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The View from My Kitchen

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

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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Perfect Potatoes Au Gratin

Natural Ingredients Instead of “Natural Flavor”

Not everything I cook is Italian. Every once in awhile the French part of my heritage breaks through and demands attention. When it does, I fix it a nice dish of patates au gratin, or “potatoes au gratin.” Some people also call them “au gratin potatoes.” And because I'm as much of a stickler in French as I am in Italian, it should be noted that the correct pronunciation is not “aw GROT-in,” but rather “oh grah-TAHN,” and you kind of swallow the “n”.

“Gratin” is a classic French culinary technique that involves giving a dish a browned crust, usually by baking a preparation topped with breadcrumbs, cheese, eggs, or butter in a shallow dish under an overhead grill (called a “salamander” in restaurant-speak) or a broiler.

Once upon a time, I, like most American cooks, used to rely on Betty Crocker for my “au gratin potatoes,” because they were quick and convenient. You had dehydrated potato slices and a packet of some mysterious dried cheesy substance in a box. There was also a packet of bread crumbs. Combine the first two ingredients with water and bake, then top it with the breadcrumbs to finish and, viola!, delicious, cheesy “au gratin potatoes.” All well and good, except here's the list of what you're getting in that box: Potatoes*, Corn Starch, Maltodextrin, Enriched Flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), Sea Salt, Onion*, Potassium Phosphate, Ricotta Cheese* (whey, milkfat, lactic acid, salt), Potassium Chloride, Cheddar Cheese* (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes). Contains less than 0.5% of: Garlic*, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Monosodium Glutamate, Sodium Citrate, Lactic Acid, Calcium Lactate, Mono and Diglycerides, Nonfat Milk, Yeast Extract, Sodium Phosphate, Whey, Salt, Natural Flavor, Color (yellow lakes 5 & 6), Blue Cheese* (milk, salt, cheese cultures, enzymes), Silicon Dioxide (anticaking agent), Enzyme Modified Blue Cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), Enzyme Modified Cheddar Cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes). Freshness Preserved by Sodium Bisulfite.*Dried

Thanks, Betty, but no thanks. I'm running a kitchen, not a chemistry lab. (Or a mortuary. Personally, I prefer to wait until after I'm dead before I get pumped full of preservatives.)

So I set about finding a way to make au gratin potatoes that weren't stuffed full of things I didn't want to stuff myself full of. And here's the way to do it.

You'll need:

6 medium potatoes, russet or Yukon gold, peeled and sliced to 1/8 inch thickness
2 tablespoons butter (plus extra for greasing)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (white, if possible)
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup cream
1 3/4 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
pinch of paprika (optional)
Bread crumbs (optional)

The best way to achieve uniform 1/8-inch sliced potatoes is with a mandoline. Just be careful if you're not experienced in using one. USE THE GUARD or a cut-proof Kevlar glove while slicing. 1/8-inch slices of raw fingertip are very unappetizing. You can use a knife, but it's a slower, more tedious process.

Okay, here's what you do:

Heat your oven to 400°.

While the oven is preheating, grab a 2 qt saucepan and heat the butter and oil over medium heat until the butter is melted into the oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in the flour, salt, and pepper. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until smooth and bubbly. Remove from heat.

Stir in the milk, cream, and cheddar cheese. Return to heat and bring to a low boil, stirring constantly. Simmer and stir for about 1 minute or until the sauce thickens.

Lightly grease a 2-quart glass or ceramic baking dish with butter. Spread the sliced potatoes in layers. Pour the cheese sauce over the potatoes.

Cover with foil and bake for about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake uncovered for an additional 20 minutes. Mix in the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Top with bread crumbs and sprinkle with paprika, if desired, and continue baking an additional 10 or 15 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and bubbly. (You might want to flip the broiler on for the last couple of minutes to get a nice brown, bubbly top. Just watch it carefully; the broiler can take it from brown and bubbly to black and nasty very quickly.)

Yields 6 (1/2 cup) servings

It's not as easy as opening a box and dumping in some water, but the end result is even more delicious and you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you used natural ingredients instead of “natural flavor.”

Buon appetito! (Or in this case I guess it should be Bon Appetit!)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Product Review: MISTO vs EVO Oil Misters and Sprayers

There's “Easy-To-Use” And Then There's Easy To Use

Cooking sprays have become all the rage in the last few years, proliferating and populating supermarket shelves under names like Pam, Crisco, Baker's Joy, and numerous store brands. They come in a variety of flavors, including olive oil, butter, and “original” vegetable oil. Some, like Baker's Joy, add a flour component especially useful for baking.

