The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

“Flavor” Doesn't Always Mean What You Think It Does

Better Living Through Chemistry

It was interesting to read a recent piece in the Lansing State Journal in which it was noted that maple industry groups from Vermont to Michigan sent a letter to the FDA protesting food products labeled as “maple” that don't actually contain any real maple. This development came hard on the heels of a widely circulated report on the lack of real Parmesan cheese in “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” and of a lesser scandal over a seeming lack of mozzarella in McDonald's mozzarella sticks. Could it be that people are finally waking up to the fact that when it comes to food, things aren't always what they seem?

To be fair, the McDonald's kerfuffle was more a matter of questionable quality both in terms of product and preparation than of any attempt to mislead or defraud. There really is supposed to be mozzarella in the mozzarella sticks.....somewhere. They just need to learn to cook the darn things so that the cheap cheese doesn't leech out in the process. The Parmesan-less Parmesan is a much more serious matter, although I have been beating the drum about wood fiber-filled crap in a can for many years. The mystery to me is why it took so long for everybody else to catch up. The fake maple accusation, however, represents a new front in deceptive or misleading labeling. And the only thing that keeps it from being a fairly legitimate one, the one metaphorical fly in the maple ointment, is the word “flavor.”

I know a little about real maple. My Canadian-born grandmother used to receive “care packages” from family in Quebec and Vermont containing blocks of pure maple sugar. Sometimes she'd receive a quantity of pure maple syrup from which she would make her own maple sugar. It was all wonderful and delicious, putting anything Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth concoct to shame. Those and other so-called “pancake syrups” are not considered “real” maple syrup because they are not produced by boiling maple sap to yield syrup. They're usually just some form of corn syrup or, worse, high fructose corn syrup, over which somebody passed a maple leaf. And that's where the whole “flavor” bugaboo comes into play.

Have you ever brought home a bottle of Log Cabin maple syrup? No, you haven't. Because there's not the first mention of “maple” anywhere on the label. Check it out. “Log Cabin Syrup.” Period. But due to the successful marketing of its “rich maple flavor,” we have come to think of it as maple syrup. Same goes for Mrs. Butterworth, Aunt Jemima, and most of the rest of the pancake syrups we all think of as “maple.” Not a trace of maple in the bunch. Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, water, cellulose gum, caramel color, sodium benzoate, sodium hexametaphosphate, salt, sorbic acid – those are available in abundance in all or nearly all of them. A couple throw in a little molasses. But no maple. What they all have in common, however, is a healthy dose of natural and/or artificial flavors. And it's those added “flavors” that make things taste like maple.......or orange.......or vanilla.......or licorice......or whatever the chemists want them to taste like.

The maple folks are mad at Quaker Oats over “Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal.” They're upset with Hood over “Maple Walnut Ice Cream.” The letter sent out by maple syrup producers and by the International Maple Syrup Institute and the North American Maple Syrup Council claims that misbranding deceives the consumer and hurts those using real maple syrup. “It deceives consumers into believing they are purchasing a premium product when, in fact, they have a product of substantially lower quality.”

I've got news for the maple people: the problem is not necessarily with the producers. Misleading and deceptive practices are only effective on people who are easily misled and deceived. As H.L Mencken was fond of saying, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Or as P.T Barnum succinctly put it, “There's a sucker born every minute.”

Simply put, if the average consumer would only learn to read labels rather than to believe high-flown advertising claims, he or she would be a lot harder to mislead. And if they took the time to learn what those labels mean, there would be a lot less deception.

Take “natural flavor,” for example. The under-informed shopper picks up a package and reads “natural flavor” on the label and automatically thinks, “Okay. Natural. That's good.” Or is it?

The Environmental Working Group maintains a “Food Scores” database of over 80,000 foods. “Natural flavor” is the fourth most common ingredient listed on the labels of those foods.

The definition of “natural flavor” under the Code of Federal Regulations is: “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional” (21CFR101.22).

Both artificial and natural flavors are made by “flavorists” in a laboratory by blending either “natural” chemicals or “synthetic” chemicals to create flavorings. Added flavoring, both natural and artificial, could contain anywhere from fifty to a hundred ingredients, including solvents and preservatives. By and large “natural flavors” come from natural sources – i.e. the original ingredient is found in nature and then purified and extracted and added back into the food. However, that does not always mean that the “natural flavors” in your strawberry Pop Tart are just crushed-up strawberries. No, they are more likely to consist of chemical compounds originally found in strawberries. These substances have been chemically enhanced and added into your food in a lab rather than in a kitchen. “Artificial flavors” are just straight up synthetic chemical creations. Either way, it's all better living through chemistry.

