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 becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. 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!

Grazie mille!

Friday, December 31, 2010

The Unforgettable Johnny Cash

Reader's Digest magazine used to have a section called something like “My Most Unforgettable Character.”

For me, that's a tough one. Over the course of my career as an entertainer and a broadcaster I've met, worked with, interviewed or otherwise encountered literally hundreds of people who would qualify. But if I had to pick the person who just flat-footed floored me the most, it would probably be Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash was well on his way to becoming one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century when I first became aware of his music in the late 1950s and early '60s. His first recordings at Sun Records, “Hey Porter” and "Cry, Cry, Cry,” were released the same year I was born, so I very much grew up with Johnny Cash's musical career.

By the time I was ten years old, I knew all the words to all the Cash classics – “Ring of Fire,” “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Don't Take Your Guns to Town,” “Understand Your Man,” “Tennessee Flat Top Box” and so many others. They were the first tunes I learned to play on my guitar.

I was a big fan of the color black in those days. I still am. My favorite TV characters were the ones who wore black – Paladin, Adam Cartwright. Is it any wonder that the most prominent “Man in Black” should be one of my idols?

Needless to say, I wasn't considered very “cool” in high school, where most of my peers were digging the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. When I graduated, I added the “Any Old Wind That Blows” album to my growing collection as kind of a graduation present to myself.

Fast forward about fifteen years. Johnny Cash hadn't cracked the Top Ten in almost a decade. His version of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” from the 1979 “Silver” album made it to #2 on the charts and only four of his next forty single releases even made it into the Top 40. Returning to his gospel roots, he was doing a lot of shows in churches and small venues across the country. It was at one such venue that I had an opportunity to interview the musical icon of my youth.

I was hanging out in a room backstage, waiting for “the man.” By now this was pretty much a “ho-hum” routine that I had gone through many times before. As an actor and entertainer, I was already acquainted with more than a few “celebrities,” and as a broadcaster and talk show host I had conducted interviews like this one with dozens of others.

But this was different. This was Johnny Cash! I mean, I used to comb my hair like his when I was a kid! I knew all the words to all of his songs and I tried to pitch my voice and inflections to match his when I sang them. I'm not ordinarily starstruck, but this was no ordinary star!

There were numerous members of Johnny's troupe bustling around preparing for the show. June Carter wandered in and out a few times, sometimes accompanied by her sister, Anita, and sometimes by her up-and-coming daughter, Carlene. (I also interviewed Carlene's daddy, the legendary Carl Smith, a couple of years later.) I was surrounded by stars of various magnitudes. And then came the brightest star in the firmament.

Presence. I'd never experienced such presence before – and I haven't since. He was tall, of course. He was a little older than my childhood memories recalled and that craggy, weathered face had a few more lines and creases. But he was undeniably Johnny Cash. And then he spoke. “Hi. I'm Johnny Cash. Nice to meet you.” Like he had to introduce himself! I might have walked right by the governor or maybe even the Vice-President of the United States without recognizing them, but Johnny Cash certainly needed no introduction.

We chatted briefly about inconsequentials like the weather and the gate for the day's show and we talked about some folks we knew in common. The week's country music Top 10 had just cleared the wires a couple of hours earlier and Johnny's daughter, Roseanne, had charted #1 with a cover of her dad's “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” When I told him the news, his face lit up and he said, “That's great. I don't think I ever made it past number three or four with that one.” (I didn't care to be the one to remind him that the song topped out at #11 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles and #84 on the pop charts back in 1961.) He was obviously delighted and proud and took a minute to pass the news on to June. I was thrilled to have been the one to make his day that way.

Then I set up my equipment and we got down to the interview. And something really strange happened. I blew it. I'm here to tell you that every intelligent thought went straight out of my head and instead of a seen-it-all seasoned professional, Johnny Cash found himself sitting across the table from a blithering idiot. I did the worst interview with my boyhood hero that I had ever done with anyone before or since. And I knew it. It was my “captain of the Titanic” moment. The ship was going down and all I could do was go along for the ride.

Johnny was gracious. He was so good. So patient. He had to be thinking, “Who let this guy loose?” but it never showed. He marched bravely through my amateur hour interview for about fifteen minutes before standing and shaking hands with me and telling white lies about what a pleasure it had been to meet me. I watched as his tall, broad-shouldered, black-clad frame turned and exited the room and I just quietly slunk out to my seat in the auditorium, thoroughly humbled and humiliated.

Returning to my studio, I did something I had never done before. Determined that Johnny should not suffer from my inability to string together a coherent sentence in his presence (and also not wanting to sound like a total doofus to my audience), I edited myself. This was the dark ages before digital recording, mind you. Editing was done with a razor blade and tape. And I went through the entire ordeal excising my stupid, banal questions. Then, taking Johnny's attempts to answer the most poorly-framed questions he'd probably ever been asked, I recorded myself asking brilliant questions and spliced them in to match his wonderful answers. The edited interview was fabulous and the listeners loved it. (But I kept the original interview as a reminder to myself whenever I felt too cocky.)

Oh, I owned up to it, of course. I did so on the air a few times when retelling the tale and I did so from the stage once when I performed a set of Johnny Cash tunes – including “Tennessee Flat Top Box” – as part of a country tribute show. (I guess all those years of idolizing Johnny paid off; I was standing in line at a video store a couple of days later and a guy behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I sure liked your show the other night. You did a real good Johnny Cash.”)

I continued to idolize Johnny Cash right up 'til the day he died. And I always treasured the few moments I spent with him. More than twenty years and dozens of “celebrities” later, he remains the most memorable and impressive person I've ever encountered. He totally blew me away in a manner that no one else ever has. There are stars, there are legends, and then there's Johnny Cash.

Recipe: Chicken-Flavored Rice

I grew up on Rice-A-Roni. You know. "The San Francisco Treat." The original chicken variety was introduced to the world about three years after I was.

Although I always enjoyed the flavor, in recent years, as I began to analyze packaged and processed foods a little more, I came to the realization that there was some stuff in there that I didn't especially want to include in my diet. MSG, for one. Hydrolyzed soy protein and hydrolyzed corn gluten weren't tops on my list either. And I could definitely live without disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, and ferric orthophosphate.

So I began to wonder if I could duplicate the recipe, retaining the same flavor but without all the additives and preservatives. The answer was an unqualified "yes." The first time I served my new creation, I waited until my wife was about halfway through her portion before I asked how she liked it. "It's fine," she said. I pressed her about the taste. "It's Rice-A-Roni," she replied. "How is it supposed to taste?"

There is absolutely no difference between my recipe and chicken-flavor Rice-A-Roni -- except for the artificial ingredients and the cost. Mine's much cheaper to make. To avoid aggravating the legal beagles at Golden Grain, let's call mine ... are you ready for this ...


1 tablespoon chicken bouillon
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon dried celery flakes
1 teaspoon dried minced onions
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1 cup uncooked rice
1/4 cup vermicelli, broken into small pieces
2 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 cups water

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the rice and vermicelli. Stir to coat and combine.Saute until the vermicelli begins to brown. Add 2 1/2 cups water. Stir in combined seasonings; bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until rice is tender.

Makes 3 cups

You can dress it up with some cooked, cubed chicken, if desired.

Try it. You'll never buy the boxed stuff again.

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

So You Want to Throw an Italian Dinner Party

Themed dinner parties can be fun. An Italian dinner party can be a real blast because there is so much you can do with the concept. But doing it right involves a lot more than just throwing a plate of spaghetti and some plastic grapes onto a table covered with a red checkered tablecloth.

