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 leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. More than a quarter million people all over the world have viewed the blog and that's great. But 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! I promise, I'm not going to spam anybody. I'd just like to know who's out there and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing.

Grazie mille!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Disappointing Eataly Experience

Crowded, Overpriced, And Overrated

Ever since Eataly opened in New York back in 2010, I've been jonesing to go. I don't go to New York if I can help it. In fact, I drive around the place as much as possible, not being much of a fan of traffic, tolls, and crowds. So when they opened another Eataly location in Chicago, I was really tempted to make a pilgrimage. Not that Chicago doesn't have traffic or tolls or crowds, but, having grown up in Chicagoland, I can at least deal with them a little better. Then, lo and behold, the Batali and Bastianich partnership went and opened a brand new Eataly in the Prudential Center in Boston. Hot damn! Of course, New York and Chicago are closer to where I live by one hundred and two hundred miles, respectively, but I really like Boston – especially the North End – and have occasion to travel there a couple of times a year. So Boston it shall be for my Eataly initiation!

In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, Eataly started out in Turin, Italy in 2007. Now expanding worldwide, it is a huge open Italian market containing restaurants, grocers, bakers, butchers, fishmongers, cheese mongers, pasta makers, wine merchants and just about any other form of Italian food vendor you can think of. It's basically an Italian food hall on steroids. And since I live in a little town where the only Italian ingredients readily available to me are found in the “ethnic” aisle at the grocery store, a place like Eataly is a long-held dream come true. Sadly, the dream turned out to be more of a nightmare.

I had some specific items in mind when I arrived at the Prudential Center on a frigid December afternoon. My son had asked me for some help in perfecting his pizza dough, so I wanted some 00 flour. Since we were making pizza, I also wanted San Marzano tomatoes. I was drooling over the prospect of some wonderfully crusty fresh bread that I didn't have to make myself. I had in mind a soup that uses potato gnocchi. I was also looking for some real Italian-made pasta for a nice spaghetti dinner. I love my De Cecco and Barilla, mind you, but I was hoping to find something a little less.......common. I guess. Giddy at the potential prospects ahead of us, my wife and I got out of the car in the parking garage – thankful that we didn't have to venture into the sub-zero wind chill outside – and rode the escalator up to Eataly.

Pandemonium met us.

The crowds, even at two o' clock on a Thursday afternoon, were absolutely overwhelming. You couldn't actually choose where you wanted to start; you just stepped into the wave and hoped the tide carried you in the right general direction. My wife is not exactly agoraphobic, but I could sense her growing anxiety as she was bumped, jostled, shaken and stirred by the surrounding sea of humanity. It was clear that this was not going to be a pleasant, leisurely shopping trip. It was rapidly turning into an expedition; an exercise in survival. And then there was the fire alarm.

Almost immediately after getting swept into the maelstrom, a blaring klaxon began to sound and an amplified voice informed us that a fire had been reported in a retail area. We were advised to “stand by for further information” – at least I think that's what was being said. The crowd itself raised such a din as to overpower the announcement and the alarm, which continued to jangle our already jangled nerves as the attendant warning lights flashed. This went on for what seemed like hours, although it was probably about five minutes before the piercing racket ceased and the “all clear” was announced. Welcome to Eataly.

The map I had picked up at the door was useless; standing still long enough to consult it was tantamount to suicide by trampling. Looking around “together” was impossible. We each drifted wherever the current took us, occasionally breaking free and fighting toward something of interest. I swear to God I will never again complain about shopping at Walmart.

I have no doubt they had some wonderful stuff at Eataly, but I sure as hell didn't get to see any of it. All I saw were asses and elbows. I got twisted and bent in so many directions I'm not entirely sure the asses and elbows I was seeing weren't sometimes my own. Now I'm not browsing anymore. Now I'm on a mission: find what I came for and get the hell out of here. Alas, that was not to be the case.

They had exactly one bag of “Tipo 00” flour. Priced at $6.80 for 2.2 pounds. Outrageous, but I bought it. You see, you have to take out a loan to park at the Prudential Center in the first place, but if you buy at least ten dollars' worth of merchandise within you can get your parking validated down to only fourteen dollars for the first four hours. My little bag of flour got me a little over halfway there. The two packets of two-dollar spaghetti I bought got me the rest of the way to the goal. Or I could have bought one package of the stuff with Lidia's picture on it.

San Marzano tomatoes? Oh, they were there, but I could have booked passage to Italy and picked them myself for less. Same with the bread. I could have bought two or three loaves at the panetteria at Bricco over on Hanover Street for what one would have cost me at Eataly. Gnocchi? They had it, alright. Some was made with pumpkin and they had some stuffed with all kinds of stuff, but plain ol' potato gnocchi like I needed for my simple soup? Nah. At least none that I could see as I was driven through the fresh pasta section like a steer on its way to the Dodge City stockyards.

We were hungry. A break for a bite sounded like a good idea. We stopped at a sit-down place called La Pizza e La Pasta. How long is the wait? 90 minutes, you say? No, thank you. “Make a stop at La Piazza,” the map says. “Enjoy an aperitivo of wine and cheese, just like in Italy,” the map says. R-i-i-i-i-ght! What the map doesn't say is that you can fly to Italy faster. And cheaper. And with fewer crowds. I Panini E Le Ciabatte looked promising, but by then all we wanted was out.

