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, August 26, 2014

The Sneakers Bistro Flap: Offended By Bacon? PLEASE!

More Ridiculous “Diversity” Dreck

What are they putting in the water in Winooski, Vermont? The home of Gretel Ann Fischer, the execrably unsportsmanlike “winner” of last year's “Next Great Baker” competition on TLC, has apparently produced yet another looney-tune.

Winooski has an “Operation Bloom” program. Local residents and businesses can “adopt” and maintain a flower bed located near a city street or road. Kind of like the “Adopt a Highway” campaign you see in a lot of communities. And, of course, the “adopter” gets to put up a sign on “their” flower bed advertising their contribution. Sounds harmless, right? Well, it would be if not for idiots.

A local restaurant, Sneakers Bistro and Cafe, an establishment that has received national recognition for its quality bacon, placed a sign in a flower bed located near a busy traffic circle. The sign, a common yellow diamond-shaped highway sign, read “Yield for Sneakers Bacon,” with the words “yield for” appearing above the “Sneakers” logo, and the word “bacon” underneath. Okay?

If I'm lyin' I'm dyin', somebody got their panties in a wad about that sign. Initial reports identified the complainer as a Muslim woman. Later reports said she was not only Muslim, but vegan as well. And she was “offended” by the content of the sign, saying it was “insensitive to those who do not consume pork.”

At this point, you're probably either outraged or laughing your ass off – or both. Keep laughing, 'cause it gets better. The restaurant actually took the sign down rather than “offend” the woman. In terms of a polite, civilized response to this ludicrous inanity, I am dumbstruck. And the kicker is I don't know at whom I am more outraged, the cretin who lodged the complaint or the morons who acted on it.

Let's address the first subject. As William Shatner once famously said, GET A LIFE!!! What the **ck is wrong with this woman? “Insensitive to those who do not consume pork?” What's next? Boycotting the grocery store for advertising a sale on pork chops? Picketing the local barbecue joint? Come on! I know a few Muslims and a scad of Jews and none of them care a single miniscule fig about being around bacon as long as nobody asks them to eat it. I'm not much for schwarma or gefilte fish, but I don't go out and get all puckered about places that serve it. “None for me, thank you.” That's how real people live their lives.

The latest reports are saying that the perpetrator of the insanity did not object so much on religious grounds as on philosophical ones. She was apparently more offended as a vegan. I don't have a problem with vegetarians or vegans. I even agree with some of their stances on the inhumane treatment of commercially raised food animals. But why are her vegan sensibilities only offended by a place that advertises bacon? Shouldn't she be demanding that Ronald McDonald shinny up the pole and remove the word “hamburgers” from the McDonald's sign? Surely that's insensitive to those who do not consume beef. And those “cowz” that Chick fil A employs to exhort people to “eat mor chikin” ought to send her right into apoplexy.


But what about the doofus owner who actually caved in to her fanatical demand? Well, the restaurant is getting pasted for it. And rightly so.

The denizens of Winooski dropped Gretel Ann and her “Cupps Cafe and Bakery” like a hot rock after her nationally embarrassing debacle unfolded on TV. I've got a feeling that “Sneakers” may be next. Virtually none of the commentary on the issue has been supportive of owner Marc Dysinger's decision to kow tow to the whim of one, single, solitary, sole protester. This wasn't a movement. There were no pickets or petitions. This was one petty little piss ant with a small mind and a big mouth.

Oh, sure, the restaurant tried to spin it. “We are here to serve people BREAKFAST, not politics. We removed the sign that was located on public property as a gesture of respect for our diverse community. There were also concerns raised about safety. Removing it was not a difficult decision. We still love bacon. We still love eggs. Please have the political conversation elsewhere.”

Uh-huh. I swear if I hear that mewling “diverse community” dreck bleated by one more PC sheep I'm gonna toss my cookies. Oh wait......better not......they're not gluten-free cookies.......I may offend someone. But I guess Dysinger is just parroting the party line put forth by the City Manager, Katherine “Deac” Decarreau, who babbled a lot of PC-speak like, “The cool part of living in a diverse community is that it’s not always comfortable. It’s a fascinating place with lots of opportunities for conversation. The city has to pay attention to a lot of factors while acting within what we can regulate.” And, "We welcome a rich and respectful dialogue among the people that live, work and dine here. We believe that diversity and dialogue is a critical part of what makes us a truly desirable place to be."

All of which is a circumlocutious way of saying absolutely nothing.

But Yelpers, Facebookers, Tweeters, and others are having a lot to say. Things like, "Thanks for supporting and giving into the Muslims! I'll never eat at your restaurant!" Things like, “You are idiots. Plain and simple. Just don't advertise at ALL then, because everything could be offensive to someone.” Things like, “You caved, plain and simple. Over BACON. UNREAL Hope you don't have #Redskin potatoes on your menu.” Or, on a more philosophical note, “Evil first gets a foothold by censoring speech. how sad that u accommodated it.”

