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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!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Live From Atlanta! The Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show

Wow! What a day! This year's edition of the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show in Atlanta is in full swing and it looks like it's going to be bigger and better than last year's.

Founder Denise Medved, with able assistance from Jill Collins and an excellent staff, have brought more vendors, more exhibitors, more local chefs, and more celebrities to the Cobb Galleria Center than ever before for this fourth iteration of what's quickly becoming  a classic culinary event.

A big feather in the cap this year is the inclusion of recognition by the celebrated James Beard Foundation and appearances by several James Beard chefs. I'll be talking with some of them tomorrow, so more to come on that score.

Today's highlight, of course, was Giada De Laurentiis. For all you haters, there's an old Italian phrase: Va'a fare in culo, often expressed more simply as "fongool." (Go look it up.) After years of worshipping my personal Italian culinary goddess from afar on TV and in print, I finally got the chance to worship at her feet -- literally. She was seated in a big overstuffed chair in the green room when we met and appropriately placed furniture near her was scarce, so in order to get close enough to her for her voice to register on my recorder, I sort of had to squat next to her chair, which eventually turned to lowering my aged bulk to a seated position on the floor. At least I didn't drool on her shoes. The results of the conversation will be forthcoming soon.

But I will tell you this much now; Giada put on a fabulous show for her fans. She is easily the most personable celebrity chef I have seen to date. She interacts with her audience and seems to enjoy the interaction as much as they do. In fact, when asked by a fan to name her culinary inspirations, Giada responded that her fans were among her inspirations and cited Q&A sessions like the one she was participating in as a source for the development of many of her recipes. She even engaged volunteers from the audience to assist her in the preparation of the three dishes she presented during her hour-long demo. She moved seamlessly back and forth between fans with questions lined up at microphones and her volunteer sous chefs on the stage. And the lucky helpers got to take the finished dishes back to their seats. It was an entertaining hour that passed far too quickly.

I talked to numerous vendors with interesting stories to tell and useful products to sell. And my sales resistance being what it is, I wound up owning several of said useful products. I'll be reviewing some of those goods and detailing some of those conversations soon.

Paula Deen and Pat and Gina Neely are making appearances on the celebrity stage tomorrow. Paula, I understand, is dealing with a family crisis that will limit her availabilty this weekend, but I may get a few minutes with the Neelys. And I've got lots more people to interview before the show wraps up tomorrow afternoon. Then the show moves on to Houston and Washington, DC. You really owe it to yourself to try to make it to one of these fabulous events, the largest of their kind in the United States. Go to http://www.metrocooking.com/ to find out more and check back here from time to time over the next few days as I sort out my thoughts and experiences from this year's great Atlanta show.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Man's Place Is In the Kitchen

Overcoming Generations Of Uninformed Prejudice

I don't get it. Actually, I don't think I've ever gotten it, but the older I get, the less I get it.

It's a form of sexism, I suppose. According to one dictionary definition, sexism exhibits “attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles.” Like that other despicable “ism” that defines a person based solely on matters of pigmentation, it is a prejudice that is hard to understand in today's world. What makes it particularly difficult to fathom – at least for me – is its ubiquity.

Before I go any further down the tangent trail, let me clue you in as to the specific nature of my rising rant: the idea that cooking is “woman's work.”

If this were an attitude held solely by the occupants of the bottom rung of the intellectual ladder that champion totin' guns and racin' cars and openin' beer bottles with your teeth as the ultimate in “manly” activities, I wouldn't be surprised. Disgusted, maybe, but not surprised. However, when such outdated, uneducated, backward drivel comes out of the mouths of otherwise intelligent men, I am both surprised and disgusted.

I have a few knuckle-draggers grafted into the lower branches of my family tree. One such troglodyte refuses to allow his male child to learn how to cook because “cooking is for girls.” I find myself barely resisting the urge to jam an apple in this moron's mouth so as to better illustrate the image of the sexist pig that he truly is.

Cooking is for girls,” eh? Let's look at a few recent James Beard Award winners: Tom Colicchio, Timothy Hollingsworth, Jason Wilson, Jeff Michaud, Koren Grieveson, David Kinch, Nicole Plue, Alexander Roberts, Michael Schwartz, Daniel Humm, Sean Brock, Claude Le Tohic, Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier. Yep. Il stronzo uomo delle caverne is right. There are, indeed, two girls on that list.

I really struggle, though, when I hear a well-educated, respected professional, like a good friend's father, say something along the lines of, “Men don't belong in the kitchen.” My only explanation is that he is old and a product of his generation and its uninformed prejudices.

A recent tally of top earning chefs includes Wolfgang Puck, Rachael Ray, Gordon Ramsay, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, Alain Ducasse, Paula Deen, Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, Bobby Flay, and Anthony Bourdain. By the benighted reckoning of my friend's father, only two of those named “belong” in their professions.

“Only sissies like to cook,” spouts a redneck relative. Oh, please, please just let me be in the room when you say that to Emeril Lagasse, Marcus Samuelsson, Rocco DiSpirito, Marco Canora, Masaharu Morimoto, Scott Conant, José Andres, Todd English, Rick Bayless, John Besh, Jamie Oliver, Tyler Florence, Michael Chiarello, or Daniel Boulud! And give me a chance to get a mop and bucket before you make such a stupid comment to Robert Irvine.

I can understand where the prejudice comes from. In the shallow, sexist view of a disappearing society, women do the cooking and cleaning while men do the “real” work. Women knit and swap recipes while real men go out and provide for their families. Men bring home the bacon and women cook it. That's the way it's always been and that's the way it's supposed to be, right? Never mind that the last half of the 20th century knocked that kind of Neanderthal thinking into a box and buried it. Some people haven't gotten the memo yet.

Although it may be casting pearls before swine, let me attempt to enlighten the unenlightened; in the everyday Walmart world, grandmas and mammas and aunts and sisters and wives may be the queens of their kitchens. But when it comes to wearing the crown in the professional culinary world, men absolutely rule.