I went to Eataly with the idea in mind of buying a few ingredients for a couple of simple meals. I couldn't find half of what I was looking for and I couldn't afford the other half. After all, I only had a few hundred bucks to spend. Overrated, overpriced, and thoroughly disappointing, Eataly was definitely not worth the seven hundred mile drive. No, I'm not crazy enough to make that kind of drive for a shopping trip. I was passing through the area anyway and only made a slight detour. But I won't go back to Eataly again even when I'm already in town. You know where I found my flour? A couple of blocks over at DeLuca's Market on Newbury Street. Three ninety-nine a bag. And there are shops and restaurants all over the North End that are equally well-stocked, cheaper, and a helluva lot more fun to visit. Give me Bricco Salumeria & Pasta Shoppe on Hanover Street or Salumeria Italiana on Richmond Street. Nobody beats Mike's Pastry on Hanover Street for cannoli. And you probably won't have a ninety minute wait at Pizzeria Regina. Sure, it's not “one stop shopping,” but you know what? I don't care.

Eataly Boston: with apologies to Julius Caesar, Veni, vidi, remansit frustra.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Mario Batali Is A Rotten Role Model – But He's Still A Great Chef

Personal Inadequacies Have Overridden Professional Brilliance

With apologies to the Bard, I come not to praise Mario Batali, but not to bury him, either.

Everybody knows I like Mario, so I've been hearing it all week. “Hey! What about your buddy Mario?” “What do you think of Batali now?” “Man, that's really something about your pal Mario.” Frankly, it's all left me quite conflicted. Before you start screaming, “How can you be conflicted? The man's obviously a pig!,” let me attempt to explain.

I used to work with a guy in radio who was a champ in terms of being offensive. This guy used to bring in nothing but young college-age girls to work as interns, producers, and on-air personalities. Most of them had no experience and little aptitude or talent, but that was okay: our boy was only too happy to “train” them. One of them showed up on my doorstep in tears one night when an attempted “training” session went sideways. After she related her story of being backed into a corner and groped, my wife said, “God, what a pig! Can't somebody do something about him?” It was the '80s and the short answer was “no,” because although being a debauched, leering, philandering, womanizing, lecherous Lothario might have been highly distasteful, it wasn't strictly illegal – and he was, after all, the boss. The law was laid down: “It's my way or the highway.” Women had to take it or leave it. A few of them took it: most of them left.

For all that his personal conduct was deplorable, though, he was absolutely brilliant at what he did professionally. He was an innovative, gifted, talented broadcaster without peer. He was famous for single-handedly turning around the ratings at radio stations wherever he went. Don't think for a minute that his licentious behavior went unnoticed. His moral shortcomings were pretty much an open secret in the business, but, dammit, he got ratings and he made money. As long as he didn't depants some teen intern in the hall and publicly have his way with her, his proclivities were generally overlooked by management and ownership. None of the rest of us could understand it. He was A) physically unattractive, B) possessed of a permanent case of halitosis, and C) married with two kids. But there he was; turning stomachs when he thought he was turning heads. One of my coworkers said it best: “As a professional, you can't touch him. As a person, you don't want to.”

Apparently, that's also Mario.

I don't know the man personally. I was in the same room with him once during a live cooking demo. That's as close to him as I ever got. But even from a distance, I could detect elements of my former radio colleague in Mario's attitudes and mannerisms. Reading Bill Buford's “Heat” reinforced my observations. I've seen Mario described as “hedonistic” and “a man of Falstaffian appetites.” I've heard that he likes to “live large.” That his presence “dominates any room he's in.” Even at the cooking demo, his personal dynamic changed the very energy in the room as he breezed in and immediately took charge of his fawning, adoring audience. He's Mario-freakin'-Batali, fer cryin' out loud! And he knows it. So what that he likes to get liquored up and put his hands where they don't belong? Isn't that a small price to pay for the privilege of basking in his greatness? Ah! But now it's the twenty-teens and, having been caught one time too many with his cargo shorts down figuratively if not literally, the answer appears once again to be a resounding “no.”

Times have changed and are continuing to do so at a dizzying pace. “Take it or leave it,” “my way or the highway,” and similar sentiments are not tolerated as well in the current generation as they once were. And, for better or worse, Mario and his generation are products of their time. I can say that because I'm a few years older than Mario and I know whereof I speak. The world was a different place when it was handed over to us in the sixties and early seventies. The swinging “Playboy philosophy” and the concepts of “free love,” “do your own thing,” and “sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll” that informed our formative years simply don't fly anymore and anybody unwilling or unable to make the adjustment is riding for a fall. And it seems that Mario, a poster child for the freewheeling, free-loving, hard rockin' past, has, indeed fallen.

