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!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Second Thing You Should Learn How To Cook

Nothing Beats Pasta For Simplicity And Versatility

I love it when readers ask questions in the comments section. Here's one I got the other day from a reader named “Jeff”:

Hi Ron! I stumbled on your blog today and I love it – thank you for doing this. I am starting to learn to cook and was wondering if I could get your advice on something... I just learned how to cook eggs in 5 different ways. Knowing what you know now, what would you suggest is the SECOND thing I should learn how to make? I am a little intimidated by cooking meat and would appreciate your thoughts. Thank you so much!”

I had to think about the answer for awhile. Jeff's being intimidated by meat kind of slowed me down because the very first thing I ever learned to cook – at age seven – was bacon. Since Jeff has learned eggs five ways, bacon would logically seem to be next on the menu. And a lot of people, myself included, rate roast chicken up there as an essential skill for beginners. I thought back on some other non-meat things I learned to cook early on and eventually I came up with something. I'll get to it in a minute.

But first let's look at “cooking.” I grew up in the late '50s and early '60s and that's when I made my first forays into the kitchen. Unfortunately, those decades were the height of the culinary “Dark Ages” when Mad Men ad men had America convinced that convenience was king and that additive and preservative-laden fare in boxes, cans, and frozen pouches was the “modern” answer to old fashioned kitchen drudgery. Why spend hours in the kitchen slaving away with fresh ingredients when you could just open a box and have a “wholesome” meal in minutes? My mom – an excellent cook in her earlier years – drank the Madison Avenue Kool Aid and so my first “cooking” ventures involved Shake 'n Bake, instant mashed potatoes, Minute Rice, any vegetable Birdseye or the Jolly Green Giant froze in a bag, and whatever boxed dessert mix Betty Crocker or the Pillsbury Dough Boy could conjure up. Then the '70s came along with the newfangled microwave that effectively turned Mom's oven into a place to store Tupperware. Dark days, indeed.

And recent surveys show that the darkness is far from passing. Even as food seems to be taking over the airwaves with shows like “Top Chef,” “Chopped,” and “The Chew,” and food culture appears to be undergoing a renaissance, a frightening number of teens and young adults think of “cooking” in terms of heating up take-out food in the microwave or popping a Pop-Tart in the toaster.

Now, since Jeff is reading my blog (and presumably others like it) I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that he is not interested in “reheating” and that he actually wants to learn how to cook. With that in mind, I'm going to go with pasta as the “second thing” a beginning cook should learn how to make. Nothing beats pasta for simplicity and versatility.

Of course, the first pasta I learned to cook was the good ol' blue box of macaroni and cheese. Don't judge. I was only eight and it was the '60s, okay? I learned better fairly quickly. And once you learn the basics – “Pasta 101” – you open the door to an endless variety of delicious dishes. I'll discuss two of them: macaroni and cheese and spaghetti.

Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate American comfort food and it's simple to make, even without a packet of day-glo orange toxic chemicals and preservatives. There are two typical preparations for macaroni and cheese dishes; stovetop and baked. They both start out the same, but finish differently.

The stovetop version, which is what the blue box turns out, is the quickest and easiest – and happens to be my wife's favorite. It is nothing but pasta – usually elbow macaroni – butter, milk, cheese, a little flour, and some salt and pepper.

Here's what you'll need:

8 ounces elbow macaroni (or other short, hollow pasta)
¼ cup butter
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon salt, plus extra for seasoning the water
a dash of black pepper
2 cups milk
8 ounces cheddar cheese (mild or sharp, depending on your taste)

And here's what you need to do:

Cook the pasta in four quarts of boiling, salted water according to package directions. You'll want to add at least two tablespoons of salt to the boiling water just before you add the pasta. (No, it's not too much.) While the pasta is cooking, you're going to do something all French and fancy; you're going to make a roux, turn it into a bechamel, and then transform that into a mornay. You're really just making a cheese sauce, but doesn't the other way sound more impressive?

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When it's melted, stir in the flour. Stirring constantly, let the resulting paste (the roux) cook for a minute or two and then slowly add the milk. (It helps if the milk is warm.) Add the salt and pepper and cook and stir until the sauce (the bechamel) is bubbly. Stir in the cheese and cook, stirring frequently, until the cheese melts into the sauce. (Now you have a mornay.)

Drain the macaroni, reserving a cup or two of the cooking water. Add the cooked pasta to the cheese sauce and stir it up to coat, adding a little of the pasta water as necessary to achieve the desired consistency in your sauce.

This recipe will serve four people.

My wife thinks I complicate the process by making an actual cheese sauce. Her method is to skip the flour and just add the butter, milk, cheese and the salt and pepper directly to the hot drained pasta and stir it in until it melts. Try it both ways and see which works best for you.

