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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!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Great Italian Meatballs

“Spaghetti And Meatballs” Is An Italian-American Creation

The first thing you should know about Italian meatballs is that Italians never serve them with spaghetti. If you order a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in a real Italian restaurant, they'll just look at you like you've lost your mind. Let me clarify that: you can have a plate of spaghetti as a primo and follow it with a plate of meatballs as a secondo, but Italians would never serve “spaghetti and meatballs” together. That is an entirely Italian-American creation. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it; it's just not authentically Italian.

That said, let's get on with making some meatballs.

The secret to great Italian meatballs comes from three things; using a combination of meats, using breadcrumbs in the mix, and employing good mixing and forming technique.

First the meat. The recipe I'm about to relate calls for beef, pork, and veal. That's the best combination, but I've made meatballs quite successfully with just beef and pork. Don't try it using nothing but ground beef. You really need the extra fat and flavor from another meat source.

As to the breadcrumbs, a lot of people say they're not necessary, but they are, especially if you want lighter, less dense meatballs. In the Italian tradition of “cucina di povera,” breadcrumbs were used as meat extenders or fillers, but they really do serve a purpose in determining the ultimate moisture and texture of the meatball. Some people use a “panade,” meaning they soak the breadcrumbs in milk to achieve greater moisture. Try it. You might like it.

Finally, the biggest part of proper technique comes in not over mixing or over handling the meatballs. Even if you do everything else right, this can make for meatballs that are very dense and heavy.

Okay, here goes. You'll need:

1/3 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup diced yellow onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped fine
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground veal
1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
2 eggs
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
4 to 6 cups prepared tomato sauce
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Ingredient notes: chicken broth is fine if you don't have stock. I prefer the reduced sodium variety. Fresh parsley is best, but dried is okay. Use a generous tablespoon. As I said, if you only go with beef and pork, up the proportions accordingly. Don't ever use the cheese-flavored wood fiber that comes in plastic cans. If you can't find or afford Parmigiano-Reggiano, use a wedge of domestic Parmesan. The tomato sauce can be homemade or jarred. Just use something plain like Ragu Traditional. Don't get the stuff “flavored” with meat or mushrooms or something.

Okay, and here's what you do:

Place the chicken stock, onion, garlic and parsley in a blender or food processor and puree.

In a large bowl, combine the pureed stock mix, meat, bread crumbs, eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, parsley and salt. Combine with both hands until mixture is uniform. Do not over mix.

Put a little olive oil on your hands and form the mixture into balls a little larger than golf balls. They should be about 1/4 cup each, though if you prefer bigger or smaller, it will only affect the browning time.

Pour about 1/2-inch of extra virgin olive oil into a straight-sided, 10-inch sauté pan and heat over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs to the pan (working in batches if necessary) and brown the meatballs, turning once. This will take about 10 to 15 minutes.

While the meatballs are browning, heat the tomato sauce in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Lift the meatballs out of the sauté pan with a slotted spoon and put them in the sauce. Stir gently. Simmer for about an hour.

Smaller meatballs make a great antipasto. Larger ones can be served as a secondo, or an entree course of their own. And, of course, you can serve them over spaghetti if you feel you must. But if you do, you'll need to use the larger amount of sauce in the preparation.

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Cooking Together: A Recipe for a Successful Relationship

Play Together To Stay Together

In an age where so many relationships seem so fragile, my wife and I have found the ideal place in our home for bonding and building. It's a place where things can get really hot really fast. It's a place where both sugar and spice come into play. It's a place where we can be as wild and creative as we want to be. It's a place where we use special techniques and equipment to achieve ultimate satisfaction.

Hey, I don't know where your mind went, but mine is in the kitchen.

My wife and I love to – as she puts it – “play in the kitchen.” And that's really what it is. For us, cooking is not a chore or a task or a drudge. It's playtime, baby, and we do it almost every day.

For example, we sleep in on Sundays and then do a brunch. We take turns doing the heavy lifting from week to week. Sometimes I turn out bacon and eggs and hash browns while she makes fresh homemade biscuits. Sometimes we simplify and she makes pancakes while I cook up some bacon or sausage. On rare occasions we just do cereal and toast or English muffins. But even then, one of us preps the bread while the other gets the cereal. Simple or complex, we do it together. And we couldn't imagine any other way.

