The View from My Kitchen

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

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Grazie mille!

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 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.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The New Easy-Bake Oven: Bye-Bye Bulbs

It's a brave new world for the Easy-Bake oven: no more light bulbs.

The Fed is working toward elimination of the good old incandescent light bulb. This presents toymaker Hasbro, the device's current manufacturer, with something of a sticky-wicket since the heat source in the iconic kid's cooker has always been a 100-watt incandescent bulb. (If you've still got one of these bulbs around, light it up and hold your hand near it; you'll see why.) The new and improved CFL bulb produces almost no heat, thereby rendering it useless for baking cakes and brownies. What to do, what to do?

Do over, that's what. It's not like the toy oven hasn't undergone a few changes over the decades. Eleven of them, I believe. But this one is fundamental rather than merely cosmetic. With the juice gone from its traditional source of heat, the new Easy-Bake Oven will feature an actual heating element – sort of like the oven the grownups use.

The brainchild of an inventor named Ronald Howes, Kenner Products introduced the Easy-Bake Oven back in 1963. They were also responsible for the Give-a-Show Projector and the Spirograph, you may recall. But the little plastic oven marketed to pre-teen girls was by far the company's crowning achievement. It was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2006, having sold more than 50 million units.

The original design was pretty simple; you had these tiny little round pans into which you poured pre-measured mixes from little packets that either came with the oven or could be purchased at most toy stores. Add a little water to the mix, turn on the oven, slide the pan into a slot, and, after being cooked by the heat generated by the aforementioned light bulbs, little mini cakes and brownies emerged from a slot on the other side.

I never actually owned an Easy-Bake Oven. My experience with the toy came as a result of having a girl cousin. Even though I was a boy and it was the '60s and I was supposed to have G.I. Joes (which I did), my progressive mother encouraged my interest in cooking. By the time my cousin got her first Easy-Bake Oven, I had already graduated to using the real oven in Mom's kitchen. But the Easy-Bake was still a fun toy.

Like most Easy-Bakers, we experimented with various mixtures and concoctions. And like the parents of most Easy-Bakers, my aunt and uncle got tired of shelling out hefty bucks for the little mix packets, so there was also a lot of experimentation going on with “real” cake and brownie mixes. Most of them turned out pretty well and we had fun, regardless. My wife, who did own an Easy-Bake Oven, recalls her dad being quite a trooper as he dutifully consumed every brownie, cake, and cookie she produced.

The newest iteration of the classic toy is called the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven and it's a far cry from the '60s version. That one was designed to look like a plain old oven – complete with a non-functional stovetop. It had a carrying handle and it came in typical '60s colors – yellow and green. The new Ultimate oven is purple and looks kind of like a really curvy microwave – sort of, I guess. Or as the curator of the facility which houses the National Toy Hall of Fame describes it: “It looks sort of like an Art Deco toaster with wings – a purple one.

The menu has changed, too. No longer limited to tiny little cakes and brownies, the Ultimate Oven can produce cookies, cupcakes, whoopie pies, a “checkerboard” cake, pretzel “dippers”, cinnamon twists, and even pizza. All in bigger portions than the original, to boot, thanks to larger, rectangular pans.

The involuntary redesign is actually a good thing. The new heating element provides more even heat. (Hot spots used to be a real problem. Ruined a lot of little cakes as a result.) It can also generate interior temperatures up to about 375°, so, yes, parental supervision is definitely required. (Don't worry; the exterior remains fairly cool.)

Oh, and one more major upgrade: the price. Be prepared to pony up fifty bucks – well, $49.99, anyway – for a toy for which my aunt and uncle paid $15.95 back in '63. (500,000 units were sold at that price in that year, by the way.)

Lest you consider the Easy-Bake Oven to be nothing more than a frivolous passing fancy of childhood, consider this: Bobby Flay had one. So did Rick Bayless. I guess that's why they contributed recipes to David Hoffman's “The Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet,” a 128-page cookbook published in 2003 by Running Press.

The Easy-Bake Oven was – and still is – a great introduction for kids to the world of cooking and anything that gets kids in the kitchen is okay by me. Buona fortuna, Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How To Properly Hand Wash Dishes

Ridiculous title, huh? “How To Wash Dishes.” Everybody knows how to wash dishes, right? I'm not talking about using a dishwasher. I'm referring to washing dishes by hand. Well......maybe not so much.