After you master the basic procedure, you can play with flavors a bit. Some folks like a little nutmeg in the sauce. And you can mix and blend different cheeses. My wife is partial to American cheese and she uses Velveeta a lot. I sometimes mix in Parmesan, provolone, fontina or other Italian cheeses to change up the flavor profile. Just have fun with it.

The baked option is what you'll usually find listed as “classic” macaroni and cheese. It's pretty much the same procedure, except you make it and then bake it. You'll just need a little more butter and some breadcrumbs. Here's what you do.

Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to the stovetop recipe. The only thing you'll do differently is cut back the cooking time on the pasta by a minute or two. You want to do this any time you're preparing pasta to bake. If you fully cook it to start with and then cook it further in the oven, it'll get a little mushy.

Preheat your oven to 400°. When the macaroni and cheese is ready, lightly grease an oven-proof baking dish with some of the extra butter and coat it with some of the breadcrumbs. Pour in the cooked macaroni and cheese, spread it into an even layer, and top it with more breadcrumbs. Bake it for about twenty minutes or until the top starts to turn a nice golden brown.

If macaroni and cheese is classic American comfort food, spaghetti is the Italian equivalent. When it comes to spaghetti, though, I'm going to tell you something that may shock you: I don't care how many “Italian” restaurants you've been to or how many church suppers you've attended, Italians don't eat spaghetti and meatballs and they don't eat spaghetti with meat sauce. The gold standard for classic Italian spaghetti is plain old spaghetti al pomodoro – spaghetti in tomato sauce. Nothing is simpler or more delicious.

If you're just learning to cook, you might as well start out right. All spaghetti is not created equal. Quality counts. As in construction, cheap building materials yield disastrous results. Bargain brand noodles are often made with inferior ingredients that will cook poorly. The kind of flour used in the pasta dictates the rate at which it releases starch when it's cooking. Cheap stuff often breaks down quickly and/or unevenly, resulting in a mushy, overcooked final product. Choose a good Italian pasta. Not just one with a vowel at the end, but one that actually has something to do with Italy. You can find it in Italian specialty stores, but if you're just shopping at a regular supermarket, DeCecco or Barilla are your best bets.

As for the sauce, homemade is always best. And tomato sauce really isn't that hard to make. I'm going to give you a simple recipe for a decent sauce. But if you don't think you're ready for that lesson, use a prepared sauce. For most purposes, jarred sauce is generally good; canned sauce is generally not. Again, buy a decent quality sauce and don't get one that has all kinds of stuff in it. Supermarket shelves sag with sauces that have meat and vegetables and mushrooms and cheese and everything but the kitchen sink in them. You don't need or want that. Plain, “traditional” tomato sauce is all you need. You can add the other stuff yourself if you want, using fresh ingredients. And as your skill level improves, you can make it all from scratch. But to start with, use a good, plain sauce.

One more note on cooking spaghetti......well, actually two: don't grease up the water and don't bust up the noodles. If mama and grandma did it that way, I'm sorry. That just goes to show that for most of the twentieth century, Americans didn't know from a hole in the ground how to cook pasta. DO add salt to the water – “like the sea,” as the saying goes. Two or three tablespoons is not too much. DON'T add oil. Even a drop is too much. Oil and water don't mix and oiled water doesn't keep pasta from sticking. It just makes oily pasta. Lots of water – four or five quarts of it – is what keeps pasta from sticking. And don't break it in half before you cook it. Just.......just don't. Unless you want to make a grown Italian cry.

Here's what you need:

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1 (28 oz) can whole peeled plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
kosher salt
fresh basil leaves, torn
12 oz spaghetti
2 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano

Here's what you do:

If you are making your own sauce, begin by dumping the tomatoes in a big bowl and crushing them, preferably by hand. If you want a chunkier sauce, this is where you stop. If a smoother sauce is desired, puree the crushed tomatoes in a blender, a food processor, or by using an immersion blender.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the minced onion and cook, stirring, until soft, three or four minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook two or three minutes more. Don't allow the garlic to brown, or it will become bitter. Add the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for an additional minute.

Increase the heat to medium and add in the crushed or pureed tomatoes. Season lightly with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly, about twenty minutes. Remove from the heat and add in the torn basil leaves. Set aside.

If you're using sauce from a jar, pour it into a large skillet – not a saucepan – and heat it up over medium-low heat. Dress it up with a glug of olive oil and maybe some basil or oregano. Taste it and see what it needs. When it's warmed through, put it on a back burner and hold it at a low temperature.

Meanwhile, bring four or five quarts of salted water to a boil and cook the spaghetti to just short of al dente. “Al dente” means “to the tooth,” which means the noodle should have a little firmness in the center when you bite into it. It shouldn't be hard and undercooked, but you don't want it soft and mushy either. Drain the pasta, reserving about a cup of the cooking water.

