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!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Which Qualifies as “Crap,” Butter or Margarine?

I'm writing from a slightly pissed off perspective, so proceed with caution. I'm still shaking with anger over something that happened during the holidays. I was visiting out of town and, as is often the case, I was asked to cook. Specifically, to cook breakfast. Now, when it comes to breakfast, the Italian side of my heritage is completely subjugated by other aspects of my ancestry. No prima colazione of coffee and pastry for me. Breakfast is some combination of bacon, sausage, eggs, potatoes, pancakes, biscuits, and toast. Bring on the syrup, the jam, jelly, or preserves, and most of all, bring on the butter. Paula Deen ain't got a thing on me when it comes to butter at breakfast.

So that's why when one of the people I was serving made his way to the refrigerator and pulled out a tub of margarine, I was confused. “There's butter on the table,” I said. To which he replied, “Oh, I don't eat that butter crap.” 

I was rocked to the core of my Dairyland upbringing. Never in more than a half-century of life have I ever heard the words “butter” and “crap” used in relation to one another. Creamy, delicious, wholesome, all-natural butter has been a staple of mankind's diet since humans and cows first developed a relationship in neolithic times. And it remained a staple until some 19th century French chemist developed oleomargarine as a cheap substitute to feed Napoleon III's army. The fact that Napoleon III was overthrown and sent into exile not long after should tell you something.

Right from the start, margarine faced a steep uphill climb on the acceptance front. It didn't look natural, it didn't feel natural, it didn't smell natural, and it certainly didn't taste natural. And, as you can imagine, dairy farmers were none too fond of it. I won't go into all the details of the legal battles between butter and margarine that took place over the next few decades. The subject would take pages to cover. But three things occurred mid-century that would enable margarine to gain prominence over butter. The first was WWII, the second was the post-war industrialization of our food supply, and the third was a fallacious war on fat.

In 1942, the US government implemented its wartime Food Rationing Program. In March 1943 the Office of Price Administration added butter, fats, and oils to the list of foods to be rationed. These were part of “Red Stamp” rationing that also included meats and most cheeses. People got sixty-four red stamps each month and when their stamps were used up, that was it until the next month's issue. Butter was a hefty sixteen stamps per pound. “Oleo” – as most people called it – was substantially less, resulting in an enormous boost for margarine on the home front. Oddly enough, many Americans were so unfamiliar with the product that they thought it was something Uncle Sam invented to help the war effort. Rationing of lard, shortening, and oils was phased out in early 1944, but butter and margarine remained rationed until late 1945. 

After the war, the industrialization of the country's food supply, which had been slowly building momentum in the preceding decades, took off like one of the rockets down at Cape Canaveral. And lucky ol' margarine was riding right there on the nose cone of that rocket. Buoyed by brisk wartime sales, margarine manufacturers organized and found some money and muscle. The 1950s saw dozens of federal and state laws restricting and regulating the manufacture and sale of margarine fall by the wayside, until only Wisconsin stood guard at the gate – at least until 1967. Once margarine manufacturers got their collective foot in the door, they milked their advantage (sorry) for all it was worth and by 1957 margarine was outselling butter for the first time. People's palates had been sufficiently dumbed down during the war and now folks didn't have to smuggle margarine like old-timey bootleggers anymore or add their own packets of yellow coloring to the milky white gunk. Besides, it was cheap! At an average of 19 cents per pound it was much cheaper than the 65 cents per pound price tag butter carried in the mid '50s. And you know how Americans like to save money – even if it kills them.

Which leads to margarine's last step up the slippery ladder of success. As “Space Age” science came roaring to the forefront of the American consciousness, the previously unheralded study of food science took on new importance. Suddenly our culture stopped eating food and started eating “nutrients.” In his book “In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto,” author Michael Pollan dubs this phenomenon “nutritionism.” No longer did we look at a pork chop as a pork chop. Under the aegis of nutritionism, a pork chop became a conglomeration of protein, fats (saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated), carbohydrates, dietary fiber, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, and a handful of vitamins and minerals. And it was as a result of nutritionism that margarine took the high ground in the war against butter.

