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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!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sharpening Your Knife Cuts

What's a Brunoise and Why Should I Want To?

Knife cuts are a necessary skill in any kitchen, home or pro. And by “knife cuts” I mean the ones you make intentionally involving food items, not the ones you make accidentally involving fingers. Proper basic skills and practice will enhance the former and eliminate the latter.

Now, we've all seen the TV chefs chopping through vegetation at astonishing speeds, their knives beating out an amazing rhythm as they dispatch mounds of perfectly cut carrots without ever even looking at what they are doing. They smile and talk to the camera as they chop an onion into tiny bits and never once do they lose a fingertip. TV magic? No. Skill and practice.

Do they do this because they want to impress the viewing audience? Yeah, maybe a little. But more importantly, they are trying to cut everything in perfect, even pieces because perfect, even pieces cook perfectly and evenly. When you take a knife and whack a potato into ten pieces and each piece is a different size and shape, the little bitty pieces are going to cook in just a few minutes, while the big clunky chunks are going to take much longer. By the time the big pieces are done, the little ones are overdone. And the reverse is true. You get really nasty mashed potatoes when you try to mash up the tender little pieces while the big ones are still hard and half raw.

Besides, even cuts just look pretty. And as you know, we eat with our eyes first. I once served hash brown potatoes to a breakfast guest and the first words out of his mouth when I set the plate in front of him were, “Man, how did you cut them up so small and even.” Skill and practice.

Believe me, I'm no blazing blur with a knife and I don't try to be. Most of the time when I'm doing my prep work it's just me with my favorite knife and a cutting board. No cameras and no live audience. So what if it takes me the better part of a minute to cut up an onion instead of a flashy six seconds? My cuts are neat and precise and the results are perfect and even, and that's what counts when you put 'em in the sautè pan.

From Le Cordon Bleu to your local community college, the first thing culinary students are taught are knife skills. It's an essential part of being a good cook. And if you ever get a first-time job in a professional kitchen, you can almost count on being the one who gets to cut up the vegetables for your first few weeks on the job.

Because I believe strongly that a person should never stop trying to learn, I often hunt up local cooking classes just to see what I might pick up. I once checked out an advertised “knife skills” class at a local culinary store and was extremely disappointed to see that it was a “demo only” class and that the demonstrator was far more concerned with selling her store's knives than she was with teaching people how to use them. When I asked her to demonstrate a chiffonade, she did it but she seemed annoyed that I had intruded on her pitch.

I can't do “Knife Skills 101” in this format and I'm not going to try. There are lots of step-by-step video courses available online. Or you can check out a local culinary store, but walk right out the door if someone doesn't show you at least a few of the basic cuts that I'm going to tell you about.

The CIA – the one in New York that teaches you to cook, as opposed to the one in Langley, Virginia that does not – breaks basic cuts down into six categories: chopping, mincing, julienne, dicing, oblique, and shredding and chiffonade. Of course, the French have a long list of fancy names for specific cuts, and just so you can tell somebody you know how to brunoise a potato, I'll use some of them here.

Before we start cutting, though, let's talk about how to hold a knife. Even though a knife is a tool, you shouldn't hold it like a hammer. The way you hold a knife matters because the proper grip dictates stability and control when cutting. The “pinch grip” is the go to grip for most pros because it affords the most stability, balance and control. It is not the most comfortable grip to learn, but it grows on you with practice. Grab the knife handle with three fingers – middle, ring, and pinkie – wrapped around the handle right at the point where it meets the blade. “Pinch” the blade between the outside flat of your index finger and the inside flat of your thumb. Your instructors will give you high marks for learning and using this grip, but if you've got small hands, it can be really uncomfortable. Smaller-handed people might do better with the sabre grip, where you wrap all four fingers around the handle and rest your thumb along the top of the handle near where it meets the blade. Using your index finger as a “pointer” along the top of the blade is generally frowned upon, but it can be useful when making delicate cuts. Unless you're cutting up fifty pounds of potatoes that way, it'll be okay.

Obviously, your other hand – the guide hand – needs to be involved, too, and that hand should be formed into the “claw” position, wherein you hold your food item with your fingertips tucked slightly under and your thumb held out of the way. The flat of the blade should should rest against your knuckles, thus keeping you from cutting off your fingertips.

Okay, let's cut to the chase. (Sorry about that.)

Rough chopping is used when finesse isn't mandatory. If you're going to mash or purée your food item or remove it from a finished dish, then just whack away at it and let the pieces fall where they may. Just make sure the pieces are all about the same size, though. You still need to think about even cooking.

Otherwise, the first basic cut is the battonet (bah-tow-NAY). French for “little stick,” this cut yields a strip that measures ½ inch × ½ inch × 2½ inches. Think of your average French fry.

Next up is the allumete (al-yoo-MET), also known as a matchstick cut. Measuring ¼ inch × ¼ inch × 2½ inches, it's basically a battonet cut in half.

A julienne (joo-lee-EN) cut is, you guessed it, half of an allumete, measuring 1/8 inch × 1/8 inch × 2½ inches.

By the way, an easy measuring tip for gauging 2 1/2 inches: unless you have big old gorilla hands, your four fingers held close together should measure about 2 1/2 inches.

Cut a julienne in half – 1/16 inch × 1/16 inch × 2 1/2 inches – and you have a fine julienne.

Going the other way, a large dice (carré - “kah-RAY”) is a cut that measures ¾ inch × ¾ inch × ¾ inch. A medium dice (parmentier – “pahr-men-tee-YAY”) can be achieved by cutting up a battonet into pieces measuring ½ inch × ½ inch × ½ inch. You get a small dice (macédoine – “MAH-see-dwan”) when you cut an allumette into ¼ inch × ¼ inch × ¼ inch pieces.

The aforementioned brunoise (broon-WAHZ) measures 1/8 inch × 1/8 inch × 1/8 inch, or a cut down julienne. A fine brunoise is a fine julienne cut to 1/16 inch × 1/16 inch × 1/16 inch dimensions.

See how easy all this French stuff is?

The smallest cut is the mince. There are no set dimensions for a mince; just chop until you get the smallest possible pieces of a relatively uniform size.

A chiffonade is a cut usually applied to leafy vegetables and herbs (i.e. spinach, basil, etc.). “Chiffon” is French for “rag,” and the cut is designed to yield long, thin, ragged strips. It's fairly easy to do; simply stack up the leaves, roll them into a tight roll, and then cut across the rolled leaves, producing long, fine ribbons. The only difference between a chiffonade and a rough shred is in the fineness of the cut.

The oblique cut that the Culinary Institute cites as one of the basic cuts is actually one of a whole separate category of slices, a category which includes rondelles or rounds, diagonals or bias cuts, and diamond cuts or lozenges. The oblique cut is also called a roll cut and yields a small piece with two angled sides. You do it by holding your knife at a 45 degree angle and making the first cut, then roll the piece a half turn and, keeping the knife at the same angle, making another cut. It's pretty, but I don't know that I'd include it with “basic” cuts.

It goes without saying – but I'll say it anyway – that your knife needs to be super sharp to do any and all of these cuts. There is nothing more dangerous than a dull knife. When you're executing these fancy cuts, a sharp knife moves smoothly and evenly through the food item. A dull knife requires more pressure and force and is far more likely to slip and hack off a piece of your finger. I'll say it again; sharp knives are imperative to proper knife skills.

Okay, armed with all this nifty knowledge, head on into the kitchen and brunoise something. If you're still a little shaky, just enter something like “basic knife skills” into your search engine and you'll find tons of photos and videos illustrating all these cuts and techniques. You'll also find lots of little tips and tricks like topping and tailing and flattening the sides of vegetables to form stable cutting platforms. You'll be ready to give Masaharu Morimoto a run for his money in no time. In the meantime...

