The View from My Kitchen

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

You can help by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. Every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Friday, June 29, 2012

World's Largest Lasagne Made In Poland

On the heels of the news that a Japanese chef won Italy's first World Pasta Championship comes word of the world's largest lasagne being turned out in Poland. Further support, I suppose, for the title of John F. Mariani's latest book, How Italian Food Conquered the World.

As Cesare Prandelli and the Italian soccer team settled into quarters in Krakow in advance of the 2012 European Soccer Championship quarter-finals, a nearby Italian restaurant – yes, I did say a nearby Italian restaurant in Krakow – decided to honor the players by putting together a little lunch. Ten hours later, the 15,432-pound lasagne was ready to be cut into ten-thousand pieces and served.

Of course, Trattoria Giancarlo's executive chef, Giancarlo Russo, wasn't sure the players' training diet would allow them to enjoy any of his creation, but he expressed the hope that “they can try just a little bit.”

The Guinness folks awarded the restaurant a world record for cooking the largest lasagne.

No word on how leftovers will be dealt with, but everybody knows lasagne is better the next day.

Italy's First World Pasta Championship

And the Winner Is......Japanese?

Recently, twenty-six Italian chefs from restaurants all over the world converged on the iconic Italian city of Parma to participate in Italy's first World Pasta Championship.

Overseen by Parma's own Academia Barilla, the event was organized to celebrate the evolution of Italian cuisine in places outside of Italy. An Italian jury was charged with the duty of evaluating how well the foreign chefs interpreted the basic concepts of Italian dishes.

While Chef Boyardee's Spaghetti-Os with Meatballs was noticeably absent from the competition, a Canadian chef prepared a Toronto favorite, strozzapreti alla romagnola in camicia di Prosciutto di Parma. In case you're curious, these would be Romagna-style priest stranglers wrapped in Parma ham. I don't think they're on the menu at Olive Garden.

A Parisian chef concocted a dish of spaghetti with poached quail eggs and prosciutto, kind of an upscale carbonara.

A competitor from Sao Paulo, Brazil created an open ravioli made from sliced pumpkin and filled with a pasta risotto flavored with sausage, tomato and zucchini.

The judging panel consisted of a group of culinary professionals augmented by a number of judges drawn by lottery from the general audience. The competitors had to prepare three plates of their dishes; one “beauty” plate for photography, and one each for the pros and the “polpolane.” (Those are the “regular folks.”)

Academia Barilla head Gianluigi Zenti said judging was based on how al dente the pasta was as well as on its appearance and taste. The most important criterion, however, was how Italian the dish was. “We have a bonus for Italianity,” said Zenti, probably creating a new word.

In the end, it was a preparation of bavette allo scoglio, a “baby bib” pasta with seafood, that won the approval of the judges. The winning dish was created by Japanese chef Yoshi Yamada of London's Tempo Restaurant and Bar. While fairly obviously not of native Italian stock, Tokyo-born Yamada trained extensively in Naples and playfully considers himself to be a “Japoletano,” creating still another new word.

So what causes a good Japanese boy to eschew his roots in rice and miso soup in favor of pasta? The Italian culture, he proclaims. “I just simply love it. The culture, the lifestyle, the people. Not only the food, but the very slow style. Slow life. Slow food."

I would quickly agree with you, Signor Yamada. And congratulations.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Food Network's "Health Inspectors"

I think I finally understand Food Network's agenda and it is a fiendishly clever one, indeed. They air a lot of programs about home cooking, right? And they have their own cooking magazine, right? And their own line of cookware? So here's the deal; in order to make sure everybody stops patronizing restaurants and starts cooking at home, Food Network gives us shows like Restaurant: Impossible and its latest offering, Health Inspectors. Watch these shows and you will never want to eat in a restaurant again.

In the inaugural episode of Health Inspectors, restaurant consultant Ben Vaughn visits “Big Momma's Chicken & Waffles” in New Orleans. The owner, Earl, says he knows he's got problems but he doesn't know why or how to deal with them. Let me give you a clue, Earl. Two words; “You're fired.”

Anyway, in a gentle slap at chefs Gordon Ramsay and Robert Irvine, Vaughn assures Earl that he is not going to remodel the dining room or revamp the decor. He's there to make sure the kitchen is clean. Period. And, boy, does he have his work cut out for him.

