Pages

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.

You can help by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. Every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Review: St. James Cheese Company, New Orleans, Louisiana


Move Over Emeril's, Brennan's, et.al

Brennan's, Commander's Palace, Antoine's, K-Paul's, Dooky Chase's, and, of course, Emeril's. These and other iconic eateries are the places for which New Orleans is justifiably famous. And with just a short time in town, I didn't get to go to any of them. I can see Archie Manning's eponymous place, “Manning's,” from my hotel window. Ditto for Mulate's, the establishment that bills itself as “the original Cajun restaurant.” But I didn't go there either, mostly because half of the Crescent City seemed to have gotten there ahead me. Everywhere I looked I saw three and four dollar sign restaurants, most of which had only one name and none of which offered the simple, affordable lunch I was seeking. Until I Googled nearby restaurants and saw the St. James Cheese Company just a couple of blocks away.

The menu was right up my alley: a simple and straightforward selection of sandwiches and salads along with cheese and charcuterie boards, an English “Ploughman's Lunch,” and “Cheesemonger's Mac & Cheese.” How can you go wrong with choices like those? So off to St. James my wife and I went on a sunny early summer afternoon.

Located in the Warehouse District, St. James Cheese Company occupies space in an old renovated building on Tchoupitoulas street that could be described as “hole-in-the-wall.” Now, that's not at all a bad thing: some of the best restaurants you'll ever find are holes-in-walls. It was evident as you walked through the door that the place was bright, vibrant, scrupulously clean and well-kept, and nicely appointed. It was also quite loud. Bare floors, exposed brick walls, and high ceilings may be chic and trendy, but there's a lot to be said for the good old days of heavy fabric and other sound-deadening elements that allow for conversation without the need to say, “What?” and “Huh?” every other word. Oh, well. I'm old. So sue me.

The sign at the door requested we order up front during peak times and this was definitely such a time. My wife looked at the menu, made her selection, and scampered off to snag one of the last remaining tables while I stood waiting in line. It wasn't too bad; the line moved quickly and within a couple of minutes I had ordered our sandwiches and taken a seat.

In addition to being a sandwich shop, St. James Cheese Company is also a bona fide cheese shop, replete with a familiar wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano on display as well as an impressive selection of other delicious cheeses, both common and somewhat exotic. St. James Cheese Company was started up post-K (after Katrina) by Richard and Danielle Sutton, transplants from the London neighborhood of St. James, who decided in 2006 that they wanted to bring artisanal and farmhouse cheeses to New Orleans. The Suttons began their “life in cheese,” as they call it, at London's Paxton & Whitfield, one of the oldest cheesemongers in England. Holders of two royal warrants, one from the Prince of Wales in 1997 and one from Queen Elizabeth II in 2001, you could say P&W knows something about cheese. And the Suttons have brought that level of quality, knowledge, and sophistication to the Big Easy.

I noticed bagged loaves of fresh artisanal bread for sale in a basket at the front counter. And there was a nice variety of “gourmet” foods on offer as well. I was pleasantly surprised to see both carnaroli and vialone nano rice for sale. Everybody has arborio these days, even Walmart. Carnaroli and vialone nano? Not so much. St. James' mission statement proclaims, “We aim to provide our guests with a meticulously selected and unexpectedly diverse assortment of perfectly ripe cheeses, charcuterie, and gourmet grocery items.” Mission accomplished.

After a wait of no more than five minutes the food arrived. And we were absolutely transported. Move over Emeril's, Brennan's, et.al. Give St. James Cheese Company some elbow room. There aren't enough “o”s in “gooooooood” to describe what we had.

I opted for a basic grilled cheese sandwich, what they billed as a “Rustic Grilled Cheese.” It starts with white cheddar from world champion Wisconsin cheesemaker Tony Hook. Add some unidentified but undeniably delicious smoky bacon and sandwich it between slices of fresh country sourdough bread from New Orleans' own Bellegarde Bakery, throw some kettle-cooked potato chips on the side, and you have a simple sandwich that is simply divine.

My wife chose the “Smokey Blue,” a magical combination of roast beef, house smoked blue Mycella cheese, lettuce, tomato and Worcestershire mayo on toasted multigrain bread sourced from another local bakery, WildFlour. With apologies to Louisiana's own Justin Wilson, I guar-ron-TEE she will be talking about that sandwich for days to come. Her comment after the first bite said it all: “Chefs always talk about 'layers of flavor.' That's exactly what this sandwich has; layers of flavor. Nothing is muddled together. Each element stands on its own and contributes a distinct layer of flavor to the overall sandwich. It's just remarkable.” And that's from somebody whose palate I respect immensely.

The staff at St. James is friendly, knowledgeable, and efficient. It's not a very big place, but it's light and airy and clean, both in terms of decor and of physical condition. The menu is small; fewer than a dozen sandwiches, a handful of salads, and a couple of specialties like the aforementioned cheese and charcuterie board and the ploughman's lunch. They have a kids menu and a great beverage selection, including the usual soft drinks as well as a rotating selection of craft beers on draft, ciders and wines, and some specialty cocktails. Obviously, we couldn't sample everything, but based on our experience with the wonderful plates we had, we give the place four thumbs up and just wish we had more thumbs.

The location we visited is in the Warehouse District at 641 Tchoupitoulas Street. I understand there is also an uptown location. The downtown store is open Monday through Wednesday from 11am to 6pm, and on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11am to 8pm. Closed Sundays. Prices are reasonable and parking is.....well, it is the Warehouse District, okay? Don't get your hopes up. There's limited onstreet parking and a number of nearby lots and garages, but the location is also within easy walking distance of some of the district's major hotels. Call them at (504) 304-1485 or check out their website at https://stjamescheese.com

Emeril's, with its “Andouille Crusted Gulf Drum” and its “Pressed Pickled Ham & Cheese,” is only a couple of blocks down the street. But for my money – and for a lot less of it – you can't ask for better than the humble but outstanding fare at St. James Cheese Company. Laisser les bons fromages rouler!

Friday, June 7, 2019

Let's Stop Constantly Yanking The Flag Down To Half-Staff


We Have Lowered Our Standards On The Lowering Of Our Standard

Even as I write this I know I'm swimming against the tide and shouting into the wind, but I'm old so indulge me.

I went into a McDonald's the other day, noticing as I entered that the flag was flying at half-staff in front of the restaurant but not at any of the neighboring businesses. Pretty sure of the response I'd get, I nevertheless asked the teenage counter person why. I was not disappointed: she had no idea. “Let me ask my manager.” When the manager came forward she was similarly clueless. “I don't know,” she said. “I just got an email from corporate telling me to lower it.”

Traditionally, lowering the nation's flag to half-staff (or half-mast if aboard a naval vessel) is a mark of honor and a symbolic gesture of solidarity in mourning. But how can you have a gesture of solidarity when no one knows anymore what that gesture symbolizes? In this modern day and age of nearly weekly bombings, mass shootings, and other insane acts of violence, we find ourselves hauling Old Glory halfway down the pole on a frighteningly regular basis. And unfortunately, at some point it becomes meaningless.

The first time I actually remember seeing the Stars and Stripes flying at half-staff was in the thirty days after November 22, 1963. I'm sure it was similarly lowered for the death of former Vice-President Alben W. Barkley in 1956, but I was far too young to remember that. The point is, it used to be that when you saw the flag flying at half-staff, you knew why: a president, vice-president, senator, governor, or some other highly-placed and highly-regarded government figure had died.

Or maybe it was Memorial Day. That was the McDonald's manager's guess: it must have had something to do with Memorial Day. Except, as I pointed out to her, Memorial Day was last week and in any event, the flag is only supposed to fly at half-staff on that day until noon. When I suggested that perhaps it was in reaction to a recent mass shooting in Virginia, she agreed that that was likely the reason. Except we weren't in Virginia.

But that doesn't seem to matter anymore. Nowadays if somebody dies – if anybody dies – anywhere in the country, especially if they do it en masse, down comes the national banner. Think I'm exaggerating? Uh-uh. Remember the flag being lowered when singer Whitney Houston was found dead in her bathtub? Or when baseball great Yogi Berra passed? Or how about upon the death of that great American statesman, Nelson Mandela? Oh......wait. My favorite instance was when the honor was afforded to a recently deceased Ohio police dog. Or maybe it was the Oklahoma road worker who died while helping to fill a sinkhole.