Buona fortuna e buon appetito!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

About Spaghetti Carbonara

Two Recipes for An Italian Classic

I made up one of my favorite pasta dishes over the weekend, Spaghetti Carbonara. Hey, with pasta, bacon, eggs, and cheese involved, how can you go wrong?

One of the classic Italian pasta dishes, the origins of Spaghetti (or Pasta) Carbonara are not really known. Although generally associated with the Lazio region, there are as many legends about its birth as there are variations on its preparation. Some say that it dates back to ancient Rome. Of course, nearly anything old in Italy is said to date back to ancient Rome. Since the name is derived from the Italian word for coal, carbone, or it's derivation carbonaio, meaning “coal man,” some people believe that it was first made as a hearty meal for Italian charcoal workers. Other folks maintain that the dish was originally prepared over charcoal grills. Still others suggest that it acquired its name because imaginative Italians thought that the bits of bacon and pepper in the pasta looked like bits of charcoal. It has even been suggested that Pasta Carbonara was created by or for the Carbonari, members of a secret revolutionary society founded in 19th century Italy.

Modern Carbonara theorists believe the sauce was developed during WWII to cater to American soldiers in Italy who frequently wanted bacon and eggs for breakfast. Because bacon and powdered eggs were part of a GI's Government Issue, they often bartered with the locals, who, in turn, used the ingredients to make a sauce for their ubiquitous pasta. Once the soldiers got a taste for the stuff, they brought it back to the States – and screwed it up.

The addition of cream to the recipe is an Italian-American creation. Just as in an authentic Alfredo dish, there is no cream used in the preparation of a traditional Carbonara. But since most Americans don't eat in authentic Italian restaurants, they have become accustomed to the creamed-up version served in most Italian-American eateries. With that in mind, I will present recipes for both versions.

Whichever version you choose, be careful of one thing: don't scramble the eggs! Whether you let the heat from the pasta cook the raw eggs or opt to make a cooked “sauce,” be very careful not to overmix or overcook the eggs. They can scramble very quickly and easily, totally changing the character of the dish. (That's kind of a nice way of saying you'll ruin it.) The eggs should remain fairly liquid.

And before we get into the recipes, a few comments about the ingredients. Obviously, you'll want to use the freshest eggs possible. The dish is traditionally made with either pancetta or guanciale. Good luck with guanciale at your local supermarket, but pancetta isn't that hard to find (hint: try the deli section). Otherwise, lean bacon or Canadian bacon will work well. As to the cheese component, Pecorino Romano is traditional, but Parmigiano-Reggiano is equally good. (A combination of the two is superior!) Avoid the cheese-flavored sawdust in the green can like the plague.

The American penchant for “improving” everything allows for the addition of peas, broccoli, mushrooms, or just about anything else you have lying around the kitchen, but the real deal calls for just eggs, cheese, and bacon.

First up, the real deal:

Spaghetti Carbonara Tradizionale

2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup pancetta, julienne or brunoise cut
2 or 3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 lb spaghetti
3 eggs at room temperature
3/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh chopped parley, to garnish

Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling water that has been aggressively salted. (At least 6 quarts of water and 2 tbsp of salt.) Cook until al dente.

As the spaghetti cooks, heat the olive oil in a medium frying pan and sauté the bacon and garlic until the bacon starts to brown. Don't allow the garlic to brown. Golden is okay, brown is not. Remove and discard the garlic. Keep the bacon and rendered drippings hot until needed.

Warm a large serving bowl and break the eggs into it. Beat the eggs lightly with a fork, then mix in the cheese and season with salt and pepper.

As soon as the pasta is done, drain it quickly, reserving about 1/4 cup of cooking water. Mix the pasta into the egg mixture. Pour on the hot bacon and fat. Stir well. The heat from the pasta and bacon fat will “cook” the eggs. Add pasta water as needed to develop a sauce. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6

Now, because one in a million or so eggs has been found to contain salmonella, there is a great deal of panic-driven concern over the use of raw eggs. And recent high profile news stories have certainly helped flog the concerns into a frenzy.

To be sure, salmonella infections are no fun. According to the USDA, most people experience diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within 8 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food. Additional symptoms include chills, headache, nausea, and vomiting. The symptoms usually disappear within 4 to 7 days, but they are 4 to 7 miserable days! Many people recover without treatment and may never see a doctor. However, Salmonella infections can be life-threatening to infants and young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, and older adults, all of whom are at a higher risk for foodborne illness, as are people with weakened immune systems (such as those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, and transplant patients). So it is often wise to err on the side of caution. Since I was serving my dish to an elderly relative, I decided to go with the Americanized version, which lightly cooks the eggs before adding them to the hot pasta. I'm not sure if this method will bring the eggs up to the 160° mark recommended by the USDA for egg dishes, but from a safety standpoint it's probably better than the raw method, which actually just coagulates the eggs more than it cooks them.

So here's the version you probably get at the “Italian” place down the street:

Spaghetti Carbonara Alla Americana

1 pound uncooked spaghetti
2 tbsp olive oil
6 oz pancetta or lean bacon, julienne or brunoise cut
3 cloves garlic, cut into halves
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped

Cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente.

As pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat, stir in pancetta and garlic and cook for about 4 minutes or until pancetta is light brown. Garlic should be golden and NEVER brown, as it will become bitter. Reserve 2 tablespoons of drippings in skillet with pancetta. Discard garlic and any remaining drippings. Remove from heat, but keep warm for later use.

Whisk eggs and egg yolk in a metal bowl or the top part of a double boiler. Place the bowl or top of double boiler over gently simmering water, adjusting heat to maintain a low simmer. Stir in 1/2 cup cheese, salt and pepper; add the cream and cook, stirring lightly, until sauce thickens slightly, taking care to not allow the eggs to scramble.

Drain cooked pasta, reserving about 1/4 cup of cooking water. Return pasta to the pot and, working over low heat, pour pancetta mixture over pasta; toss to coat. Stir in egg mixture. Toss to coat evenly. Add pasta water as needed to develop sauce. Remove from heat and transfer to a large, warmed serving bowl. Garnish with parsley and serve with remaining cheese.

Serves 4 to 6

Buon appetito!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What Has Happened to Food Network?

It's fairly common knowledge that a knife becomes dull with overuse. Any kitchen pro will tell you that when this happens, you either have to have the knife sharpened or replaced.

The Scripps Network folks need to look into sharpening or replacing a few dull knives in the programming offices at Food Network.

Recent stats reveal that the network's ratings are down over last year's numbers. Of course, going into head-to-head competition with yourself by launching an entirely separate network – Cooking Channel – to do exactly the same thing you're doing might have something to do with that, I don't know. But I think the larger problem is twofold: Food Network is losing its creative touch and it is losing touch with its audience.

To illustrate the former point, may I serve up “Restaurant: Impossible?”

I like Robert Irvine. At least I like the guy I see on TV. A lot of people still give him the stink eye because of his little “resume enhancing” incident a couple of years ago and there are some folks around the St. Petersburg, Florida area who remain less than impressed by him. But overall, I like what he does on television.

When he was dismissed from his duties on Food Network's “Dinner: Impossible” as a result of the said “resume enhancing” and the producers cooked up a replacement recipe that featured Michael Symon as the main ingredient, it was an unmitigated disaster. The network figured that out fairly quickly and waved an olive branch in Irvine's direction. All was forgiven and forgotten and the embarrassed chef actually began to have a larger presence on the network than he had had before. Besides being restored to “Dinner: Impossible,” Irvine made appearances on “Best Thing I Ever Ate” and “Iron Chef America,” and was given the co-host slot on “Worst Cooks in America.”

