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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, February 27, 2018

Stop Wasting Money On Copper-Colored Crap Cookware


Baa, Baa Copper Sheep. Have You Any SENSE?

Gordon Ramsay has adopted a new catchphrase lately; “Let's get that right!” And it applies when I tell you that copper cooking vessels are the crème de la crème of cookware. Let's get that right!

Professional cooks the world over have used copper for generations. It's an excellent conductor of heat, it warms up quickly and stays warm longer, and it allows for gentle, even heat distribution. Much more so than any other material, even cast iron. Hot spots are all but unheard of with copper. This results in more uniform, more controlled cooking with practically no burnt spots or scalding. Copper cookware is generally a perfect weight. It's heavy enough to sit securely on your stove but not so heavy you can't lift it with one hand. Copper is reactive but when lined with a non-reactive material such as tin or stainless steel, it is one hundred percent safe and two hundred percent effective. Bowls made of pure copper are the industry standard for whipping up fluffy egg whites. In short, copper is great stuff. Let's get that right!

Something else to get right, copper is also expensive and somewhat temperamental to maintain. You can't crank the heat up to OMG hot under a copper pot and then just toss it in the dishwasher before stuffing it into your overfilled pots and pans drawer. Well......I guess you can if you don't give a rip about what it's gonna like like or how long it's gonna last. Copper tarnishes easily and requires frequent if not constant polishing and it's a fairly soft metal prone to scratches and dents. Some cosmetic denting and pitting is okay – gives it that “cooked in” look, I suppose – but if it gets too warped and battered, it's useless.

Bring your banker and an appraiser to the store when you go to buy the stuff. I can get you a nice deal on a twelve-piece set of Mauviel copper at Williams-Sonoma; a steal at just $1,900.

Or you can go out and buy the latest fad in “As Seen on TV” cookware. Yep. Copper. “$19.95 and if you act now, we'll double your order. Just pay extra for shipping and handling.” Uffa! As P.T. Barnum famously never said, “There's a sucker born every minute.” I can assure you there's more copper in a Lincoln penny – which is 97.5% zinc these days – than there is in any and all of those cheap, overly-hyped “copper” pots, pans, cookie sheets, fry baskets, grill mats, knives, and I don't know what all else. I saw a plastic slotted spoon with a “copper” handle in a store the other day. WTF is a so-called “copper” handle supposed to do to improve the performance of a spoon

It's a scam, folks, pure and simple. A gimmick designed to separate you from your money. It's a con worthy of “The Sting.” A flimflam. A fraud. A racket. A rip-off. A double-dealing shell game. A fast one. A hosing of epic proportions. Get the idea yet? It all started out with one product and now it's spread to the point where every blessed thing you see is “copper.” And you know what? It's all paint, people; copper-colored paint. Like the kind you buy for household and craft use only on an industrial scale.

These hucksters take cheap aluminum pans, pots, spoon handles and what have you and spray them with a tissue paper thin ceramic coating that has been infused with copper-colored paint. They could just as easily have made the stuff green – oh, wait. They already do that, don't they? Anyway, copper-colored crap cookware has exactly the same non-stick abilities as any other cheap aluminum junk but with absolutely none of the desirable properties of real copper – because there ain't any real copper in any of it! It's paint. Pigment. Useless coloration. The equivalent of covering rabbit droppings in red food coloring and calling them berries. Let me drag out my Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony album here and play you a chorus of “The Hustle” while I reiterate; it's a gyp designed to hoodwink gullible rubes. Of which, apparently, there is an endless supply.

Whenever you put a “non-stick” surface, be it Teflon or a ceramic coating or whatever, on any pan, you usually do it by spraying or dipping the pan in a gel solution which is then hardened by a high heat firing process known as curing. Decent quality stuff usually gets at least three or more layers of this coating. Colors are absolutely immaterial; they can make the finished color anything they want it to be. Most are silver or gray, some are black, some are white. And when they're trying to bamboozle somebody into following the latest “As Seen on TV” trend, they make it copper.

Most people know – don't you? – that the most durable materials for making cookware are cast iron or stainless steel. Aluminum is a close second, but only if it's hard anodized aluminum. Anodization subjects the surface of aluminum pots and pans to an electrochemical process that builds up the metal’s natural coating of oxide, yielding a hard, nonreactive substance that forms a tougher coating. Hard anodized aluminum gets, like, a double dose of the process, making it useable in even tough professional kitchens, the place for which it was originally designed when Calphalon came up with it back in 1968. The most utilitarian hard anodized aluminum cooking vessels are usually coated with a non-stick surface of some sort. Even so, aluminum – even anodized aluminum – is pretty soft and can be warped and beaten out of shape through hard use. I've been in a few restaurant kitchens and know whereof I speak.

