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!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Margarine Is Still Illegal -- And Nobody Cares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 3, 2011

Proper Care of Kitchen Knives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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