And now he has a new primary home as the man in charge of rebuilding struggling eateries on “Restaurant: Impossible.” There's only one small problem with the new assignment: fellow British super-chef Gordon Ramsay has already been there and done that.

C'mon, now! Did the program developers at Food Network think maybe nobody would notice that their “new” show was a complete and direct rip-off of Ramsay's foreign and domestic “Kitchen Nightmares” programs? The only difference is that Robert is not the screaming, in-your-face potty-mouth that Gordon can be. And, sad to say, that's one reason why his show suffers by comparison. Most people like to watch Ramsay chew people up and spit them out. “Count the bleeps” is kind of a fun game to play. When likened to Ramsay's animatedly profane passion, Irvine's personality comes across as rather dull and bland. Oh, he shouts a bit now and then, but....

The formats are identical. First, you find a struggling restaurant with an inept owner. Then you sweep into town and establish an impossible deadline to turn things around. Trash the food, trash the décor, and beat up on the owner for being a loser. Piss off as many people and deflate as many egos as possible. Then bring in a design team to modernize the place while you step into the kitchen and make over the bloated, outdated menu. On “Kitchen: Impossible,” Robert follows so closely in Gordon Ramsay's footsteps that he even employs the same tricks and tactics to get people to come into the place he's overhauling; free food on the streets, inviting the mayor for dinner, busing in customers, etc. Blah, blah, blah.

I don't lay the blame at Robert's feet. He's playing the cards his bosses dealt him, but I don't think some of the programmers at Food Network are playing with a full deck anymore.

Not that Food Network has developed a habit of being derivative, mind you. I'm sure that any similarities between the original Japanese “Iron Chef” and the network's “Iron Chef America” are purely coincidental. And how could anybody even think that there was any resemblance between Travel Channel's “Food Wars” and FN's “Food Feuds?”

Obviously, among Food Network's programming execs there are some major believers in the old axiom about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. But then, what form of entertainment isn't derivative these days?

Which segues neatly to the next point: do Food Network viewers want more entertainment or more information? In reading a recent online article about the network's ratings decline, I paged through the reader's comments accompanying the piece and found an incontrovertible thread among the rank and file: enough with the banal competitions and silly “reality” shows. Give us some shows about food and cooking. You know, as in “FOOD” Network and “COOKING Channel?”

The first red flag went up about a year ago when the guy at the helm of the nascent “Cooking Channel” made the patently ridiculous and outrageously uninformed statement that people don't watch TV to learn how to cook. Then why are you going on the air, dork? I commented at the time that millions of people were apparently motivated to watch Julia Child for all those years because she was such an obviously hot mama.

No, people watch food shows and cooking shows on TV so they can learn about food and cooking. “Dump and stir shows.” That's what Mario Batali call's 'em. Dump and stir shows. The programs that featured young up and comers like Batali and Bobby Flay essentially doling out a free culinary school education to either eager foodies who wanted to up their skill levels or to beginners yearning to be free of canned, packaged, or frozen dinners.

These were the stalwarts of the network back in its TV Food Network days. Back before its programmers decided that a steady diet of “Cupcake Wars” – somebody please send the annoying Justin “Kredible” Willman back to “Hubworld” where his puerile personality belongs, – “Food Feuds” – another faltering, sputtering vehicle for Pig Iron Chef Michael Symon, or seemingly endless repeats of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” hosted by the most overexposed man on television, the ubiquitous Guy Fieri.

Okay, daytimes on FN are still refulgent with actual “cooking shows,” but unless you are a no-life food blogger like me or have a really overworked DVR, you never get to watch them. Anybody settling in after dinner and the six o'clock news gets endless repeats of commonplace drivel. Not to say that there aren't a few bulls in the herd, but, as with any cow pasture, you have to really be careful where you step in order to find them. Check out the current lineup and you'll find the same six shows airing six times a night, six nights a week. Six must be the network's favorite number, because they only seem to produce six new episodes of any given show at a time and then they air them six hundred times. I mean, I used to enjoy Guy Fieri until his bosses started cramming back-to-back-to-back episodes of “Triple D” down my throat nearly every night of the week. Come on! I love Bobby Flay, but does he really have to “Throwdown” twelve times a week? “Good Eats?” Good show. But a little stale after a hundred viewings of the same episode. And the nightly re-re-reruns of Marc Summers' show are about to make me come “Unwrapped.”

And the “new” “Cooking Channel” has been nothing more than an opportunity for a bunch of Canadian and British food celebrities to crack the American market along with being a forum for offensively outrageous shows like "Bitchin' Kitchen" and "Food Jammers," showcasing what the unfortunate culinary future may hold.

Scripps is starting to feel the pinch. They are finding themselves embarrassingly short on change when the check comes to the table. Once upon a time, their only competition came from underfunded and poorly produced PBS shows. But no more. TLC's “Cake Boss” aced Food Network's “Ace of Cakes” because Buddy Valastro stays busy making cakes while Duff Goldman stays busy making an idiot of himself. Bravo's “Top Chef” generates a lot more buzz than almost anything Food Network has to offer. “Master Chef” puts up big numbers for Fox. Even SyFy is getting into the game with its new “Marcel's Quantum Kitchen,” hosted by “Top Chef” wannabe Marcel Vigneron. And don't count Martha Stewart out yet. The domestic diva's back in the kitchen with “Martha Bakes” on Hallmark Channel.

Get with it, Scripps. Dance with the one that brung ya! Listen to the people who got you to the top. Less competition and more content. More shows about real food and less “reality” food shows. Stop churning out Food Network “stars” and go back to focusing on people who turn out stellar food. Put a moratorium on mediocrity and the mundane and dare to do something that's not derivative. You're no longer a king among peasants. Some of the knaves have knives and they're not afraid to use them.

Honestly, Food Network, isn't it time to really get cooking again?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Restaurant Review Followup: Dinner at DePalma's

In my previous review of DePalma's Italian Cafe in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I described a wonderful lunch experience there. I also detailed the service and general ambiance as well as providing the location and contact information. If you have not read that review, please find it here:
http://ronjamesitaliankitchen.blogspot.com/2010/12/restaurant-review-depalmas-italian-cafe.html 

Having only lunched at DePalma's, I promised myself a return visit for dinner. And for that occasion I chose Valentine's Day. I mean, why not review a place at the peak of dinner service on one of the busiest, most hectic days of the restaurant year? You'll either catch them at their best or at their worst. Not surprisingly, DePalma's was at its absolute best.

The good service we had previously experienced was not impeded in the least by the enormous crowd filling every seat at every table and extending into the waiting area before spilling out onto the sidewalk. Our server appeared immediately after we were seated. Even though she was obviously and madly busy, she still managed to make us feel as if we were the only customers in the place as she greeted us, took our beverage orders, and explained the night's specials. Our drinks were served within minutes and, considering the crush on the kitchen, our food arrived with amazing promptness.

And it was amazing food. My lovely wife, whom I affectionately refer to as “Queen of the Carnivores,” started out with an uncomplicated salad of mixed greens complimented by a perfect, creamy Gorgonzola dressing. Then she tied into a thick, lush Angus steak topped with more of that exquisite Gorgonzola cheese and a rich beef reduction sauce with Portobello mushrooms. She pronounced it her new favorite steak. She was also effusive in her praise for the accompanying garlic and Parmesan mashed potatoes, which were creamy and flavorful without being cloying and overpowering. And she declared that the grilled asparagus was done to perfection.