If you're using homemade sauce, take out the basil and return the sauce to the heat. Stir in a little pasta water to loosen the sauce and bring it to a simmer. Add the cooked pasta to the pan with the sauce and continue cooking for about two minutes, stirring to thoroughly coat the pasta with sauce. Follow the same procedure if you're using jarred sauce. In either case, add the pasta to the sauce and not the other way around. You will get better flavor and better texture in your finished dish by letting the pasta cook in the sauce for a minute or two. That's why you want to use a large skillet rather than a saucepan. Don't ever pile plain spaghetti on a plate and pour sauce over it. I know, I know......that's the way your favorite “Italian” restaurant does it. Believe me, they only do it that way because that's the way Americans have come to expect it. If the folks back in the kitchen are the least bit Italian, you can bet they don't do it that way at home.

Anyway, finish off by removing the pan from the heat and adding the butter and the cheese. Toss gently until the butter blends in and the cheese melts. The butter isn't strictly necessary, but it gives a nice glossy finish to the sauce. And as far as the cheese is concerned, if you use that horrible cheese-flavored sawdust they sell in green cardboard or plastic containers, I will know and I will find you and it won't be pretty. Seriously, if you can't find or afford Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino Romano, at least use some domestic variety of Parmesan or pecorino cheese. Please. The canned stuff is just nasty.

Transfer your bella la pasta to warmed bowls and serve. This recipe also serves four people.

Once you master these very basic pasta dishes, there are literally hundreds more you can make, limited only by your creativity and the availability of ingredients. Let me know when you're ready, Jeff, and I'll give you a recipe for pasta carbonara. There are eggs in it, so technically you could add a new egg dish to your repertoire. :-)

Speaking of eggs, you didn't say what the “five ways” you learned were, but let me tell you about frittate.......or croque madame......eggs Florentine.....Caprese poached eggs.....baked egg casserole.....oooo, oooo,.....homemade mayonnaise!

Buon appetito! 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

No More Trans Fat: FDA FINALLY Bans A Killer Preservative

One Down, About A Million To Go

Somebody pinch me. The FDA has mandated the removal of partially hydrogenated oil and/or trans fat from its execrable list of food additives that are GRAS – Generally Regarded As Safe. In doing so, the agency has taken a teeny tiny step in the transition from lapdog to watchdog. Of course, it's a matter of one additive down and about a million to go, but every journey begins with a single step and this is a good one.

Once upon a time, human beings ate real food. They lived and thrived on nature's bounty just as it was provided in farms, fields, forests, oceans and other natural resources. The only “additives” and “preservatives” came in the form of salts, spices, herbs and other equally natural substances and processes. Thus mankind existed for untold millennia. Granted, it wasn't always easy or convenient. Even after humans surmounted the need to hunt for their food or to pull it directly from the soil, they still had to shop for it, often on a daily basis. Fresh food was, after all, perishable.

And then came “The Modern Age,” the era of “better living through chemistry.” “Perishable” food? Perish the thought! Bread doesn't have to get moldy after only a few days. We can make it last for weeks! We can put whole meals in a box! A little bit of this and a little bit of that added to the food supply and words like “stale” and “spoiled” become practically obsolete! With our “modern” additives and preservatives, we can extend the useful life of almost anything. Anything, that is, except the lives of the people eating the darn things.

One of the biggest “improvements” in the cause of “shelf stability” was introduced in the 1950s when scientists began hydrogenating vegetable fat. The actual chemical process had been going on since the early part of the century when Proctor & Gamble's “Crisco” hit the market. A few years before that, French chemists used the technique to create margarine as a cheap alternative to butter and some scientists were dabbling with hydrogenating whale oil as a means of preserving it. But it took the convenience craze of the post-WWII years to really send hydrogenated products soaring. Within a decade, it was nearly impossible to find anything that didn't have something hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated added to it.

I really don't want to go into a long, pedantic discussion of the hydrogenation process with all its hydrocarbon chains and double bonds and talk of cis and trans configurations. If you want to know all the chemical details, look 'em up. The short answer goes like this: hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils are formed when hydrogen is added to liquid oils to make them solid. The parts of the equation that really mattered to the consumer were the parts that made hydrogenated products cheap and convenient. And food manufacturers were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Through their “Mad Men”-like advertising agencies, they quickly convinced harried homemakers that their products were not only more convenient to use, they were healthier, too. Butter was bad; margarine was better. Lard was lethal; shortening was sublime. We got pounded and pounded and pounded with this dreck until we believed it, aided by a government agency that was so deep in the pockets of the food industry that it didn't dare say or do anything to the contrary.

Not everybody drank the Kool-Aid (which, by the way, contains such wholly wholesome ingredients as calcium phosphate, Red 40, artificial color, artificial flavor, Blue 1, and BHT). Back in the 50s, a young University of Illinois researcher named Fred Kummerow had his doubts; doubts that were confirmed when he got a local hospital to let him examine the arteries of heart disease victims. His startling discovery of high levels of artificial trans fat led him to publish his first paper on the dangers of artery-clogging trans fats in 1957. But the food industry steamroller had too much momentum by then and people like Kummerow were ignored, stifled on the altar of profit.