This is not opinion; it's inescapable historic fact. I don't imagine that the names Antonin Careme and Auguste Escoffier would mean much to the average redneck, but those men created the modern professional kitchen. Women might customarily hold sway over the home kitchen, but in the arena of cooking for dollars, men have always made the decisions that influence the direction of the industry. Don't believe me? Ask a female chef – if you can find one. I'm sure she'll tell you all about the 77% male dominance in the restaurant industry. Or visit a local culinary school where the “sissy” boys outnumber the girls who “belong in the kitchen” by a ratio of 7 to 3. Things are slowly changing, but isn't it an ironic twist on the idea that only women belong in the kitchen that on a professional level they have to fight to get there?

Of course, if you aren't an habitue of five-star restaurants, you could just drop by your local IHOP, Waffle House, Cracker Barrel, Olive Garden, Applebee's, etc. and see who's “manning” the stove.

So tell me again: “Only sissies like to cook.” “Cooking is for girls.” “Men don't belong in the kitchen.” How do you breathe with your head jammed that far up your backside?

Not that I particularly care. Along with Shaw, I learned a long time ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and the pig enjoys it. So, if any of you raging rednecks or rampant reactionaries want to take issue with me, mount your tractors or hop in your pickups and come on over. You'll find me in the kitchen. It's where I've been for most of the last half-century. It's where I belong.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Really Tasty and Successful Green Bean Dish

Fresh from my Easter table, here's a green bean dish that everybody raves about. It's easy and delicious. What more could you want?

FAGIOLINI ITALIANA CON PANCETTA
(Italian Green Beans with Bacon)

4 or 5 slices pancetta or bacon
1 lb Italian green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 medium carrots, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
Kosher salt
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)

In a large skillet, cook the pancetta or bacon over medium heat until crisp, turning occasionally. Remove when crisp and drain on paper towels, reserving about 2 tablespoons of drippings in the skillet.

Meanwhile, in separate saucepans, precook the green beans and the carrots in small amounts of boiling salted water for 4 or 5 minutes; drain. (Note: you can also steam the vegetables to retain more nutrients, flavor, and color.)

Add the partially cooked green beans, carrots, butter, and garlic to the reserved bacon drippings in  the skillet. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes or until the vegetables are crisp-tender. Crumble the bacon and stir it into the vegetable mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. Transfer to a serving bowl. Top with freshly grated Parmesan if desired.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

As always, I recommend high quality ingredients. Use fresh vegetables if possible. Frozen are okay, but stay away from canned. Use unsalted butter. Salted is okay if you must, but watch your seasoning later. (That greasy, yellow-colored cousin of solid vegetable shortening, margarine, does not exist in my kitchen.) Use fresh garlic. Garlic powder is okay but lacks the depth of flavor imparted by fresh. Same with the pepper. Pre-ground pepper is weak compared to freshly ground. I use kosher salt for everything, but sea salt is good, too. If you want to garnish with Parmesan cheese and all you have is the sawdust-like substance that comes in a can, just skip it. You'll be better off. There's a reason Parmigiano-Reggiano is the "King of Cheeses." A "princely" domestic Parmesan is acceptable if the "King" is unavailable, but the "fool" in the green can should always be barred from the court.

Buon appetito!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Granita: A Delightful (and Easy) Italian Dessert

With hot weather on the horizon, thoughts turn to cool, refreshing desserts that are easy to prepare.

A granita is a cousin to an Italian Ice. Believed to have originated in Sicily, granitas are great for summertime desserts or refreshers and they can be made out of just about any frozen liquid; fruit juice, coffee, tea or even wine. Some people use juices like lemon, lime, orange or apple. Some use freshly pureed fruits like raspberry, peach, watermelon, blackberry, blueberry, or strawberry. I'll use strawberry to illustrate this deliciously simple recipe, but the procedure is the same for any fruit or liquid.

Granita di Fragole Fresche

1 1/2 cups water
2 cups fresh pureed strawberries
1 tbsp lemon zest (or 1 tsp lemon juice)
1 cup sugar
mint leaves (optional, for garnish)

Combine ingredients in a small pan and heat, stirring, until sugar dissolves.
Remove mixture from heat and let cool. Pour cooled mixture into a glass or metal baking dish, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for about forty-five minutes to an hour.

Remove from freezer and scrape down the length of the surface with a fork, breaking it up into icy flakes. Return to freezer for another hour or so and then scrape again. Freeze for about one more hour, then scrape and serve.

When served, the granita should look like a dry, fluffy red snow. If it's too solid, let it sit in the refrigerator for about half an hour until you can scrape it with a fork.

Scoop the granita into bowls, goblets or parfait glasses. If you want to get really fancy, granita looks great in a martini glass with a little sugar around the rim. (Dampen the rim of the glass with water and dip it in sugar.) Garnish with mint leaves, if desired, and serve immediately.

Yields 4 to 6 servings

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

There's No Such Thing as "Garlic Bread"

When my son first moved to Italy several years ago, he called me with two observations: you can have too much cheese on a pizza and there's no such thing as garlic bread. I'll defer comment on the first note for now, but allow me to elaborate on the second.

Italian garlic bread,” as found in American restaurants and grocery store frozen food aisles, indeed does not exist in real Italian cuisine. It is still another Italian-American creation that nobody in Italy would recognize.

Now, there's nothing wrong with garlic bread as Americans know it. I order it in restaurants and have been known to toss a frozen loaf into the old grocery cart when the mood strikes me. But make no mistake, if you want to serve an authentic Italian-style “garlic bread” with your next spaghetti dinner, stay away from the buttery loaves from the freezer case. In fact, stay away from butter altogether.