When it comes to Italian eateries, I'm a “pasta first” man. I'm not so impressed by the frills if a place can't get the basics right. And I don't think I've ever been so impressed by a simple plate of spaghetti marinara. The rich sauce was made in-house, fresh and delicious. (I did cringe every time our sweet server pronounced it “mare-uh-nare-uh.” Aaaarrrrgghhhh! I corrected her as gently as possible considering my affronted sensibilities. “Mah-ree-nah-rah, my dear, mah-ree-nah-rah.” The flat, twangy American pronunciation just grates on my ears.)

What impressed me more, however, was the quality of the pasta itself. So rich and textured was the noodle that from the first forkful, I thought I was eating spaghetti rigati. I was intrigued enough to inquire. The server didn't know, but the owner said that it was just “regular” spaghetti. Now, I know “regular” and there was nothing “regular” about this pasta. The owner further explained that the pasta came from a vendor in Atlanta who made it fresh every couple of days. Ahh! Now we're getting somewhere! Obviously, the supplier uses the age-old artisinal Italian method of extruding the spaghetti through brass dies. This process imparts a much different quality and texture to the end product than the more commercial procedure involving plastic or Teflon dies. Pasta extruded through a brass die has a rough, almost lightly ridged texture that causes the sauce to adhere to the noodle much more effectively than does the smooth surface provided by plastic or Teflon extrusion. It's a little thing that makes a big difference. Even though the accompanying “garlic bread” was in the familiar American fashion rather than the authentic Italian, the overall composition and presentation were a perfect take on a classic staple.

I know conventional wisdom dictates the consumption of red wine with beef, but my wife is anything but conventional, so she opted for a wonderful Moscato d'Asti. Made in the Piemonte region of Italy, Moscato di Asti, a fragrant and fruity wine that is lightly sparkling and low in alcohol, is usually considered a dessert wine. But my wife thoroughly enjoyed a couple of glasses with her meal. And anytime and anyplace I can find Peroni Nastro Azzuro on tap, I take advantage of it. A refreshing beer with a smooth, clean taste and just enough of a bitter bite to distinguish it from its weak, watery domestic relatives, I go for Peroni every time.

Dessert was divine. We opted for the familiar cannoli we had previously enjoyed, although the delicious white chocolate bread pudding and the molten chocolate cake were tempting. Curiously, the cannoli are among the very few things on the menu that are not made in-house. But since they are imported from a place in New York's “Little Italy” I'm perfectly willing to overlook the digression.

The single red rose on the table was a nice Valentine's Day touch. I suggested positioning my plate of spaghetti in the center of the table and reenacting a romantic scene from “Lady and the Tramp,” but my wife demurred.

With wonderful service and fabulous food for both lunch and dinner, DePalma's has cemented its position as my “go to” Italian restaurant in Tuscaloosa. Now if I can just talk them into serving breakfast.

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

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Restaurant Review: Amici’s Brick Oven & Italian Bistro, Myrtle Beach, SC

So you’re visiting Myrtle Beach and you’re hungry. You pick up the local directory and discover that the restaurant listings section is bigger than the entire phone book for some small cities. Let me save you some time and effort: go to Amici’s.

Amici’s Brick Oven & Italian Bistro is located at one of Myrtle Beach’s prime attractions, the fabulous “Broadway at the Beach.” Now, Broadway at the Beach is also home to about a dozen other restaurants, so why should you bypass the steak place, the rib place, the Japanese place, the Mexican place, and the places to which the big stars lend their names and marketing influence? One word: “quality.”

Okay, you could be one of those people who actually likes chain eateries because everything tastes the same whether you’re in Alameda or Zanesville. If that’s the case, stop at one of those places. The fare is the same at the Myrtle Beach location as it is in any other city in the country. But if you’re hungry for something you won’t forget as soon as you pass through the exit door, Amici’s is the place to go.

It’s no secret that I have a penchant and passion for Italian food places. And I also disdain rubber-stamp Italian restaurants. Whenever I travel, I always seek out the small, locally owned Italian eateries, simply because they always have the freshest, highest quality and most authentic food. That, my friends, is Amici’s Brick Oven & Italian Bistro in a nutshell.

There were four in our party on a busy Saturday night. We were seated promptly and the wait staff was at once polite, efficient and friendly, something of a rarity in resort dining establishments. Drinks were ordered and delivered quickly, as were our appetizers. We chose the sampler platter of fried ravioli, fried mozzarella and shrimp marinara. We were also served a delicious plate of breaded scallops in an orange jalapeno sauce. Raves all around, especially for the scallops. Nobody in our group is much for hot, spicy foods, so we had trepidations about the jalapeno, but they were unfounded. The sauce was simply meraviglioso, the hint of jalapeno serving to enhance the orange rather than to overpower it. And the scallops – a difficult dish in unskilled hands -- were cooked perfectly.

The entrees were equally perfetto. My fettuccine Alfredo was outstanding. I was tempted to peek into the kitchen to see if old Sig. di Lello himself had been resurrected and was happily stirring the sauce. It was that good. Rich and buttery, just the way it should be. And when I asked, I was told that the sauce is not only made fresh, it is made fresh per order. This was not some sauce that had been made earlier in the day, refrigerated and warmed up. Bring on the chain restaurant that can make that claim. The pasta itself was al dente and deliziosi.

My wife was still recovering from the euphoria induced by the scallops, but she had no trouble settling down to devour her beef ravioli, one of the nightly specials. The other couple in our party was similarly engaged with plates of traditional Italian lasagna and baked ziti. Ultimately, the portion size defeated us all. But as a further testament to the quality of the food, we asked for all the leftovers to be packaged up. We then took them back to our hotel room refrigerators, where they spent the night before being carefully wrapped in insulating material for the ride home, to be enjoyed for a quick but delicious dinner after a long drive.

But the cruelest part of the evening was yet to come: dessert. As we sat groaning and contemplating the need for hand trucks to remove us from our table, the waitress brought out possibly the finest cannoli I’ve ever tasted. I was later told by a neighboring shopkeeper that one of the proprietors at Amici’s brought his mother in to make the cannoli. If that’s true, all I can say is, “Oh Mamma, lei dovrebbe essere benedetto..” (Oh Mamma, you should be blessed.)

And don’t forget the pizza! Perfect, fresh made hand tossed crust, baked in a traditional brick oven and topped with a variety of fresh ingredients. While we didn’t have pizza on this occasion, we have enjoyed it on previous visits and recommend it as among the very best in an overly crowded pizza market.

A comprehensive wine menu completes a memorable dining package.

Appropriately, the word amici is Italian for “friends.” And you’d be hard pressed to find a friendlier place at the Beach and equally hard pressed to find a better place to go to eat with your friends. Now, I’m not going to pull your leg and tell you that Amici’s is going to get five stars for atmosphere. It’s a big, busy place attached to a big, busy place that crawls with tourists nine months of the year. Don’t go in with expectations of candlelight and soft Italian music. That said, they do have a nice seating area in the back that’s a bit more secluded and has a lovely view of the waters of Lake Broadway. That area is available on request. During peak season, Amici’s does not accept reservations for nightly dining. But if you do want a little nicer atmosphere, ask for a table in the back. That space, which seats around fifty people, is also available for special events. If I were looking for a place to host a wedding rehearsal dinner or a big birthday party, I’d definitely be looking to Amici’s.

Partners Roland Sciotto and Angelo Bertolozzi have been serving delicious, fresh, authentic Italian food to tourists and locals alike from their Broadway at the Beach location for seven years. Between them, they own four other Italian restaurants in North and South Carolina. At Amici’s Brick Oven & Italian Bistro, they have created the perfect blend of authentic Italian cooking, fresh ingredients, friendly service, casual dining and reasonable prices. That sentence is partially lifted from their website, but I couldn’t think of a better way to say it myself.