There's even a Facebook page dedicated to telling Sneakers' management how you feel about the whole thing.

Decarreau said, "It's blown up beyond all imagination." I don't know, “Deac.” Some people have pretty vivid imaginations. Witness the commenter who, with tongue firmly in cheek, suggested that Kevin Bacon may need to change his name.

My mother was born in Vermont, so I particularly like this one: “We Vermonters are told to be tolerant of everyone else's culture, yet we are not allowed to perpetuate our own culture, which, by the way, includes bacon. McKenzie Brothers, Harrington's, VT Smoke & Cure, Dakin Farm, & David Zuckerman's Full Moon Farm are all fine businesses that sell bacon. Outsiders who come to a new geographical area to live should respect local customs, not demand we change them to please themselves. As for me, you will have to pry my bacon from my cold dead hands!”

I know Vermonters and I know there are two things they won't tolerate; dishonesty and foolishness. Gretel Ann found out about the dishonesty. Does Sneakers want to become an object lesson for foolishness?

C'mon, Sneakers, grow a pair. Put your sign back up while you still have a business to advertise.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Recipe: Classic Potato Gnocchi

A Simple, Versatile Dish That Adds Variety to Your Menu

I love gnocchi. I've made them twice just in the last couple of weeks. I made Gnocchi alla Sorrentina for dinner one evening. I wound up with more gnocchi than I needed, but they were great with sage butter the next day. Then I did a batch that served as a bed for a Sunday chicken and vegetable plate with a nice pan sauce. Gnocchi are simple and delicious and are just unique enough on the American table to add a little “wow” factor when you serve them.

Let's start with what they are. Basically, gnocchi are Italian dumplings. Like a lot of Italian creations, they have different names in different regions, but the method of preparation is pretty much the same. Like pasta, gnocchi is considered a first course, or primo piatto. You can serve them in a sauce as a stand-alone course, you can put them in soup, or you can use them as a bed, as I did with the chicken and vegetables. Although sometimes seen as a form of pasta, Italians consider gnocchi to be an alternative to pasta and place them in a category by themselves.

The word “gnocchi” is the plural form of “gnocco.” In the same way you can't have a “panini” or a “ravioli,” you can't have a “gnocchi.” You can have a gnocco or you can have a bunch of gnocchi. And the “gn” combination in Italian sounds like the letters “ny” in the English word “canyon.” So, it's not pronounced “NOH-kee.” It's “NYOHK-kee.” Actually, there's a subtle difference in the rendering of the “o” sound that a lot of English-speakers can't get their mouths to make, so “NYOHK-kee” is generally close enough. Italians will know what you mean. Unless you say something silly like “guh-NOH-kee,” in which case they'll just laugh at you.

You can make gnocchi out of a lot of things. You can make it out of flour and water alone, either wheat flour or semolina. You can also use flour and eggs as you would a pasta dough. You can make it with ricotta cheese. You can throw spinach in it. There are lots of variations. But the most common preparation is the classic potato gnocchi, popular in Abruzzo, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and many other parts of Italy. Pre-made potato gnocchi are available in dried, refrigerated, and frozen forms in most supermarkets and Italian specialty shops, but nothing beats the fresh, homemade kind.

To do it right, you do need one special piece of equipment: a ricer. I use my ricer all the time for mashed potatoes, hash browns......every application where potatoes need to be processed in order to be light, fluffy, and dry. A ricer looks kind of like an overgrown garlic press and is fairly inexpensive at most kitchen stores or online suppliers. If you want to be really fancy, you can also buy yourself a gnocchi board for the final forming process. They cost about five bucks and you can find them in kitchen stores and online, too. But a board is not as essential as a ricer. You can use an ordinary table fork to make ridges in your gnocchi.

Okay. Here's la ricetta:

Gnocchi di Patate
(Potato Gnocchi)

1 1/2 lbs russet potatoes
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
a pinch of salt
1 or 2 tbsp olive oil

Peel and quarter the potatoes and drop them into a large pot with enough water to cover them by a couple of inches. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until they are soft when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 20 to 30 minutes. Drain. While still warm, pass them through a ricer onto a clean working surface.

Bring 4 or 5 quarts of salted water to boil in a large pot. Set up an ice bath (a large bowl of ice and water) near the boiling water.