I once wrote an article on kitchen cleanliness in which I touched briefly on the subject of dishwashing. Recent experiences in some home kitchens have prompted me to revisit the topic in a little more depth. It seems a lot of people didn't learn to wash dishes the way I did.

I learned the art of dishwashing in the days before automatic dishwashers became as common as toasters. I learned at the hands of experts; my grandmother and my mother. I don't know that my grandmother ever even saw an automatic dishwasher, and I know for certain she never used one. My mother had such disdain for the devices that she used hers as a storage bin for her Tupperware. Both women were lifelong hand dishwashers. Add to that the fact that my first restaurant job was working as a dishwasher and I think I present with some valid credentials on the subject.

But that's still not enough. In order to avoid this being a “my mother taught me better than your mother taught you” piece, I went further and did some research on proper hand dishwashing.

Believe it or not, there are specific procedures to follow. It's not just a matter of running some water in the sink, dumping in a little soap, and throwing in the dirty dishes. But after observing some of the aforementioned kitchens it is obvious to me that these basic techniques are being ignored, if they were ever taught in the first place. Call me obsessive/compulsive if you will, but, based on the horrendous hygiene I have observed in some home kitchens, I have been known to sneak to the sink and stealthily rewash dishes before I use them. Here's why.

I know so many people who have an aversion to the most essential element of hygienic dishwashing: hot water. Beyond my grandmother and my mother, the experts with letters after their names will also tell you that dishes should be washed in water as hot as you can tolerate. Now this opens up a whole can of subjective worms as way too many people apparently can't tolerate water heated above 99°. That's body temperature, folks! If you can't tolerate putting your hands in ninety-nine degree water, you shouldn't be able to tolerate touching yourself! Many of these same folks will come out of a shower with their bodies a nice shade of candy-apple red because they like their showers hot. And yet they wash their dishes in lukewarm water. Go figure. Worse still, I know people who do dishes in room temperature water, water that is actually cold. I've said it before, I'll say it again: If you insist on using cold or lukewarm water for dishwashing, just set up little cabanas beside the sink for the e-coli, the salmonella, and the other varieties of bacteria you're inviting to go swimming in your sink. That's all you're really accomplishing. You're not getting anything clean.

Bacteria don't drown. Water won't kill 'em. Heat kills bacteria. To really sanitize your dishes, you need to heat them to above 140°. That's what dishwashers do. Obviously, sticking your unprotected hands in 140° water will likely send you to the emergency room.

But dishes washed by hand can still be sanitized. It just takes a little effort. You need hot water, a good dish soap – preferably an antibacterial formula, a little bleach, and proper technique.

For handwashing dishes, the FDA recommends a minimum water temperature of 110°. To make sure I'm practicing what I'm preaching, I stuck a thermometer in my dishwater. It registered 112.8°. I heat my rinse water a little hotter than my wash water – about 115°. Yeah, that's a little hot, but with rinse water, you can just snatch and grab. You don't have to keep your hands submerged in it like you do the wash water.

In restaurant kitchens, there are three sinks; a wash sink, a rinse sink, and a sanitizing sink. With only two sinks in my home kitchen, I combine the rinsing and the sanitizing in one. In restaurants, there is a specific chlorine level the health inspectors look for. (50 – 100 PPM, if you're curious.) At home, about a tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water will suffice.

But again, it's gotta be hot water. If your skin is too sensitive or if you're worried about “dishpan hands,” go get some rubber gloves. Don't risk your family's health.

Hot water also gets your dishes cleaner. Grease doesn't break down in lukewarm water. If you stick a dirty, greasy plate in a sink full of 90° water, you'll come out with a plate that looks clean – but it'll still be greasy. And if you've ever wondered why your glasses and silverware look so spotty and filmy, check your water temperature. You know that “sheeting action” one of the dishwasher detergents advertises? You get the same effect when you use hot water. Dishes washed in hot water dry faster and cleaner than those washed in warm or cold water.

Now let's talk about technique. First things first, scrape your plates. Dishes don't get clean when they're in the water competing with floating chunks of meat and potatoes.

Next, rinse your dishes. The first plateful of spaghetti sauce that you toss unrinsed into your dishwater is going to turn your water red and greasy for every subsequent dish you put in.

Now stack 'em. Stacking doesn't have anything to do with the actual cleanliness of your dishes, but organized stacking makes the dishwashing process cleaner and easier. Glasses, cups, and silverware stack first, plates and serving dishes next, and pots and pans last.