Fast forward a few decades. People had begun to look around them and realize, “Jeez, compared to our grandparents, we're all dropping like flies.” By the 1990s, enough Fred Kummerows had raised enough awareness that consumers began rejecting the concept of “healthy” trans fats. Evidence was mounting that consuming “healthy” trans fats led to weight gain, heart disease, and even memory loss. In a cholesterol-conscious society, studies were showing that trans fats raised LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood while lowering the HDL “good” cholesterol. Ooops! You mean the stuff we've been shoveling into our bodies is not really as healthy as the guys on Madison Avenue say it is?

Of course, the puppets at the FDA were still dancing on the strings of “GRAS” as directed by their Big Food masters, but enough nutritionists and scientists were beating the drum with sufficient force to be noticed and consumers slowly turned away from the formerly “healthy” products of recent years gone by and began returning to things like bad ol' butter and lard. Never ones to go broke pandering to the whims of a fickle public, food manufacturers started to fall in step and march to the new old beat. Ad men were now racing to see who could slap the most “No Trans Fat” labels on the very products they had touted as “healthy” just a few years before. True to form, the FDA began to produce weak mewlings about “limits” so they wouldn't look as totally inept and superfluous as they really were. Example? The agency continued to allow manufacturers to include up to 0.5 grams of trans fat in a product and still label it as containing “0 Trans Fat.” Just one of dozens of regulatory loopholes through which profit-mongering food manufacturers continue to strangle clueless consumers.

The Big Nanny – aka New York City – enacted a ban on trans fats in restaurant food back in 2007. A noble effort, but a futile one. Far more New Yorkers were filling their faces and clogging their arteries with cookies and pies and cakes and snack foods purchased at grocery and convenience stores than were ever likely to consume trans fat in a restaurant.

But now it seems it will all come to an end – in another three years, anyway. The total ban on trans fats won't take effect until 2018 because the industry needs time to come up with new implement the transition, don't you know? But, as I said, it's a step in the right direction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that taking trans fat out of the food supply may prevent 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 coronary deaths each year. Predictably, Big Food is not going to go down quietly or easily. According to a statement released on the heels of the new ban, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, long a vociferous and contentious mouthpiece for the food industry, said it would file a petition with the FDA that "will show that the presence of trans fat from the proposed low-level uses of partially hydrogenated oils is as safe as the naturally occurring trans fat present in the normal diet." In other words, they're going to keep trying to poison people because it's cheap and expedient to do so.

Don't buy it. I mean that literally. Don't buy it. Read the label. Anything that says “partially hydrogenated” fats or oils – I'm looking at you, Jiffy Pop Butter Popcorn, and you, Pepperidge Farm Coconut Three-Layer Cake, and you, Blue Bonnet stick margarine, and you, Pillsbury Supreme Buttercream Frosting – just put it down and walk away. Far be it from me to suggest that you can make all those things from scratch using fresh, wholesome ingredients. (Well, the popcorn, the cake, and the frosting, anyway. Nothing can make that nasty plastic butter-like substance wholesome.) But even if you don't think you can turn into a Suzie Homemaker overnight, at least look for products that are minimally objectionable in terms of additives and preservatives. As I frequently say, I am going to make the undertaker earn his money. I am not going to let Kraft and ConAgra embalm me while I'm still alive. And I damn sure don't need to pay Roto Rooter to clean the detritus of “modern living” out my arteries.

Congratulations, FDA, on finally growing a pair. Okay, a micro-pair, but a pair nonetheless. Now for the next step: how about taking a look at Panera Bread's recentlyreleased “No No List” of additives and preservatives and seeing what you can do there? If you only ban one substance per year, you'll be busy into the next century. And more of us might actually be there to see it.

Friday, June 12, 2015

“Caramelize”: An Annoying Culinary Buzzword

What's Wrong With Plain Ol' “Brown”?

To my increasing annoyance, I notice that a lot of people cooking on TV these days appear to be educated beyond their intelligence. It's a common failing among those who feel compelled to demonstrate a higher level of erudition than they actually posses. The most common example of this compulsion is the employment of “big words.” I'm sure you're familiar with the phenomenon. Everybody knows somebody who tries to impress with excessive grandiloquence. As one who frequently uses “ten dollar words” when fifty-cent ones will do, I am quite familiar with the practice. The difference, however, is that I know what the big words mean and I use them appropriately. I would much rather sound supercilious than stupid.

The particular focus of my ire today is the ubiquitous culinary buzzword “caramelize.” “Caramelize” is a great word. When pronounced properly, it has four syllables rather than three and it means one of two things: either to change sugar into caramel by cooking it, or to cook something containing sugar slowly until it becomes brown and sweet. It is not, however, simply a synonym for “brown.” And anybody who has ever opened a textbook at a culinary school should know that.

