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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by 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!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Traditional Good Luck Food for the New Year

Buona fortuna! Bonne chance! Buena suerte! Wishes for good luck abound at the beginning of every new year. And in some cultures, special foods are consumed to help make those wishes come true. Whether or not they have any effect on one's fortunes is speculative, but their inclusion in holiday menus is fixed firmly in tradition.

Take cotechino con lenticchie, or lentils and sausage, for instance. This Italian – or more specifically, Tuscan – tradition has its roots in the belief that lentils resemble lira coins and a nice fat pork sausage is analogous to a nice fat wallet. Remember, we are talking about a culture that equates tortellini with the navel of Venus, fried rice balls with little oranges, and flattened pieces of pasta with human ears.

In other parts of Italy – particularly in the Piemonte region – risotto is traditional New Year's fare, the rich, creamy abundance of small grains representing a similar abundance of wealth in the coming year.

In Roman times, honey-sesame cookies were given to guests at New Year celebrations to ensure a year of sweetness. And so in many parts of Italy, eating sweets on New Year's Day ensures a year of good fortune. Especially for your dentist!

In fact, there are common “good luck” elements in many culinary cultures. Pork, legumes, and greens are present on New Year's tables all around the world. Pork is customary because of its rich, fatty legacy symbolizing wealth. And pigs root in a forward direction, an action signifying forward movement in the upcoming year. Legumes, such as lentils, beans, and peas, are popular because they generally resemble coins. And greens …. well, the more green found on your table on New Year's Day, the more green likely to be found in your wallet in the new year.

The lentil bandwagon rolls all the way to South America where Brazilians in search of a prosperous New Year consume lentil soup or lentils and rice.

People in Germany pair pork and legumes as a means of ensuring a lucky New Year. There the sausage is usually accompanied by either lentil or split-pea soup. Sauerkraut, made from green cabbage, is also a popular first meal of the new year.

The Danish are fond of stewed kale with a little cinnamon, while pig's feet are popular in nearby Sweden.

Whole suckling pigs are roasted in many Latin countries to bring luck in the New Year.

And speaking of Latin countries, one custom there stands alone among the world's New Year's traditions; eating grapes. In Spain, Mexico, Portugal, Cuba and other Latin-influenced cultures, it is common to eat twelve grapes at midnight on New Year's Eve, one grape for each stroke of the hour.

In the American South, collard greens are a good luck staple on January 1. The greens are usually accompanied by ham hocks and black-eyed peas, especially in the coastal South where Hoppin' John is an essential New Year's Day dish. Similar to a traditional West African preparation, it consists of black-eyed peas, rice, and onions mixed with either ham hocks, fatback, or thick-sliced bacon. Some regional variations include peppers, vinegar, and the addition of different spices. Sometimes coins are inserted into individual servings or placed under bowls. Cornbread, with its golden color, is another traditional lucky food. Often Southern New Year's diners are encouraged to leave three peas on their plates to ensure luck, fortune, and romance in the coming year.

By the way, there are a few foods to avoid on New Year's Day if you wish to pursue a course of advancing good luck. Lobsters move backward and chickens scratch in a backward fashion, a direction you do not want your luck to take. Similarly, any bird that is capable of suddenly flying away, carrying your luck with it, is not to be eaten on New Year's Day.

Buon appetito e Buon Capo d'Anno!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Debunking the Marco Polo Myth

Raining on the Venetian Explorer's Pasta Parade

You know, it's nigh on to impossible to unlearn something. Especially when that thing has been ingrained in popular culture as something “everybody knows.” For example: everybody knows Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy.

Except he didn't. Well, to be fair, he may have brought some Chinese pasta home with him – sort of a medieval version of Chinese take-out – but he did not “introduce” pasta to Italy.

“But that's what they taught me in school!” Yeah, me too. Another example of a flawed public education system. That story was fed to me in the '60s. My sister got it in the '50s. My mother heard it in the early '30s. And from there the trail disappears. Why? I'll tell you why; before that time it didn't exist. Or if it did it was only as a vague rumor.

Americans have known about pasta for a long time, although they didn't call it that at first. The term “pasta” didn't come into general usage in non-Italian speaking areas until the late 19th century. Before that, the substance made from durum wheat and water was commonly referred to as “macaroni.”

Thomas Jefferson fell in love with macaroni when touring the Italian regions in 1787. He even had a pasta machine imported to the United States and designed and built one of his own as early as 1793. He is widely credited with serving macaroni and cheese at the White House during his term as president from 1801 to 1809. (It wasn't called “the White House” when Jefferson lived there. Another old grade school lesson busted.) In fact, he is often erroneously said to have “invented” the dish.

Macaroni was so popular in colonial times that it became a fashion statement. Like Jefferson, many young English aristocrats of the era toured Italy and became enamored of macaroni, to the extent that in short order the appellation “macaroni” came to be associated with a fop or a dandy. Someone with a high-flown sartorial sense. You didn't really think that when Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni, he was talking about pasta, now did you? I know, I know. That's the way you learned it in school.

Anyway, back to Marco Polo and how we all came to believe that he revolutionized the world by introducing pasta to Italy.

To say that a lot of Italians emigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th century would be an understatement. And as they came in their millions, they brought their native food culture with them; a culture that included pasta. But at first the stuff was really only popular in Italian neighborhoods. Despite Jefferson's appetites, the majority of Americans hadn't quite caught on to it yet. Enter the Macaroni Journal, a trade publication of the National Association of Macaroni and Noodle Manufacturers of America. This outfit existed, as one might expect, to promote the manufacture and sale of macaroni and noodles in America, and the Macaroni Journal was its publicity organ. Again, as one might expect, a lot of the information published in its pages was directed at an uninformed audience in order to familiarize them with the product so they would buy more of it. And it was in the October 1929 edition of the Macaroni Journal that the old Marco Polo myth was foisted off on an unenlightened American public in an article entitled “A Saga of Cathay.”

Marco Polo made quite a name for himself in the 13th century. A true merchant of Venice, he traveled to the little-known reaches of Asia, met the great Kublai Khan, earned an important place in the Chinese court, and returned to Venice twenty-four years later a fabulously wealthy man. While a political prisoner of rival Genoa, he dictated his memoirs of his journey to far Cathay. The book engendered great interest in the vast and mysterious Far East. Even the Genoese explorer known to American schoolchildren as Christopher Columbus is thought to have been influenced by Marco Polo's work.

In a brief mention of the kinds of food he encountered, Marco Polo says something about a dish similar to macaroni. And somehow that statement became the basis for the belief of future generations that he was responsible for bringing pasta to Italy. If anybody would actually take the time to read Marco Polo's writings it would be obvious that he was already familiar with pasta when he visited China. In fact, there are confirmed examples of other people in Italy writing about “maccheroni” years before Marco Polo ventured out of Venice.

The Macaroni Journal article is so patently ridiculous, it's hard to believe it was ever taken seriously. I mean, a Polo expedition sailor named Spaghetti saw a Chinese girl making noodles and the rest is history? Come on! Here's a link to the original article. http://www.foodinitaly.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/macaroni-journal.pdf. See for yourself.

Even though the story was identified in the article as a legend, American readers sort of blocked out that word, and it was off to the races for Marco and his “discovery.”

A few years later, Gary Cooper, playing the inveterate Venetian traveler in the 1938 film The Adventures of Marco Polo, asks one of his Chinese hosts about the dish he is being served. “What are they, snakes?” asks the Great Explorer. “We call it spa get,” is the unlikely reply. Please!

Nobody knows for certain where Italian pasta originated. Some scholars credit the Etruscans. Some note that the Romans ate a form of pasta. Others cite the Greeks. Most think that pasta was carried to Italy via Muslim invaders who conquered Sicily in the 9th century. All that aside, nobody – I repeat – nobody believes that Marco Polo introduced it from China. Nobody except a couple of generations of American elementary school teachers influenced by self-promoting trade magazines and hokey movies.

If you don't want to think for yourself and do your own research – concepts that are not commonly taught in American public schools – just do what everybody else does and Google the subject. If after hours of reading hundreds of authors writing thousands of words debunking the Marco Polo myth, you still choose to adhere to what Miss Jones taught you in the first grade, well, there's really no hope for you. Just sit back and slurp your spaghetti with the unthinking hordes who believe everything they read in the National Enquirer – or the Macaroni Journal.

Or you can take up my crusade to stop this silly story before it pollutes the thinking of still another generation. My kids got the word about Marco Polo at about the same time they learned the truth about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. With the modern preponderance of evidence to the contrary, I don't think schools actually teach that unmitigated merda anymore, but then I see it in print or hear it related on television and I go off screaming into the night.

No less a personage than Giuseppe Garibaldi once said, “It will be maccheroni, I swear to you, that will unite Italy.” So I call upon Italians, Italian-Americans, wannabe Italians, and generally intelligent people the world over; stop the Marco Polo myth! Let the Chinese take credit for chow mein but stand up for your spaghetti! March for your macaroni! Protest for your pasta!

I think I'll go take my medication now.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fat Chefs, Over-Exposed Celebrities, and Trashy Ingredients Coming to Food Network

You've heard it said; “Never trust a skinny chef.” And “Fat Chef” décor is all the rage. I even have a few decorative pieces with rotund Italian chefs adorning my kitchen and dining room.