Amici’s is open seven days a week for dine-in or carryout, with a full lunch menu served from 11 AM to 3:30 PM.

Experience Amici’s with your famiglia, your amore – or your amici. Mangiare e godere! (Eat and enjoy!)

Amici’s Brick Oven & Italian Bistro
Broadway at the Beach
1310 Celebrity Circle
Myrtle Beach, SC 29577
843.444.0006

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Eggs Finally Get a Break

Have you ever noticed that the stuff we all like to eat is the stuff the government “experts” say is going to kill us and that the things they say we should consume in order to extend our lives are the things that we'd all rather die than eat? I mean, do they ever really know what they're talking about?

Case in point: the Federal Food Folks have suddenly done a one-eighty and now the once loathed and hated egg is back in the good graces of the “experts” who formerly condemned it as the source of all the evil, artery-clogging, heart stopping cholesterol in our diets.

“Eggs are bad for you,” a generation was told. “Don't eat more than one or two a week or you'll just drop over dead of a heart attack.” “The cholesterol in eggs will kill you.” “The only good part of an egg is the white. The yolks are deadly.” Etc., etc. And throngs of people believed this nonsense. After all, if science says it, it must be true. Never mind logic. Never mind the fact that humankind has been consuming eggs since the first curious caveman decided to give the hard ovoid object that dropped from the nether regions of a chicken a try. I actually gag at the thought of how many eggs my grandfather used to eat for breakfast nearly every day. I like eggs, but that man could flat wear out a laying hen. And he ultimately died of a heart attack. But he was in his eighties and had been healthy as a horse up until shortly before his death. I suppose junk science would have allotted him a lifespan on a par with Methuselah's if he had just laid off the eggs.

The “experts” who are now being forced to eat their words about eggs are the same “experts” who spent years screaming about the carcinogenic properties of saccharin. They fed egregious amounts of the stuff to lab rats, who ultimately developed bladder cancer. Mind you, nobody could ever directly link the saccharin to the cancer, but that didn't stop the junk scientists from claiming that anybody who drank a saccharin-sweetened soft drink was gonna just turn up toes and die from bladder cancer. Of course, not wanting to see anybody die from cancer caused by something they voluntarily ingested, the Good Food Fairies in Washington waved their magic wands and made saccharin go away.

I had an aunt in those days who absolutely lived on “Tab,” a saccharin-sweetened soft drink. I'll bet the woman drank a gallon of it a day for most of the 1960s. And, sure enough, she died of cancer. Oh, her bladder was fine. You see, she also smoked two packs of cigarettes every day and it was her lungs that did her in. Funny about that big blind spot in the vision of those government officials in charge of banning things that are hazardous to our health.

Anyway, eggs are back! Let the people rejoice! And not only are they back, but they're actually good for you! What's the rationale behind this miraculous restoration? To what do the “scientists” and “researchers” attribute this marvelous recovery?

Duhhhh, we dunno.”

Wait a minute! You were so sure for so long that eggs were going to kill us all, and now you tell us that they're going to un-kill us based on nothing more than, “Ooops! Sorry about that!?”

That's about the size of it. The government's new dietary guidelines, which they change more regularly than they change their collective underwear, now recommend eating eggs because they are lower in cholesterol than previously believed and higher in vitamin D. So, backpedaling vigorously away from the “more than one or two a week will kill you” stance, the Federal Food Folks now say that an egg a day is A-okay!

Seems the guys in the lab coats recently went out to a dozen farms around the country and tickled a bunch of chickens. Then they sent the eggs off to be analyzed. Lo and behold! They found out that a large egg only contains about 185 milligrams of cholesterol, down considerably from the 215 milligrams in the eggs they tested ten years ago. And vitamin D levels in those eggs rose significantly from 25 IU (International Units) to 41 IU.

So here comes the USDA doing the “Church Lady” sketch from Saturday Night Live: “Never mind.” Eggs are evil? “Never mind.” An omelet will be your undoing? “Never mind.” Throw away the yolk and only eat the egg white? “Never mind.” One or two eggs a week? “Never mind.”

You mean now it's okay for me to eat the part of the egg that actually contains all the nutrients? The part the “experts” have been telling me to avoid?

Duhh, yep. That's right. Sorry about the misunderstanding.”

See, the egg people have been telling us for years that the egg is nature's perfect food. Remember “the Incredible Edible Egg?” They've been trying to talk us all down from the ledge to which the panic mongers drove us by reminding us that, yes, eggs contain cholesterol, but the body requires certain levels of dietary cholesterol in order to function. You can't just eliminate cholesterol from your diet and still be healthy. But that's not what the fanatic fringe wanted to hear, so they just kept on beating the egg, so to speak.

The “experts” formerly on the anti-egg side are at a loss to explain their new findings, saying that maybe there is something fundamentally different about the way chickens are fed or bred or something. They literally do not know. But at least they've owned up to their mistake.

"Evidence suggests that one egg per day does not result in increased blood cholesterol levels, nor does it increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in healthy people." Thus sayeth the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

A large egg contains 70 calories, 185 mg of cholesterol, 6 g of protein, 4.7 g of total fat, 1.6 g of saturated fat, 71 mg of sodium, and 41 IU of vitamin D. That last part is particularly important since there are very few food sources that contain measurable amounts of vitamin D.

Among the other things people have been frightened into giving up all these years is choline, an essential nutrient that contributes to fetal brain development and helps prevent birth defects. Choline also aids brain function in adults by maintaining the structure of brain cell membranes, and it is a key component of the neuro-transmitter that helps relay messages from the brain through nerves to the muscles. Muscles which, by the way, are aided in their development by the protein contained in eggs. And eggs contain the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which help prevent macular degeneration. Eggs also contain B vitamins, vitamin E, vitamin A, potassium, folate, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, iron, and zinc.

And guess what? Most of those goodies are contained in the yolk, the part the “experts” have been telling us to throw away. The only thing the white is really good for is protein, which it splits pretty much evenly with the yolk. (3.6 g in the white vs 2.7 in the yolk.)

I don't know what all this means for the panic peddlers or for the makers of egg substitutes and I don't really care since I never bought into the hoopla to begin with and I've never used an egg substitute in my life. I keep going back to the logical part of my mind, which, as I said at the outset, has always told me that people have been eating eggs for millenia. And yet we have survived as a species, so how bad can they be?

Does all this mean that I will now go out and eat eggs six at a time like my grandfather did? No. I'll stick to having two scrambled eggs for Sunday brunch and maybe an occasional poached egg during the week. And I'll continue to use whole eggs in cooking and baking, just as I always have. Only now I get to stick my tongue out and go, “nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah” while I do it.

I eagerly await the day when the Federal Food Fools figure out that man has been consuming the smoked flesh of pigs since before recorded history began. Maybe then they'll stop bitching about nitrates and nitrites and I'll be able to enjoy my bacon along with my newly approved eggs.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Move Over, Jamie Oliver. Here Comes a Real Naked Chef!

Redefining "Must See TV."

Leave it to the ever innovative Chinese. According to published reports, in an effort to interest more men in the culinary arts, a Hong Kong television outlet that already broadcasts the news in the nude is extending its -- coverage -- to include a naked cooking show.

A 26 year-old model, Flora Cheung, will be cooking Cantonese dishes in the raw, covered -- for safety's sake, I suppose -- by a tailor-made transparent apron that, she says, "covers everything but hides nothing."

