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!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Air: Necessary for Life but Lousy for Freshness

I went to my grocer's deli for some sandwich meat and cheese the other day. The girl behind the counter was new. One of the ways I could tell was that when she handed me my packages of sliced ham and Swiss cheese, they looked like little balloons. I opened a corner of each bag and let out all the air while politely explaining to her that air and freshness were not friends. She said, “Oh, I didn't know that.” A lot of people don't.

You and I would turn up our toes pretty quickly without a supply of air. Same thing is true of the little microscopic critters that cause our food to spoil. Not all of them. Some bacteria are anaerobic, meaning they don't need air in order to survive and reproduce. Some – called facultative anaerobes – go both ways. But the little nasties that cause most food spoilage are happiest when they have a lot of air to breathe. That's why you want to give them as little as possible.

Among the many elements that assault our fresh foods in an effort to stale and spoil them, air is the biggest offender. Some foods don't like heat, others have an aversion to cold, some spoil with exposure to moisture, and some don't much care for light. But practically none of them like air. Air carries unpleasant flavors and odors to some things; it removes necessary moisture from or adds unnecessary moisture to others; it causes browning through oxidization; it makes some foods go rancid. Air acts differently on different substances but detrimentally on just about all of them.

Now wait, you say. If that's true, then why are a lot of foods, like potato chips, packaged in bags that are full of air? Well, it's not really air in there, at least not in the traditional sense. Regular air is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% other inert gases. Without going into a lot of complicated chemistry, it's primarily the oxygen that causes things to go stale, so food manufacturers counter this problem by replacing the common “air” in the bag with a custom mix that has a heavier concentration of nitrogen. Try opening a nice fresh bag of chips and letting that blend of gases out. Then close the bag back up with lots of good old regular air trapped inside there and see how long the chips stay fresh. Some poor clueless individual has even mounted an online petition demanding that manufacturers stop putting air in potato chip bags. Believe me, you really don't want that to happen.

Foods that contain fats and oils – like potato chips, for example – are prone to oxidative spoilage. Oxygen causes a chemical change in fats. The short chain carbon compounds that result from these changes are acrid, nasty, and really unpalatable. Ever bite into a really stale potato chip? Yuck.

Butter is another good example of this process. If you have two working taste buds in your mouth, you can tell when butter has gone rancid or “bad.” Many people mistakenly think that temperature is the culprit, but it's really air. Temperature does play a part when it comes to long term storage. Cold retards bacterial growth. That's why you keep butter in the refrigerator or freezer. But who wants to spread rock hard butter on soft bread? So you leave a stick out on the counter and it goes “bad” before you know it. Because it needs to be kept cold, right? Not so much. It needs to be kept away from exposure to the oxidizing agents in air. You have to keep it in an airtight environment. A butter dish – especially a pretty glass one – is generally not going to do it. Some form of butter crock – often marketed under the name “Butter Bell” – is the answer. It's a two-part ceramic contraption; the butter goes in the top and an inch or two of water goes in the bottom. When the top is inserted into the bottom, the water forms an airtight seal and your butter will stay nice and fresh for several weeks without refrigeration. That's how they did it before refrigerators and the method still works.

Obviously, the best way to get rid of air is through a vacuum seal of some sort. Most foods that can be affected by microbial growth are sold in vacuum sealed packages. Many of them are in resealable packaging. Now, once a vacuum pack has been opened, you'll never get the same preservative effect unless you have a vacuum sealer of your own. But even resealable packaging is useless if you don't get out as much air as possible when you close up the package. If you zip open a fresh package of sandwich meat, take out a few slices, and then close it back up with a lot of air in it, the meat will spoil more quickly than if you take the extra few seconds required to press all the air out before you seal the package. Same thing applies to anything that was factory sealed when you bought it. Meats, cheeses, breakfast cereals, cookies, crackers, snack foods – in order for it to stay fresher longer, you've got to get that air out of there. It doesn't matter if you fold over the top or slide the zipper or press down the little seal strips if you've left air in the package. Take the time to press out as much air as possible before you seal the bag. Flatten that sucker. Well.......maybe not with potato chips, but you get the idea. You can at least flatten the top part of the chip bag. If you're really fanatical about removing air, you can take a common drinking straw and stick it in a corner of the bag and suck out the air as you seal the bag. Or you can just press. Like I said, you're not going to get a perfect vacuum seal either way. The point is to get out as much air as you can.

