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, February 22, 2012

Revisting ABC's "The Chew"

The Network's Daytime Food Fest Is Losing Its Flavor

ABC's daytime foodie show is getting to be like a piece of gum; you chew it and chew it and then spit it out after the flavor's gone.

When I originally commented on The Chew a day or two after its inaugural episode, I was on the fence. The format was new, the cast needed time to gel, and I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. My patience was rewarded. Things seemed to come together very quickly after those first few halting baby steps and the program took off running. Everybody figured out their place and got comfortable with the format and the show got really good.

And I'm not the only one who thought so. According to a January 20 posting at's TV by the Numbers, The Chew put up impressive ratings, boasting its best week ever among women 18 to 49 and its second best week in total viewers.

But, OMG!, have the wheels started coming off in the last few weeks!

You know, ABC is the network that originated the phrase “jumping the shark,” and I think The Chew has made the jump.

First of all, I still don't care for Clinton Kelly's hosting style. He frequently borders on smarmy and often projects an attitude that screams, “I'm in this for the paycheck.” And I still think Daphne Oz is a lightweight who was chosen for her telegenic looks and her bankable last name. Watch closely; nobody on the set takes her seriously, so how are we, the average viewers, supposed to do so? She's everybody's little sister and when she says something that's supposed to be authoritative, you just naturally want to go ask mom or dad if she's right.

As a chef, Carla Hall is okay, but with her constant jumpin' and jivin' all over the set, maybe ABC should tap her for the next season of Dancing With The Stars. C'mon, Carla. More food, less mugging and dance moves. Iron Chef Michael Symon – he of the increasingly annoying giggle – is rapidly devolving into an Aluminum Foil Chef because of all the ridiculous antics he's being subjected to. And Mario Batali, the guy for whom I really tuned in in the first place, must have a really sweet contract. He's gone more than he's there.

After the things the producers have foisted off on the cast and forced on the viewers of late, I can't say as I blame him. I'd disappear, too.

The train began to rock on the tracks with the recent “decades week.” Michael Symon in Mickey Mouse ears. Michael Symon in “Mr. Spock” ears and wig. Okay, cute setup. But why not let the poor guy change into something normal during the first break. It's hard to be credible when cooking in mouse ears or a Vulcan haircut. Not that Michael was alone in his humiliation. The producers stuck Mouseketeer outfits and Star Trek costumes on everybody. Everybody except Mario – he endured some accessories but apparently drew the line at being made to look completely silly. During the “'60s” gig, Clinton's bad Shatner and the whole crew being forced to jump around on the set while the camera tilted and jiggled in a hokey simulation of a Klingon attack caused me to hit the “off” button on the remote. It was obvious to me that there was nothing to see that day that remotely involved food.

And then came Presidents Day. Oh, please! The images of Clinton Kelly prancing around as George Washington while Michael Symon sported a godawful Harry Truman hairpiece and glasses were almost enough to make me nauseous. And what was with Carla Hall? Personally, I always think of Phyllis Wheatley on Presidents Day, and the producers apparently do, as well. Why else would they slap a mob cap on Carla for the day? Mario, in bifocals and stock, was supposed to be channeling Benjamin Franklin but, frankly, he appeared to be less than enthused by the whole thing when he made his entrance. And when they brought Daphne Oz out dressed as Abraham Lincoln! …...well........what else is there to say?

You know, Washington's home at Mt. Vernon opened a new exhibition called “Hoecakes and Hospitality” that very day. The exhibit focuses on the landmark's kitchen and features artifacts owned by the President and used in colonial times. You want to do something with George Washington? Rather than putting Kelly in a costume, that would have been a worthwhile tie-in. Okay, so they sent somebody to the White House for a kitchen tour and they gave us the lowdown on some presidential favorite foods, but the rest was just embarrassing to watch. So I didn't.

And that's a habit I may acquire permanently if The Chew doesn't resume cooking and stop schticking. The only thing ABC hasn't done yet is to have Michael Symon don a leather jacket and water skis and jump over a fake shark. Oh, wait – they did something like that once. Hey, maybe there's a guest-shot opportunity for Henry Winkler.

Keep ramping up the silliness and dumbing down the culinary content and the “Happy Days” will be over for The Chew, too.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why the Paula Deen Flap Won't Go Away

Clarifying Thoughts on “The Butter Queen”

A couple of weeks ago, I, along with a cadre of journalists, bloggers, commentators, and just about everybody else, weighed in on the issue of Paula Deen's delayed announcement of her diabetes. So I'm not going to rehash the basic issue now. What I am going to attempt is to rebut the blindly faithful among her fans who don't seem to grasp the obvious reasons behind the outrage.

Let's start with one point I've seen frequently expressed by her defenders; “Everybody's picking on poor Paula because she has diabetes.” No. Nobody's picking on Paula because she has diabetes. That she has developed the disease is truly sad and I think I can speak for the majority when I say that we all fervently hope she does well in controlling and/or overcoming it.

