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!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

How To Hand Wash Dishes Revisited

Everybody Knows How To Wash Dishes, Right? Well......Maybe Not So Much

I'm revisiting a piece I wrote a few years ago on the subject of dish washing. Recent experiences have prompted me to examine the topic in a little more depth because it seems a lot of people didn't learn to wash dishes the way I did.

The most vexing problem I faced in my last restaurant was not food quality or service; it was dish washing. It was a small place that didn't have an automatic dish washing machine. Dishes were done by hand in a three-compartment sink. Except for on busy weekend nights, we didn't have dishwashers on staff: cooks and waitstaff were responsible for washing their own dishes. Everybody on staff was younger than I by many years and in some cases by many decades. And after a couple of weeks of frustrating observation, I came to the inescapable conclusion that not a single, blessed one of these young folks knew the first damn thing about washing dishes. And they weren't all high schoolers; in fact, most were in their twenties and thirties and many were parents with little kids at home. The way they took care of my customers made me shudder to think of how they took care of their families. I had all the proper signs and regulations posted around the dish bay and I dropped hints and reminders from time to time in the vain hope I could awaken some form of common sense in these people. None of it worked and I finally exploded and called everybody in for a staff meeting on dish washing.

I learned the art of dish washing in the days before automatic dishwashers became as common as toasters. And I learned at the hands of experts; my grandmother and my mother. I don't know that my grandmother ever even saw an automatic dishwasher, and I know for certain she never used one. My mother had such disdain for the devices that she used hers as a storage bin for her Tupperware. Both women were dedicated hand dishwashers who lived well into their eighties. Between the two of them, I don't think I could begin to estimate how many dishes they washed in their lifetimes. Add to all that the fact that my first restaurant job was working as a dishwasher and I think I present with some valid credentials on the subject.

But that's still not enough. In order to avoid this being a “my mother taught me better than your mother taught you” piece, I went further, consulting health departments and doing some actual scholarly research on proper dish washing.

Believe it or not, there are specific procedures to follow. It's not just a matter of running some water in the sink, dumping in a little soap, and throwing in the dirty dishes. But after hanging out in various home and restaurant kitchens it is obvious to me that these basic techniques are being largely ignored, if they were ever taught in the first place. Call me obsessive/compulsive or whatever you will, but, based on the horrendous hygiene I have observed in some kitchens, I have been known to stealthily rewash dishes before I use them. Here's why.

I know so many people who have an aversion to the most essential element of hygienic dish washing: hot water. Many of these folks will come out of a shower with their bodies a nice shade of candy-apple red because they like their showers hot. And yet they wash their dishes in stone cold water. Go figure.

Beyond my grandmother and my mother, the experts with letters after their names will also tell you that dishes should be washed in water as hot as you can tolerate. Now this opens up a whole can of subjective worms. And way too many people of my acquaintance apparently can't tolerate water heated above 99°. That's body temperature, folks! If you can't stand to put your hands in ninety-nine degree water, you shouldn't be able to tolerate touching yourself! Worse still, I know people who do dishes in room temperature water; 70 to 74 degrees. Water that is actually cold. I've said it before, I'll say it again: If you insist on using cold or lukewarm water for dish washing, just set up little cabanas beside the sink for the e-coli, the salmonella, and the other varieties of bacteria you're inviting to go swimming in your sink. That's all you're really accomplishing. You're not getting anything clean.

Bacteria don't drown. Water won't kill 'em. Heat kills bacteria. To really sanitize your dishes, you need to heat them to above 140°. That's what dishwashing machines do. Obviously, sticking your unprotected hands in 140° water will likely send you to the emergency room. For hand washing dishes, the FDA recommends a minimum temperature of 110°. To make sure I'm practicing what I'm preaching, I actually stuck a thermometer in my dishwater: 113.3°. The hot water from my tap registered 123.8°. Now, I can't tolerate 124° on my bare hands for long but for me, 113° is no problem. Personally, I heat my rinse water a little hotter than my wash water – about 115° – and I add a couple of drops of bleach to the rinse. Yeah, the water's a little hot, but with rinse water, you can just snatch and grab. You don't have to keep your hands submerged in it like you do the wash water. But don't grab too quickly; the dishes should remain submerged in the hot wash water for at least thirty seconds and should be rinsed thoroughly.

As I mentioned, in some restaurant kitchens there are three sinks; a wash sink, a rinse sink, and a sanitizing sink. With only two sinks in my home kitchen, I combine the rinsing and the sanitizing in one. In restaurants, there is a specific chlorine level the health inspectors look for, measured by using paper test strips. (50 – 100 PPM, if you're curious.) At home, about two teaspoons of bleach per gallon of water will suffice.