For example, here is a quote from Cooking at Home, a book published by one of those culinary schools, the Culinary Institute of America: “The first step in many braises or stews is to brown the surface of the meat or poultry quickly in fat over high heat.” Later in the paragraph; “Brown the meat in batches without overcrowding.” Still more; “After the meat is browned, remove it from the pot and sauté a mixture of aromatics in the same fat.” “Brown” and “browned,” not “caramelize” and “caramelized.” Did you catch that, CIA graduate and rampant caramelizer Michael Symon?

The only way one can “caramelize” meat is if the meat has been glazed or coated in something containing sugar. Only then can the surface of the meat “caramelize.” Otherwise, it browns through the Maillard reaction. I refer to the well-respected Harold McGee, whose exhaustive work On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is almost an industry Bible. On page 688, McGee states, “Caramelization is the cooking of plain sugar syrup until it turns brown and aromatic. It is similar to the browning or Maillard reactions that give color and aroma to roasted meats, baked goods, and other complex foods, but unlike the browning reactions it proceeds in the absence of amino acids and proteins. It requires higher temperatures than the browning reactions, and produces a different mixture of aromatic compounds and therefore a different flavor. Cooks have spoken of “caramelized” or “carmelized” meats for better than a century, but this is not really correct.”

Are you listening, Rachael Ray, Lidia Bastianich, and a host of other caramelizing TV cooks? Maybe this will bring home the point: On page 299 of his excellent book, What Einstein Kept Under His Hat, food scientist and former Washington Post food columnist, Robert L Wolke, writes: “Much confusion exists between Maillard browning and sugar browning or caramelization. Both a sugar molecule's carbonyl group and a protein molecule's amino group must be present if Maillard browning, also known as sugar-amine browning, is to take place. Heat accelerates the Maillard browning reactions, but they can take place at temperatures as low as 122° F (50°C). The reactions can even proceed slowly at room temperature, such as when foods turn brown from age. In contradistinction, the browning of pure sugar or other carbohydrates at temperatures higher than about 250°F (120°C) – in the absence of an amino acid or other nitrogen-containing compound – takes place by a completely different set of complex chemical reactions, called caramelization. Many chefs seem to love the word caramelize, and use it indiscriminately to describe any food that turns brown upon being cooked. But meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other protein-containing foods do not caramelize. They simply brown. Not as fancy a word, perhaps, but accurate.”

Let me reiterate that last line: “meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other protein-containing foods do not caramelize. They simply brown. Not as fancy a word, perhaps, but accurate.”

And therein lies the crux of the issue, the education beyond intelligence to which I alluded earlier. “Caramelization” is a “fancy” word. “Brown” is not. So in order to sound more erudite and brainy and perhaps more authoritative, TV cooks toss “caramelization” around at every turn of a spatula, even though by any and all standards it is quite incorrect. And once one TV cook starts doing it, they all jump on the bandwagon because nobody wants to sound dumber than the next guy. And that's how a perfectly legitimate cooking term becomes a meaningless buzzword.

I will promise you this: in 99% of professional kitchens, you will find chefs “browning” meat. They graduated from the same schools that some of the TV cooks attended, but they are not out there trying to impress people sitting in a studio or in front of a TV with their extensive vocabulary. I deliberately laid on some big words throughout this piece because I wanted to illustrate a great old philosophy that says, “If you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit.” And that's just what many of these TV cooks are trying to do. You're just a little ignorant home cook. You should be impressed by them because they “caramelize,” while you merely “brown.” Don't be intimidated. Just because you don't make duck confit as a regular thing doesn't mean you are any less than the TV whiz kids. When it comes down to it, we're all just cooks. “Chef” and “star” have become almost meaningless. And if you need proof, just look at any of the "chefs" competing on “Food Network Star.”

You just keep on browning, home cooks. Brown long, brown loud, and brown proud! Because you're entirely right and those caramelizing kooks on the boob tube are completely wrong.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Next Food Network Stars Could Be Chimps

Chimps Can Cook! Get Brooke Johnson On The Line!

Food Network has become such a trite, boring, uncreative, repetitive, derivative shadow of its former self that I have long since given up hope on a network that was once my “go to” source for food information and entertainment. There are exactly two shows left on Food that I still follow and “Food Network Star” is not one of them. I'm not even bothering to look in on a show that is in its 11th season and has not produced a “star” since Season 2. Hell, the “winners” of two of the last three seasons didn't even get their own shows. These are “stars”?

But there's a bright glimmer on the horizon. Chimps. That's right. Chimpanzees.