The United States Flag Code, as adopted by the National Flag Conference held in Washington, D.C. on June 14-15, 1923, and revised numerous times over the years, has this to say about flying the flag at half-staff:

The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day.

On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff.

By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.

In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from any State, territory, or possession who dies while serving on active duty, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff and the same authority is provided to the Mayor of the District of Columbia with respect to present or former officials of the District of Columbia and members of the Armed Forces from the District of Columbia. When the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, or the Mayor of the District of Columbia, issues a proclamation under the preceding sentence that the National flag be flown at half-staff in that State, territory, or possession or in the District of Columbia because of the death of a member of the Armed Forces, the National flag flown at any Federal installation or facility in the area covered by that proclamation shall be flown at half-staff consistent with that proclamation.

The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress. The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day.

Did you see anything in there about celebrities or dogs? Or even victims of mass murders? I suppose the “in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law” provides the loophole there.

Anyway, after the questions raised at McDonald's, I looked it up: yes, indeed, a Presidential Proclamation was issued “honoring the victims of the tragedy in Virginia Beach” and directing the flag to be lowered from June 1 until sunset on June 4. But where do you draw the line? As I have only somewhat facetiously opined, considering the nearly constant state of mourning in which we find ourselves today, perhaps half-staff should become the default position and we could then celebratorily raise the flag to the top of the pole to note the increasingly rare occasion in which somebody or some group of somebodies didn't die violently or tragically.

And then there's the matter of participation. Okay, so McDonald's corporate got the memo and passed it along. But the hotel next door and the auto parts store across the street didn't get said memo and so their flags remained at the top of the staff. The flag at the post office is down but the flag at the gas station is up. The flag at the bank is lowered but the one at the funeral home is not. And if anybody ever tried to lower that massive banner that flies proudly over the automobile dealership out by the interstate they would likely create a traffic hazard, so that flag stays all the way up regardless of circumstance. It definitely makes for a mixed message. And what about you folks at home and the flag you fly on your front porch? Yes, there are ways to rig it to fly at an approximation of half-staff, but do you bother?

And at what point does the gesture become meaningless? According to an Associated Press analysis, in 2015, the flag of the United States flew at half-staff somewhere in the country for 328 of 365 days. At what juncture does the “honor” become so commonplace as to lose its significance? The short answer to that question is when nobody knows why the flag is at half-staff on a given day to begin with and I think we've already reached that point.

The problem is jerky knees. Somebody dies heroically or tragically and the immediate emotional knee-jerk reaction is to “honor” them. And the quickest, cheapest, and most expedient way to do that is to drop the flag a few feet down the pole. There. All nice and neatly honored and we can move on to the next tragedy. Which will likely occur next week. Unless the local dogcatcher – “who served our community proudly for fifty-seven years” – dies in the interim. Down goes the flag.

I say all this because I am an admitted flag-nazi. (Oxymoron? Perhaps.) I'm the guy who calls your business and demands that you remove that tattered pink, beige, and periwinkle remnant of what was once a proud flag from the pole in front of your store and replace it. I'm the guy who sicced the American Legion on a little group of Bible-thumpers who flew the so-called “Christian flag” above the American flag on the pole in front of their church. I'm the guy who stopped in a driving rainstorm to lower a flag that had torn away from one of its grommets and was unceremoniously and disrespectfully streaming loose in the wind in front of a local store. I'm the guy that will let you know if your state or business flag is an inch bigger than your American flag and if it's flying a quarter of an inch higher. I don't care that the flag code was long ago revised to allow a flag to be displayed in the rain as long as it is an “all weather flag.” Poppycock! You'll never catch my flag out in the rain. Or in the dark, either. My flag means something to me beyond being an ostentatious bit of pseudo-patriotic décor that I tack up and forget about. I respect it and what it stands for and that's why I refuse to support the current politically correct and emotionally driven trend toward turning it into a red, white, and blue yo-yo.

And by the way, did you know that Flag Day is next week? And do you care? Or is it just an irrelevant leftover from a bygone day when the flag, its origins, and its meaning truly mattered? My flag will be out and at full-staff, thank you, unless there is a recognized, legitimate reason for it to be otherwise. (Death of a president, vice-president, governor, etc.) And if some brownie-point-seeking politician tells me to lower my flag to “honor” the passing of a Nigerian dwarf goat at the National Zoo or something, I think I'll just bring it in instead.

The flag is often referred to as our “national standard.” I think perhaps we have lowered our standards on the lowering of our standard just a bit too much.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Don't Tremble And Quake Every Time Ancestry.com Turns Over A Leaf


It's On The Internet So It Must Be True

I've written on this topic before so stop me if you've heard this one: beware of online family tree sites and “make-it-fit” genealogy.

Let me take off my Italian cook hat and put on my genealogical researcher shoes for a minute. And let me tell you about those shoes. I started climbing my family tree back around 1970. It was a tough climb because the few elder relatives I had left didn't want to talk about “that old stuff.” I had to dig and root and ferret in courthouses and churches and cemeteries and libraries and archives and historical society records for years just to get a decent start. There was, thank goodness, no Internet or Ancestry.com back in those days. I'll explain that sentiment in a second.

By the time the US Bicentennial came along in 1976, I had enough experience in working the records that I became a genealogical records searcher for several counties in the state in which I lived. Clerks in these counties were being flooded with requests from people trying to prove they were related to George Washington or Benjamin Franklin or somebody famous they could brag about. The perpetually overworked and understaffed staff in these jurisdictions started farming out these requests to qualified local researchers who would, for a fee, handle all the legwork. Enter me. Thus I got a lot of experience dealing not only with my own family tree but with a whole forest of trees from all over the place.

Fast forward about forty years and I finally published a comprehensive book on my family. It was rich in detail, replete with copies of old records and lots of sometimes faded photographs. It definitively traced the path of my ancestors from their mid-nineteenth-century European emigration up to and including my own generation. And it sold tens of copies, not counting the ones I donated to the local library and the historical society. Oh well, I didn't do it to become rich and famous.

Part of why I did do it was an attempt to counter the enormous influence of all the new cyber-sources that cropped up as the Internet grew and developed. Ancestry.com was and is at the top of the food chain in this regard, but there were and are lots of other sites like those sponsored by the LDS church, for example. Don't get me wrong: these are tremendous resources – if you know how to do basic research before you start. That's why Ancestry's horrible “you don't have to know what you're looking for; just start looking” campaign a few years ago just ground my gears. Of course you have to know what you're looking for! Otherwise how will you know when you've found it? That's like saying you don't have to be an electrician in order to wire your house; just play with the wires until something lights up. There's bound to be a YouTube video somewhere that shows you how to do it, right? Uffa! (That's Italian for sheeeeesh!)

Gentle readers, please listen to me when I tell you you can't, can't, CAN'T just plunder around on the Internet for a few minutes and come up with a fully-developed and completely accurate version of your family tree based solely on the extremely questionable work of somebody else who probably did the same damn thing. “Ooooh, I saw it on the Internet so it must be true.” Aaaaaarrrrrggggghhhhh! (I think that translates the same in Italian or English.)

Here's an example: my sister and co-researcher called me this morning with the latest “update” from Ancestry. It was a link to somebody who was supposed to be related through our maternal grandmother. One problem: we already knew this bird. He had all this great and apparently thorough research going on. Names and dates and pictures of people we knew we were related to, all right. But he had our grandmother living nine years longer than she actually did and had her buried a thousand miles from where she is actually buried. Had her name right, had her married to the right guy and all, but when it came to the end, he was all wrong. And the worst part of it was, you couldn't tell him anything because he was convinced he was right. He had found all the records on the Internet and they all matched up. Never mind that my sister visited the woman in question for decades and was present at her funeral. Or that I lived with her the last fifteen years of her life and was one of six who carried her to her grave in Osgood, Indiana in 1980. What did we know? His grandmother, of apparently the same or similar name, died in 1989 and was buried in Woonsocket, Rhode Island and he was at her funeral and because he had found everything he needed to know about her online, he was right and we were wrong. And thus shall it ever be.

