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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people 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!

Grazie mille!

Monday, January 31, 2011

"Worst Cooks In America": The Halfway Point

I just finished watching "Worst Cooks in America" on Food Network. The competition is at the halfway point with eight of the original sixteen remaining at the outset of tonight's show.

And I'm still amazed that these eight people have survived to adulthood.

Okay, even though I write about food, I'm far from being an epicure or a gourmand. I know a lot about a little and a little about a lot, but I've still got a lot more to learn. If we're honest with ourselves, we all do. It's a natural part of life.

That said, I continue to be shocked by the absolute absence of any kind of food sense being exhibited by these people. Come clean, Food Network! These have got to be ringers! Nobody is that stupid!

Case in point, the exchange between Kelsey and Georg as they prepared veal with lemon sauce: "What's veal?" "I don't know. Deer meat, I think. No, that's venison. I don't know. What is veal?"

And then came Joshie, who for the life of him could not tell the difference between pork tenderloin and -- ready for this -- bacon! Okay, he's Jewish. Maybe pork tenderloin and bacon were not in his fridge as a child, but for cryin' out loud, has the guy never seen a BLT or a plate of bacon and eggs? C'mon! I say again, nobody is that stupid?

Actually, the whole "skill drill" portion of the show was an exercise in stupidity. See, the chefs left the contestants a recipe for what they were supposed to prepare. The hook came in that the recipe had been jumbled up and the contestants had to try to put it in its proper order before attempting to cook the dish.

"I always have trouble with recipes," said one woman. My God, woman! Can't you read? How can you "have trouble" with a recipe? It's a list of ingredients and a set of step-by-step instructions. How much simpler can a process be?

Then again a recipe is only as good as the person reading it. One of the dishes Anne Burrell's team was supposed to prepare was a chunky applesauce. The instructions clearly read, "Cut apples into 1/2 inch chunks." Okay, so Kat whacks four apples into quarters and throws them in the pan.

At least she got the right pan. Brain trust Ty, working on mashed potatoes, was instructed to boil the potatoes "in a medium saucepan." So he hauls out the biggest damn stock pot in the place and fills it over halfway with water and then can't seem to figure out why the water is taking so long to boil and why his potatoes aren't done. And he does this twice, repeating the same mistake in the next section.

Kelsey and Georg were proud of the fact that they had previously learned how to make a roux, so, despite clearly written instructions to "whisk a teaspoon of cornstarch into 1/4 cup of cold water," they assumed that there was no difference between cornstarch and flour and just dumped the cornstarch into a hot pan with the water and started whisking away. To their credit, when the inevitable lump started to form, they went back and read the recipe, and were able to correct the error.

You know, if these were second or third-graders, I could understand. But we're talking adults, here. Full-grown, well-educated adults with jobs and families. As she struggled mightily -- and unsuccessfully -- with some potato pancakes, Jen tearfully admitted that her nine-year-old could make pancakes, but she couldn't. Which begs the question, "Where did your nine-year-old learn?" And the woman is an OR nurse. It is fervently hoped that she is better able to follow a doctor's instructions than she is a chef's. And if she can't mix ingredients in a recipe, I'm not sure I want her anywhere near my meds.

So much of cooking is just common sense, but these exaggerated examples of "The Worst Cooks in America" apparently are just uncommonly senseless. Clearly, these are the people food manufacturers have to keep in mind when printing, "Remove from box and cook before eating" on packages of frozen foods.

Ooops! Wait a minute. Wouldn't that be something like a recipe?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Guide to Supermarket Olive Oil

When I was growing up, if you wanted to buy a bottle of olive oil – or “salad oil,” as they often called it in those days – you'd better live in a big city with a thriving Italian neighborhood because otherwise you weren't going to find any in your local supermarket. And there was no Internet back then, kiddies.

Nowadays, the places I shop have so many shapes, sizes, and varieties of olive oil that they practically fall off the shelves. One of my favorite markets even has an olive oil tasting bar set up where you can sample the various wares before you make a purchase.

All because a few years ago somebody let slip the secret that Mediterranean cultures have known for centuries: olive oil is good for you.

Now, I'm gonna do us all a favor and not do a twenty page in depth study on olive oil, although I easily could. I could go on and on about the olive, or olea europaea, in its Italian, Spanish, Tunisian, or Greek varieties. You can also find them in Israel, Palestine, South Africa, Peru, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and good old California, USA.

So let's just do a quick, down-and-dirty guide to supermarket olive oil, okay?

First things first: how do you choose a good quality olive oil?

In my totally biased opinion, the best olive oil comes from Italy. Contrary to popular thought, Italy is not the world's largest producer of olive oil. Spain is. Italy's production is actually fairly modest, but it has the distinction of being the world's largest exporter of olive oil. Now, I've been writing a lot about authentic Italian food products lately and how consumers can identify them. There are no fewer than forty varieties of olive oil that are produced in Italy and have been afforded PDO (or DOP if you're using the Italian translation) protection.

You won't find many of these on your average American supermarket shelf. Mostly because they're really expensive. Instead, you're going to see one of two labels: “Product of Italy” or “Packed in Italy.” The former means the oil was bottled in Italy using exclusively Italian olives. Sometimes you'll find an IGP seal on some of these bottles.

The latter label means that the oil is bottled in Italy but may be a blend of olives from other regions. Italy buys lots and lots of Spanish olive oil and blends it with its own oil as well as with some from Greece, Turkey, and other areas, producing a nice standard product, the taste of which varies very little from year to year. From a quality standpoint, this cheaper blended product is often preferred on the world market over the more expensive pure oils produced exclusively in Italy. (A little tip: even if the front label says “Italy” on it, check the back label, where you'll usually find the actual country of origin printed in really small type.)

The next big question for most consumers is “what's with all the 'virgin' and 'extra-virgin' and 'first cold-pressed' and all that stuff?”

The “virgin-ness” of olive oil is determined by the processing. Any version of “virgin” means that the olives have been hand or mechanically picked and processed within a day of harvest through means that are completely natural. No chemicals or applications of heat. You wash 'em, crush 'em or spin 'em, and filter 'em – and that's it. The olives are either pressed to a paste through special mats by big stone presses or spun in a centrifuge. The resultant oil is then filtered to remove impurities. This process is referred to as the first cold-pressing, a rather misleading phrase since there is no such thing as a second cold pressing.

Here, again, I could go into pages of detail about labeling regulations and adulteration problems and fraudulent production and distribution practices, but I'll try instead to stick to the point of discussing what you're likely to see on common grocery store shelves.

There are several “virgin” categories to contend with: extra-virgin, fine virgin, and ordinary virgin. All are reflections of the finished product's organoleptic properties, a designation of flavor, color, and bouquet as defined by the International Olive Oil Council in Madrid.

(By the way, the United States does not subscribe to the codes and standards established by the IOOC, opting instead for its own outdated and imprecise USDA regulations adopted back in 1948 before the Council was formed. Although some California producers have urged the USDA to adopt IOCC standards, this has not yet occurred, so quality in US markets remains somewhat inconsistent.)

The cold pressing of olives results in a naturally low acid oil. Extra-virgin oil can have an acidity level of no more than 0.8% and must rate at least a 6.5 on a ten point organoleptic scale. Extra-virgin oil has a rich, fruity flavor and a color that ranges from a greenish-gold to a bright green. This is the stuff you want to use for applications where taste is important.

Fine virgin olive oil is also cold-pressed. It has an organoleptic rating of 5.5 or more and an acidity of 1.5 percent or less. Ordinary virgin, or just plain “virgin” olive oil, only has an organoleptic rating of 3.5 or more and acidity of 3.3 percent or less, but it is still capable of maintaining acceptable levels of purity and quality. You don't see much of either of these grades in regular grocery stores.

You will see a lot of “pure” olive oil on store shelves. This is the next grade down from the “virgin” oil category. It is a refined oil produced by running low quality virgin oil through charcoal and other chemicals and filters. Then a little extra-virgin oil, usually about 5%, is added in to make the product taste like olive oil. Its high smoke point and dull flavor make it okay for use in frying and sauteing, but you really shouldn't use it for sauces or salads or any finished dish that you want to have a nice, rich olive oil taste.

