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!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

August (2012) Fun Food Holidays

Considering the lofty personage for whom it is named, August is really a dull month. There are no holidays to relieve the monotony of the procession of thirty-one long, languid, sultry, steamy days. But we can find a little relief in the celebration of food.

To begin with, August is Panini Month, a fact which moves it right to the top of my list. It is also Sandwich Month. Yes, I know that “panini” and “sandwich” are the same thing, but perhaps whomever designates such things does not speak Italian. Sidebar: a single sandwich is a panino; two or more are panini; anytime you see “paninis” advertised, you're looking at bad Italian. Anyway, August is also Catfish Month, Brownies for Brunch Month, and Peach Month. And the second week of August is designated as National Apple Week. See, things are looking less dull already.

The month starts with National Raspberry Cream Pie Day on the 1st and segues quickly to National Ice Cream Sandwich Day on the 2nd, a pretty good way to start a month if you ask me.

Grab Some Nuts Day (careful, there!) happens on the 3rd, a day shared with National Watermelon Day.

I'd swear we celebrated lasagna already this year, but who cares? Celebrate some more on August 4. And, by the way, National Mustard Day is a floating holiday that occurs on the first Saturday of August. That means it floats to the 4th this year.

Waffles and oysters both get a day on August 5. Hmm, Oyster Waffles.....there's one Waffle House hasn't come up with yet.

August 6, is Root Beer Float Day and the 7th is dedicated to raspberries in cream.

Zucchini and frozen custard Day share a day – but not a dish – on the 8th, followed by National Rice Pudding Day on the 9th.

August 10 is a double treat day, feting both Banana Splits and S'Mores. Woo-hoo!

What is it with raspberries this month? National Raspberry Tart day is August 11.

Find a fast food joint on the 12th and pig out in recognition of Julienne Fries Day. Then have your steak and eat it, too, on Filet Mignon Day on the 13th. Why those two aren't celebrated together, I don't know.

The Creamsicle gets its day on August 14, and I'm already salivating in anticipation of Lemon Meringue Pie Day on August 15.

And here's another weird combo: August 16 is Bratwurst Day. It's also National Rum Day. Now, whoever heard of rum and brats? Shouldn't the beer industry protest?

Grab some vanilla custard to celebrate the 17th, or wait until the next day and make it ice cream in honor of National Soft Serve Ice Cream Day.

The lowly potato is recognized on August 19, which is also Hot & Spicy Food Day. A hot & spicy potato, perhaps?

Cool down all that heat & spiciness on August 20, Lemonade Day. Although I think any day in August could be Lemonade Day. The 20th is also National Chocolate Pecan Pie Day, so have a slice with your lemonade.

And if you're still in the mood for pecans, take note: August 21 is National Pecan Torte Day.

The 22nd is Eat a Peach Day, so please do so. And/or you can drop by your neighborhood Italian place and celebrate National Spumoni Day. Or both. Why not?

Have some sponge cake on the 23rd and some peach pie on the 24th.

For you cherry aficionados, grab a cherry popsicle on Cherry Popsicle Day (August 26) and/or scarf down a cherry turnover on its designated day of August 28. Banana lovers get their day sandwiched in between on August 27.

Chop Suey, the “classic” Chinese dish that does not exist in China, has a day on the 29th. So does lemon juice. Not the whole lemon, mind you; just the juice.

August 30 is National Toasted Marshmallow Day. By then, if you just slide one onto a stick and hold it out in the sun for a few minutes, that should do it.

Round out the month by eating outside in honor of – you guessed it – Eat Outside Day on August 31. If the weather is as miserably hot as I suspect it will be, I'll make it a late evening meal, thank you. Oh, and it's also National Trail Mix Day, so eat some trail mix – outside, of course.

È Solo caldo come pensate che sia! :-)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Australian Chef Sticks It To Urbanspoon "Reviewer"

I have written before of my mistrust of and general disdain for online restaurant “review” sites. This July 31, 2012 gleaning from John Lethlean of The Australian points up yet another example of why I feel this way:

“Dissatisfaction with customer reviews posted on Urbanspoon is rife among Australian hospitality people, but one Brisbane operator has found, as he puts it, 'two can play that game'.

Luke Stringer, of Hamptons Home Living, was incensed by the review posted by a customer on Urbanspoon after a discussion between the pair had failed to satisfy either party, and Stringer had decided not to charge for the meal. Stringer is a past winner of service awards in elite Melbourne restaurants and well known to First Bite as a measured, professional operator; but he felt under the circumstances the review expressed 'unwarranted remarks'. So he sleuthed the customer's name and place of work and, at the company's Google Place Page, having signed in (to Google), left a review of his own.

'I have not used (company XXXX) but a member of their staff, XXX XXX, dined at our establishment yesterday. After complaining about a meal he had consumed in its entirety, he continued to show his general lack of manners even after not being charged for his meal. He then went on to post a nasty review on Urbanspoon. If that is how this person behaves in public, I can't imagine what he is like as a professional.' Stringer rang the customer to inform him of his own review. Result: down came the Urbanspoon posting, fast. The Empire strikes back.”