Make a well in the center of the riced potatoes and sprinkle all over with flour. Place the egg and the salt in the center of the well and using a fork, stir the egg into the flour and potatoes, just like making regular pasta dough. Once the egg is mixed in, bring the dough together, kneading gently until a large ball is formed. Knead gently for another 4 or 5 minutes or until the ball is fairly dry to the touch. Add extra flour in very small increments if the dough is too wet or tacky and add small amounts of water if it is too dry. Allow the dough to rest for a few minutes.

Cut off a golf ball-sized piece from the main dough ball and, using your palms, roll it into a 3/4-inch diameter dowel about 12 inches long. Cut the dowel into 1-inch long pieces. Roll the pieces down the gnocchi board, if using, or flick them off the tines of a fork, creating a ridged, elongated shell shape.

Drop these formed pieces into the boiling water and cook them just until they float, 1 or 2 minutes. Meanwhile, continue the process with the remaining dough. As the gnocchi float to the surface of the boiling water, use a slotted spoon to remove them to the ice bath. Continue until all the gnocchi have cooled. Drain them from the ice water and place them in a large bowl. Toss the gnocchi with a tablespoon or two of olive oil to lightly coat. The gnocchi can now be stored in the refrigerator in a covered container until you are ready to serve them. (Up to 48 hours.)

To serve, heat whatever sauce you are using in a large pan, then add the gnocchi to the pan for a minute or two, gently stirring occasionally to allow them to warm through and absorb the flavors of the sauce.

Serves 6

Notes: Russet potatoes work best with this recipe because they are a dry, flaky, high-starch potato.
Mario Batali likes to leave his potatoes in the peel when he cooks them. He peels and quarters them after they are cooked. Mario says it adds to the flavor and aids in keeping excess moisture out. He's probably right. But more people do it my way, largely because it's easier and faster. Your choice.
If you absolutely don't have a ricer, you can mash the boiled potatoes with a fork, but make sure they are very dry and don't overmash them. They'll get gluey and make for a very dense finished product.
The dough can get sticky as you work it; to avoid this, roll out the dowels of dough on a lightly-floured surface. But be careful of adding too much flour as you work the dough. It can change the texture and character of the finished product and cause the gnocchi to fall apart in the boiling water.
Don't sweat the shape. They don't have to be machine perfect. The technique takes practice. Just make sure they have ridges and are relatively uniform in size so they'll cook evenly.
You can skip the ice bath if you plan to cook and serve the gnocchi immediately. They can go right from the board (or fork) into boiling water and then directly into whatever preparation you are making. I like to make them up a little in advance because they are easier to handle once they have cooled and set a bit.

Buon appetito!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Food Network “Star” Lenny McNab: America Voted....and Got It Wrong

Food Network's New “Star” is Already a Little Dim

Where to start. Okay. I don't like Lenny McNab. Or to be more precise, I don't like the choice of Lenny McNab as the next Food Network “star.” As a person he may be one of the nicest Rhinestone Cowboys
to come out of New Hampshire since.......well, I really can't think of any other New Hampshire cowboys right off hand. Okay, try this: he might be the most authentic cowboy to grace the television screen since another guy named Lenny, one Leonard Slye, left Cincinnati and started calling himself “Roy Rogers.” 

First, there's the outfit. Honestly, Lenny. Nudie Cohn called from beyond the grave and left a message: “Tacky, tacky, tacky.” Hey, don't get me wrong. I totally understand the gimmick. I performed onstage as a “singing cowboy” myself once upon a time and I was the epitome of Mel Tillis' “Coca-Cola Cowboy” with the Eastwood smile and Robert Redford hair. I had a big, black twenty or thirty-gallon genuine Tom Mix hat and shiny silver spurs on the heels of my knee-high boots and I wore embroidered cowboy shirts and even had stripes of sequins up the legs of my pants. I did draw the line, however, at belt buckles the size of serving platters. The point is, it was all schtick. I would never have actually gotten on a horse wearing any of that fake cowboy crap. I didn't wear it just sitting around the living room, and I sure as hell wouldn't have worn it in the kitchen. And another thing; there's an old cliché reinforced by Burt Reynolds' character in “Smokey and the Bandit” that a cowboy only takes off his hat for one thing. Well, I'm here to tell you that a gentleman, cowboy or not, takes off his hat indoors and at the table. Ya hear me talkin', Lenny?

I don't care that Lenny cooked on a ranch in Arizona and that he's a chef at a resort in Colorado, he's still a guy from Back East putting on a cowboy show. I know because I'm a guy from the Midwest who put on a cowboy show for thirty years. And I don't think Food Network needed to hire a pretender to be their next “star.” Nicole was just a girl from the Jersey shore and Luca was a nice Italian boy. Both of them were for real. Lenny is a put on whose veneer and facade are going to wear real thin real quick. If he ever gets on the air, that is.

