones. This is especially true in the kitchen. Let’s say you’ve grated that expensive hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano right down to the rind. Do you just throw away the rind? No! You use it to flavor a soup. There are dozens of uses for stale bread, from breadcrumbs to croutons to a bread salad called panzanella. After you cut up a chicken, the carcass goes into a stock pot. Today’s leftover potatoes become part of tomorrow’s main course. After you start thinking like that, you’ll be surprised by how creative you can be.

The final “secret” to successful Italian cooking is having a good basic supply of quality ingredients on hand. (That’s probably not the “final” secret, but I’ve got to stop somewhere.) Notice, I said “quality.” This goes back to the same belief as for freshness. A good Italian cook never skimps on quality. Italian cooks, although frugal, are never pennywise and pound foolish. That quarter that you save buying third rate, bottom shelf, store brand canned tomatoes instead of the San Marzano tomatoes on the higher shelf will come back to bite you in the finished product. Same is true of olive oil and, believe it or not, not all dried pasta is created equal. If you find that you really can’t afford the top dollar stuff, at least settle on a good compromise. There’s a reason that cheap stuff is cheap.

Here are a few things that should be in every Italian pantry. Most of these items will keep for a long time and because they are used in so many different Italian recipes, they will probably never go to waste.

Dried pasta – spaghetti, linguine, elbow macaroni, conchiglie (shells). Go wild. There are dozens to choose from. You know what you like.

Olive oil – you’ll also find a dozen olive oils on you grocer’s shelf, but you only need to be concerned with two of them; extra-virgin and pure. Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first cold pressing of the olives and is the best quality. It’s also the most expensive. Use it for salads, for drizzling on a plate of pasta, risotto or vegetables, or as a final touch of seasoning. Pure olive oil is made from the second or third pressing of the olives, a procedure which employs heat or chemicals. Pure grade oil does not have the quality or flavor of extra-virgin. It’s a little cheaper and is used mostly for cooking and frying. Forget about “light” olive oil. It’s a flavorless concoction made primarily for Americans who think that the “light” label makes it healthier. Some stores – like Whole Foods – have “olive oil bars” where you can test and taste the flavor of the oil before you buy it.

Onions, Carrots, Celery, and Garlic – these are the ingredients for a soffrito, a base from which many Italian dishes are made. The French call it mirepoix, but who cares what they call it? Obviously, you’ll want fresh, crispy carrots and celery and you should use fresh garlic rather than the dried or jarred stuff. Buy heads that are firm and store them in a cool, dry place. Depending on size, a fresh head of garlic usually contains 10 to 14 cloves and will keep for two or three weeks. Green sprouts? Throw it out. Same applies to onions, which should also be firm and sprout-free. Red or yellow onions are best for most Italian dishes.

Rice – used in most northern Italian dishes. Common long grain rice won’t usually cut it. (And, omigod, don’t use Minute Rice!) Arborio rice is a short grain rice used in risotto and other rice dishes. It’s fairly easy to find in most supermarkets. If you come across its cousins, vialone nano and carnaroli, give them a try, too.

Polenta – basically, Italian cornmeal. “Real” polenta is long-cooking and labor intensive, so you might stock up on instant polenta, a perfectly acceptable substitute in most cases. Polenta is served in a variety of ways: soft and topped with a little olive oil, cheese or sauce, fried, grilled and baked with sauce and cheese.

Vinegar – if you come across a true balsamico tradizionale, prepare to give up your right arm for it. Most of the stuff that’s sold as balsamic vinegar in the U.S. is sweetened wine vinegar. It’s adequate for most purposes, so keep some on hand along with, maybe, a bottle of red wine vinegar for salads and cooked dishes.

Wine – speaking of wine, think Billy Joel here; “bottle of red, bottle of white.” And don’t buy the two dollar “cooking wine” variety. Use stuff you’d actually drink.

Canned tomatoes – gotta have ‘em! Use fresh if they’re really, undeniably good, but, by and large, canned are consistently better and constantly available. Whole canned plum tomatoes are an Italian staple. You can slice ‘em, dice ‘em, crush ‘em, or puree ‘em – you just can’t be without ‘em. And if you can find some that are labeled “San Marzano,” buy them up. They are a variety grown around Naples and make the best sauce you’ll ever put in your mouth.

Sun-dried tomatoes – also used in a lot of Italian dishes. The jarred variety, packed in oil, are the best.

Tomato paste – made from ripened tomatoes with the skins and seeds removed, tomato paste is the “paste” that holds many sauces together. It imparts a richness and depth of flavor not found in other products. Canned paste is okay, but I prefer mine in a tube. I can use only as much as I need and it keeps forever in the fridge.

Store-bought jarred pasta sauce – I make my own when I can; when I can’t, there’s always a jar of traditional Ragu or Prego or something in my pantry. I always buy the plain stuff and add my own “extras” when a quick meal is in order.

Cheese – again, dozens to choose from. Parmesan is probably the most recognized. Try to stay away from the grated stuff in the can. Fresh-grated is best. Romano is another cheese to keep around. Same rules apply. Obviously, imported Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano are at the top of the cheese food chain, but they can be a little hard to find and a bit pricey. But, oh, are they worth it! Maybe keep the cheaper domestic stuff for everyday use and get a small quantity of the “good stuff” for those really special dishes. Mozzarella, ricotta, and mascarpone are also essentials, but they have relatively short shelf lives and are best purchased fresh as you need them.
Mushrooms – big favorites in everything from sauces to pizza topping. Fresh whole mushrooms are great, dried porcini mushrooms are a great alternative.

Canned and dried beans and lentils -- use them in soups, pastas, vegetable and meat dishes, antipasti and salads.

Olives--Italian and Greek black olives are best for cooking. For green olives, use large Sicilian olives. For best flavor, look for imported olives in jars or in the deli section and skip the domestic canned variety.

Capers – they come salted or packed in vinegar (brined). Salted capers have the purest flavor, but the brined and bottled ones are more common. Before using, rinse them under cold water to remove some of the salt (salt-packed must be rinsed very well). Refrigerate both; brined have a much longer shelf life.

Canned anchovies, sardines and tuna – great for adding flavor to a lot of dishes or sometimes as the main ingredient. If you can find it, imported tuna packed in olive oil has the best flavor. The best quality anchovies are those that are packed in salt; they must be rinsed very well before using, and may need to be deboned. If salt-packed are not available, look for oil-packed anchovies packaged in glass jars.