And the thing is, nobody is in the least surprised because everybody was in on the “secret.” A headline from Eater sums it up: “The Food World Reacts to Mario Batali News With Anger — and a Lack of Surprise.” Mario Batali, known by some as the “Red Menace,” is a lecher and a creep? Why, we're shocked! (Wink, wink.) So do the right thing already, Mario. Apologize. Admit to what everybody already knows or at least suspects and move on. Great advice. And then what does he do? He goes and pillories himself by attaching a holiday cinnamon roll recipe to his heartfelt mea culpa. (Sigh: facepalm)

The pity is that his personal inadequacies have overridden his professional brilliance. While you may not want to touch him as a person, nobody but nobody can touch him as a chef. A Michelin star, three stars from the New York Times, and a James Beard “Best New Restaurant” award for his work at Babbo, GQ's “Man of the Year” in the chef category. “Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America.” “Best Chef: New York City,” “All-Clad Cookware Outstanding Chef Award,” and “Best Restaurateur” from the James Beard Foundation. Induction into the Culinary Hall of Fame. Emmy Award-winning TV shows and a raft of bestselling cookbooks. Those are bona fide bona fides if ever there were any.

I make absolutely no bones about or excuses for the fact that much of what I know about Italian food and cooking came from Mario by way of “Molto Mario,” “Iron Chef America,” “The Chew,” and many of his dozen-plus cookbooks. The man is a walking encyclopedia of ingredients and techniques. More importantly, he is a natural teacher who is fun and entertaining to watch as he imparts his knowledge. I came away with more useful information from a single thirty-minute episode of Molto Mario than I did in many hours of more “formal” culinary instruction, and I had more fun doing it.

And it is just a dead-dog shame that so many people, in the interest of modern political correctness masquerading as social outrage, are willing to crucify Mario for being what he can't help being: a product of his time. I'm not saying he's right for some of the things he did. I'm not holding him up as a role model for young chefs or for young men in general. The “product of his time” excuse should not excuse his egregious transgressions, but perhaps it should serve as a prism through which his actions can be viewed and from which a perspective can be taken that might ameliorate the consequences. Mario's a creeper. I get that. He's a low-down, lascivious, concupiscent, satyric libertine. (He also likes big words.) I'm not going to argue. He likes to leer and fondle. Yuck! So let's bring him to account for his actions and force him to accept the mores of modern society no matter how antithetical it might be to his psyche, his adopted persona, and his core upbringing. Make him capitulate and conform to current ethics. If not, kick him to the curb. But let's not erase him as if he never existed.

Right now, as I write, his products are being pulled from store shelves. He has been sacked by his employers. His longtime backers are backing away at a furious rate and future projects are being put “on hold.” He has become anathema; the fashion-challenged face of all that is wrong with the industry in specific and with society at large. Michael Chiarello, Todd English, Johnny Iuzzini, John Besh: they've all been scrutinized for their indiscretions and peccadillos and found scorn in the public eye. But Mario, with all his swagger and bluster, is bigger, much bigger, and so is much more fun to take down and tear apart. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” don't you know?

Another thing to consider as the almost gleeful disassembly of the Batali empire continues to dominate the media cycle is the effect it all has on the thousands of people employed by that empire. Mario's made his fortune. He's worth more than twenty-five million. Even if he never works another day, his future is fairly secure. But as we tar and feather the boss and ride him out of town on a rail, are we giving any consideration to the people who are really being affected by all the bans and boycotts? “I'm never gonna eat at another Batali restaurant!” You think you're hurting Mario? It's the cooks, the servers, and the rest of the staff you're giving the shaft. And they didn't do anything to deserve it.

Yeah, I'm disappointed in Mario and more than a little disgusted. But I'm even more disappointed and disgusted in the people who are chomping at the bit to pile on to somebody who's down. Like the bottom feeding “reporters” who followed him down a New York street snapping pictures as he tried to go to lunch and pointing out to readers that he was still wearing his wedding ring. Apparently they were incredulous that Susi, his wife of more than twenty years, hadn't immediately and unceremoniously turned on him. They had done it, after all; why shouldn't she?

I'm not going to participate in the wholesale slaughter of a fallen icon whose greatest offense was being a misguided member of a misguided generation. Okay, so he should have kept it in his pants. Point taken. But as we censure and castigate him for his iniquities can we at least leave him his pants? Is it necessary to completely expunge him from our collective consciousness. Or can we, perhaps, as the evangelicals say, “hate the sin but love the sinner?” He's still a human being, after all, and capable of redemption. Which reminds me: isn't there some biblical reference to stone throwing? Reading the comments that accompany some of the press leaves me heartened to know that I live in a country with three-hundred million saints and apparently only one sinner.

So I'm not going to remove references to Mario from my past writings and I'm not going to excise his recipes from my collection. I'm not going to throw away his cookbooks, I'm not going to divest myself of products bearing his name or likeness. I will invoke his name in a positive light when the situation warrants, and if he ever turns up on TV again – which doesn't appear likely – I'll watch him. Why? Because even though he's a rotten role model, he's still a good chef. He taught me a lot and he brought me a lot of enjoyment over the years and I'm not gonna trash his ass and toss him in the gutter because he has proven to be flawed. Everybody's had fun sitting in their judgment seats and giving full-throated voice to their righteous moral indignation. Now leave him alone to reevaluate and rebuild his life.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

They Used To Give Pizza Away Because Nobody Knew What It Was

Enjoy Your Slice!

Pizza is everywhere. You can't sling a ball of fresh mozzarella anymore without it landing on a pizza of some kind. And what kinds there are! These days it seems you can take anything from anchovies to zucchini, slap it on flatbread, and call it a pizza. (Squid are big in Japan and they like coconut on pizza in Costa Rica.) In fact, in some places if you order a pizza with just the traditional elements – tomato sauce and cheese – you get funny looks and they ask if you're sure that's all you want. Like there's something wrong with a cheese pizza.

