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, April 26, 2013

Recipe: A Deliciously Easy Pizza Sauce

Fresco Salsa di Pizza Crudo

This recipe for fresh, uncooked pizza sauce is so simple it barely qualifies as a recipe. Yet this is a common sauce used at pizzerias everywhere. Once you make it at home, you'll never buy the stuff in a jar again.

You'll need:

1 (28 oz) can whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes (Pomodori pelati)
about 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
a pinch of dried basil
a pinch of sugar
salt and pepper, to taste

And here's what you do:

Get a big bowl and puree all the ingredients together. Really. It's that simple. For best results, run the tomatoes through a food mill. This will significantly reduce the amount of seeds in the sauce. But a food processor or an immersion blender will work, too. Then blend in the other ingredients, taste and adjust for seasoning, and you're done.

Use immediately or store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to three days. Can be frozen for up to a month.

Told you it was easy!

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bye, Bye, Boston Butt: "Simpler" Names for Cuts of Meat?

Meet Your New Meat

Like Will Rogers, I only know what I read in the papers, and here's something I read recently: apparently some people are confused by meat.

According to Progressive Grocer, the National Pork Board and the Beef Checkoff Program have gotten unanimous approval from the Industry-Wide Cooperative Meat Identification Standards Committee – try saying that one three times fast – to introduce updated terminology for Uniform Retail Meat Identification Standards (URMIS) that retailers use on fresh beef and pork package labels.

Why?,” you may ask. I certainly did. And it turns out that it's because some people have problems figuring out that pork butt does not come from.......where they apparently think it does. People in the know, of course, know that it does not originate anywhere near the piggy's tail. It is a shoulder cut. In some places it's actually called “pork shoulder.” Unless you're in Boston, where it goes by the name “Boston butt.” Or if you're driving through rural South Carolina, you might see it advertised as “butt meat.” Yes. I'm serious. “Butt meat.”

Some sources trace the term to the wooden casks, or “butts,” in which the relatively cheap cuts of pork used to be stored and shipped. Some take an anatomical approach: a pig's foreleg has a “shank” end where it attaches to the foot and a “butt” end where it joins the shoulder. This meets the dictionary definition of “the larger or thicker end of an object.” 

However it evolved, the term confuses the bejeebers out of some folks, so the meat industry decided to change it. Henceforth and forever – or at least until they change their minds again – the cut of meat formerly referred to as “Boston butt,” that which comes from the upper foreleg of a pig, shall now be called “Boston roast.” How that's going to play in rural South Carolina remains to be seen. “Roast meat?” Nahh.

And no more “pork chops,” either. Nope. Now you'll have the infinitely less confusing "porterhouse chops," "ribeye chops," and "New York chops" from which to choose. These cuts used to be “loin chops,” “center rib chops,” and “top loin chops,” respectively. And for you folks who enjoy a good rump roast, look instead for “leg sirloin.” Don't you feel clearer already?

Cows also get their due. No more “boneless shoulder top blade steaks.” They have become “flatiron steaks.” Gone, too, are “under blade boneless steaks.” They are “Denver steaks” now. “boneless beef loin top sirloin steak” now will simply be called a “sirloin steak.”

In an attempt to make things even more less confusing, the new changes will cross species. A bone-in loin cut will be called a “T-bone” whether it’s pork or beef.

All in all, expect to see as many as 350 different names for different cuts of beef and pork. And if that seems a little overwhelming, don't worry; the “old” names will still be on the labels, too.

After two years of research on the subject, marketing people became convinced that consumers are stupid. Sales of beef and pork have declined and it must be because people can't figure out what they're buying, right? So let's come up with new marketing terms! That always works! Think of what it did for prunes when we started calling them “dried plums!”

According to one industry PR flack, only butchers and meat cutters actually care about the part of an animal from which a particular cut comes. The rest of us average stupid consumers only want to know what it is and what to do with it.