A few spices and herbs to keep on hand include:

Kosher or sea salt – used for everything from incorporating as an ingredient to salting pasta water. Keep the table salt for use at the table.

Black Peppercorns – freshly grated black pepper is far superior to the canned ground stuff.

Red pepper flakes -- used for hot and spicy dishes like arribiata and picatta. In small amounts they liven up a dish without packing too much heat.

Dried Thyme, Oregano, Sage, Marjoram, Rosemary – mix them together and you have Italian seasoning. Of course, fresh is best, but not always available or practical. Buy the dried leaves when possible, not the ground herbs.
Nutmeg – buy it whole and grate it yourself when you need it. It has a powerful flavor, so a little goes a long way.

Saffron – an essential ingredient in risotto Milanese, and, by the way, the world’s most expensive spice. The powdered version imparts the most flavor, but you can finely chop the strands as well. A little goes a long way. Let me say that again, “A little goes a long way!” Turmeric, sometimes known as Indian Saffron, is a widely used alternative to the more expensive real thing.

Finally, breadcrumbs and chicken broth or stock are also handy to keep around your Italian kitchen. Hoity-toities will turn their noses up at packaged breadcrumbs and canned stocks or broths, but there’s really nothing wrong with them. I keep both Italian and plain breadcrumbs on hand as well as a supply of panko, a larger, coarser Japanese crumb that does well in many Italian dishes. And I usually stay stocked up not only on chicken broth, but beef and vegetable broths, too.

So, Mr. or Mrs. Smith, with the above knowledge in mind, arm yourself with a couple of good Italian cookbooks, watch a couple of good Italian cooking shows, visit a couple of good Italian restaurants, and maybe take a couple of good Italian cooking classes, and you’ll be cooking like an Italian cook before you know it.

Buon appetito e felice cucinare!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Culinary Basics: Mise en Place

Absolutely Indispensable In Any Kitchen

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the French? Yeah...well...okay, me, too. But what I was actually going for is cooking.

The French have occupied the top spot on the culinary food chain ever since the Italians taught them to cook in the 16th century. (Okay, so maybe that's not entirely true, but it's still fun to poke holes in French puffery.) And for all of the high-flown and overblown absurdities that are sometimes associated with the classic French kitchen – measuring the height and number of pleats in a chef's toque comes to mind – there is one precept that is absolutely indispensable in any kitchen: mise en place.

Loosely translated, mise en place means “put in place,” and although the codified principle of mise en place can probably be traced back to Georges Auguste Escoffier and his brigade system, the actual concept is basically what your grandmother always told you; a place for everything and everything in its place. This is especially important in the kitchen. And not just in the restaurant kitchen, but in the home kitchen, as well.

A good cook is an efficient cook and employing mise en place assures efficiency. And the practice of mise en place doesn't just apply to professional chefs. Even in home kitchens, organization and efficiency mark the difference between an average cook and an above average cook.

Consider the following recipe for a basic marinara sauce:

3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 yellow onion, peeled and chopped fine
3 tbsp olive oil
2 (28-ounce) cans tomato puree
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
1 cup chicken stock
Red pepper flakes to taste
Salt to taste

In a large saucepan, cook the garlic and onion in the olive oil over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until the garlic is tender and the onions are translucent, not brown. Add the red pepper flakes to taste.
Add all the tomato products. Pour the chicken stock into one of the 28-oz cans. Fill it the rest of the way with water and add that and the sugar to the pot. Stir and bring to a simmer. Taste and season with salt and cover. Simmer the sauce for about 1 hour. The sauce should be fairly thin, but not watery and very smooth. Uncover and simmer for 3 minutes if it is too thin for your taste; add a little water if it seems thick.

(This is an excellent recipe, by the way.)

Now, the average cook will likely start by going to the shelf or cupboard for a saucepan. He'll walk over to the stove and place it on a burner. Then he'll go to the pantry and find some olive oil. Next, he'll hunt for some measuring spoons and then head back to the stove to measure in the oil. Now it's back to the pantry for some garlic and then a search for a knife or a garlic press. Once the garlic is crushed, the average cook goes back to the pantry for an onion. He then locates a cutting board and goes back to the counter where he left his knife after he finished with the garlic. After he chops the onion, he goes back to the stove and turns on the burner. He adds in the garlic and onion and then looks for a wooden spoon with which to stir it. Now it's back to the pantry for the tomato products, moving quickly so the garlic and onions don't burn. Find the can opener and open all the cans of tomato product. Ooops! Forgot the red pepper flakes! Back to the pantry. Guess what? No red pepper flakes. Too late now. We'll just have to leave them out. So, now the tomato products are in. Back to the pantry for the chicken stock. Locate the can opener and open the can. Find a measuring cup and measure out the stock. Over to the sink to get some water then back to the pantry for the sugar. Find the measuring spoons again and measure out the sugar, then go back over to the sink and get the can with the stock and the water. Then over to the stove to dump it all in the pan and stir it up. Go get the salt shaker off the table and then go back to the stove to add it to the sauce. Go over to the silverware drawer and get a spoon, then step back over to the stove to taste the sauce. Now, just figure out which lid fits the pan, cover it and the hard part is done!

Except it was a lot harder than it needed to be.

The organized cook checks the recipe first and makes sure he has all the ingredients. It's a lot easier to make a run to the store now than when the sauce is cooking and you discover you don't have something.

Next, the organized cook lays out all the hardware: the pans, spoons, knives, bowls, boards, cups, openers, etc. are all placed within easy reach. Then the ingredients are all gathered together and similarly placed in easy reach. Open all the cans, measure out all the liquid and dry ingredients and place them in handy prep bowls or containers. Chop up the vegetables and put them in prep bowls or containers. Now, you just assemble the prepared ingredients into the prepared cookware and you're done.

That's the way the big time TV chefs do it, baby. You don't see them running back to the fridge for a forgotten carrot, or hunting for the oregano, now do you? Nope. A whole bunch of people in the prep kitchen make sure that everything is laid out and ready before the host chef ever smiles at the camera. That's why it looks so easy on TV. Emeril might be the one to “bam!” his way through the recipe, but there's a lot of folks working off camera to make sure that his mise en place is set up the way he needs it.

Now, for me – and for a lot of other chefs and cooks – mise en place doesn't just apply to the active cooking stage. Everything had a place when you started. It needs to go back there when you're done so it's ready for the next time.