In today's hectic, fast-paced society, even fun and food loving Italians have scaled back somewhat on the scope and size of their daily meals. Today's everyday menu usually consists of a first course, a second course, a side dish and coffee. New and notable in Italian cuisine is the "one dish" meal or "all-in-one" course that would have been unheard of in generations past, but reflects the contemporary pace of modern life. However, every now and then Italians still pull out all the stops and go in for preparing and serving a big traditional meal. This is particularly so for holidays, weddings, and other special occasions. An understanding of what constitutes a traditional Italian meal is essential in planning your big dinner party.

The generic term for a meal in Italian is pasto. However, specific meals do have specific names. The morning meal – what we call “breakfast” - is the prima colazione. Don't expect plates overfilled with bacon, sausage, eggs, pancakes, hash browns, muffins, and the usual full English breakfast fare. The prima colazione is a light meal, usually consisting of coffee or tea and bread or pastries.

In days past, a light lunch – or pranzo – was eaten around noon and the main meal – cena or “dinner” – was served somewhere between seven and eight p.m. Nowadays, the trend is toward the midday meal being the “main” meal with a lighter meal served in the evening.

And then there's the big meal – il pasto abbondante. The one where nonna really shows her stuff.

Traditionally, big Italian meals are structured in a particular order. The various courses, or portate, are very important to the overall organization of the meal. Usually, meals consist of no less than three or four courses, but sometimes they can stretch to as many as six or eight, depending upon the occasion. There are no real “rules” as to what goes into these courses. The beautiful simplicity of Italian food translates into a degree of flexibility in the content.

But for the purpose of your big dinner party, the traditional ordered courses are as follows:

The antipasto, or "before meal" course, is technically the first course. It is what Americans would call the “appetizer” or “starter” course. Antipasti can be hot or cold, simple or elaborate, sometimes representing a feast in and of themselves. Various crostini and bruschette are served as antipasti, as are salami, anchovies, calamari and dozens of other tasty meat, fish, egg, and vegetable preparations. And there are wonderful fried creations, like arancini or frico, as well as some great dips and sauces. An aperitivo such as Campari frequently accompanies the antipasto course.

Don't be confused, but the second course is called the first course – il primo portata, primo piatto or simply primo. This course usually consists of a hot dish like pasta, risotto, gnocchi, polenta or soup. The key here is portion control. The whole abbondanza thing is largely a marketing tool for selling American spaghetti sauce. The primi you'll find served at most authentic Italian functions are usually plated to resemble what most Americans would consider a child's portion. Don't overload. There's lots more to come.

The piatto di mezzo, secondo piatto, or secondo, follows next. This "second course" is actually what would pass for the main dish at an American table, and is usually poultry, fish or meat. Regional variances dictate the type of meat served. Veal, pork and chicken are the most commonly used meats in the North. Locally caught fish is popular along the coasts and on the islands. Wild game is still widely used in some areas. Beef, once very non-traditional, has become more popular since World War II.

The next course is called the contorno. The word is a conjugation of the verb contornare, which means “to surround” or “to encircle.” The contorno course consists of what Americans would consider to be "side dishes," usually of cooked vegetables. Differing from American service, a salad is considered a contorno and is generally served along with the main course rather than preceding it.

Italians divide the conclusion of the meal into several distinct courses. The first dessert course is the formaggio e frutta course, literally "cheese and fruit." The two are usually served together.

The dolce is what we would consider to be the true dessert course. Rich, heavy desserts in the French tradition are not the usual fare. The dolce course is generally made up of fairly simple cakes or cookies, although some very grand sweet creations, such as tiramisu, are not uncommon.

Coffee or espresso is considered a course in and of itself - the "caffe."

Finally comes the digestivo. This course is a service of liquors or liqueurs such as grappa, amaro or limoncello. It is sometimes referred to as ammazzacaffe - "coffee killer."

And of course, wine is the beverage of choice at the Italian table.

Continuing the theme – and speaking of the Italian table – red checkered tablecloths and wine bottle candles are the standard contributions to the general ambiance, but they are actually kind of kitschy. Italians are like anybody else; they bring out the white linens and the good tableware for special occasions. It depends, I suppose, on whether you want your party theme to be authentic or stereotypical.

Same applies to décor. Italian flags, plastic grapes, and red, white and green stuff everywhere will only succeed in making your party room look like an imitation of a cheap 1970s Italian restaurant or pizza parlor. Cute? Maybe. Authentic? Not so much.

I read about somebody who actually went out to a craft store and bought bunches of plastic flowers and plastic fruit and cheap vases and baskets. She even found plastic loaves of bread! Pazzo! Some fresh flowers in a nice vessel would be an appropriate touch. And bread and fruit in baskets is good, too. But use the real thing, for cryin' out loud! Unless you plan on serving other plastic foods as well.

Dinnerware can be fun. A lot of Italian dinnerware is hand painted ceramic and is very bright and colorful. It doesn't all have to match. Unexpected splashes of color and design among the plates and serving dishes will go a lot farther in “Italianizing” the tablescape than cheap plastic accessories.

Music is a must. You can find instrumental recordings of tarantellas and other traditional Italian folk music online or in most stores that have a good music section. Arias from operas by Verdi, Puccini, or Rossini are nice as are classical selections by Vivaldi or Paganini. You can even play songs by Italian-American singers like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, Connie Francis and dozens of others. (Lady Gaga and Madonna are Italian-Americans, too, but I wouldn't push the envelope too much.)

The most important element of a successful Italian dinner party is attitude. Italians see meals as opportunities to spend time with family and friends rather than as just the fulfillment of a basic need for nourishment or sustenance. Because of this, even ordinary daily meals can last a little longer than might be common in other cultures. On holidays and special occasions, family feasts may last for hours - or days!

Keep the music playing, the food coming, the wine flowing, and the conversation going and you'll be guaranteed a great Italian dinner party.

Buona fortuna e buon appetito!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Glorious Garlic

Facts and Myths About the "Stinking Rose"

"It is no exaggeration to say that peace and happiness start, geographically, where garlic is being used in preparation of food." – Xavier-Marcel Boulestin, French chef, restaurateur and cookbook author –

What a marvelous creation is garlic. And, according to myth, it's been around since the Creation. Ancient myth holds that when Satan was cast out of Eden, garlic grew from the imprint of his left foot as it touched the Earth while onions sprung from his right footprint.

Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, noted that the Egyptians invoked garlic and onions as deities when taking oaths. (“I swear by Almighty Garlic?”) Garlic also served as Egyptian currency. You could buy a healthy male slave for fifteen pounds of garlic. And garlic was found scattered about in King Tut's tomb.

Greek athletes, Greek and Roman soldiers, and Viking warriors all munched on garlic for strength and courage.

And everybody knows about garlic's powers over evil. Garlic hung over doors warded off evil spirits. Werewolves were kept at bay when garlic was worn about the neck. And, speaking of necks, you know how vampires feel about the stuff. In psychological parlance, they are alliumphobic.

For those not possessed by an overwhelming fear of garlic, National Garlic Day is celebrated on April 19. (Although it has never been proclaimed as such by either presidential or congressional decree. It just is, darn it!)

So what is garlic and where did it come from?

Scientifically speaking, allium sativum is a species of Alliaceae, making it a relative of the onion, shallot, leek, and chive. Botanically, it hangs on the same family tree as the lily, so nobody is really sure why it's called “the stinking rose.” Best guess comes from garlic researchers Stephen Fulder and John Blackwood who posit that a French physician, Henri Leclerc, coined the term around 1918 from a translation of the Greek term “skaion rodon,” and its contraction “skorodon,” which he interpreted as “rose puante,” French for “stinky rose.” (Don't you feel smarter knowing that?)

In English, the word garlic comes from the Old English garleac, meaning "spear leek." In Italian, garlic is aglio, sprung obviously from its Latin root, allium.