I hope you're sitting down because I'm going to reveal something shocking: I never ate pizza as a kid. Me. The part-Italian guy. It wasn't in my mother's wheelhouse so I never had pizza until I was in my early twenties. When I was in high school, Mom and I used to go to Pizza Hut every week – for spaghetti! (Hey, don't judge. It was the '60s, okay?) And the first pizza I ever had was really awful. I was dating a girl who innocently made a pizza from a box mix. It was not an auspicious introduction, to say the least. It was a couple of years later before I tried pizza again. This time, the girl I was seeing suggested we go to Pizza Hut, not for the spaghetti, but for actual pizza – or at least as close to it as Pizza Hut gets. I found it to be way better than the box mix and I was hooked. The relationship with the girl may have fizzled, but my relationship with pizza sizzled and I became a devotee and student of the art not only of eating pizza but of crafting it as well. My Italian roots finally surfaced and I live in a whole different world of pizza today. There's even pizza that's out of this world. Check out the YouTube video circulating of astronauts making vaguely pizza-like things on the ISS.

But there was a time in the not too distant past when Italian pizza makers in America had to give their wares away because American customers simply didn't know what it was. È vero!

Some form of toppings on flatbread has been around in Italy since Roman days. The introduction of tomatoes to the peninsula in the the sixteenth century helped shape the form into the familiar “pie” we know now; the one that was perfected in Naples in the nineteenth century and brought to America by immigrants in the early twentieth.

Break for a quick Italian lesson: have you ever seen the name of a place that serves pizza spelled “pizzaria?” I have, and it's wrong. “Pizza” is a singular noun. And unlike English you don't pluralize something in Italian by tacking on an “s.” The correct plural of “pizza” is “pizze.” The word “pizzas” does not exist in Italian. And since a place that sells pizza usually sells more than one, it is properly spelled “pizzeria.”

The country's first pizzerie (there's that correct plural again) opened on the East Coast shortly after the turn of the century. Lombardi's has been acknowledged by the Pizza Hall of Fame as the first pizzeria in the United States. An immigrant named Gennaro Lombardi started up a grocery on Spring Street in Manhattan in 1897. He converted it into a pizzeria in 1905 and history was made. A place called Papa's Tomato Pies set up shop in Robbinsville, New Jersey in 1912. Under the ownership of a former Lombardi's employee,Totonno's popped up in Brooklyn in 1924. Frank Pepe's in New Haven made the scene in 1925 and introduced the world to White Clam pizza. And Regina Pizzeria moved pizza westward a bit when it opened in Boston's North End in 1926. Tacconelli’s Pizzeria, in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, opened as an Italian bakery in 1921, but Giovanni Tacconelli saw the writing on the wall in 1945 and started turning out pizza to satisfy the appetite of returning WWII GIs who acquired a taste for it while serving in Italy.

All these places existed in Italian neighborhoods and primarily served Italian immigrant clientele. The real test came when pizza entered the Midwest and the South.

I grew up in the Midwest: specifically, between Milwaukee and Chicago. There were Italian enclaves in both cities. In Milwaukee, it was the Third Ward, nowadays an upscale artsy neighborhood but a ghetto recently vacated by the Irish and left to the Italians back in the day. The Caradaro Club on Erie Street was Milwaukee's first pizzeria. Conceived by John Caravella and Joe Todaro, when it opened in 1945, it didn't actually serve pizza: it was one of the up and coming Italian restaurants that were gaining post-war popularity by featuring lasagna and spaghetti. Pizza? What's that? The locals couldn't even pronounce it. They called it “pissa pie” among other weird variations. But they had no idea what it was. A recipe of sorts was featured in a 1937 Milwaukee Journal article about Christmas breads. Columnist Jean Templeton wrote, “The day before Christmas is a fast day for Italian families, so they make a bread named pizza.” And there followed a recipe for a sort of dough that would be “spread into a shallow pan or deep baking sheet. … Over the top sprinkle chopped tomatoes … anchovies, onions and grated Romano cheese.” Yummy, huh?

So when the Caradaro Club decided to put pizza on the menu, it was a tough sell at first. In fact, they didn't “sell” it at all; the owners gave it away to restaurant patrons and sometimes even passed out samples on the street. “Here try this,” they would say to some unsuspecting local. “What is it?” “It’s pizza.” It took about six months before pizza caught on and the restaurant actually started putting a price on it.

Down in Chicago, an Italian food and wine merchant named Anthony Paterno, a Sicilian immigrant who came to the Windy City by way of Brooklyn, opened what is believed to be the city's first pizzeria on Grand and Western Avenues in 1938. A few years later, in 1943, a former University of Texas football star, Ike Sewell, and his friend, Italian immigrant Ric Riccardo, opened a place in the River North neighborhood they originally called The Pizzeria. They later changed that to Pizzeria Riccardo and, when they opened a second location nearby, the original became Pizzeria Uno and the new place was called Pizzeria Due. Clever, right? Sewell actually wanted to open a Mexican restaurant in the beginning but it's been said that when Riccardo got his first mouthful of Mexican food, that idea quickly went by the wayside. Anyway, both Sewell and Riccardo and former Uno employee Adolpho “Rudy” Malnati, claim to be responsible for that heavy tomato casserole that masquerades as pizza under the name “Chicago-style Deep Dish.” I'm not sure if they had to give it away at first, but I'm certain more than a few people asked “What is it?” when faced with the new creation because it sure didn't look like pizza. (Yes, I'm a snob and a purist. So sue me.)