Research out of Harvard has revealed that chimps have the cognitive ability to cook. Apparently, our primate cousins even prefer the taste and texture of cooked food over raw and are willing to wait for it. In a series of experiments at the Jane Goodall Institute's Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo, wild-born chimpanzees were given the opportunity to prepare food using a “cooking device.” It wasn't really a “cooking device,” of course. It was actually two plastic tubs that fit closely together with pre-cooked food hidden in the bottom tub. But the chimps didn't know that. When a chimpanzee placed a raw sweet potato slice into the “device,” a researcher shook it, then lifted the top tub out to offer the chimp an identical cooked slice of sweet potato. The chimps resisted eating raw food and put it in the “device,” waiting for cooked food. They would store up raw food and bring it from one side of a cage to the other in order to put it in the “device.” And they put different kinds of food – like carrots – into the “device.” Subjects were given a potato and a piece of wood at the same time. They only chose to put the potato into the “cooker.” Researchers say the experiments show not only that chimps have the patience for cooking, but that they have the “minimal causal understanding they would need” to make the leap to actual cooking.

OMG! Somebody call Brooke Johnson! I think there's an opportunity for Food Network to ride a real ratings rocket here. Call it “Iron Chimp: America.” Alton Brown could provide witty commentary as teams of chimpanzees scurry around Kitchen Stadium shaking plastic bowls. The chimps would then present their creations to a panel of celebrity judges comprised of winners of past “Food Network Star” shows (at least it would give them something to do) who would then decide on a champion. It's gold, I tell ya! And it would be infinitely more entertaining than anything currently airing on Food Network. Cheaper, too. All Scripps would have to shell out would be a few bucks for plastic bowls and some slices of potato. And maybe some cute chef coats for the competitors. Bob Tuschman? Are you listening?

Oh, and they could amp it up by giving the chimps food-related names. Remember the first chimp in space? His name was “Ham.” And maybe Susie Fogelson could work a marketing tie-in with Animal Planet. I'm sure the makers of “Gorilla Glue” would jump aboard for a sponsorship. And it goes without saying that when the next “Planet of the Apes” movie comes out.......

And the cross-over possibilities are endless. Think “Chopped: Chimps” or “Restaurant: Chimp Possible.”

Oh, PETA would probably protest the exploitation of the chimps and would want to oversee their working conditions. But that's okay. Publicity like that drives ratings. And the network would likely catch flak from hundreds of line cooks working under similar circumstances in restaurants all across the country wondering why they couldn't compete, too. But, hey. That's show biz.

Of course, if it all fell flat,  Ken Lowe and the Food Network gang would look like a bunch of monkeys, but no more so than they already do.

Cooking shows with chimps. Gold, I tell ya. And remember, you heard it here first.

More Giada De Laurentiis-Hating Drivel

Hosing Down the Flames of Irrational Hatred

About five years ago I wrote a piece entitled, “Giada De Laurentiis: Don't Hate Her Because She's Beautiful.” In it I attempted to point out the absurdity of hating on a person you don't really know.

Hate is an example of an extreme emotion, one often devoid of rational purpose. It represents a deep dislike directed toward individuals, groups, objects, or ideas. Hatred is often associated with feelings of anger, disgust, and a disposition towards hostility. It is described by Sigmund Freud as “an ego state that wishes to destroy the source of its unhappiness.”

It is an unfortunate reality of modern life that the Internet provides both a haven and an outlet for the small-minded and the big-mouthed, people often described in the vernacular as “haters.” Secure in their anonymity, they bloviate endlessly about the objects of their misguided emotions. Hence, it was surprising to me that it took five years for an anonymous hater to crawl out of the woodwork and fire off a farrago of baseless drivel regarding my defense of Ms. De Laurentiis. In typical fashion, the author took potshots at both my subject and me. She wrote:

“You are either a complete idiot, delusional or related to the aforementioned Giada. Your blinded love for the grimacing bobblehead Giada De Laurentiis has apparently resulted in mental illness. You have made the absurd assumption that all who have expressed a dislike for your beloved Giada are either obese or "flat chested". I fall into neither one of those categories as I am sure many other Giada"haters" do not as well. As an extremely trim and very attractive and educated woman in my own right, I can say that it is damn sure not jealously that fuels my dislike for De Laurentiis. De Laurentiis has a smile that could easily scare off wild animals when she bears those teeth. Not to mention that freakishly large head of hers and her obvious need for male attention. Those pushup bras she struts while cooking ain't for the ladies my dimwitted friend and fyi, I am definitely not lacking in the boob department just in case you're wondering. Your demented and long-winded diatribe makes you sound more like a potential stalker than an actual fan. Get help!”

I rarely rise to such obvious bait. I usually just delete it and forget it. And I probably should have done that in this case, but I didn't. I chose to respond as follows:

“Wow. Congratulations on leaving me almost speechless. Almost. The pathos engendered by your vitriolic harangue prompts me to leave it posted for awhile just for the comic benefit. But allow me to respectfully suggest that I am not the one in need of "help," mia tesoro.

