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, May 25, 2016

Italian Grana Padano Cheese Makers Sue An American Soap Opera

Don't Dis Da Cheese!

It's no secret the whole world loves a good Parmesan cheese. Notice I said “good:” the unpalatable, processed, sawdust-laced crap in a can in no way qualifies as “good,” much less as cheese. No, I'm talking about the real deal; a tangy, salty, perfectly aged, delightfully nuanced hard Italian grating cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano. Or the far lesser-known Grana Padano.

Come on. Face it. Parmigiano has a better press agent. Everybody has heard of the cheese Mario Batali and others tout as “the undisputed King of Cheeses.” Even if you've never seen a wheel or a wedge of the stuff, you've probably at least heard of it, because it's the cheese everybody talks about. Alas, nobody outside arcane Italian food circles says much about Grana Padano. I've walked into many a specialty cheese department at places like Fresh Market, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and asked for Grana Padano and gotten blank stares as if I'd just asked for something really weird in Italian. (You are indeed fortunate if you live in the Southeast where Publix holds sway: they not only know what Grana Padano is, they actually sell it.) And even among those who are aware of the existence of Grana Padano, it is all too often thought of and described as Parmigiano-Reggiano's “poor cousin” or as a “poor man's Parmesan.” And that's the kind of thinking that's making legal waves across the pond.

See, there's this American soap opera called “The Bold and the Beautiful.” Created by a couple of Chicagoans I used to know back in the '60s (Bill Bell and wife Lee Phillip) it debuted on CBS in 1987. I saw an episode of it once about twenty-five years ago. I was being held captive in a waiting room and the TV was on and there was this woman who couldn't live without her “soaps” and......well, there it was. Anyway, it's currently the subject of a lawsuit being filed in Italy by the consortium that produces Grana Padano. Seems one of the characters on the show dissed da cheese. Here's how it went down: The guy, one “Charlie Webber” (played by actor Dick Christie), sets out to make dinner. At some point, he realizes that he accidentally bought Grana Padano instead of Parmigiano-Reggiano. (Obviously they have better stocked cheese departments in Los Angeles, where the show is set.) Visibly upset, he cries, “Oh no! I got Padano!”, after which he rushes out to buy the “right” cheese. (Note to the writers: most people who don't use the full “Grana Padano” moniker usually call it “Grana” rather than “Padano.” Just sayin'.) And the whole thing has the Grana Padano people in Italy up in arms.

Stefano Berni, general director of the Consorzio Tutela Grana Padano, sums up the consortium's ire: “What disturbed us was the dramatic way the cheese was denigrated. The actor reacted to it so negatively, almost as if he had poison in his hand.” Berni described the scene as a "gratuitous lack of respect." Lawyers for the cheese (not to be confused with cheesy lawyers) agree that their product has been actionably dissed. But they go a step beyond claiming mere defamation of the Grana Padano brand. The consortium’s legal beagles also aver that US advertising rules were violated because the hapless comparison happened within the course of the program itself, not during a commercial break. Obviously it's okay to take down the competition in a commercial; that's kind of the point of the exercise. But apparently it's a no-no to promote one product over another in the scripted part of the program. And I suppose saying, “Oh no! I got Padano!” with a look on your face that conveys revulsion could be construed as defamatory. And since the soap airs in a hundred countries and boasts a viewership of between 300 and 500 million, that's a pretty substantial negative impact.

But what's it all about, Alfie? What's it all about when you sort it out? What is the difference between Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano? Location, location, location.

Both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano are hard, granular cheeses. In fact, the word “grana” is Italian for “grain.” Both are made from cow's milk and the production process is quite similar. Cows are milked twice a day. The milk from the evening milking is skimmed and mixed with the whole milk of the next morning's milking. The mixture is pumped into copper-lined vats and coagulated; the resulting curd is cut to produce granules about the size of rice grains, which gives the cheeses their characteristic texture. The first major variance is in the aging process: Parmigiano-Reggiano is aged for a minimum of twelve months. Older varieties (stravecchio) can be aged as long as thirty-six months. Grana Padano, on the other hand, is commonly aged for only eight months with older varieties going for as long as twenty months. The “younger” Grana Padano cheeses are less crumbly in texture and somewhat milder and less complex in flavor than their longer-aged relatives.

The other major difference is, as I said, location. Production of Parmigiano-Reggiano is strictly regulated. The name itself is protected by law and manufacture is limited to the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna (west of the Reno) and Mantua (south of the Po).

