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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. More than a quarter million people all over the world have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers! I promise, I'm not going to spam anybody. I'd just like to know who's out there and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing.

Grazie mille!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day -- A Day of Remembrance, Not a Day to "Celebrate"

This post comes under the "whatever else pops into my head" category since it has nothing to do with food, travel, or entertainment. Or does it?

Memorial Day, as it is "celebrated" in the United States today is all about food, travel, and entertainment. And sales. Don't forget the sales.

It's the "unofficial beginning of summer." Most people are off work and they head to the beach or the mountains or the backyard for a long weekend of grilling and eating and drinking and partying. That, to them, is the reason Memorial Day exists. "Happy Memorial Day," I heard some dope on the radio proclaim.

Stop!

Look up the word "memorial." My dictionary says,"Something designed to preserve the memory of a person, event, etc." Nowhere does the definition include the words "party" or "sale." Memorial Day is not a "happy" occasion and it is not to be "celebrated." It is, rather an event to be reflected upon and observed. It is not all about the beginning of summer, unofficial or otherwise, and it is most certainly not a time for merchants to exploit as still another excuse for a "sale."

Originally called "Decoration Day," -- from the practice of decorating the graves of the war dead with flowers and flags -- the day is intended to honor and commemorate US soldiers who died in military service. Think about that before "Happy Memorial Day" next passes your lips. Originally conceived to honor the Union dead from the Civil War, it was first observed on May 30, 1868 -- a date chosen specifically because it was not the anniversary of any battle or conflict -- following a proclamation issued on May 5 of that year by Gen. John A. Logan, acting in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of a veteran's organization called the Grand Army of the Republic, in which he stated that Decoration Day should be observed nationwide.

Although considered a "Yankee" holiday at its inception, the South followed suit and created a day to commemorate its dead. That day was frequently June 3, Confederate President Jefferson Davis' birthday. But time healed the rift and by the close of World War I, Decoration Day or Memorial Day was observed with equanimity across the nation, honoring the dead from all wars.

My grandmother still referred to the day as "Decoration Day" in the 1960s, but the term "Memorial Day" was first applied in the 1880s and came into common use following World War II.

Still observed with patriotic parades and speeches when I was growing up in the '50s and early '60s, the transmogrifying of Memorial Day from a day of quiet and respectful reflection to one of riotous partying and crass commercialism began in earnest when the day was included in 1968's Uniform Holidays Bill, enacted into law in 1971. The measure was designed by some idiot to do nothing more than create convenient three-day weekends to appease the masses. Thus Memorial Day was stripped of its original date of observance to become a "Monday Holiday."

Several groups, including the VFW, advocate returning Memorial Day to its traditional date. In its 2002 Memorial Day Address the VFW stated that "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day." I wholeheartedly agree. Check out the site at http://www.usmemorialday.org/ where you'll find more information about a movement to restore Memorial Day to its proper status.
Inasmuch as there is a lot being said about keeping "Christ" in "Christmas," should there not be equal energy expended to keeping the "Memory" in "Memorial Day?"

If there must be a "beginning of summer" ritual, all well and good. Party, get drunk, overeat, and spend egregious sums of money if you so desire. But let's name it accordingly. We've managed to transform the Easter vacation of my youth into "Spring Break" and other PC euphemisms, so let's call the last weekend of May "Summer Saturnalia" or something and leave Memorial Day out of the whole wretched excess to be observed as it was originally intended.

Excuse me, but I have to swing by the cemetery on my way to the big party at the beach and tell my uncle who died in World War I military service about the latest sale we're having in his honor.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

News Flash: FDA Says Pink Pigs Are Okay!

Okay, so you know the FDA has been forcing you to overcook your pork for, oh, the last million years or so, right? But no more! Rejoice, swine lovers, for the Food and Drug Administration has finally come to its collective senses and sanctioned something that most of us have already been doing for years; cooking pork to a lower temperature.

The new recommendation for whole cuts of pork is 145°F as measured with a food thermometer placed in the thickest part of the meat. This reflects a significant lowering from the previously established 160° mark and will now result in a bit of (gasp!) pinkness showing up in “the other white meat.” (Oops! Sorry. I forgot. The people who push pork now want us to “Be Inspired,” so just pretend I didn't mention “the other white meat.”)

Anyway, as I said before, from restaurant pros to savvy home cooks, nobody has paid any attention to the 160° recommendation in many, many years. With the exception of the FDA, everybody else figured out long ago that the restriction was outdated and unnecessary and that it produced dried out, badly overdone pork. So why did the Federal Food Folks recommend it in the first place? That I can tell you in one word! Tradition! No wait! That was Tevye in “Fiddler On The Roof.” The FDA's word was trichinosis.