As to its origins, most experts believe that modern domestic garlic descends from a species that once grew wild in central and southwestern Asia. Even today, China is the world's garlic capital, responsible for the production of about 77% of the planet's garlic. (Sorry, Gilroy, California. But more about that later.) Garlic eventually made its way west thanks to Crusaders and travelers like Marco Polo, who mentioned the many uses of garlic in some of the records of his journeys. Nowadays, there are more than three hundred varieties of garlic grown all over the world.

Medicinally, garlic is said to be able to cure everything but a broken heart. Actually, considering its alleged benefits in lowering cholesterol, maybe it can do hearts some good, too. Believers assert that garlic can ward off both the common cold and cancer. Garlic does have antibacterial properties and was used as an antiseptic in World Wars I and II. Continuing studies disprove some of garlic's miraculous claims every day, while others validate them.

Nutritionally, garlic is a little powerhouse containing numerous B vitamins as well as vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium, zinc, and protein.

The more “out there” uses of garlic include rubbing it on painful corns and applying it to lips and noses as a sunscreen.

Of course, the most common and well-known application of garlic is culinary. Although Isabella Mary Beeton, in her once world-famous “Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management,” noted "the smell of this plant is generally considered offensive, and it is the most acrimonious in its taste," her opinion has been resoundingly rejected in kitchens around the globe. Admittedly a late-comer to American kitchens – the use of garlic was limited to ethnic cuisines until well into the 1940s – the bulbous herb has long been a staple in Mediterranean cooking and is used generously as a seasoning in traditional Asian and African dishes. Although a presence in various other European diets, the first cuisine that comes to most people's minds when they hear the word “garlic” is Italian. And that's really a misnomer.

Italian cooks are actually quite conservative in their use of garlic. It's a staple ingredient, to be sure, but not in the quantities generally ascribed by popular myth. In fact, in many Italian dishes, while you might add numerous cloves of garlic to the initial stages, you remove much of it after it has lent its flavor to the dish. The image of Italians practically gobbling down whole heads of garlic as a snack are quite fallacious, despite the bigoted assertions of uncouth Americans who once referred to garlic as “Italian perfume.”

On that score, garlic cloves themselves don't really have any odor. Stick your face in the garlic bin at the grocery store and you won't smell much of anything. The pungent qualities of garlic manifest themselves when the garlic cells are broken. Chemically, garlic contains alliin, which is a sulfoxide derived from the amino acid cysteine. When you cut or crush a clove of garlic, an enzyme called allinaise is released. Allinaise reacts on alliin, converting it into allicin, an organosulfur compound. The more you cut or crush the garlic, the more of this sulfur molecule is released resulting in a stronger odor and flavor. Hence, mincing a clove of garlic will have a more powerful effect than merely cutting one in half. (By the way, these sulfur molecules can be absorbed into the bloodstream and the lungs, escaping through exhalation and perspiration, resulting in garlic breath or garlicky smelling sweat. The degree of absorption and release is dependent upon individual body chemistry.)

So let's go buy some garlic. First of all, it is important to realize the difference between a head or bulb of garlic and a clove of garlic. I know of more than one novice cook who failed to differentiate when a recipe called for three or four cloves of garlic, and wound up with something quite unanticipated – to say nothing of inedible.

A bulb or head of garlic (the terms are interchangeable) usually contains ten to fifteen individual garlic cloves. (Twenty is not unheard of.) The individual cloves are covered in a dry, papery skin of a pinkish to purplish color. The entire head is covered in a dry, papery skin that is usually white or silvery, sometimes streaked or tinted with purple. Garlic heads with a purplish cast are just a different variety, one which many cooks consider more flavorful. In any case, neither the inner nor outer skins are edible.

Bigger is not always better. Generally speaking, the smaller the clove the more intense the flavor. Something sold as elephant garlic is not really garlic at all. It is a member of the allium family, but more closely related to leeks. Not to say that it doesn't taste good, but it is not a substitute for a true garlic.

Look for medium size heads that are firm and dry with plenty of papery covering. Avoid heads that show signs of sprouting. These are past their prime and were probably not dried properly to begin with. If you get a head of garlic home and find that there are green shoots sprouting within the individual cloves, don't panic and toss the whole head. These cloves are still quite useable. Just remove the green shoot as they can be a little bitter-tasting.

As with all ingredients for cooking, buy the best garlic you can afford. “Deals” on multiple heads of garlic in a bag are not always the bargains they may seem. After all, growers have to do something with the culls.

Once you get your garlic home, store it in a cool, dry, dark place. They make neat little terra-cotta pots for garlic storage. I have one. But all you really need is a cool, dry, dark place. This means away from the kitchen window, away from the stove, and away from the sink. Unbroken garlic bulbs will keep for up to three or four months. Individual cloves will keep for about five to ten days.

Working with whole, fresh garlic is really pretty easy. Just strip away some of the outer skin from the bulb and pop out as many cloves as you need. As noted, not all garlic cloves are the same size and the smaller ones tend to be stronger. That's why most recipes give you some wiggle room in the number of cloves you'll need. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be better able to judge quantities.

Next up, you need to peel the skin away from the clove. This is really a lot easier than some people make it out to be. Entrepreneurs have developed a garlic peeler that's quite effective. Sold under a dozen different brand names, it's basically a rubber tube that you stick a clove of garlic in and rub it around until the skin comes off. It works well, but so does the heel of your hand and the flat side of a chef's knife. I know of one chef who keeps a “garlic rock” close at hand. It's just a rock that he picked up somewhere, but he uses it exclusively to crush and peel garlic.

Garlic presses are okay if you want to crush the bejeebers out of your garlic. Design plays a big part in the effectiveness of these devices. Some people swear by presses while others swear at them. I have one that I seldom use because I also have a chef's knife with which I can achieve nearly the same results. Take your pick.

Some recipes call for whole cloves, some for cloves cut in half, some for sliced, some for minced or crushed. Remember, the finer the chop the stronger the taste. Whole cooked garlic has a fairly mild, almost sweet taste, especially in the case of a whole head of roasted garlic. Sliced garlic imparts a nice full flavor and can be easily removed from a dish if desired. Crushed garlic has the strongest taste of all and is pretty much fully incorporated in cooking. Garlic mellows the longer it is cooked. Garlic added at the end of cooking will give a stronger taste than garlic added earlier.

Garlic overcooks easily. It can go from sweet and mellow to bitter and nasty in an instant. When sautéing in oil, make sure the oil isn't too hot and that the garlic doesn't brown. A light golden hue is okay, but if it turns brown, just toss it and start over. Minced garlic usually cooks up in less than a minute over medium heat. A good rule to follow when sautéing onions and garlic in a recipe; start the onions first. When they become translucent, add the garlic.

Fresh garlic is available year round, but is freshest in the Spring and Summer months. Some people who think fresh garlic is messy and inconvenient buy other forms like powder, flakes, puree, and minced garlic packed in oil. None of these are a true substitute for fresh garlic, but the most useful among them is garlic powder. Powder. Not salt. Garlic salt is a seasoning to be used on something like bread or French fries. If you want to add garlic flavor to food as it's cooking, use garlic powder. The former is salt with garlic powder added. The latter is made from dried powdered garlic cloves. You'll never get the same flavor out of garlic powder that you'll get from fresh garlic, but it does have some practical uses and deserves a place in your pantry. The flakes and purees and minces in oil are convenience items and are generally a waste of money.