Air is even the culprit in food that goes bad in the freezer. Yep. Freezer burn is caused by air. If you bring home a nice steak and stick it in a bag and throw it in the freezer and come back a week later to find it looking like an ice-crusted shoe sole, it's because you left too much air in the bag.

Moisture evaporates from food at any temperature, even sub-freezing ones. And what facilitates evaporation? Ding, ding, ding! Air. In simple terms, when you've got air in a freezer bag, it gives moisture a place to go. And the water droplets that evaporate into the air trapped in the bag turn into ice crystals and you have freezer burn. The way to prevent such spoilage is to not give the water vapor any place to go. Once again, vacuum packing is the best solution, but just making sure the food is tightly wrapped and that as much air as possible is expressed from the packaging will help. If you open that factory sealed bag of frozen French fries, take a few out, and then just fold over the top and throw the bag back in the freezer, you've just frozen a bag full of air. And you've given the moisture that naturally evaporates from the potatoes a place to go and turn into ice crystals. And the next time you open the bag, it looks like a bag of ice with potatoes sticking out of it. Press that air out of there.

The best way to prevent freezer spoilage is to wrap whatever you're freezing in a tight moisture barrier of some sort – plastic wrap, aluminum foil, freezer paper – and then put the tightly wrapped food in a container from which as much air as possible has been removed. Say you got a great deal on pork chops. Take them out of the store packaging and individually wrap each one as tightly as you can. Then put the wrapped chops in a sealable plastic bag, press the air out, and seal the bag. When you take out a chop or two, remember to press the air out of the bag again before you stick it back in the freezer.

Should you use freezer bags or will regular storage bags work? Both will do the job, but freezer bags will do it a little better because they are made of slightly thicker, more puncture resistant plastic. But in a pinch, any zip top bag will do as long as you've tightly wrapped the food in a moisture barrier and gotten all the air out of the bag.

Food is too expensive to lose to unnecessary spoilage and waste. Such waste can be reduced or eliminated through proper storage, and proper storage begins by being aware of air.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Europe Declares War on American Cheese

What's in a Name? That Which We Call Parmesan by Any Other Name Would Taste as Salty. Or Would It?

After a recent round of trade talks, rumors are in the wind that the European Union is seeking to ban the use of European names on American-made cheeses. If the EU gets its way, cheeses like Parmesan, Feta, Gorgonzola, and Muenster made in America would have to be called something else.

This has a lot of American cheese producers and consumers up in arms. The consensus among manufacturers is that such a change would be confusing to customers, while the general populace tends to look upon it as an example of European elitism.

As I erect my flameproof shields, I come down firmly on the side of the Europeans.

The only real “Parmesan” cheese is Parmigiano-Reggiano, a cow's milk cheese produced in a particular geographic area in and around Parma, Italy. And under European law, it can only be produced in that area. Anything similar made elsewhere cannot, by law, be called Parmigiano-Reggiano. However, there is this workaround, this loophole of which manufacturers have taken advantage. “Parmigiano” is the Italian word for something that comes from Parma. “Parmesan” is the French term for the same thing. So people wishing to make a knock-off of Parmigiano-Reggiano have only to call their product by its French appellation to avoid the penalty of law. And the uninformed consumer, wrongly thinking he has purchased an Italian cheese product, buys the knock-off, thus leaving the Italian manufacturer, who has spent generations developing his market and producing his product, holding the dirty end of the stick. The same principle applies to other cheeses associated with other areas.