The main purpose of the product is its application to frying pans and other cookware and bakeware as a means of preventing food from sticking. Most cooking sprays are aerosols that operate on the same principal, employing oil as a lubricant, lecithin as an emulsifier, and a propellant such as food-grade alcohol, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide or propane. Concerns over the environmental and health effects of these propellants have prompted some manufacturers to develop and market “propellant-free” lines.

All well and good, and like most home and professional kitchens, I have a few of these products in mine. My pastry cook wife uses the flour sprays like Baker's Joy, although a product made by Wilton called “Bake Easy” is her actual preference. Commercial sprays made by Wesson used to live in my restaurant kitchen. There's just one drawback for me: environmental and health considerations aside, these things are expensive. That's why I started looking for alternatives and I found them in the form of reusable, refillable oil misters and sprayers.

First out of the gate was a highly recommended gadget called “MISTO.” Advertising copy calls it “ the #1 Selling Oil Mister Brand in the U.S.” And who am I to question The NPD Group, Inc./Retail Tracking Service? The copy goes on to tout “the convenience and health benefits of an aerosol sprayer in a more economical and environmental form.” That's because the non-aerosol sprayer doesn't use chemical propellants, and it's refillable, so no more throwing away expensive cans that end up clogging our landfills. And MISTO is BPA-free. So far, so good.

It's a cool-looking device, all brushed aluminum on the outside. I got a two-pack; one was stainless steel silver and the other an olive-oil green color. Obviously, I filled the silver one with canola oil and put olive oil in the other one.

Following the manufacturer's instructions for the “2 step operation,” I filled the container to the recommended level with oil. The manufacturer repeatedly advises you not to fill the reservoir more than halfway. Then I screwed on the “easy-to-use pump style cap” and proceeded to pump. I pumped it up the recommended number of times and depressed the pressurized sprayer, expecting the promised “even mist” of oil. Not so much. What I got was a sputtering stream. Okay. I must have done something wrong. I was cautioned that threading the cap on incorrectly allows air to escape and in turn does not allow the bottle to build up pressure to spray. Must have been the problem. So I tried again. This time I got the desired spray – for about five seconds. Then the sputtering began again and it was back to pumping.

Eventually, I got the things to work on a fairly regular basis, although for some odd reason the silver one always sprayed better than the green one. Olive oil is thicker, maybe? I don't know. In any case, “#1 selling” and “easy-to-use” aside, the things were a constant pain in the ass in a busy kitchen. Who has time for all that pumping and primping? You've got to make sure it's threaded properly and that you've filled it to the proper level and that you've pumped it the correct number of times and that you haven't tightened the cap down too tightly and compressed the seal. And if it clogs – which it will – there's a “simple” process to unclog it that involves removing the spray part with uptake tube and submerging it in hot soapy water and soaking it for 20 or 30 minutes. Then you've got to pump the soapy water out through the tube and hope like hell it worked. There's another method that involves using vinegar before the hot soapy water. Either way, better make sure you get all the soap out before you refill that sucker. Nothing like spraying your salad with olive oil and Dawn. Speaking of refilling, I mentioned the injunction to only fill it halfway, right? Otherwise there's not enough air space inside to facilitate proper pressure buildup. Okay, that means you're limited to about 1/3 cup capacity, a measly 2.5 to 3 ounces of oil. Which means you're going to do a lot of refilling. And then to top it off, after several months of fairly regular use, both units crapped out and quit working entirely within a few weeks of one another. I did a little research and found this to be a pretty common issue. Seems if you don't release the pressure after every use, irreparable clogging can result. Bottom line: If you can get them to work, MISTOs are great while they work, but they are temperamental and often don't work for very long.

Enter the EVO. I found this sprayer on Amazon while I was looking for replacements for the dead MISTOs. And it was love at first spray.

Talk about simplicity and ease of use, it's a frickin' trigger-pump spray bottle, fer cryin' out loud! No “2 step operations,” no pumping your arm off, no worries about cross-threading, no optimum fill points, no pressure to release. You just fill it up, point and shoot.