I mean, okay, the maple producers are upset, but do they have any more reason to be pissed than vanilla makers or orange growers? How many products say “vanilla flavored” or “orange flavored” on the package? There's little to no real vanilla or orange in any of them, either. And last time I checked – which was just now – Quaker's “Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal” may have “maple” in the name, but it's not listed among the ingredients; just the usual suspects “whole grain rolled oats, sugar, natural flavor, salt, calcium carbonate, guar gum, oat flour, caramel color, reduced iron, and vitamin A palmitate.” No allusion to maple anywhere. So is “Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal” any more or less deceptive or misleading than, say, “orange” Kool-Aid? I guess if truth in labeling were carried to ridiculous extremes, the product should be called “Chemically Enhanced Naturally Flavored Faux-Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal,” but that's not likely to happen. Besides, they'd have to make the label bigger.

No, the real answer lies in educating consumers. Encourage them to read every label and know what all the gobbledygook means. If everybody who looked at a box of “Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal” would only read the label and realize, “Hey! There's no maple in there!”, the problem of “deception” would be moot. Caveat emptor. If a shopper knows that a product with “maple” in the name doesn't actually contain any maple but buys it anyway, he's the real sap. (Sorry. Couldn't resist that one.)

So let's not drag the government any deeper into our business than it already is. Besides, the trained seals at the FDA aren't going to stop jumping through Big Food's hoops anyway, so why bother sending them letters? Those bureaucrats are only interested in numbers – specifically the number of zeroes that follow a dollar sign. Better to spend your time and resources educating people in a manner that will result in informed buying decisions. Everybody from Plato to Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson to George Carlin has extolled the virtues of an educated populace, but we have yet to achieve one. I once saw a sign in a bookstore that said, “open your mind: read a book.” Where food is involved, let's start a little smaller and say, “open your mind: read a label.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

An UPDATE: Fake Parmesan Cheese Is Real

I Told You So!

A while back I wrote what I called a“primer” for Parmesan cheese. In it, I extolled the virtues of Parmigiano- Reggiano – the real Parmesan cheese – and excoriated what I have long held to be “crap in a can”; the ubiquitous plastic or cardboard containers of “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” that you find in every supermarket and in nearly every restaurant in America. I pointed out that because of the cellulose filler most of these sham cheese products contain, you might as well be eating sawdust. It's a quixotic crusade. Although educated and experienced cooks and chefs like Mario Batali will back me to the rind on the subject of Parmigiano-Reggiano, very few consumers pay any attention because they have been so deeply indoctrinated through the successful marketing strategies of the purveyors of fake cheese. To the vast majority of insufficiently informed minds, Parmesan = Crap In A Can.

So imagine my smug, self-satisfied, swellheaded, overweening delight this morning when this parade of news headlines scrolled across my screen: “Investigations rat out fake ingredient in cheese” – CBS News; “Parmesan cheese is not what it seems” – The Washington Post; “The Parmesan Cheese You Sprinkle on Your Penne Could Be Wood” – Bloomberg; “You May Be Sprinkling Wood Pulp on Your Pasta, Not Parmesan Cheese” – Time; “Parmesan cheese from many top brands may contain wood byproduct” – New York Daily News; “FDA: Parmesan suppliers doctored cheese with wood pulp” – The Detroit News; “FDA warning: More wood pulp than parmesan cheese in '100 percent parmesan'” –; “Store-Bought Parmesan Cheese Contains Sketchy Ingredients Like Cellulose, Filler Made From Wood Pulp” – Medical Daily

See! I TOLD you so!

The accompanying stories were full of facts that hammered home the point I've been making for years:

The FDA has learned that Castle Cheese Inc. was doctoring its 100 percent real parmesan with such fillers as wood pulp. – The Detroit News

Acting on a tip, agents of the Food and Drug Administration paid a surprise visit to a cheese factory in rural Pennsylvania on a cold November day in 2012. They found what they were looking for: evidence that Castle Cheese Inc. was doctoring its 100 percent real parmesan with cut-rate substitutes and such fillers as wood pulp and distributing it to some of the country's biggest grocery chains. – The San Luis Obispo Tribune

Take my word for it, even as I am happy-dancing my ass all over my kitchen right now, I get no pleasure from being so fully, completely, excruciatingly and unambiguously RIGHT. Well....maybe just a little. The point is that if even that obtuse, foot-dragging, monolithic glacier known as the FDA – an agency frequently accused of being blindly and firmly in the pocket of Big Food and its minions – can come to the conclusion that something is rotten in Pennsylvania, then there must truly be something to worry about. A real “Cheesegate”. Or perhaps that should be “Porta di Parmesan”.

