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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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Potatoes

Answering the Root Questions

Consider the lowly potato. It's actually not so lowly when you consider it. A great source of protein, fiber, potassium, vitamins C and B, iron, folic acid, and other essential nutrients, the potato is, in fact, one of the most popular vegetables in the world. It even got its own year when the United Nations declared 2008 the “International Year of the Potato.” Not bad for a plant that was at first unheard of and later considered to be poisonous.

Now, I could tell you all about the arcane facts that potatoes are tuberous herbaceous perennials and that they are a member of the genus solanum, or “nightshade,” hence the early belief they were poisonous. I could go on to mention that they are native to southern Peru, where they were domesticated somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago. And how the Spanish introduced them to Europe in the late 16th century. And how they became an essential part of the Western diet, especially in places like Ireland where a fungus-like blight destroyed much of the crop in 1845 leading to the Great Famine. But what you really want to know is what the difference is in all the varieties you see in the supermarket and which spud is best for mashed potatoes or French fries or beef stew, right? So I'll tell you.

There are nearly 4,000 varieties of potato. Of course, you only find a fraction of that number in the produce department, but the difference can still be confusing. So, why so many potatoes?

Generally speaking, for culinary purposes there are two basic types of potato; starchy and waxy. There's a kind of subcategory that's somewhere in the middle, but we'll get there in a minute. Starchy potatoes have more starch (20% - 22%) than waxy varieties (16% - 18%.) As a result, they are usually drier and flakier than their less starchy cousins. This makes them a better choice for baking, mashing, and for use as French fries. They're also okay for boiling, but they don't hold their shape very well in long-cooking applications, so they're not a good choice for soups, stews, casseroles, and such. Waxy potatoes, often sold as “boiling” potatoes, are more dense and tend to hold their shape better, making them a more appropriate choice for boiling and roasting and for use in soups and stews. That somewhat nebulous middle category is populated by a few varieties that are both starchy and waxy, allowing them to serve as more or less all-purpose potatoes.

Beware of green potatoes. You'll often find potatoes in the grocery store that have been exposed to light. Potatoes really need to be stored in the dark, but obviously supermarkets can't very well build little dark rooms for them and give you flashlights to go in and make your selection. So they just kind of lay them out there on big tables under bright fluorescent lights and the poor little buggers essentially get sunburned. Same thing happens if you don't properly store them at home. So what's the big deal about a little greenishness? Solanine. Solanine is a glycoalkaloid poison found in members of the nightshade family. Potatoes produce it naturally as a defense against critters. See, as delicious as we think they are, they don't really want to be eaten, so they figure to take you down with them. The green coloring itself is just harmless chlorophyll, but its presence is an indicator of an increased toxicity that can cause nasty gastrointestinal issues. In sufficient quantities, solanine can even be fatal. To that extent, the old time Europeans who thought potatoes would kill you were right. But fear not, spud lovers. You'd have to consume an awful lot of green skin to get sick. And all you have to do to be on the safe side is peel away the green parts. What's under them is fine.

The same thing is true of “eyes,” the little whitish-greenish sprouts you sometimes find sticking out of your potatoes after they've been in the pantry awhile. When potatoes begin to sprout “eyes,” it means the starches in them are being converted to sugars, a sign that the nutrients are beginning to leech out and the quality to deteriorate. Besides being mildly toxic, “eyes” are bitter as all get out, so just get them out. The only time you really need to toss a potato is if the skin has gotten loose and wrinkly or if the potato itself is really soft and squishy. Such tubers have gone 'round the bend and should not be eaten.

Also on the subject of storing and starch conversion, if you're one of those folks who like to store potatoes in the refrigerator.......STOP THAT! Cold accelerates the process of converting starch to sugar and you might be unpleasantly surprised to find that your refrigerated spuds turn black on the inside when you cook them.

Oh, and by the way, if you have ever awakened in the middle of the night with the question, “Why are potatoes called 'spuds'” burning in your brain, I can help. A “spud” is an old-timey digging implement. With a sharp-edged narrow blade, it is the ideal instrument for digging up plants, especially those with large roots. Like potatoes. The first documented application of the tool name to the object it dug up occurred in E.J. Wakefield's “Adventure in New Zealand” back in 1845, with the nickname gaining common English usage soon thereafter.