Now, you take ordinary cheap aluminum. It's light weight, a good heat conductor, and relatively corrosion resistant. It's great for a lot of things, especially bakeware. But if you bang it with a foam rubber mallet or drop it on a firm mattress, it's gonna dent or bend out of shape. And if you spray paint it with a thin coating of copper-colored paint, within a fairly short span of time that paint is going to scratch up and flake off like nobody's business. 

Real copper is ridiculously expensive. A single Mauviel twelve-inch 1.5 mm copper fry pan with a stainless-steel interior is going to set you back to the tune of about $295. For one pan. A good quality twelve-inch stainless-steel pan – say, something by Calphalon – goes for about $110. An enameled cast iron twelve-inch pan from Tramontina will cost you around $70. And even a plain old Lodge cast iron workhorse sells for twenty to thirty bucks, depending on where you get it. So do you really – I mean really – think you're getting anything resembling real copper or real quality for $19.95 – two if you order now? Really?

Baa, baa, copper sheep. Have you any sense?

It all evolved from a single snake oil salesman – er, I mean “marketer” – who conceived the original concept a few years ago. The stuff they were pushing then may or may not have actually been worth what you paid for it, I don't know. What I do know is that it's not just cheap gimmicky pots and pans anymore. It took about a week for all the copper-colored crap that's out there now to start flooding the market. Like the frickin' “copper” handled spoon! Really? A “copper” knife that “never needs sharpening”? C'mon! At best, it's an inexpensive ceramic knife with a coat of paint. “Copper” fry baskets? Why? “Copper” crispers to “turn your oven into an air fryer.” Riiiight! “Copper” grill mats, “copper” roasters, “copper” baking pans and muffin tins? What's next? “Copper” oven mitts? (If I see one of those in the store next week, I swear I'm gonna scream.) There must be enough soft-headed suckers with no sales resistance out there who keep buying this garbage or they wouldn't be able to keep selling it.

I don't know why but that great old 1968 comedy routine that Johnny Carson and Jack Webb did on “The Tonight Show” just jumped into my head.

Webb (As Sgt. Joe Friday): This is the city. Los Angeles California. Some people rob for pleasure. Some rob because its there. You never know. My name's Friday, I’m a cop. I was working the day watch out of robbery when I got a call from the Acme School Bell Company. There’d been a robbery.
Carson: There’s been a robbery.
Webb: Yes Sir, what was it?
Carson: My clappers.
Webb: Your clappers?
Carson: Yeah, you know those things inside a bell that makes them clang.
Webb: The clangers.
Carson: That’s right, but we call them clappers in the business.
Webb: A clapper caper.
Carson: What’s that?
Webb: Nothing Sir. Now can I have the facts? What kind of clappers were stolen on this caper?
Carson: They were copper clappers.
Webb: And where were they kept?
Carson: In the closet.
Webb: Uh huh. You have any ideas who might have taken the copper clappers from the closet?
Carson: Well, just one. I fired a man. He swore he’d get even.
Webb: What was his name?
Carson: Claude Cooper.
Webb: You think he…….
Carson: That’s right ! That’s right! I think Claude Cooper copped my copper clappers, kept in a closet.
Webb: Do you know where this Claude Cooper is from?
Carson: Yeah, Cleveland.
Webb: That figures, that figures.
Carson: What make it worse, they were clean.
Webb: Clean copper clappers?
Carson: That’s right.
Webb: Why do you think Cleveland’s Claude Cooper would cop your clean copper clappers kept in your closet?
Carson: Only one reason.
Webb: What’s that?
Carson: He’s a kleptomaniac.
Webb: Who first discovered that the copper clappers were copped?
Carson: My cleaning woman, Clara Clifford.
Webb: That figures. Now let me see if I got the facts straight here. Cleaning woman Clara Clifford discovered your clean copper clappers, kept in a closet, were copped by Claude Cooper the kleptomaniac from Cleveland. Now is that about it?
Carson: One other thing.
Webb: What’s that?
Carson: If ever I catch kleptomaniac Claude Cooper from Cleveland who copped my clean copper clappers that were kept in a closet....
Webb: Yes?
Carson: I’ll clobber him.

Hey, at least that's funny. Countless cadres of consumers committing copious quantities of cash to acquire colossal collections of crappy counterfeit copper cookware with which to clutter their kitchens is not.

