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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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Creamy Italian Dishes – Yes! Cream IN Italian Dishes – NO!

I was watching one of those ubiquitous competition shows on Food Network the other night and there was this “chef” – big guy, been cooking since the discovery of fire – who decided to prepare risotto. And I watched in abject horror as the man threw rice in a pan and dumped cream on it, “because risotto is supposed to be really creamy.”

My wife had to restrain me to keep me from going through the TV screen. “NO-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O!” I cried, loudly enough to frighten the dog. And when it came time for this idiot's dish to be judged, one of the judges asked him point blank, “Do you always put cream in your risotto?” “Always,” was the smug reply. The judge just gave him a look. And then sent him packing.

Can somebody tell me why American cooks think Italian food gets its creamy texture from cream? I'm not saying Italians don't ever use cream. They most certainly do. I mean, “panna cotta” is literally “cooked cream.” But not everything that is “creamy” is full of cream. There are some dishes – risotto being one of them – that, when properly prepared, are naturally creamy. They get that way through using proper ingredients and proper technique.

The most common rice used in risotto is Arborio. It is a short-grain rice that has a very high starch content. And when it is correctly cooked, it releases that starch, which gives the finished dish its wonderful creaminess. There's no *#%?@&! cream in an authentic, well-prepared risotto. The creamy texture is the result of lightly toasting the rice in a little fat – olive oil, butter, etc. – and then ladling in measured amounts of heated stock or broth. When the rice has absorbed the liquid, you stir in some more and then repeat the process until all the liquid is absorbed and the creamy starch is released.

That said, there might be a reason to add cream to risotto at the finish if you are looking to change the flavor profile or enhance some element of the dish. But this doofus specifically said he was adding cream at the beginning to make it creamy, and that's just amateur, culinary school drop-out wrong.

Another “creamy” Italian dish that doesn't need cream is anything “Alfredo.” Let's be clear right up front, there is no such thing as “Alfredo” or “Alfredo sauce” in authentic Italian cooking. Go to Italy and order it. Unless you hit a tourist trap, they'll just look at you funny. The dish that is a staple in every pseudo-Italian eatery in the United States developed from a simple pasta al burro, an Italian pasta and butter creation. It was “discovered” by a couple of American movie stars back in the silent film era. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford stumbled upon Alfredo di Lelio's ristorante while honeymooning in Rome. They thought Alfredo's dish of pasta in a butter and cheese sauce was the best thing they had ever eaten. They came home and told all their friends about it, and soon everybody in America was clamoring for Fettuccine Alfredo. Except nobody knew how to make it. Well, there's definitely butter and cheese in there and since it's really, really creamy, there must be cream in it, too, right? Wrong! Once again, it's all about ingredients and technique.

One of the reasons American cooks had such a hard time replicating Alfredo's “sauce” is the difference in quality between Italian butter and cheese and the American equivalents. European butter is much richer due to a higher butterfat content. And, although there are many imitators, nothing really compares to Parmigiano-Reggiano. Lacking access to these amenities, American cooks improvised and added cream to enhance and enrich the texture.

When you mix high-fat Italian butter with authentic Italian cheese and just a touch of pasta cooking water, the result is a rich, unctuous, creamy sauce that contains absolutely no cream. Of course, proper technique is also important. You start with lots of butter in the bottom of a warmed bowl. Then you add your drained pasta. Don't drain it dry. In fact, a few tablespoons of reserved cooking water will help develop the “sauce” for the dish. Then you add lots of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and you begin to mix and stir. Using a fork and a spoon, you twist and twirl and spin the pasta in the butter and cheese until everything is completely incorporated. If you do it right, there will be nary a lump and the resulting mixture will, because of the natural richness of the ingredients, be smooth and creamy. With no cream.

A lot of Italian food has become so Americanized as to be almost unrecognizable. And that's a shame, because simple Italian food is simply delicious. So ditch the cream and try using authentic Italian ingredients and techniques. You will be amazed at the difference.