Weeknight suppers are the same. We usually decide the menu in advance and then go about preparing the courses together. I set up a mise en place for her, laying out all the ingredients and equipment she needs for whatever she's going to prepare and then I go about setting up and prepping my dishes. The other night, for instance, we banged out Pork Chops Forestière with herb roasted potatoes and garlic cheddar biscuits, served with a little fruit on the side and ice cream for dessert. Took us a little over a half-hour from start to finish. And since I'm an absolute fanatic about cleaning as I cook, the only dishes we had to do after the meal was done were the plates, flatware, and glasses from the meal itself. Everything else was cleaned up before we sat down to eat. Then we settled in for a relaxing evening of our favorite TV shows. And that's the way we always work – together.

I'm her sous chef and her dishwasher when she hits the kitchen for one of her big baking projects and she backs me up when I'm turning out sauces or soups or pasta dishes or whatever. We work together.

We've worked together cooking professionally, as well, in two restaurants and a small catering service. We sometimes talk about missing our professional kitchens. In one place, the kitchen was set up where she had her side and I had mine. We had our own ovens, our own cooktops, our own refrigerators, and our own prep areas. We worked on opposite sides of a big prep table that divided the room. Stuff that we both used – salt, pepper, sugar, olive oil, etc. – was lined up where we could both grab it. We'd spend eight or ten hours a day bouncing around each other without having to worry about bouncing into each other like we sometimes do in our small home kitchen. But when it happens, we lightheartedly bitch about it and move on. It's our playground and I haven't had a fight on a playground since the fifth grade.

I guess our secret is that ever since we met and married in 1998, we have never found anything we didn't enjoy doing together. She has worked in theater with me, where I've gotten her into some weird situations, believe me. And she has taken up hobbies that I would never have seen myself involved in, but I supported her and drove all over hell and half of Georgia (literally) with her and had a blast doing it. We've worked together professionally and we continue to work together at things we mutually enjoy. Simply put, not only do we love each other, we like each other, too, and find our greatest joy and fulfillment in being with each other in everything we do.

We're both artists of different sorts, but we both enjoy the creativity of the kitchen. Cooking is, after all, as much an art as it is a skill. But more than being just another creative outlet for us, cooking together affords us valuable time together during which we pool our talents and abilities in a common pursuit. Ideas flow, conversations are carried on, decisions are made. A lot of love goes into a well made meal and preparing that meal with someone you love makes the experience much richer and much more meaningful. Cooking together is the highest form of teamwork. And the results are always worth the effort.

I've recently discovered that we're trendy. That which we have been doing naturally for these many years is actually being marketed as a form of relationship therapy. It's called “couples cooking.” There are several websites devoted to the concept and couples cooking classes are springing up all over the country. Many of these classes are aimed at young couples and newlyweds just getting started in their relationships. Others are designed with older couples in mind as a way of adding a new element to an established partnership. Still others are planned to provide a unique dating experience.

Amazon offers numerous cookbook titles for couples interested in cooking together; “Dinner Dates: A Cookbook for Couples Cooking Together,” “Table For Two: The Cookbook For Couples,” and “The Newlywed Kitchen: Delicious Meals for Couples Cooking Together” to name just a few.

According to a survey sponsored by relationship expert John Gray and appliance manufacturer Kenmore, and quoted on a pertinent website, www.couplescooking.org, “A recent survey of 1,500 couples found that couples who cook together view their relationship more positively than those who said they did not spend time together in the kitchen.....The survey showed these couples also were more satisfied in every aspect of their lives, from family relationships to sex.”

The site goes on to quote a chef who teaches couples cooking classes, “Cooking together works as a relationship-builder because it excites all of the senses.”

Other sources note that couples cooking classes provide a social outlet for those seeking the company of like-minded people. And, of course, a lot of folks take the courses just to improve their cooking skills. In one instance, the wife was a cook of, shall we say “limited ability,” while the husband was quite proficient in the kitchen, having learned to cook at an early age. Couples cooking classes brought her skill level up to equal his, giving her increased confidence in the kitchen and a greater sense of equality in the relationship.

These classes are great if you can find them in your area. Otherwise, just start from scratch. All it takes is willing enthusiasm, especially if you both have at least a little kitchen experience. If not, the partner who is more adept can bring the other member of the team along by teaching him or her how to prepare a favorite meal. Then proceed from there, venturing into more advanced recipes and culinary challenges as abilities develop.

There's an old proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The same can be said of cooking with your life partner. You can satisfy an immediate hunger with a meal you cooked yourself or you can feed your relationship for a lifetime by living, loving, learning, growing, planning, cooking, and “playing” together in the kitchen.


