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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!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Buying Quality Dried Pasta – There IS a Difference

One of the more egregious falsehoods ever foisted off on unsuspecting cooks is this: “pasta is pasta.” Nothing could be further from the truth. To clarify, I'm talking about dried pasta, or pasta secca, as opposed to pasta fresca, or fresh pasta. There is a world of difference between fresh pasta and dried, but that's a discussion for another time.

I was once called upon by a friend to help prepare a “spaghetti dinner.” Everything was provided; all I had to do was cook. So I started about five quarts of water boiling. “You sure use a lot more water than I do.” Then I added a couple of tablespoons of salt to the water. “Oh, my God! That's too much salt!” My hostess/helper questioned the fact that I did not add oil to the pasta water (“It's gonna stick!”) and was rather shocked when I yelled at her just as she was about to break the pasta in half. Okay, so now I understood the source of half of her cooking problems. Then I got a look at the pasta itself; it was the best two-for-a-dollar, no-name-brand spaghetti money could buy. “That's what we always use. Spaghetti is spaghetti.” There was the other half.

I knew what was going to happen and it did. I put the spaghetti in the gallon-plus of well-salted, unoiled water, gave it a quick stir, and let it cook for about eight minutes. I tested it. Not even close. So I let it go another two minutes. Still not al dente. I checked it every minute for four or five minutes more, and suddenly it turned to mush. I was upset with myself for overcooking the spaghetti, but my friend was nonplussed by my frustration. “That's the way we always have it. What's wrong with it?” Uffa!

When it comes to taste, pasta is pretty much pasta. Only a really refined palate can detect an appreciable difference in the taste of properly prepared pastas. And even that subtle difference disappears when sauce is applied. No, the real differences in pasta are related to body and texture.

Good quality dried pasta is made from two ingredients; water and durum semolina. Durum is a type of hard wheat and semolina refers to a milling process that produces a texture like very fine sand rather than soft powder. Producers of cheap, off-brand dried pastas often add regular flour to the mix as an extender. Some cheap pastas are made entirely of common wheat flour, a manufacturing practice that is actually illegal in Italy, although a sub-class of lower grade pasta made there may contain up to three percent soft-wheat flour, but must be labeled accordingly.

Unlike the fresh pasta you whip up at home, producing quality dry pasta is a fairly painstaking process. Semolina flour is piped into a mixing machine. Water is added. The standard moisture content in the dough stage is about thirty percent. The mixture is mechanically kneaded until firm and somewhat dry, then it is pressed into sheets. It then goes to a vacuum machine that removes any air bubbles and further reduces the moisture content to a target level of about eleven or twelve percent. The pasta is steamed to kill any potential bacteria that may have accumulated, then it is sent off to be cut or extruded. Finally, the finished product is dried under very specific conditions related to the type of pasta.

Here's what to look for in a good quality dried pasta:

Ingredients – The only ingredient should be durum semolina (or sometimes semolina durum) wheat. The label will also display the mandatory enriching ingredients niacin, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, and folic acid. There should be no other chemicals or preservatives or additives.

Color – Good pasta should be a uniform amber yellow to rich cream color. Pale, pasty pasta probably contains additives and extenders.

Appearance and texture – High quality dried pasta will have a slightly rough surface texture. This helps sauces adhere to the cooked noodles. When held up to the light, there should be no dark or light spots evident. Some pastas will have slight ridges caused by extrusion and that's okay, as long as the ridges are uniform. Uneven, bumpy, spotty pasta is a sign of either adulteration or poor manufacturing – or both.

Taste and aroma – Good pasta should not have an aroma or odor of any kind. If it does, it's probably rancid due to the age and quality of the ingredients and/or to unhygienic manufacturing or drying processes. And although there should be no obvious taste for the same reasons, good pasta will have a slight sweetness when raw.

Clean fracture – Good pasta will break cleanly with a distinct, crisp snap. Cheaply made pasta will fracture unevenly with a lot of bits and slivers and may also exhibit air bubbles when examined closely.

If you have fallen for the “pasta is pasta” line, here's where you're going wrong. Quality pasta made from premium ingredients is manufactured to maintain a certain consistency when cooked. There is a complicated chemical balance of starch and gluten that must be maintained in order for the cooked pasta to come out soft and spongy but still firm and well-formed. As I said, the dance between the starches that absorb water and swell up and the proteins or glutens that coagulate and hold the pasta together is very complex. But it's the reason that good quality pasta is so far superior to the cheap stuff.

Pasta made with cheap ingredients and inferior techniques often contains uneven particles in the dough. Particles that are too small make for soggy dough while particles that are too large absorb too much water and compromise the structure. Pasta made with soft flour and extenders tends to shed too much starch, turning the cooking water a milky white and making that desired soft-but-firm texture almost impossible to achieve. Because the starch component overwhelms the protein element in the cooking process, the pasta remains rigid until it turns to mush.