Practitioners of nutritionism had launched an all out war on fat and cholesterol. Butter, a byproduct of animal fat, was just loaded with unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol. Leading scientific studies of the time said that one tablespoon, with its seven grams of saturated fat and 31 mg of cholesterol, was going to close up your arteries, shut down your heart, and put you in an early grave. Chemically engineered margarine, on the other hand, was all fluffy and white and made from pure vegetable oil. With a miniscule 2.2 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon and no cholesterol, margarine was touted as the miracle health food of the age. It had much higher levels of healthy poly and monounsaturated fats than wicked old butter and with just a tiny touch of butterfat added in, why, it tasted just like butter! (A finer example of the dumbing down of the American palate cannot be found.)

The problem with food science and the cult of nutritionism is that it changes its mind on a daily basis as new information becomes available. The nails in yesterday's coffin are transformed into the pillars of today's health with amazing alacrity. Eggs, for example. And yesterday's nutritional marvels, like margarine, become today's detritus just as quickly. See, what the floggers of margarine didn't tell us – because they didn't know – was that the very process by which liquid vegetable oil becomes solid – a process know as “hydrogenation” – creates a compound called trans-fat, an almost completely unnatural and chemically produced substance that will grease your slide into heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer faster than any natural fat – saturated or otherwise – ever found in “that butter crap.” Can you say “oops?”

Another problem with nutritionism is its persistence in the public mind. Like any good lie, once told and spread around, it can never be untold. We raised at least two generations on the fallacy that chickens laid little death bombs and that in order to survive, you needed to eat either just the whites or, better still, packaged, processed, pasteurized egg substitutes. Only through science, brothers and sisters, could you truly be safe. Eventually that lie was thoroughly discredited, but because it was around for so long and believed by so many, it will never entirely go away. I guarantee that if you were to ask any ten random people today, eight of them would still say eggs are bad for you. The same holds true with “healthy” margarine.

For me, if I am going to be led to my premature death by a natural substance that is lightly sweet with a pleasing mouthfeel, containing an amazing variety of natural vitamins and minerals and that has been a part of man's diet since prehistoric times or a stick of bland, greasy, hydrogenated, bleached, deodorized, artificially flavored and colored, chemically processed goop containing mutagenic and carcinogenic trans-fatty acid compounds – well, I think you know upon which side my bread is buttered.

Well, margarine's all we had growing up and it hasn't hurt me yet.” Not that you know of, anyway.

I don't taste any difference between butter and margarine.” Really? And you probably liked New Coke, too, didn't you? Can I interest you in palate replacement surgery?

I can't afford butter. It's too expensive.” Okay. Put the money you save into a fund for a nicer funeral.

Well, if it wasn't safe or good for you, the government wouldn't let it be sold.” Thalidomide anyone? By the way, do you smoke?

You know what else is cool about butter? With cream and a little salt, I can make it myself. I can make a small quantity by putting the cream and the salt in a tightly covered glass jar and shaking it up for a few minutes. Tah-dah! Butter!

Have you had any fresh homemade margarine lately? Let's see......first you steam clean the vegetable oil to remove impurities – and any vitamins and antioxidants it might contain. Then you heat it to extremely high temperatures, which makes it go rancid. Then you inject it with hydrogen and nickel – two of my favorite all natural ingredients. This produces a lumpy gray grease. Tah-dah! Margarine! But wait. We're not finished. Next you add emulsifiers to smooth out the lumps. And don't forget the bleach. It takes away that ugly gray color and makes the grease a nice milky white. The unpleasant rancid smell is then removed by another steaming session. Now you're ready to add the synthetic vitamins and the artificial flavorings and colors. Yum-yum.

Butter is “crap?” I think not.

And apparently a lot of people are right there with me. According to recent industry figures, US butter consumption has reached a forty year high, increasing twenty-five percent in the last ten years alone. The word about the healthy antioxidants in butter, the omega-3 fatty acids, the protein, folate, vitamins A and D and other nutrients is getting around. Does that make butter a health food? No. Not by a long shot. It's still loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol, and should be used in moderation, not as a snack food. But it's far and away healthier than its plastic counterpart. Especially, the medical folks say, if you're a man who has already suffered a heart attack, which, by the way, the “butter crap” man is. Oh well. His funeral. Literally.

People have also figured out that there is no substitute for the natural flavor and texture of butter, not only on toast at the table but in the preparation of foods. A savvy new generation of home cooks has caught on to the fact that margarine has never been used in quality food preparation. Even while home cooks of the '50s and '60s were using “margarine or butter” in accordance with the directions on their box mix recipes, the pros have always relied on real butter. Just ask the folks at New York's International Culinary Center where they go through 21,946 pounds of butter a year. That's a lot of “crap,” wouldn't you say?