When he tries to figure out who is responsible for what, Ben is met with a stereotypical scenario that involves two women arguing loudly and shrilly with one another over their respective duties. Then we move back to the kitchen where the clueless manager is surprised to find that the filthy fryer and the dirty standard home refrigerator can actually be moved. He didn't know that. That's why the grease and filth were inches deep around the fryer and why the roaches staged a road race when Ben moved the refrigerator away from the wall.

The exhaust vents, cleaned at least once a week in most establishments, probably hadn't been touched since they were installed. Those vents, by the way, collect grease, smoke, and steam from everyday cooking. When enough crud accumulates, it drops back into the food on the stovetop. Something for you home cooks to think about, too.

The inside of the inadequate refrigerator was an inspector's nightmare of improperly stored food.

I won't talk about Ben's discovery of a sink full of chicken soaking in filthy tepid water because of an “emergency” that led to this insane method of thawing.

Then there was the inevitable hair in the food, caused in part by a cook who felt her hair was “too cute” to be put up in a net.

Obviously, this bunch of five-star wannabes knows absolutely nothing about restaurant sanitation and food safety. Of course, if it were me, instead of putting my establishment up for public ridicule on national television, I might have enrolled my employees in a ServSafe course, a training program sponsored by the National Restaurant Association. But then, while that might have cleaned up my restaurant, I wouldn't have gotten any publicity out of it.

Let me tell you something, Earl; when I go to New Orleans, I'm not gonna be looking for the place Food Network came in and cleaned up. Nope. I'm gonna be avoiding the place Food Network had to come in and clean up. See, when my dog gets filthy, I give him a bath. I don't stand around and wonder and whine about how he got that way. Nobody's got to come in and tell me my dog's dirty. I've got sense enough to see him and smell him. And I know where the soap is and the water and the brushes and the towels.

And remember, Earl, you said it yourself. After Ben got finished, your place looked like it did when you first opened. As a compassionate person, I hope that whatever transpired between those two dates doesn't happen again, but as a potential customer, I'm not sure I want to take the chance.

Health Inspectors aired as a “special” on Food Network at 10 PM on Wednesday, June 20. This is network code for a pilot episode that will turn into a regular series if enough people watched it. And I'm sure enough people did. It's the TV equivalent of a train wreck or an auto accident; you know you shouldn't look, but you do anyway. So be looking for another televised train wreck soon.

In the meantime, I think I'll go give my dog another bath.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

What's A Chicken Pitcher?

So I'm about fifteen years old and working as a stock boy at a grocery store. Here I am stacking the canned peas when one of the checkout girls comes running up to me and says, “Quick! I need a price check on a henway.”

“A what?”

“A henway! A henway! I need a price check on a henway!"

“What's a henway?”

“Oh, about four pounds! Ha-ha-ha-ha!"

Fast forward a few decades. Knowing I have a son who lives in Italy, a friend who runs a local Italian restaurant asks me if I can get him some chicken pitchers. So I call my son and ask him to find me some chicken pitchers.

He says, “What's a chicken pitcher?”

If you're asking the same question, maybe the traditional story of the origin of the chicken pitcher will provide the answer. Or not.

Back in the autumn of 1478, the Medici family held the reins of power in the Republic of Florence. Their bitter rivals, the Pazzi family, wanted to change that by eliminating Giuliano de' Medici, the head of the Medici clan.

Even though this was the Renaissance, the feudal system was still around and the Medicis got a lot of their wealth from the labors of their tenant peasants. But it seems Giuliano was a benevolent despot – and a real party animal, who occasionally put on big festivals in the surrounding villages to celebrate good harvests and such. So the Pazzis got somebody to convince Giuliano to throw one of these big parties. The plan was that when the party was over and Giuliano was sleeping it off, the Pazzi's hired assassins would sneak in and kill him.

So there was a big festa. Everybody came, everybody partied, and everybody went to bed to sleep it off. And the assassins came sneaking into the village to do their deed.

I don't know where the Pazzis shopped for assassins, but they got a lousy deal. The clowns they hired made so much noise stomping across the village commons that they woke up the chickens. The chickens, in turn, set up a cackling, squawking frenzy that woke everybody up and spoiled the assassination attempt. The assassins were captured and killed.