As of this writing, the Internet is buzzing about Lenny's conduct off-camera and online. Turns out, if the rumors are true, that he's a sleazy, crude, profane creep. I won't repeat any of the foul garbage he posted to various places, but if what he said he wanted to do to his new Food Network colleague, “Pioneer Woman” Ree Drummond, is any indication, his mentor, Giada De Laurentiis had better watch her back......and her backside. And to all you gullible goobers who bought into his hat-tipping “aww, shucks, ma'am” persona, be aware that he apparently presents quite another personality when he's not applying for a job as a TV role model. Check out Gawker's report ( or The Braiser's report ( Food Network Gossip (, Grub Street (, and the blog A Teacher's View ( also have some interesting things to say about our new “star.”

Allen Salkin, author of From Scratch: Inside the Food Network, in an interview with “The Braiser,” says, “The network itself doesn't know what a Food Network star is anymore.” And I am in complete agreement with that sentiment. Read Salkin's interview ( and see if you don't agree, too. I have long preached that the Food Network has become terminally out of touch with its audience. In the same way that there's no “learning” being presented on TLC – The Learning Channel – these days and MTV – Music Television – is about anything but music, so Food Network no longer has anything to do with food. And their attempts to find “stars” among the overripe fruit hanging on the lowest branches of the culinary trees....or blowing in off the barren prairies, in this case....are both sad and funny. Except nobody's laughing.

One would think that the whole Paula Deen debacle might have made the network execs a little more cautious about the backgrounds of future faces of the franchise, but obviously that's not the case. They just keep indiscriminately trotting 'em in from wherever they find 'em in the vain hope that lightning will strike twice and produce another Guy Fieri. (Oh, God, I hope not! One's more than enough.) Hey, who knows? If the Rhinestone Cowboy catches on, maybe they'll pair him up with the ubiquitous Surfer Dude and utterly decimate what's left of their audience. Then maybe somebody can sift through the ashes and come up with the makings for a new network of food people, by food people, and for food people that will not perish from the airwaves.

We can only dream.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

New From Lodge: Seasoned Carbon Steel Cookware

A New Pan for My Pot Rack

I've always been a huge fan of durable, economical cast iron cookware. It lives in my kitchen among my expensive stainless steel stuff and my fancy anodized aluminum non-stick pans. I have a cast iron skillet that is so well-seasoned nothing sticks to it. I have a cast iron griddle, a cast iron grill pan, and my essential ceramic-coated cast iron Dutch oven. All are made by Lodge and all are older than dirt. I've had my cast iron skillet for more than thirty years. And they're all dirt cheap, as well. My entire cast iron collection costs less than a single All-Clad stainless steel saute pan.

And now the folks in South Pittsburg, Tennessee have gone and done it again. They've developed a new line of cookware constructed of seasoned carbon steel. Made in the USA of 100% 12-gauge carbon steel, these new pans are phenomenal. They are every bit as tough and durable as their cast iron cousins. They can easily withstand the use and abuse of professional kitchens but because they are significantly lighter, they are perfect for the home cook who often complains that cast iron is too heavy.

There is nothing these new steel pans can't do. The unsurpassed cooking performance of steel allows for perfect browning, searing, and braising. It heats more quickly than cast iron, but retains temperature just as well. You can use these pans on all cooking surfaces from induction cooktops to campfires, and they can go right from stovetop to oven or broiler.

These things are chef-tested and the design and construction are superior. A nice smooth cooking surface and low sides make sauteing easy. The ergonomic handles are triple-riveted with steel rivets and they are a bit longer than the handles on traditional cast iron pans. To my touch, the handles don't get as hot as quickly as cast iron handles do, but don't go by me; I have asbestos hands. They sell special silicone sleeves to fit over the handles, or you can just use a pot holder.

The new cookware comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The skillets are available in 8”, 10”, 12”, and 15” sizes. They also have an 11” diameter round griddle pan, a rectangular 10”x18” griddle, and a 12” square grilling pan. I started with the cheapest – the 8” skillet – but I can definitely see some of the other pieces in my future. Like all Lodge products, the quality will not cost you a month's wages. I bought my pan at a Lodge factory store for about $40, but you can find even better deals online. Amazon's got them for $30. Watch out for shipping, though; fees may outweigh savings.

A couple of caveats: The Lodge folks call these products “seasoned” and say they are pre-seasoned at the foundry using soy oil. Okay. But don't expect non-stick performance right off the shelf. I hand washed my new toy as recommended and hit it with a light rub of oil. Then I cooked some bacon. The results were not good. And I wasn't cooking cheap, flimsy supermarket bacon. The manufacturer will tell you right up front that the seasoning will improve as you use the product, but don't expect miraculous results the first couple of times. After the bacon incident, I actually seasoned my new pan the way I would cast iron and the next use was much improved.