Grana Padano is produced across a much wider geographic area. The Consorzio Tutela Grana Padano consortium includes 130 producers, located in Lombardia, Veneto, Emilia Romagna, Trentino Alto Adige, and Piemonte. Even though Parmigiano is better known, the Grana consortium sells almost fifty percent more product worldwide and it is generally sold at a cheaper price, making it an attractive substitute for Parmigiano-Reggiano. Italians know the difference and are careful to distinguish between the two cheeses, even though they are often used interchangeably in recipes calling for grated Parmesan. Taken as stand-alone cheeses – on a cheese plate, for example – the differences are more noticeable. But when grated and mixed into a recipe, not so much.

So now the consortium's Italian lawyers are looking for an American law firm to file a compensation claim. (Gee, that shouldn't be too hard.) Consortium reps say it's too early to quantify the damage in commercial terms but they aren't really looking to make a buck (euro?) out the affair. Berni says, “we are not doing this for money. We plan to donate any proceeds to a pediatric hospital in Haiti that we support.” It's the principle of the thing, right? (Hmmm.....on second thought, maybe that's why they haven't found an American law firm yet.)

In the meantime, go out and buy some Grana Padano. If you can find it. I'm crazy about the stuff and use it whenever and wherever I can. The Grana I bought the other day retails for fifteen dollars a pound as opposed to the twenty dollars a pound for which Parmigiano commonly sells, so guess which one I use if I need a larger quantity. If I'm really using a lot of grated cheese in a dish, sometimes I'll opt for a good quality domestic Parmesan. It's even cheaper and the flavor is acceptable when mixed with other ingredients. I buy a block and grate it myself because any pre-grated cheese is quick to lose flavor and quality. The only level to which I unequivocally will not stoop is the use of the aforementioned cheese-flavored cellulose that comes in convenient cardboard or plastic containers. Imagine a look of total revulsion on my face as I say, “Oh! I got the cheese-flavored crap in a can!” Not that that would ever happen. But if it did and the purveyors of the product would care to sue me, bring it on. My taste buds and I are more than ready for our day in court.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

As The “No Carb” Fad Fades, Pasta Makes A Comeback

Pasta Can Be A Healthy Food

One of the major villains in the “all food will kill you” philosophy of the last couple of decades has been pasta. The carbohydrate-rich concoction of flour and eggs has been blamed for everything from obesity to ingrown toenails. Fad “low-carb” and “no-carb” diets have proliferated with concomitant celebrity endorsements, enriching scads of “doctors” of questionable degree and their greedy publishing houses. Ad agencies, always quick to pander to a trend, have slapped “low-carb” and “no-carb” labels on just about everything, right up there with the “gluten-free,” “antioxidant,” and “all natural” scams they've been running. And ill-informed sheeple have been eating it all up – or not, as the case may be. But recent surveys indicate the “carb-less” bandwagon may be slowing and pasta, that delicious staple of the Italian diet, may be making a comeback.

According to the Nielsen organization, dry pasta sales for the fifty-two week period ending April 2 were up almost three percent (2.9% to be exact) over the previous year. Nielsen also notes a 3.6% uptick in sales of “short” pastas like rigatoni and penne. Google chimes in in support of these figures with the release of their “2016 Food Trends” report. The report reveals that searches for pasta are up 26% from January 2015 to January 2016, with rigatoni, tortellini, penne, fusilli and linguine leading the charge up the comeback trail. Rigatoni in particular is seen to be “trending” across the U.S. in cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Miami. Those same Google trends suggest that Americans are finally getting over the “low-carb” craze, even though interest in the fad diet does spike a bit in January, the month in which everybody's New Year's resolution includes dieting.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that pasta is a “health food.” There are a lot of studies, many of them not conducted by quacks and charlatans, that extoll the virtues of restricting carbohydrates for both weight loss and heart health. If you have a legitimate medical need to limit your carbs, by all means, go for it. The whole spectrum of issues regarding “good” carbs and “bad” carbs and “net carbs” and glycemic indexes and whatnot is far too complex to toss off in a blog post, so I'm not even going to go there. What I am going to do is tell you that pasta can be a healthy food when consumed in moderation. Unfortunately, moderation remains conspicuously absent among most Americans.