Honestly, I cannot fathom how some people function in kitchens that are disorganized to begin with with and wind up looking like war zones by the time the meal is cooked. I am acquainted with several people who just throw things into drawers and cabinets without regard to what goes with what. Mixing bowls live with canned goods, plastic wrap resides with frying pans, silverware inhabits two or three separate drawers. Yeesh! People, the department stores are full of nifty organizers to help you put your kitchen together more efficiently. If I had to go on safari every time I needed a measuring spoon, I'd probably get sick of cooking, too.

And then there are the people who employ every dish in the kitchen in the preparation of a meal and just stack all the used cookware in tremendous piles. I kid you not, I once knew a woman who stacked her dirty dishes on the floor when she ran out of sink and counter space. I don't have to tell you how nasty that is, do I? And then these people survey the nightmare they've created in the simple preparation of a pot of spaghetti and wail about what a chore cooking is! Please!

Part of my mise en place involves being organized to start with and cleaning up as I go. My drawers, cabinets, and countertops are neat and organized and I know where everything is. I don't have baked on messes on my cooktop because if something spills or boils over while I'm cooking, I clean it up on the spot. I keep a sink full of hot, soapy water on hand as I'm preparing dishes and as I use a pan or a bowl or a utensil, I wash it and put it away. The stand mixer and the food processor get cleaned and put back in their corner as soon as I'm through with them. When I finish preparing a four-course meal, my sink, countertops, and stovetop don't look much different than when I started. A place for everything and everything in its place.

Mise en place – “put in place.” If you make it the beginning and the end of your time in the kitchen, cooking will never again seem like such a dreadful chore.

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dancing With the Stars: And the Winner Is...Nobody

Okay, You Can Breathe Now, But...

The party's over. The people have spoken. The mirrorball trophy's going home with Jennifer Grey, the winner of Season 11. But is she? Did Season 11 have a winner? I don't think so. Death threats? People shooting at their TVs? Proven and unproven accusations of political machinations? The mirrorball is tarnished and nobody really won. That's a shame for the dedicated people who worked really hard only to be pulled down by an underlying current of mud and muck worthy of the most vicious political campaign.

"The viewers have spoken." Maybe. But are the producers of Dancing With the Stars listening? 

Consider, if you will, the dictionary definition of a star: “a self-luminous gaseous spheroidal celestial body of great mass.” Or, in simpler terms, a big ball of flaming gas.

Now consider ABC's definition of a star: Kate Gosselin, Bristol Palin. Hmmm.....

For the record, let me unequivocally state two things: First, I don't hate Bristol Palin. Second, I screamed “YES-S-S-S-S!” so loudly when she got the hook on DWTS that I frightened my cat out of several of its lives.

If this seems like a contradiction in terms, it's not. I don't hate anybody without good and sufficient cause, and being the talentless daughter of a ridiculously overblown politician does not constitute good and sufficient cause. So, no, I don't hate Bristol.

What I strongly disapprove of is ABC's shark-jumping drive to boost ratings by lowering the qualifications for “stardom” to apply to two women whose only claim to fame is their reproductive prowess. Like Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!,” Kate and Bristol are nothing more than a couple of girls who can't say “no.” And this fulfills Andy Warhol's prediction in what way? Neither woman is deserving of fifteen seconds of fame, let alone fifteen minutes.

And yet there they were, dancing with the legitimate stars.

Let's go back to the dictionary for another definition of a star: “the principal member of a theatrical or operatic company who usually plays the chief roles: a highly publicized theatrical, musical, or motion-picture performer: an outstandingly talented performer <a track star>: a person who is preeminent in a particular field.”

David Hasselhoff, Jennifer Grey, Brandy Norwood, Florence Henderson, Rick Fox, Michael Bolton, and Kurt Warner all fit the criteria. Kyle Massey and Audrina Patridge sort of fit. “The Situation” is a definite stretch. But no amount of manipulation makes Bristol Palin a part of the equation. The DWTS producers even had to make up something to call her. “Movie Star?” No. “Actor?” No. “Singer?” No. “Athlete?” Nope. Since “Unwed Mother” didn't really fly, they settled for “Teen Activist.” How completely and insultingly specious.

I'm sorry that Bristol had to deal with so much hate. She didn't deserve it. Nobody does. Death threats? White powder in envelopes? Some loon blasting his TV with a shotgun? Bodyguards, armed security details. She didn't need to endure all that – because she didn't need to be there to begin with.

You'd think the producers would have had enough after the Kate Gosselin debacle, but, no! “Let's go grab a bigger lightning rod! One with strongly polarized political connections. So she moves like a board with legs and exhibits the emotional depth of a wooden Indian. Who cares? She may not be a star, but her momma is, and that's close enough. Yeah, we know – Dancing With the Stars. We'll figure something out. Just think of the numbers!!”

Oh, I heard the “most improved dancer” mantra that everybody from the producers to Palin herself (both of them) tried to ram down our throats. But you know what? In a competition, the prize goes to the best, not the “most improved.” Hey, compared to last year, the Atlanta Braves were the most improved team in baseball. Did it get them to the World Series? I have a great idea. With the Olympics coming to London in 2012, why don't we just do away with all those silly medals and championships and just give prizes out to the people who try really hard and show improvement? Don't you think real people would relate more to them because they're more like us?

Sheeesh! I don't think I can swallow that pill, Maude. Better find me a suppository.

No, Momma Grizzly's lunatic supporters are the very people responsible for Bristol's pain, suffering, and ultimate humiliation. They have a lot to be proud of. If the tea bags hadn't tried to use a bit of harmless entertainment fluff as a proving grounds for their presidential aspirations, a talentless, clueless young woman would have been eliminated in the first round or two and the brouhaha would never had brewed.

Other than the fact that she bought into her own ludicrous PR, Bristol Palin has nothing to be ashamed of. She came, she tried, she failed. The shame is on the political manipulators who did their best to stack the deck. And the shame is on the network producers who dealt the hand in the first place, knowing full well what would transpire.

If ABC can't find legitimate stars willing to participate in DWTS, maybe it's time to fold the tent and move on. Their next exercise in stupidity may not turn out so benignly. Maybe the powder will be real next time or the doofus with the gun won't stop at blasting his TV. Entertainment, by definition, does not include provoking people to issue death threats and organize boycotts.

I'll add my two cents to the collection of those who think that an overhaul of the voting system is in order. But I think the bigger problem is with the star selection process.