To the people who persist and say, “Well, they make healthier margarine now that they used to,” I can only ask, “why do you insist on putting chemically processed man made artificial food-like substances in your body when nature provides everything you and your ancestors have needed since they came up from the seas and down from the trees?” The words “they make” should scream at you. It is precisely the things that are “made” and “processed” that are turning us into a nation of obese, disease-ridden corpses that are, at the same time, artificially sweetened and wonderfully well-preserved.

Margarine was created to win a prize. Today, the only prize it should win is a booby prize. Butter is "crap?” Get real – and get real butter.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Pizza With a Knife and Fork? Sorry, New Yorkers – Mayor de Blasio is RIGHT!

I've been flapping my gums for years about the proper way to eat certain Italian foods. I've already expounded at length about the proper way to eat spaghetti. You don't cut it, you twirl it. And there's a proper twirling technique, too, one that never, ever involves a <shudder> spoon. But right now I want to reiterate the right way to eat pizza. By “right,” of course, I mean the traditional Italian way.
No offense to youse guys in New Yawk and New Joisy whose Italian ancestors arrived at Ellis Island two or three generations ago, but those vecchi nonni would absolutely spin in their graves if they could see a lot of what has been done to their beloved traditional food – to say nothing of their native language. Yeah, I'm talkin' to you, people who say “moozzarell” and “proshoot” and “ragot.” But that's a topic for another time.
There's been a real tempest brewing in a teapot in the New York media lately because the new mayor, an Italian-American guy named Bill de Blasio, got caught eating his pizza with a knife and fork. I live hundreds of miles away and I swear I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from here. Everybody in New Yawk knows dat da way to eat a slice 'a pizza is to pick it up wit yer hands, fold it ovah and stuff it in yer face. Capeesh? So when the mayor gets caught with a knife and a fork, why it's like he roots for the Red Sox or somethin'. Oh, wait........he does root for the Red Sox.

Disaster!”, cries one New York writer. “Forkgate”, screams another.

In his own defense, de Blasio, whose mother was Italian, says, “In my ancestral homeland, it’s more typical to eat with a fork and knife.” He added, “I have been in Italy a lot and I have picked up the habit for certain types of pizza,” noting that the pie he allegedly butchered at Goodfellas “had a lot on it.”

And you know what? He's absolutely right. It is indeed proper etiquette, especially when dining out, to eat pizza with a knife and fork. Nobody wants to see grease dripping down your fingers and toppings falling out of your mouth as you fold a slice like a freakin' sandwich and shovel it into your pie hole. Italians don't even let their children eat that way.

In the first place, real Italian pizza isn't served by the slice. I didn't used to be served that way in America either. Those old guys at those early pizzerias sold it by the pie. You go in and ask for a slice and they show you the door molto rapidamente. It took a long time for “by the slice” to catch on, and it still hasn't caught on in some more traditional places. So the way you eat a pizza in Italy is to cut it in quarters with your knife and then cut small bites and transfer them to your mouth with a fork.

Now, because a lot of traditions “evolved” once they came to America, a lot of people – yours truly included – will take those first molten hot bites with a knife and fork. You know, the ones that leave burned places on the roof of your mouth if you just stick the pointy end in and bite down? And that pointy end is usually pretty droopy, too, and everything sort of slides off on the way to your face and ends up on your shirt. Once I get far enough into the slice that it has cooled a bit and is a little more stable, I'll eat it with my fingers, American style. Sometimes. Depends on who I'm with and how much crap I want to take.

And Hizzoner says that's the way he does it, too. “I often start with a knife and fork but then I cross over to the American approach and pick it up when I go farther into the pizza,” he explained.

In fact, although the Italians did not exactly “invent” the fork, they were responsible for its refinement into an eating utensil and for spreading it around Renaissance Europe. So Italians and forks go way back.

A lot depends on the pizza, too. In Italy there's no such thing as “supreme” or “meat lover's.” They don't load their pies with everything but the kitchen sink. Authentic Neapolitan pizza, made according the the strict standards of Vera Pizza Napoletana, requires that the crust be no more than 14 inches in diameter and no thicker than 0.8 inches. The allowable toppings include tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, oregano, and garlic. If you want pepperoni pizza in Italy, go to an American tourist trap. The real pizzerias won't know what you're talking about.