Okay, enough trivia. Let's get to the root question (sorry, had to do that); what kind of potatoes should you buy?

Burbank Russet Potato
The poster spud of the potato world is the Russet. It's a starchy potato and is the one most people think of when they think of potatoes. Russets are on the large side with a light to medium brown skin. A few “eyes” are not uncommon. When you peel it down, it's white, dry, and sometimes a little flaky or mealy.Some people prefer to say “floury.” Russets cook up light and fluffy, making them ideal for baking, mashing, and frying. You'll find them in stores under many names, the most common of which are Russet Burbank and Idaho Russet. The word “russet” is actually a color. Burbank refers to the man (Luther Burbank) who originated the strain around 1914. You can grow Russets anywhere, but the appellation “Idaho” can only be applied to potatoes grown in that state. Russets are also commonly called “baking potatoes” and “chef's potatoes” for the obvious reasons that they are the champion potatoes for baking and they are the “go to” potato for most chefs. You'll sometimes find them labeled as Norkotahs, too.

Yukon Gold Potatoes
Yukon Gold potatoes have gained great acceptance in recent years. The Yukon Gold was developed by a couple of guys in Canada in the 1960s and became widely available on the market in the '80s. Although it was created in Ontario, the “Yukon” part of the name refers to the Yukon River and
Canada's “gold rush” country. The “gold” is a reference to the potato's rich yellow color, caused by a flavenoid compound called “anthoxanthin.” There are other yellow-fleshed potatoes on the market, most notably Yellow Finn, Michigold, and Delta Gold, but the Yukons currently have a lock on popularity. These yellow-fleshed potatoes are a medium starch variety, which means they fit into that “in between” area I mentioned earlier. Dense and creamy, they have a mild buttery flavor which makes them well-suited for mashing and baking, but they are also good for frying, roasting and boiling. That's why many people consider them the ultimate “all-purpose” potato.

Red Potatoes
When it comes to waxy, it's hard to beat good old red potatoes. They are generally on the small side and have a rosy red skin that is fairy thin. Inside, they can be very colorful, too. Most are white, but some are yellow and there are even varieties that are pink or red. Firm, smooth and.......waxy, they are the perfect choice for roasting and boiling and are great in soups, stews and salads. Red potatoes are often sold as “new” potatoes, but technically a “new” potato is any variety that has been harvested before reaching full maturity. You'll sometimes see red potatoes marketed under the names Norland, Chieftan, or Dakota Rose.

White Potatoes
White potatoes come in two varieties; long whites and round whites. Whites are medium starch potatoes and so are good for a variety of cooking purposes. Long whites are larger and resemble Russets in size and shape, but the
skins are markedly lighter in color and are also thinner than Russet skins. The Kennenbec is an example of a long white potato. Round whites look kind of like common red potatoes in size and shape, but, obviously, they have light skins. The difference is in the starch content. They have more starch than reds, making them a versatile potato for most cooking applications. They are particularly good in scalloped or gratin dishes, and do well when roasted or used in potato salad. Usually just called “white potatoes,” they can sometimes be marketed as Atlantic, Norwis, or Superior.

Okay, we've discussed reds and whites, now let's talk about blues. When I was a kid learning to cook back in the '60s, if I would have cut open a potato that was purple or dark blue inside, I would have said “yuck!” and thrown it away. But purple and blue potatoes have come into their own in recent
Blue Potatoes
years. Native to South America, they are still fairly uncommon in most US markets, but they are gaining in popularity as more and more chefs highlight their unusual subtle nutty flavor. Most blue/purples are medium starch. They vary in size and shape from large marble through fingerling up to a medium round. They can be baked, steamed, or boiled and actually do quite well in the microwave, which preserves their unique dark blue to lavender color. And they look really cool on a plate. Available varieties include All Blue, Purple Majesty, and Purple Peruvian.