So what's a good pasta to buy? Open question. There are hundreds of brands on store shelves at varying price points. As a rule, I prefer De Cecco or Barilla. While Barilla is Italy's largest producer of pasta, the Barilla pasta you buy at your neighborhood store is actually produced in the United States. Nothing wrong with that, but De Cecco products are all manufactured in Italy. Other Italian sounding names like “Ronzoni” are also made in America, although Ronzoni holds up fairly well by comparison. Same goes for Da Vinci products, most of which are produced in Italy with a few lines (lasagne and jumbo shells, for instance) coming out of American factories. Generally speaking, you can rely on the name brands for consistent quality. That said, specialty shops and Italian markets are overflowing with “product of Italy” labels that you've probably never heard of. Just keep in mind the five quality points outlined above and you'll be fine.

The owner of a little Italian place I used to frequent was amazed the first time I complimented him on the beautifully textured quality of his pasta. Turns out it was custom made and I was the only one who had ever commented on it. Conversely, the waiter at an Olive Garden was not surprised when I told him that the pasta was bland and overcooked and had probably come prepackaged. “Yeah,” he admitted, “People like you can always tell.”

“Pasta is pasta?” Don't you believe it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Recipe: “Red Lobster-like” Garlic Cheddar Biscuits

Red Lobster's “Cheddar Bay Biscuits” are always a huge hit with restaurant patrons. So much so that they've produced a prepackaged mix that you can buy to make your own. But don't bother. The recipe below will produce biscuits just like the ones you get at Red Lobster for a fraction of the cost of the store-bought mix.

We do a lot of catering for office parties, birthday celebrations, wedding receptions, and the like. So we're always on the lookout for great, simple party food. These biscuits fill the bill perfectly, especially when you “mini-size” them.

This is a basic drop biscuit recipe. If you use an ice cream scoop and make them full-size, you'll get about a dozen biscuits. If you use a rounded tablespoon or a mini-scoop, you'll get 3 ½ to 4 dozen.

“Red Lobster-like” Garlic Cheddar Biscuits

For the biscuits:
2 1/2 cups baking mix (we prefer Jiffy, but Bisquick works)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup cold whole milk
4 tablespoons cold butter
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 heaping cup grated mild or sharp cheddar cheese
 

To top:
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Pinch kosher salt

Preheat oven to 400°.

In a large bowl, combine the baking mix and baking powder with cold butter. You can use a pastry cutter, a wooden spoon, or your hands, but don't over mix. You should wind up with pea-size chunks of butter in the mix. Add cheddar cheese, milk, and 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder. Continue mixing until everything is combined into a shaggy mass of dough. Again, don't over mix.

Using an ice cream scoop (for full-size) or a rounded tablespoon or mini-scoop (for mini-size), drop portions of the dough onto a baking sheet lined with a silpat or parchment paper. Bake full-size biscuits for 15 to 17 minutes or minis for 10 to 12 minutes or until the tops of the biscuits begin to turn light brown.

While the biscuits are baking, melt 4 tablespoons of butter on the stove or in the microwave. Stir in the 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder and the dried parsley flakes.

As soon as the biscuits come out of the oven, while still piping hot, brush the tops generously with the garlic butter mixture then sprinkle lightly with kosher salt.

The biscuits are best served warm, but they are still good when made ahead and rewarmed in a low oven for a few minutes. Don't microwave them; they'll get rubbery.

As I always preach, quality ingredients lead to quality results. You can use margarine and skim milk and cheap plastic cheese in this recipe, but the biscuits won't taste anything like the real thing. If you want the real thing, use real ingredients.

Buon appetito!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Shopping for Fresh Food in the “Supermarket” Age

Once upon a time, there were no supermarkets in America. No Walmart Supercenters, no Costcos or Sam's Clubs, no giant chain retailers who sold everything from meat and dairy products to paint and automotive supplies all under one roof.

In fact, there was a time when consumers didn't even walk the aisles making their own selections. In the “old days” of my grandparents' youth, people went to neighborhood markets with shopping lists and it was the job of the store clerk to retrieve items from shelves and stockrooms and bring them out to be tallied and tied up and carried home. In many instances, the merchant delivered the purchases to the customer's residence.

Self-service grocery stores and chain grocers began popping up in the early twentieth century. These early establishments were not quite the “multi-mega-marts” of today. Although they boasted a variety of dried, canned, and packaged products, most carried only limited selections of fresh meat, dairy, and produce. “Supermarkets” with meat, produce, dairy, and bakery “departments” didn't really catch on until after World War II. (It is believed that Albers Super Market, a Cincinnati grocery store opened in 1933, was the first business of its kind to use the term “supermarket.”) Such places were, of course, considered hallmarks of a modern, progressive society. But were they really? They were more convenient, certainly. But were – and are – they better than the “old-fashioned” way of food shopping?