Time out for debate: Many, many cooks keep both extra-virgin and pure olive oils on hand. The common practice is to cook with the latter and finish with the former. Olive oil has a relatively high smoke point to begin with, at least when compared to butter, lard, or vegetable shortening. (The smoke point refers to the temperature at which a cooking fat or oil begins to break down.) The more refined the olive oil, the higher the smoke point becomes. So pure olive oil does lend itself slightly more to frying than extra-virgin. The actual smoke point varies depending upon who you ask, but with a consensus figure of around 400°, you're already looking at higher temperatures than are usually employed in frying foods, so smoke point is rather a moot point, isn't it? Mario Batali, for one, swears by using extra-virgin oil for all applications from frying to finishing. Others demur, citing the cost factor. Why use cups and quarts of the good stuff when the cheaper stuff works just as well? But, the devil's advocate position allows that stocking two kinds of oil is equally expensive. Take your pick.

Anything labeled “light” olive oil is generally a waste of money. It's a refined oil from which all but the merest hint of flavor has been removed. Because most Americans believe that adding the word “light” to anything makes it healthier, they buy up gallons of “light” olive oil for what they suppose to be its greater health benefits. I mean, it says “light,” right? Sorry, folks, but the only thing “light” olive oil is light on is taste. Seriously. I'm not being subjective. That's exactly what “light” olive oil is supposed to be; a lightly flavored alternative to real olive oil designed for people who don't want the full flavor of olive oil in their cooking. As far as calories and fat content are concerned, “light” oil is no “lighter” than any other.

Don't believe me? Check the nutrition labels on a couple of national brands. A tablespoon of extra-virgin contains 120 calories, all of them from fat. There are 14 grams of fat, 10 of them monounsaturated, 2 of them polyunsaturated, and 2 of them saturated. No trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium. The stats on the bottle labeled “pure” olive oil are identical. And now, drum roll, please, the data on “light” olive oil......is absolutely the same! So if you are buying “light” olive oil because you think it's better for you, think again.

(Just in case you are curious, the breakdown on canola oil is nearly the same; 120 calories, 14 grams broken down as 9:4:1. Vegetable oil has the same calorie content and the same fat grams, distributed in a ratio of 3:8:2. The blended stuff – same calories and fat, 7:5:1.)

I once saw some pomace oil in a natural foods store and I don't know why. Pomace is the lowest quality olive oil product that is still edible. That's why it's labeled as “pomace;” it's so inferior that it can't legally be called “olive oil.” Pomace is what you have left after you've pressed everything good out of the olive. It's essentially the husk of the olive that has been chemically refined to squeeze out the last vestiges of oil. You don't usually see it in regular grocery stores – I still don't know why a “natural” food store would carry it. But some really cheap restaurants have been known to use it for frying.

The bottom rung on the ladder is reserved for lampante oil, which is non-edible and is used mainly for industrial purposes. The word “lampante” comes from olive oil's ancient use as a fuel in oil-burning lamps. I've never actually seen it in a retail store of any kind, but it is an oil made from olives.

The bottom line from my point of view is to go with Mario Batali and just use one kind of oil for everything. Simplicity is the soul of Italian cooking, after all. That said, if simplicity is the soul, then quality is the body, so buy the best extra-virgin oil you can find and afford. Check the labels for points of origin, but more importantly, let your tastebuds be your guide. If you can find a store like Whole Foods that lets you sample the various oils available for purchase, by all means taste and compare until you find an oil you absolutely love, then buy it and use it in all your recipes – sauces, marinades, dressings, toppings, and anything else you'd use oil for. Stay away from “light” olive oil. If you want to change up the flavor profile, blend extra-virgin oil with a little canola oil or with some butter.

Regardless of what kind you get, olive oil should always be stored in cool, dark places in airtight bottles. The optimum temperature for storing olive oil is right around 60°, but average room temperature is okay. You can refrigerate it, but don't. One particularly rough winter when my central heat was on the fritz, my kitchen temperature dipped to around 40° and my olive oil congealed right on my counter top! But when things warmed up, it was just fine. But there's really no point in cold storage. Olive oil will eventually degrade and go rancid over time. Not in my kitchen, of course, where a bottle seldom lasts more than a couple of months, but time, temperature, light, and air are the enemies of most food products, olive oil included.

Homer referred to olive oil as “liquid gold.” Its ceremonial and culinary uses date back to the beginnings of recorded history. Isn't it time to include some in your pantry?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Recipe: Eggless Fresh Pasta

I was talking with a friend recently. We were discussing the glories of Italian cuisine and especially of beautiful fresh pasta dishes. As it turns out, he's never had one! Poor guy, he's allergic to eggs and, while he enjoys pasta dishes made from dried pasta, he's never been able to find a fresh pasta recipe that wasn't made with eggs.

“Not a problem,” I told him, and passed along this recipe for an eggless pasta dough made from nothing more than flour and water. He tried it, he loved it. You will, too.

PASTA DI SEMOLA
(An Eggless Pasta Dough)

2 cups semolina flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 to 1 1/4 cups lukewarm water

Mound the flour in the center of a work surface. (I like a large wooden cutting board.) Make a well in the middle of the flour and add the water a little at a time, stirring with a fork (or with your hands) until a dough starts to form. As you incorporate the water, keep pushing the flour up to retain the well shape. When about half of the flour is incorporated, the dough will begin to come together in a shaggy mass. Start kneading the dough, using primarily the palms of your hands. You may need a little more water if the dough seems too dry. Add just a little at a time. Remember, it's easier to moisten a dry dough than it is to dry out a wet dough.

Once the dough forms a cohesive mass, continue kneading it for a few minutes minutes more (7 or 8 minutes should do it), dusting the board with flour as necessary. Go easy on the flour, though. Too much can change the texture and character of the dough, which should be elastic and a little sticky.

Form the dough into a ball and wrap it in plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes before using.

At this point, you can roll and cut the dough by hand or you can use a pasta machine. You can also make the dough in a food processor if you're in a hurry, but you lose out on a lot of the fun of making fresh pasta.

Makes about 1 1/4 lbs of pasta.

A couple of variations of note: some people add a touch of olive oil and/or a little salt when making the dough. Okay, do what makes you happy. I like the simpler ingredients. Some folks wrap the dough in plastic and put it in the refrigerator rather than leaving it out at room temperature. I've tried it both ways and it works both ways. And some people use all semolina or all all-purpose flour. Not me. I like the texture and performance of the blend.

Mangiare bene, i miei amici!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Tip for Freezing Foods

This Tip Really Sucks!

I have a quick tip to pass along. It's not original. In fact I can't remember whether I stole it from Alton Brown or Cook's Illustrated, but just in case you don't watch Alton or read Cook's, here it is.

Everybody knows – don't you? – that air is the main cause of freezer burn. And yet, 99.9% of people just toss fresh cuts of meat, leftovers, etc. into Ziploc bags and throw 'em in the freezer. A few weeks later, they take the food out only to find it has turned an unappetizing color and is covered in ice crystals.

What has occurred is that the water molecules in your food have made contact with the air trapped in the bag. Now, the water molecules are going to freeze anyway. That's the whole point of preserving food in the freezer. But they're supposed to stay inside the food. When your frozen food is improperly wrapped and air pockets are present in the storage bag, the frozen molecules make like Mel Gibson and yell “freeeeee-dommmmm” as they migrate out into all that air space, taking your food's precious moisture content with them. The result – commonly called “freezer burn” – is dry and nasty looking. Oh, it's generally okay to eat, but it's going to be dry and nasty looking and you aren't going to be at all thrilled with the taste or texture.

Proper wrapping is essential. Make sure every morsel you put in the freezer is wrapped as tightly as possible in either plastic wrap, aluminum foil, or freezer paper. Then place the tightly wrapped food in a freezer bag, making sure all the air is removed from the bag. I do this by closing all but an inch or so of the bag, then folding and pressing as much air out as possible.

Here's the tip: insert an ordinary drinking straw into the small opening in the bag's seal and close the seal around the straw. Now suck out whatever air remains in the bag, then quickly withdraw the straw and seal the bag. It's not going to be a perfect vacuum, but it'll be pretty close and your food will stand a much better chance of resisting freezer burn and staying fresher longer.