This is also the order in which you should wash your dishes. I know so many people who just throw everything in the sink at the same time. But think about it for a minute: what dishes do you really want to be the cleanest? The ones that actually come in contact with your mouth, right? The glasses, the cups, and the silverware. So it makes sense that you should wash them first when the water is the hottest and the cleanest. If you wash the glasses after – say – the greasy frying pan, what can you expect to happen to your glasses? Thank you, but I'll take my beverages without the floating layer of grease. And those aren't “water spots” on your knives, forks, and spoons. They're spots of whatever you had for lunch yesterday if you just threw them in along with the dirty dishes.

Plates should be next. Serving dishes and utensils follow the plates and then come the pots and pans.

If you've got really dirty pots and pans with lots of baked-on stuff stuck to them, soaking is probably in order. Start with hot water, please, and a little soap. I know the water will eventually cool, but starting with hot water will give you a leg up on a good, effective soak better than just soaking in cold water from the start. Allow at least ten minutes soaking time. Some people advocate overnight soaking. In fact, I just watched a TV commercial for an overnight soaking soap product. Don't waste your time and money. Anything that hasn't soaked off after, let's say half an hour, to be generous, in regular soap and water probably isn't going to. That's when scrubbing pads come into play.

Somewhere along the line, you may have to change your water. The glasses and silverware probably didn't do too much damage to the dishwater. But after a dozen or so plates and serving dishes, are you really getting anything clean? Think about it; what color is clean, fresh water? Clear, of course. It has no color. So by the time your dishwater develops a distinct reddish, brownish, greenish, or grayish color, is it still truly clean and fresh? And should you reasonably expect to get your dishes clean in such water? Time for a change.

Speaking of changing things, how about those dishcloths, sponges, and towels? Personally, I have no use for sponges. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a hospital's surgical suite and 10 being a toxic waste dump, kitchen sponges rank number 11. You can't have them in commercial kitchens; you shouldn't have them in home kitchens. Unless you're preparing a science project on bacteriology. “Oh, but you can sanitize them in the microwave!” Yeah, until the first time you put them back in the water and the listeria and staphylococci invite all their friends aboard. Ditch the sponge. If you have some sort of unnatural addiction to sponges, at least try to find an antibacterial one designed to limit microbial growth.

Dishcloths are a better option, provided you take proper care of them. This means changing them out frequently and also keeping them in proper condition. A recent scientific study revealed that dishcloths containing the lowest microbial count came from households that replaced used dishcloths every day. Dishcloths containing high microbial counts were those used five or more consecutive days and never completely dried out during that time. The study determined that when dishcloths were dried out after use, bacterial growth was halted. So those of you who wad up your wet dishcloths and leave them lying in or around the sink take note.

I don't change my dishcloth every day. Nor do I use the same cloth for a week. And I follow the FDA food code recommendation regarding use of a sanitizer bucket for my dishcloths. But I don't leave them soaking in the bucket because research also shows that after a couple of hours, organic material present in the cloths neutralizes the sanitizer and bacterial growth can occur. I soak them after use, take them out and dry them, and replace them every other day. Unless, of course, they are filthy, in which case I replace them right away. Duh!

Dish towels are another issue. Again, if restaurant inspectors catch you drying dishes with a towel, there go a couple of points off your rating. Air drying is best. And for goodness' sake, clean your drying rack once in awhile! Putting clean dishes in a dirty drying rack is an exercise in futility. If, however, you are like most people – me included – and you sometimes use a dish towel, make sure it's a clean dish towel. Not the one with which you wiped the chicken blood off the counter. Not the one with which you mopped your sweaty forehead, wiped your greasy hands, or got that little spill up off the floor. Dish towel equals dish use. Nothing else. When the towel gets damp, get a dry one. In the first place, you're not really drying anything with a wet towel, now are you? And in the second place, here come those pesky germs again. Dish towels should be replaced in the same manner as dishcloths.

I mentioned cleaning your drying rack. How about your sinks? How often do you actually clean and sanitize your sinks and drains? Do you know that most household's toilets are cleaner than their kitchen sinks? That's because you think about cleaning the toilet, but you seldom think about cleaning the sink. And yet, where do you wash the dishes from which you eat? I sanitize my sinks and drains every day. All it takes is a couple of minutes with some hot water and bleach.

