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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!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Few Things Italian Cooks NEVER Do

Nearly everybody loves Italian food. Survey after survey shows it to be one of the world's most popular cuisines. Not only do people like to eat Italian food, they like to cook it, too, largely because of a basic tenet of Italian cooking: simplicity. Italian food is tasty and easy to prepare. What more could you want?

Italian food came to American shores in the hearts and souls – and occasionally in the luggage – of Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And it caught on like wildfire. Americans couldn't get enough of the stuff in neighborhood Italian restaurants. They wanted to be able to cook it at home, too. Italian cook Ettore Boiardi – the real life “Chef Boyardee” – got the ball rolling by packing up take out containers of his sauce for customers in his Cleveland eatery. Pretty soon, everybody in America was cooking like an Italian. Sort of.

Along the way, American cooks developed some horrible habits that make Italian cooks cringe. Unfortunately for the culture, Italians are, by and large, too polite to correct mistakes they observe in those trying to imitate them. Unlike the French, who spare no effort in reaming you a new one over the slightest infraction, the Italians have a “whatever” attitude toward everything from proper pronunciation of their language to correct preparation of their food. "You want to screw up our language by saying 'mare-uh-NARE-uh' and 'broo-SHET-uh' instead of 'mah-ree-NAH-rah' and 'broo-SKET-ah'? Whatever! You want to screw up our food by employing all manner of bad cooking techniques? That's okay, too. We're Italian. We don't mind."

Here are a few random things you will never see an Italian cook do.

Putting oil in pasta cooking water. I've been trying to find out how this awful habit got started and I just don't know. I even contacted the folks at the National Pasta Association. They don't know, either. It's just one of those things your mother told you to do because her mother told her to do it that way. Unless your mother was Italian. Putting oil in the water is one of the things you will never see an Italian cook do.

The theory behind the silly practice is that adding oil to the cooking water will magically keep the pasta from sticking together. But think back to Chemistry 101. What happens when you pour oil on water You get water with a film of oil on top. The only thing you need to pour into pasta cooking water to prevent sticking is more water. You need at least a gallon of water to cook a pound of pasta. If you try to dump a whole box of spaghetti into a two-quart saucepan half full of water, it's gonna stick. Pasta releases starch as it cooks. That's what gets sticky. The oil you pour on top just floats around up there and never gets down to where the stickiness happens. And by the time you pull the cooked pasta up through the layer of floating oil, the stickiness has already happened. And, no, stirring it in doesn't help. Unless you really stir it in enough to create an emulsion, the oil is just going to drift lazily back to the surface as soon as you take your spoon out of the pot. If you have enough water for the pasta to swim around in, the starch disperses and the noodles don't stick. No oil needed.

Some people say the oil helps prevent boil overs, and there is something to that. But I've got an even better, more foolproof way to prevent boil overs: lower the heat and watch the pot! That's how an Italian cook does it.

Cooking pasta without salt. Salt has become the universal culinary villain in recent years. To listen to the “experts,” you'd think that everybody who even looks at the stuff risks dropping dead of a stroke or a heart attack. But you know what? There are some foods that just absolutely need salt. Eggs, for instance. There is nothing worse than an unsalted egg. Pasta is the same way. In and of itself, it is fairly bland and flavorless. I mean, dried pasta is made of flour and water, okay? How much flavor can it have? So you have to salt it to make it taste like anything and the salting has to be done during the cooking process. In order for it to taste right, it has to be cooked in – as Mario Batali puts it – aggressively salted water. An Italian cook would never use less than one or two tablespoons of salt per gallon of water. The salty flavor is absorbed into the pasta as it swells during cooking. A long-time chef of my acquaintance suggests that cooking pasta in unsalted water actually leeches what little flavor there is out of the pasta, leaving it even more dull and bland. The salt also helps reduce the gelation of the starch released by the pasta. And, no, it won't give you an instant heart attack because the pasta will only absorb so much salt. The rest is drained away. If you wait until after the pasta is cooked, you can dump salt on it to little avail. There is no substitute for salting the water.

Rinsing cooked pasta. Another thing everybody's non-Italian mother taught them to do was to rinse the cooked pasta. “It gets all that starch off there.” No, no,no! You want all that starch on there. It's what helps the sauce adhere to the noodle. If you're ever served a nice big bowl of pasta where the noodles are bright white and naked and sitting in a pool of sauce, you can bet somebody listened to his non-Italian mother and rinsed the pasta. An Italian mother would never think of rinsing the pasta, so it's another thing an Italian cook would never do.

Oiling cooked pasta. Same thing goes for oiling the pasta after you cook and drain it. Like rinsing, you would only do that in a pasta salad or some other application where you don't want anything to stick to the pasta. Otherwise, you're gonna make that pasta as slick as a bambino's bottom and all the work you put into opening that jar of spaghetti sauce will be wasted because it'll just slide right off the noodle and back onto the plate. Or onto the front of your shirt. So, okay, I can't say Italian cooks never oil pasta, but they only do it in specific instances. Never for spaghetti or fettuccine or linguine or anything you serve hot with sauce.

Breaking up uncooked pasta. Don't break the pasta. What did it ever do to you? The Italian ear is very sensitive to the screams of spaghetti noodles as they're being viciously and cruelly snapped in half before being tossed into a pot of oily water. If you don't like or want long pasta, don't buy long pasta! Italians are artists at twirling up long strands of pasta on a fork and if you ask one, he'll be happy to show you how to do it without staining your shirtfront or resorting to breaking the noodles into bite-size pieces that you could eat with a spoon. An Italian cook never breaks up the pasta.

Overcooking pasta. I'll let you in on a little secret: In spite of what you get in a can of Chef Boyardee's eponymous product, pasta is not intended to be soft and mushy. The perfect pasta is cooked to a perfect chewy firmness – something Italians call al dente. Al Dente is not the name of the Italian guy who lives down the street, and for heaven's sake, it's not al DANTE. No doubt Dante was a great Italian poet, but his name has nothing to do with the proper texture of pasta. He may have, however, reserved a ring in hell for people who overcook it, something an Italian cook simply never does.

Cooking with “cooking wine.” Cooking with wine is very common in Italian cuisine. What is not common is so-called “cooking wine.” You've seen it in supermarkets. It's usually labeled “Italian Red Cooking Wine” or “White Italian Cooking Wine” or some such. Don't be fooled. An Italian cook would never cook with this stuff. It barely qualifies as wine, being made from the cheapest, thinnest base wine to which a ton of salt, colorings, and other substances have been added to make it resemble wine. Rule of thumb: never cook with a wine you wouldn't drink. And believe me, you wouldn't want to drink “cooking wine.”

There are numerous other things Italian cooks don't do. Popular notions to the contrary, they don't cook with egregious amounts of garlic and they don't serve everything swimming in seas of red sauce. And they don't put twenty toppings on a pizza. These are all stereotypes and adulterations brought about by years of misinformation coupled with the inherent Italian inability to say, “No! Che non รจ giusto!”

So, forget what your mother taught you. Stop oiling, rinsing, breaking, overcooking, over-saucing and all the other things an Italian cook would never do. You will be amazed at the difference and your home-cooked Italian food will start looking and tasting like the delicious food you love at your favorite authentic Italian restaurant. (Olive Garden and Pizza Hut don't qualify.) Take some classes, get some books, interact with some real Italian cooks. If nothing else, watch Mario and Giada and Lidia and Mary Ann on TV. Cook and enjoy beautiful, simple Italian food the way it was meant to be cooked and enjoyed. Those are things Italian cooks always do.

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