In the first place, before you rant on and on about the level of your education, please learn the difference between 'bear' and 'bare.' Giada does, indeed, bear teeth. Probably thirty-two of them. And I suspect she would bare them over the blustering fulminations of a self-identified 'hater.'

Before we discuss my 'mental illness,' may I point out that hating someone over superficial physical attributes is none too healthy? Have you ever met Giada or spent time in her presence? I didn't think so. I have, even though I am not a relative or a bosom buddy. (Pun intended.) She's large-breasted. Wow. What a reason to hate somebody. Does Dolly Parton – another busty acquaintance of mine – make your hate list, too? Giada's head appears to be too large for her small frame. That should certainly cause an 'educated' person to hate her. And most egregious of all, she smiles too much. My God! Off with her bobblehead!

I don't limit or cheapen myself with a ridiculous focus on physical characteristics. I'm not as fixated on 'boobs' as you seem to be. Neither a brainless Neanderthal fanboy nor a 'potential stalker,' I simply appreciate Giada's personality, talent, and ability. Those are the things that make her beautiful in my estimation. I have made the effort to look beyond the construct of Food Network executives and producers and see the person underneath as somebody I enjoy watching, learning from, and knowing.

I talked to Giada once about 'haters.' Her take on the subject was simple: 'I think that people will talk about you regardless, and it doesn't matter whether you're doing great or you're not doing great, up or down, there's always going to be haters and there's always going to be people who like you and you just can't please everybody.' And I don't think she wastes too much time trying to please the likes of you.

I will bring yet another long-winded diatribe to a close with a final question: the word 'demented' is defined as 'driven to behave irrationally due to anger, distress, or excitement.' Based on our respective comments, which of us does that more accurately describe?”

I feel better now, but beyond that, I believe I have yet again validated my point that it is ludicrous to “hate” another human being based merely upon their outward appearance. Isn't that the basis of racism?

I don't particularly care for Sandra Lee. Or Paula Deen. Rachael Ray is not among my favorites. But I don't go off frothing at the mouth about Sandra's figure or Paula's age or Rachael's voice. I've seen them all on TV and I've seen some of them in person and my antipathy is based not on physical shortcomings but on intangible aspects of their personalities that I simply don't like. I know people who think Giada is fake and pretentious. That's their takeaway based on what they see on TV and there's not much that she or anybody else can do about it. You know what opinions are akin to and everybody's got one. But to “hate” someone based on the largeness of her breasts is a sure indicator of the smallness of the hater's mind. And throwing around terms like “freakishly large” and “grimacing bobblehead” and describing a person's smile as being capable of scaring wild animals is petty, narrow, and mean-spirited in the extreme. Certainly not the milieu of an “educated” person. The commenter sings her own praises with her description of her attractiveness and takes pains to point out that she is “definitely not lacking in the boob department just in case you're wondering.” Believe me, I wasn't. But what if, in my own perception, I found her knees to be knobby and her butt to be broad? What if I think she has “freakishly large” feet? Does that give me the right to define her as a person? If there was a sway to her hips that I found suggestive, would I be justified in standing in the midst of a crowd screaming “slut?” Best reexamine your vaunted education, cara, because your pettifogging intolerance is showing.

I like Giada. You want to know who else I like? I like Lidia Bastianich and Mary Ann Esposito. And I damn sure ain't fawning over the latter pair because of their looks. (Hmmmm.......come to think of it, Lidia smiles an awful lot, too. Maybe I have a secret desire to be a dentist.) You can call me dimwitted – oh, you already did – but I don't give a rat's ass about the size of Giada's breasts or her head or the third toe on her left foot. The woman is Italian and she can cook. I'm part Italian and I can cook. In Italian that's an example of simpatico, a word with a lot of meanings but one which generally conveys a sense of liking someone just because. If that makes me an idiot or delusional, well.....guilty as charged.

Bottom line, don't hate Giada or anybody else because they are beautiful or ugly, short or tall, young or old, or because they write blogs. Save your negative emotion for people who are bigoted, trivial, narrow-minded, petty, blinkered, or obsessed with physicality. They are the ones who truly deserve it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Super-Simple Bread Recipe You'll Really Love

Don't Buy It, Bake It

I've written reams about the virtues of home-baked bread over that gummy, preservative-laden, bread-like substance you buy in the supermarket. So this isn't going to be another rant; just a recipe for the simplest, most delicious bread ever.

This recipe is for a “boule.” That's French for “ball,” and the recipe turns out a couple of very rustic loaves that resemble slightly squashed balls. Slice 'em up for fantastic sandwich bread, fabulous toast, or just to have some great, fresh bread on the table. I catered a luncheon for twenty-some people a little while back, and I put baskets of this bread on the tables along with some herbed olive oil for dipping and some soft butter for spreading. Not a single slice came back when we cleared the tables.

The best thing about this recipe – besides delicious bread – is the fact that you don't need a slew of special equipment to make it. Parchment paper and a baking stone produce the best results, but you can make do with just a baking sheet. And if you've got a mixer, food processor, or bread machine to make the dough, great. If not, you can make it by hand.