Remember, folks, all that glitters is not copper. Especially not at $19.95 plus shipping and handling. If you really want copper cookware, save your money and buy some of the real thing. And don't forget to pick up a gallon jug or two of Wright's Copper Cleaner or Brasso while you're at it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What's The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread? How About A Day Honoring Sliced Bread?


What's So Great About Sliced Bread?

C'mon, you know you've said it: “It's the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Of course, since practically nobody knows what unsliced bread is anymore, that bit of hyperbole has lost some of its punch over the years. Still, pretty much everybody knows that the classic idiomatic phrase refers to something extraordinary – especially a newer discovery – that will likely be a significant improvement. “But what,” you may ask, “is so great about sliced bread?”

Bread has been around for a long, long time. There's archaeological evidence that a rudimentary form of flatbread was known in Europe thirty-thousand years ago. Most of the breads we recognize in Western culture today are the leavened variety that come out of ovens as loaves. Some loaves are round, others are elongated, some are oval shaped, and some, like what we commonly call “sandwich bread,” are kind of squarish. The round, elongated, or oval loaves can be broken apart for consumption or even eaten “as is,” but the traditional “sandwich loaf” pretty much has to be sliced in order to be of any use. And that can be a problem.

People who live in the “modern age” where all you have to do to make a sandwich is open a plastic bag and take out a couple of perfectly machine-sliced pieces of bread don't really have an appreciation for what it takes to slice bread. My grandmother had to do it. And I do it myself. It takes a good bread knife and a keen eye to achieve uniformity. You don't want slices that are too thick or too thin. Or a thick slice paired with a thin slice. You particularly don't want slices that start out thick at the top and wind up thin at the bottom or vice-versa. There's also a talent to slicing up a loaf of bread – especially fresh bread – without crushing it as you cut. Slicing bread can be a time-consuming, frustrating chore.

Enter a guy named Otto F. Rohwedder, an inventor from Iowa. Over the course of about a decade of trial and error, he came up with a concept for “A Machine For Slicing An Entire Loaf Of Bread At A Single Operation,” an idea he patented on November 26, 1928. But the initial reaction among commercial bread bakers was not exactly what Rohwedder no doubt hoped it would be. In fact, the contraption was something of a hard sell at first.

To begin with, bakers were unconvinced that consumers wanted pre-sliced bread. Up to that point, I guess, nobody had been beating down the bakery doors asking for such a commodity. Then there were concerns about freshness. An unsliced loaf of bread stays fresher longer. Once you cut into it, it begins to go stale fairly quickly. To address these concerns, the inventor originally conceptualized the use of pins to hold the sliced loaf together. Since unpinning individual slices of bread wasn't an idea that appealed to anybody, Rohwedder approached the issue from a different angle: he amended the way the sliced bread would be packaged. There were no convenient plastic bags with little twist ties in those days. Instead, Rohwedder suggested wrapping each freshly-sliced loaf in thick wax paper. And so it was done. Eventually, cellophane took the place of wax paper before ultimately giving way to plastic. Come to think of it, I can actually remember wax paper-wrapped bread covered in cellophane packaging. Jeez, I'm old.

Anyway, the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, decided to give Rohwedder’s unconventional device a shot. They installed his machine and began to sell “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread” on July 7, 1928. The local newspaper carried both a front page news story and a full back page advertisement for the new-fangled gimmick in an effort to convince people that sliced bread really was a great thing. Selling points included statements like, “After all the idea of sliced bread is not unlike the idea of ground coffee, sliced bacon and many other modern and generally accepted products which combine superior results with a saving of time and effort.” The article goes on to prophetically enthuse, “So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.”

Needless to say, sliced bread quickly became the greatest thing since......well, you get the idea. By 1930, the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis had built its own slicing machines and was sending its soon-to-be-iconic product, Wonder Bread, pre-sliced and wrapped in wax paper packaging festooned with red, yellow, and blue balloons, to retailers nationwide.

And now there is legislation pending in Jefferson City asking Missouri lawmakers to officially designate July 7 as “Missouri Sliced Bread Day.” After all, Chillicothe, a town of about 9,500 folks, goes all out to promote its claim to fame as “The Home of Sliced Bread.” There's a recently erected historical marker in front of the red brick building at 100 Elm Street that formerly housed the Chillicothe Baking Company and there's an annual Sliced Bread Jam Bluegrass Music Festival, too. Supporters of the bill recognize Chillicothe's “piece of very positive history” and believe such a celebration would stimulate the local economy by bringing more tourists to northern Missouri. According to the Chillicothe News, if the proposed holiday becomes a reality, local residents are encouraged to engage in “appropriate activities and events” to celebrate Otto Rohwedder’s game changing creation.