Garlic bread” is the American cousin of a classic Italian preparation called bruschetta. The word comes from the Italian bruscare, meaning to roast or toast over coals. First things first; that's pronounced broo-SKAYT-ah if you want to sound like an Italian or broo-SKET-ah if you want to sound like an American trying to sound like an Italian. It is only pronounced broo-SHET-uh if you want to sound completely clueless.

The common American version of “garlic bread” calls for thick slices of crusty bread – Italian or French – to be liberally coated with butter that has been infused with either garlic powder or garlic salt. Sometimes you'll find a little oregano added to up the “Italian” factor. Topping with some combination of Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses to make “cheesy garlic bread” is also a popular option on American menus. The buttery, garlicky bread is then toasted in an oven or broiler until it's lightly golden brown.

Bruschetta also starts with thick slices of crusty bread, but that's about where the resemblance ends. In an Italian kitchen, a very basic bruschetta – the closest equivalent to “garlic bread” – begins by lightly toasting the bread on a grill or a grill pan. (You can use a broiler if need be.) For the next step, Italian cooks peel a garlic clove and cut off an end. Then they rub the cut end of the clove lightly over the surface of the toasted bread to achieve a subtle garlic flavor. The bread is then drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. (Some people drizzle first then toast, others toast first then drizzle. I'm part of the “drizzle first” crowd because I find doing so allows the olive oil to impart a nice golden color as the bread toasts.) Sometimes a very light pinch of coarse salt finishes the process.

Okay, you may ask, so where did the buttery version come from? The answer is fairly simple. Italian immigrant cooks settling in American cities often had to make do with what was at hand. The concept of “making do” is at the heart of many of Italy's regional cuisines. As hard as it is to believe today when olive oil can often be found on corner convenience store shelves, it wasn't always so. In fact, extra-virgin olive oil could only be found in ethnic neighborhood specialty stores as recently as twenty years ago. So immigrant cooks turned to the most available culinary fat in America, butter.

Now, what I've described here is just the bare-bones basis of a bruschetta. From that foundation Italians layer on a variety of toppings, including finely diced tomatoes, savory fresh basil, rich roasted peppers, and paper-thin slices of prosciutto. Various cheeses can also be used to finish a proper bruschetta.

Another question sometimes comes up; what's the difference between bruschetta and crostini? Really, the only difference is the bread. Bruschetta is usually made on rather thick slices of bread cut from a big rustic loaf. Crostini, on the other hand, are “little toasts” and are usually made on thinner slices cut from a baguette or something similar. From that point, whatever you put on them is pretty much the same, excepting only that thicker slices of bread hold up better under heavier toppings.

So next time you're hungry for a little “garlic bread,” bypass the frozen grocery store stuff and make some the true Italian way. You'll be amazed at the difference traditional techniques and fresh ingredients make.

Monday, April 18, 2011

You, Too, Can Cook Like an Olive Garden Chef

Getting a “Culinary Institute of Tuscany” Education Without Leaving Your Home
Over the past few years, I've written more than a few commentaries about Olive Garden. While none of them have been out and out bashes of the place, none of them have been particularly complimentary either. 

Understand, I have no personal ax to grind with the chain. It's not like they dosed one of my toddlers with sangria or anything. No, my issue is broader: through a series of successful business and marketing maneuvers, Olive Garden has managed to position itself in the American consciousness as the “go to” place to go to when you're looking for Italian food. And that's just wrong. Olive Garden is about as authentically Italian as my Grandma Ida's haggis. And yet this scenario plays out hundreds of times each day: “Honey, I'm hungry for Italian tonight.” “Okay, dear. Let's go to Olive Garden.” And off they go, bypassing thousands of real, authentic Italian eateries that don't have huge corporate advertising budgets.

So it was with a rather mean-spirited sense of delight that I observed the recent media revelation that one of Olive Garden's key advertising gimmicks – the “Culinary Institute of Tuscany” – is a fraud. I've always known that, but I am only one little voice crying out in the culinary wilderness. However, when Time.com, prompted by the viral online revelations of a person claiming to be a former Olive Garden manager, set out to answer the question, “What Actually Goes On at Olive Garden's 'Culinary Institute' in Tuscany,” I felt totally vindicated by the answer.

There ain't no such place.

(See the article at http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/04/15/what-actually-goes-on-at-olive-gardens-culinary-institute-in-tuscany/)

Turns out that the folks at Darden Concepts, Inc., the parent group behind Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse, and others, simply rent rooms at a Tuscan resort hotel with an attached restaurant during the off season. Olive Garden owns nothing; the place belongs to a local winery. But the company sends select members of Olive Garden management off in shifts to enjoy week-long, all expenses paid visits to Italy. While there, said managers spend a little time in the restaurant and its kitchen where they talk with a chef about Italian food. They visit the winery and a fresh food market and they eat lots of Italian goodies.

I did the same thing on a recent visit to North Carolina. I ate at a couple of great Italian restaurants, talked to the chef at one and to the manager at the other, visited a couple of wineries, and went to a local market. I guess that makes me a graduate of the “Yadkin Valley Culinary Institute.” (Hey, if Darden can make 'em up, so can I.)

But if even attending the “Yadkin Valley Culinary Institute” is beyond your means, here's a cheap and easy way to get the same degree of culinary education that Olive Garden offers. Go to your local grocery store and get a nice bottle of wine. Bring it home, pour yourself a glass, sit down at your computer and log on to www.olivegarden.com. Go to the “recipes” tab, and there you can watch videos of Chef Paolo Lafata – the same “Culinary Institute of Tuscany” guy you see in the TV commercials – as he prepares “authentic Italian recipes.”

I'm serious! I've appropriated a number of Chef Paolo's recipes and they're pretty good, provided you get the right ingredients and know enough about cooking to keep from burning yourself or cutting your finger off. If you can find your way around in a kitchen, if you can assemble good, fresh ingredients, and if you can follow the recipes on the website, you, too, can cook like an Olive Garden “chef.” You can even claim to have attended the online version of the “Culinary Institute of Tuscany” and to have studied with Chef Paolo!