Okay, so obviously cities with a big Italian presence got aboard the pizza bandwagon fairly early. But what about places like Columbia, South Carolina? While the city had its share of Italian immigrants, it didn't exactly have an Italian-American “community.” What it did have, however, was Fort Jackson, the largest US Army training base east of the Mississippi and temporary home to lots and lots of Italian and Italian-American trainees from the big northern towns. Enter James and Sadie Tronco. James was sent from his native Philadelphia to serve as a WWI medic at then Camp Jackson. He met and married a local girl and moved back to Philly before returning to Columbia in 1930. They opened a fruit store downtown, but Sadie started cooking up spaghetti and meatballs for those hungry, homesick Yankee Italian soldiers out at the fort. The fruit store morphed into South Carolina's first Italian restaurant, a place originally called Tony's Spaghetti House and now known as Villa Tronco. And Sadie, aka “Mama Tronco,” laid claim to being the one who first introduced pizza to the capital city. And again, she initially found herself giving it away because no one other than the Italians from the fort knew what it was.

It is often said that servicemen returning from Italy were responsible for the burgeoning popularity of pizza in the post war years. But believe it or not, comedian Milton Berle also had a hand in it. Host of NBC's Texaco Star Theater from 1948 until 1955, Berle, known as “Uncle Miltie” and “Mr. Television,” was America's first major TV star. His influence was vast and when he occasionally spoke of “going out for a pizza after the show,” millions of ordinary viewers who had never been near Naples or Salerno during the war asked themselves, “What's a pizza?” and then they set out to find one. As a result, mom and pop pizzerie bloomed like wildflowers across the American food landscape throughout the '50s and '60s. For example, my little Midwestern hometown was populated by 5,856 people in 1960 and was served by not one but two pizza shops. A guy named Lawrence Marino opened the first one in 1955 and Luigi Petracchi started up the other one in 1957. The Natale family added a third pizza restaurant to the area in 1963. This was typical all over the country until (dah-dah-DAH!) chain stores like Pizza Hut (Wichita, Kansas, in 1958), Pizza Inn (Dallas, Texas, in 1958), Little Caesar's (Garden City, Michigan in 1959), and Dominos (Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1960) started chipping away at the market. (Papa John's came late to the party; Jeffersonville, Indiana in 1984.) That market was further eroded by the Celentano brothers and by Rose and Jim Totino who started commercially producing frozen pizza in 1957 and 1962, respectively.

But fear not, pizzerie are not dead. There are about seventy thousand of them operating in the United States today, only one in four of which is a Dominos, Pizza Hut, or Papa John's. In fact, seventeen percent of all restaurants in the United States are pizzerie. More than ten percent of America's pizzerie are found in New York City. And eighty-three percent of American pizzerie currently offer delivery.

Nowadays, Americans consume an estimated three billion pizze every year. At least, that's the number sold; which doesn't account for people like me who make our own. Ninety-three percent of us will eat pizza at least once in the next thirty days. (I'll be eating mine in the next thirty minutes, thank you.) And the average American eats twenty-three pounds of pizza annually. (Boy, am I above average!) That's a far cry from the days just seventy or eighty years ago when pizza purveyors had to give the stuff away! The closest thing to a pizza giveaway in recent memory was when Lombardi's celebrated their one hundredth anniversary in 2005 by selling a whole pizza for the original price of five cents.

So there you have it; a little American pizza lore with which to amaze and baffle your family and friends while you're waiting for your server, your delivery person, or your oven to provide you with your share of the estimated one hundred acres of pizza Americans will consume today. Enjoy your slice of the pie!  

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

In Praise Of Precooked Turkey and Ham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Few Things You Should Know About Ground Beef

Ground Beef Basics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Cooking With Wooden Utensils

Nothing's As Good As Wood

My home kitchen is chock full of the latest modern equipment. There are full-sized and mini food processors, a blender, an immersion blender, stand and hand mixers, a countertop oven with a built-in rotisserie feature, a microwave, a fryer, a Keurig coffeemaker, a vacuum sealer, a couple of crockpots, an induction burner, an array of gleaming stainless steel, cast iron, and non-stick cookware, a mandoline slicer, a yard-long magnetic strip festooned with a variety of knives, and drawers full of gadgets from apple slicers to zesters. And there amidst all the latest culinary trappings are my wooden spoons and spatulas.

“Wooden spoons?” you query. “In the age of plastic and silicone, you have wooden spoons?” Yep. And I wouldn't be without them. Oh, I have a few plastic, metal, and silicone utensils around, but their use is generally limited to specific tasks. For instance, flexible silicone spatulas are great for scraping out mixing bowls and we have some plastic turners that we use on our non-stick griddle. Plastic and metal spoons are handy as serving pieces. But my real kitchen workhorses are all made of wood.