But again, it's gotta be hot water. Observing the FDA minimum of 110° – along with using a good, strong anti-bacterial dish soap – will effectively do the job. If your skin is too sensitive or if you're worried about “dishpan hands,” go get some rubber gloves. Don't risk your family's health.

Hot water also gets your dishes cleaner. Grease doesn't break down in lukewarm water. If you stick a dirty, greasy plate in a sink full of 90° water, you'll come out with a plate that looks clean – but it'll still be greasy. And if you've ever wondered why your glasses and silverware look so spotty and filmy, check your water temperature. You know that “sheeting action” one of the dishwasher detergents advertises? You get the same effect when you use hot water. Dishes washed in hot water dry faster and cleaner than those washed in warm or cold water.

Now let's talk a little technique. First things first, scrape your plates. Dishes don't get clean when they're in the water competing with breadcrumbs and with floating chunks of meat and potatoes. It's not rocket science. Scrape your dishes.

Next, rinse your dishes. This is a hard sell sometimes with people who somehow find it redundant to rinse dishes that are going to be washed anyway. Again, it's just common sense. The first plateful of spaghetti sauce that you toss unrinsed into your clean dishwater is going to turn that water red and greasy for every subsequent dish you put in. Rinse your dishes.

Now stack 'em. Stacking doesn't have anything to do with the actual cleanliness of your dishes, but organized stacking makes the dish washing process cleaner and easier. Glasses, cups, and silverware stack first, plates and serving dishes next, and pots and pans last.

This is also the order in which you should wash your dishes, and in this instance the stacking does affect the cleanliness. I know so, so many people who just throw everything in the sink at the same time. Plates, glasses, knives, forks, pots, pans all jumbled together willy-nilly all at once. But think about it for a minute: what dishes do you really want to be the cleanest? The ones that actually come in contact with your mouth, right? The glasses, the cups, and the silverware. So it makes sense that you should wash them first, when the water is the hottest and the cleanest. If you wash the glasses with or after – say – the greasy frying pan, what can you expect to happen to your glasses? Thank you, but I'll take my beverages without the floating layer of grease, if you please. And those aren't “water spots” on your knives, forks, and spoons. They're spots of whatever you had for lunch yesterday if you just washed them along with the dirty dishes.

Plates should be next, as, theoretically, anyway, they should be cleaner than the pots and pans, especially if you've rinsed them. Serving dishes and utensils follow the plates and then come the pots and pans.

If you've got really dirty pots and pans with lots of baked-on stuff stuck to them, soaking is probably in order. Hot water, please. Cold water really won't do much good. And about ten minutes soaking time is all you need. Anything longer – like overnight – is just an excuse for putting off cleaning up the mess. If it hasn't soaked off in ten minutes, it's not going to. That's when scrubbing pads come into play.

Now, somewhere along the line, you may have to change your water. In many Asian cultures, dishes are always washed in running water because it is perceived to be more hygienic. And I do sometimes wash dishes under running water if I only have a few dishes to do. But in the interest of conserving water and saving on water and water heating bills, I generally adhere to Western customs that employ sinks or tubs of standing water. For large loads, that's going to mean changing the water at least once.

Now, the glasses and silverware probably didn't do too much damage to the dishwater. But after a dozen or so plates and serving dishes, are you really getting anything clean? Think about it; what color is clean, fresh water? Clear, of course. It has no color. So by the time your water develops a distinct reddish, brownish, greenish, or grayish color, is it still truly clean and fresh? And should you reasonably expect to get your dishes clean in such water? Come on. Change it, already.

Speaking of changing things, how about those dishcloths, sponges, and towels? Personally, I have no use for traditional sponges. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a hospital's surgical suite and 10 being a toxic waste dump, kitchen sponges rank number 11. You can't have them in commercial kitchens; you shouldn't have them in home kitchens. Unless you're preparing a science project on bacteriology. “Oh, but you can sanitize them in the microwave!” Yeah, until the first time you put them back in the water and the listeria and staphylococci invite all their friends aboard. Ditch the sponge.

Dishcloths are a better option, provided you take proper care of them. By proper care I mean changing them out frequently as usage requires and also keeping them in proper condition. A scientific study conducted a few years ago revealed that dishcloths containing the lowest microbial count came from households that replaced used dishcloths every day. Dishcloths containing high microbial counts had been used in household kitchens five consecutive days or more, and were never completely dried out during that time. The study determined that when dishcloths were dried out after use, bacterial growth was halted. So those of you who wad up your wet dishcloths and leave them lying in or around the sink take note.