Vita bella, buon amore, e buon appetito!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Gelato – It's Not Just “Ice Cream”

Gelato Is Definitely Something More

It's summertime. Temperatures are in the 90s around here and folks are actively seeking ways to cool off. Air conditioners and swimming pools are the order of the day, and so is ice cream. I'm fortunate enough to have a little ice cream stand within walking distance. But, alas, as refreshing as a scoop of good ol' classic rocky road ice cream might be, it still pales in comparison to Italian gelato.

“Now wait a minute,” you say. “I thought 'gelato' was just the Italian word for 'ice cream.'” Ah, not so. You have much to learn, young Padawan.

Ice cream and gelato share one thing in common – they're both frozen. Beyond that, there are a lot of differences. Oh sure, they'll both cool you off, but so will a glass of ice water. No, you want something more out of your frozen confection, and gelato is definitely something more: more creamy, more smooth and silky, and more flavorful. Why? Glad you asked.

Scientifically speaking, any frozen confection – whether ice cream, gelato, sorbet, custard, or yogurt – is a mixture of water molecules and fat molecules. Doesn't that sound cool and refreshing? Freezing these molecules causes crystals to form. The longer you freeze the mixture, the bigger the crystals get. And then you factor in air, which is introduced through the churning process. The more air you pump into the mixture, the softer and fluffier the mixture becomes. American ice cream producers call this “overrun” and American ice cream can contain as much as fifty percent air. Gelato, on the other hand, contains only twenty to thirty percent air.

Both ice cream and gelato contain cream, milk and sugar. But the ratios are quite different. Ice cream goes heavy on the cream and also uses egg yolks as a binder. Gelato is more milk than cream and it rarely, if ever, uses eggs. Because ice cream uses more cream, it also produces more butterfat. In order to qualify as ice cream, a product has to contain at least ten percent butterfat. Most American ice creams weigh in at anywhere between fourteen and twenty-five percent. Gelato, on the other hand, is only four to nine percent fat.

Less air means a denser, creamier texture and less fat makes for a lighter mixture. And since fat tends to coat the palate, gelato's lower fat content allows more flavor to come through.

One more technical factor: temperature. Gelato is usually served slightly warmer than ice cream; about ten to fifteen degrees warmer. Colder ice cream actually numbs your tongue and inhibits flavor intensity. Warmer gelato brings out the full flavor potential of the confection.

It used to be you'd have to hop a plane to Florence or Rome in order to find gelato. Not so anymore. Sales of the frozen treat are blazing hot in the US, where gelato sales rose from $11 million in 2009 to an estimated $214 million in 2014. Industry analysts projected gelato would garner a 32 percent share of America's $14.3 billion ice cream market by the end of 2016.

Gelaterie (that's the proper Italian plural for gelateria; you don't just add an “s” to make things plural in Italian) are popping up all over the country. Sure, you'd expect them in places with large Italian populations; cities like New York or Chicago. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a great gelateria in downtown Austin, Texas and a chocolatier who served delicious gelato in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The real inroads, however, are being made in the supermarket, where increasing shelf space in the freezer case is being given over to a product that was a niche market curiosity just a decade or so ago. Talenti is the largest producer of gelato in America. Headquartered in Minneapolis and named as a tribute to Bernardo Buontalenti, the Florentine artist credited with inventing gelato, Talenti products are probably the easiest to find in most American supermarkets, but Breyer's and other ice cream makers are also jumping on the gelato bandwagon in a big way. And while that's good from a product recognition standpoint, it's not always so good from a product quality standpoint. A lot of what's being marketed as “gelato” these days is nothing more than thinly disguised ice cream with a fancy label and a fancier price tag.

So how do you find good gelato? To begin with, you're probably not going to find it in a supermarket. For one thing, it's all thrown in the freezer with the ice cream. Remember what I said about gelato being served at a warmer temperature? So that means seeking out a gelateria or at least an ice cream joint that offers gelato. Many of them do. But what should you look for?

One of the first things is color. Good quality gelato is made up primarily of natural ingredients. There are no artificial preservatives, additives, or dyes. So any neon-colored gelato you encounter is likely not very high quality. I saw some bright green “pistachio” gelato in an ice cream shop. Sorry, but natural pistachios are brownish in color and pistachio gelato should be too. Although brightly colored berry gelati are pretty to look at, they should really be more muted in color. Natural fruits are seldom as brilliant as their artificial counterparts. And while you're looking at the gelato, take note of whether or not it looks shiny. It shouldn't. Shiny gelato either has too many sugars in it or it has oxidized, a sign of age.