The outrage comes from the way in which her diabetes was disclosed. Whatever her personal motivations might have been, sitting on the diagnosis – keeping it from her audience and from her principal employer – for three years and only coming out about it after she had secured a lucrative deal with a drug company was a move that was perceived as dishonest at worst and stupid at best.

But it's her personal life and she shouldn't have to tell everybody about her personal life.” Oh, come on, people! Paula lives to tell everybody about her personal life. I've seen her discuss everything from her adult diapers to her husband's feet to a family suicide at her live shows. And besides, any person with as big a following as Paula Deen shouldn't have unrealistic expectations about a personal life. I don't think Gordon Ramsay's alleged extra-marital affair or his legal battle with his father-in-law have any bearing on his abilties in the kitchen, but the media trots these things out there for public consumption nonetheless. Where's the “poor Gordon” choir?

I read one beknighted devotee who proclaimed, “I don't know what all the fuss is about. Diabetes doesn't come from eating. It's genetic.” Do I really have to address that one? I didn't think so. But people like that are out there.

My favorite chorus is the one that goes, “I don't know why everybody's down on Paula for using butter. You see other TV chefs use butter in everything and nobody complains about them.” Damn right other chefs use butter. But there's a difference between using it and abusing it.

Personally, I think margarine is France's way of sticking it to the rest of Western culture in order to maintain its veneer of culinary superiority. That French chemist didn't invent the stuff back in 1869 to feed an army, he invented it so the French could say – in a bad Maurice Chevalier accent, – “Let's feed zees disgusting crap to zee Americains. Zey will eat anything zey theenk is French and we will use butter to remain superior in zee kitchen.”

Seriously, butter is a naturally produced saturated fat and, yeah, enough of it will probably kill you. Margarine and shortening are chemically produced hydrogenated fats – trans fats – that will kill you quicker and won't taste as good doing it. So pick your poison. Professional chefs use butter not only because of the taste factor, but because there are things you just can't do with margarine. Ever try a margarine beurre blanc?

So, yeah, Deen-ites, Paula's not the only TV chef who uses butter. But she's the only one who deep fries it! And she's made a career out of laughing at her own excesses.

And that's one of the things that most egregiously offends me – and others, especially diabetics; her unrepentent attitude. Numerous sources have quoted her as saying her diagnosis won't change the way she cooks.

I'm all for dancin' with the one what brung ya, but if that dance partner subsequently breaks a leg, you've either got to quit dancin' or find a new partner. Paula needs to do one or the other.

Paula's disappointed, I read, that none of her celebrity chef peers have rushed to her defense. Michael Symon sort of did on a recent episode of ABC's The Chew, but could it be that the predominant silence reflects a general belief that she is wrong?

Fandom is a funny thing. The term “fan,” of course, is short for “fanatic” – which the dictionary defines as “a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal.” And people with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal for Paula Deen will never consider that the object of their affection could be anything less than they have built her up to be. And they will similarly never understand people who are not possesed of the same extreme and uncritical enthusiasm.

Paula's sick. I'm sorry. Paula's sick, but she's not going to change her ways. I'm sorry and disappointed. Paula's sick and she's not going to change her ways and, against the advice of her family and her longtime publicist, she's going to make a pile of money promoting a drug that treats the condition to which her chosen lifestyle contributes and which, by the way, almost nobody in her fan base can afford. I'm sorry, disappointed, and outraged.

Loyal subjects, it's time for a look at the woman behind the curtain.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

McDonald's Says "Bye-Bye" to "Pink Slime" Burgers

Well, there's good news and bad news today from the world's largest fast-food purveyor.

The good news? McDonald's admits that it has stopped using a substance colloquially known as “pink slime” in its burgers. The bad news? McDonald's admits that it has stopped using a substance colloquially known as “pink slime” in its burgers. This after how many billions have been sold?

Pink slime” is a term coined by people who actually care about what they eat. It refers to beef trimmings and other leftovers from the butchering process that would normally be unfit for human consumption and relegated to dog food. But a number of big beef processing companies have discovered that dousing said scrap with ammonium hydroxide will kill off bacterial baddies like e-coli and salmonella, therby rendering the renderings “safe” for use in people food. Ah, the wonders of chemistry!

It's a cheap and easy process; you take the trimmings and run them through a centrifuge to separate the fats and solids. Then you force the solids through a little tube, where they are “gassed” with an ammonia compound. This changes the product's pH and ostensibly kills the bugs – at least the ones that haven't developed an immunity to the process. The resultant pink, slimy substance is then sold to the processors who produce cheap beef for cheap burgers. If it makes you feel any better, “pink slime” doesn't usually make up any more than twenty-five percent of the processed meat you're eating.

I saw Jamie Oliver discuss and demonstrate “pink slime” on one of his Food Revolution shows last year. I was disgusted. Apparently a lot of other people were, too, because the two biggest burger joints – McDonald's and Burger King – as well as Taco Bell and others have since announced the elimination of the substance in their product lines. Never mind that it was in there in the first place.