And although stainless steel is non-reactive, carbon steel is largely made of iron, so you still have to be careful about cooking acidic foods. A couple of chefs have commented that tomatoes and red wine are problematic in carbon steel.

Overall, two thumbs up for the new Lodge seasoned carbon steel cookware. Whether you're a beginning cook or a “seasoned” pro, I think you'll like it. I know I do.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Real Bacon vs “Turkey Bacon”

Turkey Bacon? Spare Me, Please!!

Remember that wonderful episode from the third season of MASH where Hawkeye and Trapper served up Spam lamb? Radar had rescued a live lamb destined for the dinner table, so the resourceful docs formed Spam into the shape of a lamb and served it up instead.

Same principle applies to turkey “bacon.” You can hack up a turkey and form the meat into thin strips about six inches long and an inch wide, but that doesn’t make the results an acceptable substitute for real, honest, the way God made it bacon.

As the old adage says, “Just because a cat has kittens in the oven, that don’t make ‘em biscuits.”

By Webster’s definition, bacon is “a side of a pig cured and smoked.” Now I may not be much of an expert on animal husbandry, but I fail to see the relationship between a big, stupid bird and a pig.

Butter is butter. Margarine is not. One’s the real thing; one’s a cheap substitute.

Bacon is bacon. Turkey “bacon” is not. One’s the real thing; one’s a cheap substitute.

The only people who swear they can’t tell the difference are the unfortunates that Mother Nature has provided with two taste buds per square inch rather than the thousand or so that most people have.

I’m sorry, health food Nazis, bacon is supposed to be fat! The fat is what gives it its unique mouth feel. You can masticate a hunk of bird meat all day long and it’s never going to feel like bacon in your mouth.

As to the taste, the day that fowl tastes like pork is the day that pigs will fly. It’s kind of like trying to convince somebody who has consumed juicy T-bones all their lives that that hunk of tofu over there tastes just like steak.

Don’t get me wrong, turkey is good stuff (and good stuffed, by the way), and it has its place on the menu. But that place is not next to fluffy scrambled eggs, crispy hash browns and buttered toast. That is a time-honored spot reserved for “a side of a pig cured and smoked.”

But the fat! But the cholesterol! But the nitrates!” Butt out! Have these people never heard of moderation? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that a person who sits down with a pound of bacon for breakfast every day of the week and two pounds on Sunday is going to have some health issues. But I’m equally sure that two or three strips of bacon enjoyed once or twice a week is not going to kill anybody, especially anybody who exercises moderately and maintains a balanced diet.

And real bacon has so many more flavorful applications than just sitting and looking pretty next to eggs. You can wrap darn near anything in bacon and make it taste better, something you cannot do with a piece of pressed, formed turkey. The salty flavor and the succulent fat of real bacon melts, infuses, blends, and marries into other foods in a way in which dry, lean turkey meat can’t even begin to aspire.

Bacon fat can be a flavor enhancer for so many other things. Fry up some bacon, take it out of the pan and crumble it up. Then sauté some potatoes or some green beans in the bacon fat. After they are cooked, mix in the crumbled bacon and serve them up. You’ll never get the same results with turkey!

And there’s something intangible about the sound of bacon sizzling in a pan and the aroma of frying bacon as it fills the whole house with a rich, welcoming scent that just imparts a comfortable, homey feeling. I’ve never been made to feel comfortable and homey by lifeless strips of pressed, formed turkey meat.

Let’s recap. Bacon, as God made it, is satisfying to the taste, touch, sight, sound and smell. As harmful as the tofu and egg substitute crowd may believe bacon is for the health of the body, real bacon does something for the health of the soul that a turkey can’t touch.

I’m not saying that turkey “bacon” should be banned from the store shelves. But with the current emphasis on truth in labeling, I think it should be called “lean turkey strips” or “food police-approved breakfast meat” or something.

Save the word “bacon” for a meat that truly deserves it.

Bringing Home the Facts About Bacon

Everything You Need to Know About the Porcine "Food of the Gods"

In a reverse paraphrase of Shakespeare, “I come to praise bacon, not to bury it.” (In fact, a lot of people think that Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare, but that has absolutely nothing to do with my topic.)

To begin with, bacon – along with its sidekick, eggs – has gotten an awful lot of bad press lately. The health Nazis would have you believe that the road to hell is paved with bacon and that eggs provide the mode of transportation to take you there. “Nitrites,” they scream, “will kill you deader than a hammer if the fat doesn't do you in first.”