So appreciative of the chickens was Giuliano that he had his artisans and craftsmen create ceramic renderings of chickens to use as wine pitchers at another party he threw to celebrate that failed attempt on his life. Then he gave the pitchers to the party-goers to serve as symbols of good fortune and as guardians against evil deeds.

And thus they have served Italian families from that day to this. It is now traditional to give chicken pitchers to family and friends as a way of saying, “Buona fortuna!”

Now, I will be the first to admit that this is very likely an apocryphal tale designed to sell chicken pitchers. You see, in reality the Pazzi Conspiracy, as it was called, was somewhat successful. Pazzi assassins actually killed Giuliano one Sunday morning at High Mass in the Duomo. He was stabbed nineteen times. The attempt was only partially successful because Guiliano's brother, Lorenzo, survived. Although no chickens were aroused in the process, the whole thing played out in front of about ten-thousand people, most of whom kind of liked the Medicis. As a result, the Pazzis found themselves in deep chicken sh.......stuff. One of them was heaved out a window. His naked body was then dragged through the streets and tossed into the Arno River. The rest were pretty much driven out of Italy. And all this occurred in April of 1478, so by autumn of that year the supposedly heroic chickens would have had little to cluck about.

But it's a nice story. One in keeping with the imagination of a people who will also tell you that tortellini was created by a peeping-Tom innkeeper as a tribute to the navel of Venus as seen through a keyhole. (Go look it up.)

Legends aside, the colors and designs on modern chicken pitchers vary greatly according to the whim of the artist. Most of them look pretty much like chickens or roosters, with beaks and combs and wattles. Some have beautifully decorative wings and feathers painted on, while others sport designs based on a theme – like Christmas, for example. They can be short or tall, slender or fat. Some people try to pass off regular old pitchers with painted-on images of poultry as chicken pitchers, but they're not the same. A true chicken pitcher is traditionally shaped like a chicken.

The town of Nove, in the northeastern Italian province of Vicenza in the Veneto region, is famous for its pottery and is often considered the “birthplace” of the chicken pitcher. Some of the finest examples there come from the studios of Marco Pizzato. The Umbrian town of Deruta also produces beautiful ceramic work, including some wonderful chicken pitchers. And, of course, chicken pitchers can be found among collections of world-famous Vietri pottery from Vietri sul Mare, the “City of Ceramics” along Campania's Amalfi Coast.

And you don't have to go to Italy to find chicken pitchers. Priced as low as ten dollars, they live in gift and collectable shops all over the United States as well as on the Web through Ebay and dozens of local distributors. Although some sell for well over a hundred dollars, the median price is around forty bucks. I found one in a little antique store downtown that had “Aviano” painted across the front. They wanted thirty-five dollars for it. Sold!

Now, I was in a little pottery shop the other day. They had a nice display of Vietri pottery, but no chicken pitchers in the Vietri collection. Mostly plates and other dinnerware. But they did have some chicken pitchers in another display......a display of Mexican pottery! Wait a minute! Don't tell me there were messicano chickens involved in Giuliano de'Medici's rescue! No sale! Even if I buy them in America, my chicken pitchers have to have Italian pedigrees.

So if you want to put a little Italian touch on your home d├ęcor, or if you're looking for a unique wedding or housewarming gift for friends or family, try a chicken pitcher. Just beware if they start clucking and squawking in the middle of the night.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Schools Take "Pink Slime" to the Woodshed (Updated)

Well, well. It turns out America's public schools can be educated places after all. In a move that speaks well for the future, American schools overwhelmingly rejected LFTB – or “pink slime” as most prefer to call it – as an ingredient in their school lunch programs. Given a choice – something that was never offered before – school systems in all but three states said they weren't going to feed dog food to their children anymore. The USDA estimates that about 20 million pounds of filler-free beef has been sold to schools while only about a million pounds of the “slimed” product will make its way into school cafeterias. Those cafeterias, by the way, are located in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota. South Dakota, of course, is the home of “slime” producer Beef Products, Inc. (BPI).