Ms. Cheung has no professional culinary training. She'll just be cooking up her personal favorites like fried vermicelli and ox tongue in wine sauce.

The South China Morning Post assures us that Ms. Cheung will begin her 30 minute programs fully clothed as she shops for ingredients at the local market, but she'll strip down and don her see-through apron as soon as she returns to her studio kitchen.

The goal, so producers say, is to draw more men into the kitchen. Or, as Ms. Cheung asserts, "Most men don't like to cook. I want to get them interested."

I have no doubt they'll be interested. Whether or not they'll learn to cook remains to be seen.

Let's see, maybe we can interest Food Network in this approach. Nigella Lawson, Claire Robinson, Giada De Laurentiis, and perhaps Aida Mollenkamp would be good candidates. Paula Deen, Ina Garten and Anne Burrell need not apply. Imagine the ratings boost "Iron Chef America" would get out of Cat Cora sans apparel.

And let's not be sexist. Give the ladies their due. Some might get a charge out of Michael Symon, Aaron Sanchez, or Bobby Flay in the buff, although the specter of Mario Batali clad only in orange clogs and an invisible apron is rather unappetizing.

My ever-pragmatic wife believes that the experiment will fail. She thinks the cooking lessons will fall on deaf ears as long as they are being presented with such obvious -- distractions. I mean, really, could you ever even imagine Julia Child participating in such a scam? (Personally, I'd rather not try.)

Of course, other naysayers are already warming up the tar and plucking the chickens for producer Jessie Au, all the while decrying the further decline of morals. "Yuck," was the comment posted by one online reader, whom I am willing to bet was not a male. Somebody else predicted that a few splashes of hot oil might cool Ms. Cheung's enthusiasm, but, hey, haven't you ever heard of suffering for your art?

(For some reason, the whole affair reminds of stories a friend once told me about being a milkman back in the '60s and making deliveries to a nudist colony kitchen.)

But fear not for the virtue of your menfolk, ladies. The program is only aired twice a month on an adult pay-per-view channel in Hong Kong. And, to date, there are no indications that DirecTV, Comcast, or Time Warner will be picking it up anytime soon.

Well, guys, there's always Julia Child reruns on Cooking Channel.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Restaurant Review: Olive Garden (Any Olive Garden)

Olive Garden: Good Italian Dining For the Uninformed and Desperate

Let's start with the upfront admission that I really kind of like Olive Garden. When there isn't a real Italian restaurant around within twenty miles.

Olive Garden is to Italian cuisine what McDonald's is to hamburgers: it's a chain restaurant. Olive Garden is currently owned by Darden Restaurants, Inc. out of Orlando, FL, which, according to their website, is the world’s largest company-owned and operated restaurant company with almost $6.7 billion in annual sales. The company employs approximately 180,000 employees. Through subsidiaries, Darden owns and operates more than 1,700 restaurants including Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52.

Being a link in a chain is a good thing and it's a bad thing. The good part is that no matter whether you're in Altoona or Zanesville, the food at Olive Garden is going to taste the same. The bad thing is that whether you're in Altoona or Zanesville, the food at Olive Garden is going to taste the same. Uniformity - that's what chain restaurants are all about.

People don't go to McDonald's because McDonald's has the best hamburgers in the world. Ray Kroc figured that out fifty years ago. People go to McDonald's because the food they get there today tastes like the food they got there yesterday - or last week, or last month. And the McDonald's on the other side of town or on the other side of the planet is just like the one right around the corner from home. Same thing with Olive Garden.

Olive Garden claims that their "culinary inspiration" comes from the "Culinary Institute of Tuscany, located in the heart of Tuscany ... where Olive Garden's chefs learn the secrets of great Italian cooking ... to create authentic Italian dishes that you'll enjoy sharing with your family and friends." Yeah, okay, whatever. McDonald’s also touts its “Hamburger University.” Both are real places, but let’s not get too excited about the level of culinary excellence they produce. What the chefs/cooks learn to prepare in Tuscany, using fresh, authentic Italian ingredients and techniques, and what they actually turn out in their American kitchens using cheap, overprocessed American ingredients are two very different things. If Chef Paolo Lafata, the guy in charge at the Culinary Institute, were to come to my local Olive Garden with a truckload of fresh ingredients from Italy and prepare all the dishes on the menu the way he does in his Italian kitchen, I'd be the first customer in line everyday. But since it's actually the guy who might have been a dishwasher last month cooking with a truckload of ingredients that came out of the Darden warehouse, I'm not so excited.

Don’t get me wrong; as I said, I generally like Olive Garden. They have decent food at reasonable prices. Granted, some of their food is pre-bagged and/frozen, but the majority of it is cooked fresh in-house. I particularly like Olive Garden's ravioli, for instance, and my wife likes the herb-grilled salmon. Olive Garden’s Alfredo-style sauce is a definite cut above many similar attempts. I love their smoked mozzarella fonduta and I absolutely devour their breadsticks. So if we've had a long day traveling or working out of town and we want to go someplace where we'll find food we like with no surprises, we look for the Olive Garden sign. Or sometimes for the Golden Arches, but I digress.

Giving credit where credit is due, Olive Garden's menus do vary slightly from city to city depending on season and market. And Olive Garden at least makes an effort to create a semi-authentic Tuscan atmosphere, although most Americans wouldn’t know an authentic Tuscan atmosphere if sat down next to them and started singing arias from Puccini.

And therein lies the real problem with Olive Garden; the American perception of Italian cuisine. Let’s face it, most people think of Italian food in terms of pizza and spaghetti. Therefore, anyplace that serves either pizza or spaghetti is an “Italian restaurant.” More so if they serve both! And the greatest Italian chef to come to the average American mind is Chef Boyardee. Olive Garden is kind of an example of “cogito ergo sum;” Americans think it's Italian, therefore it is.

Generally speaking, if you just want to take a date or some friends to an "Italian place," Olive Garden is a good, generic "Italian place." Even though it's about as Italian as the aforementioned Chef Boyardee. (A real Italian chef, by the way, who got himself Americanized beyond recognition.) The overall popularity of Olive Garden is attested by the fact that I have never – let me repeat, never – been to an Olive Garden where I did not have a wait of at least twenty minutes.

If you do get through the door and you want to have a little fun, walk up to the hostess stand and say, “Buona sera. Come stai? Vorrei un tavolo per due, per favore.” You just said, “Good evening. How are you? I would like a table for two, please,” but the frozen smile and the deer-in-the-headlights look you'll get is priceless. Seriously, though, don't try to order in Italian - they'll just look at you funny. They put lots of nice Italian words like “Toscano” and “al Forno” and “pomodoro” and “Milanese” on the menu, but most of the servers mispronounce them. And despite the Italian words, don't expect anything exotic or extravagant. The food is designed to be as middle of the road Italian-American as they can make it.

The atmosphere and decor are cookie cutter genuine faux Italian. From Maine to New Mexico, they all look, sound and smell. the same. Great for meeting with people on occasions where the ability to hear and converse it is not really important. Don't look for cozy, romantic corners. If you do manage to find one, they'll seat a noisy family of twelve at the next table.

One final word of advice to Olive Garden managers; if you want to be taken seriously as an authentic Italian restaurant, don’t print “Thank you, please come again” in Spanish on your receipt. Drives me absolutely nuts! (In Italian, the phrase is,“Grazie, per favore di venire di nuovo.”)

Bottom line, if you're looking for "real" Italian - whether at home or on the road – Olive Garden is not it. What Olive Garden represents is a nice, safe, undemanding, unexciting alternative. Finding the real thing often requires you to take the risks involved in trying some of the little out of the way places. Do some homework, ask around, look in the phone book or on the Internet. Or do as I sometimes do; drop in, check out the atmosphere and ask for a menu. You can find some great little authentic Italian gems that way.