Just so you know:

1 head of garlic = (about) 10 to 15 cloves.
1 small garlic clove = 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic = 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1 medium garlic clove = 1 teaspoon minced garlic = 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 large garlic clove = 2 teaspoons minced garlic = 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 extra-large garlic clove = 1 tablespoon minced garlic = 3/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Oh yeah. I mentioned Gilroy, didn't I? The majority of garlic grown in the United States comes from California. Much of the garlic grown in California comes from Gilroy, a city in Santa Clara County in the San Francisco Bay area. Gilroy holds a huge festival every July celebrating their principle crop and have proclaimed themselves to be the “Garlic Capital of the World.” Not so, of course. Not even close. They do have the distinction of being home to the factory that processes more garlic than any other factory in the world, but I guess “Garlic Processing Capital of the World” just doesn't have the same punch. At any rate, if you're up for some fun and entertainment, as well as some garlic flavored ice cream, a garlic braiding workshop, celebrity chefs demonstrating garlic cooking techniques, and lots more garlicky gimmickry – all presided over by the Miss Gilroy Garlic Festival Queen – head off to Gilroy in July.

Me? I'm headed off to Publix. I think garlic is on sale this week.

Buon appetito!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Cookin' With Gas

Have you ever wondered why there aren't more great cooks in the world? My answer can be summed up in two words: electric ranges.

Okay, I admit to writing this while recovering from a fit of pique over burning yet another innocent piece of kitchen equipment on what I thought was a cold burner. After all, the damned thing had been turned off for almost five minutes. But I do have other more valid issues with electric cooktops.

Culinary saints be praised, I was raised in a home with a gas stove and learned how to cook food properly on its natural element, the open flame. Trying to cook anything on one of those accursed heated metal coils is akin to cooking on a hot rock.

But, somewhere back in the '50s, pitchmen for the ultra-modern “all-electric home” came along and convinced millions of gullible consumers that electric stoves were the wave of the future. Throngs of rubes bought into claims of clean, safe, convenient electric cooking, and soon the old reliable gas stove was being shown the back door.

For some reason, the South seemed to fall for the electric stove fallacy more readily than other parts of the U.S. I seldom saw one of the wretched devices before moving to the South from my native Midwest. My Southern-born wife, however, had known nothing else and still doesn't completely understand my rantings about versatility, even cooking, and temperature control. To her, incinerating pots, pans, burner covers, wooden spoons, plastic bowls, and human hands on “black-hot” electric coils was just an everyday part of life.

Don't talk to me about “safe” electric cooking. When you see a blue flame rising from a gas burner, by golly, you know that burner is on and hot, right? You don't stick your hand in it or set something burnable on it, right? But “safe, reliable” electric burners, unless they are actively glowing red, give no indication of whether they are hot or not, short of trial and error. “I wonder if that burner is still too hot.” [Tap lightly with a finger.] “Ouch! Dammit! Yes!” I mean, what kind of a pazzo method is that? You've got this big plastic bowl full of mashed potatoes in your hand and you're looking for a place to set it down, but you don't want to melt the bowl, right? So you put your hand on the burner first to make sure it's okay. And if it's not, the burn ointment is right under the sink! Pazzo! But everybody with an electric cooktop does it.

You know those metal burner covers they sell with the cutesy kitchen designs on them? Banned from my kitchen after my wife cooked most of three sets of them turning on the wrong burner. (I finished off the last set myself.) With a gas stove, you know right away what burner you've turned on. With an electric stove, your first clue that you've turned on the back eye instead of the front is the smoke curling up from the burning burner cover!

But enough of that. There are more important reasons to stay far away from electric stoves.

Now, let me qualify that. I should more correctly say, “stay away from electric stove tops.” Electric ovens are a whole different topic.

Let's revisit safety for a moment. In the course of doing a little reading up for this post, I came across a dolt who advocated electric ranges in homes with small children because they are so much safer than those nasty gas ranges and their open flames. Back up the bus, Junior! A kid can see an open flame! If your child is exceptional, he has listened to what you have told him about fire. If he is an average, regular kid, he has probably already learned from a painful object lesson. Either way, most kids can make the connection between open flame and danger.

What's more difficult for the average kid – because it's equally difficult for the average adult – is the ability to perceive danger in something that doesn't look dangerous. Like the burner of an electric stove. This is especially true with the spiffy new flat-surface cooktops. They can easily be mistaken for countertops – really hot countertops – making them doubly dangerous for kids and preoccupied adults alike. Fortunately, these units frequently come equipped with warning lights that indicate the “hot” status of the surface. The lights don't go off until the surface is cool enough to touch. Too bad somebody can't engineer that into the old-fashioned coil element cooktops.

I conducted a little experiment this morning. I fired up the front burner on a regular old electric stove and boiled a teakettle of water. After the water came to a whistling boil, I turned the burner off. It continued to glow red for about thirty seconds. Obviously, nobody is going to intentionally put a hand on such a surface, right? But after thirty seconds, the right front burner looked just like the other three – black. I put a cast iron skillet on the “cold” burner and laid a strip of bacon in the skillet. The bacon started cooking after about a minute on the “cold” burner.

Which brings up the main reason why most cooks stay away from electric cooktops; temperature control. Electric coils result in uneven temperature distribution, and “hot spots” are a common problem. And then there's the matter of temperature control itself. Electric cooktops with push button controls are useless. You get the manufacturer's idea of “high,” “medium,” and “low,” and that's it. A delicate simmer is nearly impossible to attain. Dials and knobs aren't much of an improvement. You still can't set and maintain a precise temperature.

Gas burners are “instant on.” No waiting for the cooking surface to “warm up.” Turn the knob and you've got fire. Turn it more and you've got more fire. Turn it back and you've got less fire. Wow! What a concept!

Similarly, you don't have to risk ruining a dish while waiting for a gas burner to cool down. When your recipe says, “reduce heat,” you can either instantly turn down your gas flame to the desired level, or you can sit and watch your sauce overcook for the minute-and-a-half it takes for your electric coil to cool from “high” to “low.”

One of my “electric obsessed” friends likes to point out that electric stoves are easier to install than gas stoves. I gotta give him that one. Just plug that sucker in – assuming the prongs on your cord match the holes in your socket – and fire it up! Well, heat it up, anyway. While I am mechanically proficient enough to change out the cord on an electric range, even I am not stupid enough to fool around with gas fittings.

And, yes, “Mr. Electric,” pilot lights can go out and unlit gas can accumulate and explode. Happens every day, right? I mean, I like to just drive down the street from time to time and watch gas stoves blow up in every block. C'mon. I've seen more fires caused by greasy paper towels being left too close to electric eyes than I have ever encountered from exploding gas stoves. If you come back to the future for a minute, McFly, you'll notice that most modern gas cooktops don't even have pilot lights anymore. They use electronic ignition systems.

Oh, but if you spill something on an electric eye, you just have to clean out the drip pan. With a gas burner, it gets all down in there and is almost impossible to clean.” Reference the previous observation; contemporary gas ranges usually come equipped with sealed burners, making them no more difficult to clean than their electric cousins.

“Oh, but electric stoves are so much cheaper!” Yeah, well, you get what you pay for. And because gas ranges cook more efficiently, they are usually cheaper to operate.

I mean, let's face it, the reason electric burners work at all is because they are inefficient conductors of electricity. Electric “eyes” on stovetops are resistors, after all, designed to interrupt the smooth conduction of electricity. The resultant waste from this process is heat. So, basically, when you cook with electricity, you're cooking with wasted energy.

Besides, when somebody says, “Now you're cookin' with gas!” they mean to imply that you're really doing something good or right. Nobody ever says, “Now you're cookin' with electricity!”, do they?

As I said up front, the tables all turn when it comes to the oven. Electric broilers, convection ovens, etc. have it all over gas, for the most part. In my perfect kitchen, I would have two wall-mounted electric ovens, one conventional and one convection, and a nice five-burner gas cooktop built into a convenient countertop or island. Throw a microwave in there somewhere and you've conjured up a cook's paradise.