“But isn't wood terribly old fashioned?” you ask. “Aren't modern materials much cleaner, safer, and sturdier?” The answers are, “yes,” “no,” “no,” and no.”

First, the “old fashioned” part. Yeah, wooden spoons have been around since the dawn of time and I don't think there's an Italian anywhere who doesn't have a memory of a nonna without a wooden spoon in her hand. I know a lot of those nonne – and some professional chefs as well – who swear that the wooden spoons actually contribute something to the flavor of some dishes. The theory is that a wooden spoon that's been used to stir, say, spaghetti sauce for many, many years actually picks up subtle flavors and imparts them to subsequent batches of sauce. Could be true; I don't know.

I do know I prefer wood over other materials for a variety of practical reasons, the first of which is comfort. A good wooden spoon just feels good in your hand. And if you don't think that's important, make a batch of risotto or polenta or something else that requires a lot of stirring. Hand fatigue is pretty common with clunky, poorly designed implements. Most wooden spoons have rounded handles, which makes stirring easier and more effective – and more comfortable. Wooden spoons also give you a good, strong handle to grip so you don't have to worry about it breaking if you're working with something a little stout. You can't always say that with plastic.

Wooden spoons make better tools for scraping the sides and bottom of your pan. The rounded bowl of a wooden spoon is much more conducive to effective scraping than the angled or oval edges of plastic or metal spoons. This is important for several reasons, beginning with the ability of wooden spoons to pass through more delicate foods and ingredients without smashing or bruising them the way harder edged spoons sometimes can. Then there's your cookware to consider. If you're cooking in cast iron or stainless steel, the construction and material of your utensils doesn't much matter. But if you're using non-stick cookware, metal and hard plastic spoons and spatulas are useless. They will seriously scratch and damage the surface of your pans. Wood won't do that.

Wooden spoons are non-reactive and non-conductive. If you're cooking something acidic, like tomato sauce or lemon curd, metal spoons can react with the acids in your ingredients and leave a slight metallic taste behind. Reactive metals can even affect the color of the food you are cooking. Wood, being non-reactive, won't do any of that. And because wood is a poor conductor of heat, you don't have to worry about burning your hand if your wooden spoon is in contact with a hot ingredient or a hot surface for an extended period of time.

Metal utensils can rust over time and the edges can become uneven and jagged from use. Plastic can melt at high temperatures and can also break down at the edges, leaving tiny bits of plastic in the food you're preparing. Some plastics can release toxic chemicals when heated, so if your plastic is not BPA-free, it may pose a significant health risk. None of those things are issues with wood.

Now, on the topic of cleanliness, I know a lot of people who think that wood is somehow “dirtier” than plastic or metal. That it's harder to clean and sanitize. And that's not true. Like wood cutting boards, wooden utensils have natural anti-bacterial properties. Scratches and pits that develop in plastic or metal will harbor bacteria. Not so with wood. Bacteria that get into cracks and scratches in wood become trapped within and are held there until they die and become inert. They cannot be released into whatever it is you're cooking. The same can't be said of other materials, especially plastic, which will even resist the efforts of chlorine bleach to get at germs buried deep in scratches and pits.

Wooden spoons are durable, beautiful, and better for the environment. Wood is a natural, renewable resource and a good wooden spoon can last for decades. I have spoons that served in my mother's kitchen and they're in as good a condition now as they were back then. And, I'm sorry, but you can have all the sleek, gleaming surfaces and flashy colors; give me the soft, natural beauty of wood any day. We have a big annual artisan craft show in our town every Fall and my wife and I always visit a particular booth that features hand-crafted wooden utensils. We have purchased spoons, spatulas, bowls, spreaders, honey dippers and a variety of other beautiful wooden items for home use and to give as gifts. My left-handed spouse even found a spatula designed and crafted for lefties.

As with any kitchen appliance or utensil, you get what you pay for. Always look for hardwood utensils; cherry, maple, and walnut are good choices. Oak, beech, and birch are also popular. Olive wood is widely used and bamboo, although technically not “wood,” is also good. Cheaper soft woods, like pine, tend to soak up a lot of oils and juices from whatever you're cooking and they can also leach an off, “piney,” flavor into your dish.

As I mentioned, I still use many of my mom's wooden spoons. They have to be thirty or forty years old. But they're in good shape partly because they're wood and partly because they're well cared for. My wooden spoons have never seen the inside of a dishwasher. Wooden utensils should always be washed by hand and dried promptly. The high temperatures of a dishwasher, especially in the drying cycle, can cause wooden utensils (and knife handles, by the way) to dry out and crack. This is similar to the reason you should never leave a wooden spoon submerged in a liquid, be it a soup, a sauce, or hot dishwater. Wood being porous, exposure to water and liquids, especially hot liquids, can cause the wood to break down and deteriorate. That's why culinary school instructors will smack you with a wooden spoon if they find one sticking out of your soup or sauce.

And with that in mind, wooden utensils, knife handles, and cutting boards should all be treated on a regular basis to keep them from drying out or deteriorating. Every couple of months, rub your wood kitchen stuff with a little food-grade mineral oil. Let the oil sit and soak in for a couple of hours or overnight, then wipe off the excess and you're good to go. Doing this on a regular basis will ensure your wooden utensils will remain beautiful and will last as long as mine have.