But in real life, are fat chefs necessarily a good thing? Lean and mean chef Gordon Ramsay – who once tipped the scales at 250 pounds – doesn't think so. “I don't think chefs should be fat,” he opines. “It's just not a good advert,” he says, reasoning that a fat chef reflects a sloppy kitchen.

And now comes word that the Food Network is planning to take on the issue of fat chefs in an eponymous new series. Fat Chef, premiering January 26 (2012), will feature chefs whose obvious love of food has led them to the health problems many overweight and obese people face. Except most overweight people aren't forced into a face-to-face, day-to-day relationship with their nemesis the way food professionals are.

Fat Chef will follow participants through a four-month course of therapy and weight loss programs to help them overcome their weight issues and their abusive relationships with food. Kind of a kitchen version of Biggest Loser.

It looks like another step in the culinary cable giant's “reality” evolution. The move away from increasingly contrived and derivative “competition” shows is a good thing. Seems like every time my wife and I watch Food Network programming lately, we find ourselves saying something like, “Hey, didn't we just see that on Top Chef last week?” Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but there are limits. Although it's technically a “competition” show, the network's Chef Hunter is a nice change of pace and the recent episode of Chopped that featured real, honest-to-goodness school cafeteria cooks instead of the usual coterie of the trash-talking, over-inflated walking egos that clutter up the place on a regular basis was compelling television. Like many other critics, I think the Scripps purse strings could have been a little looser for the occasion, but it was a good idea and one that I hope will become a regular feature. Tattooed, spiky-haired bad boys (and girls) bragging about their awesomeness and then whining when they get “chopped” is getting a little old.

I'll be more likely to tune in Fat Chef than I will Food Network's other New Year offering, Rachael vs Guy Celebrity Cook-Off, in which the overly ubiquitous Guy Fieri and Rachael Ray coach teams of celebrities seeking to win a $50,000 prize for charity. That opus begins a six-episode run on January 1.

And it is hoped that The Big Waste won't be as Bobby Flay and Michael Symon take on Alex Guarnaschelli and Anne Burrell in a challenge to cook a three-course meal for a hundred people in a forty-eight hour time frame using only ingredients that would have otherwise been consigned to the trash. That special event airs on January 8.

Must see TV?” We'll see.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December Fun Food Holidays

The holiday season is in full swing. The biggest “food holiday” is under our belts – literally – but there's more to come. Holiday parties, family holiday dinners, and of course, some lesser know events. LOTS of them.

Ya gotta know that December is National Fruit Cake Month and National Egg Nog month. Those are gimmes. But the month also celebrates lager beer during its second week and reserves, would you believe, a day for cotton candy?

Right off the top, you're encouraged to Eat A Red Apple on the first day of December, a day also dedicated to pie under the auspices of National Pie Day. But just in case you're thinking “why not combine the two....” let's jump ahead to December 3, National Apple Pie Day. Sandwiched in between is National Fritters Day. Apples would work there, too.

Dust off the family cookie recipes for National Cookie Day on December 4.

December 6 is St. Nicholas Day, and what better way to celebrate than with gazpacho? It is, indeed, also National Gazpacho Day.

December 7 is considered by many to be “a date that will live in infamy.” So why somebody decided to make it National Cotton Candy Day is beyond me.

Chocolate brownies get their due on December 8 and pastry – any pastry – is feted on the 9th.

Remember Lager Beer Week? National Lager Day occurs on December 10.

If you've been impatiently waiting all year for the opportunity to indulge in a noodle ring, wait no more. December 11 is National Noodle Ring Day. Knock yourself out.

National Cocoa Day happens on December 12. Make mine hot, please, with marshmallows.

December 13 is National Ice Cream and Violins Day. Don't ask. I don't know. I'll just grab a Vivaldi CD and a bowl of Rocky Road and not ask any questions.

December 14 is National Bouillabaisse Day, one of my holiday staples, for sure, followed immediately by the more logical National Cupcake Day on the 15th.

December 16 is one of those “there's a day for that?” days; it's National Chocolate-Covered-Anything Day. Anything? Hmmmmm.

National Maple Syrup Day comes just as you're cleaning up from all that chocolate, December 17.

Pig out on December 18, National Roast Suckling Pig Day.

Hard candy gets a day on December 19 and fried shrimp claim the 20th.

It's National Hamburger Day on the 21st and if you live in California you get to celebrate Kiwi Fruit Day.

Schedule a date with some date nut bread on its special day, December 22.

Finally! The seldom-recognized pfefferneusse gets a day! December 23.

Toast Christmas Eve with some egg nog in celebration of National Egg Nog Day and then hang a few pumpkin pies on the tree as we honor the holiday staple that I usually associate with Thanksgiving on Christmas day. Go figure.

Of course, the day after Christmas is National Candy Cane Day. What's wrong with this picture?

You'd expect fruit cake to get a day and it does; December 27. Likewise chocolate candy on the 28th.

Cook up a hearty stew of tripe, vegetables, pepper and other seasonings on December 29 in celebration of National Pepper Pot Day and then down some baking soda in water the next day as you gratefully acknowledge National Bicarbonate of Soda Day.

And December 31 is a double whammy for party-goers – besides being New Year's Eve, it's also National Champagne Day.

Mangia bene e buone feste!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Restaurant Review: Coppola's Pizzeria & Italian Restaurant in Mt. Airy, NC

Best Pizza and Italian Food in ... Mayberry?

Words you never heard spoken on The Andy Griffith Show: “Hey, Barn. Let's skip the diner tonight. Grab Thelma Lou and we'll go get somethin' Eye-talian.” And yet, if you happen to be on Andy Griffith Parkway in his hometown of Mt. Airy, North Carolina – the town upon which aspects of Mayberry were modeled – you can, indeed, do just that.

Coppola's Pizzeria & Italian Restaurant is not located in the touristy downtown part of Mt. Airy, where the Bluebird Diner, the Snappy Lunch, Barney's, Leon's and a number of other real or imagined Mayberry eateries are located. It's out on the highway (actually the intersection of US Highways 52 and 601) sandwiched into a strip mall anchored by a Food Lion on one end and a Lowe's on the other. It's where the real locals go.

The place racked up some good mentions on the online review sites that I generally avoid like the plague because they are largely populated by palate-numbed wannabes who wouldn't know authentic Italian food if it were dumped in their laps. But some of our friends had eaten there and gave it a mixed review. So, naturally, I had to go.

My wife and I went for lunch on a mid-week afternoon just past the peak of service. Nothing derogatory or exciting about the décor and overall ambiance. It's a typical Italian-American theme, complete with Italian pictures on the walls and Italian music playing through the sound system. But it's very open, welcoming, and clean. (On a side note, the health inspectors in this part of the Tarheel State must be really tough; I've not yet encountered a place rated higher than 97, which is the rating posted for Coppola's.)

The four page menu was quite extensive, but the third item from the top on the left-hand column of the first page almost caused me to head for the door. “Brushetta.” A-a-a-ar-r-rggggh! It's not bad enough when people say it that way, but, mio Dio, do they actually have to spell it like that!!? And that was so weird because everyplace else on the menu were wonderfully correct Italian dishes like Rigatoni Arrabbiata and Rigatoni Puttanesca and Linguini Pescatore – “brushetta” sticks out like a very sore thumb.

Anyway, service was prompt. A gentleman who did not offer his name was very friendly and helpful withal. My wife had previously perused a menu posted on one of the aforementioned online sites and had decided on the Shrimp Parmigiana, listed thereupon as a house specialty. Well....it's not on the actual menu anymore; another reason to be wary of the online sites. Our solicitous waiter attempted to see if the kitchen could whip one up, but, alas, there were no shrimp to be found. Rather than wait for the next truck, my wife considered ordering her standard Baked Ziti, but ultimately decided on the Meat Ravioli with a House Salad and Gorgonzola dressing.

I, of course, went straight for a pizza, my personal litmus test for anyplace that posts “Pizzeria” above the door. Coppola's boasts “New York Style Pizza” in large letters. They offer a Neopolitan Round and Thin and a Sicilian that is square and thick. They feature the usual butcher shop and vegetable garden ingredients with which most Americans overload their pizza, but I always like to go for the basic, classic pizza. If you put more than sauce, cheese, and maybe one or two toppings on a pizza, you've created a glaring mish-mash of flavors that overpower one another and destroy the basic concept of what a pizza is supposed to be. I topped my simple cheese Neopolitan with a little ham, prosciutto or pancetta not being options.

My wife's salad arrived. A very basic salad of lettuce, shredded carrots, slices of cucumber and tomato. Curiously senza formaggio, but a nice salad nonetheless. The dressing gave her a brief pause; she had expected the usual creamy Gorgonzola, but was instead presented with something that resembled a vinaigrette. Closer examination of the menu disclosed that it was, indeed, a Gorgonzola Vinaigrette. But she pronounced it good. She also heaped praise on her Meat Ravioli. A generous portion of filled pasta in a flavorful tomato sauce topped with a lavish supply of good, stretchy mozzarella.