Oh, and don't forget to label and date your frozen food. Nothing lasts forever, even in the freezer. Refer to any one of a number of websites for information on the storage life of frozen foods. The USDA has one such site at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/focus_on_freezing/index.asp.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Applying An Egg Wash

If you're not into baking, all sorts of weird images probably come to mind when you hear the term “egg wash.” If you are, however, familiar with baking breads, rolls, pie crusts, and other pastries, you likely already know that an egg wash is a mixture of beaten eggs and a liquid that are brushed onto the surface of said items before baking in order to give the finished crust extra brownness, crispness and/or shine. The liquids involved are generally milk or water.

Before we get into how to use an egg wash, let's take a minute to discover how it works. Eggs and milk both contain proteins and amino acids, as well as certain sugars, that react with one another in the presence of high temperatures – the kind generated by your oven, for instance.

I promised myself I would not use terms like reactive carbonyl group, nucleophilic amino group, or even increased nucleophilicity when trying to describe what happens when these acids and sugars heat up. A French chemist (naturally) named Louis-Camille Maillard did all that back in the 19-teens when he discovered the process of non-enzymatic browning that bears his name, the Maillard reaction. Suffice it to say that the Maillard reaction is what gives things like roasted meats and toasted breads their nice brown color. (Don't confuse this with caramelization. Similar process, different chemicals involved.)

Egg washes can be simple or more complex depending upon the desired results. Whole eggs can be used or you can separate yolks and whites. You can achieve different degrees of color and shine by tossing in a little water, milk, and/or salt. A whole egg and a tablespoon or two of water makes for a nice, golden amber colored surface. A whole egg and a pinch of salt makes for a highly shiny surface. A whole egg and one or two tablespoons of milk yield a medium shine. Use just the yolk and one or two tablespoons of water and you get a shiny surface with a nice golden amber color. Egg yolks and a little cream make a shiny surface with a darker brown color. An egg white by itself yields not only a shiny surface, but one with a light brown color and a crispy crust.

Egg washes help seal in flavors and also provide a degree of flavor themselves. Eggs and milk are usually used on sweets while eggs and water are applied to more savory preparations. And egg washes can be employed to help seal doughs for things like calzones and egg rolls so that the fillings don't spill out during baking.

A few important things about egg washes to bear in mind: For the best results, always use the freshest eggs possible. Always make sure the egg is completely beaten; a chunky egg wash will result in a chunky surface texture. Using a whisk instead of a fork will result in a smoother mix. And any additives – water, milk, salt – should be whisked in to fully incorporate them. Egg washes should be applied smoothly and evenly using a pastry brush. And they should be applied with a light touch; remember, you're putting on a mere glaze, not a coat of paint.

Finally, don't try to be frugal and save the leftover egg wash. Toss it and make some fresh stuff if you need it. The sixteen cents or so that you'll spend on another egg is cheaper than a visit to the doctor for treatment of a food-borne illness.

Cottura felice!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cheap Food Products

The Best You Can Afford vs The Cheapest You Can Buy

Let me tell you about where I shop for food and why. As a card-carrying member of Annoying Food Snobs of America, I only shop at food stores that carry high quality fresh produce, excellent meats and seafood, and top of the line canned, frozen, and packaged goods. My shopping dollars are generally divided among Publix, Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and local farmer's markets and specialty stores.

That's not to say that there aren't other great stores out there. I've also shopped Safeway, Kroger, Albertson's, Harris Teeter, Ingles and a number of other fine supermarkets, but there aren't any of those in my area right now. There is a strange little local chain store that carries an odd variety of top shelf stuff that even Publix doesn't stock mixed in with low end products that Publix wouldn't touch. It's kind of become my local “fallback” store.

I'm not a big purchaser of “health food,” so I don't buy a lot of “regular” groceries at Whole Foods or Fresh Market, but those places can't be touched when it comes to fresh meats, produce, and cheese. Both stores are great supporters of local food producers. Additionally, they offer “tasting bars” for some of the products I use most. You wouldn't get far schlepping down to your local Piggly Wiggly and popping the top on a few bottles of olive oil to see which one you liked best, now would you? Whole Foods lets you sample and choose your favorite. I would – and frequently do – drive fifty miles to get the kind of quality fresh food products that these stores offer.

Conversely, I wouldn't drive around the block to shop at an Aldi or anyplace that has “Sav” in its name; Sav-a-Lot, Sav-a-Ton, Sav-a-Bundle, Sav-Til-It-Hurts. No thank you – save me! I went to one of those places once and had nightmares for a week.

Is it insane to drive to the next town to shop at Whole Foods? Undoubtedly. Is Publix the most expensive store in town? Pretty much. Could I save ten dollars a week by shopping at cheaper stores? Yep. So why don't I? I'll tell you.

For reasons of taste and nutrition, I value good food and will go to extremes to obtain it.

I have never been a big fan of cheap food products. In the early days of my upbringing, a “name brand” could be counted on for quality while generic or “store brands” were notoriously inferior. My mother went to her grave without ever purchasing a store brand item. If the supermarket was out of Green Giant asparagus and all they had in stock was a store brand, Mom would either go to another store or go without. So it’s easy to see where I get my “brand bias.”

However, I am not totally my mother’s son. I don’t reject store brands out of hand just because they are store brands. If the quality is there, I’ll buy a store brand. If not, I won’t. Simple as that. What I won’t do is buy the cheapest, nastiest, bottom-shelf, off-brand garbage that is sold in some of the cheap, nasty, bottom-shelf, off-brand food stores that have sprung up in recent years. My taste buds still have a little dignity. But I have found that store brands carried by some of the high-end chain stores I referenced earlier are equal or superior in quality to the national brands. For instance, I can only think of one or two occasions where I was disappointed enough in a Publix product to go back to a national brand.

You’re just paying good money for a brand name,” my thrifty friends preach. “All the food we buy comes from the same two or three factories and they just put different labels on it.” I used to feel that people who said such stuff also believed that the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus get together at the Tooth Fairy’s house on Friday nights for poker. But with big food conglomerates gobbling up competition in the marketplace as they do these days, who’s to say that these people are entirely wrong?

I know too many people who think that food is food. It goes in one end and comes out the other and if it tastes the same at both ends, who cares? It’s just food. Fuel. Sustenance. Something you have to have in order to keep breathing. Generally speaking, these are the people who shop the aforementioned cheap, nasty, bottom-shelf, off-brand food stores and buy the aforementioned cheapest, nastiest, bottom-shelf, off-brand garbage.

Changing mindsets is difficult. I could no more convince my mother to try a store brand tomato sauce than I could convince others in my family that while they may be saving money by buying the stuff that is a short step above animal fodder, they are sacrificing quality.

I’m not rolling in money. I clip coupons and I hunt bargains. But at the same time, I have learned that there is a vast difference between the best you can afford and the cheapest you can buy.

Cheap food is just that. It’s cheap. It’s not “inexpensive.” It’s not “low-priced.” It’s not “economical.” It’s inferior, second-rate, low-quality stuff made up of substandard ingredients processed and dressed up to taste like the higher quality stuff. It’s a pig in a prom dress, designed to make you feel like you’re saving money even as you deprive yourself of taste and nutritional value.

Of course, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in this discussion is the matter of taste itself. Taste is a very subjective thing. Now, it is scientific fact that some people have fewer taste buds than others. Most people have around 10,000, although some statistics show that women have a genetic proclivity towards having a greater number of taste buds than men. Factors such as disease, smoking and just plain old getting older can affect this number. In fact, research has shown that by age 65, a person can lose as many as half of the taste receptors they had when they were born. So, while something may taste like crap on a cracker to me, it might taste like filet mignon to one of my older, chain-smoking, male relatives.

Another factor to consider is palate sophistication. My wife, for example, grew up in an environment where she ate the “good stuff” while living with one parent and the “cheap stuff” while living with the other. Therefore, she developed a degree of sophistication that enabled her to tell the difference. As she frequently – and correctly – points out, people who, for economic reasons or whatever, have never had the “good stuff” don’t know any better. To them, the “10 for a dollar” macaroni and cheese is perfectly fine because they’ve never had anything else.