Once upon a time, illness caused by the larvae of the parasitic trichinella worm often present in raw or undercooked pork was a real cause for concern. Mild cases of trichinosis produce the usual unpleasant enteric symptoms of nausea, heartburn, diarrhea and the like. Severe cases – where the little buggers reach the central nervous system – can be fatal. But due to decades of vastly improved farming and processing methods, the incidence rate of trichinosis in the US is down to fewer than 40 cases a year, and those cases are generally attributable to ingestion of wild game. And besides, trichinosis bacteria drop deader than little hammers at 138°. To illustrate a case in point, there once was a little kid back in the early '60s who used to love snacking on raw bacon. My.....er, his mother used to scream “trichinosis” every time she caught him doing it, but he persisted until he reached an age at which he realized for himself how disgusting the practice was. And still he survived without ever contracting the disease. That would likely not have been the case in an earlier time. (Please, whatever you do, realize that that was an anecdote and not an endorsement of eating raw bacon!)

The nutritional nature of pork has changed over the years as well. According to the National Pork Board, today's pork is fifteen percent leaner and twenty-seven percent lower in saturated fat than the pork products of twenty years ago.

There are a couple of caveats attached to the new guidelines. For one thing, the FDA now officially recommends something intelligent cooks already practice; allowing cooked meat to rest. The “official” rest period for pork cooked to 145° is three minutes. (Carry-over or residual heating during that time will likely result in a finished temperature of about 150°.)

Secondly, cooks and consumers should be aware that the new numbers relate only to cuts of whole pork. Ground pork should still be cooked to 160°.
And the FDA wants you to know that the changes only apply to pork. Safe cooking temperatures for other meats remain unchanged. For instance, you still need to cook poultry to 165°.

But if you're okay with a little pink in your pork, the government is now okay with it, too. No more hockey puck pork chops. The Fed says you can now safely enjoy those tender, succulent, medium-rare chops, tenderloins, and roasts you've probably already been enjoying, much to your grandmother's horror and chagrin. Of course, some people are never satisfied. Michael Symon, the “Iron Chef” with a pig tattooed over his heart, regrets that the FDA didn't lower the temperature another ten degrees. I'll bet he used to eat raw bacon when he was a kid, too.

One forty-five is in! So pig out!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Visit to Atlanta's East 48th Street Market

A Slice of New York's “Little Italy” in the Capital of the New South

I love making great little discoveries. So many travelers rely on familiar franchises and comfortable chains. I know of a man who is so addicted to a particular fast food drive-in chain that he plans his travel itinerary based solely upon that franchise's locations. And that's a shame because by doing so, he is denying himself the experience of landmark local places like “The Beacon” drive-in in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Such people miss out on so many marvelous opportunities to sample unique local flavors and customs. Life's too short to always be so bland and boring.

That's why I'm so thrilled with the East 48th Street Market, my latest bonanza in suburban Atlanta.

A note to small business owners: it pays to target your advertising dollars. As a subscriber to La Cucina Italiana magazine, I often check the section in the very back that lists Italian gourmet shops and stores across the country. I've seen the East 48th Street Market's listing in every issue for years and have always thought “I've got to find that place someday.” And the time finally arrived.

In town for the 2011 Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show at the Cobb Galleria Centre, I was staying nearby and decided to see where the East 48th Street Market was located in relation to my hotel and the show venue. Google Maps said it was only a few miles away in Dunwoody. I took a look at their website, which further convinced me that I needed to check them out. So with my iPhone GPS showing the way, I headed off on my culinary safari.

Now, my brain kept telling me that the East 48th Street Market should be on East 48th Street, so I couldn't quite understand why I was heading for Jett Ferry Road. My brain also kept telling me that I was looking for a big, free-standing Whole Foods Market-type edifice, so I was brought up kind of short when I almost missed the little place nestled down amongst a bunch of small shops and storefronts in a neighborhood strip mall. Albeit a rather nice strip mall in a very nice neighborhood. Having come this far, I committed to take the plunge.

As it was late in the afternoon, there were only a few patrons in the store when my wife and I entered. Since we were actually on our way to an Atlanta Braves game, we were appropriately attired in Braves t-shirts that immediately drew comments as soon as we walked through the door. Within two seconds of entering the place for the very first time, we were already talking baseball with the proprietors and patrons as if we were long-time regulars. That's a line-drive single.

A series of doubles and triples followed as we perused the merchandise, discovering dozens of Italian specialty items that we had previously only seen online. (I loaded up on my precious “doppio-zero” flour.) I started making calculations regarding how much room I had in my luggage versus how much money I had in my bank account. I could have done some serious damage to my financial well being.

The home runs started coming fast and furious as we placed our orders for food. Read almost anything else I've written and you'll know what I ordered first: pizza. And it was delicious! I splurged and had two slices while my wife devoured her generous portion of Penne Bolognese. I stole some of her breadsticks – hey, she wasn't able to eat them all – and was transported by the perfect texture and taste. Although billed as “Italian breadsticks,” these were not the grissini tradizionali duro, but rather a grissini morbidi e leggero. I'm a big enough man to admit it; my soft breadsticks are good, but these were great. All the food was casalinga fresca, by the way, and extremely reasonably priced. The vendors at Turner Field lost money on us that night. We were absolutely stuffed.

