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, November 22, 2017

In Praise Of Precooked Turkey and Ham

If Your Back Is Against The Wall, Precooked Is A Pretty Good Substitute For Homemade

Thanksgiving and Christmas, the “cooking holidays,” are upon us. Sure, people cook for Easter and they cook out for Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. But Thanksgiving and Christmas are the undisputed kings of holiday cooking. As such, they're also the holidays most likely to be packed with stress and culinary performance anxiety. But fear not; I have recently – as in the last few days – had an epiphany that may help reduce that stress level. I'm talking about precooked, store bought turkey and ham.

Now, I've been hammering and yammering for years and years about how easy it is to make delicious turkey and/or ham yourself for the holidays. I've offered practical advice and provided simple recipes. It's just not the big deal that most people make it. If you learn a few proper preparation techniques, you'll never have another dry, tasteless turkey or ham on your holiday table. BUT.......sometimes there are surprises.

My wife's company was planning a big potluck Thanksgiving feast for the Friday before T-day. Usually, because we are cooks and caterers, she is involved in prepping for these things, but as we were planning to be out of town that weekend, she wasn't in on this one. She was a little disappointed. She really likes helping out. So somebody tossed some ideas around and decided to move the event to the Monday immediately preceding Thanksgiving, thus enabling her to be involved. Involvement in this case means three turkeys, three hams, and a big batch of my maple-glazed carrots. This whole change of plans went down with just three days notice before we were heading out of town. Great. Now all we have to do is prepare the two proteins and one veg – about seventy pounds of meat and six pounds of carrots – and have it all ready to serve at noon on Monday when we won't even be back in town until late Sunday night. Now what? The veg I can deal with. That's easy. But how am I gonna finagle three turkeys and three hams on such short notice? Here's where I had my epiphany.

A local chain grocery store offers precooked holiday meals for relatively reasonable prices. You get your choice of protein, a few sides, and a dessert. All you have to do is pick it up at the store and heat it up once you get it home. A perfect solution for the time-pressed modern family or for people who just can't cook. Me? I've never even considered the store-bought holiday dinner option. I've always thought it was kind of a cop out. Besides, I've heard some horror stories about gluey mashed potatoes, overcooked vegetables, and inedible desserts. But still.......I've gotta have three turkeys and three hams ready to go on short notice.

I decided to gamble. What the hell? It was only my wife's job on the line, right? Not really, but she truly did want to make a good impression, so she was a little leery at first. She'd heard those horror stories, too. We did a lot of research into precooked proteins – and I do mean a lot. Research that included going down to the store and checking everything out with their chef manager and their deli manager. I didn't need any sides, I told them, just the turkeys and the hams. And I needed them to be ready for pickup at 8 o'clock on Monday morning. I kept pushing that point because this was a time-sensitive situation. The company was going to start serving at noon come hell or high water, and I needed to have meat on the table. The store assured me it would be no problem.

I went home and loaded up the truck with all the chafers and other serving equipment so that it would be ready to roll out on Monday. Then we tossed our luggage in the car and headed off on our trip, all the while wondering if the turkey and ham would actually be ready on time and, equally importantly, would it be any good?

That was a legitimate concern. We've been cooking turkeys and hams for years. It's not uncommon for us to cook three or four or more of each for different holiday celebrations. And we know exactly how to do it. We know how to cook them to maximize the rich flavor and moist texture of each protein. We have it down to a science and we've never yet produced a bad bird or pig. By going the precooked route, we were putting that prized flavor and texture in somebody else's hands, something we had never done before. Was it going to measure up to our expectations? Yeah, I know; we're such control freaks.

Well, we got home Sunday night at about 9 o'clock as planned. I went straight to work and knocked out the carrots, packing them up in hotel pans and stuffing them in the fridge to be reheated the next day. We were at the store bright and early next morning and everything was ready as promised. Health regulations in most states won't permit supermarkets to provide you a “hot” holiday meal to go. What they do is thaw the turkeys and hams and then fully cook them. Then they are packaged and kept refrigerated at a safe 40° or less until you pick them up. You take them home and heat them to 140°, Butterball's recommended temperature for reheating leftover turkey, which is sort of what you're doing.