Look at it like this: let's say the great entrepreneur Ron Popeil made a widget. It was a good widget and he put a lot of time and thought into developing and marketing it under his “Ronco” brand. But I came up with a widget that looked and performed pretty much like Ron Popeil's widget, so I decided to call mine the “Ronco Widget” and sell it under that name. There would be cease and desist orders and trademark infringement lawsuits flying like confetti. Why? A lot of people think my widget is better. Doesn't matter. The other guy named Ron has got the law protecting his brand on his side.

It's not a matter of snobbery or elitism on the part of European producers; it's just a matter of protecting their product by enforcing already existing laws. Except European agricultural laws don't apply to American food manufacturers. The proposed EU measures would simply ensure that they do.

Laws governing protected geographic status of agricultural products are common in Europe, but they are not unheard of in the United States. For example, anybody in America can grow sweet onions in their backyards. But their backyards had better be in or around Vidalia, Georgia if they want to call their onions “Vidalias.” And if you want to grow Russet potatoes in your garden, go for it. Just don't tell people they're “Idaho Russets” if you live in, say, Michigan.

“Well, we think onions grown in the Walla Walla Valley are every bit as good as Vidalias. What makes the elitist snobs in Georgia think their onions are better than ours?” Honestly, the average consumer probably couldn't tell the difference in a blind taste test. It's not that the Georgia-grown product is superior to the one grown in Washington. It's just that Georgia growers protected their product by getting the Georgia legislature to pass the “Vidalia Act of 1986,” limiting production of a particular strain of onion to particular counties within the state. And then in 1989, they got the USDA to issue a Federal Marketing Order defining that production area. No different than what Italy has done with so-called Parmesan cheese, except we in America don't recognize the authority of their agricultural laws. And I would expect that if an Italian farmer showed up at an Italian vegetable market with a truckload of home-grown Vidalia onions, the USDA and the State of Georgia would have a tough time shutting him down.

An Italian immigrant named Errico Auricchio heads up BelGioioso Cheese in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I gotta tell you, they make some darn fine cheeses there and I use them all the time. They are among the best Italian-style cheeses made in the United States. But I know they're not really Italian. Are they as good as the authentic imported cheeses I buy at more upscale markets? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But that's not really the point.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Auricchio said, “We have invested years and years making these cheeses. You cannot stop the spreading of culture, especially in the global economy.” Who's trying to stop the spread of culture? C'mon, Errico. You make great cheese in the traditional Italian manner, but unless you buy all your milk and rennet and such in Italy and have your cheese made there and shipped to your factory in Green Bay, you're only making Italian style cheese. Cheese made in the same manner as it is made in Italy. It is not real Italian cheese and should not be marketed as such. (We won't even discuss the issue of the cheese-flavored sawdust Kraft sells in the green cans, but that alone is good reason for the Italians to be upset.)

Protectionist American lawmakers are screaming about the effects such an onerous regulation would have on American small businesses. I don't see the problem. Canada and other parts of the Americas have acquiesced to similar requests from the EU and their markets don't seem to be collapsing because of it. In Canada, they just add the word “style” to their packaging and marketing. Problem solved by way of a concept that is foreign to American marketers; truth in advertising. After all, that “Parmesan” cheese they sell at Kroger under the “Organic Valley” name is not an Italian cheese. It came from La Farge, Wisconsin, not Parma, Italy. It may be Italian style, but it's not Italian made. So what's so wrong with asking that the labeling accurately reflect the product? It's Parmesan-style cheese. Why would that affect American small businesses? Nobody is asking them to stop making cheese; the EU is just asking for truth in advertising and accuracy in labeling. And as far as being confusing to consumers, what's so confusing about adding the word “style?” That's what they do in Canada. Does that mean Canadian consumers are smarter?

Give the EU a break, people. If you don't want Italians selling Idaho potatoes in Emilia-Romagna, then don't sell “Parmesan” cheese in Boise. Fair is fair.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Another Screw Up for Olive Garden

Leave the Logo, Change the Food

Anybody who reads my little screeds knows how I feel about Olive Garden. It's a place I love to hate primarily because it is such a miserable representation of Italian food and yet hordes of Americans go there thinking it is the Italian version of haute cuisine.