The cardboard-crusted abominations foisted off on an uneducated American public by the likes of Pizza Hut, Dominoes, Little Caesar's, Papa John's and the rest wouldn't even qualify as pizze in Italy. And many of the pies produced by supposedly “authentic” pizzerias barely make the grade. If you have to juggle your pizza and fold it in half and hold your mouth just right so the grease doesn't drip and the copious toppings don't slip, you're not eating a decent pizza anyway. It's like those tomato and cheese casseroles they call “deep dish pizza” in Chicago. I dare you to fold up one of those bad boys. And even if the crust is thin and crispy on the outside with a nice chewiness on the inside, if you load it down with so much garbage that it all slides off in your lap, what's the point?

So cut Bill de Blasio some slack, anti-forkers. He's right, you're wrong, live with it. I don't care if 8.3 million New Yorkers think they're right. Sixty-one point three million Italians will say they're not, and that pretty much settles the question. Capisce? 

I'm outta here. All this talk has me craving a nice thin-crust pizza Margherita, so I gotta go get my knife and fork. Ciao!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Concassé – A Classic French Technique For Classic Italian Dishes

Okay, we all know that if the French hadn't had the good sense and good fortune to make Caterina de' Medici their queen back in 1547 and if she hadn't brought her own staff of Italian cooks with her to make the disgusting French food more palatable.....well, French food would still be disgusting. But they did and she did and it's not, so everybody wins. Especially the French, who get to brag about being the best cooks in the world......after the Italians taught them how to be.

Seriously, regardless of how it developed, French technique is the worldwide culinary standard. Fussy French chefs in their fussy brigades wearing fussy starched uniforms and fussy tall hats making their fussy sauces and fussy knife cuts and fussy garnishes for their fussy dishes make a bunch of plain old Italian grandmothers look pretty unimpressive by comparison. Even if nonna's food is better.

One of those fancy French techniques that can be applied to simple Italian cooking is concassé. (Pronounced kon-kah-SAY.) Taken from the French word concasser, which means “to crush or grind,” to concassé an ingredient is to roughly chop it. The term is usually applied to vegetables, especially tomatoes.

Now, Italians use a lot of chopped tomatoes. They use them in sauces and salads and pasta dishes and as toppings on bruschetta, just for a few examples. So if you're going to make any of these things, it helps to know how to concassé a tomato.

As it applies to tomatoes, concassé is actually a technique for peeling and seeding as well as for chopping. Yes, you can just take a knife and whack up a whole tomato skins, seeds, and all. But don't. Tomato seeds can be bitter tasting and devilish to pick out of your teeth and tomato skins can be tough and unpalatable even when cooked. When you buy canned Italian tomatoes, they are pomodori pelati; peeled tomatoes. They're peeled, but not always seeded. So let's take the next step to tomato concassé.

Start with fresh, ripe tomatoes. I prefer Roma tomatoes because they have fewer seeds, but any good fresh tomato will do. Fill a deep pot with enough water to cover the tomatoes and bring it to a boil. While that's happening, use the tip of a paring knife to cut around and remove the stem or its remainder on the top of the tomato. Then turn the tomato over and make a small “X” incision in the skin on the bottom. Make your cuts about an inch long and just deep enough to score the skin.

When the water comes to a boil, place the tomatoes – a few at a time if you're working with a big batch – in the boiling water. Leave the tomatoes in the water for 30 seconds to a minute, depending on the freshness of the tomato. When you see the skins start to curl up a bit where you cut the “X,” they're done. Use a spider or a slotted spoon to remove them from the water. This is called blanching or parboiling and it helps loosen the skin.

Cool the tomatoes in an ice water bath. Also called “shocking,” this method immediately stops the cooking process. Just don't leave them in the ice water too long or they'll become waterlogged. A minute or two should do it.

When the tomatoes have cooled, pick one up and slip the tip of your knife under one of the points of the “X” you cut in the bottom. Use your thumb to hold the flap of tomato skin against the blade of your knife and slowly peel back the skin. It should come off easily in nice strips. Do this all the way around.

Next, cut the tomato in half horizontally – around the middle, not top to bottom – and either squeeze out or scoop out the seeds. Some people quarter the tomatoes and seed them; whatever works for you. Now you can easily dice the tomatoes to whatever size you need. Rough chop or fine dice, they'll be a breeze to cut because the tough skin is what makes cutting tomatoes difficult to begin with.