In case you weren't aware, one of the principal ways to judge good mozzarella is by a stretch test, the simplest form of which involves nothing more than a fork. You just get a good lump of melted mozzarella on your fork and lift vertically. The cheese should string out for quite some distance before breaking. The longer the strings, the better the cheese. (A good cheese can stretch to eleven or twelve inches.)

But we digress. The tomato sauce was smooth and lovely with a fulsome tomato flavor not masked by an overabundance of herbs, spices, and seasonings. We were assured that it is fatta in casa (made in house).

My wife was quite impressed by the warm bread that accompanied her meal. I sampled it and found it to be very good for a commercially produced frozen and reheated product. The waiter confirmed my assessment of the bread, which left my wife wondering, “How could you tell?” To which query I merely smiled inscrutably. “I just can.” But the crust was nicely crisp and crunchy over a soft crumb that had a hole pattern and an overall texture that was reasonably characteristic of homemade.

The pizza was quite good. The crust was pretty darn close to the perfect Neopolitan model of being thin and crispy on the outside with a slight chewiness on the inside. I could discern that it was baked in a gas-fired oven rather than one that was fueled by wood or coal, but at least it didn't come off some contemptible conveyor belt like so many American pizzas do. It, too, was perfectly topped with the same delectable sauce and stretchy cheese that covered the ravioli dish. The thin sliced ham, although nothing wildly exotic, added a nice flavor element to a pizza that was well above the Italian-American pizzeria norm.

When asked, our server cited the Baked Ziti as one the restaurant's top sellers. (Causing my wife to roll her eyes, but she was still quite satisfied with her alternate selection.) Besides pizza and pasta, Coppola's features a number of classic Italian-American seafood, chicken, veal, and vegetable dishes as well as a variety of sandwiches.

The restaurant has a tempting dessert menu full of things like Chocolate Decadence Torte, Turtle Truffle Mousse, and the standards Tiramisu and Cannoli.

For a small place in a small town, an adequate wine menu is available as are a selection of domestic and imported beers.

Prices are very reasonable, parking is plentiful, and dress is casual. No reservations required or accepted. Coppola's is open 11 am to 10 pm Monday through Thursday, 11 to 11 on Friday and Saturday, and from noon to 10 on Sunday.

Word of caution: for some reason unknown to any of the employees I asked, Coppola's address is listed incorrectly on most websites and even in the local telephone book. They are not at 1044 Old US Hwy 52 S. They are at 692 S. Andy Griffith Parkway, Ste 107, Mt. Airy NC 27030. The phone number, at least, is correct in these sources – (336) 789-8341.

Also, it should be noted that the Mt. Airy Coppola's is not affiliated with any of the other area establishments of the same name. “It's just a popular name, I guess,” was the best explanation I could get. I suppose so. After all, Francis Ford Coppola has done quite well with it for many years.

Bottom line, if you're looking for good Italian-American fare and if you want to eat where Andy and Barney and Aunt Bee and Opie and Floyd and all the rest would probably eat in the Mt. Airy/Mayberry area, Coppola's Pizzeria & Italian Restaurant is a very good choice.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fabio Viviani and "Chow Ciao"

For somebody who gets around as much as I sometimes do, eating in Italian restaurants all over the place and writing about food and travel, it still seems as if I don't get out much. That was my first thought when I heard that Yahoo! was launching Chow Ciao!, an online Italian cooking series featuring Chef Fabio Viviani. Who?

At first glance, Fabio's résumé would seem to indicate that he has made a career of losing. Let's see......according to Wikipedia, he's William Shatner's personal chef. For that, I offer him both my admiration and my condolences. Wiki also says he shills for San Pelligrino water, among other companies. But he lost when he competed on Top Chef, he lost again on Top Chef: All Stars, and after Bravo announced it was going to give him his own show, the network did a sudden about-face and dropped the project before it even started.

But to be fair, Fabio did make the final four and he was voted a fan favorite when he competed on Top Chef and after watching his cooking demos on Yahoo!, it's easy to see why. The guy is fun, informative, and very likeable. He packs more into five or six minutes online than many of his peers accomplish on their thirty-minute TV shows. And he's really Italian. Although a naturalized US citizen, he retains an accent that firmly establishes his Florentine roots. You know, the letter “y” does not exist in the Italian alphabet, and it doesn't exist in Fabio's pronunciation of “yeast,” either. But his presentation is so infectiously high-spirited and fun that you just don't care! The producers of his segments throw in little “translation balloons” when needed. After you watch him for five minutes, you just want to go out and cook something Italian.

Content-wise, Fabio sticks closely to the basics of Italian cooking – fresh, simple, uncomplicated food that tastes delicious. Generally good information, good technique, and entertaining presentations. What more could you want?

As of this writing, he's done five segments of Chow Ciao! for Yahoo! Through demos on olive oil and Caprese salad, Italian meatballs, pasta, tomatoes, and pizza, I can only find one thing with which I significantly disagree and that's his information on olive oil. Probably because he's on Bertolli's payroll, Fabio promotes “light” olive oil. Folks, so-called “light” olive oil barely qualifies as olive oil. There's no actual classification for it and it's largely a marketing gimmick. Made from the leftovers of extra-virgin and virgin olive oil production, it has to be mechanically, thermally, and/or chemically refined to even be deemed fit for consumption. Colorless and tasteless, it is usually blended with vegetable and/or canola oil. Its only value is as a frying oil because of its relatively higher smoke point. You could make your own “light” olive oil by putting a drop of extra-virgin oil in a quart of canola. Tastewise, the effect would be about the same. But, as noted, Fabio represents Bertolli and Bertolli makes “light” olive oil for the American market, so......

Like any modern force of nature, Fabio also has his own website, blog, and even an iPhone app. He has an e-book that he promotes on his site and cookbooks are in the works.

Yahoo! introduces new episodes of Chow Ciao! every Monday morning. You can find them at http://screen.yahoo.com/women/chow-ciao/. And, BTW, Yahoo!, I'm a little offended by the apparent relegation of Fabio's content to the “women's interest” section. But that's a fight for another day.

Check out past episodes at the link I've provided and stay tuned for more next Monday. Fabio Viviani and Chow Ciao! are easy addictions to acquire.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Grilled Cheese and Me

Why are people ashamed of grilled cheese sandwiches? Why is it that they are so often relegated to the kiddie menu? Granted, I first started eating grilled cheese when I was a kid. But it's still a favorite of mine and at times I resent having to order from the kid's menu like some kind of culinary social outcast. “Look at that poor man! With all our double-decker Angus beef burgers and triple-decker turkey and chicken and ham sandwiches, all served with a veritable vegetable garden of toppings to choose from, he orders a grilled cheese!” Yeah, so what?

Let me give you a little backstory.

Growing up, I was the poster boy for extremely picky eaters. I had an uncle who predicted that, because of my ridiculous diet, I'd be dead before I turned eighteen. (I have, by the way, outlived that uncle.) But he could have been right. Until I was about ten years old, the only thing I would ever eat in a restaurant was French fries and a either a Coke or a chocolate malt. That's it. Period. No exceptions.

Oh, I'd eat other things at home, of course, and one of my favorite things to eat was cheese. A slice of good old plastic, processed American cheese would make me the happiest kid on the block.

It was my grandmother who started expanding my diet by applying simple logic to my unusual eating habits. And the first expansion supplied by that logic was a grilled cheese sandwich. “You like cheese, don't you?” “Yes, Grandma.” “And you like toast, right?” “Yes, Grandma.” “Well, why don't we try putting the two of them together and see how you like that.” Damn, she was good! And so was that first grilled cheese. I've been hooked ever since.

Now, I can't say that grilled cheese sandwiches are always among the ranks of kiddie fare. Cracker Barrel, for instance, has a killer grilled cheese – made with cheddar cheese on sourdough bread – right there on their regular menu. But most mainstream restaurants either put them at the end of the regular menu in fine print – like they're hiding them – or they list them on the kid's menu. Believe it or not, I was once refused a grilled cheese at a chain family-style restaurant because they were only served to those “12 and under.”

There are a few innovative restaurateurs who have developed eateries dedicated solely to the humble grilled cheese – although many of their creations are far from humble and, in my opinion, far from being grilled cheese. These offerings are euphemistically referred to as “adult” grilled cheese or “gourmet” grilled cheese.

All well and good, but a grilled cheese sandwich, made the way God intended it to be made, should consist of three elements; bread, butter, and cheese. The bread should be plain white bread. Put a slice or two of cheese on a lightly buttered slice of bread. Top with another lightly buttered slice of bread. Lightly butter the outside surfaces and put the whole assembly on a flat-top grill or in a flat-bottomed pan where you will toast it to golden brown, melted perfection. Ta-dah! That's a grilled cheese!

But when you start adding roasted vegetables and exotic condiments and unusual breads – well, you're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

I guess it's just because I like my sandwiches simple. They look at me funny at Subway because when I ask for a ham and cheese sandwich, that's what I want; ham and cheese. No onions, olives, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, cole slaw, mustard, mayonnaise, relish, ketchup, vinegar, or any of the dozens of other extras they offer. Ham and cheese. On bread. That's it.