Old-fashioned? Who cares! For my money, nothing's as good as wood.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Preventing Cooking-Related Fires

Cooking Requires All Your Attention

As I write this, it's cooking season. People cook more around the fall and winter holidays than at any other time of the year, with Thanksgiving being the biggest cooking day and also, according to the National Fire Protection Association, the peak day for cooking-related fires. Overall, the association cites unattended cooking as the leading cause of kitchen fires.

The NFPA says that cooking-related fires are the cause of 46% of home fires that resulted in 19% of the home fire deaths and 44% of the injuries. Two-thirds of cooking fires started with the ignition of food or other cooking materials. Ranges or cooktops accounted for the majority (62%) of home cooking fire incidents. Unattended equipment was a factor in one-third of reported home cooking fires and half of the associated deaths. And frying dominates the cooking fire problem.

And here are some statistics from Liberty Mutual Insurance that help explain the NFPA figures: Forty-Two percent of the people the company surveyed said they had left the kitchen to talk or text on the phone, and 35 percent went to use the computer to check email while food was cooking. Nearly half said they have left the room to watch television or listen to music.

Wow. That's it: just “wow.” I can't bend my brain in the direction it would take to be able to light a fire in a room and then walk into another room to do something else. But obviously people do it every day. And, like the real life crash dummies who text and drive, they wind up paying for it and, in many cases, also charging somebody else for their stupidity. I read not long ago about an imbecile who got liquored up and tried to cook. After he passed out drunk, his kitchen caught fire and killed him. And it also cost seven other families in the eight unit apartment building their homes.

Cooking is like driving a car or flying an airplane: it requires all your attention. You are literally playing with fire. Personally, I'm not comfortable lighting the oven and walking out of the room, much less turning on a stove top burner and walking away. I'm even leery of slow cookers: intellectually, I understand they are designed to be left unattended, but viscerally, I find it hard to do. You can call me paranoid, but it beats calling the fire department.

So, Number One fire safety rule is stay in the kitchen while you're cooking. That doesn't strictly apply to all forms of cooking, I suppose: obviously, if you're baking a cake or roasting a turkey or simmering a pot of stock, it's okay to leave the room for a few minutes now and then. You're not going to stand there constantly for three hours watching your bird cook. But staying in the room and remaining focused on task is vitally important if you're frying something.

As noted in the NFPA statistics, frying dominates the cooking fire problem. I honestly think people ought to have a license to fry. Or at least they should be required to take a safety class. I mean, you have to take Driver's Ed before you can drive a car and you have to take hunting safety classes before they'll let you go out and take potshots at Bambi. Shouldn't people be obliged to have some basic knowledge pounded into their heads before they're given matches and flammable substances? You can't just rely on common sense because so many folks are so uncommonly senseless. How many houses or garages were burned down in your community last Thanksgiving by idiots with turkey fryers?

Here's some basic knowledge for safe frying:

Don't overfill your pot, pan, or fryer with oil. Most deep fryers made for home use have a “max fill” line etched into the metal. Don't ignore it. If you're not using a dedicated deep fryer, use a heavy, deep pot, like a Dutch oven, or, for shallow frying, a heavy, deep skillet – cast iron is best – and make sure you leave plenty of room for whatever food you're cooking. Cold oil should never come anywhere near the top of the pot or pan because hot oil is going to bubble up when you add food to it. It's a law. It's going to happen. And if you have too much oil in the pan, it's going to bubble over. And when it bubbles over, 99.9% of the time, it's going to catch fire. Grease or oil fires are incredibly dangerous because the fire's fuel source is a liquid that can splash and spread and keep burning as it adheres to surfaces, clothing and skin.

I have a fire extinguisher right next to my stove. It's the best option if a fire breaks out. If you can get a lid on whatever's burning, that usually does the job. Salt will knock down most cooking fires. So will baking soda. Flour, however, will not. Counterintuitive as it seems, water is seldom a good solution to extinguishing a cooking fire. If you have an electric stove, it's not a real swift idea to throw water on it and if you're dealing with a grease or oil fire, water will just rapidly and randomly spread the flames around. And the first thing to do with any cooking-related fire is turn off the heat source. You can't put out a fire that's being constantly fed from a gas jet or an electric coil.

The worst thing you can do if a fire breaks out in your kitchen is panic. I was in the kitchen once when some butter leaked out of a pan in the oven and caught the interior of the oven on fire. Smoke was billowing out of the oven and flames shot out when the door was opened. Well, in the first place, don't open the door! Turn off the oven and the oven itself will contain the fire. That's what ovens do. But instinct says “open the door and see what's going on in there.” And while other people in the room were jumping around and yelling the obvious – FIRE!! – I grabbed a box of salt and threw a couple of handfuls on the flames. No more fire. I would have gone for the extinguisher next if I had needed to, but by keeping my wits about me, I was able to put out the fire. And I saved the dish.

Back to frying safety, watch your oil temperature. You want it to be a maximum of somewhere between 375°F and 400°F. Use a thermometer and don't rely on “wait until it smokes.” When oil starts smoking, it's ready to combust. Using oils with a high smoke point, like canola, peanut, safflower, or sunflower oils, can help, but even they will burn if overheated.