Make no mistake, Paolo Lafata is the real deal. Educated at the Istituto Vittorio Emanuale, he did a stint at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago and spent seven years in the kitchens at Walt Disney World. He's Darden's Senior Executive Chef and Chef Director and he even made five appearances on “The Tony Danza Show” back in 2004. Now that's Italian! His home kitchen is not exactly in Tuscany, but it's nearby – in Orlando, Florida.

And if for some reason you find that you just can't master the skills of a “Culinary Institute of Tuscany” graduate, there's always this option: “Honey, I'm hungry for Italian tonight.” “Okay, dear. I found a great little authentic Italian place. It's right down the street from Olive Garden.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Before You Take Your Kid To Olive Garden...

What is it with chain restaurants boozing up the kiddies this week? Hot on the heels of the debacle at a Michigan "Applebee's" in which a 15-month old got a margarita instead of apple juice, now a Florida Olive Garden serves up sangria to a toddler.

Read the Tampa Bay Online story here: http://www2.tbo.com/content/2011/apr/13/131837/toddler-mistakenly-served-sangria-at-lakeland-oliv/news-breaking/

In case you're not up on your alcoholic beverages, sangria is a mixture of red wine, grenadine, and vermouth mixed together with fruit in a simple syrup of sugar and water and served over ice. Olive Garden describes it as a "refreshing beverage, perfect for any outdoor party." Except, maybe, kid's birthday parties?

A Chicago School Bans Home Made Lunches

You've Got to Be Kidding, Right?
Whatever you think of Jamie Oliver's “Food Revolution,” the guy's on the right track in attempting to focus attention on America's abysmal diet, especially regarding nutrition in schools. But instead of shining his spotlight on Los Angeles, where he was recently shut of of the school system by local authorities, maybe he should have visited Chicago. One school there, Little Village Academy, seems to think it has the answer; no more homemade lunches.

Yeah, you read that right. According to a Chicago Tribune report, the idiots in charge of the West Side elementary school have decreed that students are not allowed to pack lunches from home. Unless they have a medical excuse, they must eat the food served in the cafeteria. The principal, Inez Carmona, says it's all about protecting students from their own unhealthful food choices. As quoted by the Tribune, Ms. Carmona opines, "Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school. It's about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom). It's milk versus a Coke.”

Okay. Do I start with, “Get out of my kid's personal life and let me make the parenting choices,” or do I go with, “What are you, nuts? Talking about quality and institutional food in the same breath?”

For as long as schools have been serving lunches, students have been complaining about them. “Mystery meat” ring any bells? In a photo accompanying the Tribune article, one poor kid is seen sitting in front of a lunch tray containing an unidentifiable food substance. He has his hands over his face. Now, whether he was reacting to the photographer or to the meal is subjective, but the closing paragraph weights the evidence a little when it states, “dozens of students took the lunch but threw most of it in the garbage uneaten. Though CPS has improved the nutritional quality of its meals this year, it also has seen a drop-off in meal participation among students, many of whom say the food tastes bad.”

When it comes to making food delicious and appealing, school kitchens historically rank right up there with hospitals and prisons. That's why kids bring lunches from home to begin with. And, as Jamie Oliver discovered in Los Angeles, many schools don't even have kitchens anymore, opting instead for the cost-saving measure of having everything prepared in a central location, then shipping it out to the individual school cafeterias where it is reheated and served. Yummy. Reheated “mystery meat.”

Ms. Carmona says she created the “no homemade lunch” program after observing kids on field trips bringing sodas and chips for lunch. And to that I say, “shame on any parent who sends their kid to school with such a lunch.” Those are the same kids who are probably getting microwaved “Spaghetti-Os” for supper. But, hey, have you seen the “healthy” alternatives most schools are offering?

When the AP picked up the Tribune story, they ran it with a photo of a student lunch taken in Gleed, Washington. Mmmmm-mmm! A processed hot dog on a processed white bun served with plastic processed cheese and a portion of processed tater tots. Oh, and there were some carrot sticks. There you go, Ms. Carmona. It's all about “the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom).”

In an effort to restrict “unhealthful food choices,” some schools – run by intelligent people in touch with reality – have chosen a different alternative and have taken a giant step backward.

When I went through the public school system in the 1960s, I had two choices at lunchtime; I could eat whatever it was the school was serving or I could bring something from home. That was it. Well, I actually had a third option; I lived a short walk from the elementary school and sometimes went home for lunch. My mom would have a nice repast laid out for me when I arrived. I'd have about fifteen minutes to eat and then I'd head back to school. Unfortunately, in today's society that scenario is just a dream left over from “Leave It to Beaver.”

The point is, unlike today, there were no vending machines in any of my schools, whether elementary, junior high or high school. There was a student-run canteen at the high school that sold candy bars and chips, but it was closed during lunch hours. And if you wanted a soda, the only way to obtain one was to be on really good terms with a teacher who might be persuaded to sneak you one from the building's singular soda source located in the teacher's lounge. Many schools desirous of limiting the availability of junk food have returned to this old-fashioned paradigm.

I don't think snack and soda machines have a place in any school. I will grudgingly exclude from the discussion high schools and teenagers, who, by and large, have adult-level privileges and access to cars and money and quik-stops and fast food joints, but I think there should be criminal penalties for installing vending machines in grade schools. Why not just give the kids guns and matches while you're at it? “Gee, my mom gave me two dollars for lunch. Should I have meatloaf and milk or a candy bar and a Coke?” The only way to limit a kid's “unhealthful food choices” is to limit a kid's “unhealthful” food options. If you set something on the table at home and your kid doesn't want to eat it, do you have a snack machine in the hallway where he can get something he likes better? Get the coin-operated processed garbage vendors out of your school if you want to make a real difference. Playing the “old fogy” card here, “If it was good enough for my generation...”