Let me take you back to my hometown in the '50s and early '60s. You “kids” under forty will get a kick out of this.

We had five grocery stores in our little town. Two were gleaming new “supermarkets” and three were plain old-fashioned grocers that had been in business for decades. The supermarkets were awesome places. Neon signs outside and bright fluorescent lighting inside practically screamed “modern age.” Glistening steel shopping carts traversed aisle after highly-polished aisle of what had to be everything you could ever want. Teenaged boys in aprons and bow ties worked there bagging groceries and carrying them out to cars parked in capacious lots adjoining the huge block-and-steel-and glass edifices. The biggest thrill for me were the cool “automatic” doors. I drove my mom nuts jumping on those rubber mats that “magically” opened the doors.

The three “old” grocery stores were small, cramped places. Dimly lit and wood-floored, you mostly carried your purchases in hand baskets. The few shopping carts the stores boasted could barely negotiate the narrow aisles. One store was located in the heart of “downtown” and the other two were among groups of neighborhood businesses. There were no parking lots. You just parked on the street in the closest space you could find. And, of course, there were no “automatic” doors.

And yet, that's where my mother preferred to shop.

Maybe it was because, despite having family members employed at the supermarket, nobody there ever called her by name when she walked through the “automatic” door. Nobody personally helped her find things and nobody offered suggestions of which product was best suited for her needs. Mom didn't drive, so maybe it was because she could just call the little store in our neighborhood and they would collect and package her order and have it waiting for me when I arrived with my Radio Flyer wagon.

We shopped those stores mostly for dry goods. There was a meat market in town. Sure, the new supermarkets had meat, but everything there was wrapped in plastic and seemed so......untouchable. The meat market had been around for years. The butcher knew everybody and always had an amazing array of fresh cuts of meat displayed behind the glass of his sparkling white showcases. You took a number and waited your turn. It wasn't usually a very long wait, and the butcher was always friendly and helpful. You pointed to what you wanted and he picked it up and let you get a good look at it before he wrapped it in white paper. Call me crazy, but it was a more personal way of buying food.

Same thing for produce. The grocery stores had fruits and vegetables, but the produce you bought from roadside stands or from the backs of farmers' trucks was so much better. Fresher and cheaper, too. And you knew where it came from. Of course, we also had a backyard garden that provided a lot of our produce. I remember spending an awful lot of valuable playtime shelling peas and snapping beans. But, otherwise, we bought produce from local sources whenever we could.

You could go to the store for “store-bought” bread, but most people preferred one of the town's two bakeries. I guess it would be called “artisanal” bread nowadays. We just called it “bread” – and it came sliced or unsliced. You could order what you wanted in the morning and the baker would have it ready for you in the afternoon. My grandfather was on a salt-restricted diet and one of the bakeries produced special “salt-free” bread for him. And, of course, the bakery was the only place to go for cakes and cookies and pastries. Mom baked a lot herself, but when she didn't have time, the bakery, rather than the supermarket, was always the first choice. It was just better product. And besides, the place smelled so heavenly!

In those days, we didn't buy much milk at the grocery store. We had an insulated box on the porch. Twice a week – way earlier than I usually woke up – the milkman would come from the local dairy and deliver whatever fresh milk, butter, cream, cheese or other dairy products Mom had ordered. We knew a lot of the farmers who produced the milk and the dairy that processed it was right on the edge of town. There was never a question about freshness or quality.

As much as I would like to see a resurgence of this type of shopping, there are some aspects I don't see happening on a big scale. For instance, I don't see the supercenter giving way to the corner grocery store. But while all things old may not be new again, a few are. Very slowly, new generations of Americans are rediscovering what us “old fogies” once took for granted. From small towns to big cities, people are beginning to figure out that convenience and low prices do not necessarily equal good quality. They are rediscovering local fresh food markets, and farmers markets are leading the trend.

According to industry figures, there were only 1,755 farmers markets listed in the United States about twenty years ago. The latest USDA numbers count 7,864, with a 9% increase between 2011 and 2012 alone. After years of living in or near big cities, I once again find myself enjoying life in a small town. There is a farmers market in my town, two elsewhere in the county, thirty within about fifty miles of my house, and nearly two hundred across the state. These are figures that would have been unimagined a decade or two ago. But more and more people are rediscovering the amazing freshness and quality of food that comes from just down the road as opposed to food that has been stored and shipped in from across the country or from a foreign land. And the friendly local people who sell you the best seasonal products they have to offer are also knowledgeable about those products. Not only will they tell you all the whens and wheres about what they sell, they often have a lot of good ideas about how to utilize their produce. Find more information and a farmers market near you at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/farmersmarkets