Running a restaurant in not an easy way to make a living. It's so much more than just setting out a few tables, printing up a menu, and firing up the stove. Besides being a cook you've got to be an accountant, a business manager, a personnel manager, a marketing wizard, a financial planner, a maintenance engineer, a design expert, and sometimes a bit of a magician. You've got to keep up with ever-changing tastes and trends. And you're responsible for the livelihoods of your entire staff.

And then along comes some idiot with access to a computer. Maybe he's having a bad day at work. Maybe she's just had a fight with her boyfriend. Maybe the kids are driving them nuts, or the in-laws are visiting. Maybe she's a drama queen who loves to stir things up. Maybe he considers himself to be the ultimate connoisseur or gourmand even though IHOP is the closest he's ever come to fine dining.

Or it could be more nefarious. There are increasing incidents of unscrupulous people trying to blackmail restaurant owners by threatening bad “reviews” on social media if the owner doesn't pony up a free meal or some other form of pay off.

Whatever reason the “reviewer” might have, a negative, nasty, scathing comment hits the Internet for the whole world to see. And because these sites proclaim themselves to be the voices of “the people,” undiscerning readers, often incapable of critical thought, take them at face value. As a result, a business that may already be on the edge fails. The owner's money is lost and the employees are out of work. All because some jerk didn't think the waitress filled his water glass quickly enough.

So kudos to Luke Stringer. The restaurant world needs more like him. And don't wait for an owner to stand up and defend himself. If you see some Yelper or Urbanspooner trashing your favorite place, fight back. I've done it.

A woman with an ugly motive posted some trash on one of the “review” sites about a little family-run Italian place I happen to like. She joined the site the same day she posted the so-called “review,” having written nothing before and nothing since. This leads me to believe she had a malicious ax to grind. She made no specific allegations, she just said unequivocally that the food was “overpriced box mixes” and enjoined potential patrons to not waste their money. Having been in this restaurant's kitchen and having personal knowledge that the only boxes in there were the ones containing fresh food, I called this pazza idiota out on the very same site. And I wish more people would do the same. It might help keep these sites a little more honest.

So if you see something on one of these supposedly egalitarian sites that you know to be untrue or suspect to be less than altruistically motivated, speak up about it. Write a review of the “review.” And bring it to the attention of the owner or manager. If there's anything to it, they can address it. If not, many of the “review” sites offer options for rebuttal by ownership or management.

With the Internet and social media in increasing control of our daily lives – and with apologies to Zack de la Rocha and his bandmates – sometimes you've just got to rage against the machine.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Proper Use of a Mandoline in Your Kitchen

I watched the season premiere of Top Chef Masters the other night and cringed as Chef Missy Robbins took off a big piece of her little finger while slicing zucchini on a mandoline. And we're not talking about a “hey, somebody get me a Band-Aid” injury. The poor woman is going to need a skin graft to repair the damage. Ouch!

According to Chef Hugh Acheson, “Mandolines are the takers of more skin in kitchens than any other device, knives included.” But they don't have to be.

Mandolines can be used safely in both the professional and home kitchens. Problems develop when people get in a hurry and bypass the safeguards. Or when they just get a little cocky and arrogant: “Hand guard? I'm a chef! I don't need no stinkin' hand guard!” Okay, fine. And I don't need no stinkin' fingertip in my salad.

On the chance that a reader or two might be picturing a musical instrument commonly employed by bluegrass performers and asking, “How can you get cut up on one of those?”, let me give a quick explanation of a mandoline. The rest of you can skip to the following paragraph.

A mandoline – sometimes spelled without the “e” – is a kitchen tool designed to quickly and uniformly slice a variety of foods. The device has been around for centuries and the name supposedly derives from the manner in which a cook “plays” the tool in the same rapid up-and-down manner as a musician plays his instrument. Mandolines are very popular in high-volume professional kitchens because you can turn, say, a potato into a pile of perfect, thinly sliced potato chips in a matter of about ten seconds as opposed to trying to uniformly produce the same results with a knife over the course of a minute or more. And you can use a mandoline to make julienne cuts – a tremendous time saver. There are a couple of design varieties. You can get a flat mandoline that only does one cut. You can obtain a platform mandoline that has interchangeable blades for different cuts. Or you can do as most pros do and use an adjustable mandoline that allows you to switch from thick cuts to thin cuts to julienne cuts all at the turn of a knob.

Whichever mandoline you select, you should be keenly aware that any and all of the blades are razor sharp. Any and all of the blades will make short work of hard vegetables like potatoes and carrots and zucchini. Those same ultra-sharp, ultra-efficient blades will make even shorter work of your soft, fleshy fingers. Just ask Missy.

