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!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Absolute Best Bacon

Sinfully Delicious Porky Ambrosia

I just finished reading an article that I couldn't resist. It purports to identify the best bacons known to man. (

When listing the “best” of anything, it is a completely subjective exercise based largely upon personal opinion. And you know how I feel about opinions; everybody is entitled to mine. And in my opinion, the authors here missed the bacon boat by one slab. But all is not lost. Way down in the comments section following the main body of text, somebody got it. Somebody mentioned the absolute best bacon known to man. That would be the thick, rich, unctuous, salty, smoky, sinfully delicious porky ambrosia produced in a little brick smokehouse just outside Madisonville, Tennessee by Allan Benton at Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams.

Now, other than this egregious exclusion, I'm going to give the authors credit for most of their choices. I say “most.” Nueske's definitely belongs up there in the bacon stratosphere, as do any of the choices that contain reference to “applewood” and/or “smoked.” I'll even grant them kudos for selecting Oscar Meyer Center Cut as the best “store bought” bacon money can buy. But in order to be taken seriously here, they've got to lose the duck.

Here's the dictionary definition of bacon: “the back and sides of the hog, salted and dried or smoked, usually sliced thin and fried for food.” Do you see “duck,” “turkey,” “cow,” “chinchilla,” or any other animal presented in that very simple definition? No. Bacon = pig. Period. End of discussion.

So let's go back to the original article, eliminate the duck aberration, and add Benton's bacon to the top of the list. Now we're cookin'!

There's a reason Allan Benton has been called “the Pork Whisperer” and elevated to the station of “Bacon Baron.” There's a reason David Chang at New York's legendary Momofuku, Sean Brock at Charleston's famed McCrady's, John Fleer at Walland, Tennessee's renowned Blackberry Farm and a host of other Michelin-starred chefs from all over seek out Benton's bacon. There's a reason it shows up on the menu in restaurants from Los Angeles to Atlanta. There's a reason John T. Edge featured it in Gourmet, and its been mentioned in Southern Living , Saveur and a host of other national publications. It's the same reason I'll get off I-75 and make a sixty mile round trip detour anytime I'm in East Tennessee. Allan Benton does bacon the way bacon is supposed to be done. The old-fashioned way. The real bacon way. Some might call it “artisan” bacon, and by any definition, Allan Benton is an artisan. But he'll tell you it's just country.

With the exception of refrigeration, there ain't nothin' mechanical or 'lectrical at Benton's. Everything is done by hand; everything from the cutting of the hickory wood for the smokehouse through the processing of the meat itself. And that meat is exceptional, too. Nothing but pasture-raised, heritage-breed pigs, like Berkshire and Duroc, who feed on natural forage like the leaves and acorns and grasses of oak forests. According to Benton, the meat from these pigs contains more intramuscular fat and has a heartier flavor.

We Cure 'Em” says the hand-painted sign out front. And that's just what they do at Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams. Relying on age-old techniques, handed down through generations, the meats at Benton's are slow-cured. He uses a rub made of salt and brown sugar and then smokes the bacon in thick clouds of hickory or applewood smoke. “We smoke the heck out of them for three days,” says Benton.

Back in 2009, Esquire Magazine called Benton's “the world's best bacon.” Now, how are you going to argue with a culinary authority like that?

And here's the best part: you can get four pounds of Benton's Hickory Smoked Country Bacon for $24. Hello? That's six bucks a pound! Compared that to the prices of some of the other bacons on that “top ten” list. It's only a dollar a pound more than the premium store-bought brand. Now, if you order online through it'll be about a month before you get your bacon. They're a little busy, you see. But if you happen to be anywhere within, oh, say a hundred miles of Madisonville, Tennessee – it's just a little ways south of Knoxville – you might just drop in at 2603 Highway 411 and get some direct from the smokehouse. That's the way I do it. Or sometimes I get friends passing through to supply me. Who wants to wait a month for slices of the bacon they probably serve in heaven?

See why I believe the authors of the “ten best” list goofed? Go ahead and try their favorites. And then treat yourself to mine – and Emeril's and Hugh Acheson's and Sean Brock's and........