I'm not going to sugar coat it (although that's been done); bacon is the fattiest meat on the planet. Although it is rich in saturated fat (bad news), it contains no trans-fat (good news) and is a good source of protein and several essential nutrients. And, yes, it does contain sodium nitrite. But there are so many conflicting studies about the effects of nitrates/nitrites in food – including some that say certain levels of nitrites are beneficial – that we'll likely never have the real story.

Here's the “Catch-22”: cooking bacon slowly and thoroughly until very crisp renders out most of the artery-clogging fat. bacon at high heat for long periods of time may convert the nitrites used in curing to cancer-causing nitrosamine. At least, that's what some of the lab-rat crowd says. Hmmm....cancer or a heart attack; pick your poison.

For all their alarmist fol-de-rol, they have yet to convince me that the three slices I enjoy on Sunday mornings – with perhaps an additional slice or two crumbled over a midweek baked potato or slipped into a sandwich – are going to lead to my early, ghastly demise. (They'd likely have heart attacks themselves if they saw me barding my Thanksgiving turkey. That means I drape it in bacon before I put it in the oven. And then there's bacon-wrapped scallops. Or chocolate covered bacon. Yum.) The concept of moderation does not occur to these culinary killjoys, who apparently believe that we who consume bacon are all doing so with voracious abandon, pushing pound after pound down our greedy gullets on a daily basis. What these pedantic pinheads consistently fail to realize is that unrealistically high megadoses of substances foisted off on rats do not always have corresponding effects in humans. As an example, go to and bone up on saccharin.

I know it's not a terribly scientific way to look at it, but my dad ate bacon and keeled over from a heart attack at 46. My great-grandmother ate bacon and lived to be a hundred. If I just split the difference, I figure I'll make about 75.

So, let's leave the nattering nabobs to choke down their turkey bacon and egg substitutes while pretending to enjoy it and talk instead about the glories of real, honest-to-goodness bacon – the food of the gods. (What? You didn't know ambrosia had bacon in it?)

Who discovered bacon? Nobody knows. But the practice of smoke-curing meats dates back thousands of years and crosses many cultures. The Chinese, for instance, were salting pork bellies as early as 1500 BC. We do know, however, that the term “bring home the bacon” was used in twelfth century England where a local church offered a side of bacon as a reward to any man who could swear an oath that he not quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. Thus the man who could “bring home the bacon” was well regarded in his community. (Another version casts a greased pig as the prize in a county fair contest. Whoever caught the pig was entitled to “bring home the bacon.”)

The word “bacon” itself comes from a variety of Old French and Germanic terms like “bako,””bacho,””bakam,” “bakkon,” and “backe,” all of which refer to the back. Good old Middle English produced “bacoun” or “bacon” as we know it today.

So, what is bacon? It is a cut of pork that comes from either the side, belly, or back of a pig. In the United States, it usually means the cut taken from the side between the fifth rib and the hipbone. These particular piggy parts have thick intertwined layers of flavorful fat and lean muscle tissue.

For the most part, bacon is salt-cured, as it has been for centuries. This is accomplished by either wet-curing, or “brining,” the meat in a salt solution or by dry packing it in salt. Salt-curing inhibits bacterial growth, preserving the meat and extending its shelf life. Many artisinal bacons are still produced in this traditional manner, although commercially processed bacon relies less on salt and more on modern refrigeration.

Bacon may also be smoked, both as a means of further preservation and as an avenue to additional flavor. Apple and hickory are among the most popular woods used in smoking, although maple, mesquite, alder, birch, and cherry woods are widely used as well.

A “caveat emptor” moment: maple smoked bacon and maple flavored bacon are not the same thing. In the former case, the flavor is infused into the meat through the smoking process, while in the latter case, the maple taste is produced by a natural or artificial flavoring additive. A recent purchase of a nationally branded “Maple Flavored Bacon” yielded strips that were difficult to cook and the resultant flavor was analogous to a serving of maple syrup into which a slice of bacon had been briefly dipped.

There are numerous types of bacon, generally determined by the specific cut of pork as well as by different curing techniques. Oftentimes, varying terms for bacon are merely semantic in nature. For example, if you've ever wondered what a “rasher” of bacon is, you probably haven't spent much time in the U.K. Us “Yanks” would just call it a “slice.”

Good old grocery store American bacon is called side bacon or “streaky bacon.” Taken from the fatty underside or belly of the pig, the slices have “streaks” of fat and lean, hence the term “streaky bacon.” Salt-cured and smoked, it is usually sold prepackaged in either twelve ounce or one pound quantities. Thin sliced bacon – also called “hotel” or “restaurant” bacon – is sliced to a thickness of about 1/32 of an inch and yields approximately 35 strips per pound. Regular sliced bacon – the kind you bring home from the store – is a 1/16 inch slice and there are about 16 to 20 slices per pound. Thick sliced bacon is about twice as thick as regular bacon and yields 12 to 16 slices per pound on average.