Fortunately, most mandolines come equipped with a hand guard. This essential piece of equipment is usually designed to be as wide or slightly wider than the platform of the slicer. It has little spikes on the underside that firmly hold the food item in place and a wide protective edge on top that absolutely prevents your fingers from ever coming anywhere near the cutting blade. Unfortunately, many people – especially “experienced” cooks and chefs – have great disdain for this safety feature. It somehow makes them look or feel less “cheffy.” So they ignore it and wind up joining Missy Robbins in the local emergency room.

And before you ask, yes, I am somewhat guilty of this behavior myself. But only to a point. I may make the first few cuts barehanded with my fingers curled securely and “claw”-like around the potato or whatever, but I promise you, the closer my hand gets to that blade as the food item pares down, the quicker I am to pick up the guard to finish the job. I am knocking furiously on my wooden desk as I tell you I have never gotten cut on a mandoline. And after seeing Missy almost lose a finger, I can assure you that I will from now on be giving that guard a close second look even for the first cuts.

If you have somehow acquired a mandoline that does not have a guard, my first piece of advice is to not use it. But if you're going to be stubborn about it, you must use good technique when slicing barehanded. If you are cutting rounds, hold the food item much as you would if using a knife. That is to say you should grip the piece at the top and keep your fingers curled under – the “claw” method. And don't be tempted to get that very last slice out of the potato or carrot or whatever. Go ahead and waste an inch or two. Those last couple of slices are the ones that will most likely take your fingertips with them. Same thing applies if you are making long slices. Flatten your hand and keep you fingers raised up as high as possible as you bear down with the heel of your palm. Again, quit while you still have an intact palm.

But, you know, even good techniques sometimes fail and those admittedly cumbersome hand guards can slip. That's why the kitchen gods invented Kevlar. You have to be trying to cut yourself while wearing a Kevlar glove. Kevlar gloves – sometimes referred to as “cut-proof” or “cut-resistant” gloves – are available online, at retailers like Sur Le Table and Bed, Bath & Beyond, at restaurant supply stores, and at most culinary or cooking shops. They are a little pricey – the cheapest I've found locally costs between $15 and $20 for a single glove. And use your common sense – you only need one. Wearing a pair of cut-proof gloves looks silly and exhibits an extreme lack of self-confidence. But weigh the cost between a $20 glove and a trip to the hospital for surgery that includes skin grafts and months of recovery. “Ding, ding, ding! The winner by a knockout – the glove!”

Mandolines themselves are pretty inexpensive; mine ran me about $30. I've seen them as low as $20 and as high as $Ridiculou$. You don't need a hundred-dollar mandoline. You just don't. I saw a “deluxe dicing mandoline” online for $250. What, does it play Italian operas as you use it? C'mon.

But whether you opt for cheap, mid-price, or expensive, use a mandoline properly and safely. Employ good technique, religiously use the guard, and maybe slip on a glove for good measure. You may not look cool or “chef-like,” but nobody will be calling you “Stubby-Fingers” either.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Recipe: Three-Cheese Mini Macaroni and Cheese Bites

Recipe: Three-Cheese Mini Macaroni and Cheese Bites

I got a call from my wife at her office the other day. She had just been informed of a “bring a dish” birthday party set for the following day. This is not quite as bad as when your kid tells you, “I need three dozen cupcakes for school tomorrow” as you're tucking him in for the night, but it's close.

I consulted my collezione di ricette and came up with a solution that was simple and delicious: Three-Cheese Mini Macaroni and Cheese Bites. Of course, one of the cheeses had to be Italian or nobody would have believed the dish was mine. And it had to have an Italian name for the same reason.

The whole works didn't take me much more than an hour to prep and cook. I sent it in a small hotel pan, dividing the layers with waxed paper. My wife informed me that the first layer was gone almost as soon as she removed the cover and the rest didn't last much longer. If you need something quick, easy, tasty, and kind of fun for your next party or food holiday, this dish should be near the top of your list.

(Three-Cheese Mini Macaroni and Cheese Bites)

1/2 pound elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for brushing
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup milk
4 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded (1 packed cup)
4 ounces deli-sliced American cheese, chopped *
1 large egg yolk
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 425°. Cook the macaroni in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until not quite al dente, about 5 or 6 minutes. Drain.

Brush 2 (24-cup) nonstick mini muffin tins with butter. (Or use butter-flavored cooking spray.) Sprinkle lightly with the grated Parmigiano.

In a large saucepan, working over medium heat, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter. Whisk in the flour and cook for about 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cook, whisking, until just boiling, about 5 minutes. Add the cheddar and American cheeses and whisk until melted. Off the heat, whisk in the egg yolk and nutmeg. Fold in the macaroni. (The recipe can be prepared to this point and refrigerated overnight.)

Spoon slightly rounded tablespoons of the macaroni and cheese mixture into the prepared muffin cups, packing them gently. Sprinkle the remaining Parmigiano on top.

Bake in the upper third of the oven for about 10 minutes, until golden and sizzling. Let cool for 5 minutes. Using a small spoon or offset spatula, carefully loosen, transfer to a platter and serve.

Yields 48

*As much as I hate to admit this, Velveeta works quite well as a substitute for the deli sliced American cheese