Well, apparently I can't say “hordes” anymore because every market study that's come down the pike lately shows Olive Garden, and its Darden-owned cousin Red Lobster, spiraling downward. I took my wife to Red Lobster the other day to stop her from drooling over the “LobsterFest” TV commercials. My god! The ridiculous prices dried up the drool in a big hurry. We could go down to our local market and buy enough seafood to make more than twice the food at less than half the price. It was positively obscene – especially since it wasn't nearly as much the last time we went LobsterFest-ing. What gives?

Anyway, back to Olive Garden. Their crack(ed) marketing team has taken another big swing at the home run ball and failed to even score a base hit. In fact, they grounded out. After abandoning their decades-old “When You're Here, You're Family” slogan in favor of the more insipid “Go Olive Garden,” they've now decided to ditch their familiar iconic logo. And I do not exaggerate when I say
everybody hates the new one. Oh, I'm sure the people who designed it are in love with it and the people who shelled out big bucks for it – bucks that the company could ill afford to spend foolishly – are at least pretending to love it in order to save face, but everybody else hates it. Let's are a few comments I gleaned from the Net: “It looks like a Design 1 student project;” “Looks like it was drawn with a breadstick;” “I hope that [the new logo] is a joke because it looks like garbage;” “Looks like something off a crock pot from the '70s;” “Looks like it was stolen from the header of a vegetarian's Wordpress blog;” “Looks like a second grader's cursive writing practice.” Can you feel the love?

Come to think of it, its been awhile since I saw the “Go, Olive Garden” nonsense on TV. Seems to me the spot I saw the other night used a variation on the “family” theme. Hmmmmm. Maybe they'll do the same thing with the logo; make it interchangeable with the old one depending on how the market is responding on any particular day. “Ooops! We're losing money today. Quick, bring out the old logo and say something about family.” Idiots.

When will Darden learn that it's not about slogans and logos? It's the food, stupid. First of all, the portions are monstrous by Italian standards. The stuff they slap on a platter to serve to one individual obese American would feed an Italian family of four for three days. I mean, they bring out a salad bowl that's the size of a punch bowl and serve it to one or two people. On the rare occasions when circumstances dictate that I go there, I ask for a child's portion of whatever I'm getting and I still can't finish it. And then there's the quality and authenticity. Please! Save the “fresh” and “made from scratch” crap for the ad campaigns. I know the difference and I also know people who have worked in the kitchen, okay? Olive Garden is to fresh, authentic Italian food what hip-hop is to ballet. Don't even go there with me.

And don't insult me with your “brand renaissance,” and don't invite me to “experience today's Italy.” You could put the execs at Darden in the middle of the cazzo Colosseum and they wouldn't recognize Italy. Their marketing drivel boasts to their clueless investors that they are the “#1 Italian Full-Service Concept in the U.S.” In the first place, they couldn't locate Italy on a map and in the second place, what the hell is an “Italian Full-Service Concept?” If they think they're #1, they're full of #2. They say they are making “important refinements” to their “strategic framework” through a “new approach to advertising and promotion.” How about a new approach to Italian food, morons? The rest of their investor presentation just made me gag. Here it is if you want to gag along. 

Now, I do have to give them props for a couple of recent innovations. They have added some small plates to the menu that are actually not too bad. They've introduced an arancini dish – although they insist on calling it “risotto bites” because it's easier than explaining what an arancino is. And they came up with a baked prosciutto-stuffed, bacon-topped tortellini that's pretty good. The arancini idea is actually authentic and the tortellini is at least Italian-ish. And they are both served in manageable portions at reasonable prices. Steps in the right direction? Maybe.

Another thing they're doing right is their “cafe” concept. Instead of taking the little buzzer thing and waiting for forty minutes, my wife and I went straight to the bar area and found a table there. Seating is on a first serve basis, but somebody was leaving just as we got there, so we were seated immediately. It was a little noisier and a little more crowded, but there were no screaming kiddies either, so that was a definite plus. We finished our meal and left while the people who came in after us were still standing in the lobby holding their little buzzers.