A cheese industry insider recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that some Parmesan cheese being sold contains twenty percent or more cellulose. According to a Bloomberg expert, less than forty percent of grated cheese is actually a cheese product. He believes that a fifth of all hard Italian cheese produced in the United States is mislabeled.

Product testing for the Bloomberg report reveals that Essential Everyday 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, from Jewel-Osco, was 8.8 percent cellulose. Wal-Mart’s Great Value 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese registered 7.8 percent. Kraft – the grandaddy of them all – tested out at 3.8 percent. Even Whole Foods 365 brand – a brand that didn’t list cellulose as an ingredient on the label – still tested at 0.3 percent.

In case you didn't read my original piece and are unclear on the definition and purpose of “cellulose,” cellulose is an anti-caking agent made from plant fiber, the most common source of which is wood fiber from wood pulp. In other words, sawdust.

The FDA's own code defines “Parmesan” thus: “Sec. 133.165 Parmesan and reggiano cheese. (a) Parmesan cheese, reggiano cheese, is the food prepared from milk and other ingredients specified in this section, by the procedure set forth in paragraph (b) of this section, or by another procedure which produces a finished cheese having the same physical and chemical properties as the cheese produced when the procedure set forth in paragraph (b) of this section is used. It is characterized by a granular texture and a hard and brittle rind. It grates readily. It contains not more than 32 percent of moisture, and its solids contain not less than 32 percent of milkfat, as determined by the methods prescribed in 133.5 (a), (b), and (d). It is cured for not less than 10 months.”

Ain't nothin' in there about no damn sawdust, now is there?

Castle Cheese, Inc – with parentheses around the word “cheese” – has been peddling its Parmesan-less “Parmesan” for almost thirty years. Bloomberg says the president of the company is scheduled to plead guilty to charges that carry a sentence of up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Her spin doctor attorney tells the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that the case is just a matter of improper labeling, not actual food safety. "No consumer’s health or safety was ever jeopardized as a result of the labeling matters at issue." Whatever helps you sleep, man.

Okay, I've said it and now – words I never thought I'd type – the FDA is backing me up. 100% Grated Crap in a Can is not “real” Parmesan cheese. Is it dangerous? No, not that anybody can prove. The helping of termites you have to swallow to help you digest the stuff might not be so good, I don't know. Does it taste like Parmesan? Sure. If you have no idea what Parmesan is supposed to taste like. Is it a cheap, crummy, inferior, low-quality, substandard, odious, counterfeit substitute for the real thing designed to appeal to the wallet rather than to the palate? Indubitably!

I've got to give one prop to Olive Garden and a few other faux-Italian eateries; at least the stuff they grate over your plate is actual cheese. It's not usually expensive Parmesan. Generally it's a more “affordable” substitute like Romano, but that's okay. Points for it not coming out of a shaker. Do yourself the same favor at home. Buy a grater and a wedge of real cheese. And ditch the can.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Am I The Only One Tired Of A “Stylized” National Anthem?

Just Sing It, For Gawd's Sake!

A good Italian girl, Lady Gaga, sang the National Anthem at Super Bowl 50. And it was said that some people were moved to tears by her performance. I know I was, because in spite of an inspiring voice that soared to terrific heights on “the rocket's red glare,” she did the same damn thing “artists” do all the time: she turned the National Anthem into a stylized performance piece. And that makes me weep.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” is the national anthem of the United States of America. In and of its own right it is a powerful song of majestic beauty and feeling. It is the anthem of our nation, representing us as a people. It is not a bluesy jazz number, a twangy country hoedown, or a screaming rock opera aria. It is a song that should be sung with utmost dignity and respect for the music and for the ideal it represents.

Various dictionary definitions of “anthem” cite it to be “a song of loyalty or devotion,” and “a rousing or uplifting song.” Taken from the Old English “antefn,” an anthem was originally a song sung antiphonally, or in turns by two groups of singers. Today's anthems, when sung by a group of people, represent a devotion to a particular cause espoused by that group. Some anthems are raucous and rowdy while others are staid and dignified. Our national anthem should always be the latter.