Now there's a little proprietary engineering involved here, lest you think you can just grab a dollar spray bottle in the beauty aisle at Walmart and do the same thing. EVO is designed with the viscosity of oil in mind. Made from BPA-, Latex-, and DEHP-free plastic, EVO dispenses oil in a unique fan pattern at a consistent rate of 1.35-milliliters per trigger pull. This fan pattern covers more cooking surface using less oil than a conical pattern, making for perfect portion control. The plastic bottles are see-through, so you know how much oil you have left without having to unscrew the top and peer down inside. Again, I got a two-pack and the plastic is tinted in two colors so you can identify the contents of the bottles at a glance. (There's also an available accessory pack that includes a twist-on funnel and three pre-printed identification bands.) The ergonomic grip is very comfortable to use and is ideal for kids or adults with smaller hands. It's shatterproof and clog resistant. The bottle is top-rack dishwasher safe, although you do have to hand wash the sprayer in the aforementioned hot soapy water. BUT.....you don't have to reassemble the thing and pump it up to pressurize it and try to expel the soapy residue. Just immerse the bottom of the tube in clear water and squeeze the trigger until the spray runs clear.

Where both the MISTO and the EVO have it over aerosol cooking sprays is that you can use them for more than just spraying your pans. Because you're using nothing but pure oil, you can use the non-aeresol sprayers to dispense oil directly onto your food. I know the commercial cooking sprays all contain food safe ingredients and that you could spray Pam on your salad, but would you? I prefer my food to be served without all the emulsifiers and propellants that come along with the oil.

I brought my EVOs into my restaurant kitchen for a tryout. My cooks loved them and wanted to know where I got them. The 8-ounce bottles are compact and have a wide base that makes them just about impossible to knock over unless you're really trying. Grab the bottle, spray the desired amount, set the bottle back down and repeat as necessary until the bottle runs dry. No pumping and priming and all that other rigamarole. And a consistent, even spray each and every time you pull the trigger. If EVO can pass muster in a busy restaurant kitchen, I think you'll be satisfied with its performance in your home kitchen. I know I certainly am.

MISTO is available online or at retail outlets like Bed, Bath and Beyond and Target. EVO is available through the same sources. Check them both out for yourself at Amazon, where you can get a single MISTO for about $10 or an 8-ounce EVO 2-pack for about $23. Just remember, EVO is about three times bigger in capacity and far more reliable in use. For the money, my money is on EVO.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Good Time To Take Down Your Christmas Tree?

Why Not Participate In The Season Right Up Until The End?

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us!”

One of the cool things about being old(er) is that you get to mystify and amaze the under 30 or 40 set with some of your stories. For instance, I'm often met with slack jaws all around when I tell “kids” that when I was growing up back in the 1950s and '60s, the Christmas tree at our house didn't go up until Christmas Eve. “Wha-a-a-a-a-a-t?” Yeah, and it wasn't because my parents were Scrooges. That was the norm in our neighborhood. The oddballs were the people who put their trees up a week before the Big Day. I was told that Santa himself brought the tree and all the trimmings along with the gifts.

Fast forward a few years. I'm eleven years old and my dad has died, taking notions of Santa Claus with him. Things are starting to loosen up a bit as Christmas merchandise begins appearing on store shelves in early December and new-fangled artificial Christmas trees – the kind you don't have to worry about watering or having them catch fire and burn down your house – are starting to make the scene. As a result of this revolutionary new technology, folks are beginning to deck the halls way earlier than they did in the “old days” a few years ago. A week? Pah! Some rebels have their trees up as early as December 15! When I suggest to my mother that we become part of the “in” crowd and push the envelope to two weeks before Christmas, she adamantly refuses. One week out is enough. So I took to the streets. With clipboard and pencil in hand, I stationed myself in front of our town's thriving five and dime and polled shoppers on whether or not two weeks was too early. I stood there in the cold and snow for about two hours before triumphantly returning home with my results: ten responders thought two weeks was too early, but an overwhelming majority of twelve people said two weeks was okay. Faced with the facts – and bearing an admiration for my determination – my mom relented and the Christmas tree went up in our house that year two weeks before the holiday.

I'm like pretty much everybody else nowadays: the Christmas tree goes up the weekend after Thanksgiving. I'm not at all in favor of seeing Christmas displays in stores in September, but that's a battle I can't win. And I've found to my chagrin that if I wait until Thanksgiving weekend to buy new lights and décor, the selection is already picked over. So I suck it up and buy my Christmas lights along with my Halloween candy.