Try the rest, then buy the best: Benton's Hickory Smoked Country Bacon from Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams. It's so good that if you put it on top of your head, your tongue will slap your brains out trying to get to it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

UPDATE: Gretel Ann Fischer Calls It Quits

Excuse Me While I Dry My Tears

Well, well. From the “Karma is a bitch” department comes word that the most execrable example of poor sportsmanship since Tonya Harding is closing the doors to her business.

Vermont's alleged baker and erstwhile reality TV personality, Gretel Ann Fischer, told her coterie of supporters – both of them – that she was bailing on her bakery. Let the finger pointing begin!

Speaking of the television network behind “The Next Great Baker,” Fischer says, “I can never repair what they did to my reputation.” TLC, you should be ashamed of yourself for the manner in which you “edited” this fine woman's appearances. Why, it's patently obvious that you forced her to plaster
a smug grin on her face as she delivered lines like “"I just knocked out a good percentage of her profits right there," and "Apparently everyone else doesn't realize this is a competition." And you must have been behind her smarmy likeness on Twitter. You know, the one where she's grinning like a pig in slop and holding up a sign that reads, “It's not's culinary 101 – what you learn when you go to culinary school.” Somebody pass me a barf bag.

And shame on you, too, Winooski-ites. "I lost contracts. I lost wedding cakes. I lost a lot of business," wailed the pillar of integrity. Walk-in traffic dropped off and orders were canceled. What's wrong with you people? Who are you to sit in judgment and equate moral standards to business practices? And so what if she did just stick her finger in the community's eye on national television? Is that any reason to stop supporting her?

In her own little world, there's absolutely no reason to believe that Gretel Ann had anything whatsoever to do with her own downfall. It's the economy, stupid. It's competition from other restaurants. It's taxes! Ah-ha! It's Bush's fault! Or Obama's! Or maybe the Pillsbury Doughboy's, I don't know. But it couldn't possibly be hers.

Good ol' Gretel Ann. Always gracious in the face of defeat.

I read a few of the comments that accompanied various online stories about the closing. “Who would have thought that a person's business would be negatively impacted by showing the world that they are dishonest and untrustworthy?” And, “That's the same attitude as a criminal who winds up in jail and then labels himself a 'victim'. I wouldn't want to do business with this lady either.” Or, “Blame the TV show for showing her true character? You reap what you sow and people get to choose where they spend their money. They obviously choose not to spend it with someone who sabotages others.” Several other comments reflected that her products were overpriced and of poor quality. I suppose TLC is to be blamed for that, too.

Anyway, on the brighter side, Fischer vows that, although she plans to remain in the industry, she is not planning to open another bakery. And with luck, she won't be making anymore TV appearances either. To paraphrase a quote from a famous 1962 press conference, “But as I leave you I want you to know.... just think how much you're going to be missing. You don't have Fischer to kick around any more.” Her fifteen minutes of fame behind her, let's just hope she fades off into quiet obscurity. And stays there.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

My Favorite (Mostly Free) Cooking Apps for the iPhone

I'm not exactly a Luddite, but I'm also not one for jumping at every new technological gimmick that hits the market. That's why it took me awhile to acquire a smart phone. I was perfectly content with my old stupid phone. It made phone calls. What more did I need? My wife finally dragged me into the 21st century when she got an iPhone a couple of years ago. I started playing with it and within hours I was at the phone store buying one of my own. Among the big selling points for me was all the cooking apps with which I could junk it up. And there are hundreds of them.

Cheap bast.....errrr.....thrifty person that I am, I tend to gravitate toward the freebies, but there a few worth purchasing. Here are a few of the apps I've tried.

Naturally, I have some Italian-specific apps. The best of these is Mario Batali Cooks! At $9.99, it's also the most expensive. Mario had a big hand in the creation of the app, which contains lots of his favorite recipes from all over Italy along with some great instructions on technique. Lots of video and still photography, food and wine pairings, a glossary of terms, and much more. It's a keeper.

My other favorite Italian food personality, Giada de Laurentiis, also has an app. It's a freebie, but you kind of get what you pay for. Don't get me wrong, Giada is a nice app. There's just not much to it. A handful of recipes, a few short video tips, and Giada's Twitter feed. Oh, and a cute pronunciation guide in which my dearest Italian goddess mispronounces “asiago.” For some odd reason, she says “ah-SAH-gee-oh.” Tried the app and, sad to say, dumped it.