Vocal gymnastics are completely uncalled for when singing the National Anthem. Trills and frills and ruffles and flourishes are fine for lesser compositions. If you want to jazz up or rock out “America the Beautiful,” go for it. Knock yourself out reaching for octaves above the score. Change up the melody and the tempo to match your musical “style” and identity. Make the song “your own.” Stamp it with your stamp, mark it with your mark, sing it with all the acrobatics your vocal cords posses and leave the audience gasping at your unparalleled artistic virtuosity. Just don't do it with the National Anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not a performance piece with which to showcase your style. It is our song, not yours. So you can go up an octave on the phrase “land of the free.” I don't care and I'm not impressed. The song is not written that way and you have no right to “interpret” it. Just sing it, for gawd's sake!

I have sung the National Anthem at sporting events myself. And I have never been tempted to show off my range or otherwise screw with the traditional arrangement. I don't have that right. It's not my song. It is the song of my country and its people, and when I sing it, I sing it with the respect and honor that that country and those people deserve. I don't "perform" the anthem, I just sing it.

In fact, I remember the days when the singer on the field led the people in singing the National Anthem. When these ego-driven “artists” start screeching and squalling and stretching the high notes, who the hell could follow them? To them, it's not about the song or the people, it's just about them and their “performance.” Remember when Christina Aguilera butchered the lyrics? She didn't care enough to even learn the song. But she sure as hell performed it, didn't she? And I shouldn't even dignify the Roseanne Barr disgrace with a mention.

When they let opera singers, school choruses, or military chorales sing the National Anthem, nobody messes with the arrangement and the results are awe-inspiring. I get chills from hearing a solid, strong, well-performed note-for-note rendition of our sweeping, powerful national song. When I hear country, pop, or rock “stars” bellowing out their horrid interpretations, I just get sick.

"Artists" take note: you are being called upon to sing the National Anthem, not to "rock" it. Its purpose is to inspire the listener, not to stroke your ego. It doesn't require your "styling"; it demands your respect. Singers who turn the "Star-Spangled Banner" into a performance piece are a large part of the reason nobody respects the traditions associated with the song anymore. People are supposed to stand at attention facing the flag when the anthem is sung. Men are supposed to remove their hats. If not singing the anthem, people are expected to remain in respectful silence until it concludes. Look around at any sporting event and you'll see these rules flaunted regularly.

A few years ago, Carolina Panthers tight end Jeremy Shockey was quite vocal about how proper etiquette for the singing of the National Anthem is necessary to show respect for the flag and those who fought for it. He criticized opposing players for not putting their hands over their hearts as the National Anthem was performed. I wonder if he noticed current Panthers quarterback Cam Newton standing on the sidelines with his eyes closed, holding on to his shoulder pads and swaying from side to side as Lady Gaga "performed" the song? Peyton Manning, on the other hand, was seen standing at attention with his hand over his heart. But in Newton's defense, why should he show any special regard for the song when the singer has turned it from a national anthem into a pop ballad? After all, nobody takes off his hat and stands at attention when Elton John sings "Rocket Man," right?

My heartfelt congratulations to Lady Gaga for proving to her detractors that she does, indeed, have a wonderful voice. And the next time she's called upon to sing the National Anthem, I hope she will stand straight and tall, eyes fixed on the fluttering banner for which the song is named, and belt it out with that outstanding voice in a way that will reflect the true glory of the anthem and the nation for which it stands. That would move me to tears.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Forget About McDonald's Mozzarella Sticks And Make Your Own

Channeling Clara Peller: “Where's The Cheese”

The food world came to a crashing halt recently as word spread across the Internet that McDonald's newest menu addition – fried mozzarella sticks – apparently didn't contain any actual mozzarella. Scores of photos of breaded shells devoid of cheese popped up everywhere, leading to the question, “Where's the cheese?” If a competitor wanted to be really canny, said competitor could revive Wendy's old “Where's the Beef” gimmick with a cheesy twist. Of course, dear old Clara Peller has long since departed for that Great Fast-Food Restaurant in the Sky, but, hey, if the Madison Avenue types can resurrect Colonel Sanders for a modern ad campaign, why not the “Beef” lady?

The controversy has grown to such proportions that a guy in California has actually filed a class-action lawsuit seeking 5 mil in damages, accusing the Chicago-based burger meisters of fraudulent and misleading advertising. According to the claim, some 3.76 percent of the cheese portion of the sticks in question is actually starch filler. Federal guidelines reportedly prohibit the use of starch in products that are labeled "mozzarella cheese," hence the basis for the fraud charge. Like somebody actually expected McDonald's to use mozzarella di bufala?