So it should be with grilled cheese. I mean, what does the name imply? A cheese sandwich on a grill, right? There's nothing in there about sundried tomatoes and roasted red peppers. If I wanted those things I'd ask for a roasted red pepper and sundried tomato sandwich with cheese.

Here are a few selections I found masquerading as grilled cheeses on a “gourmet” menu: Grilled Cheese with Butternut Squash, Onions, and Balsamic Syrup. How about a grilled cheese made with goat cheese, spinach and mustard? Or one with russet apples and gouda? Or brie and pears with red onions and arugula?

Thank you, no.

We all know the story about John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich, and his contribution to culinary history. And did he ask for two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun? No. He asked for a piece of meat between two slices of bread. Simplicity. And that's what a grilled cheese should be; a slice of cheese between two pieces of bread. Toasted.

Now, cheese on bread has been around for about as long as there has been cheese and bread. You can find references to cooked bread and cheese in ancient Roman cookbooks. But it wasn't until the early 20th century that the combination we now know as “grilled cheese” really came into fashion.

Prior to the 1920s, if you wanted to fix yourself something as basic as a grilled cheese sandwich, you had to work for it. First you had to build a fire in the stove. Then you had to haul out a chunk of cheese and a loaf of bread from the pantry and cut slices from both. Then you had to bring out the heavy artillery, aka the cast-iron pan. It was all very labor intensive. Progress, in the form of gas and/or electric stoves that lit with the turn of a knob, opened a lot of doors. Even so, early grilled cheeses were more along the lines of “cheese toast.” They were open-faced affairs comprised of a slice of toasted bread and a sprinkling of grated cheese. But then along came more progress; pre-sliced bread and packaged processed cheese. All the makings of the modern grilled cheese were now in place. A second slice of bread was added to make the sandwich more substantial and … well, sandwich-like, and suddenly, even kids could create a satisfying meal with little effort and less expense.

And, unfortunately, therein lies the problem. Grilled cheese sandwiches became a kiddie staple almost from the beginning because a) kids liked them and b) kids could make them. I know. I started cooking at about age 7 and a grilled cheese was among the first things I learned to cook.

Now, I don't mean to say that upgrading the grilled cheese is a bad thing. I long ago stopped eating plastic American cheese. I sometimes make my grilled cheese sandwiches with different kinds and combinations of cheese. And since I bake my own bread, I haven't had gummy, store-bought white bread at home in years. But that just means I've improved the quality of the ingredients. I haven't radically altered the basic concept of a grilled cheese sandwich.

I guess it's all part of the American predilection toward excess. Somehow our national psyche still drives us to be bigger and better than everybody else, even in our food. By way of example, check out shows like “Man vs Food” someday. Simplicity, it seems, is equated with paucity, and we Americans just can't tolerate that, so we dump everything but the kitchen sink onto our plates just because we can. Look what happened to pizza once Americans got a hold of it.

So call me boring, call me pedestrian, call me dull, mundane, and humdrum. I'll continue to eschew “gourmet” grilled cheese sandwiches in favor of a simple comfort food staple made with a slice or two of cheese between two slices of bread. Serve that up with a bowl of tomato soup and some potato chips or French fries and you've got a cheap, easy, satisfying meal. Is it “adult?” Well, I'm an adult and I think so. Is it exciting and innovative and “gourmet?” Nope, but then neither is another of my favorites, peanut butter and jelly. And when it comes to the most important question – is it good and does it give you a warm, fuzzy feeling when you eat it – the answer is a resounding “yes!” That's all that really matters, anyway.

Mangia bene!

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Parmesan Frico: Simple But Elegant -- and Delicious!

If you're looking for a simple but extremely flavorful nibble to serve with a glass of wine or to use as an elegant garnish for everything from a rich risotto to an uncomplicated salad – or if you just want a darn tasty little snack – may I recommend a Frico di Parmigiano?

In plain English, a frico is a cheese crisp. The roots for this delectable little wafer go back to the Friuli region of Italy, where it is commonly made from Montasio cheese. It can also be made from mozzarella, but my favorite version is the one I make from “the Undisputed King of Cheeses,” Parmigiano-Reggiano. The crispy, salty, tangy flavor is out of this world.

Variations of the recipe go back to the days of Maestro Martino, a noted 14th century Italian cook. But there's absolutely nothing complicated about making frico; all you need is a hot pan or an oven and cheese. That's it.

As noted, you can fry or bake your frico. My preferred method is baking. And I'm picky about the cheese. If you can't find – or afford – Parmigiano-Reggiano, a fresh domestic Wisconsin or California Parmesan will work, but avoid like the plague the cheese-flavored sawdust in a can most people identify as Parmesan cheese.

Start by grating up a quantity of the cheese. How much will depend upon how you'll be using it. I use a Microplane grater, which produces a fine, light grating that resembles snow.

Line a baking sheet with a silpat or with parchment paper. Portion out little – or not so little – round piles of grated cheese, then use the back of a spoon to slightly flatten them into circles. Again, the size will depend upon the application. The cheese will spread as it melts, so make sure you leave adequate space between the circles.

Preheat the oven to 375°. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the cheese is golden and bubbly. Golden and bubbly, not brown and nasty.

As I said, I prefer baking, but if you'd like to try frying, use a medium non-stick skillet. Some people add a little butter or olive oil to just coat the bottom of the pan. If you have a good non-stick, you really shouldn't need it, and I think it sometimes makes the frico a bit heavier. Just grate the cheese as in the baking method and evenly distribute a thin layer over the bottom of the pan. Cook over medium heat until the cheese melts and forms a light crust, about 3 or 4 minutes. Keep cooking until the edges set and a golden crust develops, about another 30 seconds or so, then, using a spatula, carefully turn the frico and cook the other side until lightly golden, about another 30 seconds to a minute.

If you're just going to use the frico as crisps or wafers for a garnish or a snack, let them cool slightly and carefully lift them from the baking sheet using a thin spatula. But here's a fun and elegant twist; form the frico into edible bowls and fill them with risotto or the fixings of a salad. Just let the frico cool enough to handle but not to set. Then mold them over an inverted cup or bowl – or in the cups of a muffin tin – and allow them to finish cooling into the desired form. They'll be fragile, so handle them carefully. And don't fill them with anything too moist; they are made of cheese, after all. I've used them to contain simple salads and as vehicles for various antipasti. And the reactions from your family, friends, or other guests will be well worth the effort, believe me.

Buon appetito!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Manicotti or Cannelloni: There IS a Difference

Distinctive Dishes With Unique Flavors And Textures

I wanted to make cannelloni the other day but I was pressed for time. So I went shopping and bought a box of manicotti shells. Actually, I really didn't buy “manicotti” shells; that's just what the manufacturer calls them.

Don't worry if you don't know the difference. Most “Italian” restaurants in the US don't either. And, obviously, neither do the people who make pasta for American consumption.

Manicotti – which roughly means “sleeves” – is a filled crepe rather than an actual pasta and is traditionally prepared in a special crepe pan. In Italy, one would be hard pressed to find “manicotti” on a menu as anything made from a crepe is likely to be called a “crespelle.”

Cannelloni is a stuffed pasta dish. And although the stuffing, or ripieno, can often be the same, the element that sets the two apart is the actual construction of the dish. In making cannelloni, you start with a pasta sheet which you stuff and roll into a tube. The word “cannelloni” loosely translates to “big reeds” or “big tubes.” Or you can buy said big tubes ready for stuffing. Except in America, they're sold as manicotti. Got it?

If you're going to make cannelloni at home, you can use a lasagne sheet or you can make your own pasta. You par cook the pasta sheets, lay them out on dampened towels or paper towels, put a couple of tablespoons of whatever filling you're using – cheese, meat, spinach, mushrooms, etc. – along a long edge, roll it up and place it seam side down in a baking dish already layered with your sauce of choice, usually either a tomato sauce or a bechamel. Pour a little more sauce over the top, sprinkle on some grated cheese, and bake it.

Or, if you're adventurous, you can use the aforementioned “manicotti” shells, but beware; stuffing a pre-made shell is not a task for the faint of heart or inexperienced of hand. Once you par cook the shells – and you do have to par cook them – the little buggers become both slippery and fragile. It's really easy to tear one in the process of filling it. And filling it is a process, for sure. You can try spooning the filling in – a technique almost guaranteed to tear up the pasta – but good luck getting an even filling all the way through. Piping in the filling from a pastry bag or its equivalent is a much better way to get an even fill, but here, too, you run the risk of popping the shell if you pipe a little too vigorously. It's faster, easier, and more authentic to do the roll up method.

And that's pretty much the same way you make manicotti. Same technique, anyway. Different building material. For manicotti, you need to start with a super-thin crepe. And I do mean super-thin. If your crepe is too thick or uneven in texture, you're going to have a hard time stuffing and rolling it. A decent crepe batter can be made with 3/4 cup flour, 2 eggs, 2 or 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter, 3/4 cup of milk, 1/4 cup warm water, and a little salt and pepper. A crepe pan is nice, but a good non-stick pan will work, too. From there on, it's a matter of technique. Getting the right amount of batter in the pan, swirling it around to get the right consistency, flipping it or turning it properly – if you can make pancakes you can do it. It just takes a little practice. Then you lay the crespelle out flat and fill and and roll it in the same manner as you would with pasta for cannelloni.