I hope ABC finds a solution to its problem before next season.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Danger! Men Cooking!"

I’m not much for “cutesy” cooking apparel. My chef coats and aprons are basic white or black and, except for my name and business logo, completely unadorned. And I don’t usually don a chef’s coat when I’m cooking at home. I'm not that pretentious. A simple apron suffices. But sometimes when I need a little chuckle, I might slip on the one item of “funny” kitchen wear that I own; it’s a black toque embroidered with a yellow caution sign that reads, “Danger! Men Cooking!”

I found this innocuous-seeming item in a little shop in North Carolina and have since discovered that it is part of a whole product line being marketed by some hot sauce company. Be that as it may, the concept still kind of strikes a chord: “Danger! Men Cooking!”

As a man who cooks, I believe it is time we rise above the stereotype. There is no basis for the scurrilous lampooning of the male gender when it comes to matters culinary. The image of the incompetent Joe having to call in the fire department as a result of his attempt to boil water should be erased from popular culture.

That being said, I’ll be the first to admit that not all men can cook. My poor father could have been the poster boy for “Danger! Men Cooking!” Here was a man totally out of his element in the kitchen. Like most men, if you handed him a hunk of raw, red meat and stood him up outdoors in front of a glowing wood or charcoal fire, he was transformed. Give him an apron with some silly saying on it, hand him a can of lighter fluid and a match, and he became the King of Kingsford! But take him indoors, give him a frying pan and an egg, and he grew eight more thumbs. Now that I think about it, when it came to eggs, he might actually have had better luck with a frying pan.

We had a cooktop that featured a flat-top griddle in the center. There was an opening at the top of the griddle that allowed grease to run into the trap underneath. I remember as a very young boy trying to keep my sides from splitting while watching my hapless father chase one egg after another down the opening and into the grease trap. He just couldn’t get the hang of turning them over with a spatula. My mother finally thanked him for his “help” and took over the job before we ran out of eggs. I’m convinced that had my dad been in charge of feeding the family, we would have either starved or learned to like our eggs charcoal grilled.

Dad couldn’t cook, not because he was a man, but because he never learned how. Nobody comes into this world with a cookbook in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. I don’t think that either sex is “genetically predisposed” toward cooking. I’ve known more than a few women who couldn’t cook their way out of a wet paper bag, even if you took the bottom out of the bag. So why is it that the idea of “Danger! Men Cooking!” is so entrenched in our society?

Mostly, it’s because of society itself. As I said, nobody is born with cooking utensils in hand, but cultural prejudices place those tools in the hands of girls almost before they can walk. Face it; little girls get aprons and Easy Bake ovens for Christmas while little boys get tool belts and Tonka trucks. When they grow up, girls help Mom in the kitchen and boys help Dad in the garage. When you were in high school, how many girls took shop classes and how many boys took Home Economics? And when this kind of gender bending did take place, what did everybody say about the gender benders? Hmmm? So is it any wonder that when boys grow to be men, they have to find a woman to cook for them? Either that or they become really good customers at the local restaurants.

And, speaking of restaurants, therein lies an interesting dichotomy. Have you ever noticed that ninety percent of the eating establishments you go into these days, from the Waffle House on the highway to the upscale bistro downtown, have men in the kitchen? If men are such genetically inept cooks and so inherently incompetent in the kitchen, why, then, do they dominate the culinary world? If cooking is “woman’s work,” why aren’t more of them doing it on a professional level?

It’s interesting to note that a recent list of top ten celebrity chef earners includes only two women; Rachel Ray and Paula Deen. The other eight spots belong to Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay, Nobu Matsuhisa, Alain Ducasse, Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, Bobby Flay, and Anthony Bourdain. Not bad for a bunch of guys who were probably scorned on the playground as “sissies” for helping their mamas in the kitchen.

So, rather than laugh at the “danger” of men cooking, let’s examine a few reasons why men should be as proficient with a spoon and a spatula as they are with a hammer and a wrench.

Cooking is the ultimate survival skill. Men like to beat their chests about their abilities as survivalists. Okay. So you can bag a deer or land a fish. Then what? Do you wait for a woman to come around and cook it for you? Nahhhh! A man who can only bring home the bacon is not nearly so much of a man as the one who can bring home the bacon -- and then cook it.

A lot of men obsess about their bodies. Being lean and mean. Buff. Cut. Trim. It’s hard to stay that way when your breakfast comes from Dunkin’ Donuts, your lunch from McDonald’s and your supper from Domino’s. When you can cook for yourself, you have control over what goes into your body. You can make healthy choices in healthy proportions when you make it yourself.

Unless you’re Bill Gates, everybody needs to cut back on spending a little these days. If you’re a single guy and you’re eating out three meals a day, you’re taking a BIG bite out of your paycheck, even if you’re only frequenting the places I mentioned in the previous paragraph. If you can cook for yourself, you can save a lot of money. And it doesn’t have to be all gourmet stuff. I can take a can of tomatoes, a few cups of flour, a little cheese and a few spices and turn out three or four pizzas to every one you’re buying from Domino’s or Pizza Hut. And even if you don’t make everything from scratch, if you can just learn how to open a box or a can without screwing up the contents, you’ll be amazed at how much money you’ll save.

On the subject of money, there are great job opportunities for a guy who can cook. If you can flip a burger, you can work at McDonald’s. If you can create special dishes, plan a menu, manage expenses and supervise a staff, you can be an executive chef at a five-star restaurant. Cooking is a job skill, and like anything else, the better you are at it the more you get paid for it.

Finally, guys who can cook are chick magnets. Sure, women like to be surprised with things like flowers and candy and they like nice, romantic dinners. So when you can give a girl a bouquet of roses, a box of chocolates and then treat her to a nice, romantic, candlelight dinner that you made yourself especially for her – brother, you are just “in” like you wouldn’t believe. And it’s not just the dating scene, man. My wife hears it everywhere she goes; “You’re so lucky to have a man who can cook.” One woman even went so far as to tell her, “My husband is good in the bedroom but he’s lousy in the kitchen. Sometimes I wish it was the other way around.” Face it, women love guys who can cook – because it means they don’t have to!