We've got another nut hanging on our family tree who took up genealogy as sort of a retirement hobby a few years ago and he is the undisputed king of the Internet. I doubt that he has ever been in a library or the records room of a courthouse, but he has all the answers and he found them all right there at his fingertips in his living room or wherever he does his “research.” In fact, he is so proficient that he way outclassed me. It took me nearly fifty years to trace my family back to the mid-eighteenth century. He has been on the job for about five years and he already has the family linked to seventh-century Saxon royalty! Wow! Who'd a thunk that the farmer who left England in 1844 to become a farmer in America had royal blood in his veins? And again, he saw it on the Internet so there's no use in questioning his methods or his results. We're just waiting to see the link to Adam and Eve.

And then there's the well-intended cousin who is about half right about half the time. Another offspring of the Internet, he has in recent years at least made a pilgrimage or two to the old hometown to back up his findings. The problem is that he interprets what he finds in the wrong way and then posts it as gospel to the Internet for others to do the same. No, Cuz, that wasn't my sister standing in that photo with Grandpa. That was our uncle's step-daughter of the same name. How do I know? Well, A) she was my sister and B) she had severe cerebral palsy and never stood up a day in her brief life. A minor detail, right? A detail that I'm sure wasn't on the Internet. So, no that wasn't her, but thanks for telling the whole gullible online world that it was. I'm sure I'll be seeing that misidentified photo now on at least a dozen other “family tree” sites.

See, that's the real issue. I wrote a freakin' two hundred-page book jam packed with precise detailed information that took me nearly a half-century to dig out of dusty old record repositories spread out over several states. And a small handful of people read it. My plugged in and connected cousins mainline their misinformation directly to the World Wide Web and millions of “family researchers” dutifully scribble it into their permanent records and claim it as their own.

Please. Don't. DO. This. Don't accept anything you read online at face value. Not even the most experienced and competent researcher is infallible. I'm working on a second edition of the book I published ten years ago because I've found new information and, yes, discovered a couple of errors in my own previous work. But the sheer volume of absolute dreck masquerading online as reliable data is nothing short of astounding. I have seen with my own eyes examples of children whose birth dates were listed months after the death of their mother. I have seen a man recorded on the Internet as dead and buried on a certain date when I had in my hand his death certificate that showed his passing eight years later. How about the woman who gave birth to her son when she was six years old? Or my uncle whom a reliable Internet resource had married to two different women two years apart? They were both the same woman: one marriage was listed by her first name and the other was by her middle name. And how they happened two years apart I'll never know.

Don't get me wrong. I have used the absolute hell out of online resources since they first became available a couple of decades ago. It was an online source that enabled me to find the name of the ship upon which my paternal immigrant ancestors sailed from England. BUT.....I already know from which port they sailed and what their departure and arrival dates were. And that information I got from plain old grunt work in old family records. I was able to find their street address by accessing England's census online. BUT.....I already knew in what town they were living at the time. The Internet enabled me to detail the settlement of my Italian ancestors in Canada without actually having to go to Canada. BUT.....because I talked extensively to my grandmother when she was alive and available, I knew exactly where in Canada to look. Internet sources and resources have enhanced and improved the quality of my research, but they have never been nor will they ever be the fundamental source of it.

I don't tremble and quake every time Ancestry.com turns over a leaf. I don't get all twitterpated every time I see what appears to be a full-blown genealogy of any branch of my family online unless that genealogy is in absolute lockstep with what I already know to be true. I don't graft a limb, a branch, a twig, or even a leaf onto my family tree until I can verify it through multiple empirical sources. I don't take anybody else's word for anything I can't personally authenticate through at least one other source. No matter how tempting it might be, I don't engage in “close enough” or “make-it-fit” genealogy that piggybacks on somebody else's often questionable work. That's called “responsible research” and it's unfortunately becoming less and less common in the burgeoning “information age” in which we live.

I suppose it's possible my grandmother arose from her grave in Indiana and lived another nine years in Rhode Island. Maybe my totally incapacitated sibling did stand up for a photograph and perhaps I am descended from old Saxon royalty. After all, it's on the Internet so it must be true.

But I'm not counting on it.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Review: The Clocktower Restaurant & Bar, Staunton, Virginia


Time's Up For The Clocktower

Every now and then I come across a place in my travels that so impresses or delights me that I vow to put it on my “let's go there again” list and recommend it to family, friends, and readers. Such a place was The Clocktower Restaurant & Bar at 27 W. Beverley Street in historic downtown Staunton, Virginia.

Please note: “was” is the operative word here.

When my wife and I visited The Clocktower about a year ago, we were absolutely captivated by the place. Located in the trendy downtown area of a small Virginia college town otherwise known as the birthplace of both President Woodrow Wilson and the Statler Brothers, the Google listing said: “Circa-1890 clock tower with a retro interior is the locale for Italian eats, sandwiches & drinks.” Sounded like our kind of place. And it was. The atmosphere was delightful, the service was friendly and efficient, and the food was superb. We immediately added The Clocktower to the aforementioned return and recommend list.

Alas, The Clocktower's time on that list has run out.

My son and his family were traveling through that part of Virginia the other day. They were overnighting in nearby Verona and my wife and I arranged to drive over to meet them. We had only a limited time to visit. Basically we were making a nearly four hundred mile round trip in order to have dinner with my son, his wife and her parents, and our four grandchildren. We raved about The Clocktower, just fifteen minutes or so down the road from where they were staying, so we all caravanned over to Staunton for a memorable dining experience. Well.....it was memorable alright.

The Google listing still touts The Clocktower as “the locale for Italian eats, sandwiches & drinks.” Don't believe a word of it. The place is about as Italian as Rome.....Georgia! No more four-cheese ravioli al forno. Ciao ciao homemade baked lasagne. No chicken parm, no chicken marsala, no “pastabilities” where you could create you own pasta dish from their selection of housemade pastas and sauces. All the delectable Italian dishes my wife and I had so enjoyed a year previous were gone, replaced by a pedestrian assortment of “pub grub” offerings. (Sigh) But we had come all that way, so we decided to see it through.

The waitress was perky and friendly and quite clueless. My son's father-in-law ordered a “Seven & Seven” from the bar for his wife and drew a totally blank look from the server. He explained it and then ordered a particular whiskey and Coke for himself. The server returned to inform him that the bar did not stock his brand and offered a substitute whiskey instead. When his drink arrived, it was a whiskey on the rocks with no Coke. The girl must have had a thing about ice because my wife's sweet tea, which she had ordered with no ice, came in a glass full of ice.

We had lots of time to contemplate the new menu; it was about fifteen minutes before anybody showed up to take our orders. That was another thing: in addition to being perky, friendly, and clueless, our server was also largely invisible. And it wasn't because the joint was jumping. There were only six other patrons seated at two tables when we arrived and they had already been served.

The kids got macaroni and cheese and French fries from the kid's menu. The rest of us ordered a variety of burgers, sandwiches, and fairly simple stuff. My wife opted for a “deconstructed shepherd's pie” while the in-laws chose to split a nominally Italian-American chicken and broccoli fettuccine Alfredo. And since no decent Italian would deliberately adulterate good pasta with chicken or broccoli, I chose to get just plain fettuccine Alfredo (which in and of itself is not truly Italian, but that's another story.)

The kid's stuff was out in about ten minutes. And it arrived with an extra ingredient. Fortunately, someone spotted the long strand of.....something......hanging from my granddaughter's fork before it made it to her mouth. It was too thick to be a hair. We didn't really know what it was. And there was nobody around to ask. I finally put the offending substance on a napkin and took it over to the bartender, the only staff person in evidence. A few minutes later, the manager/co-owner came out of the kitchen and apologetically informed us that they had identified the object as a thread from an apron. And they, of course, replaced the dish.