I suppose it's a good thing I don't live anywhere near Chillicothe because I would have a hard time engaging in any appropriate activities. Personally, I don't eat sliced bread. Not since I started baking my own bread many, many years ago. Now, I'd be lying like a politician if I said sliced bread had never passed my lips. Are you kidding? I grew up in the '50s and '60s when moms were assured that the aforementioned Wonder Bread “helps build strong bodies twelve ways.” I think I got shortchanged on about eleven of those ways, but that's neither here nor there. The point is I grew up consuming my fair share of the soft, gummy commodity we're talking about celebrating. But no more. I can count on one hand the number of times I've had to make an emergency purchase of store-bought sliced bread in the last several years. Of course, back in Rohwedder's day, bread was still bread; made from flour, water, salt, and a little yeast. Concerns about bread going stale were legitimate in those days because real bread really would spoil in a fairly short amount of time. Unlike today's preservative and additive laden bread-like substances that can sit out on the counter for weeks at a time and still maintain what passes for “freshness.” In other words, it's still nice and soft and gummy. But I still wish Chillicothe luck in their pursuit of sliced bread fame. It's not their fault, or Otto Rohwedder's, either, that the baking industry would ultimately turn a basic, natural dietary staple into a form of chemically enhanced Frankenbread.

Oh, and in case you ever find yourself thinking, “I wonder what was the greatest thing before sliced bread?”, I may have an answer. Apparently that would be wrapped bread since early advertising for  sliced bread touted it as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” Although I imagine if you were to start saying, “That's the greatest thing since wrapped bread,” people would just give you funny looks. And who knows? Maybe someday I'll make a pilgrimage to Chillicothe just so I can have a slice of bread and stimulate the local economy. I've done stranger things.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Why Are The Romance Languages Romantic?


There Were These People In Togas.....

Ahhh, the Romance languages! The languages of love and affection. Of sentiment and rapture. Just the thought of a little French drove Gomez Addams into a wild-eyed frenzy (“Tish! That's French!) Everybody knows how fiery Latin lovers can melt a woman's heart with just a few words in Spanish or Italian. These are the languages of the heart, of the soul, languages spoken by hot-blooded, fervent people of intense passion and ardor. Right?

Meh.

I know it's February and there are hearts and flowers and depictions of Cupid everywhere you look, but I'm gonna rain on your love parade just a little bit when it comes to the origins of romance. Or at least of romantic Romance languages.

Once upon a time, there was this bunch of people who ran around in togas. I'm not talking about John Belushi in “Animal House.” No, these were the folks who sort of thought they ruled the world …..because, for a while, they pretty much did. That would be the Romans. From their home in Rome they roamed o'er land and foam until they established an empire that encompassed much of what was then the known world. And in doing so, they impressed their native language upon the natives of that far-flung empire. That language, of course, was Latin. More specifically, Vulgar Latin.

Now that doesn't mean that the people who spoke Latin were crude and unrefined......although I'm sure some of them were. The word “vulgar” in this case means “common.” Classical or “high status” Latin, the “dead” language you struggled with in high school, was the official, formal language of the empire. Upper crust, educated Romans used it in decrees and formal speeches and such. Vulgar Latin was the common language of the common folk. Certain socioeconomic classes spoke both forms, but it was the “common speech,” the “sermo vulgaris” or “Vulgar Latin” that eventually evolved into the Romance languages.

I'm not going to go into all the arcana of “dialect leveling” and other complicated and, frankly, boring aspects of linguistic evolution. Let's keep it real and relatable. Compare a map of the ancient Roman Empire with one of the modern world. Go ahead, I'll wait. See there? The bulk of the western Roman Empire consisted of Italia, Gaul, and Hispania on the Iberian peninsula. These roughly line up with modern day Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal. And, of course, although there are dozens of subsets, the main Western Romance languages are Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

So where does all the romance come in? Quite simple, really. “Romance” as we use it today is a fairly modern concept. The origins of “romance,” however, have nothing at all to do with hearts and flowers and Cupid and love: it is merely a reference to something related to Rome, something Roman. The word “romance” itself is a derivative adverb of the early Latin “Romanicus,” meaning “of the Roman style.” “Romanicus” became “romanice” in later Latin, and evolved into “romanz” in Old French, and from there, ultimately, to “romance” in English. So when you use the term “Romance language,” you are simply referring back to Vulgar Latin, which was the “Roman style” of speaking. Disappointing, right? Kinda takes all the romance out of it.