Now, I'll readily admit that I don't have enough experience – yet – with induction cooking to have an opinion. It may change the way I look at electric cooking. But as long as the electric cooktop market is dominated by resistor heating coils, I'll be cookin' with gas, thank you.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Perfecting Mashed Potatoes

In the pantheon of American comfort foods, few things rank higher than a bowlful of creamy, fluffy, flavorful mashed potatoes. Just like the ones Mamma used to make!

Unfortunately, if you're under, say, forty years of age, Mamma was probably a product of the “convenience generation” spawned in the '50s and the only mashed potatoes you ever got came out of a box. Or worse yet; if you had a “Microwave Mamma,” your little taste of heaven was either frozen or prepackaged in a plasticized pouch.

Comparing these culinary aberrations to the real thing is akin to likening a velvet Elvis to the Mona Lisa. Any of the former can fill a spot on your plate and either of the latter can cover a spot on your wall. But, in the same manner that only DaVinci's masterpiece can truly be considered as art, only a bowlful of freshly prepared mashed potatoes – made with real potatoes – can be considered as artistry.

Just so you understand, I'm not taking a “food snob” stand here. I grew up on French's Instant Mashed Potatoes and I've choked down the potato-flavored sludge that accompanies most frozen dinners. I've even ventured into the world of reheating plastic potatoes in reheatable plastic pouches. But, like the song says, “Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby. Ain't nothin' like the real thing.”

First of all, you have to define what constitutes “mashed potatoes.” In simple terms, mashed potatoes are made by mashing freshly boiled potatoes with a manual or mechanical implement such as a fork, ricer, food mill, or masher. In high-flown restaurants with outrageously overpriced food, they'll be listed on the menu as “potato puree.” In some Southern homes, they are called “creamed potatoes,” although that's a completely different dish to my Midwestern upbringing. Some people use “mashed” interchangeably with “smashed,” even though neither the process nor the result is the same.

But when the gods sit down to dinner, here's what they expect; a creamy, buttery, flavorful mound of potatoes, reduced to a delicate, fluffy texture that is light yet substantial. The potatoes should never be dense and soupy, nor should they ever be thick and lumpy.

“Lumps in mashed potatoes are okay,” I've heard it said. “Makes 'em more rustic.” I'm sorry, but more often than not, use of the word “rustic” is merely a cover for “poorly prepared.” People who make “rustic” or “homestyle” – that's another good euphemism – mashed potatoes, do so because they lack either the proper tools or the proper technique to make them correctly.

Let's start with the potatoes, all of which are not created equal. The key to any successful potato preparation is starch and moisture content. Low starch potatoes, such as new potatoes, red rounds, white rounds, or fingerlings are great for boiling, steaming or roasting. They're also good for pan frying. But they're dreadful for baking or mashing. Medium starch potatoes, like long whites and Yukon golds are often referred to as “all-purpose” potatoes and they are just that.

What you really want is the russet potato, also known as the Idaho potato, the chef's potato, the baking potato, or the starchy potato. High in starch and low in moisture, russets come in several varieties like Burbank russet and Norkotahs, and are the perfect potato for producing light, fluffy mashed potatoes.

When it comes down to it, most medium to high-starch white potatoes, like the white rose and the cascade, are good for mashing.

The Yukon gold potato, a Canadian hybrid of a North American white and a South American yellow, is also a good masher, but I'm not enamored of its yellowish hue or of its allegedly “buttery” flavor in my mashed potato dish. I'll let real butter do the flavoring, thank you.

Which brings us to the next ingredient; butter. Not margarine, not “buttery-flavored spread,” or any other concoction of wholly or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Butter. Period. And lots of it. One chef I know of proclaims the key to exceptional mashed potatoes to be “egregious amounts” of butter. And he's right.

The third and final ingredient in perfect mashed potatoes is milk. Real milk. Whole milk. Not skimmed, not reduced fat, two-percent, one-percent, half-percent or any other watered down variation. Milk. The way it comes from the cow. The only exception or addition here would be cream. If it's available, mixing cream with milk yields a richer, creamier taste to the finished product. If not, just plain milk is fine.

You'll also need salt and pepper.

Now, some people use chicken broth as a substitute for butter and/or cream. Okay, chicken broth can add an interesting flavor element. So can a little roasted garlic. But now we're getting away from basic mashed potatoes, in which nothing substitutes for butter and/or cream.

Next, we need to consider hardware. Craft projects, building projects, and cooking projects have one thing in common: they can all be ruined by either using improper tools, or by using the proper tools improperly. Forget the mixers and the blenders and the processors. To make perfect mashed potatoes, you need only two implements: a ricer or food mill and a good, old-fashioned masher.

Here we go. I'm going for four servings. For your mis en place, you will need four to six russet potatoes, at least four to six tablespoons of room temperature butter, a half-cup of milk (or 1/4 cup milk and 1/4 cup cream), slightly warmed, and salt and pepper to taste.

Peel the potatoes, then quarter or cube them. Just make sure the pieces are roughly equal in size to ensure equal cooking. The smaller the pieces, the quicker the cooking time.

Add the potatoes to cold, salted water in an appropriately sized pot or pan. You don't need to salt as aggressively as you would for pasta, but you still want to impart a little flavor. A couple of teaspoons will do. How much water? Just enough to cover the potatoes. Why cold water? Starting from cold water allows for more even heat distribution and penetration, resulting in more even cooking. It's just better that way.

Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until just tender. When a fork or knife pierces the potatoes easily, they're done. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, cooking the potatoes for too long will make them mushy. “So what,” you say? You're just going to mash them up anyway? Believe me, there is a world of textural difference between “mushy” and “mashy.” It has to do with cell structure and moisture content and the release of amylose and … just trust me on this one.

Drain immediately, don't rinse, and put the potatoes back in the pan. Set the pan back on the stove for a minute. If you're cooking with gas, turn the burner to a very low flame. This will help remove excess moisture from the potatoes, resulting in a drier, fluffier texture. If you have one of those wretched electric stovetops, the residual heat from the burner will accomplish the same thing. Don't leave them unattended and don't leave them for too long. They'll stick and burn pretty quickly.

Warm a mixing or serving bowl and put about half of your butter into it. Then run your potatoes through the ricer or food mill into the bowl. Why?

Ricers and food mills both work through a process of relatively gentle extrusion. Ricers look like garlic presses on steroids, while food mills are funny-looking bowls with rotary hand cranks attached. They both work the same way, forcing the foods – in this case, potatoes – through little holes in the bottom and/or sides. This makes for very dry, airy, fluffy little potato buds that look like grains of rice. Hence the name. More vigorous mechanical devices, such as food processors, produce more kinetic energy, which, like excessive heat, break open the starch cells and release amylose. Amylose attracts water and gluey, sticky, and generally unpalatable substances result.

Working quickly, process all the potatoes through the ricer or mill and add in the rest of the butter, as well as the salt and pepper. Now, bring your masher to the party – I don't really have to explain a masher, do I? – and begin … mashing.

Be gentle about it. The potatoes are already broken up as far as they can possibly be, so you are actually mixing and blending more than mashing. (Remember amylose?) Add the warmed milk or milk and cream mixture a little at a time as you mash. If you dump it in all at once, you may wind up with potato soup, so just add it slowly until the potatoes reach the consistency you like. Remember, it's easier to loosen up tight mashed potatoes than it is to tighten up loose mashed potatoes. (My guilty little secret for when this happens? Instant potato flakes. Sshhhh! Throw in just enough to correct your boo-boo.)

You have now created a bowl of perfect, light, fluffy, creamy, buttery, deliciously flavorful, exquisitely textured, divinely-inspired mashed potatoes. I almost always stop and serve right here.