Good thing, too, because over the course of the next forty-five or fifty minutes, we adults were staving off starvation by snitching fries off the kid's plates. Yeah. You read that right. Nearly an hour for a burger, a sandwich, a “deconstructed shepherd's pie,” and a couple of pasta dishes. As the numerous clocks festooning the walls ticked inexorably through the minutes toward that one hour mark and as we hungrily contemplated the kid's leftovers, the food finally arrived. When I semi-seriously noted that my wife and I were cooks and that we were about to head back to the kitchen to lend a hand, I was told that there was only one cook on duty, the other having been dismissed earlier in anticipation of a slow night.

I guess this would be a good point to bring up a fact I discovered too late to save the evening. It seems that immediately after the wonderful visit my wife and I enjoyed last year, the building and the business were sold. The restaurant operation has been taken over by a triumvirate of people who have no restaurant background and who have admitted to experiencing a “learning curve.” It seems they want to "spruce up the place, add a couple of new dishes, and start a new legacy." Pssssst! Lousy start.

On the plus side, the food was good. Other than the extra fiber in the macaroni and cheese, nobody had any complaints and everybody cleaned their plates. We even ordered some desserts: a couple of decent cannoli and a gargantuan hunk of chocolate cake that probably would have fed the whole party.

So here's the bottom line: if you want Italian food in Staunton, Virginia, you ain't gonna get it at The Clocktower. If you want fast food in Staunton, Virginia, you ain't gonna get it at The Clocktower. If you want perky, friendly, clueless, and largely invisible waitstaff, that they've got at The Clocktower, along with good food that isn't anything to write songs about.

For what it's worth, The Clocktower is located at 27 W. Beverley Street in downtown Staunton. Dress is casual, reservations are not required and parking is onstreet. They're open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 8 a.m. until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday. Call them at 540-213-0665 or visit their website at https://clocktowerstaunton.com

Buon appetito......e buona fortuna.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

If You're Not Using Kerrygold Butter, You Should Be


Banned In Boston? No, But Once Proscribed in Pewaukee

Anybody who has ever read anything I've written on the subject knows of my “love/hate” relationship with butter and margarine: I love butter and I hate margarine. It's not just because rich, creamy, delicious butter and I are both products of America's Dairyland. No, it's because margarine was developed by a nineteenth century French chemist as a cheap, artificial substitute for butter. And to me it still remains just that: a cheap, artificial substitute with all the taste, appeal, and nutritional value of the plastic tubs in which it is often sold. Blecchh!

In the interest of transparency I must admit there is a dark side to my history with margarine: My father bootlegged the vile stuff back in the 1950s. Yes, it's true. Oh, the shame of it! Now you're probably asking, “Huh? How do you 'bootleg' margarine?” Well, in the time and place I was born (Wisconsin in the '50s) margarine was illegal. You couldn't buy or sell it in stores. So my dad decided to supplement his income by emulating his father who ran moonshine back in the 1920s. He began taking orders from friends and family during the week and then drove over the nearby state line into Illinois on weekends where he'd load up the trunk of his car with contraband margarine – yellow dye packets and all – and sneak it back into the Dairy State. (Grandpa eventually got busted. Dad didn't.)

You know, I live in the South now and I have a hard time getting any traction with tales of my grandfather's bootlegging back in the '20s. Not when the person with whom I'm speaking probably has relatives who ran 'shine sometime last week. But when I tell them about my dad burning up the Midwest's version of Thunder Road with the trunk of his '56 Chevy Bel-Air loaded down with hot margarine.....well, that's deserving of instant street cred. But I digress.

I use butter for everything. Wait......as “Last Tango In Paris” comes to mind, let me rephrase that. (If you don't get it, Google it.) I use butter for any and all culinary purposes. I cook with it, bake with it, and use it exclusively at the table. Margarine has no place in my kitchen. No, I take that back: it might be good for greasing squeaky cabinet hinges. And I'm really picky about the butter I use. For decades I eschewed generic or store brand butters, refusing to subscribe to the erroneous “butter is butter” philosophy as I reached instead for “top shelf” brands like “Land O' Lakes” or “Challenge.” And then I discovered Kerrygold Irish Butter.

Kerrygold has been around in Ireland since the early sixties but its arrival on American shores came much later. In light of my previous allusion to the thriving margarine industry in Illinois, it's ironic that Kerrygold's introduction to the American market came through the Land of Lincoln in 1998. It was a tiny order but company officials in Dublin saw it as an opportunity to stick a foot in the door. And from that insignificant order of an exotic novelty product that was originally purchased to tie in to St. Patrick's Day, Kerrygold today sells a whopping twenty-three thousand tons of its product in the US every year, making it the country's second-best-selling butter brand, right behind the aforementioned Land O' Lakes and right up there with Challenge.

Is Kerrygold expensive? Damn skippy! About twice as much per pound as generic store brand butter. But you get what you pay for, right? And when it comes to taste, texture, and overall quality, Kerrygold is worth every nickel. Why? Glad you asked.

Kerrygold is a European-style butter (duh!). As such it has a higher butterfat content than typical American butter. Eighty-two percent to be exact. This higher butterfat translates into richer, creamier texture. Kerrygold butter also comes from the milk of grass-fed cows that are free of growth hormones. Why is “grass-fed” a big deal? Grass-fed butter contains five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than butter made from the milk of grain-fed cows. This is a thing because some studies indicate that CLA can effect numerous health benefits, including varying degrees of fat loss, in humans. Butter from grass-fed cows is also much higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin K2 when compared to butter from grain-fed cows. Of course, anything free of added growth hormones is always a good thing. And besides all the healthy stuff, butter from grass-fed cow's milk just tastes better.

Now, some ninnywhiners will protest that Kerrygold cows are not “100 percent” grass-fed. Puh-leese! About two-thirds of the land in Ireland is farmland and about eighty percent of that is lush, green grassland, the result of year-round temperate weather and moisture-bearing southwest winds. That's where the whole “Emerald Isle” thing comes from, you know? But it's not all sunshine and unicorns when it comes to the weather in Ireland, so those frolicking Friesian cows occasionally have to eat something other than fresh grass. They can graze to their stomach's content for up to three-hundred-twelve days a year on average, longer than just about any other cows in the world. But for the other fifty-three or so days, their diets have to be supplemented with silage. Big whoop. That's close enough to “grass-fed” for me.

The higher butterfat that gives Kerrygold its rich texture and appealing golden yellow color is also a baker's dream. Higher butterfat means less water content which means one very important thing when it comes to baking: flakiness, especially in pie crusts and pastries.

And, of course, as I mentioned, there's the taste factor. Coming as I do from dairy country, I know what butter is supposed to taste like. When my grandfather wasn't busy running a still, his regular job was as a butter maker at a local creamery. I've made my share of the stuff by hand-churning a little cream and adding a pinch of salt. Margarine's entirely bogus claims aside, nothing tastes better than fresh butter. American butter, even “the good stuff,” has suffered over the years as cost-saving, corner-cutting measures and cheaper ingredients have dulled the flavor. Not so with Kerrygold. It's still the real deal, made in the traditional manner. Folks in Ireland laugh when they hear Americans going gaga over the wonderful taste and quality of “fancy” Irish butter. It's just butter to them, the way it's always been. But don't take my word for it: try it for yourself. If you can't immediately taste the difference, drop me a line and I'll help set you up for a taste bud transplant.

Unfortunately, I don't generally use Kerrygold for everything in the kitchen. It's too expensive for commercial or restaurant cooking. Kerrygold doesn't sell in bulk quantities. I can't just nip over to the restaurant supply place and get it any cheaper than you can buy it at Walmart or wherever. I know professional cooks, myself included, who would love to use Kerrygold exclusively, but.......$$$. Like it or not, in the restaurant world, fewer dollars make more sense. So for commercial cooking, I rely on another “European-style” butter, Plugra. “Plugra” derives its name from the French “plus gras” or “more fat.” And it does, indeed, have a higher butterfat content than its common American cousins. BUT.....note the “European-STYLE” designation. Plugra may be European in style, but it's made in America by an American dairy consortium from milk produced by American dairy cows. By their own admission, “Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. is a member owned cooperative of more than 10,000 dairy farmers in 48 states. Currently, the milk and cream used to make our butter does not come solely from dairy farmers who certify that their cows are not being treated with rbST or artificial growth hormones.” (Thanks to blogging Chef Rob Endelman for that tidbit.) Still and all, it's a higher quality product than most other American offerings and I can just nip over to the restaurant supply place and buy it cheaper than you can at Walmart or wherever. But it still pales – literally and figuratively – in comparison to Kerrygold.