I'm fortunate that my little town also has a great, family-owned meat market. As a result I have not purchased the first ounce of meat at a chain supermarket in years. The meat at the market is fresher, better quality, and less expensive. And the guy who owns the place knows me by name. We chat for a few minutes whenever I go in, he makes invaluable suggestions and he ensures I get exactly what I need. And if he doesn't have something I want today, he'll get it for me by tomorrow. To be fair, if you shop at a higher end supermarket, there may be an actual butcher “in the back.” If so, get to know him. If not, find someplace that has such a person. I once went to a supermarket near my in-laws' home looking for some ground pork. They didn't have any on display and the guy in the dirty white coat putting packaged meat out on the shelves told me they didn't have any available. When I picked up a package of pork shoulder and asked if he could grind it for me, he said, “No. We're not equipped to do that.” That's the price you pay for “convenience.” Beyond that, you'd be surprised – and sickened – by what happens to some “supermarket” meats. The man who owns my local meat market used to work for one of the supermarket chains. Trust me. Go find a reputable butcher.

Once again I have the luxury of having two bakeries in town. They don't carry the variety of baked goods that the busy establishments of my childhood offered, but what they do have is far superior to any of the stuff embalmed in preservatives and entombed in plastic on supermarket shelves. Of course, like my mother, I bake at home. I almost never purchase “store-bought” bread and you simply can't compare my wife's fresh-from-the-oven cookies with the little preserved hockey pucks you buy at the supermarket. But if you really lack the time – or ability – to bake at home, it's worth the effort to seek out a real, honest-to-goodness bakery. Emphasis on the “goodness.”

I used to think the milkman was forever relegated to the pages of childhood memory. But there are dairy services in some cities that keep the home delivery tradition alive. A little Internet research found such services in Pennsylvania, Minneapolis-St Paul, and in the San Francisco Bay area. And artisinal dairies are cropping up all over, offering wonderful fresh cheeses, butter and other dairy products. Plastic processed cheese and chemical spreads can't hold a candle to real cheese and real butter. Even if there's not a milkman bringing it to your door, the good stuff is definitely worth going out of your way to find.

I can already hear the screams of protest. “You gotta be nuts! I don't have time to haul my tookus all over town like that!” I know, I know. Shopping the “old-fashioned” way isn't convenient. That's why we, as a society, stopped doing it. It's much easier to buy your meat at the same place you get your tires and it's faster to be able to pick up your milk and eggs where you go for gasoline. But is it better?

Food is the fuel upon which our bodies operate. It contains the elements essential to good health and longevity. I never cheap up on food. I'll drive used cars and wear department store clothes, but I refuse to put cheap, preservative-laden junk in my body for the sake of saving a few pennies. Would you deliberately put watered-down gas in your high-performance car? I once had an Oldsmobile with a big ultra-high compression 455 cubic-inch engine and a 4 bbl carburetor. It ran on nothing but Sunoco 260 premium gasoline. My sister borrowed it one day and kindly filled it up for me before returning it. Only she filled it with regular gas from a cheap off-brand station. It took me weeks to get that car running right again. Your body operates on the same principle, and if you have to take a little extra care, spend a little extra money, and go a little out of your way to find the “premium” fuel it requires, so be it. One fill-up may not hurt you, but a steady diet of cheap fuel will send your body straight to the junk yard.

So go to the supermarket for your basic stock pantry items. But whenever and wherever possible, buy quality fresh products from farmers markets, meat markets, fishmongers, dairies, bakeries, and other local sources. Even if it's not “convenient.” Shopping fresh and local is more than just a passing fad; it's a step “back to the future” to a way of life whose time has definitely come again.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Want To Live Past 100? Eat More Bacon!

Up until recently, conventional wisdom told us that bacon and eggs would surely be the death of us all. An entire generation was frightened into believing that eggs contained enough cholesterol that eating more than one a week was going to close up your arteries and send you to an early grave.
Guess that's why my grandfather made it into his eighties on a steady diet of four eggs per sitting four or five days a week. And, of course, the “killer egg” theory has now been thoroughly discredited.

Bacon is still getting the rap, though. Only it's not fat or cholesterol that's supposedly going to put you in permanent stasis, it's nitrates. Used in the curing process, they convert at high temperatures to carcinogenic nitrosamines that attack your pancreas and are also said to be a factor in COPD.

Which is why, as a dedicated, bacon-loving American I proudly introduce to you Pearl Cantrell. She's a widow and mother of seven who lives in Texas, where she mowed her own lawn until recently and still dances a mean two-step. Oh, and by the way, she's 105. When asked – as centenarians inevitably are – for the secret of her longevity, she replied, “I love bacon. I eat it every day.”

Now, “every day” may be overdoing it a bit. As much as I love the porcine ambrosia that comes from the belly of a pig, I only eat it once or twice a week. You know, the old saying about “too much of a good thing”? Even one of the more apologist studies conducted by the University of Zurich and involving nearly a half-million people points to “moderation” as a means to reduce “premature deaths” among processed meat eaters by up to three percent. Apparently, Pearl was not part of the study group.