But, if you feel the need to gild the lily, if you must seek to improve upon absolute perfection – try an electric mixer. The mixer whips air into the potatoes giving them more volume. We're kind of tiptoeing into whipped potatoes here, but it works if you're trying to stretch the dish – to get more out of less. Old restaurant trick. But don't overmix! Amylose. Too much and you'll go from mashed potatoes to wallpaper paste in a heartbeat.

Whatever you do, serve 'em up piping hot! Cold mashed potatoes have the same texture and flavor appeal as the aforementioned wallpaper paste.

O-o-o-o-h-h-h, but that's SO much work! Instant, frozen, or ready-to-eat are SO much easier!” I feel your pain. It takes about twenty minutes to make mashed potatoes my way. And most of that time is spent watching the water boil. Such inhuman kitchen drudgery should be illegal. Come to think of it, so should serving your family and friends a bowlful of dehydrated potato flakes with sodium bisulfite, BHA, citric acid, monoglycerides, partially-hydrogenated cottonseed oil, natural flavor, sodium acid pyrophosphate and butteroil, mixed with milk, margarine (or butter), water, and salt. But, if chemistry is your thing, go for it.

Or maybe since “green” is the word of the day, you can look at it from an ecological standpoint. With a potato, you can either eat the outer packaging or use it as compost in your garden. Can you say that about cardboard boxes, plastic trays, or foil pouches? I think not.

Save a tree. Mash a potato.

Buon appetito!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cola Wars: Coke vs. Pepsi

"It's the Real Thing"? Not!

I grew up as a part of “The Pepsi Generation,” and although the ad people told us, “Things Go Better With Coke,” I could never figure out what things they were talking about. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Pepsi seemed sweeter and lighter to my immature taste buds, while Coke had a stronger, almost medicinal flavor. Royal Crown Cola, or “RC,” was somewhere in the middle and made an acceptable substitute. But I wasn’t a diehard. When we went to the store, we bought Pepsi unless Coke was on sale and when I dropped my dime in the vending machine slot, it didn’t really matter as long as it was cola. Fast forward to adulthood.

Have you ever noticed that nothing tastes the same as it did when you were a kid? Think about it. How many times have you taken a bite or a sip of something you've always enjoyed before only to come away with the vague feeling that it was somehow different than it used to be? This is especially true, it seems, if you are a member of the "over forty" set. Maybe even "over thirty," I don't know.

In the case of Coke vs. Pepsi, it really is true: Coke doesn't taste the same as it did when I was a kid and you can thank "New Coke" for that.

Despite years of billing itself as "The Real Thing," the Coca Cola Company took a weird left turn in 1985 and came up with a new and supposedly sweeter formula for its flagship product. “New Coke,” as it came to be called, was such an unmitigated disaster that a quarter-century later it still tops most lists of marketing fiascos. “New Coke” only lasted a miserable couple of months before “The Powers That Be” in Atlanta took the heads that their customers had handed them and put them back on their shoulders rather than where many thought they had been when the decision was made to so radically alter an American icon.

Enter “Coke Classic,” or “Classic Coke,” the chastised soft-drink giant’s apology and mea culpa for its egregious error. But was this new “classic” really the same as the old “classic?” Not so much. Because now the new “old Coke” was flavored with high-fructose corn syrup rather than the pure cane sugar that powered the old “old Coke.” And, “classic” or not, anybody with taste buds could tell the difference. The product developers and marketing wizards behind the whole debacle apparently were ignorant of the old adage, “Just because a cat has kittens in the oven don’t make ‘em biscuits.” And I became a confirmed Pepsi drinker.

It wasn’t just me. Pepsi had always been considered by most people to be the sweeter of the two colas. When Coke decided that it wanted to be Pepsi instead of Coke, I decided that I would just drink real Pepsi instead. And when Coke tried to pass off its corn syrup concoction as a reincarnation of its original brand, my tongue and my brain got together and said, “No way. We’re sticking with Pepsi.”

Not that Pepsi wasn’t also using the cheaper sweetener by now, but somehow they did it better. It didn’t materially affect the taste of the product as much.

Does anybody remember Jolt Cola? It came out about the same time that Coke was flushing its brains and its profits down an Atlanta sewer. Its big hook was “All the sugar and twice the caffeine.” And it tasted like Coke was supposed to taste. Until they, too, switched to corn syrup, bagged the slogan, and became just another generic cola.

If you happen upon a Whole Foods store, pop in and pop open a can of their store brand cola. It is sweetened with pure cane sugar and tastes like Coke used to taste back in the good old days. Okay, it’s caffeine-free, so what’s the point, but it still tastes like old, non-classic, non-new Coke. And in spite of the pricier ingredients, it’s not that much more expensive.

In their attempts to make it cheaper, Hershey and Nestle have ruined American chocolate. Nestle also owns the Stouffer’s product line these days and they have done the same thing with cheese that they did with chocolate, rendering Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese a cheap, tasteless imitation of its former self. Such is the case with Coke and Pepsi. The real loser in the “Cola Wars” is the consumer.

Which tastes better, Pepsi or Coke? Neither one tastes as good as it used to, but twenty-five years after Coke’s attempted murder of its sacred cow and its subsequent ritual suicide, Pepsi is now closer to being “The Real Thing.”

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Restaurant Review: DePalma's Italian Cafe, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

DePalma's Scores a Touchdown in Downtown Tuscaloosa

University Boulevard cuts a wide swath through the heart of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. On one end is a collection of once thriving neighborhoods. At the center lies the campus of the University of Alabama with its attendant “Strip” of college-dominated restaurants and bars. At the other end, the part that runs through a struggling downtown business district teetering on the edge of either revival or oblivion, is DePalma's Italian Cafe, a small culinary jewel tucked into a charming old corner brick edifice that once housed a ladies department store.

If you've read any of my other restaurant reviews – and if you haven't, you really should – you'll know that I have certain criteria regarding Italian eateries. For instance, at least somebody on the staff has to speak Italian. The more Italian speakers, the higher the rating. When I walk through the door and say something like, “Vorrei un tavolo per due, per favore,” if the host or hostess smiles and leads me to a table for two, that's a point. If I order in Italian and the waiter doesn't flinch, that's another point. (I once had a strange experience at a Greek-owned Italian place in Atlanta. I was ordering in Italian, the waiter was responding in Greek and neither of us was getting anywhere.) And ambiance is a factor, too. Now, I don't necessarily mean red checkered tablecloths and Italian flags on the walls, but the sights, sounds, and smells of a real Italian place are usually unmistakable.

Most importantly, of course, is the quality of the food. Fresh made dishes constructed from high quality fresh ingredients are an absolute must. Anything less and I might as well be at an Olive Garden.

By my first criteria, DePalma's should fail miserably. Italian? Come on! This is downtown Tuscaloosa, a stone's throw from Bryant-Denny Stadium! You're far more likely to be greeted with, “Roll Tide!” than you are “Benvenuti!” (In case you ever need to know, “Rotolare Marea” would be “Roll Tide” in Italian.)

And it certainly doesn't look like an Italian restaurant. What with the mixture of antique movie posters, celebrity photos, and advertising signs adorning the walls, it looks more like an urban version of Cracker Barrel. But, strangely enough, this “shabby chic” atmosphere that can feel so contrived in other places actually works here. The terra cotta tiled floors and slightly mismatched furnishings blend nicely with a somewhat faded Tuscan color palette, accented by the aforementioned eclectic collection of art and accent pieces. In an odd sort of way, it's just the kind of place you'd find off the beaten path in Italy, where they don't really try to look “Italian.”