One of the most spectacularly, despicably unhygienic things I've ever seen in a home kitchen involved filling up a sink with tepid water and a little soap and then throwing dirty dishes into the sink throughout the day. At some point along the way, said dishes were treated to a brief encounter with a dirty cloth that had been wadded up on the counter. Then they were rinsed under cold running water before being dried and put away. I have to ask; why bother? For as much cleaning value as you're getting out of that sinkful of disgusting cold, gray water with grease and particulate matter floating in it and that nasty rag, you might as well just put the dishes away dirty.

Lukewarmers aren't quite as bad – but they're close. I'm sorry. I hate it for you that you can't stand hot water, but neither can the grease and the germs. If you're filling your sink with water that is cooler than body temperature, you're just throwing a greasy pool party for bacteria. Period. Turn up the water heater and get some gloves.

And remember the steps the experts recommend – the ones my mama taught me: scrape your dishes, rinse your dishes, stack your dishes, and don't do the pots and pans first and then try to get the glasses clean. It just won't happen.

See you in the kitchen. I'll wash, you dry.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

How to Hold Pasta For Later Service

So you've got people coming over for a spaghetti dinner, but you don't want to spend the evening in the kitchen standing over a steaming pot. Or you've got a lot of people coming over and you don't know how you'll ever cook that much spaghetti and have it all ready at the same time. Or maybe your spouse is late for dinner – again – and you're afraid the pasta will be ruined.

Having already written much on the proper way to cook pasta, let me share a little restaurant chef secret solution for these scenarios: double cooking.

Have you ever wondered how restaurants get your pasta dish out to the table so quickly? If you've ever cooked pasta at home you know that it takes anywhere from eight to ten minutes to properly cook pasta, right? (I'm speaking, of course, about regular pasta secco or dried pasta as opposed to pasta fresca or fresh pasta, which only takes a couple of minutes to cook.) So how do restaurants keep shoveling it out so quickly? A lot depends on the restaurant.

Most little mom and pop places cook pasta à la minute. I know that's French, but it's the accepted term in the culinary world for food that is cooked to order rather than being prepared in advance and held for later service. Some upscale specialty places cook pasta to order, too. But the majority of high-volume kitchens – those that get your plate out in about five minutes – rely on a technique called “double-cooking” when serving most pasta dishes. Caterers use the method as well because cooked pasta turns to unpalatable mush pretty quickly after more than a few minutes in a chafer or on a steam table. But it's not a procedure exclusive to the pros. Home cooks can do it, too.

Although I firmly believe it is always much better to cook pasta fresh and serve it right from the pot to the plate, sometimes – as in the aforementioned situations – that's not an option. So here's how you double-cook pasta:

First, it is imperative to start with good pasta. All pastas are emphatically not the same and you'll get much poorer performance out of that ten-pounds-for-a-dollar supermarket crap than you will out of a quality product like De Cecco or Barilla.

That said, prep and cook your pasta as you usually would, i.e. four to six quarts of water per pound of pasta, adding two or three tablespoons of salt to the water. Do not – let me italicize that – do not ever under any circumstances ever no matter what your friend or your auntie told you ever add oil to the pasta water! Keep the oil on hand for later in the process, but keep it out of the cooking water.

After you add the pasta to the salted water, give it a stir and stir it again about every three minutes. This, along with the right cooking vessel and the proper amount of water, will keep your pasta from sticking far more effectively than will dumping oil on the surface of the water.

Cook your pasta until it is just short of perfectly al dente. This is a cook's judgment call and involves actually tasting the pasta, but in general it means shaving a minute or two off the full cooking time.

Next up, immediately drain and chill the pasta. I mean immediately and chill. Don't let it sit in a colander and cool on the countertop or something. And don't just run it under cold tap water. In a restaurant you'd use a blast chiller or a walk-in cooler to get the pasta down to about 38° as quickly as possible. (Leave a pile of cooked pasta sitting out in a room temperature environment and in no time you'll have the healthiest little bacteria farm you've ever seen.) Most home kitchens – even mine – lack such equipment. But we do have ice and we do have refrigerators. So shock your slightly undercooked pasta in an ice bath and then drain it thoroughly. Normally you wouldn't drain pasta completely dry, but in this application, you do. Now you can break out the olive oil and give the drained pasta a little drizzle and shake. Don't drown it; a little goes a very long way. Actually, if you've cooked your pasta properly, you really shouldn't need the oil at all. Finally, stick it in an airtight container, and stash it in the fridge. If you've got a Food Saver or some other form of vacuum-sealing device, so much the better. That'll make things even easier later on.

You can actually hold cooked pasta this way for about 48 hours. I don't know that I would, but you can.