Most American cookbooks and recipe websites, as well as most Italian-American restaurants, use the terms “cannelloni” and “manicotti” interchangeably. But they really are distinctive dishes with unique flavors and textures. Try 'em both and experience the difference.

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

November Fun Food Holidays

Halloween is gone and the big food holidays are upon us. Everybody knows about the glutton-fest that happens on the fourth Thursday of November, the 24th this year, but what about food happenings on the other days of the Gregorian calendar's penultimate month? Glad you asked.

If you love peanut butter, have I got a month for you; November is indeed National Peanut Butter Lover's Month. It's also a month for aficionados of Georgia pecans, raisin bread, pomegranates, and peppers. November is National Good Nutrition Month, and, oddly enough considering all the celebration of turkey, ham, and a variety of dishes made with eggs, milk, and other dairy products that will be occurring near the end of the month, November is also Vegan Month. Go figure.

The first week of November is National Fig Week. And some widely varied comestibles also occupy the inaugural week of the month. Fried clams and vinegar are both honored on November 1, although probably not together. Deviled eggs, sandwiches, candy, and doughnuts each claim national recognition on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th, respectively.

Nachos are in the spotlight on November 6 and bittersweet chocolate with almonds – make sure it's with almonds – takes the day on the 7th.

Start the next week with a cappuccino on Monday, November 8. Or you may prefer a Harvey Wallbanger. No, I'm not kidding. The cocktail that is basically a Screwdriver with a half-shot of the Italian liqueur Galliano shares a day with the popular Italian coffee creation, cappuccino.

I'd go for the Harvey Wallbanger because the following day, November 9, is National Scrapple Day. If you've never enjoyed pig fat, pig hearts, pig livers, pig skin, flour, cornmeal, and spices all mushed up together and compressed into a loaf, then you've never enjoyed scrapple. I know I've never enjoyed scrapple. I may opt to celebrate the day's companion occasion, National Cook Something Bold and Pungent Day. Although scrapple seems to fit the bill there, too. I may just sleep in that day.

I'll be awake, though, for National Vanilla Cupcake Day on November 10 and I'll stay up for National Sundae Day on the 11th.

National Pizza With Everything Except Anchovies Day – I'm serious – is November 12th.

If you're a fan of British-style puddings served in a traditional New England fashion, then you'll enjoy November 13, National Indian Pudding Day. No, it doesn't make sense to me either.

How about guacamole and pickles? Both are celebrated on November 14. Again, probably not together.

National Raisin Bran Cereal Day happens on November 15.

Now, help me understand this one: November 16 – right smack in the middle of National Good Nutrition Month – is National Fast Food Day. Things that make you go “hmmmmm.”

Homemade bread and baklava share the day on November 17.

Nothing warms a late autumn day like a bowl of cold potato and leek soup. I guess that's why National Vichyssoise Day is celebrated on November 18.

Here's an occasion I can get behind; November 19 is National Carbonated Beverage With Caffeine Day. As a non-coffee drinker, I imbibe my caffeine cold every day, but it's nice to know that my habit has an actual holiday dedicated to it.

Peanut butter fudge and gingerbread get back-to-back days on the 20th and 21st.

Don't eschew the cashew on its holiday, November 22.

Cappuccino and Harvey Wallbangers got to share a day earlier in the month, so somebody apparently decided that espresso and cranberries were a good match. National Espresso Day and National Eat a Cranberry Day are both slated for November 23.

Now, we've already established that Thanksgiving is November 24, right? However, if you aren't into the whole turkey and mashed potatoes thing, you can still celebrate a food holiday; National Sardines Day is also November 24.

You might think that turkey salad, turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, turkey casserole, etc. would be filling the remaining days of November, but no. The whole rest of the month is dedicated to desserts. Parfaits are preferred on the 25th, cake – no particular kind – takes the cake on the 26th. The 27th belongs to Bavarian Cream Pie. French toast is featured on the 28th. (Okay, so its not a dessert, but with a little cinnamon-sugar added, it could be.) Chocolates and lemon cream pie split the day on the 29th. And the month wraps up with a salute to foam in the form of National Mousse Day on November 30.

Ready for fruit cake and egg nog month? Just wait until December rolls around.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Margarine Is Still Illegal -- And Nobody Cares

I don't make any secret of my disdain for margarine. I find that it tastes like exactly what it is; processed yellow-colored hydrogenated vegetable oil. I never bought into the bogus health claims made by its purveyors and current food and nutrition science doesn't either.

I've always wondered; if margarine is so great, why do the marketers of the stuff insist on names like “I Can't Believe It's Not Butter?” Why do they tout how “buttery tasting” their product is? Never once have I heard a butter maker proclaim, “Wow! It tastes just like margarine!” Even the URL for the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers proclaims the popularity of real butter – butteryspreads.org. Hey, what's wrong with “margarineyspreads.org, huh? For my money, if I want something that tastes like butter, I buy butter!

Margarine is nothing but a cheap substitute for the real thing. And I don't believe in cheap substitutes. I once saw a Volkswagen Beetle with a kit-built Rolls-Royce front end bolted on. That's margarine. You can dress it up, but it's still a Volkswagen.

Margarine has been a cheap imitation from Day 1. That's it's purpose, it's raison d'etre. The 19th century French government needed a cheap substitute for butter to foist off on its troops. A French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented a substance he called oleomargarine and the rest is history.

Needless to say, the dairy industry was not happy with the new kid on the block. It wasn't long before farmers in dairying states were up in arms, demanding that something be done about margarine for the sake of preserving the health and well being of their market and of their very way of life. Ultimately, by 1902, thirty-two of America's forty-five states had some form of restriction on colored margarine. And, of course, Wisconsin lawmakers were at the head of the charge. In 1895, “America's Dairyland” enacted stringent laws prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or use of margarine colored to imitate butter.

In its unadulterated form, margarine is a pasty white color. Just imagine spreading a nice thick, greasy layer of Crisco on your toast. Margarine makers, realizing that such an unappealing appearance was a real marketing drawback, began selling yellow food dye capsules with their unattractive product to make it more…well...attractive. (At one point, an attempt was made to force margarine manufacturers to color their product pink, but the Supreme Court struck down such forced coloration restrictions.) By and large, the gimmick worked and people started buying the second-rate substitute not because it was better than butter but because it was cheap. In those days nobody knew anything about saturated fats and trans fats and cholesterol. And as long as the stuff sorta looked like butter, well, you could almost get over the unnatural artificial flavor. Factor in the widespread dairy product rationing that accompanied a couple of subsequent world wars, and, despite heavy taxation and restrictive legislation in the dairy states, the demand for margarine took off. Kind of like Prohibition; the best way to popularize a substance is to make it illegal.

In fact, now that the statute of limitations has probably expired, I can come clean and admit it; back in the '50s, my dad was a bootlegger. We lived just a few miles north of the Illinois border. Margarine was legal in the Land of Lincoln and my dad used to take orders from friends and neighbors throughout the week and then head south on Saturday to fill up the trunk of his car with contraband, bringing it back to Wisconsin for clandestine distribution. Oh, the shame!

But those days are all behind us now, right? Even as liquor began to flow after the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, legal margarine has spread itself across the land and is now free for all to consume without legislative restriction, right? Wrong.

That's right. Wrong. While some statutes in previously anti-margarine states have been quietly removed from the books over the years, some laws in some states remain in effect. Granted, they're not enforced, but they're still there.

Spurred on by the aforementioned National Association of Margarine Manufacturers and other lobbyists, laws regulating the sale and use of margarine came under serious fire in the 1950s and '60s. Federal taxes on margarine were eliminated in 1951. State color bans, taxes, and other legal measures began to fall to well-funded pressure until, in 1967, Wisconsin became the last state to end its restrictions on margarine. Happy days were here again and people like my dad were out of business.

But....

Wisconsinites are a determined lot and they didn't completely cave in to the interests pushing fake butter. While all the old laws regulating butter were repealed in '67, a new one was added. That law, targeted at the food service industry, made it illegal for restaurants to serve margarine as a replacement for butter. Customers can request margarine, but it can't legally be the default table offering. And if a restaurant insists on serving margarine, the law insists that it make butter an available option. The law also requires that butter be served to students in schools, patients in hospitals, and inmates in prisons. Anybody who violates margarine laws faces fines ranging from $100 to $500 and they can be jailed for up to three months for the first offense. Fines and jail time increase for additional violations, with recidivist margarine offenders subject to fines of $500 to $1,000 and six months to a year in the pokey.

Nobody can remember the last time the law was enforced, if it ever has been. One or two complaints trickle in to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture every year. And the authorities dutifully send out warning letters. And that's about it. Most consumers don't even know the law exists and most restaurant owners, if aware if it, don't care. And they don't care for a very good reason; most of their customers don't want margarine. One Wisconsin restaurateur says he goes through five or six times as much butter as margarine. Another says if he puts out margarine, his customers won't touch it.