But what really made the place a grand slam – since I seem to be stuck in “baseball metaphor” mode – was the people. As I said before, we were treated like friends as soon as we walked in and we were like family by the time we walked out. Not too surprising, I suppose, since the East 48th Street Market is a family owned and operated business. And il capo di famiglia is Charlie Augello.

I could have talked to Charlie all night – and I nearly did! Only the fact that Tim Hudson wouldn't hold that first pitch until we got there motivated me to get up and go. But over the brief course of time that I sat at his table enjoying both his food and his conversation, I learned that Charlie, a first-generation Italian-American, is a native New Yorker, born and raised on Manhattan's East 48th Street. Hence the name of the business. He told me all about his journey from corporate America to suburban Atlanta, from being an engineer with a background in sales and marketing to owning an Italian market. (Atlanta was his ninth stop along that road.) He talked at length about his wife and children, all of whom are involved in his pursuit of a dream. The best accounting of the family's story, written by wife Anita, can be found on the market's website here: http://www.e48thstreetmarket.com/about_us.aspx.

Besides his family, Charlie's other most obvious passion is for quality Italian food, and his store reflects that passion. Along with the delicious prepared food we consumed on the premises, we purchased a variety of things to stock at home. I already mentioned the “double-zero” flour, the only flour sanctioned by the Vera Pizza Napoletana for use in authentic Italian pizza dough. We also came away with some marvelous speck and prosciutto di Parma, as well as some freshly made mozzarella. I picked up a common but somewhat hard to find brand of tomato paste that I like to use and my wife indulged her sweet tooth with some homemade biscotti and a couple of Baci, decadent little chocolate and hazelnut kisses made in Italy by Perugina and marketed in the US, but also rather hard to find just anywhere. And we acquired a bottle of Rosa Regale from Charlie's abundant wine selection.

Sidebar: When I returned home and made some of those ingredients into mozzarella in carrozza and pizza Margherita, I couldn't tell whether I was in heaven or in Italy. Fantastico!

We loved the 48th Street Market so much that we abandoned plans for a post-MCES dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant in favor of going back and having more of Charlie's cibo favolosi after the event. I only wish I could have convinced Giada De Laurentiis to come with us. She would have most definitely approved of the place. According to Charlie, Marcella Hazan did when she visited a few years ago.

Unfortunately, I don't live close enough to Atlanta to be a regular, but the East 48th Street Market is now a “must stop” destination whenever I am in town. And all is not lost; they ship nationwide.

Visit the East 48th Street Market at 2462 Jett Ferry Road in Dunwoody, GA (30338.) Call them at 770-392-1499. And be sure to check out their website at www.east48thstreetmarket.com.

Tell Charlie I sent you.

A Taste of Home After Nature's Fury

Much of West Central Alabama is still reeling and recovering from last week's horrific tornado outbreak. But in the midst of it all, some sense of normalcy is returning and things are moving forward. One of those things is the upcoming Taste of Home Cooking School show scheduled for Saturday, May 7 in Trussville, Alabama, a Birmingham suburb mercifully spared much of the devastation experienced in other parts of town.

The show is slated for 2 p.m. at the Trussville Civic Center, with Michelle “Red” Roberts demonstrating some marvelous recipes and techniques gleaned from the pages of Taste of Home magazine, one of the country's most popular publications for the home cook.

Unlike the Atlanta iteration of the massive Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show from which I have just returned, a Taste of Home show is a great deal smaller and more intimate in its scope and execution. Whereas the MCES prefers the big city and big venues, Taste of Home finds its niche in smaller communities with less grand auditoriums. Many of the elements are the same. MCES features hundreds of vendors from all over the country. There'll be vendors in Trussville, too, but by and large they'll be local folks. And there will be live cooking demonstrations. But instead of a firmament of multi-starred chefs and food celebrities preparing elaborate dishes on the cooking stage, there'll just be Michelle whipping up some simple, everyday fare that any average home cook can duplicate. There will also be goodie bags loaded with samples and coupons and other neat stuff as well as tons of door prizes. Among the best door prizes are the dishes that Michelle cooks up. She gives them away to audience members, dishes and all. And Trussville attendees are in for a special treat; a free one-year subscription to Taste of Home. That premium alone is worth more than the price of admission.

Make no mistake, I never miss a Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show when I can help it. But likewise, I seldom pass up the chance to get together with some local foodies for a little down-home fun at a Taste of Home show. You shouldn't either.

If you're going to be a thousand miles from Trussville, Alabama this Saturday (or if you're a thousand miles from Trussville no matter what day it is), don't worry. There's probably a Taste of Home Cooking School show coming to your area. They're pretty good about spacing them out all over the country and you can find one in your neighborhood by logging on to www.tasteofhome.com and clicking on the "Cooking Schools" tab and proceed to “Find a Show."

Trussville's still there, folks, the show is still on, and I will have sufficiently recovered from the fine time I had in Atlanta over the weekend to be in attendance myself. For you folks in Canada, South America, Europe, and Asia who will likely not be there, I'll file a full report next week.