Don't drop wet food into hot oil. It's a boil over waiting to happen. Dry your food as much as possible before dropping it in to fry. And be extra careful with frozen food, too. Ice crystals are just frozen water.

If you're frying something on a stove top in a pan or a skillet, keep the handle turned in. A quick bump to an outward facing handle is all it takes to overturn a pan and potentially start a fire.

And, of course, don't leave a fryer or frying pan unattended.

While frying and hot oil are the most egregious offenders when it comes to cooking-related fires, there are other factors to consider and avoid.

Keep your kitchen neat, clean, and organized, particularly around the stove. Having junk piled around your stove, especially flammable junk like paper, plastic, and cloth, is a good way to make the acquaintance of your local fire department. Fires start all the time when dish towels, potholders, and oven mitts are left too close to burners. A woman in the town where I live burned down her kitchen when she turned on the “wrong” eye of her electric range and caught a bag of potato chips she had lying on the stove on fire. I hate an electric cooktop for just that reason: it's way too easy to turn on the “wrong” burner. We used to keep those decorative burner covers around until we toasted about the tenth set of the damn things and said, “no more.” It's also smart to keep heat-producing appliances like toasters and toaster ovens, coffee makers, etc. away from walls and curtains.

And keep your stove top clean. Gross as it sounds, I've seen stoves covered with caked-on grease. I couldn't keep a kitchen like that, but them I'm a clean freak. However, it shouldn't take a freak to figure out that if you've got potentially flammable crap coating your cooking surface, sooner or later it's gonna go up in flames.

My mother used to be horrible about “drying” things in her oven. She'd throw stuff like wooden spoons in there “to dry.” I'd come along and flip on the oven and....... I can't tell you how many wooden spoons I cooked over the years. Tupperware does not do well in a 350°F oven, either. Bottom line: don't store stuff in the oven.

I mentioned the drunk guy. Drinking and cooking don't go together any better than drinking and driving. Same if you're taking/doing sleep-inducing drugs, or if you're just really, really tired. Statistics show that 42 percent of victims of cooking fires died in their sleep.

Keep your smoke alarms in good working order. Check and replace the batteries regularly. And don't get aggravated and yank the batteries when the poor thing does its job and goes off while you're smoking up the kitchen. Nearly a third of the people surveyed by Liberty Mutual reported having intentionally disabled their smoke alarms while cooking. Reposition the unit, if necessary or look for one made specifically for kitchen use. It's still gonna start shrieking if you incinerate a steak or something, but at least it won't go off while your trying to make toast. I did both and added an exhaust fan for good measure. Now I have to really try to make my smoke detector scream.

Avoid overloading your electrical outlets, especially in older kitchens. Back in Grandma's day, about the only electrical appliance in the kitchen was a toaster. They didn't wire older houses to handle microwaves and toaster ovens and food processors and blenders get the idea. And heat-producing appliances like toasters, fryers, coffee pots, waffle irons, electric frying pans and the like all come with specially rated cords. Don't use a common extension cord with a heat-producing appliance. Replace any frayed or cracked electrical cords immediately and never use an appliance or extension cord with a cracked, loose, or damaged plug.

Going back to those NFPA statistics for a minute, the association says clothing was the first thing ignited in less than one percent of fires, but that clothing ignitions led to eighteen percent of home cooking fire deaths. So catching your clothes on fire is not very common, but when it happens, it's usually very bad. There's a reason cooks and chefs dress the way they do and while I'm not saying you have to don a chef's jacket to cook a burger in your home kitchen, you shouldn't wear loose, froofy clothing with long, puffy sleeves and such. You might look really pretty and fashionable floating around the stove in your flowing organza party dress but if you drag one of those silky sleeves through a lit burner, you're gonna make a lovely candle. My wife and I frequently cook in other people's homes during the holidays and we always wear something practical to cook in and bring something nicer to change into for the meal and socialization that follows. Sometimes it's a pain but it's never as painful as becoming a human torch.

And finally, keep the kids and the pets out of the kitchen while you're cooking. I'm a big proponent of teaching kids to cook, and that's one thing. But having them running and playing in the kitchen is quite another. Trust me: been there, done that. I was about seven and was chasing my cousin through the kitchen. My aunt was in violation of the previously mentioned “handles in” rule, and when my cousin and I went barreling through, I clipped a frying pan handle with the top of my head and sent the contents of the pan flying everywhere. Fortunately, nobody got burned and nothing caught fire. But don't chance it. Same goes for pets. Besides being unsanitary, pets around cooking are unpredictable. Fido or Fluffy jumps up on you or in your path while you're working at the stove and it's probably not going to end well.

If a fire starts in your kitchen, you can try to put it out but don't be an idiot. If you've got something burning in a pan, throw a cover on it or throw baking soda or salt at it. If the fire is a little bigger, hit it with a fire extinguisher, remembering the PASS procedure: Pull the pin, Aim low at the fire, Squeeze the trigger, Sweep the flames from side to side. If that doesn't work, call 911 and get out of there. Once a fire leaves a pan and starts climbing the curtains and the walls, there's not much you can do about it and you'd be astonished by how quickly ceilings and wood cabinets go up in flames. You can probably control a small fire yourself, but leave the big fires to the people with the big trucks and hoses.

Enjoy cooking season, my friends, and stay safe.