Otherwise, there's always Olive Garden.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Thoughts On the New Salt Guidelines

Take Them With a Grain of Salt

Every five years, the Federal Food Folks get together and decide how we should all be eating. And every five years we ignore them and continue to eat what we want. But if it makes them feel useful, who am I to argue?

That's pretty much my take on the new governmental restrictions on salt. According to the most recent guidelines set forth by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, anyone over fifty-one years of age, all African-Americans regardless of age, and people suffering from hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease should reduce their daily sodium intake to about a half-teaspoon per day.

In the first place, all this is not that new. Salt restrictions have been around for a long time. I remember when they restricted the salt in my grandfather's diet back in the early '60s. And you know what? A year or so later, he died anyway. At age 85. He was a restaurant cook, and he went out complaining about the godawful bland food he was being forced to eat.

Now, I'm not going to get all “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” on you. I'm not going to espouse a fatalistic lifestyle that says we're all going to die of something anyway. But I do believe that enjoying good food is an essential part of enjoying a good life. What was better for poor Grandpa? To be dead but happy a year earlier, or to live the extra year miserable and complaining? It's the old argument that pits length of life against quality of life.

Perhaps a little paraphrasing of Billy Joel to illustrate the point:
“I'd rather dine with the sinners
than starve with the saints.”

I do listen to you, Federal Food Folks, I really do. I'm over fifty-one and am mildly hypertensive. And my salt intake is w-a-a-a-ay less than it was back in the callow days when I used to just upend the salt shaker over my scrambled eggs. Nowadays, I barely give it a tap or two. Once upon a time I would put three of those little packets of salt on an order of fast food French fries. Today, I don't salt them at all. (Of course, according to the aforementioned Food Folks, I shouldn't be eating them at all, but that's another topic entirely.)

I appreciate the position the Federal Food Folks are in. They do what they do because idiots abound in our society. And they are litigious idiots. “Well, nobody TOLD me that dumping tablespoonfuls of salt on everything I ate was gonna jack up my blood pressure and shut down my kidneys. If I live, I'm gonna sue somebody!” Hence the government recommendations that we all eat like sheep and rabbits.

But, folks, I'm here to tell you that salt is an essential nutrient. And I'm not using “essential” in a hyperbolic sense. No. In this instance, “essential” means “necessary to life.” Scientifically speaking, an essential nutrient is one which the human body requires for life and health but cannot produce for itself. Salt, or sodium chloride, is one such nutrient. The “sodium” part is the body's major electrolyte responsible for regulating water balance, pH, and osmotic pressure. It is also important in nerve conduction. “Chloride” preserves the body's acid-base balance. It aids in potassium absorption and supplies the basic building blocks for digestive stomach acid. Chloride also helps the blood carry carbon dioxide to the lungs. So can you really just eliminate salt from your diet? Not so much.

Of course, too much of anything – even essential anythings – can be detrimental to your health. You can, for instance, drink too much water. And you can certainly consume too much salt. The dancing on the head of a pin comes in determining how much is “too much?” The short answer, of course, is, “It depends.” It depends on your overall diet. It depends on your level of activity. It depends on your metabolism. It depends on a lot of things, and since governments tend to govern from the general rather than the specific point of view, government guidelines are often overarchingly broad.

Historically, nutritionists and medical researchers have determined that a range between 2,300 mg and 4,600 mg of salt per day is the accepted dietary level. This equals between one and two-and-a-half teaspoons per day. Most Americans consume right about 3,500 mg/day, smack in the middle of the range. And they have done so with very little variation for as long as accurate medical evaluations have been available.

Now, some people do have to be more careful than others, which, I suppose, is the point of the new guidelines. But less than a half-teaspoon? Come on! Get real. Go measure that out and look at it. Go ahead. I'll wait.

There. See what I mean? Ridiculous. And that's for the whole day, mind you, including everything you stick in your face from breakfast to lunch to dinner and all the in between snacks. Solid and liquid. Good luck with that one, Federal Food Folks.

Okay, because I'm in the target group and easily frightened by the trumpets of impending doom, I'll probably make that one tap on the salt shaker instead of two. But I'm not gonna show the little girl with the umbrella the door and I'm not gonna go out like Grandpa did. The extra couple of days aren't worth it. I like salt and I like what it does for my food. Make that my epitaph, if need be.

Since the new guidelines include an admonition to reduce or eliminate salt in cooking and to ask restaurants not to add salt to the food they serve, I brought the topic up with a few chefs and cooks of my acquaintance. They were nearly universal in their hostility toward governmental interference in their kitchens.

You can't cook without salt. Period. You can throw in other spices, herbs, acids, etc. all day long and you will never – I repeat, never – impart the same flavor to food that salt does. In spite of the many salt substitutes on the market, there is no substitute for salt.

When I asked Bobby Flay about salt, he was pretty definite in his opinion. “I have to cook with salt. I have to. We don't want to eat bland food, and the only way you can add natural flavor to food is with salt. There's a study out that says something along the lines of seventy-seven percent of our salt intake is from processed foods. Just five percent of it is from seasoning in restaurants. So, I think they're just throwing a bunch of figures at everybody and scaring them to death and saying, 'If you keep putting salt on your food, you're just going to die of a heart attack. Period.' To me, that means we should stop using alcohol in the entire country – you know, we should just stop doing everything that we like to do. Obviously, I don't believe that. I think that we need to moderate what we do. But I don't think they really know the true effect of salt when it's being administered to real food.”

Chef Jacob Burton opines, “No salt! What? Did they tell Picasso no brush? All the high end acids in the world could never take the place of salt. I am by no means the best chef in the world, but you put me head to head in a cooking contest with any "fill in the blank" best chef with the only stipulation being that I can use salt and he/she can't, and I'll win hands down every single time.”

Absurd,” said an Italian chef I know. “So my restaurant should stop serving prosciutto, cheese, bread, salami, pasta ...?! Absolutely pazzo! Salt is an essential ingredient in almost everything I cook. No Italian restaurant can operate under such crazy restrictions.”

One of my baker friends adds, “Have your ever made bread or cookies and forgotten to put the salt in? There are some things – especially in baking – that you physically, chemically cannot accomplish without salt.”

Others, noting that the “experts” claim people “will get used to” the taste of unsalted food, objected to the overall “dumbing down” of the American palate. We're hardwired to crave salt because it's something our body absolutely must have, and you know it's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Most chefs were pretty adamant about not changing the way they run their kitchens. They were downright Vulcan about the whole thing, believing that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” In other words, “I'm cooking good food for the masses. If you have a specific need, I'll do my best to accommodate you, but I'm not going to serve sub-par food to everybody just to satisfy a few.”

And most, like Bobby Flay, take dead aim at the processed food industry, citing that entity as the main reason too many people are getting too much salt. That 77% vs 5% statistic that Bobby quoted comes from the Mayo Clinic, and they're pretty unequivocal on the subject, stating, “The vast majority of dietary sodium comes from eating foods that are processed and prepared.”

Read your labels, folks. There's 950 mg of sodium in a can of Franco-American/Campbell's Spaghetti. There's your half-teaspoon for the day right there. Or maybe you'd prefer a can of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup? A mere 890 mg. Do you like Kikkoman Soy Sauce? Hope you like those 920 mg of sodium per tablespoon. How about a nice refreshing Coca-Cola? How about a nice refreshing 80 mg of sodium per 20 ounce bottle? Oooh! Here's a healthy one: There are only 650 calories in a Swanson Hungry-Man Roasted Turkey Breast with Gravy & Stuffing, Mashed Potatoes, Vegetables & Cranberry Sauce dinner. But check out those 3,140 mg of sodium! And these are all the national name brands, boys and girls. Most cheap store brands and generics are often even higher in sodium because they dump more salt in to disguise the poorer quality ingredients they use.