A friend was opening his nearby restaurant kitchen early for us so we could use his convection ovens to heat everything up. (Three whole turkeys and three half hams, remember?) We toted the boxed-up turkeys and hams to the kitchen, fired the ovens up to 325°, and tossed the proteins in. Using probe thermometers to monitor the temperature, the reheating process took a little over an hour. We pulled the meats out of the ovens, rested them, carved them, stuffed them in hotel pans, loaded them into a hot box, and headed for my wife's office across town. We set up the service and everything was absolutely perfect. I needn't have worried for a moment; the turkeys and the hams were as moist and flavorful as any we could have made completely on our own. Yes, the fact that we had the knowledge and the equipment to reheat everything was instrumental, but my toque is off to the grocery store cooks who turned out incredibly good product. It was product I was proud to serve to a room full of very important people, and I was sure to give credit where it was due. I didn't want my wife's bosses and coworkers thinking we had done it all, although I would have been glad to claim the end result. It was that good.

Bottom line: I'm over my precooked prejudice. Not that I'm going to make it a habit to buy store bought product now. I'm still a cook and I still enjoy cooking and there's an element of pride involved. But now at least I know I can fall back on stores like Publix, Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, Fresh Market and other higher-end chains to turn out acceptable fare in a pinch. And I feel comfortable recommending that you check out store-bought, precooked proteins if you lack the skills, the time, or the energy to do it yourself. I still maintain that nothing beats homemade, but if your back is against the wall, precooked is a pretty good substitute.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Few Things You Should Know About Ground Beef

Ground Beef Basics

In recent scribblings, I've mentioned once taking over operation of a small diner in order to help a struggling friend. Forced by circumstances into the role of absentee owner, his eatery was failing fast, due in part to the fact that the people he had entrusted to run it had no clue about food or food service. This was clear to me when I found the diner's signature burgers to be absolutely terrible. And the reason they were terrible was that the inexperienced employee running the place decided to “save money” by buying cheaper ground beef. My friend had always insisted on 80/20 beef for his burgers, but now they were being made with 73/27. And if you, like that well-meaning employee, don't know the difference, read on for A Few Things You Should Know About Ground Beef.

First, the numbers: 90/10, 80/20, 85/15, 70/30. What does it all mean and what’s the difference? Those numbers refer to the percentages of lean meat and fat by weight in the ground beef you're buying. So if your label reads “90/10,” you're buying ground beef that's 90 percent lean and 10 percent fat by weight. And these ratios make a big difference in the finished product. For example, most chefs and cooks use the 80/20 mixture for hamburgers because you need a certain amount of fat in your burgers to make them juicy and appealing. Burgers made with 90/10 tend to be a bit on the dry side. And the problem with 73/27 is that with so much fat in the mix, the patties shrink up as the fat cooks away and the resulting burgers are dense and greasy. 80/20 or 85/15 are the happy mediums most people prefer. 90/10 or even 95/5 are okay if you're using them in meat sauce for spaghetti or in tacos or something, but not for burgers. And don't think that burgers made from 90/10 beef are some kind of “diet” burgers: that 10 percent fat content still accounts for a little more than half the total calories in a 90/10 mix.

The next thing that confuses beginning beef buyers is the terminology: what's the difference between “sirloin,” “chuck,” “round,” and plain old “ground beef?” Generally speaking, “ground beef,” ground from cuts like brisket or shank, is the least expensive and usually the fattiest, clocking on average between 20 and 30 percent fat. Next up is “ground chuck,” which comes from the shoulder and is generally a bit leaner, with a 15 to 20 percent fat range. “Ground round” comes from the hind legs and averages 12 to 15 percent fat. At the top of the list is “ground sirloin,” the leanest and most expensive cut on the market. Sirloin comes from the animal's midsection and contains about 10 to 14 percent fat.

The USDA regulates what producers are allowed to put in ground meat. When you see chuck, round, or sirloin on a label, that's the part of the cow the stuff in the package comes from. It may be a combination of muscle, fat, and trimmimgs, but it's all chuck, round, or sirloin. Ground beef, however, is a little more.....shall we say “amorphous” in its definition. Thanks to a recent “policy change,” product labeled “ground beef” can come from any and all parts of the animal: esophagus, diaphragm, cheek, organ meat.....let your imagination run wild. And regardless of cut, unless you actually see the butcher run the sirloin, chuck, or round steak through the grinder, when you buy packaged ground meat, you have no guarantee the meat in the package all comes from the same animal. This is especially true of those big, opaquely wrapped “tubes” of ground beef that studies have shown may contain the meat of as many as fifty different cows.