One thing I found really amusing about Kerrygold: up until very recently, it was illegal in Wisconsin. There are still laws defining, outlining, and restricting the use of butter and margarine in America's Dairyland. One of them, Wisconsin statute 97.176, originally enacted in 1953, pertains to the grading of butter at the state level by a “highly trained grader” on the basis of numerous flavor, body, color, and salt characteristics. This “graded” butter then was allowed to carry an official Wisconsin stamp of approval for sale within the state's borders. If you got caught selling unstamped or ungraded butter, you were looking at fines of between a hundred and a thousand dollars and six months in jail. The purpose, of course, was to protect local commercial product by freezing out artisanal and foreign competition. The statute wasn't much of a big deal and was pretty much overlooked and unenforced for decades. That is until ungraded, unstamped, foreign, and enormously popular Kerrygold came along. In 2015, somebody in Madison remembered the old law and outlawed Kerrygold, forcing consumers who wanted it to obtain it by less than strictly legal means. In other words, they had to bootleg it from Illinois and other neighboring states. My dad – gone now these many years – would have loved it. So in 2015, it was legal to sell margarine in Wisconsin, but not Irish butter. Lawsuits flew, but ultimately Ornua, the folks who make Kerrygold, agreed to comply with the state's draconian grading measures, and the golden butter in the golden foil wrapper made a welcome return to local store shelves.

Find out what the fuss is all about and go get some Kerrygold Irish Butter today. It comes in both salted and unsalted varieties and is available in stores nationwide – even in Wisconsin.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

All About Macaroni & Cheese


Stuck A Feather In His Cap And Called It Macaroni

Easily one of America's favorite comfort foods, macaroni and cheese is certainly one of mine. I learned how to make it at the age of seven or eight and I've been turning it out on a regular basis ever since. Of course, in those callow days of youth I did what almost everybody else did in the 1960s: I opened up the blue box from Kraft, poured the pasta into boiling water, cooked it for the prescribed amount of time, drained it and then mixed in a little butter, a little milk and that packet of unnatural orange “cheese” powder.

My infatuation with the dish ramped up when I discovered Stouffer's frozen macaroni and cheese sometime in the late '60s. Wow! Goodbye blue box, hello red one! Talk about macaroni and cheese at the next level! Believe me, I've since learned much better ways of making macaroni and cheese. But even so, there still lurk in my pantry and freezer microwavable cups of Easy Mac and a box or two of Stouffer's. So sue me. Three-and-a-half to six minutes and I'm transported back more than a half-century to Mom's kitchen and the familiar tastes I grew up with. Or, at least, reasonable facsimiles thereof.

But how did we all come to be so enamored of macaroni and cheese in the first place? Hold on as I guide you through a culinary journey with more twists than cavatappi.

Macaroni and cheese has its roots in Italy. In fact, there's an Italian idiom for things that go together naturally: “come il cacio su'maccheroni” (like cheese on macaroni). But the creamy, cheddary version we serve in the United States is practically unknown in Italy. When Italian cooks put “cheese on macaroni,” it's generally Parmigiano-Reggiano or asiago or pecorino or some other Italian cheese. Cheddar and American cheeses are not particularly popular.

The earliest known reference to the dish in Italy dates back to a late thirteenth century cookbook, anonymously authored in Latin, Liber de coquina. In it we find a recipe for de lasanis, which many consider to be the first “macaroni and cheese” recipe. The recipe employed lasagne sheets made from fermented dough, cut into two-inch squares, cooked in water and tossed with grated cheese, probably the aforementioned Parmigiano-Reggiano. The recipe's author suggested using powdered spices and layering the sheets with the cheese if desired, just as we would today when making lasagne.

According to the famous fourteenth century English cookbook, the Forme of Cury, a cheese and pasta casserole known as makerouns was made with hand-cut pasta layers sandwiched between a mixture of melted butter and cheese.

The first recipe that we would recognize as macaroni and cheese was included in Elizabeth Raffald's 1770 book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. That recipe calls for a Béchamel sauce with cheddar cheese – technically a Mornay sauce if you want to be all French about it – which is mixed with the macaroni, sprinkled with Parmesan, and baked until bubbly and golden.

They even had macaroni and cheese in France in the late eighteenth century. And why not? The Italian chefs of Caterina de Medici did teach the French to cook, after all. (I know, I know! That's a myth. But it's a fun myth because it annoys the French.) Anyway, the most popular story of how macaroni and cheese crossed the ocean to American shores involves Paris, Naples, and the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

The story goes that Jefferson visited France and Italy in 1787. Basing in Paris, he traveled extensively through the south of France and Italy, writing to his friend and ambassador to Paris William Short, “architecture, painting, sculpture, antiquities, agriculture, the condition of the labouring poor fill all my moments.” Well, maybe not all of them. He also closely observed the local culture, including, of course, food and wine. Jefferson became enamored of the pasta dishes he encountered in his journeys. In 1789, he commissioned Short to purchase a pasta making machine for him. Short acquired one in Naples and had it shipped to Paris. Jefferson likely returned home before the machine reached him, but it was inventoried among his possessions at Monticello in 1793. There the soon-to-be president drew sketches of his favorite pastas and the device that made them and wrote detailed notes on the extrusion process as he observed it in his travels. Evidently, the machine he ordered did not meet his requirements as he later was known to import both macaroni and Parmesan cheese from Italy for his use at Monticello. In 1802, now-President Jefferson served “a pie called macaroni” at a state dinner. At least one of the guests, Rev. Mannaseh Cutler, was not impressed. “Dined at the President's... Dinner not as elegant as when we dined before. [Among other dishes] a pie called macaroni, which appeared to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions, or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and not agreeable. Mr. [Merriwether] Lewis told me there were none in it; it was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions was made of flour and butter, with a particularly strong liquor mixed with them.”

Some like to say that Jefferson “introduced” macaroni and cheese to America, and that's not quite accurate. As noted, there were recipes for variations circulating as early as 1770. But his affection for the dish certainly helped popularize it among his countrymen. He even wrote out a favorite macaroni recipe in his own hand:

6 eggs. yolks & whites.
2 wine glasses of milk
2 lb of flour
a little salt
work them together without water, and very well.
roll it then with a roller to a paper thickness
cut it into small peices which roll again with the hand into long slips, & then cut them to a proper length.
put them into warm water a quarter of an hour.
drain them.
dress them as maccaroni.
but if they are intended for soups they are to be put in the soup & not into warm water

Note the instruction “dress them as maccaroni.” Before we move on, let's take a second to look at “macaroni.”

When we think of “macaroni” today we usually think of the familiar “elbows,” right? But up until fairly recent times, the word “macaroni,” the plural form of the Italian “maccherone,” used to apply to pretty much any form of pasta, especially the short tubular varieties. While each individual shape may have had its own individual name, collectively it was all “macaroni.” And the word didn't always apply only to pasta. In eighteenth century Britain, anybody seen to be dandified or overdressed in foppish Italian fashions and wigs was derisively referred to as a “macaroni.” You didn't really think the old “Yankee Doodle” line “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” was talking about pasta, did you? (If you did you wouldn't be alone.)

Although American macaroni and cheese started out as a novelty dish for the well-to-do seated at the Presidential table, it didn't take long for its popularity to spread to the masses. A recipe for a preparation actually called “macaroni and cheese” showed up in Mary Randolph's highly influential 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. Randolph's recipe called for three ingredients: macaroni, cheese, and butter, layered together and baked in a hot oven. Other recipes began to appear in popular publications such as Godey's Lady's Book. By the turn of the century, macaroni and cheese casseroles were being turned out in kitchens across America, aided by readily available and affordable ingredients made possible by factory production. And as macaroni and cheese became “common,” it lost its cachet among the elite.

Even though macaroni and cheese was now accessible, it still wasn't necessarily popular. It had not yet achieved the “comfort food” status it currently holds. That came along thanks to Kraft.