Then the smell of the food hits you and you just know that there are good things going on in the kitchen. Something intangible urges you to proceed.

Amidst a bustling lunch service, we were attended to promptly by a very cheerful and accommodating hostess who seated us in a booth situated between a movie poster advertising one of Ezio Pinza's lesser efforts and a reproduction photograph of Wild Bill Hickok. We found ourselves basking in the gaze of a bust not of an ancient emperor of Rome, but of the somewhat more contemporary King of Rock and Roll. Oh, and let's not forget Moe, Larry, and Curly, resplendent in golf attire, surveying the scene from the wall above an adjacent table.

Our server, who arrived tableside almost before we were seated, was exceptionally knowledgeable not only about the menu, but about Italian cuisine in general. Quite impressive. Service was prompt, efficient, and friendly without being intrusive. I like servers who magically appear when you need them but don't otherwise hover and interrupt.

And then there was the food. Any doubts about the Italian character of this place were put to rest with a single glance at the expansive lunch menu, which offered a variety of choices ranging from pasta dishes through salads, pizza and panini.

My wife selected a chicken Caesar salad, which she pronounced perfect. The crisp, fresh mixed greens were complimented by a house-made Caesar dressing and croutons that had obviously never seen the inside of a box. When questioned, our server confirmed that they were, indeed, fatto in casa. Well...she actually said “homemade.” In fact,we were assured that nearly everything on the menu was made fresh whenever possible.

My wife then moved on to enjoy a steak sandwich – and I do mean enjoy. It was almost sensual. A lush garden of radicchio, mixed greens, and tomatoes surrounded thick chunks of perfectly prepared medium rare steak suffused with garlic butter, all served on a lightly toasted sandwich roll. Although more an American-style hoagie than a traditional Italian panino – which is generally grilled and pressed – it was so delicious and she was so delighted by every bite that she actually made it a point to show me every bite as she took it, saying, “Look how tender!” or “See how perfectly that's cooked?” I felt like I was intruding on a religious experience. It was a difficult choice between the steak sandwich and its roasted chicken menu companion, an item that was a more nearly authentic panino, served up on oven-toasted ciabatta. Maybe next time. (Note to faux Italian restaurateurs: “panino” is the singular form, “panini” is plural. One does not have “a” panini nor does one advertise “paninis,” there actually being no such word.)

One of our companions opted for ham and cheese, which turned out to be a very good sandwich. Now, one can't rhapsodize too much over a ham and cheese sandwich, but the flavorful black forest ham topped with provolone and served on a lightly toasted hoagie roll was lauded as excellent. What made it unique – and Italianesque, I suppose – was the addition of a light application of garlic butter. The subtle buttery garlic element was a nice accent to the ham and cheese and provided an interesting depth of flavor. A garnish of mixed greens and tomato, along with crispy thick cut kettle-style potato chips, rounded out a perfect lunch plate.

Our other companion chose a seafood stuffed shell; a flavorful combination of flaky white fish and shrimp in a tender pasta shell with a creamy feta cheese sauce served on a bed of fresh baby spinach. It, too, was deemed delicious.

I – always a sucker for a good pizza – chose to indulge my passion. I was not disappointed. My simple cheese pizza was simply exquisite. If someone from Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the Italian commission that regulates the production of true Neopolitan-style pizza, were to visit DePalma's, they would be suitably impressed. The thin, crisp, airy, and slightly chewy crust was absolutely perfect as was the ratio of sauce to cheese. I could have seriously hurt myself with that pizza. And they have Peroni Nastro Azzurro, my favorite Italian beer, on tap. A definite plus.

We split desserts, starting with cannoli. We devoured the perfectly prepared concoction in shamefully speedy fashion, resisting the urge to lick the final remnants of chocolate and sweet ricotta from the plate. If there hadn't been fifty or sixty people in the place, it might have been another story.

The white chocolate bread pudding came highly recommended, and the server who recommended it should get a raise. Also made fresh in-house and served warm. Fantastico!

And that was just lunch! Can't wait to try DePalma's for dinner. Soon.

Reasonably priced and conveniently located near City Hall in downtown Tuscaloosa, DePalma's is open from 11 AM to 10 PM Monday through Thursday and from 11 AM to 11PM on Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday. Reservations are not required. Casual dress is acceptable. On street parking is available and several free parking lots are within easy walking distance.

DePalma's Italian Cafe
2300 University Blvd
Tuscaloosa, AL 25401
(205) 759-1879

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Critiquing Online Food Critics

Once upon a time, food critics were a breed apart. They were employed by print and broadcast media for their ability to express their opinions in a manner that was informative and at least somewhat entertaining. Revered and reviled, feared and fawned over, loved and hated; such was the life of the professional food critic.

Then came the Internet. Suddenly, anybody could be a food critic! All it takes is a mouth and an opinion. How bohemian! How democratic! How frightening!

Of critics in general, it was once said, “If you can do – do; if you can't – criticize.” More appropriate of the modern online critic is the axiom, “Opinions are like belly buttons; everybody's got one.” (Instead of "belly button," you may substitute an orifice located posteriorly and a little lower, if you prefer.) And therein lies the problem.

In the “old days,” critics of any stripe – food, wine, movies, books, television – offered educated opinions based upon knowledge and experience. Although some of them fit into the “can't do” category, many were very qualified to comment on the subjects upon which their opinions were based.

No more. “Joe Average” is the new critic of the information age. Armed with an opinion and an Internet connection, he “tells it like it is” to anyone who takes the time to click on his link. Whereas the professional critic is usually erudite and possessed of a writer's command of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, “Joe” is frequently incapable of expressing himself in words of more than one syllable and usually cannot string more than three of them together in a cohesive sentence. He often writes in “text speak,” the moronic mode of abbreviated communication commonly employed by those who simply can't be bothered by capitals, periods, commas or properly spelled complete words.

His valuable contribution to society goes something like this: “this place sux.” The more cosmopolitan “Joe” may actually include a reason: “ I didnt lik the food an the dood who wated on me wuz rely rood.”

Jeffrey Steingarten and Frank Bruni are turning in their graves – and they're not even dead yet.

Now, I'm not saying that these people don't have a place and a purpose. But let's take a look at what that place and purpose might be.

There are new sites popping up everywhere that cater to self-proclaimed critics and encourage submissions and reviews from the general public. Yahoo!, Menuism, and TripAdvisor are a few that come immediately to mind. They all serve a noble purpose: guiding your decision regarding where you should spend your valuable time and hard-earned money. But how do they fare at serving that purpose?

Online reviewers can provide a useful service. The pros – like Jeffrey and Frank – can't be everywhere and even local newspaper critics have to pick and choose from among hundreds of choices. So everyday people directing eyes, ears, and – most importantly – palates toward everyday places can prove valuable. But “caveat lector” (let the reader beware.) Apart from the functionally illiterate, there are two other types of online “critics” of which to beware: the “phony reviewer” and the “ax grinder.”

Phony reviews are often posted by unscrupulous owners and/or their agents in an attempt to gin up business for a new or failing establishment. “Phony reviewers” are usually friends, relatives, or employees who may have been promised rewards of some sort in return for boosting a business online. PR firms are notorious for this trick, too. On a recently aired episode of “Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares,” Gordon Ramsay “googled” the place he was attempting to assist and found a number of inappropriately glowing reviews for an obviously inferior restaurant. It didn't take him long to persuade the struggling owner to admit to authorship of at least one of the “reviews.”

An “ax grinder” is an individual who has a personal grudge against a place and spares no effort to make it look bad, no matter how many outright lies he has to publish. “Ax grinders” can often be disgruntled customers, former employees, business competitors, or even ex-spouses. The beauty of being an “ax grinder” is the fact that you can hide behind your anonymity and never be held accountable for your libelous comments.