Some supermarkets sell prepackaged, pre-made “hamburger patties.” This is still basically ground beef to which a little extra fat has been added.

Let's talk about color for a minute. You'll probably notice that everything displayed in those gleaming cases at the supermarket is a brilliant shade of red. Yet when you get it home and open it up to use it, the meat sometimes turns brownish or even gray. Yuck, right? Not really. According to the USDA, that optimum surface color is highly unstable and usually quite short-lived. Without delving too deeply into food chemistry, all really fresh meat is a reddish-purple in color due to the presence of myoglobin. When exposed to oxygen, myoglobin forms the pigment oxymyoglobin, which gives meat that vivid red color. The use of special semi-permeable plastic wrap ensures that meat retains this bright red color in the store's meat case. However, exposure to store lighting as well as the continued interaction of myoglobin and oxymyoglobin with oxygen leads to the formation of metmyoglobin, a pigment that turns meat brownish-red. The interior of the meat may even be grayish brown due to lack of oxygen. This color change alone does not mean the product is spoiled. However, if all the meat in the package has turned gray or brown, it may be on the edge of spoiling.

Storage is another question. Never leave ground beef or any perishable food out at room temperature for more than two hours. Try to plan your shopping so that the grocery store is your last stop. If you're going to be on the road for awhile, invest in a cooler or an insulated bag for your meats and frozen foods. Once you get it home, refrigerate ground beef immediately and don't keep it in the fridge for more than a day or two. If you're going to use it fairly quickly, it can be frozen in its original packaging. But if you're looking at longer term storage, you need to do a little extra work. The USDA says ground beef is safe indefinitely if it's kept frozen, but quality is another matter. You should wrap ground beef in heavy duty plastic wrap, aluminum foil, freezer paper, or plastic bags made for freezing if you're going to be storing it for awhile. I usually employ a combination of either plastic wrap or aluminum foil and a heavy-duty freezer bag. And remember to put a date on the package when you stick it in the freezer. Four months is about the best you'll get before quality starts to degrade. Again, from a safety aspect, you can keep it in there for years, but you probably won't want to eat it.

Ground beef is so versatile and can be used in so many applications that I'm not going to get into cooking lessons here. But maybe just a few thoughts about preparing ground beef for cooking. First thought, don't over handle or over work your ground beef. Too much manipulation can turn your meatballs to gut bombs and your hamburgers to hockey pucks. Just do the minimum amount of prep work to get the size and shape you want, then leave it alone.

I mentioned shrinkage: All meat shrinks up to some degree during cooking. As I said earlier, part of the reason for the shrinkage is fat content and also moisture content. Another factor is the temperature at which the meat is cooked, and how long it is cooked. Basically, the higher the cooking temperature, the greater the shrinkage. Cooking ground beef at moderate temperatures rather than hammering it on high heat will reduce shrinkage and help retain juices and flavor. Overcooking draws out more fat and juices from ground beef, resulting in a dry, less tasty product. And, of course, ground beef should always be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160 °F as measured with a food thermometer.

Finally, for maximum freshness and quality, consider having a butcher grind your beef or grinding it yourself at home. Any real butcher shop and most decent supermarket meat counters will custom grind beef for you. Just choose a whole cut and ask to have it ground. That way you know exactly what you're getting and you know it's fresh. The same thing applies to grinding meat at home. I don't think my grandmother ever bought ground beef. She had a grinder – a big silver-gray machine with a long handle – that attached to her kitchen counter into which she would drop whole cuts of meat. A few turns of that handle would produce the ground meat she used for meatloaf, meatballs, sauces, and, of course, hamburgers. You can still buy those venerable old-fashioned grinders for thirty or forty bucks or you can upgrade to a modern electric model. Or, if you have a KitchenAid mixer, as I do, there's a very efficient grinder attachment.

Besides freshness and quality, there's another benefit to grinding your own: the ability to customize. Most of my recipes for meatballs and meat sauces call for a mixture of two or even three different meats – usually beef and pork and sometimes beef, pork, and veal. Even hamburgers often benefit from having a little extra fat added in. Try grinding some bacon into your beef for the ultimate beef and bacon burger.

Ground beef accounts for an estimated 60% of all beef consumption in the United States. The USDA website can tell you all about safety and proper handling and there are tons of recipe sites with technique and cooking suggestions. But I'm hoping that I at least provided you with an informational starting point; a little more than you knew before about ground beef.