I frequent several restaurants owned by Italians. Not Italian-Americans, mind you, but “fresh off the boat” Italians. When I eat in these places, I ask for my pasta to be served “like your mama would serve it.” In other words, don't put a feed trough in front of me and fill it with overcooked pasta piled with meatballs and drowning in cloyingly sweet red sauce. I don't want enough spaghetti to take home and eat for the next three days. Just do like Mama would do and give me a portion of pasta, lightly dressed in a simple, flavorful sauce, that's about the size of my closed fist. I always question my friends in the business; “You don't eat like that yourself. Why do you serve such huge portions in your restaurant?” The answer is always the same; “If we served like we actually ate at home, people would just go to Olive Garden or someplace. We've got to give them what they expect.” This expectation comes to us thanks to the advertising media-inspired caricaturization of round, fat Italians gorging themselves on heaping platters of pasta while shouting “abbondanza!” and “that's Italian!” No, it's not.

Dry pasta is a staple of the Italian diet and of the “Mediterranean diet” as a whole, a diet that has long been touted as being one of the world's healthiest. I know I said I wasn't going to do this, but I lied. Pasta is very low on the glycemic index. Depending on the pasta type and preparation, it registers between 25 and 45 on the 100 point GI. Compared to, say, potatoes, which weigh in at around 80 or white bread at 75. Dry pasta is a “good” carb, it's “goodness” enhanced by how it is made and what it is made of.

Dry pasta, or pasta secca, is made of hard durum wheat. In fact, “durum” is Latin for “hard.” Durum is a tetraploid wheat, as opposed to hexaploid wheats like the hard red winter wheat and hard red spring wheat used to produce flour for bread and other baked goods. Genetically, durum has 28 chromosomes, while hexaploids have 42. Durum is an older species, a hybrid of wild grasses that have been processed and consumed since Roman times. When ground, durum produces semolina, a coarse yellow flour whose large, crystal-like particles are much higher in gluten. This high gluten content helps bond the natural starches and keeps them from leaching out as quickly. Therefore, they digest more slowly which, in turn, results in a slower release of sugar into the blood. And because dry pastas are manufactured by extrusion, the process creates a very dense, compact carbohydrate structure that further retards absorption and allows for a slower energy release in the body. Put a piece of white sandwich bread in your mouth and it will be converted to sugar almost before you finish chewing it. This isn't so with pasta, which more closely mimics the carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables. And that's it for the science.

Italians eat pasta every day. And yet, until the current generation, they have historically maintained obesity levels far lower than Americans and lower, even, than most other Europeans. Today's Italian kids, unfortunately, have strayed from the traditional diet and are more prone to obesity because of their exposure to American imports like McDonald's and Coca-Cola. Gotta love it. America's number one export: fat. Still, even as pasta consumption trends downward as non-traditional cuisines play a larger role in the Italian diet, over half of Italians interviewed in a recent survey continue to eat pasta every day. Americans tend to eat pasta only once or twice a week. But even though overall pasta consumption in Italy is four times what it is in the United States, because Italians actually eat less pasta at a single sitting than do Americans, obesity levels in Italy remain lower than in the U.S.

Another key health difference between Italian and American pasta consumption involves the preparation. Besides piling plates with portions unheard of in Italy, Americans tend to load their pasta down with gallons of rich sauces and other ingredients uncommon on the Italian table. Take, for instance, chicken Alfredo. It's a ubiquitous restaurant dish in the United States that is unknown in Italy. Adding chicken, or any meat, really, to pasta is not done in Italy. And so-called “Alfredo sauce,” loaded with cream and calories, is a mystery to Italian cooks. Chow down on a plate of that stuff at Olive Garden and you're looking at 1440 calories, more than half of them from fat. You know what one of my favorite pasta dishes is? One that's popular all over Italy? Spaghetti aglio e olio; spaghetti with garlic and oil. You infuse a little olive oil with some fresh garlic, add a little salt, and mix it with about a cup of spaghetti. It's satisfying and delicious and it comes in at a less than 350 calories. Splurge a little and make it spaghetti cacio e pepe (spaghetti with cheese and pepper) and you up the calorie count to a little over 500. Spaghetti al pomodoro (spaghetti in tomato sauce) checks in at less than 400 calories per serving. That's how Italians can eat pasta every day and not get fat: they don't serve it on platters and they don't pile it with everything but the kitchen sink.

Pasta is not and never has been a dietary bad guy. When properly prepared and portioned, it can be a healthy part of a balanced diet. Millions of trim, healthy Italians in lines stretching back two thousand years provide the proof. Avoid places where servers wearing back braces carry your food out on platters. Stay out of “all you can eat” establishments and run away from “bottomless bowls” and “endless” servings of anything. When you order or prepare pasta, the pasta itself should be the “star” of the dish, not puddles of sauce and piles of fat-packing extra ingredients. To eat healthy, eat smart and eat well. And always remember per mangiare bene, mangiare italiano! (To eat well, eat Italian!)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Hack the Word “Hack” From Your Vocabulary

Erudite People Of The World, Unite!