Now, to be fair, you've got to look at a few other minor factors. It's really easy to say, “My grandfather ate a dozen eggs and a pound of bacon for breakfast every day and he outlived his doctor by thirty years.” Most of those hearty old souls – like Pearl – worked their fannies off on a daily basis. Pearl picked cotton and baled hay. She didn't ride around on a garden tractor when she mowed her lawn, she pushed a mower. And she dances just for fun. I expect that if she had chained herself to a desk for forty years and then retired to a rocker in front of the TV, she'd have been gone a long time ago, bacon notwithstanding. So many people today ignore the “exercise” part of the “diet and exercise” equation. Yes, our forebears ate like pigs, but they also worked like horses. Most of my adult life, I've had to find a time and a place to “exercise.” People like Pearl and my grandfather exercised because their lifestyles left them no other choice. That's largely why they could eat all those eggs and all that bacon with such abandon and impunity.

Nonetheless, I say, “You go, girl” to Pearl Cantrell. More than two hundred well-wishers recently feted her feat at a three-day-long birthday party. And when Oscar Meyer got a whiff of her bacon eating prowess, they sent her a supply of the stuff and let her ride around town in the Weinermobile. Next time I pass through Tennessee, I intend to see Allen Benton at Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville and talk to him about sending Pearl some good bacon for her next birthday. It'll probably arrive in a UPS truck instead of a Weinermobile, but I guarantee she'll treasure the memory of eating it if she lives another hundred and five years.

So is a daily dose of bacon really the secret to good health and long life? Sadly, no. But you've got to admit, it's a fun story.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review: Pirate's Landing Seafood and Steak Restaurant in Elkin, NC

Shiver Me Timbers, It's GOOD!

So there we were driving southbound out of Virginia on I-77 when, about fifteen miles into North Carolina, we spotted a pirate ship. For the geographically impaired among you, I-77 runs nowhere near North Carolina's Atlantic coast. So what was a pirate ship doing aground more than two hundred miles inland? Serving great food, that's what.

Frequent readers will know that I usually seek out and review little out-of-the-way Italian eateries, but this place looked way too cool to pass up. I don't know about billing themselves as “The Most Exciting Seafood Restaurant in the Southeast,” but there is definitely a “wow” factor involved as you drive up. The building is constructed to resemble an eighteenth-century pirate ship. They've even surrounded parts of it with water teeming with fish. Okay, so it's a big koi pond. It's still cool.

The coolness continues inside where two-hundred year-old support beams imported from the St. Lawrence Seaway and antique planking on the “deck” blend with murals, ropes, cargo netting, and a host of “pirate treasures” adorning the dining area. According to the manager with whom I spoke, the owner, a Greek immigrant named Theofanis Kakouras, spent years collecting antique weapons, cannon, rugs, barrels, tapestries and other trappings to achieve a pirate ambiance that, although loaded with kitsch, doesn't really feel all that kitschy. And before you ask, the waitstaff does not run around saying, “Arrrrggggg” and “Ahoy,” although they do sport bright red sashes around their waists.

The menu is another matter; here you'll find combo dinners named for William Kidd, Black Bart, Calico Jack, and Edward England, as well as a “Buccaneer's Fried Seafood Feast.” But that's as “piratey” as it gets. The rest of the list is pretty straight ahead steak, seafood, and pasta-house fare. Okay, except for “Hook's Riblets” on the appetizer menu.

We arrived on the late side of a busy Saturday night dinner service. The wait was reasonable – about ten minutes – and while we were waiting, we were chatted up by a couple who asked if this was our first visit. When we replied affirmatively, they regaled us with tales of what they considered to be better seafood than could be found at the beach. Even though they lived some thirty or forty miles away they were Pirate's Landing regulars. They were soon called to their table and the friendly and efficient hostess escorted us to ours just moments later.

It's a big menu, folks, with about a dozen items on the appetizer side, a generous selection of soups and salads, pasta offerings that included shrimp scampi and pasta Alfredo, several fried seafood and broiled seafood choices, a smattering of sandwiches, and the aforementioned pirate-named combos. Then you get to the steak, chicken, and ribs side of the menu and the surf and turf dishes. They had a “pick two” deal going on, so my wife chose shrimp and scallops with garlic mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, and a salad. And since you can take the boy out of the Italian restaurant but you can't take the Italian restaurant out of the boy, I opted for the pasta Alfredo. (I know it's not Italian, but work with me here.) We also ordered up some standard fare mozzarella cheese sticks as an appetizer.

A nice beer and wine list was presented, but with the road still ahead, we chose non-alcoholic beverages. My wife pronounced the tea to be “very good,” a factor that often decides the overall fate of an establishment in her estimation.