And cooking can be a great way to expand your relationship with your significant other. If her eyes glaze over when you talk about carburetors and your eyes glaze over when she talks about bouillabaisse, try playing in each other’s sandbox. Teach her how to change a tire and let her teach you how to make a sauce. You’ll both learn something useful and have fun doing it. My wife and I take turns at being sous chef to each other. In my Italian kitchen, I usually handle the antipasti and the primi piatti, she does the contorni and the dolci, and we both kick in on the secondi. If you don’t know what any of that means, don’t worry about it. Basically, in American terms, we split the side courses and work together on the main dish. We have worked this way both professionally and at home and we love it.

Guys, it’s never too early or too late to learn. I started cooking when I was seven years old. But I know men who took up gourmet cooking as a retirement hobby. So if “Danger! Men Cooking!” applies to you, find a class. Look online or check out a community college. I’m not saying go for a degree in culinary arts, but take some evening classes. (Single guys, there’ll be girls there!) Stores like Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table offer cooking classes on a regular basis. So do Whole Foods and other specialty grocers. Most of the stuff they teach is pretty basic, but I’ve been cooking for more than fifty years and I still pick up neat little tips and tricks at these places. You’re never too old to learn. And if formal classes aren’t your thing, there’s always your mom, your wife, your sister, your girlfriend – you know, one of those people who is “supposed to know how to cook.”

“Danger! Men Cooking!”? Nahh! The only danger is that you might find out you like it.

Buon appetito!

Restaurant Review: Ristorante Sarnelli's, Orange Park, FL

When traveling I always try to find authentic little local Italian places rather than the big chain restaurants. Nothing wrong with Olive Garden and Carrabba's....(actually, there is, but that's a topic for another article.)

If you're anywhere near Orange Park, Florida, do yourself a favor and visit Ristorante Sarnelli’s.

First of all, they speak Italian there, a big plus for me when I rate an Italian restaurant. One of my favorite little games is to go into any Italian place that bills itself as “authentic” and ask for a menu – in Italian. If the hostess looks at me like I’ve grown a third eye, I walk out. If she smiles and hands me a menu, I make a reservation. I did this at a little place in North Carolina once. The young man at the door said, “I can understand you, sir, but I don’t speak Italian.” I gave him points for “close enough” and subsequently had a great meal there.

Next, the ambiance is very nice. Small and intimate, this is a great place for a romantic evening or for friends to meet for dinner. Not much of a place to take your seven screaming kids, but that’s okay by me. The décor is authentic without being overstated. No plastic checkered tablecloths here; crisp white linen all the way.

This is also a very friendly place. No stuffed shirts. Everybody is nice from the person who greets you at the door all the way through the wait staff. They are solicitous without being intrusive. They are also very efficient, keeping the glasses full and the courses moving in order.

I was especially impressed by the nice Italian lady who kept watch over us. She seemed delighted when I commented on our food in Italian, and when I said, “Mi piacerebbe avere la ricetta,” she absolutely beamed. I found out later that this was the owner, Rosaria Sarnelli.

And what can I say about the food? Il cibo è fantastico! A varied menu of great Italian-American cuisine, some delicious authentic Italian fare, and a delectable assortment of daily specials.

We were a party of three, in town for business. We all went for pretty basic stuff; my wife ordered the spaghetti with meatballs, I chose a spaghetti carbonara, and our guest had the lasagna. We sampled around a little and all agreed that everything was delicious. We also all agreed that, due to the ample portions, there was no room for dessert, a real shame, because there were some good looking dolci to choose from. The tiramisu and the New York-style cheesecake were especially tempting. All this and at reasonable prices, too. We rang up about $60 for three people.

Ristorante Sarnelli’s is easy to find. It's on a main highway not too far off the interstate. There is adequate parking, and reservations are accepted. This is not a shorts and t-shirt kind of place. Business casual is good, but you would not feel overdressed if you went a notch higher.

Ristorante Sarnelli's is a must, even if you're just going past Orange Park on the interstate. Next time business or pleasure takes me to the Jacksonville area you'll probably run into me there.

Ristorante Sarnelli’s
2023 Park Ave
Orange Park, FL 32073
(904) 269-1331

Monday, November 22, 2010

Food Words and Phrases That Make Me Cringe

Caution: Another Elitist, Effetist Rant!

When writing about food and food culture, it often seems like I engage in America-bashing because I'm always talking about how Americans do this wrong and Americans do that wrong. I'm really not. I fly the Stars and Stripes proudly and I know all the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” – all four verses, not just the “O, say, can you see...” one.

But the fact remains, Americans are probably the most linguistically ignorant population on the planet. People in nearly every other country are at least bi-lingual. Many speak multiple languages fluently. Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks in the good ol' USA who have yet to master English. Subsequently, the things they do to foreign languages would be laughable were they not so atrocious. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the food world.

As ethnic cuisines from other places have integrated into our Yankee melting pot, lots of new food words and phrases have been introduced. And since Americans are far too busy and far too self-important to learn how to properly pronounce and/or use them, they simply “Americanize” them, which automatically makes them correct.

I have suffered in relative silence for many years, but no longer. I'm forming the “Correct Pronunciation of Foreign Food Words Society.” That's right. I'm going to be an activist. You might soon see me on Food Network or Cooking Channel. After all, if a certain young “Dancing With the Stars” contestant can reflect her family values by getting “in a family way” without benefit of wedlock and then be granted “star” status and billed as a “Teen Activist” on national television, who knows how far I might go by calling myself a “Food Word Activist?” I see great potential. And I can't dance either.

Seriously, this militancy came about as a result of my being “corrected” by a “sandwich artist” for a nationally known chain. I was ordering a sandwich and requested provolone cheese. Said “artist” looked at me like I was stupid and said, “Do you mean provolone?” To which I replied, “No, I mean provolone.” And I was told, “All we've got....” – no, actually, it was, “we” – “All we got is provolone.”

Okay, the conversation loses something in writing. The crux of the matter was that I was ordering “proh-voh-LOH-nay” and was being offered “PROH-vuh-loan.”

Italian seems to top the leader board for pronunciation offenses. I've gotten to where I can tolerate “mahtz-uh-RELLA” in place of “mohts-ah-RAY-lah,” and “bis-KAH-tee” instead of “bee-SKOH-tee.” But if you want to watch the skin crawl right up my arms, over my shoulders, up my neck, and explode from my face, hit me with a good old American “mare-uh-NARE-uh” sauce. I have politely tried to teach legions of American restaurant servers to say, “mah-ree-NAH-rah” without much success. But I do try.