In the midst of the Great Depression, when Americans were seeking food options that were filling but affordable, Kraft Foods stepped up to the plate – no pun intended. James Lewis “J.L.” Kraft had pioneered the method for “processing” and powdering cheese around 1916. According to Sasha Chapman, writing in The Walrus in 2012, “The idea for boxed macaroni and cheese came during the Depression, from a salesman in St. Louis who wrapped rubber bands around packets of grated Kraft cheese and boxes of pasta and persuaded retailers to sell them as a unit.” Kraft started producing boxes of macaroni and cheese under the name “Kraft Dinner” in 1937. The contents of the box – a measured amount of pasta and a paper packet of powdered cheese – could feed a family of four for about nineteen cents. Kraft sold eight million boxes right out of the box. Again, no pun intended. This convenience and economy became increasingly popular a few years later when WWII rationing began to pinch family budgets and food options. Fifty million yellow boxes of Kraft's product were sold during the war years. The now ubiquitous blue boxes came into being in 1954, by which time “Kraft” and “macaroni and cheese” were practically synonymous.

Frozen foods began to make inroads into the dominance of canned and packaged goods about that same time, and macaroni and cheese proved to be an instant hit in the freezer case. My favorite, the previously mentioned Stouffer's, began appearing in select grocery outlets in the early 1960s and expanded to a more general market as the decade progressed. Originally developed by an Ohio-based restaurant, Stouffer's was initially considered a “high end” product, but by the end of the decade it was showing up in stores and on dinner tables across the board. Swanson's also marketed frozen macaroni and cheese as did numerous other manufacturers, including Boston Market and Amy's, but Stouffer's was always somehow a cut above. Sadly, Stouffer's has been bought and sold a couple of times over the years and the quality of the product has suffered significantly. It just doesn't taste the same anymore. It lacks that fresh, sharp cheddar flavor it had before the company started cheaping up on ingredients. But take heart! Believe it or not, the macaroni and cheese served at IKEA tastes almost like Stouffer's used to.

Today, macaroni and cheese – often abhorrently abbreviated to “mac & cheese” – is everywhere in many forms. The old blue box is still on store shelves along with its microwavable counterpart. Chef Boyardee puts macaroni and cheese in cans. Frozen product, from individual serving cups up through ginormous “family size” packages, competes for freezer space everywhere from the supermarket to the big box discount place to the corner convenience store. And more and more cooks are eschewing the frozen, canned, and packaged options in favor of returning to the dish's traditional roots: cook the pasta, make the cheese sauce, serve the dish hot and fresh to grateful eaters.

There are even food trucks and restaurants serving nothing but variations on macaroni and cheese. Take for example S'Mac (short for Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese) in Manhattan's East Village. It bills itself as “an exciting eatery specializing in macaroni & cheese.” I ate at another such place, Mr. Mac's in Portsmouth, NH. Mr. Mac's – with several locations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts – lays claim to “the best comfort food on the planet, with fresh ingredients all made hot and delicious to order. Perfect family dining, or to-go!” Indeed, we picked up one of their “take and bake” family-size portions for our holiday dinner table and it was quite good. On the other coast, Elbow's Mac N' Cheese serves “the best mac n' cheese” along with another of my favorites, grilled cheese sandwiches. But, darn, they use that unfortunate abbreviation.

Along with the eateries dedicated only to macaroni and cheese, there are tons of places that are famous for featuring the dish as part of their menu. Some are even infamous, a word used to describe the macaroni and cheese at Humpback Sally's in Bismarck, ND. Boston's Yankee Lobster Company serves a rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, studded with lobster plucked from ocean-fed aquariums on site. And Beecher's Handmade Cheese in Seattle proclaims it has the “World's Best Mac and Cheese.” Maybe, but there's that abbreviation again and besides, IKEA might give them a run for the title.

And if none of those float your boat, go out and get the following ingredients at your local supermarket: macaroni, cheese, milk, and butter. Macaroni and cheese is one of the most stupid simple, entry-level cooking dishes in the culinary world. As with everything else, if you want it to taste like one of those fancy high-end dishes, use the best quality ingredients. If you don't care that it tastes like something out of a box or a can, use cheap ingredients. It's up to you. There's no reason you can't make your own and then customize it to make it your own. My wife likes Velveeta as the primary cheese; I use sharp cheddar in mine. She uses milk, I use milk and cream or half-and-half. We both agree – as do experienced cooks everywhere – that butter is the only way to go. The only use margarine should have in your kitchen is perhaps to grease the hinges on your cabinet doors. And, of course, use the best pasta you can find. De Cecco or Barilla are the best supermarket choices if you don't happen to live next door to an Italian market. As for the method of preparation, that's up to you, too. My wife's not big on baked macaroni and cheese. She prefers to make it on the stovetop. Okay by me. As long as there's macaroni and cheese in it, I like it either way.

Oh, and remember, macaroni is pasta and the only way to properly cook pasta is in lots of water with lots of salt. Doesn't matter if you use imported European butter and organic milk and artisan cheese that costs twenty dollars a pound in the sauce, if your pasta lacks flavor – flavor it can only get from being cooked in aggressively salted water – you might as well be eating the stuff out of the can or the box.

You'll have to excuse me now: I'm really hungry all of a sudden.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio: A Quick, Easy and Delicious Italian Go To Recipe


A Delicious And Deliciously Simple Dish

(Author's Note: After I finished writing this post I came across one of those articles on Buzzfeed wherein millennials vent their spleen about things that bother them. Turns out one of those things is “food bloggers writing their life story before finally getting to the damn recipe.” If you are one of those so offended, I apologize. I'm old and I can't help it if I have a lot of “life story” to tell, so please skip the next three paragraphs.)

My wife and I recently took some new friends to one of our favorite Italian restaurants. Typical of most “Italian” restaurants in America, it serves unrealistically huge portions of the expected Italian-American fare. The difference is the family that owns this place is right out of Napoli. Everybody has dual citizenship and they all make frequent trips back and forth. They are what you might call “real deal” Italian cooks, not just second or third generation Italian-Americans passing down their nonna's recipes. Sadly, they cook what they cook the way they cook it because they have to in order to stay in business. “If I cook like I cook at home,” the owner says, “people would just go to Olive Garden.”

They cook differently for me because, as they often say, I “appreciate the food” and I “get” what they are doing. They know that I know the difference, for example, between perfectly al dente pasta and the overcooked mush they have to serve to satisfy American palates raised on Chef Boyardee. And I don't get portions piled high enough to feed a football team. They don't serve me the same pizza they put out for other customers: I get crust and toppings like they use at home. And they take special care with other dishes, too, adding little extras and authentic touches. Such was the case with the spaghetti aglio e olio I ordered when we took our Olive Garden-loving friends for their first visit to a real Italian restaurant.

When I ordered the aglio e olio, my friend asked me what it was. Thought to have originally developed in Abruzzo, spaghetti aglio e olio is a delicious and deliciously simple dish popular all over Italy. Consisting at its most basic of pasta dressed in a light “sauce” of garlic and olive oil, aglio e olio is often found on Italian restaurant menus in America, my favorite place included. My friend decided to give it a try and I told him he was in for a treat because I knew the kitchen would do it up right for me and my guests. We were not disappointed.

Spaghetti aglio e olio is something you can easily make at home. It's one of those dishes that's perfect when unexpected company drops by or when you just don't feel like fussing with a more elaborate dish. As long as you've got the four basic ingredients – pasta, garlic, olive oil, and peperoncino – on hand, you've got a quick, easy meal. In a pinch, you can even do it without the peperoncino – aka dried red pepper flakes.

Here's what you need:

1 lb spaghetti
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 to 1 ½ tsp peperoncino (red pepper flakes), to taste
2 or 3 tbsp chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Reserved pasta water, as needed

And here's what you do:

Bring a large pot of aggressively salted water to a boil and add the spaghetti. Cook to al dente, usually a minute or two less than the package directions recommend.


As the pasta cooks, in a large frying pan over medium-low heat, heat the oil and gently sauté the garlic until it is barely golden. Do not let it brown or it will taste bitter. Season with salt and pepper. Add red pepper flakes. Remove from the heat and set aside until the pasta is ready.

