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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, June 19, 2011

At Last! A Conversation With Giada De Laurentiis

I guess it's no secret that I like and admire Giada De Laurentiis. I have previously written a couple of pieces defending her from jealous and/or uninformed detractors, scribblings which several thousand of you have read, thankyewverymuch. In those missives I openly admit that my opinions are based solely upon television viewing, for I had never had the pleasure of meeting Giada in person. Until recently. And the results of that meeting have placed me even more firmly in her corner. Bad-mouthing nitwits, twits, and gits should be ashamed of their ignorance. Giada De Laurentiis is a truly nice person.


My only critique of my first “Giada Experience” is that, unlike Bobby Flay and other culinary celebs I've hooked up with, Giada's retinue is more reflective of her Hollywood roots. She has “handlers” and “people” and agents who form barriers and hold up hoops through which one must jump in order to get close to their “star.” Now, at the risk of sounding conceited, folks, this was not my first rodeo. Over a career spanning nearly forty years in the entertainment business, I have developed calluses on my elbows from rubbing them with “stars.” I have shared stages and backstages with celebrities of every stripe and agents, handlers and “people” just don't impress me. And they seldom deter me, either.

Thanks to some quality interference running from PR maven extraordinaire Jill Collins, I finally got some face time with my personal culinary goddess between demo shows at the recent Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show in Atlanta. And, man, was it worth the effort.

First, a few words about Giada's live demo show. Warm. Fun. Engaging. Charming. Open. Enjoyable. Much like the woman herself. No pun intended, but people were eating out of her hand the minute she stepped onto the stage. She fielded questions from the audience, cooked side-by-side with eager volunteers, and presented delicious food in a manner that said, “C'mon. You can do this, too.” Kind of like a live, interactive version of “Everyday Italian.”

Back in the “green room,” it was pretty obvious that Giada was a little tired. Even so, she was unfailingly warm and gracious as we were introduced. Seated in a large overstuffed chair, she seemed even more diminutive than she does on TV. But that dazzling smile – the one that so many goofs criticize as “fake” – was, indeed, very real and immediately lent an open and friendly aura to the conversation that followed. Because the room's seating arrangement wasn't exactly optimal for small recording devices, Giada obligingly allowed me to sit literally at her feet as we chatted. And never once did I drool on her shoes.

RJ: Let me start by clarifying two things: First of all, your name is “Giada.”

GDL: Yes....

RJ: It has two syllables: “jah-dah.” It's not “gee-ah-dah.”

GDL: It's not. It's actually “jyah-dah.”

RJ: Means “jade.”

GDL: Correct, it does. But, you know, I answer to almost anything. So a lot of people who can't pronounce my name, I just tell them to call me “G.”

RJ: And the other thing to clarify is the fact that, yes, you really are a cook. You really are a chef. You do have formal training, you do have experience. I know you don't need any defense from people like me, but I have actually written some things defending you against the people who have always said, “Oh, she's just a pretty face.”

GDL: (sighs) I know.

RJ: But, no, that's not true. You really do have the background to justify your position in the culinary world, correct?

GDL: I do. I think that … I think it's going to be an ongoing battle forever. But that's okay. I think that the proof is in the pudding, and I truly believe that if I didn't have the culinary chops and I didn't write recipes that worked and that people loved, I guess I wouldn't be here almost ten years later. And you know, I think that people will talk about you regardless, and it doesn't matter whether you're doing great or you're not doing great, up or down, there's always going to be haters and there's always going to be people who like you and you just can't please everybody. My food isn't for everyone. It just isn't. It's my food, the way I like it, and some people will like it and some people won't and that's okay.

RJ: Well, now, you know, I talked to some people in line here before...this morning...for your book signing, and one of the questions I was asking them is, “Why are you such a fan of Giada's? Why do you like Giada De Laurentiis?” And I got the same answer....

GDL: They're all like, “Wait! That's who I'm here to see? It's not Paula Deen? This is the wrong day!” Just teasing.

RJ: ... but I got the same answer from a lot of them, and that was, “because Giada's food is so approachable. It's so easy. You know, I watch Giada on TV and I think, 'I could cook like that.'” Is that kind of where you wanted to go when you started out with “Everyday Italian” and through the progression of shows and things you've done since then? To make your food and your cooking accessible to people?

GDL: I think when I started “Everyday Italian” my goal was to allow people to be able to make really good, easy Italian food at home. The way my mom did. And I think that most people believed that in order to get great Italian food you had to go to an Italian restaurant. You couldn't possibly recreate those dishes at home. And I wanted to demystify that. My mom made great Italian food, very simple. You know, there were four kids to feed and I felt like, wait a second...I don't think you guys realize that great Italian food is actually very simple and that if you go to an Italian's house in Italy, you will not find the same food that you find in restaurants that's all gussied up. Italian food is not gussied up. And that's truly what my ultimate goal was. And I like to eat simple, good, clean food. You know, I'm not saying I'm a low-fat cook or a gluten-free cook or any of those things, but I like simple, good food. Just like many of my counterparts on Food Network do. Everybody has they're own spin on the food. This is my spin on my Italian food and all I ever wanted was for people to see it and to think, “I can do that, and I think my family's going to love it. And I can do it pretty easily and pretty quickly. And it's going to turn out every time and I'm going to wow my friends and family without spending tons and tons of time in the kitchen.” And I'm hoping that, ultimately, that has always been my goal and that is what I … you know, every time I write a recipe, that is what I'm thinking about.