The British have their own peculiarities. “BAZ-il,” for instance, instead of “BAY-zil.” (Of course, it would be “basilico” in Italian.) The Brits do get closer with “or-ee-GAH-no” instead of “or-REG-ah-no,” the Italian word being “origano.” But “PASS-tuh” is another weird Britishism often affected by Americans, and I don't understand why. Just don't ask for your PASS-tuh with mare-uh-NARE-uh sauce, and we'll be okay.

And please don't offer me something made with “MUSS-car-pone” cheese. I'll gladly eat anything made with “mahs-car-POH-nay,” but the other doesn't even sound appetizing.

Part of the problem lies in the predilection of the English language toward silent letters. I mean, take the word “knight;” half the letters in it are silent! But the Italian people are very frugal. They don't waste anything, including letters. Oh, they may toss out an occasional “h” at the beginning of a word, but they never throw away a perfectly good vowel. So, whereas the “e” at the end of an English word is frequently silent, this is never the case in Italian. And the closed Italian “e” – the one commonly ending a word – is pronounced like the English long “a.” Hence, “mahs-kar-POH-nay” and “proh-voh-LOH-nay.” (In Italian, the stress is commonly on the penultimate syllable, but that's a topic for another article.)

Besides blatant mispronunciation, though, there's outright syntax abuse. The one that grates on my nerves the hardest comes from French cuisine. When French food started catching on in America, Americans became fond of ordering things “au jus.” “Beef au Jus,” for instance. Now, let me be the first one to tell you a couple of things; in French, the phrase “au jus” is pronounced “oh-zhew,” not “aw jew” and certainly not “aw jews.” Second, the phrase means “with the juice” or “in its own juice.” There is no such thing as an “au jus” sauce. “I'd like that with au jus sauce” is ignorantly incorrect. “I'd like that au jus” is the proper way to order something with a light beef sauce. Statements like, "All of our French dip sandwiches are served on a specially baked French roll, dipped in our au jus" or "served with our au jus" are just wrong! Translate it to English and listen to how stupid it sounds: "All of our French dip sandwiches are served on a specially baked French roll, dipped in our with juice" or "served with our with juice." A light beef sauce, poured over or served on the side, is a “jus,” not an “au jus.” “I'd like my sandwich with a little jus on the side, please” is the correct way to order. Of course, my cause is not helped by people like the folks at Lawry's who market a package mix for “Au Jus.” But if you ever listen to a real chef, one who has been classically trained and actually knows what he's talking about, you'll never hear him use “au jus” as a noun.

Same for any Spanish or Italian dish containing the word “con.” (The word, by the way, rhymes with “loan” or “moan” and not with the name of the Star Trek villain, “Kahn.”) In either language, “con” means “with.” Therefore, there is no such thing as a “con queso sauce.” “Gimme a burrito with some con queso sauce” is a nonsense statement. You're asking for a burrito with some with cheese sauce. “I want a burrito con queso” is okay. So is, “I'd like a burrito with queso.” But please don't give the Mexican cooks on the prep line something to laugh about by asking for “a burrito with with cheese.” (“Ha, ha, ha! Escuchar a los gringos estúpidos!) That goes for “con carne,” too, which means “with meat.” So don't order your chili con carne with meat. It's already in there.

You know what makes it especially sad? The double standard. Americans are the first to fall over laughing whenever a foreigner mispronounces or misuses an English word or phrase. “Ha, ha, ha! Did you hear what the stupid (choose your ethnic pejorative) said? Ha, ha, ha!” But they can walk around saying ridiculous stuff like “mare-uh-NARE-uh” or “aw jew” with impunity. I don't get it.

Sorry, there I go America-bashing again, but it's just irritating to hear ignorant, pretentious people mangaling coq au vin in an attempt to sound sophisticated and Continental. If you can't say “kohk-oh-van” with that funny little nasal sound on the “n,” just order chicken cooked in wine and spare my jangled auditory nerves. Same goes for potatoes or any dish prepared au gratin. “Gratin” does not rhyme with “rotten.” “Oh grah-TAN” – with the same funky nasal accent on the “n” – is correct. “Aw GRAHT-ten” is not.

And, for goodness' sake, if you can't manage “mah-ree-NAH-rah,” just ask for tomato sauce. It may not sound as Continental, but it will sound a lot less stupid to people who know the difference.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Everbody Should Learn How to Cook

In the delightful animated feature film “Ratatouille,” fictional chef Gusteau writes a cookbook based on the premise that “Anybody Can Cook.” Better Homes and Gardens magazine has actually published a cookbook of a similar name. So it must be true, right?

Well, let’s define and refine the term “cook.” Webster’s definition of the intransitive verb “cook” says: “to prepare food for eating especially by means of heat.” Sounds pretty simple. So, essentially, anybody with a box of matches can cook?

It’s easy! You open a soup can, you pour the contents into a pan or bowl, add water and either turn the knob that activates the burner or set the time and press “start”, and, viola, by strict definition, you’re cooking! But are you really?

In the last fifty years or so, we have become a culture of non-cooks. Open the blue box, dump the dried pasta in the water, add milk and butter to the orange cheese-flavored stuff, stir it all together and serve it to your family under the guise of macaroni and cheese. Or, if you’re too busy to go to all that trouble, they make the same stuff in a little cup that you can simply pop into the microwave. Unless, of course, you’d rather just take it out of the freezer and warm it up. And do notice that on most frozen food packages, they admonish the stupidest among us to “cook before eating.” (See Webster’s definition of “cook.”)

But is this cooking? No. It’s minimal preparation of food or food-like substances in order to achieve basic sustenance. “Cooking” is about taking the time and making the effort to prepare and blend ingredients for flavor and balance. It’s more than satisfying the body’s basic nutritional requirements – and most of what is prepackaged today barely meets that criterion. Cooking is a creative art, and, like most art forms, it edifies both the creator and the consumer.

Anybody can cook? I don’t know. But everybody should learn. Learn for the sake of self-sufficiency, if for no other reason. I am bone weary of hearing about men who expect – nay, demand – that their women have their food on the table waiting for them. Whatsamatta, Goomba? Something wrong with your hands? You wanna eat? Cook! I can cook as well as any woman and better than most. And I started doing it when I was seven years old. I have never in my adult life had to depend on anybody to put a meal, and a damn good one, on my table for me. You want to be a big, macho man who can do anything? Learn how to cook.