Drain the pasta when it is barely al dente, reserving about a cup of the pasta cooking water. Tip the drained spaghetti into the pan with the oil and garlic mixture, and cook together for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring well to coat with the sauce and to allow the flavors to marry. Add reserved pasta water as needed to further develop the sauce. Garnish with basil and serve at once in warmed serving bowls.

Serves 4 to 6

That's the recipe, now here are the notes.

Don't cheap up on ingredients. The heart and soul of Italian cooking is quality. If you buy cheap ingredients you're going to wind up with a cheap tasting dish. Spring for the De Cecco or Barilla pasta instead of the store brand or the dollar store stuff. There is a difference and you'll taste it. Same goes for the olive oil. Don't use “light” oil and don't use the stuff that comes in clear bottles and sells for five dollars a gallon. Invest in a decent extra-virgin oil and you'll get decent results.

Aggressively salted” are words to live by when it comes to pasta. Don't drop a pinch of salt into a gallon of water and think you're cooking “healthier.” Pasta needs to absorb salt during cooking. It's the only way pasta has to get any flavor. And whatever salt it doesn't absorb will just pour off down the sink when you drain it. It's not going to go directly to your arteries and turn them to stone.Use at least two or three tablespoons of salt for a gallon of water.

Cook the pasta al dente. This means the outside should be tender but there should still be a little “bite” in the center. Sometimes when you're cooking pasta for a dish with a heavier sauce, you can get by with overcooking it a bit. Not here. This pasta is going to be nearly naked and you won't be able to hide the fact that it's badly cooked.

Chop the garlic as finely as you like it. If you don't mind little chunks, a coarser chop is fine. Otherwise, mince it down.

Peperoncino is an acquired taste for some people. My wife has never acquired it and I have to be careful when sneaking it into the dishes I serve her. It's a fairly important component in this dish, but adjust according to your tolerance for heat. You can leave it out altogether if you wish, but doing so will alter the flavor profile.

I like basil in this preparation. Sometimes I add it to the oil to infuse the flavor and sometimes I just garnish with it. Sometimes I do both. You can leave it out altogether if you wish, but.......you know the rest.

Finally, as with any pasta dish, it is imperative to finish the pasta in the sauce. Don't try to dump the sauce over the top and stir it in. It won't work and you'll wind up with greasy pasta.

Spaghetti aglio e olio is a bel piatto perfect for any occasion. Try it tonight.

Buon appetito!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Review: Bobby's Burger Palace, Potomac Mills Mall, Woodbridge, Virginia


I'd Go There Again

Okay, so I'm not like a really close personal friend of Bobby Flay's. I don't have his number on speed dial on my phone. (Although I do have a few pictures of him on it!) I have met him at industry events (hence the pictures) and have spent a little time talking food and cooking with him. Anyway, when I spotted a “Bobby's Burger Palace” at the mall near my hotel in the Washington, DC suburb of Woodbridge, Virginia, I figured, “Bobby's place? Why not?” And my wife and I went on over there for dinner.

Even a few days after Christmas, the parking lot of the super-busy Potomac Mills Mall was packed. My wife had driven us over from the hotel and she suggested I hop out and get a table while she found a place to park.

First off, there's no “getting a table:” the place is counter service and all the tables are communal. Surprisingly, considering the overall volume at the mall, Bobby's wasn't particularly busy at 6:30 or so on a chilly, rainy Thursday night. There was one couple in line in front of us, three more people came in after us, and there were perhaps eight or ten other customers seated at tables around the restaurant. As I said, all tables are communal, so if you're looking for a place for a romantic interlude or even for quiet personal conversation, don't look here. Unless you don't mind sharing your thoughts with the strangers sitting across the table or seated beside you. More on that in a second, but picture having an intimate dining experience at a Waffle House service counter. Get the idea?

But hey! It's a burger joint. It's described in published literature as an “upscale fast casual restaurant” and I can get behind that description. The location, the ambiance, and the menu are definitely a cut above, say, “What-a-Burger” or “Five Guys.” But all in all, it is what it is: it's an “upscale” burger joint. Just as Bobby Flay intended.

Bobby Flay has come up through the ranks. From age ten when he asked for an Easy Bake oven for Christmas to the French Culinary Institute to his work with Jonathan Waxman and Jerome Kretchmer to helming the kitchens at Mesa Grill, Bolo Bar & Restaurant, Bar Americain, and Bobby Flay Steak, Bobby has circulated in the upper atmosphere of the culinary world for many years. Back in 2008, he decided he wanted to work a little closer to the ground: to bring a touch of the “fine dining” experience to the more common market. Bobby says, “Food is the epicenter of my life – what inspires me every day. It’s the way I make my living, the way I relax, the way I express myself and how I keep healthy. I want to share that passion with as many people as possible.” And since one of his favorite things to eat and cook is a burger, the first “Bobby's Burger Palace” opened at Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, Long Island in July of that year. The location where we dined is one of nineteen now spread across eleven states and the DC area.

The menu is pretty simple and straighforward. There are about a dozen sandwiches on offer, including a veggie burger and an adult “griddled cheese.” You can choose your meats from among beef, turkey, and chicken and opt for add-ons of bacon, fried egg, or double meat. You can have your burger “crunchified” – topped with crispy potato chips – at no extra cost. Hand cut fries, sweet potato fries and buttermilk onion rings round out the menu. BBP also features a selection of “spoon bending” shakes in a variety of flavors. Unlike your run of the mill burger stands, BBP serves beer, wine, and frozen margaritas as well as the usual assortment of soft drinks.

My burger-loving wife went with the Palace Classic Burger. She also ordered one of those signature shakes, the vanilla bean one. Heretical though it may seem, I'm not a burger guy. I'm part Italian. I like food that ends in vowels. But the Griddled Cheese looked appealing, so I ordered one. The food was outstanding. My wife found her burger to be completely drool worthy and even the “griddled” cheese was way above average. The fries were perfect and the portions more than adequate. And the prices were ridiculously reasonable. It didn't cost us any more to eat “upscale” fare at Bobby's place than it would have had we gone to the Five Guys down the road.

The only thing that gave us pause was the service. It was kinda slow for the relatively low volume of business. Now I don't know that the kitchen may not have been snowed under with call-in orders or something, but they seemed to have a hard time getting food out to the dining room in a timely manner. It's an open kitchen so you can see what's going on back there, and to our trained eyes it looked like the flow could have been a little smoother and the service a bit faster. The ticket time on our order was nearly thirty minutes. Now that's about industry average for an an entree at an “upscale” fast casual joint, but considering the aforementioned Five Guys boasts a seven to eight minute ticket time for the same order...... well......it just seemed a little long for a burger and fries. And my wife's shake arrived a full five minutes after her burger had been served.

And call me anti-social but I'm not so much on the seating concept. My wife and I sat across from one another near the end of one of the long tables. We were quietly discussing the events of our days when a party of three women seated themselves immediately to my wife's right, leaving one or two seats between. So now you've got five people at a ten or twelve-top, four on one side and one on the other. As the newcomers started their conversation it kinda put a damper on ours. Communal tables are great for large parties of friends or family. But two groups of strangers sitting elbow to elbow? Not so much.

Be that as it may, would I go back to another Bobby's Burger Palace? Sure. I'd definitely go there again, especially now that I know what to expect. The place was scrupulously clean, the atmosphere was pleasant, the service was friendly if a bit slow, the food was delicious, and the price was right. Overall, it was a great experience and one I'd recommend – with certain caveats – to anybody looking for a nice “upscale fast casual restaurant.”

The BBP I went to is located at 2700 Potomac Mills Circle, Woodbridge, VA 22192. They're open Sunday thru Thursday from 11AM to 9PM, and on Friday and Saturday from 11AM to 10PM. You can call them at (703) 490-2121. No reservations. Casual attire. Ample parking. Call-in and online ordering are available. The Potomac Mills location partners with Doordash for delivery. Find more locations at http://bobbysburgerpalace.com/locations


Monday, January 7, 2019

Germophobes Beware: Your Favorite Restaurant Is Trying To Kill You


Health Inspectors Are Good, But........