Under the guise of “protecting students from their own unhealthful food choices,” Ms. Carmona is also “protecting” them from the healthful food choices made by concerned parents who prefer to make tasty and nutritious lunches for their kids. I mean, when I was a kid, you could wrap things up in aluminum foil, wax paper, or plastic wrap. Then it was into either my Roy Rogers lunchbox or a brown paper bag. Have you seen what kids can tote their lunches in these days? Lunch doesn't have to be PB&J and a little bag of chips anymore. You could throw a meat, two sides, and a dessert into one of those compartmentalized, thermally insulated bags with custom made air-and-water-tight plastic containers. Kids these days can have gourmet leftovers for lunch.

You'll notice, though, that I said “concerned” parents. There's the real problem. It's not the mom or dad who gets up early to prepare and pack a healthy lunch or the parents who make one up the night before and stick it in the refrigerator. No, it's the ones who buy cheap, packaged, processed crap and throw it in a bag that are at fault. The “EZ Cheez” and “Lunchables” crowd. Have you taken a minute to check a “Lunchables” label? Hey, hey! There's only 340 calories in a “Ham & American Cheese!” And it contains vitamins and iron! And 13 grams of sugar and 16 grams of fat and 35 mg of cholesterol. And let's not forget 900 mg of sodium – more than a third of the daily maximum recommended level.

Worse still are the parents who give their kids a couple of bucks for the vending machines or who supply them with fast food “kid's meals.” (What with McDonald's taking over the corner gas station market, is it just a matter of time before they try to franchise the school cafeteria?)

Parents who rate convenience over quality or who pander to their kid's craving for unhealthy food are the problem, Ms. Carmona, not the ones who are packing lean meat sandwiches on whole-grain bread with fruit cups and juice drinks. And while throwing out a net that ensnares the good parents along with the bad may seem like an efficacious method of dealing with the problem, it's certainly not a very educated one.

Come to think of it, Ms. Carmona, et.al, in the overall scheme of things, it's none of your damn business what I choose to feed my kid. I know what my kid likes and what he doesn't like. I know what he'll eat and what he won't eat. I know what I want him to have and what I don't. You allow for “medical” exclusions. Fine. How about religious ones? Is your cafeteria Kosher? What about ethnic and cultural concerns? Unless you're prepared to offer a huge ala carte menu at your school so the kids can pick and choose according to their preferences, your version of The Noble Experiment is doomed to failure. What's it gonna be, lady? Unhealthy kids who bring junk food to school or hungry kids who trash your “excellent quality food” because they can't stomach it?

Instead of proposing ludicrous bans that abrogate and undermine the rights of parents, how about reading your job description and acting like an educator instead of an enforcer? Educate kids about healthy foods and good eating habits. Partner up with the “Food Revolution” or Slow Food or any of a dozen other organizations committed to effecting change through education rather than through offensively asinine regulations. Do your job and instead of teaching kids to prepare for standardized tests, teach them to make intelligent choices. That way, if I fail in my job as a parent, the kids will at least have the proper tools to enable them to do the right thing.

Bottom line: to all you Ms. Carmonas out there, go back to your classrooms and get the hell out of my kitchen.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

In Praise of Pepsi “Throwback”

Sorry Coca Cola, But This Is the REAL “Real Thing”

I drink too much soda. I have known this for years. The only reason I don't weigh 400 pounds is because my mother, bless her little heart, saw soda as a treat when I was growing up, rather than as a dietary essential. Therefore, until I reached my teen years, got a job, and started buying my own junk food, my soda intake was limited to a six-pack per week. We went shopping once a week, we bought one six-pack of soda, and when it was gone, it was gone. No more until next week. Period. And there was no such thing as two-liter bottles back then (heck, we didn't even know what a “liter” was in those days) or even sixteen or twenty-ounce bottles. In fact, it was a really big deal when ten-ounce bottles came out, replacing the old seven-ounce standard. So at the most, when I was a kid I consumed about sixty ounces of soda per week.

Fast forward to the present – or at least to a recent time – when I would easily down that much in a single day. Grab a fast food biscuit in the morning and swallow it down with a soda. Pop a buck or so into a vending machine mid-morning for a twenty-ounce hit. Have one with lunch. Grab another twenty-ouncer at a convenience store while running afternoon errands. Wash down supper with a sixteen-ounce glass or two, and then sip one while watching TV at night. Wow! You don't really think about it until you really think about it, do you?

I really got to thinking about it after my last routine visit to the doctor. That's when I looked behind myself as I was standing on the scale to make sure the nurse didn't have her foot on it. That's also when I started calculating ounces and converting them to gallons and deciding something had to change.

I'm not unrealistic. I'll never completely quit drinking soda. But I have resolved – and pretty successfully so far – to return to the days of my youth and limit my intake to one a day. Two if I fall off the wagon. And wouldn't you know, just as I started screwing my resolve to the sticking place, along came the Pepsi Cola people to undermine my efforts with their “Throwback” line.

“Throwback” sodas are, as the name implies, a throwback to the days when such beverages were made with real, honest-to-goodness sugar instead of the cheap, nasty corn sweetener that is such a great affront to the American palate, and which, despite numerous health concerns, has become an overwhelming part of the American diet since the early 1980s

I've been on a tear in recent years to eliminate as much high fructose corn syrup from my diet as possible. I'm not one of those lackeys sold on the corn industry's “sugar is sugar” campaign. I believe otherwise. Health concerns aside, I can taste the difference between cane sugar and corn syrup and I much prefer the taste of sugar. Coca Cola tried to pee on our collective legs and tell us all it was raining when they abandoned the “New Coke” debacle in the '80s and returned to the “classic” formula – except they really didn't. They phased out expensive cane sugar and replaced it with cheap corn sweeteners. And I have always been able to tell the difference. Find a tienda that sells Mexican Coke and compare it to the stuff bottled in your area and you'll taste the difference, too. (Mexican Coke, made with sugar and bottled in Mexico, is not “officially” sold in the United States because if it were, people would stop drinking the abysmal dreck that Coca Cola has been “officially” marketing here since the “New Coke” disaster.)