And then there’s economy. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with going out to eat once in awhile. But, with food and gas prices being what they are these days, you’re going to need a second (or third?) job if eating out is the only way you’re going to get fed. The two of us went out for pizza the other day. Large pizza, breadsticks and a couple of drinks. Thirty bucks! Do you know how many pizzas I could make at home for thirty bucks? I could feed the two of us and most of the neighbors for a week! You want to save some money? Learn how to cook.

Everybody complains about being fat. They complain all the way to McDonald’s and all the way back from Baskin-Robbins. Maybe as an overreaction to the deprivations of war and depression, somewhere, fifty or sixty years ago, we got this idea that more is better. Value, you know. More for your money. So, we started super sizing, jumbo sizing, Hungry Man-sizing. We went from nine-inch plates to twelve-inch plates to platters! “All you can eat” screams the sign over the buffet. And yet, we seem to be at a loss to explain the epidemic of obesity. The ability to cook brings with it the ability to choose healthful ingredients and to prepare them in a flavorful manner. It also allows you, the cook, to adjust the portion size, a key ingredient in weight management. You want to control your weight? Learn how to cook.

While we’re on the subject, how about nutrition? As I said, the ability to cook brings with it the ability to choose healthful ingredients and to prepare them in a flavorful manner. “Choose healthful ingredients” is the operative phrase in that sentence. When you can cook, you are no longer at the mercy of the food processors who load up everything they package with enough chemicals and artificial additives to ensure that, long after we die an early death because of the junk they feed us, we will be beautifully preserved. Doesn’t matter whether I’m cooking burgers and fries or an eight course Italian dinner, I know what’s in it because I put it there. I like knowing that if I don’t use something in my refrigerator or pantry within a few days or a week, I’ll have to replace it. I’m not really all that keen on using food that was packaged in the last century for use in the next. I’m not saying everything has to be “organic,” and fresh is not always practical or best. Canned and fresh-frozen ingredients are great. But the point is, when you can cook, you can make those healthy decisions. Move out of the chem lab and into the kitchen. You want to ensure good nutrition for yourself and your family? Learn how to cook.

I can come up with another ten paragraphs of reasons, but the bottom line is everybody should learn how to cook. And I don’t mean learn how to open a box or a can. Learn – how – to – cook!

But how? What if you’re like my dad, who truly could not boil water? One of the funniest memories of my childhood is of watching my father trying to fry eggs on our stove’s flat-top griddle. You should have seen him chasing eggs with a spatula until they disappeared down the little hole into the griddle’s grease trap. We lost about a dozen eggs that way. Maybe somebody in your family has programmed the speed dial on your kitchen telephone with the number for the fire department. Right below the numbers for the ER and the poison control center. You want to learn how to cook? Here are a few of my recommendations, in no particular order:

Read a cookbook or two, or four, or six. Get a couple of good general cookbooks that have lots of basic terms, techniques and recipes. If you really think you’re challenged, they publish “Dummies” cookbooks, too. After you get the basics down, get some cookbooks specific to your tastes. Italian, Oriental, Mexican, French – whatever. They’re out there.
Watch and learn. Buddy up with somebody whose cooking you really enjoy. Find out how they do it. Don’t just ask your mom to fix that special casserole for dinner. Put on an apron and help her make it! And while we’re on the subject of watching and learning, don’t discount those cooking shows on TV. Yeah, everybody likes to make fun of poor old Julia Child. She was a little eccentric, but she taught a lot of people how to cook. Celebrity chefs like Mario Batali don’t just teach you how to cook a particular dish; they break down the ingredients and tell you why things should be cooked a particular way. So rather than slapping a gob of sticky, overcooked spaghetti on a plate and pouring a jar of bland sauce over it, watch and learn from somebody like Mario who will educate you about types of pasta, cooking times, tomatoes, oils, spices, herbs, cheeses. You’ll be amazed at what goes into a good dish. But you’ll be even more amazed at what comes out.

Go to school. Not for a culinary degree, but there are tons of places that offer cooking classes of every imaginable kind. Check out your local community college or vocational school. Many of them offer short courses. Most of them have one night classes on various topics. A lot of shops and stores that sell gourmet foods and cookware also offer classes and instruction. You may not learn how to operate an upscale restaurant, but I’ll bet you’ll be more comfortable in your kitchen at home.

Join a club. You’d be surprised by how many recipe clubs there are out there. Or cooking clubs, food appreciation groups, or similar social gatherings. It’s a great way to share what you’ve learned and to get some new ideas. It’s also a wonderful way to meet new people and to get together with folks who know what you’re talking about when you say things like, “my reduction is too thin.”

Seek out and absorb knowledge. If you’re a car or a sports enthusiast or a hobbyist of any kind, you probably read and subscribe to dozens of magazines about your interest. Or you go online and bone up on all the latest. Same thing applies to cooking. Bookseller’s shelves positively groan with cooking magazines and books about cooking. Not just cookbooks, but books about cooking. History, theory, technique, style; it’s all available at whatever skill level you’re comfortable with. And the resources on the web are almost innumerable.

To really learn how to cook is to acquire a passion. If cooking is something you have to do because you have to eat, then it’s a chore. But if cooking becomes a passion, then it’s something you can look forward to and enjoy for a lifetime. Learn how to cook for yourself; it’s an indulgence. Learn how to cook for others; it’s a gift. Learn how to cook just because you can.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Brining Your Holiday Turkey

So this is the year you're finally going to do it. Season after season, you've tried every technique known to man. You've roasted at high temperatures for a short time. You've roasted at low temperatures for a long time. You've rubbed and oiled and buttered your bird. You've trussed it and laced it and tucked it and tented it with aluminum foil. And season after season, your turkey has emerged from the oven looking mouth wateringly golden and gorgeous. And then you carve it, plate it, and transport that first delicate white meat morsel to your mouth with your fork – and it's as tough as boot leather and as dry as sawdust.

So this year, you're going to do it. You're going to brine your holiday bird because absolutely everybody gushes over brining as the ultimate way to insure a tender, moist turkey. And you know what? Everybody's right!

But there's more to brining than just dunking a frozen turkey from the supermarket into a bucket of salty water. Let's examine the process.

First of all, what is brining and how does it work?

Brining is a cooking technique similar to marination, in which meat is soaked in a brine – a solution of salt and water – for a period of time prior to cooking in order to hydrate the muscle cells and produce a moister meat when cooked.