Here's what you'll need:

1 ½ cups of warm water (about 110° F)
1 ½ teaspoons instant dry yeast
3 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon diastatic malt powder (optional)

A few ingredient notes: 110° F is a good target temperature for working with yeast. If your water temp is below 100° your yeast will be sluggish to react and if you exceed 115° it'll croak. Use a thermometer if you've got one, otherwise just think “lukewarm.” If the water feels “cold” or “hot” to you, the wee yeasties will probably think so too.

Always use unbleached, unbromated flour. My preference is King Arthur. Potassium bromate is an additive you don't really need or want. Originally used as an “improver,” it has since been linked to cancer and banned almost everywhere – except, of course, in the U.S. Here, our watchdog/lapdog FDA has not actually banned the use of bromate, but since 1991 they have “encouraged” bakers not to use it. And “bleached” flour is just that: flour that has been bleached by the addition of a whitening agent, usually benzoyl peroxide or calcium peroxide. Again, it's an attempt to “improve” on nature, and you don't need it. And, again, it's banned in Europe but not in the U.S.

I call for Kosher salt here, but you can use common salt as well. In fact, I don't usually use Kosher salt in baking, but it seems to work well in this recipe. Just remember, common salt is “more salty” so only use about 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons in place of the tablespoon of Kosher salt. And don't use iodized salt if you can help it. Iodized salt is a holdover from an era when a lack of dietary iodine, especially among poorer classes, was a principle cause of goiter and other ailments. Regardless of economic status, everybody used salt, so health officials started recommending the addition of iodine to salt. It's not really necessary anymore, but iodized salt is still the most common salt in American kitchens. However, iodine and heat do not play well together. The high temperatures used in baking can cause iodine to break down, often leaving a slightly bitter or metallic taste. If you've ever had homemade bread or baked goods that tasted a little “off” – not enough to make you say “yuck” and throw them away, but just enough to make you go “hmmmm” – they were probably baked using iodized salt.

Finally, you're probably wondering what in the world “diastatic malt powder” is. If you don't have it, don't worry about it. Diastatic malt powder is a "secret ingredient" some bread bakers use to promote a strong rise, great texture, and a nice brown crust. The amylase enzyme in diastatic malt powder breaks down starches into sugars, thus helping with rise, crust and crumb texture in doughs, yielding a good, strong rise, great oven-spring, and a more tender final product. But as nice as it is to have (you can get it at you don't really need it to make great bread.

Okay. On to the method.

You don't have to proof instant yeast, but I usually do. Add it to ½ cup of the water and wait about five minutes until it gets foamy. (If it doesn't, it's dead and you need to start over with fresher yeast.)

In a large bowl, mix the flours, then add the oil and the diastatic malt (if using). Add the yeast mixture and the remaining water. Mix to incorporate. Allow the dough to rest (autolyse) for a few minutes and then add the salt last. (Salt has an effect on the enzymes in flour, as well as how the water affects gluten development and yeast activity. Letting the dough sit without salt allows for enzymes to do most of the gluten development work before you start actually kneading it, letting it form a developed dough very quickly.)

Mix to form a wet, rough dough and knead for about 5 minutes. You can do this in a mixer or machine, or you can do it by hand.

Place the dough in a lightly greased container, cover and allow to rise for about 2 hours. DO NOT punch it down. You want nice holes in the finished crumb and punching down the dough will push out all the air and will give the bread a denser texture.

Carefully remove the dough to a lightly floured work surface and dust it with a little flour to make it easier to handle. Divide it into two equal pieces (I weigh mine) and shape the pieces into rounds. Cover a peel with parchment paper. Place the formed rounds on the parchment covered peel, cover them with a slightly damp towel, and allow them to rest and rise for 40 to 60 minutes.

Position a baking stone on a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425°.

When the loaves have risen, make two slashes in the surface, about 1/2-inch deep, using either a baker's lame or a very sharp knife. Lightly dust the surface with flour and slide onto the baking stone. Mist the interior of the oven with water to create steam. (Alternately, you can place a metal pan or rimmed baking sheet in the bottom of the oven while it's preheating. After you place the bread on the stone, toss about ½ cup of ice into the pan to create the steam.)

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes.

This bread is so good that even when it turns out bad, it's still good. I recently had a run-in involving a couple of extra soft and sticky loaves and a dull knife. When I attempted to slash them, the knife hung up in the sticky dough and dragged through it without leaving a good cut. This, of course, deflated my perfectly risen dough and the resultant loaves looked more like naan on steroids than a nice puffy boule. But when I sliced into it, darn if the crumb and the flavor weren't still perfect. Which proves two things: 1) you need a really sharp knife to slash sticky dough and 2) it's almost impossible to screw up this recipe.

Now go forth and bake some real bread.