Frankly, this stupid consumer actually knows what an “under blade boneless steak” is. I've never heard of a “Denver steak.” And I guarantee the people who wrote the hundred or so cookbooks in my library didn't write recipes with “Boston roast” or “leg sirloin” in mind. You wanna talk about confusing?

If it ain't broke, don't fix it” does not register with ad people whose mantra, instead, is “if it ain't broke, break it and then charge double to fix it.” If the problem truly is uneducated consumers, how 'bout we educate them rather than making wholesale changes to a well-established system? Hmmmm?

As always, I am merely a voice crying in the wilderness. The meat industry movers and shakers are already on board with this. At least the beef and pork people are. The chicken people have declined to participate. A National Chicken Council representative says, “a chicken breast will remain a chicken breast.” Sorry if that confuses you.

This is a voluntary thing within the industry. Retailers don't have to go along with the changes. Feds at the USDA are just kind of shrugging and saying, “whatever.” But even they admit that the whole thing could become a pain in the Boston butt. Says one Bucky Gwartney, a federal agriculture marketing specialist, “The intent certainly was not to confuse consumers, but there are some situations where that certainly could happen.”

Ya think?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Teaching Yourself to Cook

Becoming the Cook You Never Dreamed You Could Be

I've seen a lot of statistics lately from studies that claim to find an increasing number of people who say they can't cook. A recent survey conducted by appliance-maker Bosch put the figure at twenty-eight percent. As alarming as this seems, I'm not sure I buy it. It's long been my experience and my oft-published philosophy that anybody can cook. There are a great number of inexperienced people who cook badly and there are those misguided individuals who proudly proclaim the fact that they don't cook. But I don't believe in the existence of a class of people who can't cook.

When you are born, you can't walk, right? But are you still crawling on all fours twenty years later? I should hope not. Just as nobody is born knowing how to walk, nobody is born knowing how to cook. It's an acquired skill that requires motivation to learn and a desire to improve.

I made my first foray into the kitchen when I was about seven years old. My culinary education began at the hands of my grandmother and my mother who taught me how to not cut off my fingers or burn down the kitchen. My grandfather and a couple of my uncles were the literal chefs in the family, but my mother and grandmother both had the skills to hold their own in the professional kitchens of family-owned restaurants back in the 1940s and '50s. Unfortunately, by the time my cooking education began in the early '60s, both of these fine, experienced cooks had succumbed to the “convenience food” craze that swept the nation. It wasn't that they couldn't cook “real” food, but they had been successfully brainwashed by the ad men of the day into thinking that they didn't have to. The Madison Avenue hucksters convinced them – and a whole generation of homemakers – that the packaged, processed, chemically dyed and artificially preserved crap they were pushing was not only easier than “real” cooking, but was equally as good for their busy, modern families. As a result, a lot of my early accomplishments came out of boxes, cans, and frozen packages. But at least it was a foundation upon which I could build. As my education broadened and my skills increased, I abandoned the boxes and cans and learned how to cook real, fresh, delicious food from scratch. And so can you.

Now, I don't cook with duck tongues or sheep brains or yak testicles. More power to the people who do. Let them amaze and impress on TV as they sit and count their Michelin stars. I'll content myself with turning out exceptional food from the ordinary ingredients I buy at my local butcher shop, produce market, and grocery store. And you can, too. You don't need an expensive formal culinary education to be a world-class cook in your own kitchen preparing amazing meals for your family and friends. Here's how to become the cook you never dreamed you could be.

1. Ya Gotta Wanna

If you don't have a desire to learn how to cook, you're not going to be successful doing it. That's pretty much a common statement for anything. You'll be a mediocre golfer, guitarist, or gongoozler if you don't really want to do it. Focus on the benefits of being able to cook for yourself and for others. Nutrition, weight management, economy, bragging rights – whatever it takes to get you motivated.