My wife and I stopped by a local Mickey D's and ordered a couple of orders of the offending side item and found them to be just average old mozzarella sticks of the variety available at cheap faux-Italian restaurants everywhere. Served with a little cup of unremarkable marinara, they were pretty standard fare, and, yes, there was cheese in both orders. Although I do understand the phenomenon; I've gotten empty sticks at other places on occasion.

Two things come into play: the quality of the product and the ability of the cook. I haven't been back in the kitchen, but I can almost guarantee that McDonald's does not have a little Italian nonna back there hand breading hand cut batons of fresh mozzarella. No, it's more likely that they are frozen sticks of heavily breaded cheap cheese product and it's equally likely that they are being fried to within an inch of their existence, which is another reason the cheese would cease to exist. In addition to the California dude's probably correct assertion that the “cheese” in McDonald's sticks leaves something to be desired, the real problem is that the skills of the people frying them also leave something to be desired. Quickest way to bust a mozzarella stick wide open is to overcook that rascal. Even so-called “low moisture” cheese has some moisture in it, and what happens when water/moisture hits the boiling point? Steam, of course. Considering that the average boiling point of water is about 212° and that the average temperature of frying oil is upwards of 350°, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that explosive steam expansion is gonna happen if you throw something wet into the fryer and leave it there for several minutes. You wanna know where the cheese in the cheese sticks winds up? Check the fryer filters.

Anyway, I've got a better solution. Forget all that angst on Instagram and don't rush headlong to join that cheesy lawsuit. Instead, just make your own fried mozzarella, or mozzarella fritta, as it's called in Italian. It's really not that hard and the results are a darn sight better than any you'll find at McDonald's or at most of the aforementioned faux-Italian places. Here's how you do it.

You'll need:

Mozzarella cheese
Flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
Bread crumbs
Oil for frying

If you can find fresh mozzarella, great. Otherwise, the typical block cheese found in supermarkets will work.

You can use Italian breadcrumbs if you want to zip up the flavor a little. Otherwise, plain breadcrumbs are fine.

Use a neutral oil like canola for frying.

The method I'm about to describe assumes that you'll be shallow frying in a frying pan or a Dutch oven. I actually have a deep fryer, but I know not everyone does. A fryer makes this a quicker and easier process, but pan frying works just fine.

Okay, here's what you do:

Cut the mozzarella into slices or sticks about 1/2 inch thick. Slices work better with fresh cheese because it comes in rounds. The block cheese makes for better sticks. Your choice. Whichever way you go, pat off any excess moisture with paper towels, especially if you're going with fresh mozzarella.

Heat some oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan. A cast iron skillet is good; so is a Dutch oven, especially the ceramic coated cast iron ones like those made by Lodge or Le Creuset. You don't need quarts of oil; just enough to completely immerse the cheese sticks. You want your oil to hit a temperature of about 350°. If you don't have a thermometer, and old trick is to drop a crumb of bread into the oil. If it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready.

While you're waiting for the oil to heat, lay out three shallow bowls. Beat the eggs in one. Put some flour in another and some breadcrumbs in the third. This is called a “breading station.” The order for breading just about everything can be remembered by thinking of the abbreviation for February: F-E-B – flour, eggs, breadcrumbs. (There's your Cooking 101 tip for the day.)

Press the cheese slices or sticks into the flour, coating them evenly. Shake off any excess flour and dip the sticks or slices into the eggs, then into the breadcrumbs. Now go back and hit the eggs again and take one more dive into the breadcrumbs. This provides a nice double-coated breading that will hold up better in the high-temp frying conditions.

Working in small batches, carefully add the breaded cheese to the oil. Fry just until golden brown. About a minute will usually do it. Watch closely; if they sit too long, you might as well pack up and go to McDonald's. If you're not using a deep fryer, turn the sticks once while frying to ensure even cooking on both sides. Fish the sticks or slices out with a slotted spoon or similar utensil and drain them on paper towels. Serve 'em up hot, fresh, and delicious.

A little time saving variation here: you can prepare your mozzarella sticks in advance and freeze them for later use. Just lay out your prepared cheese sticks on a wax paper lined baking sheet. When you get a sheet full, cover them with plastic and stick them in the freezer for a couple of hours. Once they're frozen, you can remove them to zip top freezer bags and keep them frozen for a day or two. Don't hold them too long, though: if they build up ice crystals, they'll fry up about the same as the cheap store-bought sticks – or the things they use at McDonald's. Fresh is best, overnight is okay, more than a day or so and you're pushing quality.

There you have it; mozzarella sticks guaranteed to have cheese in every bite.

Buona fortuna e buon appetito!