Oh, pity poor BPI! We media meanies have distorted the truth and caused them so much damage that they've had to close down plants and lay off 650 people. All those people out of work! All those innocent families devastated by the likes of me and ABC News and Jamie Oliver and Bettina Siegel, the blogger who launched an anti-slime petition that garnered a quarter-million signatures. I'm trying to feel the guilt. I really am. But I'm just not feeling it. Maybe because I think it's just another attempt by BPI and others to emotionalize the issue. Another ring in the circus they've created to try to justify the existence of their product.

The center ring was the one in which they gathered all the clowns.......I mean, governors.......from the beef-producing states and took them on a sanitized tour of their facilities, a tour which culminated in the spectacle of all the guests chowing down on slimeburgers. Of course, when members of the media asked pointed questions or attempted to gain access to company execs not on the approved performance roster, they were given the bum's rush.

And the company's “beefisbeef” website is another masterful piece of obfuscation that doesn't really answer any questions and somehow manages to make you feel guilty for even asking them. “Beef is beef,” say the slime producers. “Sugar is sugar,” say the high fructose corn syrup pushers. Do you see a theme here?

The fact is I really don't care whether or not their product is “safe.” It probably is. People eat cow tongues all the time. Why not grind up the other end of the alimentary canal and make burgers out of it? Years ago, Jay Leno featured a grocery store ad in his “Headlines” segment. Through an unfortunate elimination of the letter “g”, the ad touted the sale of “Black Anus Beef.” Who knows? Maybe it was actually an early advertisement for LFTB.

No, my problem with “pink slime” is that it has been added to our food supply without our knowledge or permission. I don't care how “healthy” it is. I don't care how “natural” it is. I don't care if it's “approved” by the USDA. It wasn't approved by me, dammit, and that's where I take issue. If you're going to grind up the eastern extreme of a westbound steer and slip it into my burger so you can save a few pennies, fine. Wonderful! Just tell me about it so I can decide if I want it on the menu. Is that so difficult? My dogs have been eating LFTB for decades and none of them have dropped dead from it, so it's probably safe. But what gives you the right to serve me an Alpo-burger without telling me about it?

I don't like additives in my food. I don't like high fructose corn syrup, I avoid mono-sodium glutamate, I eschew any of those chemical concoctions that most people can't even pronounce. And I don't want “pink slime.” Period.

After I wrote this, a couple of people took me to task for a lack of objectivity and a lack of research and a lack of understanding, etc. Okay. Read my profile again. "I'm entitled to my opinion -- and so are you." And then read the first sentence of the previous paragraph. "I don't like additives in my food." I'm not particularly trying to be objective. I don't like additives and LFTB is an additive. If they prepackaged LFTB and sold it at the meat counter, then I could decide whether or not I wanted to buy it and mix it in with my ground beef. But they don't. Somebody else makes that decision for me and they do it without informing me. At the risk of being both unobjective and redundant, I don't care if it's safe. I don't want things in my food that I don't put there. In the case of things I can't avoid, I do my best best to limit my exposure. When I can avoid additives, preservatives, and fillers, I do.

You want research? Here you go. Canada does not allow LFTB because it does not allow the use of ammonia in food. Under Chapter 4.3.3 of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency "Manual of Procedures," they do allow FTM (Finely Textured Meat) in the preparation of ground meat or identified as ground meat when:
  • it has a minimum protein content of 14%; and
  • bones emerging from separation equipment must be essentially intact and recognizable to assure that the bones are not being crushed, ground or pulverized; and
  • it complies with the standards set out within Schedule I of the Meat Inspection Regulations, 1990. The term "regular", "medium", "lean" or "extra lean" must be used as appropriate in order to indicate the maximum fat content (i.e. 30%, 23%, 17% or 10% respectively).
LFTB doesn't meet requirements for sale in the UK and the European Union has banned it outright.

Oh, and while we're being objective, here's an objective comment from an editorial in the Sioux City Journal, an objective source if ever I've seen one: "Aided and abetted by a cowardly backtrack by the United States Department of Agriculture in giving schools the option of avoiding LFTB in their cafeterias, this vicious attack has been loudly promulgated by a disenchanted former government worker, a mommy blogger, a handful of duped national media figures and thousands of wannabe activists."

So the USDA is being "cowardly" for offering American citizens a choice?

Just call me a "wannabe activist."