Here's where the ship began to founder a little. I thought I detected a bit of “green” in our server. After you've been around awhile, you can just tell. Don't get me wrong; he was a pleasant, friendly, helpful young man, but he didn't seem to have relaxed into his job quite yet. As a result, our entrees hit the table before the appetizer – which actually never arrived – and the salads went missing, too. Our server was appropriately apologetic, but he got a little nervous when I asked him to have the manager drop by our table. I wasn't going to have him walk the plank or anything; I just wanted an explanation. I got one. The young man was, indeed, only in his second week on the job. Methinks maybe he was cast adrift on his own a bit too soon.

However, the food more than made up for the serving snafu. Did I mention the complimentary hush puppies that started our meal? They made the missed mozzarella sticks totally superfluous. Wow! When the server offered us a refill, I had to emphatically refuse for fear that we would be such complete pigs as to not only embarrass ourselves but to endanger our enjoyment of the rest of the meal. Yes, they were that good.

My wife mooned and swooned over the shrimp and scallops and said something about making a meal of the garlic mashed potatoes all by themselves. The vegetables were perfectly roasted and well-seasoned. For my part, I found the linguine to also be perfectly cooked and the “Alfredo sauce” – a term I abhor for its completely American inauthenticity – was, nonetheless, a good representation of the product. However, the pasta was quite bland and required a lot of salt at the table that should have been present in the cooking water, but was obviously lacking. An unfortunately common failing in some non-Italian kitchens. The portions were typically overly generous, so even though we were shorted an app and a salad, we still did not have room to partake of any of the scrumptious-looking desserts that were available.

The bill was shocking; we feasted gluttonously for under thirty dollars. The most expensive thing on the menu were the lobster tails, which check in at $22.95. Nearly every other entree is under fifteen dollars, with some less than ten. This seems like a great place to please your appetite without plundering your pocketbook.

Pirate's Landing Seafood and Steak Restaurant is located just east of Elkin, North Carolina, a bit north of Winston-Salem, at exit 85 off I-77. The building is hard to miss from the interstate and there are signs posted when you exit. There's a large lot, so parking is no problem. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday from 2 pm until 10 pm and on Sunday from 11 am to 9 pm. Reservations are not required. Dress is casual (although I think I'll wear my pirate outfit next time.) Custom menus and accommodations are available for parties of up to 320 people.

So avast, me hearties! Hoist the Jolly Roger, haul anchor and set sail for Pirate's Landing!

Pirate's Landing Seafood and Steak Restaurant
161 Interstate Way, Elkin, NC 28621
(336) 366-4150
www.pirateslanding-nc.com

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Kitchen Essentials for the Home Cook

Quality's the Main Objective

On the heels of an article I wrote on the subject of teaching yourself to cook, I came to realize there was one very important factor I omitted: proper equipment.

I know some of the modern-day heirs to Escoffier's legacy claim to posses the ability to cook a five course meal using nothing more than a hot rock and a sharp stick, but for the average cook – and especially for the novice home cook – there are some things that are essential.

Knives

Top of the “essential” list for any cook in any kitchen is a selection of good quality knives. It doesn't have to be a 20-piece matched set that comes with a knife block, a honing steel, a dozen kitchen gadgets, and a timer that plays the National Anthem. All you need is a chef's knife, a utility knife, and a paring knife. Everything else is gravy. An 8-inch chef's knife is pretty much standard and will get you through most basic chores. The utility knife and the paring knife are there for more specialized tasks. I suppose you could peel an apple with a chef's knife; I just don't know that I would try it myself. If you wanted to add a knife with a serrated blade to your collection, that would be a good idea.

Quality's the main objective. Buy the best you can afford, but stay far, far away from discount and dollar store knives. Their cheap construction makes them an accident waiting to happen and if you do any real cooking, you'll wind up replacing them frequently. Professional chefs don't bat an eye at dropping a couple hundred bucks on a single knife. Great if you can afford it. Global, Wüsthof, Shun, Henckels and other high dollar brands are superior knives, but most cooks can get by with a good set of something like Dexter Russell or Victorinox Forschner. They're good quality, durable, inexpensive, and readily available. I guarantee if you check out your local restaurant kitchens, you're not going to find line cooks hacking away with two-hundred dollar Wüsthofs. Ninety percent of them are going to be using Dexter Russells or Victorinox Forschners.

While we're on the subject of cutlery, another essential item is a good cutting board. Drop a few bucks on the purchase of a decent wood, bamboo, or polycarbonate board of a workable size. Little bitty boards are useless and huge oversize ones are overkill. And do avoid like the plague anything made of glass, metal, or stone. Pretty to look at, but they'll turn your shiny new sharp knives into expensive butter knives in short order.