Fingerling Potatoes
One more unique potato that is making a lot of inroads into American kitchens is the fingerling potato. Small, narrow, and elongated they look kind of like fat fingers, hence the name. They come in a variety
of colors, but most are yellowish. They are a more waxy potato, which makes them perfect for roasting and boiling. They can be pan fried or used in any application where a medium to waxy potato is appropriate. But they are small and still kind of on the expensive side, so most cooks highlight their unusual shape by roasting them and serving them whole or halved.

So, now you know everything you need to know about potatoes. Well......almost. At least now you won't have to wander around the produce section looking confused. And, armed with the knowledge of what potato does what, you're ready to tackle some new recipes or improve upon some old ones. Mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, creamed potatoes, French fried or home-fried potatoes, hash browns, potatoes au gratin, scalloped potatoes, herb roasted potatoes, gnocchi, fondant potatoes, Dauphinoise potatoes, Hasselback potatoes, Duchess potatoes, tater tots, homemade potato chips..........I gotta go. I'm getting hungry.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

You Can't Have a Panini.......or Raviolis, Either

I'll Choose Correct, If You Don't Mind. Or Even If You Do

I was in an eatery the other day that touted the fact that they had paninis for sale. And the menu listed all the paninis individually. You could have a chicken panini, a ham and swiss panini, a turkey panini, a roasted tomato and mozzarella panini, and a bunch more paninis. There's only one problem: you can't
have a panini. Actually, you can't have paninis, either. So, I guess that's two problems.

You say, “What do you mean? Of course I can have a panini. Lot's of places sell paninis.”

<Sigh> You can't have a panini because “panini” is plural. And you can't sell paninis because “paninis” isn't a word. You don't make something that is already plural more plural by adding an “s” to it. Now, if you want a nice Italian sandwich and you order a chicken (or ham or turkey or whatever) panino, I'm sure it will not only be delicious, it will also be grammatically correct. And if you order two or more of them, then you will, indeed, have panini on your plate. You will not, however, have “paninis,” for such do not exist.

The same applies if you order those wonderfully rich and filling little pillows of stuffed pasta. If you have a bowlful, you have ravioli. If you stick a fork in one and eat it, you have consumed a raviolo. And you can't have “raviolis” for the same reason you can't have “paninis.”

“Pish posh,” you say (especially if you're Mary Poppins.) “Nobody really says 'panino' and 'raviolo'.” To which I reply, “Italians do, and so do people who want to be right.”

Please don't start singing the old “common usage” or “colloquialism” songs. I've heard them a hundred times and they don't get any better with repetition. I'm told, “A word becomes a part of the language through common usage; it's called a 'colloquialism'.” Okay, in the first place, a word that is incorrectly used is still incorrect, no matter how often it is incorrectly used. And if you look up “colloquialism,” you will find that it is defined as a word used in informal speech in place of a more formally accepted word. None of which makes it right, thankyewverymuch.

It is a part of English-speaking arrogance, I suppose, that assumes every language in the world pluralizes by adding the letter “s.” Italian does not. Italian nouns are made plural by changing the ending of the word, often according to gender. Feminine nouns – those that usually end in “a” – take the ending letter “e” in their plural form. Masculine nouns that end in “o” take the letter “i” in plural form. These are broad general rules, but I'm trying to prove a specific point here, not give an in depth language lesson. The point is, you don't put an “s” on any Italian word to make it plural.

I got into an argument with a Neapolitan friend of mine over cannoli. I say the plural rules apply and he disagrees. “You're right about the others,” he allows, “but not about cannoli. It's just cannoli, no matter what.” I disagree with his disagreement. And I have several other Italian friends and numerous dictionaries to back me up. You can have cannoli, but you can't have a cannoli. Or “cannolis.”

Here are a few other things you can't have: you can't have a cannelloni, you can't have a manicotti, you can't have a crespelle, and you can't have a gnocchi. Similarly, adding “s” to any of these words will not make them plural-er, but it will get you eye rolls from Italians.

There are a couple of words where I am almost forced to acknowledge the application of the “common usage” ploy: one of them is zucchini and the other is pizzas. Although technically a single squash fruit is a zucchina and the correct plural is zucchine, it becomes masculine and a zucchino in the Tuscan dialect, the plural for which is zucchini. To avoid all the confusion, just go with zucchini. I'm forced to give that one up. Same thing for pizzas. A single pie is a pizza; more than one are pizze, but “pizzas” is just so overwhelmingly prevalent. It's still wrong, of course, and I bite my tongue whenever I catch myself saying it. But that's a battle I'll lose, so I don't fight it.