How do you spot a fake review? Well, there is no hard and fast method, but there are a few things to watch for.

Fake critics all have the same goal; to make a restaurant look as good or as bad as possible. In so doing, they usually sacrifice content for hyperbole, ranting or raving in very generic terms without ever citing specifics of why a place is heavenly or hellish. Generic reviews that are based on extreme opinions without benefit of substance or fact are often fake.

Conversely, phonies frequently go over the top in their efforts to pull you in or drive you away. Shills will paint such a brilliantly glowing word picture that you'll need sunglasses in order to read it. Ax grinders will slam not only the food, but the service, the décor, the architecture, the music, the cutlery, the tableware, the chef's attire, and the owner's mother. Question extreme reviews.

I like to write positive reviews. Some people may think I'm a shill because I hardly ever rip a place apart for anything. That's probably genetic. I've had exposure to restaurants on both sides of the family for a couple of generations. My son is a waiter, my sister, several aunts and a wife were waitresses, my grandparents and various aunts and uncles were cooks, and long before I became involved in cooking or catering, I was a dishwasher. So maybe I see things a little differently, I don't know. I didn't even savage the careless waiter at an upscale place in Florida who once dripped olive oil all over the front of my khaki pants. I guess the manager's profuse apologies and offers to pay for cleaning were sufficient. That and watching the klutz get verbally flogged in Italian. I didn't need to write about it. An “ax grinder” would have made the incident the focal point of his review.

Oftentimes, fake critics will post several reviews at the same time. If you see four or five reviews all bearing the same date stamp, they may have all been written by the same person.

Watch for similarities in phrasing. If several consecutive reviews all seem to focus on the same kudos or complaints, they could be fake.

However, as already stated, if a review doesn't offer any specific point of praise or condemnation, it, too, could be bogus. Real critics are usually very specific in their likes and dislikes.

If you spot an absolutely scathing review posted among numerous positive ones, you've probably found an “ax grinder.” At the same time, an uncharacteristically sunny review amidst a sea of dismally cloudy ones is probably fake, written by somebody who wants to divert the focus.

Watch the time frame on online reviews. I see reviews all the time that were posted four and five years ago. A lot can change in four or five years. I once saw online reviews for a little place in Atlanta about which I was curious. Those that were around four years old were universally effusive in their praise. But then I noticed the reviews from the last six months to a year were dreadful. Seems the place had changed location and had spiraled downward rather rapidly. But I wanted to see for myself. Turned out to be a mixed experience. A lot of what the downers said was correct, but much of the praise in the older reviews was still justified.

I was hunting an eatery in Orlando and found one with an impressive website. I was on the verge of making a reservation when I decided to look a little deeper. I found one hundred-six reviews posted on one site. After the first forty were all derogatory and all derogatory for the same reasons, I opted to look elsewhere. The place I ultimately chose had a huge number of complimentary reviews and they all turned out to be deserved. So in the final analysis, I guess majority often rules. If you find an equal ratio of good to bad reviews, you pays your money and you takes your chances. But if literally everybody says someplace is bad or good, you can make some pretty safe bets.

Watch for clues that tell you something about the writer. On most sites dedicated to this kind of activity there is an option that allows you to read the reviewer's previous posts. If there aren't any, you don't necessarily have to bring out the red flags. After all, everybody's got to start somewhere. But at the same time, take the criticism for what it's worth. The more reviews the poster has posted, the more credibility his work gains. This is also a good way to weed out phonies and grudge-holders, neither of whom are likely to post commentary about different restaurants. They'll stick to either puffing or slamming the place in which they have a vested interest.

Actually, considering the source is just a good idea in general. Sometimes “Joe Average” isn't the guy on whom you want to base your big night out. Take a look at the places he usually frequents and decide if maybe he's writing outside his comfort zone. Let's say “Joe's” idea of fine Italian dining is the local pizza joint or spaghetti emporium. Now, let's say he winds up at Bricco in Boston's North End. I guarantee that the octopus or the stuffed zucchini flowers or the Veal Valdostana or the Pappardelle al Cinghiale are going to be somewhat unfamiliar to his palate. And then there's the price. A meal of Mozzarella di Bufala Caprese as an antipasto, a primo of Amatriciana Garganelli, a secondo of Veal Ossobuco with Chick Pea Frittelle as a contorno, and a dolce of Torta di Ricotta totals out at just under a hundred dollars – without beverages, taxes, or tips. So here's “Joe's” likely review: “I like Italian food. Back home, me and my wife go to Guido's Spaghetti House or Big John's Pizza Palace every week. When we were in Boston, we went to this place on Hanover Street that was supposed to be Italian, but they didn't have any pizza or spaghetti and the weird stuff they did have costed more than I make in a week. I won't ever go back there again.”

Of course, “Esquire” magazine's John Mariani says, “"Worth every penny for what I consider ... the finest Italian cooking in the country right now." But what does he know?

I'm not saying “Joe” isn't entitled to his opinion. However, having read up on “Joe's” experience and given the choice of whose opinion is going to influence my decision, I think I'd have to go with John. Especially since the New York Times, the Boston Globe and several other respected sources agree with him. Sorry, “Joe.”

Another example: in my city, there is a little Italian place downtown. It's not part of a chain and it's kind of tucked away where you might not notice it if you weren't looking. It's a “must go” spot for my wife and me, especially when we entertain visitors. On a whim, I looked at a few reviews online. Out of eleven reviews on Yahoo!, nine were four or five stars. Two were one star reviews. Here are a couple of observations from the negative reviews: “There were no offerings for a toddler. No bread is served with dinner which is really weird for an italian restaurant.” I'm sorry, did you ask about a kiddie menu before you sat down? And a lack of free bread is not really all that “weird” in more upscale Italian restaurants.

Another “average” reviewer opined, “ I felt like I could have gotten better pasta for less money at Olive Garden. I think it was too bland or something.” Since when is Olive Garden the standard for fine Italian cuisine? And “too bland or something”....come on! Was it too bland or wasn't it? This is an educated opinion upon which I should make a decision? No way.

On TripAdvisor, some goof complained because the restaurant didn't accept reservations and had difficulty accommodating his group of fourteen when they invaded it on a busy post-graduation night. Excuse me, did you call first? Or did you just assume you were that important? This one was especially grating because the “reviewer” admitted that he had been there before. And he didn't notice that the place was not set up for large groups?

As I said, everybody has an opinion. Unfortunately, not everybody has a brain to go with it. You don't have to be a gourmand (I hate the term “foodie”) to write a review, but it does help to know a little something about your subject. If your idea of haute cuisine is the “Rooty Tooty Fresh 'n Fruity” at IHOP, you probably shouldn't be offering critical commentary on four-star restaurants.

Look for these elements in a well-constructed review: time frame and restaurant conditions. Was it lunch service or dinner? Was the place packed or empty? What was the ambiance? Noisy, quiet, romantic, family friendly? Comments on service should be all-inclusive, covering not only waiters and waitresses, but hosts/hostesses, busboys, bartenders, and any other ancillary waitstaff. “Food was good/bad/okay” is not sufficient. A reviewer should discuss specific aspects of specific dishes and/or courses. What did they eat? What did their companions eat? Was there something else on the menu that looked interesting? Discuss portions -- too big, too small – and prices. Reasonable or too expensive for what was being offered? It's okay to mention negative points in a generally positive review and it's okay to introduce a high point into a negative commentary. It's called balance. A good review should conclude with a summary and a recommendation. A comprehensive review includes location, hours of operation, proper attire, reservation status, parking and basic contact information.

Now, with a fork in one hand and a pen in the other, go forth and mangia! The world is waiting for your opinion.

Buon Appetito!