2. Hide and Watch

You know somebody who cooks. Even if you're among the alleged twenty-eight percent, that still leaves seventy-two percent of the population for you to observe. Grandmother, grandfather, father, mother, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, girlfriend, boyfriend, neighbor, roommate – somebody you know knows how to cook. Watch them. Ask questions. Watch them some more. Take notes.

3. Hit the Books

Once you've figured out that you want to cook and have spent a little time watching somebody else do it, it's time to hit the books. Not just cookbooks, although that's certainly going to be the mainstay of your culinary curriculum. Look for books about cooking, too. There are lots of basic guidebooks for terms and techniques out there. Like many hobbies and occupations, cooking has its own vocabulary and its own set of basic rules. If you don't know what “sauté” means or how to do it, you'll be completely lost when you see something like “sauté the vegetables” written in a cookbook.

Like college textbooks, cookbooks are expensive. It's not uncommon to pay thirty, forty, fifty dollars or more for a cookbook. But if you don't want to bust the budget, you have some alternatives. One alternative is the public library. Check out a couple of general interest cookbooks for starters. You can move on to specific cuisines once you get familiar with the basics. Other cheap cookbook sources include yard sales, flea markets, antique stores, or the bargain bins at your local bookstore. I have about a hundred cookbooks in my kitchen library. Most of them came from these places.

Cooking magazines are often a good way to get your feet wet. Many combine techniques and recipes to give you a comprehensive package for just a few bucks. Word of caution, though; some of these publications fly a little higher than others. As a novice cook, you may not be ready for Bon Appétit. You might want to start out with Taste of Home. Cook's Illustrated is one of my “go to” magazines.

The Internet is a huge resource. There are hundreds of cooking and recipe sites available online. But here, too, you might want to get a little more experience regarding what to look for before you start looking for it. I just Googled “fried egg” and got more than thirty thousand results. The web can be a little overwhelming for newbies.

Go through your new acquisitions and try to find recipes for things with which you are already familiar. Starting out with an ambitious dish comprised of twenty ingredients and a long list of specialized techniques and equipment when you can barely boil water is a sure route to failure and disappointment. Go easy on yourself. Boil an egg. Make macaroni and cheese. Once you get good at the easy stuff, the harder stuff will get easier.

The ability to read, interpret, and follow a recipe is the key to learning how to cook. You'll often hear things like, “recipes are just guidelines,” and “chefs don't need recipes.” And that's true. I can make a boatload of dishes in my sleep while dreaming of a white Christmas. And once you've been at it for fifty years, you'll be able to do so as well. But in the beginning, follow the recipe. The ability to tweak and improvise comes with experience.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice.

You know the old joke; “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!” In the previous paragraph I alluded to cooking in my sleep. Well, not quite, obviously. But close. After you've done any task long enough, muscle memory kicks in and you kind of go on auto pilot. The first thing I learned to cook was bacon. I can now cook bacon in a round pan, a square pan, on a griddle, in an oven, in the microwave, on an electric stove, on a gas stove, over an open campfire......heck, I could probably cook it with a stick and a blowtorch. Why? Practice, practice, practice. You like your bacon crispy? I can do that. You want it limp? I can do that, too. You want it crispy in the middle and limp on the ends. No problem. Practice, practice, practice. It builds confidence and encourages experimentation. And that results in growth. You say you can't cook because you tried it once and failed? Try it again. And again. And again. Until you get it right. I can't play the piano. I know what one looks like and how it works. I even know what keys match up with which notes. But I can't play because I didn't practice, practice, practice.

5. Movin' On Up

Okay. You've decided you really want to cook. You've watched some people do it, you've gotten some cookbooks and you've practiced a few recipes. Now what? Where do you go next? Time to move up. Once you've gotten to the point where you can make a few dishes confidently and well, you've established that you can cook. Now it's time to be a cook.

Go back to step 2; Hide and Watch. Back then you were a little tentative. A little unsure. Now you're more confident, so it's time to watch and learn. You can go back to those same sources and get more involved. Look for things you didn't know how to look for before. Pick up some tips and tricks and instead of just watching the big holiday meal being prepared, jump in there with a dish of your own. Maybe you're not up to roasting the turkey yet, but you can make some mean mashed potatoes. It's a start.