Pots and Pans

Next on the “essentials” list are the vessels in which to cook all the things you've cut up. Here's what you need to get started: a saucepan and a frying pan. That'll cover most simple dishes. Make sure to get a decent size saucepan, two or three quarts. You can put one quart of water in a three-quart pan, but you can't put two quarts of water in a one-quart pan. And a 10.25 to 12-inch frying pan will do nicely. If you're going to do a little more advanced cooking or bigger volume cooking, you'll want to add maybe a sauté pan and a Dutch oven to your arsenal as well as a variety of sizes for the other basic pans.

Once again, quality counts. Cheap, lightweight aluminum pans like you get in the big box sets at the big box stores are a waste of money. They're notorious for uneven heat distribution and their surfaces scratch and pit at the drop of a fork. Better to spend thirty or forty dollars on one good pan than to spend the same amount on ten cheap ones. What's a “good” pan? Quality stainless steel, heavy anodized aluminum, cast-iron, and enameled cast-iron are the choices of serious cooks. Name brands like Calphalon and All-Clad will cost you a mortgage payment. Sure, they'll probably outlast your house, but it's a lot of cash for most people to fork over. (I saw a nice seven-hundred-dollar set of All-Clad at Macy's.) Just look for 18/10 stainless steel. Make sure it has a triple-ply or encapsulated bottom. You can find good sets like that for less than a hundred bucks in stores or on Amazon.

I don't personally like aluminum cookware for most applications. I have some non-stick aluminum by Bialetti that I swear by; the rest I just swear at. If you do opt for aluminum, make sure it's heavy anodized aluminum. Otherwise, it'll warp like you won't believe and the aluminum can leach into your cooking.

Leaching is also true of cast-iron, but in the case of iron, that's a good thing. You don't mind a little extra iron in your diet. Extra aluminum has not proven to be beneficial. And cast-iron wears like.....well, it wears like iron. Treat it well and you'll be able to pass it on to your children and grandchildren. And it's by far the least expensive choice for cookware. Yes, it requires seasoning and extra care, but it's worth the effort. Lodge is pretty much the first name in cast-iron cookware.

Add a coat of enamel to cast-iron and you've got the best of both worlds. Non-stick convenience and iron durability. Le Creuset is the top-shelf brand for enameled cast-iron. You don't really need it. Two-hundred twenty bucks for a 3.5-quart round Dutch oven at Sears? Fuhgeddaboudit! You can get a six-quart from Lodge almost anywhere for about fifty dollars.

Non-stick pans are all the rage, but most real cooks “stick” to the materials listed above. Non-stick surfaces are good for a very limited number of things. Eggs, for instance. Even top chefs use non-stick for eggs. As I said, I've got some non-stick made by Bialetti that I just love. Thirty dollars for a 10.25-inch skillet at Bed, Bath and Beyond. But don't rely on non-stick for everyday cooking. You can't use it over high heat, you've got to baby the coating, and if you're lucky you'll get five years out of it. Buy one and use it for eggs or pancakes or something. But get stainless steel, cast-iron, or anodized aluminum for your general cooking requirements.

Small Appliances

It's easy to go way overboard here. So much stuff, so little money (or space)! I don't think I have to mention a microwave. Not so much for “cooking” as for reheating, defrosting, melting butter – stuff like that. And popcorn, of course. Where would society be without microwave popcorn? (I'll answer that question seriously one of these days.)

A toaster is also essential, although I really like toaster ovens, or “countertop ovens” as they are sometimes called. A regular toaster is a uni-tasker. It makes toast. Period. Not only can you make toast, you can cook a frozen pizza in some of today's countertop ovens, especially the ones with a convection feature. And they aren't that expensive. Between fifty and a hundred dollars, depending on bells and whistles.

If you're a coffee or tea drinker, a coffee or tea maker is important. Keurig will impress your friends, but Mr. Coffee will still make them coffee for about one-tenth the price.

You need an electric mixer. Don't go nuts and spend $300 on a KitchenAid stand mixer unless you're really going to use it. At the same time, beware of cheaper models. They sometimes have weak motors that aren't up to the task for doughs and heavy batters and you can burn 'em out pretty easily. A good hand mixer is what most home cooks need. Black and Decker makes a five-speed mixer for under thirty dollars and KitchenAid has one for just a little more. Again, avoid “bargains.” A ten-dollar mixer will give you what you pay for.

Food processors teeter on the edge of “essential.” They're so darn versatile, but maybe not what every cook needs. Mini-processors or mini-choppers are popular and inexpensive and fill the bill in many kitchens.

Avoid uni-taskers if money and/or space are at a premium. Bread machines are cool, but you can make bread dough in a stand mixer or a food processor. Deep fryers are nice, but you can deep-fry in an enameled Dutch oven. Not to say that if you plan on doing a lot of bread making or deep-frying these appliances wouldn't come in handy, but not for run-of-the-mill, day-to-day cooking. Blenders are good, but food processors are usually better. The one exception might be an immersion blender, but that's a pretty specialized tool. Electric can openers? Nah. I can open cans faster with a hand-cranker, especially the nifty new ones that leave a nice, smooth edge. More on that in a minute.