Okay, it's later. Your guests have arrived or your spouse has finally gotten home. You can do one of two things; if you cook like a typical American, you can heat up some sauce and, while it's heating, you can boil up another pot of water and put your already-prepared pasta in it for one or two minutes.* Then you can drain the pasta, dump the drained pasta on a plate and dump the heated sauce on top of the pasta and call it dinner. I wouldn't, but you can.

Or, if you cook like an Italian, you can heat up your sauce and let your chilled pasta cook in the same pan for a couple of minutes, tossing the pasta with the sauce as they cook together to completely and perfectly blend the flavors and textures. Your choice. I think you know what mine is.

So there you go. Cook like a restaurant chef and amaze your friends and family. Or at least make things a little easier on yourself next time you're in a tight spot.

Buona cucina e buona mangiare!

*(In my original post I wrote "Here's where the vacuum-sealed pouch is really convenient." At least one reader took that to mean I was advocating boiling the pasta in the bag. And you can actually do that provided you have a heat safe bag. FDA approved heat safe bags are available online and in some restaurant supply stores. But in general, plain plastic bags do not do well in boiling water. In the first place, they're usually not strong enough to withstand the heat and in the second place, there's a lot of concern about chemicals in plastic leaching into food. So unless you're using approved heat safe plastic, it's probably better to just open the vac sealed bag and dump the pasta in the boiling water, which is actually what I meant to say when I wrote what I wrote. Sorry for any misunderstandings. --RJ --)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Pizza On the MOON? Get the Airlock, It's Domino's

Space.....the final frontier. These are the voyages of the pizza delivery guy.

At least that's the scenario set forth by the Japanese division of Domino's Pizza. In the first place, I didn't even know there was a Japanese division of Domino's Pizza, but then again I haven't been paying much attention to the franchise since it decided to turn itself into an imitation of Papa John's. (Yeah, according to Domino's research, apparently I'm the one guy who liked things the way they were.)

But I digress. As the story – reported in The (London) Daily Telegraph – goes, “plans” have been made to erect a pizza parlor on the moon.

In what is an obviously transparent attempt to one-up Pizza Hut, who successfully “delivered” a pizza to the ISS back in 2001, Domino's – or at least the Japanese division thereof – says they've been kicking the idea around for about a year, but have not yet set a date for construction to begin.

And lest you think this is merely a publicity stunt – and who would be cynical enough to think that? – an actual construction firm has begun drawing up actual construction plans for what it says will be a two-story, steel-floored, dome shaped pizzeria luna, 84 feet wide, that will include a “fun room” and living quarters for the restaurant's staff.

But Japanese customers are going to have to buy a lot of squid pizza – a real favorite over there – in order to finance the proposal which is projected to cost about 21.8 billion dollars (or 1.67 trillion yen, if you prefer.) Fifteen rockets will be required to lift the 70 tons of building materials and pizza-making equipment to the lunar surface. To keep costs down, the plan calls for using local mineral deposits to make the necessary concrete and such. A building site has not yet been disclosed, but I'd shoot for the Mare Frigoris, located at 56.0° N, 1.4° E. This is the “Sea of Cold,” because I think it's gonna be a cold day in hell before any of this lunacy comes to pass.

According to a Domino's spokesman, “In the future, we anticipate there will be many people living on the moon, astronauts who are working there and, in the future, citizens of the moon.” And, in case you were wondering, they do plan to deliver. There are, after all, several perfectly good lunar rovers up there, abandoned by Apollo astronauts. I'm sure NASA wouldn't mind if Domino's stuck little light-up signs on top of them and used them for delivery vehicles. See, recycling and repurposing. More cost savings. I'll betcha they didn't think of that one. That's okay. I'll take payment for my contribution to the project in thin-crust pizza, please. I'll even toss in a slogan; “Get the airlock, it's Domino's.”

Unfortunately – because I didn't think of it first – I believe the Huffington Post's Laura Hibbard got in the best musical lick of the day with her, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore. Or it could be astronauts eating Domino's pizza in space.” But I've still got to try. Here goes. “Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars. Let me order pizza for friends on Jupiter and Mars.”

Eh. I'll work on it. Somebody order me a pizza!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Easy, Delicious Roasted Potatoes

I love potatoes. I love them mashed, baked, or fried. Give 'em to me scalloped or au gratin. I love them enrobed in a rich cream sauce or just boiled up, cut up, and served swimming in butter. You can flavor them with herbs, garlic, cheese, or just about anything, or you can simply season them with salt and pepper. What a versatile vegetable! I have dozens of potato recipes in my collection.