Genetics and sophistication aside, economics plays a major role in the way things taste these days.

As I alluded earlier, name brands used to equal quality while store brands were equivalent to junk. It was a matter of perception, which, to most people, is reality. But in their ever-growing desire to increase profits, name brand food manufacturers have been leveling the playing field for the generic brands by simply diminishing the quality of their products through the use of cheaper ingredients. In short, it’s not that the store brands taste better, it’s that the name brands taste worse!

Case in point: When I was a kid in the 1950s and early ’60s, I absolutely adored Kit-Kat candy bars. Made in England by Rowntree, Ltd. and imported to the United States, they were chocolate-covered wafers from heaven! Well, they’re still wafers covered in something pretending to be chocolate, but they now originate at that place where good chocolate goes to die – the Hershey factory.

I am certain that Milton Hershey is spinning in his grave over what has been done to his creation. The Hershey Company, in its quest to satisfy its investors at the expense of its customers, has incrementally destroyed American chocolate manufacturing. The over processed brown garbage that flows off Hershey’s assembly lines resembles chocolate in name only. Increased use of palm oil, corn syrup and other cheap ingredients have gradually changed the flavors and textures that cocoa butter, cane sugar and more costly substances impart to “real” chocolate, resulting in a horribly dumbed-down concoction that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the quality for which Hershey products used to be world-famous. But they’re keeping costs down, by golly!

Spice maker McCormick & Co. is now supplying food companies with cheaper herbs and spices, such as Mexican oregano instead of the pricier Mediterranean herb, and garlic concentrate instead of heavier (and costlier to ship) garlic cloves. And they’re always developing new “flavor blends!” In other words, since the good stuff costs too much, let’s just mix up a few varieties of the cheap stuff and foist it off as a “new blend.” This cheap dreck is showing up in the pre-packaged foods you buy and that you’re probably paying the same price for as when they were using better quality ingredients.

Kraft Foods, once a hallmark of quality, has spent most of the last half-century buying every other food manufacturer in existence. As its acquisitions grow, its quality decreases. Investors don’t care if your Kraft American Cheese Singles are made with yak milk as long as they keep making a profit.

I remember so well the taste of a Tombstone Pizza when it came from a little factory in Medford, Wisconsin. Now that Kraft makes them, they taste pretty much like tombstones.

It used to be a big thing to eat at a Stouffer’s restaurant. I was thrilled when their premium frozen food line was introduced in the late 1960s. The stuff was good enough that NASA fed it to the astronauts on Apollo 11, 12, and 14. Enter the Nestlé Company and its voracious appetite for buying up and dumbing down the competition, and now the food that once fed men on the moon tastes like moon rocks.

How’s your Hamburger Helper tasting these days? Not as good as you remember? General Mills Inc. says that by reducing the number of spice and ingredient pouches in boxes of Hamburger Helper -- and by halving the number of pasta shapes used in the product line -- the company has trimmed manufacturing costs by ten percent. And by how much, do you suppose, have they trimmed the taste of their product?

Oh, and if you were a particular fan of Pillsbury Turtle cookies, you can kiss your pecans goodbye. Walnuts are cheaper.

Food companies say the changes they are making don't affect quality, flavor or nutrition. General Mills says consumers polled actually liked the walnuts just as much as the pricier pecans. (They never asked me.) And their decision to mix the chocolate chips into Pillsbury cookie dough rather than to sprinkle them on top has saved more than five million dollars in annual costs. Yippee!

But if the manufacturers say these changes don't affect quality, flavor, or nutrition, consider this: One of the big breakfast cereal manufacturers recently announced that they were reducing sugar levels in their kiddie cereals to make them healthier. Applause, applause! BUT, they revealed that they are making the changes in small increments over a period of years so that consumers don't notice the changes and stop buying the product! This is a prime example of what food analysts and discerning consumers have long recognized; that by tweaking formulas slowly and almost imperceptibly, you gradually alter the taste, so that after, let’s say, five annual alterations to the original formula, you have something that tastes completely different than it did five years ago. Therefore, slowly and almost imperceptibly, food companies are dulling America’s taste buds to accept the cheaper products they are producing.

Ask Coca Cola about that one. Remind them of “New Coke.” But when “New Coke” fizzled rather than fizzed, did the Coca Cola Company actually go back to its original formula for “Coke Classic?” Nah! They dumped in cheap corn syrup in place of expensive sugar and then tried to sell you on the idea that you were still drinking “The Real Thing.” To quote Star Trek’s venerable Scotty, “Yeah, and if my granny had wheels, she’d be a wagon.”

And it’s not just taste that is a concern. There are significant nutritional changes being implemented through the use of inferior quality ingredients. In the same manner that medieval cooks once employed heavy spices to disguise the often rotten food they prepared, modern manufacturers are loading up their wares with salts, sugars, fats, and other substances not conducive to optimal health in order to disguise the more “cost effective” nature of their product. Meat fillers like soy protein are moving from the “mystery meat” dishes in the high school cafeteria to the packaged foods on grocery store shelves. Like pigs being led to market, we’re all bulking up on fillers – but we’re saving money!

So what’s the solution? Same as it’s always been. Preparing your own dishes from fresh, natural ingredients. It’s healthy, it saves you money, and it tastes good.

Despite all the advertising gimmicks, I don’t remember the last time I bought a blue box of macaroni and cheese. And I have never, even at my most desperate extreme, bought the “10 for a dollar” variety. Why should I? With some good quality cheese – not that orange-colored reconstituted vegetable oil product, – a box of elbow macaroni, a little milk and a little butter, I’ve got better macaroni and cheese that took the same amount of time to prepare and didn’t cost nearly as much per serving.

What do I want on my Tombstone? How about, “He was too smart to fall for silly slogans.” My wife once neglected to remove the cardboard circle from the underside of the frozen pizza before she put it in the oven. No matter. They both tasted about the same. Give me a little flour, water, salt and yeast, some canned tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and some herbs and spices, and I’ll bury your Tombstone.

Sing along now, “Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat.” Then watch me blend some natural herbs and spices with chicken bouillon, vermicelli and long-grain rice and you’ll be singing my praises when you can’t tell mine from the packaged “chicken-flavor” product produced by Golden Grain, a subsidiary of Quaker Oats, which, in turn, is owned by PepsiCo. Only mine doesn’t contain hydrolyzed soy protein and corn gluten, monosodium glutamate, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, ferric orthophosphate, ferrous sulfate, thiamin mononitrate and riboflavin. Should yours?

Believe it or not, I do have a bottom line and it’s this: you get what you pay for. Is cheap food really worth the cost? I don’t think so.

Stand up for your taste buds, America! If the scientists are right, Mother Nature and Father Time are already conspiring to kill them off. Do you truly want corporate greed to help finish the job?

Start a revolution in your kitchen. Instead of buying the cheapest food you can buy, buy the best you can afford and then cook something fresh and delicious tonight.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Soffritto – An Italian Culinary Cornerstone

I was watching a rerun of “Molto Mario” the other day. As part of his instruction, Mario mentioned a soffritto and one of his guests/friends asked him, “What's a soffritto?” Good question, and one I've been asked a time or two myself.

Literally translated, soffritto is a conjugation of the Italian verb soffriggere, meaning “to lightly fry” or “to lightly brown,” and is a technique in which relatively low heat is used to “lightly fry” diced aromatics in a small amount of liquid, usually fat.

The soffritto is the first step – the culinary cornerstone – in the preparation of many common Italian dishes, especially soups and sauces. The same word with a different spelling (sofrito) applies to the same technique in Spanish cuisine, although using different ingredients. (The Spanish cousin usually consists of garlic, onion, and tomatoes.)

An Italian soffritto starts out as a battuto, the difference being that a battuto refers to the raw, chopped ingredients while a soffritto happens once you start to cook them. I don't see or hear a lot of general reference to the battuto step. Most people just start out straight from the soffritto.

In the same way that there is no standard “Italian cuisine,” there is no standard soffritto. Regional differences dictate the usage of different ingredients. A basic Southern Italian soffritto is prepared with chopped onions or scallions and sometimes with chopped garlic cloves. In Northern Italy the most common soffritto is made with minced celery, carrot and onion. This is also the common combination employed by the French for a mirepoix, although the proportion ratio usually differs.