But there is the whole money thing and that's why a Wisconsin state representative, one Dale Kooyenga, is out gunning for the last of the state's margarine laws. Something like 21,000 inmates are being fed expensive butter when margarine is cheaper. And besides, he feels it's an antiquated, anti-free market law that's just plain silly. And silly laws, he believes, “erode citizen's respect for the overall rule of law in our state.”

Now, Wisconsin has a boat-load of silly laws. Why isn't Rep. Kooyenga going after the law that bars cats and dogs from cemeteries (excepting dogs guiding the blind, of course.) Or perhaps he should tackle bike riders in Sun Prairie who ride with no hands: “No bicycle shall be allowed to proceed in any street in the city by inertia or momentum with the feet of the rider removed from the bicycle pedals. No rider of a bicycle shall remove both hands from the handlebars or practice any trick or fancy riding in any street in the city nor shall any bicycle rider carry or ride any other person so that two persons are on the bicycle at one time, unless a seat is provided for a second person.” Man, I should still be doing time for the number of violations I clocked against that one back in the day. Women in Racine can't walk the streets at night without being accompanied by a male. Milwaukee says if you look offensive you're not allowed to be seen on the street during the day. LaCrosse bans unclothed mannequins in store windows. And my personal favorite, one I think the Honorable Mr. Kooyenga ought to challenge: according to state law, when two trains are at an intersection, neither shall move until the other does.

It's a good thing I'm no longer a citizen of Wisconsin. I'd feel so eroded.

Apparently, there aren't too many of Kooyenga's compatriots who fear erosion over the margarine law. At last count, only eleven other lawmakers – out of a possible 132 – have signed on as co-sponsors of his bill. The other 120 are no doubt sitting in their favorite eateries slathering delicious, all-natural butter on everything from fresh bread to corn on the cob.

Hey, Wisconsinites! Try this on; Paula Deen for Governor!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hey, Michael Symon! You Can't "Caramelize" Meat!

Up front, I like celebrity chef Michael Symon. I think he's fun to watch and he has some fabulous food ideas. But I heard him say it again the other day. He referred to the “caramelization” on a piece of meat he was preparing. He's done it before. And he's wrong. And he's not alone. I've heard other chefs say it, too.

I'm sure – or at least I hope – that a trained chef knows the definition of “carmelization.” A non-enzymatic, or oxidative, process, caramelization is a chemical reaction – pyrolysis – in food that produces a nutty flavor and a brown color. BUT it is a reaction solely related to non-reducing sugars in certain foods.
There are two principal non-enzymatic browning processes. These are chemical reactions that turn foods brown without the activity of enzymes. By contrast, an apple turns brown when you cut it because of enzymatic activity in the presence of oxygen. The non-enzymatic processes are caramelization and the Maillard (MAH-yar) reaction.
I really don't want to go into page after boring page detailing disaccharides and monosaccharides and oligosaccharides and polysaccharides and closed ring structures and aldehydes and ketones and other stuff that blurs the vision and boggles the brain. So let's keep it simple.
Caramelization occurs when the aforementioned non-reducing sugars react to heat. Sucrose – common table sugar – is a non-reducing sugar. It begins to caramelize at 320°. The rate of caramelization is affected by pH balance, with the lowest rate occurring near neutral (pH7) levels and increasing as you go more acidic – for example pH3 – or more basic, like pH9. But there we go with all that mind-numbing scientific stuff again.
The Maillard reaction, named for a French chemist who first demonstrated it in 1910, occurs in the presence of amino acids. Sugars are involved, but they are what is known as “reducing sugars.” The carbonyl group of said sugar reacts with the amino group of the amino acid to produce browning and flavor changes. This process occurs when low moisture levels are present and temperatures reach around 310°. Different amino acids produce different levels of browning.
Still struggling to keep it simple, sugars are involved in both processes, but they are different sugars, or carbohydrates – a word everybody knows these days. The sugars that can caramelize are those that form simple carbohydrates, such as those found in fruits and vegetables. The sugars involved in the Maillard reaction are those that form the complex carbohydrates found in meats and grains. The nice brown color you see in toast, for instance, is not due to caramelization. It is a Maillard reaction.
In short – and simple – terms, there is no such thing as “caramelizing” meat. When you apply heat you “caramelize” fruits and vegetables to achieve changes in flavor and color, but those changes in meat are due to an entirely different chemical process. Since I've never heard anybody refer to “Maillard-izing” a cut of meat, let's just call it “browning,” shall we?

And a seasoned chef should know the difference. I sometimes think it's a matter of a person trying to sound educated beyond his or her intelligence or vice-versa. Given the choice between “caramelizing” and “browning,” which word sounds more “cheffy?” Never mind the people like me who sit and shout at the TV screen, “Idiota! You can't “caramelize” meat!” (Said people have to like to scream things in Italian.) “Caramelize” is a nice cheffy-sounding word that gets tossed around on TV a lot. But is it the correct word for all occasions? No. And with so many “Iron Chef” wannabes watching TV to gain or improve their culinary skills, the people imparting information on TV have to be especially careful to impart correct information, lest we turn out millions of home cooks who try to impress their friends and families by talking about how well “caramelized” the roast is.
Love ya, Michael, et.al., but it really is okay to just “brown” something.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Proper Care of Kitchen Knives


Pretty much anybody who has spent any time in a kitchen – home or professional – will tell you that the most dangerous thing to have in a kitchen is a dull knife.

Now this might seem counter-intuitive. After all, sharp objects are certainly more often associated with danger than are dull objects. But the reason is fairly simple; a very sharp knife will easily and cleanly slice through meat, vegetables, fruits, etc. with very little effort on the part of the knife wielder. Basically, the knife does all the work. Its a matter of kinetic energy – the energy the knife possesses due to its motion.

Very little energy is needed to move a sharp blade through, say, a potato. A dull blade requires more pressure – energy – to be exerted to achieve the same result. When you're talking about objects that are often wet, slippery, or odd-shaped – i.e. meats, vegetables, fruits, etc. – the more energy you exert, the more likely the knife is to slip, usually taking a piece of your finger along with it.

Another reason to keep kitchen knives sharp involves clean, even cutting. A sharp knife allows for precise, uniform cuts while a dull knife usually results in jagged edges and uneven cuts.

Recent personal experience: I was asked to prepare a meal in a home I was visiting. Since I almost always wind up cooking someplace, I almost always carry my knives with me when I travel. Not this time. I was at the mercy of the home kitchen.

In the first place, the knives were all strewn about in a drawer. In the second place, they were nearly all of the cheap discount store variety. In the third place, they were without exception exceedingly dull. I went through six knives of varying shapes and sizes. There was an eight-inch chef's knife, a santoku, a couple of utility knives, a boning knife, and a carving knife. The hostess even brought out a cleaver! After practically having to stand on several knives in order to get them to pass through a potato, I was on the verge of pulling out my Swiss Army knife when I finally hit upon one – a carving knife – that was almost sharp enough. Almost. The cuts I wound up with were not anything to which I would normally lay claim, but I managed to butcher six potatoes without butchering my hand.

Part of the reason for this is quality. If you are at all serious about cooking, you should invest in the best quality knives you can afford. This doesn't mean you have to take out a loan and buy a full set of Globals or Henckels or Wustofs. But you should avoid the discount store sets that include twenty-five pieces – including a full set of steak knives – for ten dollars. Victorinox makes a number of good knives for reasonable prices. If you've got a couple of bucks to spare, you can buy one or two of the higher-dollar knives from open stock at most culinary stores or places like Bed, Bath and Beyond or Williams-Sonoma.

Among the best tools I own are four Ekco Eterna knives that I inherited from my mom's kitchen. They are at least fifty or sixty years old, but they still outperform many of my other blades. Things were made so much better in those days. Quality really does count.

However, proper care is also essential. It doesn't matter how good your knife starts out – how sharp it is, how expensive it is, how pretty and shiny it is – when you throw it in a drawer with the spoons and spatulas and what have you, you are going to ruin it. Period. Constant rubbing and bumping against other objects will dull and pit and nick the blade, rendering the knife useless. That's why they make knife blocks.

Knife blocks come in all kinds of designs. Most are made of wood or bamboo and have slots of various sizes, although there are “slotless” polycarbonate knife blocks on the market. These are all great for keeping your knives organized and in relatively good condition. I say “relatively” because the slotted blocks can – and often do – dull your knives by the repeated sliding action. Even the polycarbonate brushes in the “slotless” jobs will scratch and dull your knives over time. Another drawback with knife blocks relates to sanitation. They are impossible to clean. Stuff can accumulate in the slots and you'll never get it out. Moisture can be a problem, too. Even so, a knife block is far superior to loose storage in a drawer.

Superior to a knife block is a magnetic knife strip. Now, I have heard one or two people talk about damaging their knives on a magnetic strip. It can be done – if you are a careless, blithering idiot. The only way to damage a knife on a magnetic strip is if you slam the knife onto the strip edge first. You should place the knife on the strip, being careful to let the spine make first contact with the magnet and then ease the rest of the blade onto the strip. And don't drag the knife along the strip when you remove it; lift it straight off. You'll never damage a blade and your knives will stay clean and dry.