I need to rant, okay? Just a little. Here goes.

When used properly, “hack” is a solid, substantial word. It's a strong word that traces its origins back to the thirteenth-century Middle English word hakken. When used as a transitive verb, it means “to cut or sever with repeated irregular or unskillful blows.” As an intransitive verb, it means “to make chopping strokes or blows.”

Now, the word “hack” is nothing if not versatile. If one is annoyed or aggravated, one is said to be “hacked” or “hacked off.” If you can't cope or achieve in a particular situation, it is said you can't “hack it.” Maybe you have a “hacking” cough. You can be a “hack” or a “hacker” at golf. One of London's Hackney carriages can be called a “hack,” which is also what you call a motorcycle with a sidecar attached. In the masonry trade, “hack” refers to a row of stacked unfired bricks, while in the sports world a “hack” can be a horse, a training method for falcons, or a piece of equipment used in curling. There are, of course, political “hacks.” And you may come across the occasional “hack” writer, derived from the word "hackneyed," meaning "commonplace, trite, stale, or banal." There was even a TV show called “Hack.”

But the word got a big boost when it gained popularity in the cyber-geek world, where “hack” means to break into a computer. Suddenly, “hacker” and “hack into” became everyday expressions, and that's okay. But, unfortunately, the emergence of this iteration of “hack” also led the word to become an annoying, idiotic, and absolutely execrable buzzword.

Back around 2004, some hipster journalist covering a tech conference in California used the term “life hack” to describe certain shortcuts employed by IT professionals. How and why he came up with that expression I have no earthly idea. But he did and somebody liked it.

Now, that probably wouldn't have been so bad if it had remained confined to computer geekdom. But it didn't. Some nameless clown somewhere decided to shorten “life hack” or “lifehack” to just “hack” and utilize it in place of much better words. Bloggers especially became fond of the word and in the blink of an electronic eye, “hacks” were everywhere. And then the mainstream entertainment media took up the word and the race was truly on. Cooking “hacks,” cleaning “hacks,” study “hacks,” workout “hacks,” organizing “hacks,” etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum. All of a sudden, every piece of useful information was a “hack.” Descriptors like “tip”, “trick,” “hint,” “skill,” “idea,” or “shortcut” virtually disappeared in favor of the shiny new word of the day.

Well, I'm here to tell you I can't hack the trend anymore. I am supremely hacked off about it and if I had my way, I'd hack into the lexicon of every hack who uses the word “hack” in that manner and hack it from existence. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with a cooking shortcut, a study hint, a cleaning tip, a workout trick, or an organizing idea. To a normal person of average intelligence, these are perfectly clear and understandable terms that do not need to be replaced by cutesy-tootsey mediaspeak, slang, and jargon. You got me, hipster and millennial hack writers? You hear me, vapid and vacuous morning news show hosts? I want a “tip” or a “trick,” not something that sounds like what my cat does with a hairball. Go buy a damn thesaurus and stop using “hack” to describe anything useful and informative. It's annoying as all billy-hell to those of us who possess vocabularies of words made up of more than one syllable, and, far from making you sound hip, trendy, and cool, it bespeaks an air of stupidity and sophomoric solecism.

Erudite people of the world, unite! Join with me and together we'll hack away at this aberrant usage of a perfectly good and serviceable word.  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why Should You Celebrate Cinco De Mayo? You Really Shouldn't

Another Day For Americans To Overindulge And Get Drunk

I'm writing this late on May 5, so by the time you read it, it will already be too late for me to save you from celebrating yet another pointless holiday created by the American advertising industry with the purpose in mind of separating you from your hard earned dollars. I'm talking, of course, about Cinco de Mayo.

Now before you get your feathers in a ruffle, I didn't just spit on the Mexican flag. Largely because if you ask any Mexican you encounter on the street about their so-called “national holiday,” they won't have any idea what you're talking about. Cinco de Mayo is an American celebration promoted mostly by American beer companies in a month that's light on holidays as an excuse to party. Oh, I know May has other holidays, but Memorial Day has already been turned from a day of solemn remembrance to a day of grilling and swilling and who goes out and gets blasted on Mother's Day?