If you are the do-it-yourself type, you can also buy unsliced bacon. Usually referred to as “slab” bacon, unsliced bacon is just a solid piece of meat, often sold with the exterior rind still intact. Other than giving you the opportunity to exhibit your Iron Chef-like bacon slicing skills, slab bacon can be useful in cooking applications where chunked or diced bacon is called for. Salt pork, by the way, comes from the same porcine neighborhood as slab bacon, but it is fattier and is not smoked.

Canadian bacon and Irish bacon are really more ham-like than bacony. Generically referred to as “back bacon,” these cuts come from the center loin portion of a pig's back. They are much leaner than regular bacon and usually come cured, smoked, and fully cooked, just like a ham.

Another bacon cousin that comes from the back of the pig is commonly called “fatback.” Usually processed into a slab, it is a versatile and essential flavoring ingredient in many cuisines. You can't think of Granny Clampett's Southern-style cooking without thinking of fatback. It's also a prime ingredient in “Soul Food.” The Italians call it “lardo,” and to the French it is a staple in charcuterie. When rendered into lard, it once provided the cooking fat of choice until the relatively recent advent of cooking oils and shortening.

Speaking of the Italians, they employ more forms of bacon than you can shake a stick at. Pancetta is an unsmoked, salt-cured bacon that comes from the pork belly. Nutmeg, pepper, and fennel are also traditionally used in curing. The meat is dried for a period of about twelve weeks. Pancetta is usually sold in a rolled form, although flat pancetta is also available.

Prosciutto is another popular form of Italian bacon, although, like Canadian and Irish bacons, it is actually more of a ham since it is cut from the rear haunch of a pig. The meat is salt-cured and air-dried under strictly controlled conditions for at least 10 to 12 months, although some traditional prosciutti are cured for up to two years. Prosciutto is sliced almost paper-thin and is generally served crudo, or raw.

Also served in very thin slices is speck, a salt-cured, smoked pork product from the Italian-Austrian border region. It is highly spiced – commonly with juniper, nutmeg, garlic, and bay leaves – after which it is cold-smoked and allowed to age for about five months.

The last Italian bacon up for discussion is guanciale. Made from pig cheeks, it is salted but unsmoked and cured for about three weeks. It has a stronger flavor than pancetta, but a more delicate texture than many similar pork products. Often substituted for pancetta in cooking, guanciale is a delicacy in its own right in many parts of Italy. In America, this cut is called “jowl bacon.” (Yeah, think “Granny Clampett” again.)

For a cut of meat not so “high on the hog,” middle or “through cut” bacon – taken from the half side of the animal – offers economy, but also sacrifices the higher fat content that lends flavor to streaky bacon.

Pre-cooked bacon is a relatively recent newcomer to the bacon scene. Fully-cooked slices of streaky bacon are prepackaged for this convenience item designed for the time constrained cook who can just pop it in the microwave for a few seconds and produce perfect, worry-free bacon. It's also a boon to the lazy cook and to the one who can't boil water. However, like most convenience foods, it'll cost ya.

Imitation bacon bits are actually a bacon-flavored soy product. Yuck. Do yourself a favor and just crisp up and crumble the real thing over your salad or baked potato, please.

In case you were dying to know why bacon is packaged the way it is, it's all Oscar Mayer's fault. That would be German immigrant and American meat mogul Oscar F. Mayer. Back in 1924, Mayer developed the shingle-stacked, cardboard-backed (with a window in it), plastic-wrapped packaging that we all know and sometimes love in order to display his new innovation – sliced bacon.

If you really can't get enough bacon, you might consider joining a “bacon of the month” club. There are dozens of them out there. Just input “bacon of the month” into your search engine of choice and then pick your pork.

And if bacon is your life – or if you really don't have anything better to do – check in with Mr. Baconpants. Yeah, that's right, Mr. Baconpants. He has a website for everything bacon at And if you'd like to know more about things like bacon mints, maple bacon coffee, bacon air freshener, and bacon water for your dog, head over to his “strange things” page at You'll be amazed – or, at least, bewildered.

Motivational speakers often bring bacon to the table when addressing issues of commitment, commenting, “In the case of a bacon and egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.”

Among my favorite bacon quotes are these: “Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.” – Doug Larson, 1924 Olympic gold medal winner; and, “Of all the lessons in life that I've learned the hard way, the ones involving frontal nudity and hot bacon grease seem to be the most enduring” – unknown (but right on!)