The plural of “pasta” is paste, not “pastas,” but that one usually gets a pass, too. And even though there really are proper singular forms of spaghetti, linguini, and macaroni, such are classified as “uncountable nouns” which have no plural form. (“Milk,” for example, is an uncountable noun.)

And lest you think people who spell “lasagne” with an “e” are either stupid or pretentious, rest assured they are neither. “Lasagne” is the proper plural of “lasagna.” No “s,” per favore. When you put a bunch of single lasagna noodles together, you get lasagne, not “lasagnas.”

A lot of people criticize Giada De Laurentiis for what they consider her over-pronouncing of Italian words like “spaghetti,” which she enunciates as “spah-GAYT-tee.” Sorry, folks, but she's right. It just sounds funny coming out of her mouth because, even though she was born in Rome and didn't speak a word of English when she came here as a child, she doesn't otherwise have an Italian accent. Her aunt, Raffaella, or “Raffy,” as she calls her, has a very pronounced accent, so Italian words sound more natural with her. But when Giada the California girl properly says the same word, she gets accused of being “fake” and “pretentious.”

I get similar critiques and comments from people who think I'm “showing off” or “putting on” when I correctly pronounce things in Italian. How the hell you can be “pretentious” or a “show off” for properly pronouncing a word is beyond me. I guess if people like Giada and me would just stick to saying “spuh-GETTY” and “MARE-uh-NARE-uh” like the “common usage” folks do, we'd be in for less criticism. But we'd also be doing a great disservice to a beautiful language. So, given the choice between being correct and being “common,” I'll choose correct, if you don't mind. Or even if you do.

I'm going to quit now before I drag out my other “proper pronunciation” soapbox, the one I mount when I want to talk about employees of Italian restaurants who butcher the pronunciation of Italian dishes. Servers in Mexican places would sound stupid if they talked about “TACK-ohs” and “qwes-uh-DILL-uhs,” wouldn't they? But nobody minds when Italian waiters say “broo-SHET-uh” and “MARE-uh-NARE-uh.” My friends say, “Well, you shouldn't be so critical. That's just the way they learned.” <deep breaths, deep breaths> But I won't do that right now. I'm fine. Really. And I like the sounds of nails on a blackboard and squeaky tennis shoes on wet floors.

And I wouldn't dream of advocating that you carry a black marker and fix all those menus that have the word “panini” on them. But it's a thought.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Fun Way to Deal With Annoying Telemarketers

It happens all the time. You're just sitting down to a nice dinner or just settling in to watch your favorite TV show, and the phone rings. “Hi! I'm So-and-So from Such-and-Such and I'd like to tell you about this-and-that.” Frustrated and angry at the unsolicited interruption, you make some comment about the caller's parentage either just before or just after you slam down the phone, your mood ruined and your blood pressure elevated by several points. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Now, I don't have any foolproof way of keeping such calls from occurring. I've tried signing up for the so-called “do not call” lists, but I still get calls. However, I employ a method that makes the experience more fun and more satisfying. I speak Italian.

Nearly everybody has some form of caller ID these days. You recognize the numbers of your friends and relatives, but it's those strange or “unknown” numbers that make you go “hmmm.” Especially if there's an “800” or an “888” involved. You know if you don't answer the phone, they'll probably just call back, so you suck it up and pick it up. But here's how to have some fun with it.

Instead of “hello,” say, “Pronto! Chi parla?” This is the most common way of answering a phone in Italy. It literally means, “Ready! Who is speaking?” I admit this greeting may be a little odd to the American ear, but consider that if Alexander Graham Bell had had his way, we'd all be answering the phone with, “Ahoy! Ahoy!” So just accept the cultural difference and move on.

A nice, cheery, “Ciao!” also works, as if you were expecting a call from a friend. This has the added benefit of covering your butt in case the caller is somebody you really wanted to talk to. Your mother calling from somebody else's phone will just chalk it up to eccentricity on your part.