As to the actual science of how it works, I defer to the experts at America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated magazine – one of my personal culinary bibles – who say: “Brining works in accordance with two principles, called diffusion and osmosis, that like things to be kept in equilibrium. When brining a turkey, there is a greater concentration of salt and sugar outside of the turkey (in the brine) than inside the turkey (in the cells that make up its flesh). The law of diffusion states that the salt and sugar will naturally flow from the area of greater concentration (the brine) to lesser concentration (the cells). There is also a greater concentration of water, so to speak, outside of the turkey than inside. Here, too, the water will naturally flow from the area of greater concentration (the brine) to lesser concentration (the cells). When water moves in this fashion, the process is called osmosis. Once inside the cells, the salt and, to a lesser extent, the sugar cause the cell proteins to unravel, or denature. As the individual proteins unravel, they become more likely to interact with one another. This interaction results in the formation of a sticky matrix that captures and holds moisture. Once exposed to heat, the matrix gels and forms a barrier that keeps much of the water from leaking out as the meat cooks. Thus you have a turkey that is both better seasoned and much more moist than when you started.”

Got that? Good, then you can explain it to me. In really simple terms, brining causes meat to retain water. In fact, the meat can gain as much as six, eight, or even ten percent in extra water weight. And that's good, because meat loses as much as twenty to thirty percent of its weight and its natural moisture during cooking. Since a lot of meat's moisture is provided by fat, this is particularly true of lean meats – like turkey – that don't have a lot of it to begin with. So when you soak the meat in a brine, you essentially superhydrate it and can, therefore, cut the subsequent moisture loss considerably. Simple. More moisture at the beginning yields more moisture at the end.

Poultry and pork are particularly good candidates for brining. So are many types of seafood. Beef and lamb, on the other hand, do not lend themselves well to brining, nor do fattier game birds like duck or pheasant. Kosher meats are already salted as part of the koshering process, so brining is not a good option there, either.
In the case of turkey – which is why we are gathered here to begin with – brining, with its attendant increase in moisture, is ideal because of the nature of the bird itself and the way it behaves in the oven. Before you start conjuring up images of turkeys misbehaving in the oven, let me explain. When you're cooking your average broad-breasted supermarket turkey, said breast is finished cooking at around 145°. The legs still have another twenty degrees to go before they're done, at about 165°. So unless you have a really moist bird to start with – the kind you get from pumping up the volume with a nice brine – your “white meat” is going to be toast long before your “dark meat” is done.

With the how it works and the why you should do it addressed, we move on to what constitutes a brine. In its simplest form, a brine is made up of water and salt – usually between three and six percent salt, by weight. Most also contain sugar and many brines are enhanced with herbs and spices or even aromatic vegetables such as those found in a traditional soffritto. (That's Italian for mirepoix, by the way)

As to the salt used, it's largely a matter of preference. You can use either table salt or kosher salt in a brine solution. Personally, I prefer kosher salt because of its larger, lighter, and more easily dissolved structure. I also prefer its cleaner flavor (no iodine or chemical additives.)

“But salt is salt,” you say. Not so. Table salt is saltier than kosher salt. A cup of table salt weighs about ten ounces whereas a cup of kosher salt only weighs between five and eight ounces, depending on brand. (For instance, Morton salt is a little heavier than Diamond Crystal salt.)

Finally, the actual “how to” part. ( I do get to these things eventually.)

I make a nice savory brine out of the following ingredients:

1 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon each black peppercorns, dried rosemary, dried sage, dried thyme
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock
2 quarts cold water

Combine the ingredients (except the water) in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve everything and bring the solution to a boil. Remove the brine from the heat, add the cold water, let it cool down to room temperature, and then refrigerate it.

The biggest challenge you'll face is refrigeration. Not of the brine; that's the easy part. No, you've got to figure out where to stick a five-gallon food-grade bucket where it will stay at or below 40°F. That means either clearing out a prodigious amount of fridge space or breaking out a large cooler and lots of ice packs. If you opt for the latter, make sure you carefully monitor the temperature inside the cooler so the bird doesn't get into “the Zone.” (That's what the food safety types call the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F wherein bacterial nasties begin to lurk.) A chef I consulted suggests using a probe thermometer to make sure the bird is keeping its cool.

The night before The Big Day, dump the brine in the bucket and stick the bird, breast side down, in the brine. (I don't have to mention thawing the turkey and removing the innards first, do I?) If necessary, add enough cold water to completely submerge the bird. Weigh it down if you have to in order to make sure it stays fully immersed. Cover the bucket and place it in whichever contrivance you've come up with to keep it cold. Keep it there for at least eight hours, depending on the size of the bird. (Rule of thumb: one hour per pound.) Give the bird a turn about halfway through the brining process.

Remove the bird from the brine and rinse it inside and out with cold water. Discard the brine. Dry the bird thoroughly before you finish it with whatever herbs or butters or fruits or vegetables you choose to use before it makes the trip to the oven.

Personally, I'm of the Alton Brown school of turkey drying. It comes out of the brine, gets a rinse, and goes straight to the roasting rack, where it gets thoroughly patted down with paper towels. (I'm thinking of employing a few TSA agents for the thorough pat down. I hear they're really good at it.)

Another school of turkey driers uses the air-drying technique that involves letting the brined bird sit uncovered in the refrigerator until the surface moisture evaporates, usually overnight. The proponents of this method believe that this tightens and dries the skin more completely, thus promoting extra crispness when cooked. Fine if you want to take the time and trouble. Paper towels have always worked for me.

Words of caution: although the Butterball Turkey Hotline folks will tell you they have successfully brined a (thawed) frozen supermarket turkey with good results, even they admit that the meat comes out a little salty. This is because most supermarket turkeys are “enhanced” with a six to eight percent salt solution before they are frozen. So if you brine one in another three to six percent salt solution, you're going to wind up with a mighty salty bird. Your best bet is to brine a fresh turkey, or to at least find a frozen one with as little “enhancement” as possible. (Check the label. It's on there somewhere.)

Either way, cooking a brined turkey will result in the drippings containing a lot more water and a lot more salt than you would be able to use to make a proper pan gravy, so plan accordingly.

Brining is not as difficult as it seems and once you've tried it you'll probably never use any other method. If you don't want to go straight for the big bird on the first try, start out by brining a chicken just to get the hang of it. The results are unbelievably tender, juicy and downright delicious. And definitely worth the extra investment of time and effort.

Buon appetito!