Another key element in proper knife care is cleaning. Never – let me italicize that – never put a knife in the dishwasher. (A) – There's a lot of banging around that goes on in there. (B) – The extreme heat inside a dishwasher can damage your knife, especially if it has a wooden handle. Wash knives separately by hand and either dry them immediately with a clean, soft towel or allow them to air dry. If your wooden knife handles seem to be drying out, regular treatment with mineral oil will keep them in good shape.

I was ten or eleven when I learned how not to wash a knife. Actually, my grandmother was washing; I was drying. I took the knife out of the rinse sink and, with the towel draped over my open palm, ran the spine of the knife and one side of the blade over the towel. Then I turned the knife over and ran the other side of the blade and the edge over the towel. Fortunately, I didn't require stitches. And I never did anything that stupid again.

Which leads to another safety point – besides the obvious one I just made; don't throw a knife in the sink with all the other dishes. In the first place, there's that jumbling everything together and causing damage thing again. And, with all those dishes and all that soap in the water, you're really likely to reach in there blindly and grab a handful of the wrong side of the knife. Sort of been there, done that. Not fun.

Wash knives individually. And wash them quickly. Acidic foods – tomatoes, citrus, etc. – can be corrosive if left too long on the surface of a knife blade. I wash my knives as soon as I'm finished using them. They never go in the sink with other dishes and they never see the inside of a dishwasher. If something does stain your knife, use a fine abrasive pad – like a Scotch Bright pad – to gently remove the stain. Do it right away before the stain penetrates the surface of the blade.

Preserve the edge on your knife by being careful about your cutting surface. Marble and glass cutting boards are so pretty and attractive in your kitchen. And nothing will dull your knives faster. Wood or bamboo are still best, although plastic boards are okay, too. I like wood, my wife likes plastic so we have a kitchen full of his and hers boards. But we both have very sharp knives.

And we keep them that way by regular honing and sharpening. Honing involves the use of a metal or ceramic rod usually called a “steel.” Gordon Ramsay doesn't do all that fancy stuff with the steel just to impress his audience. It has a real purpose. (Well, maybe Gordon is a little over the top about it; a few light strokes on the steel are all that's needed.) Honing with a steel, however, is not the same as sharpening. That's why the term “sharpening steel” is a misnomer. A honing steel removes little micro-serrations that develop on the knife's edge and actually straightens the blade. A steel should be used before and/or after any cutting task. There are lots of places online where you can learn about how to use a steel.

Sharpening, on the other hand, is done less frequently and usually involves a whetstone. Sharpening a knife on a stone is an art and a science. It is a practice which most casual cooks – and many pros – will never master. That's why there are a wide variety of knife sharpening devices on the market. Some are really good and some are really a waste of money. Do your research and buy the one that best fits your needs and your budget. Or do as many of the pros do and have your knives professionally sharpened from time to time. It won't be cost-effective if you have a five-dollar Walmart knife, but if you dropped a hundred or more on a Wusthof, you'll want to make the investment.

Your knife is your most important kitchen tool. Keep it sharp, keep it clean, and keep it properly stored and you'll keep it for a lifetime.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

TV Review: The Chew

ABC Gives Daytime Viewers Something New to Chew On

The Chew—ABC, Weekdays @ 1 pm ET/12 pm C/PT

If you were a fan of the long-running ABC soap opera All My Children and tuned in Monday (Sept 26) expecting to see Susan Lucci continuing her career-making role as Erica Kane, boy, were you surprised! Another Italian had taken her place. The Chew, ABC's new entry into the burgeoning reality food show market, now occupies the time slot so long filled by the fictional denizens of Pine Valley.

Unfortunately, at this point The Chew is a little hard to swallow.

Not wanting to judge based solely on the dreadfully unprepossessing inaugural episode – one in which Mario Batali, the cast member with the most star power, literally phoned in his contribution – I decided to watch a couple of follow-ups before commenting. Having done so I can say that after a few bites I'm honestly trying to like The Chew, but it's simply got to get better.

First, there's that ridiculous name; “The Chew.” Okay, ABC. Very cute and clever. I can imagine myself in the meeting where the programming executive's eight-year-old said something like, “Gee! You've already got 'The View.' Why don't you call it 'The Chew!' Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” And somebody actually liked the idea. Honestly! “The Chew?” Maybe they're trying to appeal to Southern male viewers. You know, the guys with little circular spots worn into the rear pockets of their jeans?

I do like the premise; take a panel of culinary experts and put them in a kitchen setting to talk about food and to cook in front of a studio audience. But there's a big problem right from the start – too many cooks spoil the broth.

Since there are five panelists on The View, the network felt compelled to put five panelists on The Chew; Mario Batali, Michael Symon, Carla Hall, Clinton Kelly, and Daphne Oz. Unfortunately, two of them are obvious fifth-wheels.

Mario, Michael and Carla are the draw cards here. Every foodie on the continent is familiar with at least one – if not all – of these people.

I am thrilled to see Mario Batali back on TV. Admittedly, I would go ga-ga over watching him read a list of Italian ingredients, but beyond that, the man really knows not only his food, but his audience. I've watched him work for three guests on a set and I've watched him work for a thousand guests in a live setting and he's fabulous either way. With his bright bold personality, his bright red ponytail and his bright orange clogs, he looms larger than life, but still imparts a passionate and finely detailed depth of knowledge about food and cooking.

Michael Symon is another ray of light. The Food Network folks tried their Iron Chef out in a couple of ventures that didn't really work too well. They put him in Robert Irvine's “Dinner: Impossible” shoes back when they were briefly on the outs with the British chef, but even with a shoehorn, Symon didn't fit and disappeared quickly when Irvine returned. The network bigwigs next loaned him out to the fledgling “Cooking Channel” and put him in his element, a kitchen, where he tried to Cook Like An Iron Chef, a rather poorly received one-man version of Iron Chef. Finally, they gave him a shot at ripping off the Travel Channel's Food Wars with his own Food Feuds, but his attempt to be Camille Ford didn't pan out either. It's a shame because the guy has an outgoing personality, an infectious laugh, and great culinary chops. These attributes added to his “Iron Chef” relationship with Mario present a good team in the making. Symon and Batali are just fun to watch.

I don't know a lot about Carla Hall other than through watching her compete on Bravo's “Top Chef,” where she acquitted herself quite well. She's a Tennessee native with classic French training and a decided Southern flair to her cooking. I haven't heard her utter her trademark “Hootie-hoo” yet, but her cooking segments so far have been entertaining and informative. She seems like a good fit with the other two powerhouse chefs.

These three are the core of the show. With their on-air presence and their culinary ability, they could effortlessly carry the demands of the program. Clinton Kelly and Daphne Oz, on the other hand, are distracting, annoying, and superfluous.

In the company of the aforementioned super-chefs, Dr. Oz's daughter fits like a foot in a glove. Author of The Dorm Room Diet, and billed by the ABC press machine as a “nutrition expert,” her only notable qualifications are her surname and her photogenic appearance. Watching the real food experts on the set prepare drool-worthy dishes and then watching Ms. Oz throw a handful of psyllium husks on a bowlful of yogurt was like watching a gourmet food truck crash into the front of a health food store. Even Mario got in a sly dig or two at the expense of her shaky culinary POV. Molasses and psyllium husks, anyone?

And where did they dig up Kelly? Wherever it was, I hope they put him back there soon. I know he's purportedly an “entertaining expert,” but so far the only point to his being on the show appears to be acting as sort of the overall program host, a task at which he fails miserably. As a former talk show host and frequent master of ceremonies, let me offer Mr. Kelly a little advice: nobody introduces a segment with the phrase “Here's a little thing we like to call ….” And his attempt to announce the death of Doritos creator Arch West with a little comic touch was classless at best. Clinton, your amateur slip is showing. With no real food experience and a personality that vacillates between supercilious and just plain silly, he adds little to the show, although his tablescape segment on Day 3 was interesting. Maybe he'll grow on me.

The Chew mirrors The View in that the panelists don't always put on fake smiles and pretend to march in lockstep. Mario's opinion of Daphne is pretty obvious. And Michael took a poke at her and Kelly after they attempted a “hard news” piece about Listeria-tainted cantaloupes. The two “experts” were basically telling people to ditch cantaloupes because of the potential danger. Symon, in a much more reasonable vein, jumped in and defended the defamed melon, saying, “Don't freak out,” and advising people to continue to buy cantaloupes and wash them before use. To which Kelly backpedals and tries to close the subject by lamely saying, “know your cantaloupes.” If you have a DVR or similar device, go back and look closely at the audience shot that followed this exchange. There's a brief glimpse of two women reacting. The sidelong glance and “WTF” look on the face of the lady on the left speaks volumes.

And please, ABC, please! We get the connection with The View. Please find somebody else to do guest shots. Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar are acquired tastes that I really have no desire to acquire. At least Whoopi had the good grace to admit that she knew nothing about cooking and thus had the good sense to sit there and shut up. Not so with Joy Behar. No. In a point of dissent over whether or not to boil lasagna noodles, she told the pro-boiling Mario Batali to “get with the program.” Let's see, how many award-winning restaurants does she own? Mario took it in stride, wryly commenting, “I have much to learn in this life.”