Oh, the USDA says it's “safe.” Of course, that's not really much of an endorsement anymore, now is it? Anybody with sufficient clout and a big enough bank account can get the USDA to approve just about anything. That's why the manufacturers of “pink slime” aren't too worried by the big burger chains' defection – they've got lots of other customers. Think about that the next time you visit your supermarket's meat department and buy one of those big rolls of prepackaged “ground beef” all nicely wrapped up in opaque plastic and sold at such “bargain” prices.

As a kid, I remember wondering why my grandmother cranked her arm off with that cast-iron antique she clamped onto the edge of the kitchen counter whenever she wanted to make hamburgers, meat loaf, meatballs, or anything with ground meat in it. I mean, Grandma, get real! Join the 20th century! They sell that stuff at the grocery store already ground up. Fifty years later, I say “thanks for the inspiration, Grandma” as I crank up the grinder attachment on my KitchenAid. When ground meat hits the plate at my place, I know what's in it – and “pink slime” is not a component. On top of that, my guests always marvel at the great flavor and texture. Isn't it amazing how smart our old-fashioned, low-tech, out-of-touch grannies were?

I doubt that back in 1955 Ray Kroc made his original burgers out of meat containing twenty-five percent “pink slime.” In a day and age where so many established institutions have chosen to sacrifice the standards of quality set forth by their founders in favor of cheap production and fast profits – KFC and Walmart, are you listening? – maybe the recent move by McDonald's is a teeny, tiny baby step in the right direction. We can only hope.

In the meantime, if you want a really good burger, find a butcher you can trust or buy your own meat and grind it at home. It's not fast, it's not convenient, and it's not cheap. But you don't have to worry about serving your family a burger that's twenty-five percent dog food, either.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

February (2012) Fun Food Holidays

It's February. In Roman times, February, named for the Latin word for purification, was the last month of the calendar year. It's a month for Valentines and for celebrating George Washington's birthday, so naturally there'll be chocolate and cherries involved. But there's more.

2012 being a leap year, February get its extra day this year, but it's still the shortest month on the calendar. So how come so much gets crammed into it?

February is – deep breath – National Fondue Month, National Grapefruit Month, National Snack Food Month, National Hot Breakfast Month, National Canned Food Month, Potato Lover's Month, Sweet Potato Month, and Great American Pies Month. Of course, it's also National Cherry Month and Celebration of Chocolate Month.

The weeks are crowded with dedications to pancakes, pizza, pickles, and frankfurters and kraut.

And the busy individual food days march on through National Baked Alaska Day on February 1. The second is set aside for Heavenly Hash. Stand up for carrott cake on February 3 and sit down to a bowl of homemade soup on the 4th, which is also Stuffed Mushroom Day.

Start the first full week of the month with a celebration of chocolate fondue on the 5th, also World Nutella Day in honor of that creamy, delicious chocolate and hazelnut substance that is the Italian equivalent of peanut butter.

Another Italian dish gets a nod on February 7, National Fettuccine Alfredo Day.

Belly up to the molasses bar for Molasses Bar Day on February 8.

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's February 9, National Pizza Pie Day, curiously a day also shared with bagels and lox.

Cream cheese brownies get a day of their own on February 10, followed by Peppermint Patty Day on the 11th, a day in which we also recognize the old maxim “Don't Cry Over Spilled Milk.” And, no, that doesn't have anything to do with the Great Chicago Fire; that was in October. So don't ask me why we bring up spilled milk in February.

Two dishes that I often associate with one another, plum pudding and tortellini, have back-to-back days on the 12th and 13th.

Of course, February 14 has to be National Creme-Filled Chocolates Day.

The 15th is pretty sweet, too; National Gumdrop Day.

Give almonds their due on February 16 and then dish up some Indian pudding with which to celebrate on February 17.

How 'bout some crab-stuffed flounder on February 18th, a day on which you are also encouraged to drink wine? Seriously. It's Drink Wine Day. Who knew?

Eat chocolate mint and cherry pie on the 19th and 20th, respectively, although why you would celebrate cherry pie two days before Washington's birthday, I don't know. In fact, you're supposed to down a few margaritas to mark National Margarita Day on February 22, Sticky buns get stuck in between cherry pies and margaritas on the 21st.

Banana bread gets a day on the 23rd of February, a date which also proves that every dog biscuit gets its day. Yep. Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day falls on February 23.

Tortilla Chip Day hits the calendar on the 24th. Save some to have with the clam chowder that's feted on the following day. Ewwww!

Break out the goobers and dip 'em in chocolate fountain for National Chocolate-Covered Nuts Day.

Pistachios and strawberries, both of which are also pretty good when covered with chocolate, have their days on the 26th and 27th, the latter day also dedicated to Kahlua, similarly not too shabby with chocolate.

Normally, the month would close out with a nod to chocolate souffle on February 28, but it is Leap Year, after all, so consume some surf and turf on its officially recognized day, February 29.

Ciao for now!