And now we come to the question at hand: how long do you leave it all up? The answer to that one is all over the calendar.

I actually know a couple of people who rip it all down after the gifts are opened on Christmas Day. One of them says, “I'm so sick of looking at it by Christmas that I just want it gone.” Another one says, “I'm just ready for everything to be normal again.” To those Scrooges I say, “Bah! Humbug!” If you are that lacking in holiday spirit, why bother putting up a tree at all? Tell your friends and neighbors you've become a Jehovah's Witness or converted to Judaism and enjoy your dull, drab, cheerless and treeless existence. That way you won't get “sick” of things not being “normal.” You could really display glad tidings by dangling a dummy Santa Claus from the eaves by his heels or putting a sign in your yard advertising fresh deer meat. To paraphrase Darth Vader, “I find your lack of cheer disturbing.”

Then there are the superstitious lot who believe that leaving the remnants of Christmas up into the New Year brings bad luck. These are the same weirdies who believe that doing laundry or dishes on New Years' Day will result in a family member being “washed away” in the coming months or who fling all their doors open at midnight on New Years' Eve so the old year can escape unimpeded. As a quaint custom, it's okay, but if you actually buy in to any of it, might I suggest therapy?

Around our place, we begin the “de-Santafication process” (remember that delightful Tim Allen movie?) the weekend after New Years. Since it takes about three days to put all the holiday stuff up, it usually takes at least a full day to take it all down and the first lazy weekend of the year is as good a time as any. Having lived with the festive clutter for about six weeks, my wife and I generally wander through the undecorated house for the next few days saying, “Wow, look at all the space!”

Now if you want to go cultural, religious, or historical, you're looking at a whole different ballgame. See, in days of yore – a term we writers use to refer to anything that happened more than a few weeks ago – there was a tradition called The Twelve Days of Christmas. You may have heard the song of the same name with all its birds and rings and leaping and dancing lords and ladies. Contrary to current misconception, however, the song is not about gift-giving in the twelve days leading up to Christmas, but rather refers to the traditional period of celebration in the twelve days following Christmas, culminating on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, or “Twelfth Night,” on January 5th. All but forgotten in the United States, this festive interlude is still observed in much of Europe, especially in heavily Catholic-influenced countries like Italy. In fact, in early Christian times the Feast of the Epiphany, observed on January 6 in commemoration of the visitation of the Christ child by the three magi, often superseded Christmas Day itself in importance. The day marking Jesus' birth was more of a time for solemn reflection while the day the “wise men from the East” came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh was considered to be like the original birthday party, a time of celebration.

Twelfth Night was a very big deal. People gathered for large parties and feasts in which they played games, sang songs, and consumed copious amounts of wassail. The Twelfth Night cake, a rich concoction of eggs, butter, fruits, nuts, and spices roughly analogous to modern Italian panettone, was consumed. If you displayed a nativity scene or creche, this was the night you added the figures of the Three Kings or Wise Men to the scene. The Christmas wreath, constructed of boughs of greenery with fruits or berries and hung on Christmas Eve, was taken down at the conclusion of the Twelfth Night festivities and anything edible remaining was eaten. Thus Twelfth Night marked the official end of the Christmas season, thereby also becoming the day on which to take down the tree and all the attendant holiday baubles. Some cultures left everything up until Candlemas Day in February, but those people were clearly insane.

I'm going with Twelfth Night this year, not because of the influence of tradition but rather because I was too lazy to get everything taken down after the New Years' holiday. I have partially un-decked my halls, taking down the outdoor lights and removing trees and trimmings from my office, my kitchen, and other parts of the house. The living room, however, remains refulgent with lights and fragrant with the artificial scent of pine emanating from a warmer near my artificial tree. And it will remain that way for a few more days because I pulled the “Twelfth Night” card on my wife, who said, “Why not?” Despite the pressure of ad agencies that would bring us Santa in a Speedo sometime in July, Christmas still comes but once a year, so why not enjoy it to the fullest? You've got forty-six weeks to be “normal,” so why not participate in the season right up until the end?

Ooops! Gotta run. It's the eleventh day of Christmas and I think I hear pipers warming up in the other room. (“Excuse me, m'lords, could you stop leaping on the dancing ladies? And would you maids mind moving the cows out of the carport? Whaddaya mean the rings are brass? Hey! Who's gonna clean up after all these birds?! What? Make room for the drummers? Oy vey!”)