Now, I don't change my dishcloth every day. Nor do I use the same cloth for a week. And I follow the FDA food code recommendation regarding use of a sanitizer bucket for my dishcloths. But I don't leave them soaking, because research also shows that after a couple of hours, organic material present in the cloths neutralizes the sanitizer and bacterial growth can occur. I soak them after use, take them out and dry them, and replace them every other day. Unless, of course, they are filthy, in which case I replace them right away. Duh!

To be honest, I don't use dishcloths nearly as much as I used to. Modern silicone sponges and scrubbers are much more efficient and easier to clean and sanitize.

Dish towels are another issue. Again, if health inspectors catch you drying dishes with a towel in a restaurant kitchen, there go a couple of points off your sanitation rating. Betcha didn't know that, huh? I know most of my dishwashers didn't. Air drying is best. And for goodness' sake, clean your drying rack once in awhile! Putting clean dishes in a dirty drying rack is an exercise in futility. If, however, you are like most people – me included outside a restaurant kitchen – and you use a dish towel, make sure it's a clean dish towel. Not the one with which you wiped the chicken blood off the counter. Not the one with which you mopped your sweaty forehead, wiped your greasy hands, or got that little spill up off the floor. “Dish towel” equals dish use. Nothing else. And when it gets damp, get a dry one. In the first place, you're not drying anything with a wet towel, now are you? And in the second place, here come those pesky germs again. And replace the towel in the same manner as you replace the cloth; break out a new one every couple of days or as needed.

I mentioned cleaning your drying rack. How about cleaning your sinks? How often do you actually clean and sanitize your sinks and drains? Do you know that most household's toilets are cleaner than their kitchen sinks? That's because you think about cleaning the toilet, but you seldom think about cleaning the sink. And yet, where do you wash the dishes from which you eat? Maybe you should try doing them in the toilet. (I know; yuck!) I sanitize my sinks and drains every day. All it takes is a couple of minutes with some hot water and a little bleach or cleanser.

One of the most spectacularly, despicably unhygienic things I've ever seen in a home kitchen involved filling up a sink with tepid water and a little soap and then throwing dirty dishes into the sink throughout the day. At some point along the way, said dishes were treated to a brief encounter with a dirty cloth that had been wadded up on the counter and then they were rinsed under cold running water before being dried with a questionable towel and put away. I have to ask; why bother? For as much cleaning value as you're getting out of that sinkful of disgusting cold, gray water with grease and particulate matter floating in it and that nasty rag, you might as well just put the dishes away dirty. If this is you, save yourself some time and money. Money that you'll probably need for doctor bills. Uggghhh!

And you lukewarmers don't get off the hook, either. I'm sorry. I hate it for you that you can't stand hot water, but neither can the grease and the germs. If you're filling your sink with water that is cooler than body temperature, you're just throwing a greasy pool party for bacteria. Period. Turn up the water heater and get some gloves.

And remember the steps the experts recommend – the ones my mama taught me: scrape your dishes, rinse your dishes, stack your dishes, and don't do the pots and pans first and then try to get the glasses clean. It just won't happen.

Oh, and one more thing: dishes have two sides, a top and a bottom. Remember to wash the bottom of your dish because it sits on the top of the one stacked below it in the cabinet. Just a little something to think about.

Okay, see you in the kitchen. I'll wash, you dry.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Bypass Advertising Chickens**t When Buying Eggs

The Incredible, Marketable Egg

As I frequently remind you (and myself), I'm old. Old enough to remember going to the grocery store to buy eggs that just said “EGGS” on the plain, old-fashioned cardboard carton. No “cage free” or “hormone free” or “free range” or any of the other clever qualifiers stamped all over the fancy containers eggs come in nowadays.

Back in those days of blissful ignorance we didn't think much about how eggs got into the cartons. Most of us knew enough about farm life to draw mental pictures of jovial farmers in overalls going out to the henhouse and raiding the nests of contented cluckers. We didn't know – or want to know – about factory farms wherein thousands of hens existed in battery cages; wire mesh contraptions, stacked and wired together usually containing more than one chicken squashed side by side with another in an arrangement that keeps them from being able to spread their wings or stretch their legs or do much of anything other than sit there and lay eggs. Each bird “lives” – if you can call it that – in about seventy square inches of space. I'm looking at my 9”x8” mousepad. That's seventy-two square inches. My wireless mouse has more room to roam than a factory farm hen. Kinda makes you look at your omelet in a different light, doesn't it?