As to how “romance” became connected to the lovey-dovey stuff, well that's pretty mundane, too. Back in the early Middle Ages, the French people particularly began telling – and later writing – heroic tales for their own amusement and entertainment. These stories usually involved knights and maidens and fantastic, chivalric deeds and, because they were told or written in the vernacular French language, they became known as “romanz” stories, sometimes expressed as “romancier,” meaning “to narrate in French.” By the 17th and 18th centuries, such “romance” adventures were being commonly thought of as love stories and the word “romance” itself soon became associated with love and all its attendant attitudes, trappings and symbols.

There you have it. That mushy hearts and flowers and Cupid and lovey-dovey stuff all traces back to common people in togas. Well, sort of; only citizens were actually allowed to wear togas, but that's another story. Anyway, maybe now you don't feel quite as romantic as you did before, but at least you're a bit smarter.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Apocalypse Edges Nearer as Olive Garden Introduces A Nacho Knockoff

I Would Say, “Say It Isn't SO!”......But It Is

What hath Darden wrought!? Olive Garden, the “Italian” restaurant chain that is far more representative of the tastes of Rome, Georgia, Florence, South Carolina, or Naples, Florida than of Rome, Florence, or Naples, Italy, has unleashed a new culinary abomination in the form of a nacho knockoff called “loaded pasta chips.” Yeah, you read that correctly; an “Italian” restaurant is now serving nachos. And not even real nachos, at that, but a bastardized “Italian” version of a Tex-Mex conglomeration thrown together by a guy named Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya at a Mexican border town restaurant in 1943. Does OG ever do anything that isn't derivative? As my Italian ancestors spin their way out of their graves in Emilia-Romagna, let me describe the dish.

Take fried lasagne strips to represent tortilla chips. Top them with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses and a three-meat tomato sauce loaded with chicken, meatballs, and sausage. Throw on some cherry peppers to double as jalapeños and drizzle it all with cloyingly creamy Alfredo sauce. Add a garnish of Pecorino Romano, Parmesan, and fresh parsley, and, tah-dah! – you have an instant Italian classic. And every Italian on the planet says, “che cazzo!?” Or at least, “uffa!”

Ostensibly, the......the.....creation is intended as a Super Bowl nosh, but it's going to be available until April 1. Perhaps we're all just victims of an extended pre-April Fool's joke.

Since I generally only go to Olive Garden when there are no Italian restaurants within a fifty mile radius (or when I get a gift card), I have not yet sampled this....this.....whatever this is, but surprisingly, I'm told it's not too bad. Or maybe not surprising since the ingredients are all Italian or Italian-ish. I mean, at least these.....these.....these Franken-nachos have decent DNA. I've even heard them described as “wickedly good.” Of course, a lot of people think lutefisk is wickedly good, but I wouldn't exactly expect to see it on an Italian menu.

But then again maybe I should expect to see it on an Olive Garden menu. After all, we're talking about a place that uses “evolving the brand,” “reinvigorated dishes,” and “we're bringing new things to the table” as part of its marketing strategy. The sign on the building still says “Italian Kitchen,” but what the hell; I have an “Italian kitchen” too, and I recently catered a wedding reception where the customer wanted a taco bar. I guess that means I'm “evolving the brand,” huh? Sometimes you just have to do what the customer wants even if you have to do it with clenched teeth. And apparently Olive Garden's culinarily challenged customers want Italian nachos. Boh!

Darden needs to either remove the word “Italian” from their logo or add the word “American,” because while there's a huge Italian-American influence in the kitchen, there's not much that's veramente Italiano. And the problem as I see it is that far too many Americans, especially those in the hinterlands (remember Marilyn Hagerty, the sweet if somewhat palate-numbed restaurant “critic” in Grand Forks, North Dakota?), are being led to believe the stuff they are being served at Olive Garden is the epitome of real Italian cuisine. It's bad enough they are being deluded into thinking that overcooked, under-seasoned pasta and unlimited breadsticks are Italian hallmarks straight out of a mythical “Culinary Institute” in Tuscany, but now they're throwing in freakin' nachos? Porca miseria, gli italiani sono fregati!

I'm thinking of organizing a nationwide protest. Maybe recruiting Italian nonne to march around with signs saying, “quello è NON italiano,” or “basta dire di no a nachos,” or just simply “sono incazzato.” Yeah. That ought to do it.