In a soffritto, most Italian chefs use equal parts of onion, carrot and celery, whereas the French style sometimes dictates a ratio of 2:1:1. (By the way, if you're into Cajun or Creole cooking, you'll drop the carrots and replace them with green bell peppers and call the resultant combination a “trinity” or sometimes a “holy trinity.”) And what would French cooking be without butter, the fat of choice for a mirepoix?

The typical fat used for a soffritto is olive oil, although this, too, varies by region. In Valle d’Aosta or Piemonte, up near the French border, butter is frequently used for a soffritto, while lard, corn oil or other seed oils are the choice in Lombardia and the Veneto, areas more subject to a Germanic influence.

But more than any other factor, what it all comes down to is the quality of the basic ingredients. As Mario Batali often says, the Italians believe they have a God-given right to the finest and freshest produce available, and they exercise this “right” accordingly.

Whereas cooks in other cultures might think little of using produce that's somewhat limp or wilted just for the sake of “using it up,” an Italian cook would rather cut off his hand than use it to dump inferior vegetables into a pan! Okay, a bit of hyperbole there, but it gets the point across. Fresh ingredients are absolutely essential to a good soffritto.

Equally important is the temperature of the pan. The “Goldilocks Principle” applies; the pan can't be too hot and it can't be too cold. It's got to be “just right.” If the pan is too cool, the vegetables will just soak up the oil and become greasy and heavy, resulting in a greasy, heavy soffritto that will adversely affect the flavor and texture of the finished dish. If the pan gets too hot, you'll sear and caramelize the vegetables, likewise destroying the delicate balance of flavors. Heating the pan over medium heat until the oil just begins to bubble a little is a slightly more reliable method than watching for the oil to start smoking, as different oils have different smoking points.

And the order in which the ingredients are added also makes a difference. After bringing the oil or butter to temperature over medium heat, add the onions and sauté them until they become slightly translucent. If you're using garlic, it should be the next ingredient in the mix. If not, add the celery and then the carrots. The rule of thumb here is to add the strongest flavors first, finishing with more delicate tastes and textures. If you just dump everything in at the same time, the intense flavor of the raw onion will be absorbed into the other ingredients, making everything taste like onions. And since garlic cooks a lot faster than onion, if you put the garlic in first, or even at the same time as the onion, the garlic may quickly turn dark brown and become bitter, ruining the dish. All in all, the entire soffritto should cook gently for about ten minutes, or until all the ingredients are tender.

At this point, you can add mushrooms, parsley, pancetta, prosciutto, olives, tomato products or whatever else your recipe calls for. If you've properly prepared your
soffritto, your dish will be rich and flavorful in true Italian fashion.

Buon appetito!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Testing the Freshness of Eggs

You're a Really Good Egg ... or Are You?

You kind of have to wonder about the first human being who, upon observing a hard, brown (or maybe white) ovoid object dropping from the nether regions of a chicken, decided to pick it up and eat it. At least he knew it was fresh….whatever it was.

Although a lot of country folk still keep a few chickens around to produce eggs for the household, most of us townies and city dwellers depend upon our local grocery store to supply us with fresh, wholesome eggs. But since we aren’t actually present when the egg makes its debut, how do we know how fresh that egg really is?

Freshness of an egg is not only determined by the date when the egg was laid, but also by the way the egg has been stored. Thanks to modern processing and transportation, most eggs reach stores within a few days after the hens lay them. They are packaged in cartons designed to protect and preserve them, and these cartons themselves give the first indication of the freshness of the eggs they contain. Egg cartons with the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) grade shield on them, indicating that they came from a USDA-inspected plant, must display the “pack date.” This is the day that the eggs were washed, graded, and placed in the carton. Look for a three-digit code (the “Julian date”) that represents the consecutive day of the year, with January 1 being represented as 001 and December 31 coded as 365. (Do we really have to mention leap year?) Most egg cartons also display a “sell by” date beyond which they should not be sold. According to the USDA, this date can’t exceed 30 days beyond the pack date. Always purchase eggs before their “sell by” date. This is sometimes expressed as an “expiration” date, although the eggs do not truly “expire” on the date indicated.

Proper handling and storage is perhaps the most important factor in determining an egg’s freshness. If a freshly laid egg is left at room temperature for a full day, it will not be as fresh as a week old egg that has been refrigerated between 33° and 40°F from the time it was laid. Refrigerated eggs will keep without significant quality loss for about 4 or 5 weeks beyond the pack date, or for about 3 or 4 weeks after you bring them home. Buy your eggs refrigerated and store them in the refrigerator, in their original carton, as soon as you get home. Store them in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door.

Why the original carton and why not the door? It’s all about air.

The air cell within a very fresh egg is very small. However, even under refrigeration, eggs slowly lose carbon dioxide, which enlarges the size of the air cell, causing the yolk to flatten and the white to spread. It is because of this air cell that eggs are packaged pointy side down. Egg shells are also very porous. Egg cartons are designed not only to protect their fragile little inhabitants, but to preserve them against air, light, temperature variations, and odors, all of which adversely affect the freshness of the egg. And that’s also why you don’t store them in the door, even if your refrigerator has a nifty egg carton-shaped storage shelf. Every time you open the door, you’re changing the temperature and rattling the eggs around. Being very sedentary creatures, eggs really don’t appreciate all that stimulation and exercise.

So how do you tell if an egg is still fresh? Well, the obvious way is to break it. If an egg has gone bad, your nose will be the first to know. And there are physical and visual cues, as well. A fresh egg is generally heavy and compact. Small air cell, remember? A bad egg, because of a big, bad air cell, will usually feel very light in weight.

Visually, the yolk of a very fresh egg will have a round and compact appearance and it will sit positioned high up in the middle of the egg. The white that surrounds it will be thick and will stay close to the yolk. A cloudy character to the egg white indicates extra freshness, as this cloudiness is actually the aforementioned carbon dioxide. The clearer the egg white, the more the carbon dioxide has dissipated. A less fresh egg will also contain a flatter yolk that may break easily and a thinner white that spreads out quickly. It’s perfectly okay to use these eggs. They’re just not quite as fresh. Very fresh eggs are ideal for frying or poaching, but less fresh eggs can be used in sauces, cake mixtures or omelets, where the shape and texture of the egg is not as noticeable.

An egg that has a pinkish tint to the white has definitely gone round the bend and should be discarded immediately.

It is for all of these reasons that most cooks crack an egg into a separate bowl before incorporating it into other ingredients. If you’ve got a bad egg, you really want to know it before you dump it into your cake mix, soufflé or whatever.

If you just want to know if those eggs that you’ve had in the fridge for a few days are still okay to use without having to break them all open, there is a popular and time-tested method for determining freshness that involves a bowl of water. The USDA tends to frown on it, but people have been doing it for generations.

Here, too, there are variations depending on whether your grandmother used salt in the water and whether she used warm water or cold, etc. The easiest and most popular method involves filling a fairly deep bowl with plain, unsalted cool water and carefully lowering the egg into the water.
A very fresh egg will immediately sink to the bottom and lie flat on its side. This goes back to that small air cell we discussed.

As an egg starts to lose its freshness and as more air enters the egg, it will begin to float and stand upright. The smaller, pointy end will lie on the bottom of the bowl, while the broader, rounder end will point towards the surface. Such an egg is still good enough to use. However, if the egg fully floats in the water and does not touch the bottom of the bowl at all, toss it, as it is probably bad. Big, bad air cell, remember?

Finally, through the marvels of modern science, you can freeze eggs. But not in the shell, please. That follows the same logic as not cooking a whole egg in the shell in the microwave. Unpleasant things happen.

It's best to freeze eggs in small quantities so you can thaw only what you need. An easy way to do this is to store them in an ice cube tray. Once frozen, transfer them to a freezer container and label with the date and number of eggs contained. But don’t just crack them into the tray and stick them in the freezer. There’s a little prep work involved. Crack the egg into a bowl first and gently stir to break up the yolk a little. Don’t whip it up and incorporate a lot of air. Just a gentle stir will do. Then do the ice cube tray trick or store them in some other appropriate container. Eggs can be kept frozen for up to a year and should be thawed in the refrigerator a day or so before you intend to use them. Only use thawed eggs in dishes that will be thoroughly cooked. And be aware that the freezing process will somewhat degrade the taste and texture of the egg.