Of course, Pepsi was no better. Over the years, they succumbed to cheapening their products, too, as did almost every major soft drink manufacturer. It was a gradual but ultimately effective dumbing down of the American palate. I suppose you could learn to like carbonated castor oil if somebody poured it down your throat every day for years and years.

But changes have been in the wind in recent days. In the first place, there's been a change in the balance on the “Cola Wars” front. Coca Cola has emerged as a clearer winner since Diet Coke pushed Pepsi from its perennial second place pedestal. You know how they used to say, “When you're number two, you try harder”? Well, that goes double when you're number three.

Secondly, people are beginning to reject HFCS in numbers great enough to cause panic among the pushers. That's why the Corn Refiners Association is ginning up a “corn sugar” campaign to pretty up the image of its tarnished product. And, despite official company denials, I believe that's one reason Pepsi decided to quietly return real sugar to its beverages under the “Throwback” label, a move that leaves me torn.

You see, the problem now is that since Pepsi is once again tasting like Pepsi did back when I was a member of “The Pepsi Generation,” I'm finding it much harder to stick to my plan to cut back. The stuff is just so darn good! Stripping forty years worth of inferior crap off my taste buds, Pepsi has once again “Come Alive.” And it has resurrected Mountain Dew, Sierra Mist, and Dr. Pepper right along with it. Of course, Sierra Mist doesn't claim to be a “Throwback.” It just touts the fact that it's made with “real sugar” and prominently displays the word “Natural” on it's label.

And that's where the corn pushers start to get testy. They quite correctly point out that corn is every bit as natural a product as sugar cane. That's the basis for their attempt to get the terminology changed so that “high fructose corn syrup” can simply be called “corn sugar.” Then they can continue to extoll the “naturalness” of “corn sugar” and to trumpet “sugar is sugar” to the gullible masses.

But any reputable scientist not in the employ of the corn industry will tell you that sugar is not sugar. There are different types of sugar and they are processed by the body in different ways. And the biggest difference between HFCS and cane sugar is the way the body processes them. It's not just a matter of taste.

The science at a very basic level says that what we commonly call “real” sugar throws an “off” switch in the brain that HFCS does not. Simply put, the body knows when it has had enough sugar and it says “enough.” With HFCS, there is no “off” switch. You could mainline the stuff intravenously and your body would never say “enough.” So while sugar does indeed make you fat, HFCS makes you fatter because your body lacks the chemical mechanism to stop consuming it when it should.

Okay, so does this qualify Pepsi “Throwback” as a health food? Emphatically not. Too much of a good thing is still too much. But it is a marginally better alternative to products sweetened with HFCS. At least a sugar-sweetened soda will give your body a sporting chance to regulate itself.

And of course you can't deny the taste factor. Once upon a time – 1929, to be precise – Coke advertised itself as “the pause that refreshes.” And that was probably true back in 1929 because Coke was then made with real sugar. In fact, the words “refresh” and “refreshing” repeat over and over in Coke's ad campaigns throughout the years. And that's what now sets “Throwback” sodas apart; there is something about Pepsi's “Throwback” products that is truly refreshing. There is a crisp taste and a clean mouth feel in a “Throwback” that is not present in a “regular” Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Coke or anything else made with cheap HFCS. Anybody with two working taste receptors in their mouth can tell the difference even if they can't quantify it. Call it a “kick,” call it a “charge,” call it a “Jolt” – as one cola maker already did. The taste of any of the “Throwback” products is just simply – refreshing, which various dictionaries define as “pleasantly fresh and different,” “pleasantly different or novel,” or “tending to refresh; invigorating.” Any soft drink will get your mouth wet – including the “diet” ones artificially sweetened in a chemistry lab – but the sensations produced on your palate by a quality sugar-sweetened beverage like any of the “Throwbacks” are truly “pleasantly fresh and different.” Cheap sweeteners are cheap and they leave a cheap, cloying aftertaste in your mouth. Don't take my word for it. Go get a “Throwback.” Try it and then try to deny it.

Unfortunately, most of two generations have been fed an increasingly steady diet of the cheap stuff and have never known the difference. Oh, there have been some small, regional efforts made by artisan producers like New Jersey's Boylan Bottling Company and the aforementioned “Jolt Cola,” which, sadly, also turned to HFCS before its ultimate demise. Whole Foods produces a line of sugar-sweetened sodas for sale in its stores,as do other “natural” retailers. But with the advent of Pepsi's “Throwback” line, a new nationwide “Pepsi Generation” is poised to discover what we graybeards once experienced long ago: the real Pepsi taste. And the good news is that after a lot of test marketing, Pepsi has determined that there is enough support for the product to keep it in permanent production, or, as a Pepsi rep put it, “as long as people are buying it, we'll make it.”

I'm buying it. Six-packs may be gone but that's okay. I'm content with purchasing a twelve-pack every couple of weeks. Thanks, Pepsi. Because of superior stuff like “Throwback,” I'll probably still drink too much soda.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Visit To North Carolina's Childress Vineyards

When you think of domestic wines and domestic wine producers, you automatically think California, right? Well, to quote Ira Gershwin, “it ain't necessarily so.” A lot of people are beginning to think North Carolina.

There are nearly a hundred wineries and vineyards in the Old North State, a number that has almost quadrupled in the last decade. The state ranks seventh for wine production and tenth for grape production in the United States. But there was a time when that number was much higher. Forgotten by many is the fact that at the turn of the last century – before Prohibition – North Carolina was the leading wine-producing region in the United States.