So what, exactly, IS Cinco de Mayo? Well, literally it's the fifth of May. You'd be surprised how many people don't know that. And why, exactly, is the fifth of May a day to celebrate? Well, duh! It's Mexican Independence Day! Isn't it? Isn't it? No,it isn't.

Well, okay, smart guy. If the Fifth of May isn't the Mexican equivalent of the Fourth of July, why do so many Mexicans celebrate it, huh? Why do Mexican restaurants all have big fiestas and Mexican bars all offer two-for-one drink specials, huh? The answer is for much the same reason as “everybody's Irish” on March 17. Except that St. Patrick's Day is an actual holiday in Ireland while Cinco de Mayo is practically non-existent in Mexico.

Here's the deal: Cinco de Mayo started out as a semi-important day to Mexican-Americans living in southern California. The reason why it was a semi-important day goes back to the American Civil War.

Napoleon III was a guy who had big dreams about reasserting French authority in Europe and around the world. And he was big on supporting other people's causes to help him achieve that goal. He allied with the British to defeat the Russians in the Crimean War. He lent his influence to Italian unification and gained some territory for France by doing so. He expanded the French presence in Asia. And he had an eye on Mexico.

See, Napoleon III was a supporter of the Confederacy, or at least of the Southern cotton crop, and he figured that he could give the South a hand by establishing a Second Mexican Empire under French protection. We don't need to go into the whole convoluted political situation. Suffice it to say that on May 5, 1862, a Mexican general by the name of Ignacio Zaragoza put a kink in the conquest by defeating a sizable French force near the town of Puebla. 462 French soldiers were killed while the Mexican army lost only 83. It was a limited victory at best. It slowed down the French intervention, but it was a far cry from Mexican independence, a state that had already been achieved on September 16, 1810 – the real Mexican Independence Day. Within a year following the Battle of Puebla, the French had whomped the Mexican Army and installed their puppet emperor, Maximilian I. Of course, he only lasted a couple of years and then everything went back to as normal as things got in Mexico. In the grand scheme of things, the Battle of Puebla, or Cinco de Mayo, accomplished two things: it showed that a determined “David” could beat a bigger and better equipped “Goliath.” And it proved to be the last time any country in the Americas has been invaded by a European military force. Cinco de Mayo was a minor victory in an obscure conflict that had nothing to do with Mexican independence.

So why do the Mexicans celebrate it? Outside the State of Puebla, they don't. It's not a national holiday, and although there are some observances and celebrations in Mexico and some schools are dismissed for the day, it took the Americans to really make a big bash of the whole thing. And that goes back to Civil War days, too.

California was a free state, a Union stronghold. And the prospect of a Confederate-friendly Mexico was pretty unsettling. There was a real possibility that the French, having established themselves in Mexico, would have aided the South, freed Southern ports of the Union blockade, and bolstered the cause of the Confederacy. So when a little band of Mexican soldiers gave a black eye to the mighty French army, it was a pretty big deal among Mexicans and Mexican supporters in California. They started the “Cinco de Mayo” ball rolling back in the 1860s. It picked up a little steam during the days of the Mexican civil rights movements in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.

But it took Madison Avenue's “Mad Men” to make it the blowout it is today, especially the ones representing America's beer industry. Never ones to let a good excuse to get Americans falling-down drunk go by, they began capitalizing on the “celebratory” aspect of the day in the 1970s or thereabouts and it was soon added to the official calender of ad agencies everywhere. It has nothing to do with freedom or independence or national identity. Market driven greed and gluttony have made it yet another day for Americans to overindulge and get drunk.

I'm sorry. It just grinds my gears because I'm old. I clearly remember when "cinco de Mayo" was just the day between cuarto de Mayo and sexto de Mayo. It was just another day then and as far as I'm concerned, it's just another day now.

Personally, I'm thinking of writing a letter to Budweiser and Coors and other brewers promoting the Battle of Zorndorf as a candidate for a good beer drinking holiday. It was a little mix up between the Prussians and the Russians that happened on August 25, 1758 as part of the Seven Years War. It was a politically insignificant battle that left a total of nearly thirty-five thousand dead and both sides claiming victory. August is a month bereft of holidays. So I say let's go for it! I hereby nominate "Der F├╝nfundzwanzigsten August" (The 25th of August) for our next pointless holiday. We could all don lederhosen and clank steins of beer as we shout German or Russian slogans. Woo-hoo! I think we've got a winner here!

In the meantime, Happy Cinco de Mayo! I hope the ring the ad agencies slipped through your nose isn't too uncomfortable.