Egg yolks and egg whites can be frozen separately. To keep yolks from getting lumpy during storage, stir in 1/2 teaspoon of salt per 1 cup of egg. If you’re planning to use the frozen egg yolks for desserts, use a tablespoon of sugar or corn syrup per cup of egg instead of the salt.

Raw egg whites do not suffer from freezing. No salt or sugar is needed. Just be careful when separating that no yolk mixes in with the white.

You can freeze hard-cooked egg yolks if you want to use them later for toppings or garnishes. Just don’t try to freeze a whole hard-cooked egg. Cooked egg whites are very rubbery to begin with and freezing will only make them more so and they’ll be watery to boot. Not, as Alton Brown would say, “good eats.”

Now that we’ve cracked and unscrambled the mysteries of egg freshness, I wish you, as always, buon appetito.

Recipe: Creamed Potatoes

I have to admit to being a little confused about creamed potatoes. Not about how to make them; that's fairly straightforward. But about the dish itself.

For instance, some people use the term "creamed potatoes" interchangeably with "mashed potatoes." Not so. There are certain common elements -- i.e. both contain potatoes. Mashed potatoes are ... well....they're mashed, either with a fork or a masher or a ricer or a food mill, along with milk and butter to achieve a creamy consistency. While that may make them creamy potatoes, it doesn't make them creamed potatoes.

Some people call them "potatoes in white sauce" or "potatoes in cream sauce" or even "potatoes in buttery cream sauce." All good descriptions, if a little verbose. To me, they are and always have been just "creamed potatoes."

I've recently been told that they are a common Southern side dish. Well, I grew up in the Midwest where my Vermont-born mother fixed them all the time. And my Deep Southern wife -- whose grandmothers on both sides were professional cooks -- had never heard of them. Nor had any other members of her family had them or heard of them.

Well, they all have now and they love them. So, regardless of where they came from or what you call them, here's how to make them.

CREAMED POTATOES

4 to 6 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tbsp butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
paprika, for garnish (optional)
parsley, for garnish (optional)

Place the cut potatoes in a sauce pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook covered for about 15 minutes or until tender. Drain. Set aside.

In another sauce pan, melt the butter. Stir in the flour, salt and pepper. blend until smooth. Slowly add in the milk. Keep stirring, don't want it to stick here. Bring to a low boil, stirring all the time. Reduce heat and continue to cook and stir for about 2 minutes or until thickened.

Mix the cream gravy and the potatoes, blend carefully. Pour into a warmed serving dish and garnish with paprika and parsley, if desired.

Note: Alternately, the dish can be finished in the oven by pouring the potatoes and cream gravy into a casserole dish and baking for about 20 minutes at 325°.

Yields 4 to 6 servings.

Buon appetito!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In Search of Real Italian Dried Pasta

(This post is one of a series on real Italian ingredients. For more information on identifying authentic Italian food products, visit http://www.trueitalianfood.it/.)

Can you find authentic Italian dried pasta – pasta secca -- on American grocery store shelves? Kind of yes and kind of maybe.

Pasta falls into one of those tricky gray areas. There are no DOP* or IGP* standards governing the production of pasta secca. As a result, everybody and his brother produces it. If you go to any number of American grocery stores or Italian specialty shops you'll find any number of dried pastas bearing “Made in Italy” or “Product of Italy” labels. As discussed in other articles, all this means is that some portion of the production process took place in Italy. The product itself could have been manufactured in Pakistan, but as long as it was packaged in an Italian factory it qualifies as a “Product of Italy.”

American pasta producers are among the most egregious offenders when it comes to misleading consumers because American consumers are among the most easily mislead. All you have to do to make an American think he is buying an Italian product is to make it look or sound Italian. Hence, if you take a bunch of poor quality spaghetti made from substandard wheat and wrap it in red, white and green packaging and stick a name on it that ends in a vowel or incorporates the word “Mama,” you'll lead gullible Americans into thinking they've bought an authentic Italian product. I mean, spaghetti is Italian, right? And spaghetti is spaghetti, right? And the stuff in the faux Italian wrapper with the fake Italian name sells for ten pounds for a dollar, so why not buy it? All you're gonna do is dump a gallon of canned tomato sauce on it anyway, so what's the difference?

Ronco must be a real Italian brand because it's wrapped in the colors of the Italian flag and has a name that ends in “o.” Nope. Produce by the oddly named American Italian Pasta Company, which sold over six hundred million dollars' worth of spaghetti out of Kansas City in 2009.

DaVinci. Surely anything named for the great Italian master must be for real. Kinda sorta. It's imported by World Finer Foods, headquartered in New Jersey, which “sources” over 900 specialty food products from around the country and around the world. These products are then sold to a network of distributors who service supermarkets nationwide. Italy is designated as the country of origin for DaVinci products, so there is at least a chance that it has Italian roots.

Now, there are some American companies that do have actual Italian roots. Ronzoni, for example, was founded by a real Italian immigrant, Emanuele Ronzoni, who started making pasta in New York back in the 1880s. But just because my grandfather supplied bootleg hooch to Chicago back in 1921, does that qualify me as a master distiller today? I seriously doubt that the stuff ConAgra dumps into cans these days under the “Chef Boyardee” label bears any remote resemblance to the food Ettore Boiardi once sent home with his Cleveland restaurant customers in used milk bottles. Let's hammer that nail one more time; just because it has an Italian name doesn't make it an Italian product.

So how does an average American food shopper get quality Italian pasta? The closest you'll find will come from either De Cecco or Barilla. Both are noted Italian pasta makers. Both are headquartered in Italy. De Cecco is based in Fara San Martino, and Barilla is located in Parma. Each has a corporate office in the United States.

Barilla S.p.A. was founded in Parma in 1877 by Pietro Barilla. It's still there today. Pietro never left Italy and neither did his company, although its products are now marketed all over the world. The company is still privately held by a fourth generation of Barilla family owners and is a true Italian company producing a true Italian product. The difference is that while Barilla bills itself as “Italy's #1 Brand of Pasta,” its products are produced all over the world from locally grown ingredients. In the US that means Ames, Iowa. They use the same procedures in Ames as they do in Parma. Even the production machinery is the same. But it's still made in the United States.

De Cecco, on the other hand, generates more than one-third of its total revenue through export. De Cecco was founded in 1886 by brothers Nicola and Filippo De Cecco in the small town of Fara San Martino in central Italy's Abruzzo region. Destroyed by German bombs in World War II, De Cecco rebuilt, adding facilities in Pescara and a new factory in Fara San Martino to meet increased post-war demand. Since all of De Cecco's products are manufactured in one of two Italian plants and exported to markets worldwide, the short answer to the authentic Italian pasta question would probably be De Cecco.

But does it all really make a difference? Isn't pasta all the same? Emphatically not! I could go on for another two pages breaking down the various types and grades of durum wheat and the semolina flour produced from the wheat and the manufacturing processes that convert the flour into pasta. I could talk about the relative merits of pasta extruders that employ brass or bronze dies versus those that use plastic or Teflon. But the best way to see the difference is by experience.

Not long ago, some in-laws were planning a big spaghetti meal for a special occasion. My offer of assistance was eagerly accepted. Unfortunately, I was not involved in the buying phase and had to make do with the cheapest store brand spaghetti money could buy. And it was simply dreadful. When cooked for a length of time that should have yielded perfect al dente results, the cheap pasta remained chewy and underdone. Another couple of minutes in the pot and it turned out looking and tasting like the mushy, textureless stuff that comes out of a can. In other words, the American ideal.

You can also judge good quality dried pasta by looking at it. Extremely smooth pastas are the result of cheap and fast manufacturing processes. They'll have a slick texture when cooked and won't hold on to a sauce like pastas with a visibly rougher texture, a sign of a more authentic, artisinal approach. Color is important, too. Good pasta has a nice light – almost pale blond – color. Cheap pasta is a dark yellow, indicative of a high-heat drying process.