Check out the selection of flavors. Simple, natural flavors are always best. Plain, for instance, or what Italians call fior di latte or fior di panna. This is just gelato with the natural flavor of milk or cream. Maybe vanilla, but be careful that the producer isn't trying to mask inferior milk or cream with vanilla flavoring. Chocolate is good, as are seasonal fruit flavors. Italian gelatiers introduced Parmesan gelato at a festival in Rimini a couple of years ago. Goofy novelty flavors like bubblegum and tutti fruitti are usually loaded with artificial ingredients. Whatever the flavor, tasting it should be a very forward experience. The flavor is up front in a quality gelato. It should grab you by the taste buds. If you can't quite figure out what you're eating, it's probably not very good quality.

There should be a marked textural difference between gelato and ice cream. Gelato is smooth, silky, and dense. If what you put in your mouth is light and airy with noticeable crystals, you've either got poor quality gelato or you've got ice cream.

Finally, look at the container from which the gelato is served. Is the product piled high in fluffy mounds? If so, it probably contains a lot of fat and/or emulsifiers. Is it being served from a plastic tub? That's pretty much a no-no when it comes to good gelato, which is usually served from a metal tub or tray. And because gelato is denser than ice cream, a flat metal spade is a better serving implement than a round metal (or plastic) scoop.

Summertime, and the livin' is.......sticky. Cool off today with some delicious gelato. It's way more than “ice cream.”  

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Is Romantic Lighting Bad For Your Health?

Be Alert!

Picture the ultimate setting for a romantic dinner: a nice Italian restaurant. Soft music gently plays in the background as you take your seats at a quiet table in the back. And, of course, there's candlelight. Ya gotta have candlelight. The ambient lighting should be so dim that the flickering glow of the candles casts dreamy shadows in your lover's eyes. (Sigh.)

Wake up, pally. It's time for a dose of cold, harsh reality.

In the first place, I'm old, capisci? I took my wife to one of those faux-Italian places. It was so dark I had to break out both my reading glasses and the flashlight on my iPhone just so I could read the menu. Nothing dashes romantic fervor like squinting.

In the second place, a bunch of scientists have come out with a study that says people who eat in dim lighting are more likely to make unhealthy food choices. Okay, so maybe science is worse than squinting. Anyway, a group of unromantic spoilsports, publishing in Science Daily and the Journal of Marketing Research, have recently come to the conclusion that people eating in well-lit restaurants are sixteen to twenty-four percent more likely to order healthy food than those who dine in dimly lit rooms.

Researchers went to four fast-casual chain places and examined the orders of 160 patrons. They found that people who ate in brighter light made brighter choices; things like white meat, grilled or baked fish, and vegetables. Dimly-lit diners, they averred, ate more fried foods and desserts.

Interestingly, when they replicated the results in the lab, using 700 college-age students as lab rats, the researchers discovered that jacking up the dimmer diners on caffeine caused them to make better choices, too. So, the conclusion concludes, it's not really the light level but the degree of alertness that influences eating decisions. That said, University of South Florida lead study author Dr. Dipayan Biswas explains, “We feel more alert in brighter rooms and therefore tend to make more healthful, forward-thinking decisions.” Hmmm..... I wonder if the good doctor has ever seen a dimly lit McDonald's. But I digress.

So should you assiduously avoid restaurants that are not lit like a high school cafeteria? Not necessarily, says study co-author Dr. Brian Wansink, Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. “Dim lighting isn't all bad,” says Wansink. “Despite ordering less-healthy foods, you actually end up eating slower, eating less and enjoying the food more.” Which is kind of why nice restaurants use dim lighting in the first place: they're not really trying to kill you with unhealthy food choices, they just want you to hang around and enjoy the dining experience. Notice that on the other hand, brightly lit eateries are usually the ones that try to hurry you out the door.

What's the takeaway on all this? According to Dr. Wansink, the best way to avoid overindulging and making poor food choices when dining in dimly-lit places is to do what you can to make yourself feel alert. Now whether this means dumping ice water over your head when you sit down at the table or putting in earbuds and blasting yourself with heavy metal music, I don't know. Neither option is really conducive to romance, you know what I mean? Coffee works for some people, but you're kind of out of luck in a real Italian place where they don't serve coffee until after the meal. Crafty Italians. They put you in a food coma and then jolt you with espresso just in time to pay the bill. Caffeinated soda? Sure, if you don't mind ingesting a pound of sugar and packing on an extra gazillion calories. Maybe you could just pop a NoDoz before you order. I don't know.

I say go for it. Make a reservation at the place that's so dark the maître d' wears a miner's helmet. Just keep science in mind and remember the old adage: “Be alert! The country needs more lerts.”