But for every step forward, Olive Garden seems to take three steps back. Besides the despised new logo and banal new slogan, they've hired a clueless new corporate chef. Executive Chef Jim Nuetzi started out slinging pizza in Atlanta and to prove that he has Italian cooking chops, his first move when he signed on at Darden was to create an “Italiano Burger.” With fries. He claims Olive Garden is losing customers who have a “burger craving” to places like Applebee's and Chili's. I don't even know how to wrap my head around that. What's next? “Italian” tacos for the Taco Bell crowd? Why can't they figure out that when you try to be everything to everybody, you wind up being nothing to anybody. At least the old chef, Paolo Lafata, knew pasta from peanut butter.

Darden has already announced that it's cutting its losses and “spinning off” Red Lobster. Wonder how that will fly with the side-by-side combo units they've been putting up lately? But they insist they are hanging on to Olive Garden. Only problem is, they're piling rocks and boulders into a sinking ship. “Brand renaissance” and new logos and “new approaches to marketing and advertising” are not the answers. An Italian restaurant that serves Italian food is.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

WTF! The Pope Said WHAT?

Hey, Your Holiness, That Ain't a Hail Mary You're Sayin' There

Many years ago,my grandfather was a handyman for a small Catholic church. He kept up the lawn and did general maintenance. The priest who oversaw the church was a very nice, very genial sort of guy; very easygoing. Except when you did something to really irritate him. Like his housekeeper once did.

There was this frying pan with a loose handle that the priest had thrown in the trash twice after having his breakfast eggs dump out onto the floor. For some reason, the housekeeper kept retrieving the defective pan and putting it back in the cabinet. After the third incident wherein the normally long-suffering cleric lost his breakfast, he also lost his temper. He stalked to the back door, flung it open, cocked his arm back, and prepared to launch the offending pan as far away as his anger-fueled strength would allow. And my grandfather happened to be in the back yard at the time. He took one look at the livid, red-faced priest with his arm cocked back and a frying pan in his clenched fist and deadpanned, as only my grandfather could, “Hey, Father, that ain't a Hail Mary you're sayin' there.”

I was reminded of that story when I read about the recent imbroglio involving Pope Francis. Not that the Holy Father was ready to hurl a frying pan into St. Peter's Square, but rather because of his use of a rather colorful Italian obscenity. I think my grandfather's priest was probably thinking what the Pope actually said. But in this case, it was unintentional.

And that's actually what the Pope was trying to say; “in this case.” While delivering his weekly blessing from a window in the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis was talking about amassing riches. He meant to say, “ this case the providence of God will become visible through this gesture of solidarity.” In Italian, that would have been, “in questo caso la provvidenza di Dio diventa visibile attraverso questo gesto di solidariet√†.” And the Pope said something......pretty that. Except instead of “caso,” the Pontiff said “cazzo.”

I heard somebody refer to “cazzo” as “the Swiss Army knife” of Italian curses. It's good for just about any purpose. Want to call somebody a “dick?” “Cazzo” is your word. And if you want to express your frustration by saying “f**k!,” just say “cazzo!” So it's no wonder the throng of faithful followers – especially the Italian ones – who gathered to hear the Pope's words of wisdom were a little taken aback by that one. All over the square you could probably hear confused and/or bemused Italians saying, “Che cosa ha detto?” (“What did he just say?”)

To be sure, the Pope immediately corrected his mistake and soldiered on with the speech as if he hadn't just dropped the F-bomb from the wiindow of the Vatican. And to be utterly fair, Italian is not the Pope's native language. He speaks Spanish. And while the word for “case” is the same in both languages, that other word bears no resemblance to its Spanish equivalent. Or maybe he was just trying to see if everyone was paying attention. They were.

Hey, giving a speech in a foreign tongue is a perilous proposition at best. I mean, how many times have wars started because somebody meant to say, “thank you for your hospitality” and accidentally said, “your daughter looks like a horse”? It happens. So, dare il Papa una pausa cazzo, va bene? I'm sure that particular faux pas will NEVER happen again.