I'm kind of a clean freak. I admit it and I come by it honestly. My mother was the Queen of Clean. Germs didn't stand a chance anywhere in my mother's house. She dusted, vacuumed, scrubbed, and scoured from dawn 'til dusk. She entombed everything in plastic and sanitized each and every surface she encountered. There was never a speck of dust on a shelf or a knickknack, never a streak on a window or mirror, and nary a grease or water spot anywhere in the kitchen. Never mind the old “five second rule”: my mother's floors were so clean that if you ever dropped anything on them you could just sit down with a knife and fork and eat it where it lay. I'm not sure but I think stocks in Lysol and Clorox fell dramatically the day she died. I'm not quite that OCD, but the acorn didn't fall far from the tree. So how I wound up involved in food service is a mystery to me. Like it or not, restaurants are nasty, dirty places.

You see, cooking is not a clean process. There's lots of dirt, grease, blood and other things you'd probably rather not think about involved in the transformation of raw foodstuffs into the tasty morsels you ingest. Now I'm not saying the food you're being served in restaurants is nasty, dirty, or in any way unsafe. That's why we have health inspectors and why in most states you'll see letter or number grades posted in eating establishments to reassure you that local health departments are on the job. Trust me, those of us who have inhabited commercial kitchens over the years come to cringe and cower when we see health inspectors come through the door because we know they're going to do their damnedest to find something wrong. And to your benefit they often do and they hold us accountable for fixing it.

Are the people preparing your food practicing safe techniques? Are they wearing gloves? Are their heads covered to prevent hair from falling into your salad? Did you know that most jurisdictions even regulate how kitchen employees drink? Yep. Food workers have to drink from lidded containers with a straw and said containers have to be kept away from food prep areas. Why? To prevent the possibility of your food being contaminated by droplets of employee saliva. And an establishment's lower number or letter grade might not be the result of a direct food preparation issue. I got dinged by an inspector once because somebody had inexplicably wrapped a small piece of duct tape around the faucet at a handwash sink. Duct tape does not make for a smooth, easily cleanable surface and hence can't be used in a restaurant kitchen.

Yep, health inspectors are good. But for all the myriad things they inspect for, there are a number of things they overlook. And those are the things that are gonna getcha if you're a dedicated germophobe.

You know what the Number One Dirtiest Thing In A Restaurant is? Study after study have shown it to be the menu. Think about it. Or don't, if you prefer. How many filthy, dirty, grimy, nasty hands have handled that menu you're holding? Hands that have done things and been places you really don't want to consider just before eating. Sure, the signs say employees are required to wash their hands after using the bathroom, but patrons? Not so much. What about the dog groomer or the sanitation worker who “forgot” to wash their hands when they left work? And there's always some cute little toddler or infant who has chewed on or otherwise spread snot all over the entire surface you're now touching. Was Typhoid Mary the last person to order from your menu? The Journal of Medical Virology reports that cold and flu viruses can survive for eighteen hours on hard surfaces. Has that menu been dropped on the floor? Probably. And the places those menus are often stored aren't exactly NASA clean rooms, you know? Studies have shown you have a better chance with the restaurant's toilet seats than with the menus. At least people clean the toilets from time to time. Most eateries only give the hard cover or plastic menus a cursory wipe down as an afterthought if they bother to do it at all. And paper menus obviously never get wiped down. Good Morning America once sent an investigative team out to swab items on tables at a dozen restaurants and they found that menus averaged around 185,000 bacteria. So you don't want the menus touching your plates or silverware if you can help it and washing or sanitizing your hands after handling them is probably a good idea.

Next up on the Wheel of Sanitary Misfortune are condiment containers, especially salt and pepper shakers. C'mon, you've picked up a sticky salt shaker or two, haven't you? Ever wonder what it's sticky with? Probably better that you don't know. Sometimes if you point it out to your server, he or she might replace it with a less sticky one or at least wipe down the offending vessel with a nominally clean cloth. Granted, menus have been found to be sixteen times germier than salt and pepper shakers simply because everybody looks at menus while not everybody uses salt and pepper, but still...... Cleaning condiment containers is supposed to be a part of side work duties in most restaurants, but don't bet your health on it. Take matters into your own hands – so to speak – and use some sort of handi-wipe or sanitizer on those shakers and squeeze bottles before you transfer somebody else's nastiness to your fries.

If you get up from the table to go to the bathroom or something, don't drop your napkin onto the seat of your chair. Researchers at New York University Microbiology Department ran tests and found that seventy percent of restaurant chair seats harbored seventeen different varieties of bacteria including strains of good ol' E. coli. Nothing like wiping your mouth with germs from a stranger's butt, right?

Let's talk about those bathrooms for a minute. Health inspectors check restaurant rest rooms for overall condition and for obvious signs of neglect. But they don't stand in there and watch to make sure people wash their hands before touching the doorknob. So let's say the six uncouth heathens who used the bathroom before you all decided to say, “Oh hell. My hands are clean enough” after they did whatever they did and they exited without washing, thus depositing their germ-laden deposits on the door handle. Along comes you. You wash your hands, of course, and then you grab the handle and........you might as well not have bothered. Here's what the people who advise all us clean freaks recommend: after you've washed up and dried your hands, grab a clean paper towel and use it to open the door. Most rest rooms have a waste receptacle near the door. Toss in the towel after you've opened the door. As my wife was looking over my shoulder just now, she reminded me of a few places that have automatic kick plates that allow you open the door without touching the handle. Let's hope those catch on.

Oh, and while we're in the bathroom, have you ever thought about what you're touching when you touch the faucet handles or the soap dispenser? Ye-e-a-a-h-h-h, so make sure you wash your hands really thoroughly with the nice clean soap that came out of that nasty dispenser that I guarantee nobody ever thought to clean and sanitize when they cleaned the rest of the bathroom.

And ladies, for goodness sake don't set your purse on the bathroom floor. Most public toilets don't have lids and those that do seldom have them used. So everything that gets flushed gets partially aerosolized and deposited on the floor around the toilet. And then you carry your purse back to the dining room and maybe set it on the table while you look for something? Just. Don't.

One more item tops the list of things to avoid in most restaurants: lemon wedges. According to numerous studies, fifty to seventy percent of the lemon wedges perched on the rims of restaurant glasses contain disease-causing microbes including E. coli and other fecal bacteria. Why? For one thing, nobody washes the lemons before they're cut. There's this naïve assumption that they come into the restaurant all nice and squeaky clean. Wrong-o! They come right out the box that came right out the groves after passing through the hands of pickers and sorters who, shall we say, might be somewhat lax about the whole handwashing after using the bathroom thing? So here comes your prep person, who also may or may not have fingers you want to stick in your mouth, and they start whacking away at those lemons. The cut wedges mound up in a container and the germs just have a party getting to know one another before they're rubbed around the rim of your glass or squeezed into your beverage.

“But wait,” you say. “Aren't lemons acidic and won't that acid kill all the germs?” Not really. According to food science expert John Floros, head of the Department of Food Science at Penn State University, acidic lemon juice is unfavorable to the growth of most microbes, but it doesn’t kill them directly. And Clemson University food scientists who studied drink garnishes found that dry lemons pick up nasty bacteria thirty percent of the time. That figure rises to one hundred percent when the lemons are wet.

And speaking of the rims of those glasses, if your server hands you a glass the rim of which they have touched with their hands or fingers, ask for two things: a new glass and a manager. Servers are supposed to be trained better than that. I've nailed more than one server on this, both as a consultant and as a customer. “The top of the glass is the customer's,” I tell them. “The bottom of the glass is yours.” The rims of glasses were found the be the sixth most germy restaurant spot in the aforementioned New York University Microbiology Department research project.

Okay. Now that I've convinced you that everything in your favorite restaurant is out to kill you, go on out and enjoy dinner somewhere. Seriously. You can't live in a bubble and you can't walk around in a hazmat suit. Germs are everywhere and you can't completely avoid them. And you know what? You don't want to. Exposure to some germs helps develop a healthy immune system. But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to invite them to dine with you. They say “knowledge is power” and “forewarned is forearmed” and all that stuff, so I've tried to impart just a little forewarning and a bit of knowledge here when it comes to dining in a restaurant. What you do with it is up to you.