In fact, Mario already seems to be setting himself as the show's lynchpin. When helping Carla Hall with a cooking segment, Mario observed her being sidetracked by Kelly into an extended discussion of seasoning cast iron. Mario got the distracted Hall back on track by asking, “Are we seasoning it right now or are we cooking something?”

If ABC were to listen to me about casting – like that's going to happen – I would dump the deadwood, Kelly and Oz, and move producer/announcer Gordon Elliot out from behind the scenes. The English-born Australian has oodles of television hosting experience. He's hosted everything from talk shows to game shows and he can also hold his own in the food arena, having served as the driving force behind Paula Deen's TV empire as well as numerous other Food Network offerings. He has a quick wit, an easygoing personality, and a distinctive voice. You might recognize him from his stint as a pitchman for Campbell's soups.

A daytime food-themed show comprised of Elliott as the point man and Batali, Symon, and Hall doing the heavy lifting would be a killer success. As it stands right now, The Chew is far more likely to be killed than to be killer. The curiosity factor allowed it to have initial ratings equal to the beloved soap opera it replaced. However, the “new” wears off quickly in network television. Ask Ashton Kutcher over on rival CBS.

But it's early. There have been only three episodes. The show's still rocking on its training wheels. I'm willing to give it a while to gather its legs and hit its stride. (Wow! Talk about mixing your metaphors!) I don't think that's possible without skimming the Oz/Kelly oil off the surface of the Batali/Symon/Hall water. In culinary terms, it is possible for oil and water to mix. It's called an emulsion. But the mixture is thermodynamically unstable, and right now so is The Chew.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Heinz Unveils a Better Ketchup Packet

At last. In a world dominated by reports of economic crises, climate change, war, and political upheaval comes news of truly astounding importance: the Heinz people have invented a new and improved ketchup packet.

Seriously, this is big stuff, especially if you are one of the millions who have been frustrated out of your skull trying open one of the confounded little things. “Tear Here.” Yeah, right! Most people go caveman and resort to using their teeth. Some pull out pocket knives or other sharp objects. Some just curse and throw the wretched things back in the bag, opting to do without rather than risk their sanity.

There is one enormously successful way to open a ketchup packet. I learned this method quite accidentally when I showed up at work with what appeared to my coworkers to be a serious leg wound, blood staining my lower pants leg all the way to the knee. Somebody had carelessly dropped one of the accursed condiment packets on the floor of my car and I unknowingly stepped on it at some point. So take my word for it, tromping one of the accursed little things is extremely effective if not entirely practical.

In light of that incident, it seems strange to me that the second largest complaint about ketchup packets is volume. Most people seem to think they simply don't contain enough ketchup. (My dry cleaner would disagree.) I suppose that's why most fast food places drop about three pounds of them into your takeout bag.

At any rate, the news from Pittsburgh is that the H.J. Heinz Company, after three arduous years of R&D, has come up with a solution to both issues. Now lest you think I am kidding about the “arduous” part, it is being reported that Heinz researchers spent hours behind one-way glass observing the frustrations of test consumers situated in simulated minivan interiors as they struggled to open conventional ketchup packets for their fries, burgers, and chicken nuggets. Even more, the vice-president of global packaging innovation and execution went out and bought himself a used minivan, which he proceeded to drive around to various fast food drive-ins, ordering fries and attempting to put ketchup on them in the confines of the van. Wow! Such dedication to research!

And it has apparently paid off in the form of the new “Dip and Squeeze” packet, which will soon begin replacing the fouled up foil rectangles in Wendy's restaurants. Some Chick-fil-A and Dairy Queen locations are already using the new product, while the big two – McDonald's and Burger King – are said to be “testing” the packets.

The new design is kind of cool – and pretty simple, too. It's a little plastic tray shaped like a ketchup bottle. It has a foil lid and you can either tear off the “cap” – a strip near the top – for squeezing, or you can peel back a lower corner for dipping. Ingenious, huh? And they contain three times as much ketchup as the traditional packets so consumers won't have to grab double-handfuls of them anymore, a good thing for vendors since the new containers are also about three times as expensive as the old ones.

In fact, one Heinz official even attributes a decline in “fry inclusion” orders at drive-thrus to an increased level of consumer frustration with recalcitrant ketchup packets. He apparently believes people would rather forgo their fries than fight with the foil packets. In light of the current trend toward more healthy eating, I rather think the French fry fall-off may be more the result of people making other choices, but if the man in charge of making food-service ketchup packets wants to hold onto his illusions, I won't naysay him.

Truth be told, I don't eat ketchup on my French fries – or on anything else for that matter – so I don't really have a dog in this fight. However, I have assisted my wife and kids in their struggles, so I can at least relate. But if you are one of the millions for whom this innovation will mark a vast improvement in quality of life, I'm happy for you. Just keep your new and improved ketchup packets off the floor of my car.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

FDA "Cautions" HFCS Pushers Over "Corn Sugar"

You know, when I was a kid we took our garbage to the town dump. A guy named “Shorty” worked there, burying the garbage with a bulldozer. We called him “the Dump Man."

Nowadays, of course, we take our “solid waste” to the “sanitary landfill” where it can be “processed” by “sanitation engineers.” We're still just taking our garbage to the dump, but now it sounds so much better.

That's the theory behind the Corn Refiners Association's effort to rebrand high-fructose corn syrup. On the heels of more and more studies that essentially call the substance “garbage,” the producers – or “pushers,” as I like to label them – are pulling out all the stops in an effort to give the stuff a new image by calling it “corn sugar.” It just sounds so much better.

When I first reported on this issue last year in an article entitled “The Corn Sugar Scam; What's In a Name,” I quoted Shakespeare's familiar citation, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Now comes news that the FDA still thinks the whole thing stinks.

See, the pushers petitioned the FDA to allow them to make the change, prevaricating that "the name 'corn sugar' more accurately reflects the source of the food (corn), identifies the basic nature of the food (a sugar), and discloses the food's function (a sweetener)." Then they just went on ahead and did it. They launched a televised ad campaign and set up websites, one of which uses “cornsugar” in the URL. They “petitioned,” alright, but operating under the old adage, “it's easier to seek forgiveness than permission,” they didn't bother waiting for approval. And because the specious ad campaign does not seek to promote a particular product, but rather an entire industry, the FDA is something of a toothless tiger regarding its ability to regulate the advertising.

But even toothless tigers don't like having their tails pulled. In a July 12, 2011 letter obtained by the Associated Press, Barbara Schneeman, an FDA director, wrote to the Corn Refiners Association to say she was concerned with the pushers' interchangeable use of the terms “high fructose corn syrup” and "corn sugar.” "We request that you re-examine your websites and modify statements that use the term 'corn sugar' as a synonym for (high fructose corn syrup)."

That, of course, drew an immediate response from the pushers; they yawned. Then they sent the AP a blah-blah e-mail promising to review materials and to make changes if necessary. In other words – specifically the words of W.C. Fields, – “Go away, kid, ya bother me!”

But it appears the tiger does have at least one good tooth: the FDA can bust any food producer who actually uses the phony term in place of “high-fructose corn syrup” on any food packaging.

All this comes after the pushers had already been shot down by the FDA when they attempted to get permission to drop the words “high-fructose” and just call their product “corn syrup.” An FDA official called the effort “misleading.” Ya think? This despite the fact that seven pork-addicted senators from Corn Belt states filed a letter backing the “corn syrup” snow job in the interest of clearing up “consumer confusion.”

But the writing's on the wall; in a recent survey, Kraft, Gatorade, Pepsi, Hunt's, Heinz, Starbucks, Sara Lee and a slew of other manufacturers have all removed HFCS from some of their product lines in response to consumer concerns. And now the restaurant industry is jumping on the bandwagon. Chains and privately owned eateries alike are beginning to dump HFCS from their menus, both in response to consumer demands and as a result of trying to upgrade to more healthy, natural offerings. Wait for it.....here come the pushers......”Corn is a natural product!!!” Yeah, so is hemlock. Want a cup?

Besides – and restaurant chefs are discovering this, too – anything made with the cheap, nasty crap tastes cheap and nasty. Pat Herring, the Research and Development guy for one of my favorite places, Jason's Deli, puts it best when he says, “Food today has so many ingredients that we've kind of dumbed-down our tastebuds.” He referred to HFCS – which is conspicuously absent at Jason's – as sounding “chemical-y” when compared to sugar and/or honey and sagely adds that nobody goes to the pantry and gets a little HFCS to add to their morning cereal.

And with corn prices on the rise, HFCS isn't going to be a bargain much longer, so a lot of food manufacturers are killing two birds with one stone; they're trimming costs by reverting to cane sugar and they're looking like health-conscious consumer crusaders at the same time. Win-win!

Excuse me, now. I'm going to go knock back a Sierra Mist and fix a sandwich made with Jif Peanut Butter on some Pepperidge Farm 100% Natural Bread. Maybe a little Mott's Natural Applesauce on the side. And some Archway Molasses Cookies or a little Dove chocolate for dessert. (All HFCS-free products.)

Call it what you will, tempus fugit, high-fructose corn syrup. The hands on the popularity clock are nearing midnight and your fancied-up Cinderella product is about to become a plain old ear of corn again.