Concaséed tomatoes are less watery when you're cooking with them than diced raw tomatoes. Not so much of a deal if you're putting them in a sauce, but it makes a big difference when you're using them to top bruschetta or putting them in a frittata or something like insalata Caprese. Besides, they look fancier and more finished and that's half of what French technique is about anyway.

So use some of that classic French technique in your classic Italian cooking. It's only fair, right?

Buona fortuna e buon mangiare!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Hooray for Non-GMO Cheerios.......Sort Of

“Original Cheerios to Go GMO Free!” screamed the recent headline on my newsfeed. Well, hooray
for Non-GMO Cheerios.......sort of.

Okay, let's start with the basic question; what's a GMO? GMO stands for genetically modified organism and refers organism that has been genetically modified. But in this case we're not talking about some weird science fiction creature dreamed up in a mad scientist's laboratory. No. We're talking about your food supply. Specifically, your processed food supply because nearly all corn and soy crops in the United States are genetically modified.

What kind of modifications are we talking about? Oh, nothing that would be bad for you, heaven forbid. The toothless tigers at the FDA and the USDA would never think of letting anything bad for you slip into the food system. Unless there was enough money and influence involved. Anyway, these modifications are designed to produce bigger, fuller products and more of them. They are designed to be disease and pest resistant. Isn't that all wonderful and beneficial-sounding? We won't talk about the possible effects such engineering may have on the overall quality and nutritional value of the food involved and we won't speak of creating toxic or allergenic compounds within the molecular structure of the food. We wouldn't want to alarm the sheeple, would we?

Never mind that every other country on the planet requires labeling of GMO products or bans them outright. Our forward-thinking, progressive food system is, by and large, run by shills for the industrial food producers they are supposed to be regulating. Think foxes guarding the hen houses. So GMO labeling is not required in the good ol' US of A and since GMO are not even considered food additives, there are no requirements in place to prevent them from being added to just about anything and everything food manufacturers desire. And we the sheeple need not be told. What we don't know won't hurt us. Much.

But, as I said, hooray for Cheerios and its producer General Mills. They are taking a bold step forward and, in response to consumer demand, they are eliminating GMO ingredients from original Cheerios. Read the press releases. The forces of good have overpowered the evil dark side. The consumer has spoken. We are changing our wicked, wicked ways. Now, don't you feel good about us?

Meh. There's one little detail they kind of gloss over. Cheerios are made of oats. And there's no such thing – yet – as genetically modified oats. So they want you to get all excited over the fact that they are not genetically modifying something they weren't genetically modifying to begin with. Rather like the “gluten free” pushers who slap “gluten free” labels on scores of rice and corn and potato products – products that are inherently gluten free – in order to look politically correct and to sell more stuff.

Want to know what's in Cheerios? Hang on: Whole Grain Oats, Corn Starch, Sugar, Salt, Tripotassium Phosphate, Wheat Starch, Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) added to preserve freshness. Tripotassium Phosphate is an emulsifier, in case you were dying to know, and “mixed tocopherols” are preservatives used because of their resistance to high temperatures in food processing, their low volatility and good solubility in fats and oils.

But the point is, the only thing in Cheerios that contains any sort of genetically modified material are the relatively small amounts of corn starch and sugar. So they're promising to use non-GMO corn and sugar in original Cheerios. But not in any other variety. See, there are boatloads of GMO ingredients in other Cheerios products. Honey Nut Cheerios, for instance, not only has corn starch and sugar, but brown sugar as well and canola oil, which can also be genetically modified. Multi-Grain Cheerios contain lots of corn – corn, corn starch, and corn bran. And the other varieties are pretty much the same story. By their own admission it would cost General Mills too much money to stop using GMO in all their product lines, so they're only going to respond to consumer demands where it won't hurt them much by trumpeting their corporate responsibility and slapping their “No GMO” label on the product that's least affected in the first place.

But, hey, if nothing else at least it raises awareness of GMO in the industrial food supply and maybe if enough consumers start asking, “What's that doing in there?” and start voting with their dollars at the grocery store, things will change. The last thing food manufacturers want is an educated populace. Sheeple are easier to feed. So why not wake up and be a pain the corporate ass today, hmmm? You never know, you could make a difference.

In the meantime, even though it's nothing more than a self-serving publicity and marketing ploy, it's still a step in the right direction, so hooray for Non-GMO Cheerios......sort of.