Trust me. If you're one of those people who buys the cheap stuff because it's saves fifty cents less than the good stuff, splurge a little and buy some De Cecco or Barilla. Or at least take a gamble on one of those “Made in Italy” brands. Cook it properly – and throwing a pound of spaghetti into a two-quart saucepan with one quart of water to which you have added a half teaspoon of salt and a cup of oil and then cooking it for fifteen minutes is not, not, NOT the proper way to cook it – and you will immediately see the difference real Italian quality can make.

*[DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) and IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) are the Italian translations of the EU's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).]

Friday, January 7, 2011

How to Make the Best Scrambled Eggs

As a follow-up to my surprisingly popular article on “The Best Way to Cook Bacon,” allow me, please, to expound upon the delicious glories of the perfectly scrambled egg.

Without getting into the debate on which came first, let’s just say that eggs have been around for a long, long time. People who know about such things say that wild fowl were domesticated as early as 3200 BC and that they were laying eggs for the Chinese as early as 1400 BC. In Europe, people were reaping the rewards of domesticated hens around 600 BC. There are no precise records detailing whom the first person was to pick up the hard-shelled ovoid sphere that dropped from the nether regions of a chicken and decided that it might be something good to eat, but, following that brave soul’s example, most people today do, indeed, eat eggs produced by the chicken, or Gallus domesticus.

With its thirteen essential nutrients all prepackaged in a convenient “to go” container, some consider the egg to be nature’s perfect food. Advertising people have dubbed it “The Incredible, Edible Egg,” probably because promoting “The Incredible, Inedible Egg,” while more alliterative, would be self-defeating.

Be that as it may, eggs are enormously versatile. You can fry, poach or bake them. You can cook them in the shell and turn them into omelets, frittatas, quiches and strata casseroles. As ingredients, you can use them in cakes and cheesecakes, cookies, custards, meringues, pie fillings, soufflés and even pastries.

Best of all, you can scramble them.

I have it on good authority that God likes his eggs scrambled. [Hey! Careful with the lightning bolts!]

But if you’ve ever eaten at a Waffle House, Denny’s or IHOP, you’ll know that not just any idiot can scramble eggs, although many of them are employed by these establishments to do so.

No, there’s a little more involved in the perfect scrambled egg than breaking an egg into a pan, mixing it all up and frying it to within an inch of its life before dumping it onto a plate next to a couple of slices of overcooked or undercooked bacon. Any doofus in a stained white shirt wearing a greasy apron and a funny paper hat can do that. (See the aforementioned establishments.)

If you want your scrambled eggs to turn out the way G…..errr…You Know Who…likes them, simply follow the following procedures.

First of all, mise en place. Now, if you think I just said something dirty in French, then you didn’t read my article on having everything prepared and in place before you start cooking. Lay out your equipment, starting with a non-stick frying pan of appropriate size. A ten-inch pan works well for four eggs. Adjust up or down accordingly. I know, a lot of people don’t like non-stick surfaces, but I’m just saying……

You’ll also need a small prep bowl of some sort, a small to medium metal or glass mixing bowl, a wooden spoon, preferably one with a flat edge, and an ordinary balloon whisk. Culinary stores these days are overstocked with a vast variety of specialized whisking devices, some of which look like they might do double duty as S&M accessories. They supposedly aerate better or blend better or whatever, but mostly, they just cost more. A plain old whisk works just fine. As with many things, it’s all in how you use it.

Next, set your eggs out a few minutes in advance so they can come to room temperature. (I was going to say “lay” your eggs out, but I decided not to.) Room temperature eggs whisk to higher volumes, but I’m sure you already knew that.

Measure out some milk and let it come to room temperature, too. Use about a teaspoon of milk per egg. Skim-milk, low-fat milk, or water can be used in place of whole milk but the creamy texture of the finished product is reduced.

Have a salt cellar, shaker, box or whatever you use at the ready, preferably containing kosher salt. Why kosher salt? The larger grains are easier to handle when cooking and they also draw moisture out of foods more effectively than other salts. Although all kitchen salts are at least 97 ½ percent sodium chloride, the finer grain of common table salt makes it “saltier” than kosher salt. A single teaspoon of table salt contains more salt than a tablespoon of kosher or sea salt.

Finally, measure out about a tablespoon of unsalted butter. Okay, before you start throwing things, you can use regular salted butter. Most cooks prefer unsalted because of the ability to control the salt content of the prepared food. Better that the end result be a little under salted than over salted. If you must use salted butter, just use less salt elsewhere. And for G…..errr…Heaven’s …. sake, use good old real honest-to-goodness natural, I’m from Wisconsin and I ought to know, butter. If you really think that a combination of water, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, whey, vegetable mono and diglycerides, polyglycerol esters, soy lecithin, lactic acid, vitamin A (palmitate), beta carotene and artificial flavors can ever be made to taste like butter, then we probably need to be having another discussion entirely. Think of it like this: have you ever heard of butter promising to taste like margarine? Hmmm?

Now the fun starts! (Yeah, I know, “Finally.”)

Carefully break the eggs, one at a time, into your prep bowl. Why? Glad you asked. It’s hard to examine an egg while it’s still in the shell. On the off chance that you’ve got an “off” egg, you’d rather find out about it before you dump it in with a bunch of good eggs, wouldn’t you? Also, it’s easier to fish a little errant shell fragment out of a little bowl containing one egg than it is to get the same tiny fragment out of a big bowl as it swims around among four or six or eight eggs. As you check out each egg, transfer it to an appropriate size metal or glass mixing bowl.

Add the milk and a pinch of salt to the eggs and whisk together, beating vigorously for about two minutes. Use an elliptical motion. If you’re going round and round with your whisk, you’re just stirring. Whisk until the yolks and the whites are all a nice bright yellow and completely blended together. If you don’t have a whisk, a fork will do, but a whisk will do better. Alternatively, you can mix the eggs, milk and salt in a blender for about twenty seconds, but why would you go to all that trouble? If you do, be sure to allow the mixture to set for a couple of minutes to let the resulting foam settle.

Now, put your tablespoon of butter into the non-stick frying pan and heat over medium heat. Butter burns more easily than the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil stuff, so keep the heat at medium and keep a watchful eye on the pan. When the butter is liquefied, swirl it around in the pan to thoroughly coat the bottom and then add the egg mixture.

Don’t jump right in with the wooden spoon and start stirring things up. Let the eggs set just a little. Then, at the first sign of setting, use your flat wooden spoon to push the outer edges of the eggs in toward the center of the pan while, at the same time, tilting the pan to distribute the still runny parts of the eggs. Continue this action as the eggs continue to set. Use your spoon to break apart any large pieces as they form.

After a minute or so, there won’t be any more runny parts to push toward the center. Now’s the time to flip all the eggs over and allow them to continue cooking for another thirty seconds to a minute, depending on how firm you want them.

Notice I said “firm.” At this point, your eggs should be nice and creamy and soft. Some people like them a little less soft and creamy, and that’s okay. Keep the heat down and the stirring up until the eggs get to where you want them. The difference between “firm” and “overcooked” is a matter of time and temperature.

Actually, heat is the key to the whole process. This is another of those instances where low and slow is the way to go. If you’ve ever been served a plate of scrambled eggs that were tough, watery and brown around the edges, they were cooked by somebody in a hurry.

When you crank up the heat to get your eggs to cook faster, they can go from cooked to overcooked in about five seconds.

A chemical change occurs when the eggs first begin to set, which happens when they’ve reached a temperature of about 145°. They’re actually edible at this point, albeit a little runny. Keeping them moving around in the pan maintains the cooking temperature while allowing the texture to firm up gradually. Boosting the heat – or not keeping the eggs moving – allows the temperature of the eggs to reach 165°, where the protein in the eggs undergoes a second chemical change, resulting in a tighter protein matrix. This change squeezes water out of the eggs, resulting in tough, watery eggs. The browning represents the beginnings of caramelization – or, since protein and amino acids are involved, it may be a Maillard reaction, I’m not sure. Either way, your eggs are burned and taste nasty.

If you have a real phobia about a frying pan producing dried out, burned up eggs, you actually can use a bain-marie, or double boiler, to cook scrambled eggs. Again, I don’t know why you would, but you can.