Fortunately, awareness of these inhumane conditions is slowly forcing changes to be made in the way eggs are produced. I don't know if we'll ever get to that bucolic scene I described in the previous paragraph, but several big egg sellers and big egg users have gotten behind efforts to moderate or eliminate the cruelty. A number of states have limited or banned the use of battery cages and legislation is in the works in other jurisdictions to make things better for the birds that provide us with such an essential element of our diets.

And, of course, even as substantive efforts at improvement are being undertaken at the legal level, here come the hucksters, hawkers, peddlers, and sloganeers from the ad agencies trotting out to help thoroughly obfuscate the issue. Ever ones to leap to the forefront of a cause to see if a dollar might be made there, they have cluttered supermarket eggs cartons with all kinds of meaningless words and phrases designed to confuse consumers into feeling better about themselves and their choices. With that thought in mind, allow me to blaze a path through the chickenshit in an attempt to offer some clarity.

Let's start with “farm fresh.” If you've ever seen – or smelled – a commercial chicken farm, “fresh” is the last thing that comes to mind. It's just a term they use to sell eggs. If you want real “farm fresh” eggs, you have to go a real farm. As far as commercial egg freshness goes, check all those arcane codes on the end of the carton. There's a “pack date,” an “expiration date,” and a plant code. The plant code simply tells you in what facility the eggs were actually packaged. It's a four-digit code that's usually preceded by a “P” and if you're really curious, the USDA has a plant location tool you can use.

The “expiration date” is more a guideline for the store than for the consumer. Also expressed as a “sell by,” “use by,” or “best by” date, it just tells the grocer when to pull the eggs from the shelf. You can still safely eat the eggs for at least a couple of weeks after they “expire.” Same thing with a “sell by/use by/best by” date; it's an indicator of maximum freshness, not safety. Both expiration and sell by dates are based on the pack date; expiration dates have to be thirty days or less from the pack date and sell by dates have to be within forty-five days. The pack date is the actual date on which the eggs were put in the carton. It's a three-digit number that may be a bit confusing because it's based on Julian dating. Julian dates run from 1 through 365 (366 in a leap year), so eggs packed on April 1 of a regular year, for instance, will be Julian coded as 091.

Natural” and “All Natural” are among the ad game's most popular buzzwords. And also among the most meaningless. They tend to slap the word “natural” on just about anything. According to the dictionary, “natural” means “existing in or formed by nature.” If that's not a broad category I don't know what is. When it comes to eggs, the USDA says egg products are “natural” if they contain no artificial ingredients, added color, and are only minimally processed. I've never encountered an artificially enhanced, color-added, processed egg, so I'm assuming just about all eggs are “natural.” And if you're scrambling unnatural eggs, I'm not sure I want to know about it.

“Organic” is the next big word of the day. It's a term that actually does have meaning when it's enforced and not just used as a selling tool. Organic eggs can be a bit healthier for you because the chickens that lay them are healthier. Organic eggs come from free-range chickens that have not been doped up with hormones, antibiotics or other drugs and which have been fed with entirely organic feed. That means the feed given to the chickens can't come from crops that are genetically modified, treated with pesticides or herbicides, or fertilized with chemical or synthetic products. And no poultry-slaughter byproducts. Which leads to another often misunderstood label: “vegetarian-fed.”

People like to think of happy chickens eating grass and grain and green, leafy vegetables. That's a nice picture but far from the truth. Chickens are omnivores: they'll eat anything including other chickens or parts thereof left over from the slaughtering process. They also eat bugs and crickets and any fly larvae – aka maggots – they happen to find hanging around in cow manure. Sorry. Probably better not to dwell on a chicken's natural diet for too long, but do keep in mind that a “vegetarian-fed” chicken's favorite between meal snack is frequently.....chicken.

I mentioned hormones. That's another specious selling point: “No Added Hormones.” By law, laying hens are not allowed to be given hormones anyway, so this phrase is a selling gimmick. Even the cheap eggs in the cheap cardboard cartons that just say “EGGS” contain no added hormones.

Same thing applies to “Antibiotic-Free.” According to the US Poultry and Egg Association, there are only three antibiotics approved by the FDA for use in laying flocks and “only a small percentage of laying flocks producing conventional eggs ever receive antibiotics due to use of effective vaccines and other management practices which minimize the need for antibiotics to treat illness.” And FDA regulations for antibiotic use ensure that antibiotic residue does not migrate to the eggs. So, it's just another advertising gimmick.

Non GMO” is a controversial term. In and of themselves, eggs are, of course, not genetically modified. Nobody's out there trying to engineer a better chicken or a better egg through genetic manipulation. The “non-GMO” label is meant to apply to the feed the hens consume, but unfortunately most gullible consumers just see “Non-GMO” and think, “Oh, how wonderful! Non-GMO eggs!” And that's what the ad people want them to think. It sells more eggs.