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Just Say No To “Corn Sugar” – The FDA Did

There may yet be hope for a government regulatory agency: the FDA has told the pushers of high fructose corn syrup to take a leap in response to their embarrassingly transparent attempt to gussy up the image of their highly suspect product by giving it an inoffensive new name. Put another way, rather than becoming a silk purse, the sow's ear that is HFCS will remain a sow's ear.

See, people have started putting together the pieces and have begun to realize that our country's obesity problem began at about the same time virtually every food and beverage manufacturer in the United States made the switch from expensive cane or beet sugar to cheap HFCS. Reading the labels of food products from applesauce to Zingers reveals the ubiquitous presence of the artificially produced sweetener.

Yes, I said “artificially produced.” The Corn Refiner's Association has repeatedly chanted the “natural” mantra to convince gullible rubes that their product is no different than sugar. “It comes from wholesome corn. What could be more natural?” Sorry, Charlie. You don't just put ears of corn in a big press and squeeze out the syrup. You've got to process it. The corn actually does go through a machine that crushes it, but then there are numerous additions of enzymes and filtration procedures and separations and mixtures.....there just ain't a lot “natural” about it. At least not when compared to the production of cane sugar, wherein the cane is crushed, the juices are collected, boiled, and dried and the resultant solids are broken down into sugar crystals.

And that's the way the FDA saw it. Aware that their product was coming under increased scrutiny from regulators, researchers, and the general public, the hucksters at the Association did what con artists have done since the beginning of time; they flummoxed and flim-flammed. They obfuscated and obscured. They prevaricated and they paltered. In a blatant attempt to wipe away the treacly tarnish that was rapidly collecting, they decided to label their chemically created garbage as “corn sugar.” Isn't that sweet? And natural, of course. “Sugar is sugar,” says their ad campaign. A campaign that, by the way, was launched against the advice of the FDA in the first place. The Association didn't bother to wait for something as restrictive as approval for their shiny new name. Going with the old adage about obtaining forgiveness being easier than getting permission, they just charged ahead and set up websites and marketing gimmicks using a name that they had been cautioned about using because of that little “approval” technicality.

And now the FDA has pulled the rug out from under them by issuing a resounding “NO!” The agency firmly stated that it defines “sugar” as a solid, dried, and crystallized food product. A syrup does not qualify as a “sugar.” So there you go, Corn Refiners; sugar may indeed be sugar, but your product is not sugar! Naturally – there's that word again – the Association issued a whiny dissent declaring that their petition was rejected on “narrow, technical grounds.” Yeah! Like the TRUTH!

In case you hadn't figured it out, I don't like HFCS, no matter what you call it. I don't like it for two reasons. I don't like it because I don't trust it. There are too many conflicting studies out there about its effects on the human body. Nobody can unequivocally prove that it's bad for you and nobody – other than the people who market it – can unequivocally state that it's good. In such instances I always tend to err on the side of caution.

My primary objection to high fructose corn syrup comes from my palate; I can taste the cheap crap in every blessed thing they dump it in. I can unequivocally tell you that the taste of nearly every American food product has degraded since the late 1960s and early '70s. Soft drinks, juices, canned and bottled sauces, frozen and prepackaged food products, snack foods, candy – you name it. None of it, none of it, tastes as good as it did before before manufacturers started pinching pennies and loading up their products with cheap, artificially produced garbage like high fructose corn syrup. This country's criminally parsimonious producers of food products have so thoroughly and completely dumbed down the palates of an entire generation of consumers that said consumers have no idea what food is supposed to taste like. Additives, preservatives, and cheap dreck like HFCS have destroyed the palates of just about everybody under the age of forty.

I may be a voice crying in the wilderness, but I would gladly pay more for good, natural food that tastes like it did back before the corn cabal got hold of it. I actively search for products that are sugar-sweetened and do not contain HFCS. And, thankfully, there are many more to choose from these days than there were just a few years ago.

Although I personally lean toward the research that condemns HFCS as a health hazard, I'm not saying sugar is any better for you. As a society, we consume incredible amounts of both substances to the overall detriment of our health. But at least foods sweetened with real sugar taste better while they're killing us.

So kudos to the FDA for standing its ground against a well-funded lobby. And bravo to the activist consumers that are driving nails into the coffins of “pink slime,” high fructose corn syrup, and the like. Maybe the combined efforts will lead to future generations that once again enjoy an abundance of good, wholesome food that tastes good.