Be that as it may, the consensus among people in the restaurant biz is that because Big Food has Big Lawyers, it's easier for Uncle Sam to target the little guy with the corner diner than it is to go after the real source of the problem. And since the Federal Food Folks can't seem to successfully regulate what those Big Food manufacturers foist off on consumers, they settle for scaring the bejeebers out of home cooks by making them believe that they're killing off their families with every morsel of salt they put in the meat loaf.

And where are the government restrictions regarding our intake of high fructose corn syrup, hmmm? Maybe the salt industry needs to hire the same lawyers, lobbyists, and marketing firms employed by the Corn Refiners Association.

Don't panic. Just take the new guidelines with a grain of salt. Should you cut back? Probably. Should you do so by employing Draconian measures like throwing away your salt shaker and banning salt in restaurants. Certainly not! Can you accomplish your goal by reducing your intake of sodium-heavy processed foods? Ding, ding, ding, ding! Give that man a Kewpie doll! And you can definitely control the amount of salt you put in or on foods you prepare yourself. Taste it. If it needs salt, add only what it needs. If it doesn't need salt, leave it alone.

Cook fresh, eat fresh and use moderation and common sense in all things. Did I mention my great-grandmother who lived to see a hundred years but who never saw a food guideline in her entire life? Salt that away as food for thought.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Recipe: Homemade Italian Breadcrumbs

Although I do keep a couple of cans of store-bought breadcrumbs around -- especially panko -- in case of an absolute emergency, I generally like to make my own whenever possible.

Breadcrumbs are super easy; toss bread into a food processor and make crumbs. How hard is that? If you want pure white crumbs, cut off the crust first. If color doesn't matter, leave the crust on. Use fresh bread only if you want really fresh crumbs, otherwise day-old bread that has been left out overnight to dry is recommended. (Avoid really stale bread, though.) If toasted breadcrumbs are desired, either toast the bread before you process it or process it first and then toast it. You can crumble fresh bread by hand if you don't have a food processor and dried or toasted bread can be reduced to crumbs by using a rolling pin or a box grater, but you won't get the same fine, consistent quality that a food processor produces.

Of course, I use a lot of Italian breadcrumbs and -- of course -- I have a favorite recipe.

1 loaf day-old rustic Italian bread
1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 cloves finely minced garlic
2 tbsp dried Italian seasonings
3 tbsp dried parsley
1/2 tsp sea salt

Leave the bread out to dry overnight, then crumble or tear it into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to a fairly large, rough texture.

Add the cheese, garlic, Italian seasonings, and salt and continue to pulse until the breadcrumbs become fine.

Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for 3 or 4 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

More "Kitchen," Less "Boss"

Looks like Bartolo “Buddy” Valastro is well on his way to becoming TLC's answer to Food Network's Guy Fieri. You can hardly turn the channel on anymore without seeing his face!

First there was “Cake Boss.” Then came “The Next Great Baker.” Both of these shows are set in or around Buddy's home base, Hoboken's own “Carlo's Bakery,” and both play to his reputation as an extraordinary baker and pastry chef.

But now Buddy – or somebody at the network – feels the need to get out of the big kitchen and back to basics in the little kitchen. Not with cakes and pastries, but with down home Italian-style family cooking right from Buddy's “home” kitchen, populated by all the same lovable personaggi famiglia that populate his work environment, plus a few more.

Buddy seems like a nice guy. He really does. Just like Paula Deen seems like a really nice lady. But when it comes to television, they share the same shortcoming: extremely obvious and sometimes distracting regionalism. After ten minutes of listening to Paula's honey-coated, more-Southern-than-Scarlett O'Hara drawl in which she intones the word/phrase “y'all” at least sixty times per minute, you just want to climb the walls! Doesn't matter that what she's cooking is great stuff. I've lived in the South for thirty years and she's still way more Southern than almost anybody I know. Just mute the sound and read the captions to preserve your sanity.

Buddy has the same affliction. I know it's not his fault and I'm not holding it against him personally, but that high-pitched voice speaking in the thickest New Jersey-Italian accent this side of Hollywood casting, lobbing the phrase “youse guys” at decibel levels obviously designed to compete with the noise emanating from La Guardia, can make you just as crazy just as quickly.

Maybe the TLC execs believe that Buddy is more “authentic Italian” because he looks, acts, and sounds like somebody you'd find on the set of “Goodfellas.” However, it should be noted that Mario Batali, Michael Chiarello, Giada De Laurentiis, Rocco DiSpirito, and even the ubiquitous Guy Fieri are all Italians who manage to represent their culture and heritage on TV without making the viewer feel like he's watching a weird mixture of Julia Child and “Jersey Shore.” “Fuhgeddaboudit!”

That said, if you can get past the stereotypes and hone in on the premise of the show, you might come away pleasantly surprised. Valastro doesn't have any pretensions about being being another Mario Batali or any of the other aforementioned chefs. He tells you right up front that he's just a guy from a food-loving Italian family who learned to cook Italian family favorites by hanging around the kitchen with his parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and grabbing a spoon now and then to help out. He doesn't go in for the fancy, upscale dishes comprised of ingredients that only sophisticated foodies can find or afford. He doesn't wax poetic over white truffles and he doesn't make you feel like a schlub if your eggplant doesn't come from a certain field on a certain hill in a specific part of a defined area in a particular province of Italy. He prides himself on preparing simple food in a simple manner, which is the real essence of Italian cooking, after all.

His style, however, may be a little too simple for the know-nothing novice tuning in to pick up some culinary tips and tricks. Those of us who grew up in the kitchen may be comfortable enough with Buddy's “dump in a little bit of this and add a little bit of that” approach to cooking, but for the average person who requires detailed printed instructions for heating up a can of soup, there might be a need for some more in depth information.

It should be mentioned that said detailed information is available at TLC's website and little text blurbs to that effect pop up on the screen as Buddy cooks, but a lot of people simply won't bother.

Not that Buddy isn't a good cook. I've already ripped off two of his recipes. He's just not much of an instructor, that's all. There's a lot of “do this and this and this” in his presentation but not a lot of reasons why you “do this and this and this.” Like maybe he doesn't really know himself and he's just parroting the things he learned at his nonna's knee.

It was one of those things that makes me seriously question Buddy's Italian cooking credibility: I watched in absolute horror as Buddy broke a package of spaghetti in half before putting it in the water to cook! He said something to the effect of “that's the way Mama did it, so that's the way I do it.” I'm sorry, paison, but there is not one single, solitary, reputable Italian cook anywhere on the planet – and certainly not in Italy – who would advocate breaking up spaghetti like that. Before somebody jumps me, let me qualify that there are a few specific dishes for which you might do it, but for general purposes it is an amateurish no-no, regardless of how Mama did it. It comes under the heading “If God had intended spaghetti to be only three inches long, He would have made it that way to begin with.”

Watching Buddy make cakes leaves you awestruck. Watching him cook Italian food – eh, not so much. Not yet, anyway.

I'm willing to give him a try, though. Giada was pretty awful on a few of her earliest televised endeavors. And at least Buddy didn't grate his finger to a bloody pulp on his first outing like Mario did. Maybe as he gains a little confidence and experience in his new surroundings, he'll tone down the character and pump up the content. For now, “Kitchen Boss” needs to be less “Boss” and more “Kitchen.”