But if it's a telemarketer, hearing anything other than “hello” will probably slow them down quite a bit. Not trying to be ugly here, but let's be honest; many of the people making these annoying, intrusive calls do not inhabit the higher branches of the tree, if you know what I mean. They have their little scripts all written out in front of them and if the conversation doesn't start the way the script says it should......well, they get a bit flustered. Most of the time, “Pronto! Chi parla?” will be met with a moment of confused silence. That's usually when I'll take advantage of the confusion and amp it up by either repeating the phrase or throwing in “Salve?,” which is Italian for “hello.” The truly timid telemarketer will, at this point, abandon the call.

If you get an intrepid one who soldiers on, your next line of defense is, “Mi dispiace. Non capisco.” Don't worry, you're not saying anything dirty. It's just, “I'm sorry. I don't understand.” Repeat this until they hang up, which usually won't take very long. I get tenacious callers now and then who try to ask, “Is there anyone there who speaks English?” At which point I respond, “Inglese? No. No inglese.” One time the caller whispered to somebody nearby, “They don't speak English. What do I do now?” The answer, of course, was to abruptly terminate the call. I did get a smart cookie once who asked me if I spoke Spanish. All it took was, “Spagnolo? Non parlo spagnolo” to end that call.

I suppose I'll get caught someday by somebody just off the plane from Rome or whose mother was from Naples, but it hasn't happened yet. And in the meantime, listening to these people as they stutter and sputter in utter confusion – my, wasn't that a line worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan? – is really great entertainment. They're messing with your day, so why shouldn't you mess with theirs a little?

This approach will likely not work with Spanish. Goodness knows, more people in the United States speak Spanish now than they do English, so attempting to confuse a telemarketer with Spanish will probably only hook you up with a Spanish-speaking telemarketer. But so far, Italian telemarketers are few and far between. The same is true, I'm sure, if you know a few words of French or German or Japanese or maybe even Latin. In fact, a lot of computer-generated spam calls are programmed to make the connection after you say “hello.” If you don't say “hello,” they don't complete the call. But where's the fun in that?

So the next time your phone rings at the worst possible moment and you highly suspect a spam caller, don't be angry or mean and don't be upset. Be nice, be friendly, be Italian!


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Food Network Star Is A Waste Of Time

We Don't Need New “Stars;” Just Let the Old Stars Cook

Why am I still watching “Food Network Star?” I guess the bigger question is “Why am I still watching Food Network?”, but since that is a whole different topic for discussion, I'll defer for now and focus on the question at hand.

This is Season 10 for this dog and pony show that used to go by the name “Next Food Network Star.” They dropped the “Next” a few seasons back, probably when they realized that nobody emerging victorious from this goofy competition show was truly going to be their next “star.” They've also changed the format and selection procedure a couple of times, trying to figure out the best way to hand a contract to the talentless nobodies they've been touting as “stars.”

Honestly, they haven't had a real “star” since Guy Fieri took the prize back in Season 2. In astronomy, the luminosity and magnitude of stars is calculated on a complicated logarithmic scale ranging from 1 to 6, with 1 being the brightest and 6 the dimmest. If Fieri, whose annoyingly ubiquitous presence dominates entire nights of programming, is a 1, then where are all the other “stars” the network has produced through this mildly entertaining but ultimately irrelevant pastiche?

Season 1's Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, “The Hearty Boys?” There's a couple of prominent names for you. I was talking about them just........well, come to think of it, I've never talked about them. Where is Season 3 winner Amy Finley these days? Was she a bona fide “star” or just an embarrassing nova? Season 4's “Big Daddy” Aaron McCargo, Jr. is certainly a household name, provided your at his house. Melissa d'Arabian was a stay-at-home mom who might as well have stayed at home. I haven't “partied” with Aarti Sequiera since the day she went on the air. Jeff “Sandwich King” Mauro was a bust and what the hell ever happened to Season 8 “winner” Justin Warner? He never even got a show out of the deal. They stuck him on a one-hour special that nobody but his mother watched, and now he glitters dimly in the firmament, the Little Star That Couldn't. And the network execs dutifully gave last season's Demaris Phillips her six episodes on Sunday morning, and that was pretty much that.