Fabio Viviani has a nice app. Called Let's Cook, it's a big sucker. It's free, but make sure you're on a wi-fi or you'll devastate your data minutes downloading it. Like Mario's app, it's got lots of step-by-step video instructions and a ton of static recipes that are very intuitive and easy to follow. Fabio imparts some helpful cooking and entertaining tips, and there are menu suggestions and wine pairings and other neat features, too. I use it a good bit.

I'm a subscriber to La Cucina Italiana magazine, and their basic La Cucina Italiana US app is free. It's not the most comprehensive app I've ever seen, but I refer to it from time to time. You can search recipes by course, by prep time, by cooking method, or by season. You can store your favorites and set up your menu. There's also a shopping list and a timer. It's worth the phone space.

Two other Italian apps that I have on my phone are iCuoco and one that displays as Flavour, but is actually Il Cucchiaio d'Argento or “The Silver Spoon.” iCuoco is free Il Cucchiaio d'Argento is $1.99. Both are excellent apps with lots of recipes and helpful features. But both are written in Italian, so don't go there unless you can read Italian or are in possession of a good translator program. I'm always amazed when I read through the reviews to find so many clueless individuals who are angry or upset because they downloaded the app and discovered that something called Il Cucchiaio d'Argento was all in Italian! Gee. Ya think?

On the general cooking front, I'm also a dedicated reader of Cook's Illustrated. They've got an app. The freebie is pretty limited. It's got a fair number of good open recipes in various categories, but you have to be a subscriber to access the “members only” recipes. Same thing with the “taste test” section. One or two open testings in each category with a “members only” section at the bottom. This one's also got a place to archive your favorites and a shopping list feature. It's still on my phone, but not one of my “go to” apps.

I've got four “go to” apps: Big Oven, Dinner Spinner, Epicurious, and The Betty Crocker Cookbook. If you can't find it with one of these, it's not going to be found.

The Betty Crocker Cookbook is a freebie with more than 13,000 recipes that come fully loaded in the app. If you know what you want to make, you can search by recipe. If you just want to see what you can come up with using ingredients you have on hand, you can do that, too. There's a recipe box to store your favorites and a shopping list feature. You can sync your recipes and grocery lists across different devices. You can e-mail them to friends, and you can even access coupons.

Epicurious is another great app. It, too, has loads of recipes available and it allows you to save your favorites and create a shopping list. One of my favorite aspects of Epicurious is its timeliness. As I'm writing right now, it's Spring and Easter is a couple of weeks away. When I open Epicurious, the home page displays Easter, Passover, and Spring recipes right up front. And there are recipes for kids, low- fat recipes, low-carb recipes, low-cal recipes and recipes designed for people who can “cook like a pro” as well as for those who “can barely cook.” The app itself is free and there's an in-app option that allows you to sync your recipe box for $1.99.

The Dinner Spinner is a winner. The free version does a lot, the $2.99 version does a little more. With the freebie, you can search among more than 40,000 recipes. You can search by ingredient and you can search by nutrition. You can bookmark your favorites, create shopping lists, e-mail recipes to friends, and share them on Facebook and Twitter. There's a built-in grocery scanner that lets you scan barcodes and searches for recipes that use the scanned items. The “spinner” feature is a lot of fun. There are three tiers; dish type, ingredients, and ready in. Select, for instance, “main dish” from the first tier, “beef” from the second, and “slow cooker” from the third, and the app brings up a huge selection of slow cooker beef recipes.

An app that comes highly recommended by almost everybody is Big Oven. It's a free app with access to over 250,000 recipes. You can search recipes by keyword, course, or ingredient, and you can browse popular recipe collections. If you need to be inspired, the app lets you enter up to ten ingredients from your fridge or pantry to get meal ideas. You can scale recipes, convert English to metric, and share your recipes by e-mail, Twitter, or Pinterest. There's also a menu planner for special occasions and everyday meals. I guess that's why it's had more than seven million downloads.

One of my most indispensable cooking apps is free and doesn't contain a single recipe. Published by Portable Knowledge, LLC, it's called Cooking, and it is a treasure trove of culinary knowledge. I can't begin to describe how useful this app truly is. Want to know how many slices of bacon you'll need to crumble to get a half-cup? Look in the “Yields and Tips” section. Don't have any chicken broth on hand? Find out how many bouillon cubes or how many teaspoons of granules or dried poultry seasoning you'll need in the “Substitutions” section. What's a “chinoise?” Look it up in “Terms.” Ever wonder what the volume of a Number 10 can is? Twelve cups. It's in the “Commercial Can Sizes” subcategory under “Measurements.” And if you need to know what to do when cooking at high altitudes, Cooking has you covered. It's a great little app.