Of course, Prohibition indirectly led to the rise of another notable North Carolina trademark, NASCAR. (Think “liquor cars,” “runners,” and “Thunder Road.” Yeah, I know “Thunder Road” was actually in Tennessee, but you get the idea.)

I am not much of an oenophile, but my wife is. I'm also not much of a NASCAR fan, but, again, my wife is. So when the opportunity came to combine the two on a recent visit to North Carolina, we took advantage of it.

Around 2002, former NASCAR driver, racing team owner, and North Carolina native Richard Childress decided to diversify, sinking a chunk of his winnings into planting grapes in a vineyard near Lexington, located in the Yadkin Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), one of three such designated areas in the state. (The others are Swan Creek and the Haw River Valley.) And so in October of 2004, Childress Vineyards was born.

Now, Richard Childress never thundered down a treacherous mountain road in his native state behind the wheel of an overpowered car loaded down with cases of illicit wine, but he does display his roots in the iconic checkered flag displayed on the labels of many of his winery's products. This alone, I think, makes him something of a stand-out among vintners worldwide, most of whom tend to put stuffy, pretentious things on their labels.

In fact, Childress' whole operation is pretty outstanding. Having done tours and tastings at Biltmore and other North Carolina wineries as well as at wineries in other parts of the country, we found the facilities at Childress Vineyards to be quite impressive.

You can't miss the vineyard as you motor down US 52 toward exit 89; there are informational and directional signs along the highway and besides, the place is huge! On the long drive up Childress Vineyards Road off Hwy 64W you pass through acres of neatly planted fields, each bearing signs indicating what variety of grape is sown there. There is a walking trail in evidence, as free tours are offered daily.

The road ends at a beautiful and imposing 35,000 square foot edifice constructed in the style of a Tuscan villa of the Italian Renaissance period. Upon passing through massive doors, you find yourself in an opulent grand entry hall. To the right are banquet facilities and The Bistro at Childress Vineyards, featuring daily lunches and three-course tasting flights prepared under the direction of Executive Chef David Thomas. Lunch is served until 3pm and we, of course, arrived at 3:01.

No matter. To the left is a delightful gift shop and a tasting room that Wine Enthusiast Magazine includes among its Top 25 in America. My wife is an inveterate taster and I'm an inveterate shopper, so it was the perfect place for us to spend the hour before the next available winery tour.

As I said, I am not an oenophile, but I know enough about wine to hold my own in conversations and at tastings. I know something about color and clarity and nose and finish. I know buttery and oakey and grassy and I know about breathing and decanting. And I know the “Five Ss” of wine tasting: see, swirl, sniff, sip, and savor. I guess that's how I fooled the wine steward into thinking I knew what I was talking about as I watched my wife proceed through a “classic tasting,” one of three currently offered in the tasting room.

For a $10 ticket, she sampled five sweet wines; a classic white, a classic blush, and a classic red, as well as a 2009 Riesling varietal and a Polar dessert wine. The $12 “barrel select” tasting includes five varietals, and the $15 “signature tasting” offers a selection of five premium wines. Each tasting also includes a crystal souvenir glass.

I was most impressed with the steward or sommelier who conducted our tasting. Unlike other wineries we've toured, the tastings at Childress are individual affairs rather than big group outings where everybody swirls and sips in unison. Olga, the young woman who guided us through our “classic tasting,” was easily the most knowledgeable and personable example of her trade I've ever encountered, and I don't say that just because she was a pretty Russian girl who spoke a little Italian. She really was a joy as well as being a marvelous professional who knew her stuff. She was a font of information both general and arcane and was very thorough in the presentation of her product.

Another pleasant young woman named Courtney took a small group of us on a tour of the winery itself. It was cold, rainy, and generally nasty outside, so we contented ourselves with a look at the bottling and storage facilities contained within the lower levels of the building. Even there, the Italian Renaissance theme was carried through, especially in the wonderful “barrel room” that included a waterfall that was both decorative and functional, its purpose being to maintain a level of humidity for the French-made oak barrels stored within.

Childress produces good stuff. Their wines have garnered more than 650 medals in the relatively short time the winery has been around, including over 60 golds and double golds and four Best of Show honors. They currently have 77 acres under vine with twelve varietals planted.

One of the grape varieties cultivated at Childress is the muscadine or vitis rotundifolia. Known locally as “scuppernongs,” the grape is native to North Carolina, and is, in fact the official state fruit. The first grape cultivated in the United States, a 400-year-old “Mother Vine” on Roanoke Island is said to be the oldest known grapevine in the country.

My wife has had several unpleasant experiences with Muscadine wine over the years. Many of them can have a very tart or sour flavor. Not so with the wines she sampled at Childress, which she found to be very light bodied and sweet. She also found room for a bottle of American Muscadine Sweet White Wine in our luggage. Actually, the inventory at Childress was depleted by several bottles when we departed, and we definitely plan on returning for more.

The winery is seeking to be more of an overall destination and to that end they have incorporated a number of special events, including live music in the vineyards throughout the summer months. See their website at http://www.childressvineyards.com/home.asp for complete details of these events as well as for scheduled hours, directions and much more.

Whether you're a casual connoisseur or an established aficionado, there's something for you at Childress Vineyards. I'll see you there sometime soon.

Childress Vineyards
1000 Childress Vineyards Road
Lexington, NC 27295
(336) 236-9463

Friday, April 1, 2011

Restaurant Review: Vincenzo's in Winston Salem, NC

A Nice Little Middle-of-the-Road Italian-American Place.

Winston-Salem is the fourth largest city in North Carolina. Part of the the “Piedmont Triad” that includes Greensboro and High Point, it's home to Wake Forest University. Often called “Camel City” in recognition of one of its most famous products, it's a town that tobacco built. Okay, so it's also the birthplace of “Krispy Kreme” doughnuts. At any rate, in such a place you'd think it would be easy to find a good Italian restaurant, right? Well, it is and it isn't.