The cooking method is the same; it’s just the cooking medium that’s different. Cooking scrambled eggs in a double boiler ensures that the eggs won’t brown and thus is considered an “old classical kitchen” method for turning out perfectly cooked eggs. But it’s really time consuming, unless you have one of those fancy cooktops that boils water in 90 seconds.

You can also scramble your eggs in the oven by putting all the ingredients in a glass or metal bowl and alternately cooking and whisking and cooking and whisking and cooking and whisking…..until the desired consistency is achieved.

This method also applies to [deep breath] microwaved scrambled eggs. Just mix up your egg mixture, put in a microwave-safe bowl and zap it for about thirty seconds. Take it out, stir it up, nuke it again, take it out, stir it up, nuke it again…. until the eggs are done to your liking – or until the resultant rubbery substance can be molded into playthings for small children and pets.

And if you’re a person of the Orthodox Jewish persuasion, all bets are off because you’re not supposed to be mixing milk or butter with your eggs, in which case, I suppose you can use water and [shudder] margarine.

Now, if you haven’t already done so, go look up and read my article on how to cook bacon (unless you’re Jewish) and head for the kitchen. Maybe I’ll write about hash browns or toast next.

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Worst Cooks in America?"

Okay, I gotta ask; “Where do they get these people??!!”

I'm talking about Food Network's “Worst Cooks in America.” In case you're not familiar with the show, a couple of pro chefs – this season it's Anne Burrell and Robert Irvine – gather a group of sixteen people who, from all indications, have trouble boiling water and split them up into two teams. Anne takes eight and Robert takes eight and the culinary mayhem begins as they attempt to turn “kitchen zeroes into kitchen heroes.” At the end of the ordeal, two contestants will theoretically have learned enough to prepare a restaurant quality meal for a panel of judges. The one who makes the best meal is the winner.

This is the program's second season. When it debuted last year, it was suggested that perhaps there were some ringers in the mix who just wanted their fifteen minutes of fame. But the producers insisted that these folks were for real. Attempts to conceal knife skills and other talents would be easy to spot, they said. We were assured that the show is on the up and up.

So I ask again, “Where do they get these people??!!

I literally cringed my way through the season premiere the other night. Now, I'm probably not the best one to comment on the whole “can't cook” situation. There were already two generations of restaurant cooks and chefs perched in my family tree when I started cooking at age seven. Most of the relatives who weren't pros were exceptional home cooks. I learned early and I learned from the best.

So when a contestant presented her “skill drill” dish to the chefs and it turned out to be a “quesidilla” made of squeeze cheese over bologna and crackers on a tortilla, I was incredulous. I mean, my kid was making spice cakes from scratch when he was ten, and here's a twenty-seven year-old woman putting canned cheese on bologna and crackers?

Watching the chicken butchery was painful. Okay, it's not something every casual cook can do, but I thought pretty much every human being knew which side of the bird the breasts were on. (I'll give you a hint lady: they're on the same side as yours are. The front!!)

And I have to admit after more than a half-century of life that I have never heard chicken breasts called “boobs” before. At least that contestant – a former model -- was on the right track.

Then there was the woman who invented the culinary equivalent of mustard gas by throwing her chicken into a bone dry pan, dumping about a pound of cayenne pepper on it, and cranking up the fire until everybody in the room was coughing and gagging from the fumes. Her rationale was, “If I add a lot of flavor, it might cover up the fact that I don't know what I'm doing.”

Two people working side by side took the opposite extreme and put so much oil in their pans that they managed to set them on fire one right after the other.

Another woman tried sauteing her vegetables in about a quart of oil. “I never know how much to use.” Needless to say, the dish was not a success.

Robert asked one guy if he was cremating his food just for fun.

I nearly choked when I saw the woman attempting a quiche into which she dumped a literal handful of whole black peppercorns.

I felt sorry for the husband of the woman who admitted that in twenty-seven years of marriage, she hadn't cooked twenty-seven meals. She also talked about how her food “taste-ez.” Not how it “tastes” but how it “taste-ez.” However, since she is a teacher maybe I've been saying it wrong all these years.

The same woman chased her salmon all over the pan with a spatula while crying, “Turn! Turn!” It's okay, honey. I haven't taught my food to turn over on command either. When Robert refused to taste the blackened results, her advice to him was, “Turn it over and get some from the bottom.”

Speaking of turning, one fellow tried an advanced technique. He was attempting to flip whatever he was cooking by putting a plate over the top of the pan and then turning the pan over onto the plate. Good technique. I've done it from time to time. But I also know what a pot holder is. He didn't. Ooops! Little hot there, buddy?

Then there was the darling of the Centers for Disease Control who shocked Anne – and anybody else with half a brain – by thoroughly fondling his raw chicken and then moving right along to handling everything else in sight without having washed his hands!

My absolute favorite moment was watching Robert's face as he observed one member of his team pulling a chicken apart with his hands because he said it was easier for him than using a knife.

The unsuccessful auditioner who left the imprint of a steam iron burned into an attempt at grilled cheese. The guy who had no idea how to tell if his chicken was done. (It wasn't.) The woman who spent several minutes examining a pepper mill trying to figure out how to use it. Okay, it's fun to laugh at all this, but it's sad, too. One contestant admitted that her kids eat peanut butter and jelly nearly every night because she can't cook. Another, the former model, lamented her weight gain and blamed it on her inability to prepare anything other than junk food.

And there were a few personal triumphs. One woman, a vegetarian, had never even touched a chicken before, much less cut one up. Not only did she do it, she did it pretty well.

I realize it takes a great deal of courage to admit to your shortcomings and then stand up and display them before a national audience. For that, all these people are to be admired. They are to be applauded, too, for their desire to improve themselves.

But I'm still left with the question I started out with. And I'm still truly seeking the answer. I'm not trying to be a smart-ass. I'm really not. As one who has never faced the problem, I am honestly perplexed by it. I struggle because I can't put myself in their shoes and I can't comprehend people who are unable to do something that comes to me as naturally as breathing.

I understand that not everybody went to culinary school. I know that not everybody studies food and cooking the way I do. My coffee table is littered with copies of Cook's Illustrated and La Cucina Italiana, there are dozens of cookbooks in my kitchen, and there's a 300 page textbook from the Culinary Institute of America on my nightstand.

But cooking is a basic skill. You learn to walk, you learn to talk, you learn to read, you learn to write, you learn to cook. So how did it happen that these sixteen people – among them a teacher, two nurses, an engineer, a speech pathologist, and a guy pursuing his PhD – managed to skip such an essential step in their basic education? Since eating closely follows breathing on the list of things you have to do in order to stay alive, it would seem to me that cooking should be the next thing on the list. And yet there they are. And thousands more like them.

I mean, there's “cooking” and then there's “COOKING,” you know? These days, I can turn out an eight course Italian meal from scratch without a second thought. But there was a lot of Minute Rice and brown 'n serve rolls on the menu forty years ago. You learn as you go. But if you don't even go, how are you ever going to learn?

I hope these sixteen “Worst Cooks in America” are inspired by the experience to become, if not the best cooks in America, better cooks, at the very least. Moreover, I hope that the thousands like them in the viewing audience will also be similarly inspired. Even if they never achieve professional proficiency, mastery of box mixes and canned products would be a big improvement over squeeze cheese on bologna and crackers.

I've been tooting the trumpet for years: Everybody should know how to cook. Stop feeding your kids a steady diet of fast food. Show 'em what real food is and where it comes from. Don't pamper them by cooking everything yourself. Make them help. You held out your arms to them when they took those first wobbly steps toward self-sufficiency. Now guide those steps into the kitchen. Demand that cooking and home economics courses be ramped up in your schools. And drag the boys into them, kicking and screaming if necessary. If you consider yourself to be like one of the sixteen and you can't get Robert Irvine or Anne Burrell to give you cooking lessons, get them on your own. If nothing else, watch cooking shows on TV and hang out with friends and relatives who can cook. You'll be amazed at what you can learn by watching.

There should be no “worst” cooks in America. There's no reason or excuse for it. There should only be good cooks and better cooks. Not good for television, maybe, but better for society.