The Little Stuff

Here's where you can really beat up your wallet. And the sad thing is that most of these “essential” gadgets wind up getting used once or twice and then stuck away in the back of a drawer or cabinet never to see the light of day again until the big yard sale. This is especially true of all those “as seen on TV” gimmicks. But there are a few things you really should have.

Measuring cups and spoons. Plastic cups and spoons are okay, but metal is better. You'll go through ten cheap plastic sets before you'll wear out a good stainless steel set. There is a difference between cups intended for dry measure and those meant for wet measure. It's a good idea to have a set of each for really accurate results. And a variety of glass measuring cups will also really be useful, especially in the microwave.

Microplane Grater/Zester. This tool – adapted from the carpentry trade – is a must have. It grates cheese, nutmeg, garlic – you name it. And it produces perfect zest from lemons,oranges, limes, etc. An old-fashioned box grater is still good for coarser grating tasks, so invest in one of those, too.

Mixing bowls, colander. Pros use stainless steel mixing bowls. You can prep food in them and they can go in the oven, on the stovetop, in the refrigerator – very versatile. Glass bowls are good, too, but they are prone to breakage. Plastic is a poor third choice. It stains, it warps and you really shouldn't use it for whipping egg whites or whipping cream. (It's a chemistry thing.) Get a variety of sizes. And a colander is essential for draining and drying. Mine's a big metal honker that hangs on the wall, but they make collapsible colanders that hardly take up any space at all.

Whisks, wooden spoons, spatulas. You can whisk with a fork, but you can whisk better with a whisk. A simple balloon whisk is good enough. A few wooden spoons are also essential. Plastic is colorful and cheap, but nothing beats wood for durability. A silicone spatula is handy. Notice I said silicone, not rubber. Silicone spatulas are heat resistant up to about 500°F. Not so with cheap rubber spatulas. And get the good ones with wooden handles. Plastic handles snap easily.

Instant-read thermometers. Okay, the pros have this thing they do with feeling the palms of their hands to tell them when meat is properly cooked. Everybody else should use an instant-read thermometer. Not a meat thermometer or a candy thermometer. They are useful, but not interchangeable.

Peelers and openers. I like a nice “Y” peeler. And, yes, you can peel fruits and vegetables with a paring knife, but a peeler is faster, easier, and safer for most people. And speaking of safety, I really recommend the new “smooth edge” can openers. They're a little pricier than old-fashioned openers that leave sharp, jagged edges, but they're cheaper than a trip to the ER. And you really should have a bottle/can opener – what used to be called a “church key” – around somewhere. Almost everything is twist-off or pop-top these days, but not everything.

Bakeware and accessories. Even if you're only going to make cakes, cookies, brownies, and cupcakes from box mixes or refrigerated dough, you still need something on which to bake them. A couple of round cake pans, a cookie sheet or two, a square or rectangular baking pan, and a muffin pan will start you out well. And for goodness sake, buy a wooden rolling pin. I once had to use a two-liter soda bottle to roll out dough in a friend's kitchen that was, shall we say, less than well-equipped.

Potholders, mitts and aprons. In professional kitchens, most cooks rely on towels hanging from their aprons – “side towels” – for handling hot pots and pans, simply because potholders and mitts are hard to track down when you need them. Home cooks don't usually have that problem, so always have a few at the ready. You can even get them to match your apron, which is another kitchen essential. At the very least an apron will keep grease and sauce from spattering your clothes. In a worst case scenario, it can prevent a serious burn should something spill or overturn.

Storage containers. A nice variety of storage containers is the last word in kitchen essentials. Empty glass jars and plastic tubs that used to hold margarine (which I fervently hope you're not using) or whipped topping (ditto) don't count. My preference for storage is glass. Plastic is okay, and I've got a boatload of plastic, too. But you have to be careful with plastic. For one thing, you can't use some plastics in a microwave. Either they emit toxins when heated or they just melt. And plastics tend to stain and retain strong odors. Plastic or acrylic canisters with tight seals are great for storing flour, sugar and other dry goods. But glass bowls with lids are best for sticking leftovers in the fridge.

Those are the basics. As time goes on and your cooking skills and requirements grow, so will your kitchen collection. But beyond gadgets and gimmicks, you really need good basic tools in order to be a good, efficient cook. And by “good” I also mean good quality. Stay out of the dollar store, but don't bankrupt yourself at Williams Sonoma, either. There's lots of good stuff to be found in the middle. Shop around and buy the best you can afford. And don't limit your search to discount and department stores. Culinary specialty shops almost always overcharge for basic items, but restaurant supply stores are a great source for quality and economy.

Buona fortuna e buona cucina!