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!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Traditional Good Luck Food for the New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buon appetito e Buon Capo d'Anno!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Debunking the Marco Polo Myth

Raining on the Venetian Explorer's Pasta Parade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Macaroni Journal article is so patently ridiculous, it's hard to believe it was ever taken seriously. I mean, a Polo expedition sailor named Spaghetti saw a Chinese girl making noodles and the rest is history? Come on! Here's a link to the original article. See for yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think I'll go take my medication now.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Must see TV?” We'll see.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December Fun Food Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mangia bene e buone feste!