Most people don't equate potatoes with Italian cooking. And while it is true that potatoes are not as pervasive in Italian cooking as they are in other European cuisines, they are, nonetheless, quite popular all the way from Sicily to the Alps. A favorite Italian contorno di patate is the simple roasted potato.

Did I mention that I love potatoes? This, of course, includes the simple roasted potato. As a cook, one of the reasons I love this dish so much is precisely because it is so simple. As a potato aficionado, I love this dish for its delicious flavors and interesting textural contrasts.

Now, before I delve into the nuts and bolts of the recipe – and there aren't many to delve into – let's talk briefly about potatoes.

Idahoan Luther Burbank developed the most ubiquitous variety of potato, and it bears his name; the Russet Burbank Potato. Most folks, myself included, just call them “russets.” Some call them “Idahoes,” some just refer to them functionally as baking or all-purpose potatoes, the latter being something of a misnomer because they really aren't good for all purposes. Russets are a high-starch, low-moisture potato. This makes them perfect for baking and mashing and other applications where a light, fluffy texture is desired. They also make great French fries. But they don't hold up as well in long-cooking dishes like soups and stews, where they tend to lose their shapes and fall apart. Used for roasting, they hold up well enough, but become rather dry on the inside and they don't brown particularly well on the outside.

The same is true of medium-starch varieties like the Yukon Gold, the Yellow Finn, or the Kennebec. Lower in starch, these varieties are also considered “all-purpose” potatoes, but suffer the same limitations as their starchier cousins when subjected to boiling, roasting, or similar long-cooking techniques.

Low-starch, high-moisture potatoes are best for dishes that call for boiling or roasting. They hold together well and, in the case of roasting, produce a nice, light crust on the outside while maintaining a solid, dense interior that retains all its rich and complex flavors. Red Bliss, new, white rose, and fingerling potatoes are among the varieties that fall into this category.

As to the recipe – well, I mentioned that I have dozens of potato recipes. Up until recently I had six just for basic roasted potatoes, including one written entirely in Italian. These recipes were all variations on the same theme and all were comprised of the same basic ingredients and techniques, including a parboiling step for the potatoes. Then I discovered a recipe perfected by the “Cook's Illustrated” folks at America's Test Kitchen that absolutely wowed me into discarding all the other recipes. The “wow” factor came in the elimination of the parboiling.

Now, there's nothing wrong with parboiling and if you still want to do it, go right ahead. When the finished product comes out of the oven, it will have the desired soft, dense, moist, flavorful interior. But the test kitchen wizards discovered that covering the potatoes with foil for a portion of their roasting time causes them to steam in their own moisture, producing the same delicious results but eliminating one time-consuming step.

So here's my new favorite roasted potato recipe, as found in the pages of “Cook's Illustrated” with a couple of variations on my part. It's so simple, you'll love it, too.

(Patate Arrosto)

2 pounds Red Bliss or other low-starch potatoes, scrubbed, dried, halved, and cut into 3 /4-inch wedges. (Unless the potatoes are very small, in which case you should just halve them.)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Pinch of dried thyme, to taste

Place the oven rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 425°.

Add the olive oil to a medium to large bowl, add the potatoes and toss to coat. Generously season with salt, pepper, and thyme and toss again to blend.

Place the potatoes, cut sides down, in a single layer on a shallow roasting pan. Cover tightly with foil and bake for about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to roast until the sides touching the pan are golden brown, about 10 or 15 minutes more. Gently turn the potatoes so the other cut side is touching the pan and roast another 5 or 10 minutes, or until the cut sides are golden brown and the skin side is lightly wrinkled. (If you are using small halves instead of wedges, just turn them cut side up for the final 5 or 10 minutes.)

Transfer to a serving dish and serve hot or warm.

Serves 4

A nice variation from “Cook's” calls for making a paste from two minced garlic cloves and an eighth-teaspoon of salt, putting the paste in a bowl and tossing the finished potatoes in it before serving.

Another variation involves cooking up and crumbling some bacon, adding some of the bacon drippings to the roasting pan before layering in the potatoes, and then toppping the potatoes with the crumbled bacon, some crushed or finely-minced garlic, some finely shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano and a little parsley for the final 10 minutes of cooking. It makes for a nice dish with an interesting flavor profile, but it's a little more complicated. And the bacon, garlic, and cheese flavors may not “go” with everything.

Buon appetito!