Want more? You should. A formal culinary education is outrageously, ridiculously, almost obscenely expensive. And unless you're planning to apply for a chef de cuisine position at a five-star restaurant, you don't need it. But you can still be a five-star cook by taking advantage of the knowledge of others. You can do this in a number of ways. One of the easiest is by turning on your TV. Don't laugh.

When I was a kid in the kitchen, there were “educational channel” shows featuring Julia Child and later, Graham Kerr. Now cooking shows dominate the regular network schedules with entire cable networks devoted to cooking. There are basically two kinds of cooking shows: competitions like Food Network's Chopped, ABC's The Taste, or Master Chef on Fox, and the good old “dump and stir” – or “stand and stir,” if you prefer – programs that are all over Food Network, Cooking Channel, and PBS. These, students, are your new instructors. Even with many, many years of cooking experience under my apron strings, Mario Batali, Giada De Laurentiis, Michael Chiarello, Lidia Bastianich, Mary Ann Esposito and a host of others continue to teach me nearly every day. Oftentimes, it's just reinforcement of “old” knowledge; things I've been doing for years. And that's good. It means I've been doing things right for years. But these culinary experts – people who do have expensive educations and/or vast amounts of real world experience – also teach me a lot of new things. You know, a great many high-dollar chefs learned much of what they know from working in kitchens with these people. You can garner a lot of that same knowledge by simply turning on your TV. Even the competition shows have some educational value. You won't learn much about the basics there, but if you can already cook a little, you'll find some great inspirations and ideas.

Another way to improve your burgeoning skills is to take some classes. As I said, full-on formal training is not an option for most people who just want to learn to cook. But locally offered cooking classes are. If there's a university, college, or community college in your town, chances are they offer some form of cooking instruction for the general public. Oftentimes, libraries and community centers have cooking classes. Culinary stores like Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table frequently hold seminars and classes. You can even find restaurants that conduct specialized courses.

Go back to the Net. Now that you know what to look for, you can find lots of online cooking resources that will help you hone and improve your new skills. Be wary of “online cooking schools” that charge you an arm and a leg for some kind of “degree” or “diploma.” They're not all scams, but many are. For your purposes, you'll do just as well with any of a number of free online “schools” or “classes.” Chef Jacob Burton does a marvelous job at Stella Culinary ( and Escoffier Online has some great free instruction available at Are you going to come away from any of these ready to step into the kitchen at Le Cirque? No. But you'll be more than able to hold your own in your home kitchen. And that's really what you're after, isn't it?

If you feel you truly “can't” cook, it's time for a little self-examination. I can't play the piano – but I posses the intelligence and the ability to learn. I have the physical, mechanical ability it takes and I am able to read and follow instructions, so I could play the piano if I chose to do so. If I got some books and sought some instruction and dedicated some time to practice and improvement, I could play the piano. I may never achieve concert hall virtuosity, but I bet I could pound out a few tunes for my own entertainment. If I wanted to. Do you really want to cook?

You have to be open to learning new skills and, if you've got a few decades behind you, you have to be willing to break some bad habits. As with many disciplines, in cooking some things are tried and true and some things change with the times. Maybe you can't cook because you won't change. My mother and grandmother taught me a lot of wonderful things. But I had to unlearn a lot of things they taught me, too. Like putting oil in pasta water. That was standard practice in American kitchens for many, many years. Subsequent education has taught me better and now I'm a better cook because of it. Do you really want to learn?

Finally, you've got to take the time to make the time to practice and improve. “I can't cook because I just don't have the time.” Specious and spurious. You make all kinds of time for all kinds of other activities. How important is it that you learn to cook wholesome, healthy, delicious food for yourself and for those you love?

You can cook. You can learn. You can improve. And with motivation and dedication you can become the cook you never dreamed you could be.