This season's crop of future nobodies has got to be the worst of the worst. They may be responsible for a “7” being added to the brightness scale. The contestants that can cook have absolutely no camera presence and the ones that have a glimmer of personality can't cook. Lenny McNab – he of the cowboy hat and dinner plate belt buckle – is the only possible exception, but I don't see his so-called “gourmet cowboy” POV taking the country by storm. If he wins, he'll get his six shows in a time slot that nobody watches and he'll join the rest of the “stars” in lusterless obscurity.

So where are the Food Network's real stars? Well, three of them are wasting their time and talents “mentoring” flocks of wannabes instead of doing what they do best; cooking and teaching people how to cook. Alton Brown used to be a funny, edgy, quirky guy who had one of the best and most informative cooking shows the network ever produced. And now he's a game show host. People have been ragging on Giada De Laurentiis for years, saying she's nothing but a pretty face. So the suits have pulled her out of the kitchen, where she actually possessed incredible cooking chops, and turned her into nothing but a pretty face. As for Bobby Flay, one of the first and brightest stars on the network, he has been reduced to being a professional competition judge. Whenever the network wants to add gravitas to one of its silly contests, they trot Bobby out. I'm surprised they haven't fitted him with a black robe and a wig. “Here come de judge, here come de judge.”

These are the people we want to watch cook. We want to learn from them and to be able to recreate their recipes and cook like them. Back when my mom was in the final stages of cancer, Giada and her “Everyday Italian” were my inspiration. I was actually able to find flavorful dishes that Mom could eat that were easy to prepare and fun to make. That's what made Giada De Laurentiis a Food Network “star.” Nowadays, they still give her a bone to cook now and then, but mostly they rely on her to be the pretty “face” of the network. Same thing with Bobby; give him his own competition show where he can cook a little but otherwise make him the network's own personal “Mikey.” “Let's get Bobby to do it. He'll do anything.”

Wolfgang Puck saw the writing on the wall years ago and saved himself the indignity of being pink-slipped like Emeril Legasse was. And Mario Batali was getting his Crocs full of BS and bailed out before it got too much deeper. Talented chef Tyler Florence is technically still a “star,” but they've taken him out of the kitchen and sent him out to hang around in malls and chase after food trucks. Jaimie Oliver gave Food Network a go, but didn't really care about being one of their “stars.” Same with fellow Brit, Nigella Lawson. Anthony Bourdain took “A Cook's Tour” on Food Network, but the experience left a bad taste in his mouth. And unlike most of the other real culinary experts the Food Network has either dumped or dumped on in favor of a cadre of barely qualified small-time diner cooks or home cooks with delusions of grandeur, Anthony Bourdain has “No Reservations” (sorry) about telling it like it is. Bourdain says of himself, “It's not an integrity thing—I'm just constitutionally and emotionally and neurologically incapable of keeping my mouth shut.”

He really likes Food Network “star” Sandra Lee. He calls her “the frightening hell spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker” who “seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time.” According to Bourdain, network cash cow Rachael Ray is “selling us satisfaction, the smug reassurance that mediocrity is quite enough.”

And on the topic of Food Network programming in general, Bourdain calls it “a calculated break with the idea of the celebrity chef as a seasoned professional and a move toward an entirely new definition: a personality with a sauté pan.” In his best-selling book, “Medium Raw,” he expands on his feelings. “With every critical outrage — the humiliating, painful-to-watch Food Network Awards, the clumsily rigged-looking Next Food Network Star, the cheesily cheap-jack production values of Next Iron Chef America — every obviously, half-assed knock-off they slapped on the air would go on to ring up sky-high ratings and an ever-larger audience of cherished males twenty-two to thirty-six (or whatever that prime car-buying demographic is.)”

Food Network doesn't need to manufacture new “stars” through, as Anthony said, “a clumsily rigged-looking” glorified game show. That's not how they found their “old” stars. Emeril, Mario, Bobby, Giada and the rest never had to jump through hoops. They cooked their way to celebrity; and that's what they should be doing now. Never mind the “next” Food Network “Star.” Give us back the previous Food Network stars and just let them cook.