Equally indispensable is a free app from the Escoffier Online International Culinary Academy folks, published by Futura Group. The Escoffier Cook's Companion will knock your socks off. Touted as “The ultimate Cook's Companion for the kitchen,” it really lives up to the hype with a range of tools that include a measurement converter, a compendium of ingredients, a glossary of culinary terms, a comprehensive list of kitchen equipment, and a versatile kitchen timer. The converter is easy to use, the glossary is fun and informative, and the compendia (yes, that's the proper plural of “compendium”) are awesome. I love the timer feature, though, because you can have more than one going at a time. If you're preparing three different dishes, you can set up three separate timers. Very handy.

I also have something on my phone called Kitchen Dial. It's a quick and easy converter that let's you select a metric or English amount and convert it to its other equivalent. Select “ounces,” dial it to 1 ½ , then select milliliters on the other dial, and you get 44.4. Saves me a lot of calculation time. It's a little more comprehensive than the Escoffier converter.

I've got some recipe scalers and food cost converters on my phone, too. In fact, I had to separate all my cooking apps into two folders on my home screen because they wouldn't all fit into one.

As I said, there are a mind-numbing number of cooking apps available. I just entered “cooking” into the App Store search box and got 3,541 results. “Italian cooking” racks up 815. “Recipes” will net 4,100 and “kitchen” will get you 1,272. I think you'll like the dozen that I've covered here, especially my four “go to” apps and my two “utility” apps. Look 'em over and see what you think.

Monday, March 4, 2013

It's "al Dente", Not "al Dante"

I once heard Mario Batali joke about people who asked for things to be prepared “al dante.” He laughed that Dante has been dead for nearly seven hundred years and so food prepared “al Dante” would probably not be very tasty. He suggests people should ask for “al dente” instead and leave poor dead Dante alone. Another chef I know believes that “Al Dante” might be the old Italian guy who lives down the street. Either way, I always thought these guys were kidding. I mean, nobody really says “al dante,” do they. Turns out, they do.

I was channel surfing and came across a cooking show where the “chef,” one P. Allen Smith, was preparing something that looked pretty good. I watched until I actually heard him say, “you want this to have a little tooth; to be al dante.” I rewound and listened again. Yep. He said “al dante.” Click! There went his credibility. Come to find out he's a designer and gardener from Tennessee, so he didn't have much cooking cred to begin with. Although he has published a cookbook, which just goes to show you anybody can do it.

Isolated incident, right? Nobody else uses “al dante," right? Wrong. Check out this recipe instruction for “Rigatoni alla Fontina” from the website : “Cook the rigatoni in 5 to 6 quarts salted boiling water until extra al dante....” Or, same site, different recipe (Rigatoni with Three Cheeses); “Cook until super al dante as they are going into the oven....”

And over at the “busy cooks” section of I found a really nice, helpful lady named Linda Larsen telling people that “al dente” is pronounced “all DAN tay” and that “Al Dante” is just an alternate spelling.

Okay, so maybe there are doofi (the proper plural of “doofus”) who say “al dante” instead of “al dente.” But what does it all mean?

Dente” is Italian for “tooth.” Adding “al” makes it “to the tooth.” It is sometimes also translated as “to the bite,” meaning you have to use your “bite” to chew the food. It shouldn't be overcooked or mushy. The term refers to a proper degree of doneness, especially as it relates to pasta, although it is often applied to certain vegetables, as well. The texture of a food that is considered to be “al dente” should be tender but still slightly firm. There should be a resistance at the center of ”al dente” pasta. When you bite through it, you should see a firm, white core. Vegetables cooked “al dente” should be at the “tender crisp” stage.

Dante was not noted to be a great cook. But since he is often called “The Father of the Italian Language,” he would really want you to know this. And I'm sure if you read between the lines of his great work, he probably has a place in hell designated for those who use “dante” instead of “dente.” Maybe in the Sixth Circle with the rest of the heretics, I don't know. But I wouldn't take any chances if I were you.