Just so you know:
Approximately 70% of all bacon consumed in the US is eaten at breakfast. (17% of us eat it for dinner, 11% for lunch, and 2% enjoy bacon as a snack.)
The average 200 pound pig will yield 20 pounds of bacon.
There are breeds of pigs especially grown to produce bacon. Among these “Heritage Breeds” are the Yorkshire and the Tamworth.
More than two billion pounds of bacon are produced in the US annually.
The BLT (Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato) sandwich really caught on after WWII when the new “supermarket” concept made fresh lettuce and tomatoes available year round.
Bacon curls and shrinks when cooking because the bundles of proteins in the lean parts lose moisture and shrink up when heated.
The average American eats 17.9 pounds of bacon per year.

Gotta go now. There's a cast iron skillet and a package of bacon calling to me from the kitchen, and after all, I do have to keep up my average consumption.

Buon appetito!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Recipe: Bruschetta and Caprese Salad – Hard To Pronounce But Easy To Prepare

Is It Still “Educational Television” If the Host Is Uneducated?

Since the decline and fall of Food Network, I have found myself turning to other outlets for cooking shows. Most often this means my local PBS station where I can catch America's Test Kitchen and
shows featuring the likes of Lidia Bastianich and Mary Ann Esposito.

But even “educational television,” as it used to be called, has some remarkably uneducated people in the kitchens. This is especially true any time some people try to do anything Italian. A Tennessee gardener named P. Allen Smith, who occasionally masquerades as a cook, lost all credibility with me when I heard him instruct his viewers to cook pasta until it was “al dante.” I'm sure he meant to say “al dente, referring to a particular state of doneness for pasta and vegetables. Maybe Al Dante was an Italian neighbor or something, but ol' P.'s credibility took a nosedive with me nonetheless.

Same thing happened with a perky blonde hostess named Lisa Prince, who hails from North Carolina. Her producers call her “Queen of the Kitchen.” Sorry. Not my Italian kitchen. Anybody who pronounces “Caprese” as “kuh-PREECE” and “bruschetta” as “broo-SHET-uh” is not qualified to be a scullery maid in my kitchen, much less a “queen.” (It should be “kah-PRAY-say” and “broo-SKAYT-tah,” in case you are among the uninformed who didn't see the problem.)

And that's as far as my linguistic commentary will go – this time. Suffice it to say, if you are going to be on “educational television” you should at least try to sound educated.

That said, I have a couple of ricette in my repertoire for the very dishes Ms. Prince was mangling. Horrible pronunciation aside, Insalata Caprese, or “Caprese Salad,” and bruschetta are both quite delicious and ridiculously simple.

(Classic Tomato Bruschetta)

Bruschetta comes from the Italian word "bruscare," which means to roast over coals. In this recipe, I use my oven's broiler, although you can also use a charcoal grill, a grill pan, or even a toaster oven – anything that gets the bread a nice golden color. Bruschetta differs from crostini in that crostini tend to be thinner and less substantial. The thicker cut on bruschetta enables it to stand up to heavier toppings.

1 loaf hearty Italian bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick (approximately 16 slices)
3 or 4 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
4 ounces mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
1 cup red and/or yellow tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh basil, torn or shredded

Preheat the broiler. Arrange the bread slices on an unheated broiler rack or pan. Broil 3 to 4 inches from the heating element for about 2 minutes or until toasted, turning once to get equal color on both sides.

Remove the toasted bread from the oven. Cut an end from a clove of garlic and lightly rub the cut edge of the clove over the surface of the bread. (The cloves will wear down fairly quickly; repeat with fresh cloves as necessary.)

Brush on enough olive oil to lightly cover the surface of the bread. Sprinkle very lightly with kosher salt then top the toasted bread slices with mozzarella cheese. Broil an additional minute to melt the cheese.

Combine the tomatoes and basil. Top the toasted bread slices with the tomato-basil mixture.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 16 servings

(Tomato, Mozzarella, and Basil Salad)

Insalata Caprese, or “Caprese salad” as it is sometimes called, is simple and simply delicious. A traditional Neapolitan dish from the island of Capri off the coast of Naples, Insalata Caprese is not a “salad” in the American sense because it doesn't contain lettuce, a garden of vegetables, and a quart of thick, creamy “dressing.” It is composed of three fresh ingredients and a light topping of salt, pepper, and olive oil. Don't “add to it.” Don't “improve on it.” It's perfectly wonderful just the way it is.

1 to 1 1/2 lbs assorted ripe tomatoes, cut into 1 /4 inch slices
8 oz fresh mozzarella, cut into 1 /4 inch slices
Fresh basil leaves
kosher or sea salt
ground black pepper
3 or 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

On a medium platter, layer the tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil leaves alternately in rows or concentric circles. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil. Allow flavors to develop for about 5 minutes before serving, but do not leave the salad soaking in oil for too long

Serves 4 to 6

Buon appetito!