Omega-3” sounds healthy, doesn't it? And most nutritionists will agree it is. Chickens on a natural diet get an omega-3 boost from sources such as the aforementioned grasses and weeds. Such hens, therefore, lay eggs that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than chickens that are only grain-fed. Grain-fed birds get their omega-3 charge from fortified feed. “Omega-3” eggs can be fortified with different types of omega-3 fatty acids: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), commonly found in fish oil, and ALA (alpha linolenic acid), a component in flaxseed, walnuts, and chia seeds. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), also found in fish oil, is another player in the omega-3 game. The problem is there's no official recommendation for human intake of any of these substances, and even if you allow for the 1,000 mg daily intake of a combination of DHA and EPA that some experts promote, the amount of omega-3 acids added to eggs through a diet of flaxseed and fish oil are minimal. One omega-3 egg typically contains 340 milligrams of ALA and seventy-five to one hundred milligrams of DHA. So you'd have to chow down at least two-and-a-half eggs every day to get anywhere close to a beneficial level. But it sounds really healthy and it sells eggs.

Humanely Raised” and “Animal Welfare Approved” are terms that help sell eggs to people who truly are concerned about animal welfare. You'll see little seals that say either “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” on the cartons. The former means that the egg producer subscribes to a set of rules and regulations that guarantee chickens have decent, healthy living conditions that include proper ventilation and appropriate nesting material in their nest boxes. They are also given the opportunity to “bathe,” something chickens do to rid themselves of lice and other parasites by flopping around in a box of dirt. The other label certifies that the birds have all these things plus being raised almost entirely outdoors and that they escape wholesale slaughter and are painlessly euthanized when their usefulness as layers expires.

Let's wrap up this walk through the chicken droppings by examining the real stars of the egg marketing firmament, “cage-free,” “free-range,” and “pastured” or “pasture raised.”

According to the US Poultry and Egg Association, “eggs labeled as cage free must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food and water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” However, “cage-free” only means that chickens aren’t kept in actual cages. They might still live jammed in on top of one another, up to their knees in their own and their neighbor's waste, and never see daylight within that “building, room, or enclosed area.” And remember what I said about chickens being omnivorous? It has been shown in some cases that without the barriers of cages, “cage-free” chickens living in close proximity to other chickens have a higher mortality rate due not only to the easier spread of disease but also because they tend to peck one another to death.

Free-range” is a little better option because, the association says, “free-range” eggs must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. The operative word here is “access.” Just because a chicken has “access” to the outdoors doesn't necessarily mean it goes outdoors. Often chickens are still jammed into cavernous buildings with a small door on one end that opens to a few feet of outside dirt space. Even if the chickens on the far end of the building know the door is there, there's no way they'll ever get to it. And “outdoors” doesn't automatically mean some picturesque pasture where the chickens can romp and play in the sunshine. “The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material;” in other words, a screened-in porch of some sort may qualify as “outdoors.”

Pasture-Raised” or “Pastured” eggs are kind of the humane gold standard. They are exactly what they imply; eggs that are gathered from chickens who run around outdoors eating the things that chickens who run around outdoors eat. The “girls” at Vital Farms, for example, live on rotated pastures with an allowance of approximately 108 square feet per bird. Contrast that the with the seventy or so square inches allotted to commercially raised chickens in battery cages. Of course, regular old commercial eggs can sell for less than a dollar a dozen while pastured eggs go for upwards of six or seven dollars a dozen, but, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.

Oh, and one more thing you'll find printed on egg cartons: grades. Grades are the USDA's “beauty contest” for eggs. The grades “A,” “AA,” and “B” have nothing to do with the nutritional content of the egg. While they do help weed out defective eggs with unpleasant things like blood spots, meat spots, bloody whites, mixed rot, blood rings, stuck yolks, embryo chicks, and other nastiness that you wouldn't want to serve sunny-side up, grades are primarily cosmetic standards. The highest grade is Grade AA. These eggs have thick, firm whites and high, round yolks with clean, unbroken shells. Grade A eggs, the ones usually sold in stores, have most of the same characteristics of Grade AA, except their whites are "reasonably" firm. Grade B eggs have whites that may be thinner and yolks that may be wider and flatter than higher graded eggs and while their shells must still be unbroken, slight stains are permissible. And, of course, that USDA grade shield is yet another marketing tool used to sell more eggs.

No eggs were harmed in the writing of this article – at least not yet. I feel a frittata coming on and you know what they say about not having an omelet without breaking a few organic, pasture-raised, Grade AA eggs.