It's a college town and the list of pizza joints is as long as your arm. But the number of Italian restaurants that aren't primarily pizza places is quite a bit smaller. You can count them on one hand – and have fingers to spare. Chief among them is Vincenzo's, a family run establishment with a long local history.

According to current manager Richard Patella, Vincenzo's came into being back in 1964 as a result of the paucity of Italian places that existed even then. Enter “Uncle Nick,” a Demon Deacon football player who saw the void and called in his Italian family to fill it. His genitori e fratelli made their way to Winston-Salem from Pennsylvania, where they had operated a small Italian eatery in a market oversaturated with small Italian eateries. Naming their new North Carolina venture after one of the boys, Vince, the family set up shop in a location on Robin Hood Road, where they continue to thrive today.

I'll get to the food in a minute, but first let me share some overall thoughts on Vincenzo's. If I had to boil them all down to one word, that word would be “enduring.” I was around in 1964 – not around Vincenzo's, mind you, but around – and stepping into Vincenzo's now is like walking through a doorway in time. I'm sure there have been numerous touch-ups and replacements done over the years, but the overall character of the place probably hasn't changed much since they opened. You step from a brightly lit vestibule decorated with photographs of famous patrons into a dining room that is incredibly dark. A little too dark perhaps. I had to keep relying on my wife's superior eyesight to read the fine print on the menu, and I had to take my first bite before I realized that my entree had arrived with the wrong sauce on it. (Note: Dim lighting is romantic when you're twenty. It's a bitch when you pass fifty.) Tables and booths are comfortably arranged in a relatively small space that is artfully designed to allow for intimacy despite the crowding. As I'm sure he did two generations ago, Sinatra still sings Cole Porter in the background, which is just as it should be in any good Italian-American establishment.

Gordon Ramsay would hate the place. He'd be tearing down dividers and doing away with dark wood and throwing lighter colors on the walls and installing brighter lights.....I mean, Vincenzo's is definitely dated. But that's part of its unique charm.

Clad in dark pants, white pleated-front shirts, and black bow-ties, members of the waitstaff move about briskly and efficiently under Richard's direction. He's easy to spot in his dark suit as he keeps a watchful eye on traffic in the dining room while also personally greeting and seating his guests. The servers, most of them local college students, are perfectly polite and well informed. They go about their duties in a manner that indicates obvious good training. Kudos, Richard.

The food is good, sturdy Italian-American fare. There's nothing really fancy and there's little that really screams Italian. That's not a knock. Very few middle-of-the-road Italian restaurants in the US are really that Italian. They all rely on their Italian-American roots and serve food that few native Italians would recognize. Veal Parmigiana, Chicken Parmigiana, Fettuccine Alfredo and other “classic” dishes populate the menu, and that's okay. In the same way that very few Italians recognize the food served in American “Italian” restaurants, very few Americans recognize the offerings of a genuine Italian place. So the Americanized “comfort food” served at places like Vincenzo's is fine if that's what your palate demands and recognizes as “Italian food.” And Vincenzo's does such food very well, indeed, following recipes Nonna handed down over three generations of family cooks in the kitchen.

We were a party of four seated comfortably at a dark table in the center of the room on the downswing of a busy Saturday night service. Everything was very prompt; we were seated promptly, our orders were taken promptly, and the food arrived in a prompt fashion. My wife positively raved over her very full portion of Lobster and Fettuccine, succulent lobster sautéed in butter and wine blended with creamy Alfredo sauce and served over perfectly al dente fettuccine. If you follow my scribblings, you know how I feel about the concoction of cream, butter, and cheese Americans throw together under the misnomer “Alfredo sauce.” Someday I'll find a place that does it right – the way Alfredo actually made it – and I'll just faint dead away. Anyway, I sampled the “Alfredo sauce” and found it to be a better than average imitation of the real thing, cream notwithstanding. With generous amounts of lobster in the dish, it was worth the $18.50 outlay.

My choice of Cheese Ravioli was a good one. Caveat emptor; the dish, deliciously light little pasta pillows filled with a velvety ricotta cheese filling, comes topped with a meat sauce. You have the option to have it topped with with a plain tomato sauce or with an Alfredo sauce, but the default setting is meat sauce. I figured that out only after groping through it in the dark. I had intended to have the tomato sauce but neglected to specify. The meat sauce came as a surprise, but it was still a very good dish. At $10.50, I had no complaints.

Our dinner companions completely cleaned their plates of their respective orders of Baked Lasagne and Stuffed Manicotti. Both dishes are listed as “House Specialties” and both were deemed delicious. The $11.99 and $10.50 price tags were pretty tasty, too.

Having little room left for dessert, we wound up sharing a marvelously creamy and sweet cannoli and a decadent excogitation of chocolate cake and chocolate mousse on a chocolate crust topped with chocolate fudge and called, appropriately, a “Chocolate Confusion.” Big flavors for little prices; $3.99 for the former and $4.50 for the latter.

Oh, and by the way, Vincenzo's does serve a mean New York-style pizza, as well. And they deliver. But you don't ever get the feeling that you're in a pizzeria that also sells other Italian food. Vincenzo's is a nice Italian-American restaurant that also sells pizza, and that's perfectly fine. You wouldn't label Spago as a “pizza joint” just because Wolfgang Puck includes pizza on the menu, right?

Vincenzo's is a nice middle-of-the-road kind of place. You can dress up if you so choose or you can wear jeans. They're open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11am to 2pm and for dinner from 5pm to 9:30 pm Monday through Thursday, 5pm to 10:30pm on Friday and from 4:30pm to 10:30pm on Saturday. Closed Sunday. There is ample parking and reservations are not required.

Vincenzo's
3449 Robinhood Road
Winston-Salem, NC 27106-4701
(336) 765-3176