RJ: There's your show and a lot of other shows that pioneered on the Food Network that we call the “dump and stir” shows, but it seems more now – and without biting the hand that feeds you too much – it seems more like we're going to shows about food as opposed to shows where you create food. Do you see that as a trend or do you think there's a place for both?

GDL: I definitely think there's a place for both. I think that's also why Food Network started the Cooking Channel, because there were a large group of people who really wanted to go back to the traditional just straight cooking show. They're really looking to learn and I think that Food Network...like MTV did. They started out with music videos but then they went to reality shows and you saw very few music videos, and so everybody sort of after awhile drifts apart from their main core audience. And so to go back to the core, they started Cooking Channel. And I think that my show, “Giada at Home,” at this point is more of a lifestyle show. Yes, there's recipes and cooking and I do teach you how to cook, but I also teach you how to live a certain type of lifestyle. Entertaining tips, etc, etc. And “Everyday Italian,” which is now on the Cooking Channel, is straight cooking demo, and so I do believe that there is a place for both things. People are looking for both. And there are some people that aren't looking for both and there's a place to find either one. So it's just amazing how it has exploded. Look at you, doing a job that you probably didn't think you could do ten years ago or didn't think there was a niche for it …

RJ: True.

GDL: ...so and now you do. Now there is.

RJ: Final thought: where do you think food is going? What do you see the direction...I ask everybody this. I asked Bobby Flay last year – it's my stock question. But what direction do you see food taking in the next few years? It's gone from cooking everything out of a box and a can, now we have more emphasis on fresh ingredients and things like that. So where do you see the trend?

GDL: I think people want healthier food. They want healthier, clean food and they want to know what's in their food. And I think people are starting to get away from buying canned and boxed items and realizing that it's really not good for you in the long term and not good for our children, and they're starting to...ah...look at...there's farmers markets all over this country. Five years ago you couldn't find that. Maybe you found it once a week in maybe a big city. Now you find them everywhere. People are looking for fresh, simple ingredients. People want to eat well, but they want creative ways to do that. So I really see a shift changing. I think people are getting away from fast food. I think they are getting away from processed food and boxed food. I think people are really spending time learning to actually cook food from scratch. And gardening. I think a lot of people are starting to plant little gardens in their backyard...

RJ: Again.

GDL: Again. It's so cyclical, you know what I mean?

RJ: Yeah, had one when I was a kid.

GDL: Yeah, but then we got away from it. Because of convenience. And because we wanted things quickly. Now we realize that that convenience is actually killing us and killing our children. So we're going to go back to what our parents did. And maybe spend a little more time understanding what we're putting in our bodies. You know, I think we spend a lot of money on a lot of superficial exterior things and we're not taking care of this vessel that has to carry us through a very long lifetime. And every single thing that you put in your mouth has a payoff. You will pay, one way or the other, for every single thing. And we should treat our bodies like a temple and only put the best stuff in it. That's where I think we're going. I think we're starting to realize that.

RJ: You could write for my blog.

GDL: I think it's wonderful! I do! I'm so proud that Americans are so interested in food. When I moved here with my family thirty-some years ago, it wasn't like this. TV dinners were the rage. That's what everybody ate.

RJ: There's been a sea change and I think you're part of it. People like you and your colleagues at the Food Network. I think...

GDL: I think Food Network has had a big impact. It's wonderful that they've embraced it. I mean, they could have chosen not to. And they did. And after 9-11 people are hungry for tradition and culture and love and connection. I mean, that's what food does for people. It connects people. And that's what they want. They want some kind of connection with somebody and I think that Food Network does a great job of giving them that in many different forms.

RJ: I thank you for your time. I know you're busy and I appreciate it.

GDL: Thank you.

RJ: Giada De Laurentiis, grazie mille!

GDL: Grazie ti!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Review: "To Romance, With Love" by Dave Valletta

I was cruising the vendor booths at the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show in Atlanta a few weeks ago. Tucked away among the merchants selling everything from orange juice to exotic sea salts was a small cubicle occupied by a charming and friendly couple, Dave and Denise Valletta. They weren't hawking barbecue sauce or kitchen gadgets; they were selling romance.

I'm a firm believer in the romantic possibilities of the kitchen. I have frequently spoken and written on the subject of cooking as a form of couples' therapy. My wife and I live in our kitchen. It's where we exercise our culinary passion to create delicious food. It's also where we go to talk, laugh, and have a good time together. Whether commercial or home, there are no “chores” or “tasks” in our kitchens. There is no drudgery, only mutual enjoyment of a shared activity. So I was immediately drawn to and intrigued by Dave's book, “To Romance, With Love.”

Subtitled as “A Cookbook for Lovers and Those Who Want to Be,” the book is 115 pages of fun. The first thing you'll notice is the book's unique design. It's a sturdy spiral-bound hardback with slick, glossy pages that are intended to actually be used in the kitchen. The text is cleverly divided into chapters with headings like “Ready for a Romantic Dinner,” which outlines the “ingredients” for the perfect romantic evening. “Being Equipped to Romance” lists the pots and pans and kitchen tools you'll need to execute the recipes contained in the book's later chapters. There are also chapters on “The Passionate Pantry,” “The Menu,” and other nuts-and-bolts topics as well as some cute chapters with titles like, “The First Time Ever She Saw Him Cook.”

One of the book's most interesting features are the recipes themselves. They are all organized on individual “menu” pages that are neatly tucked into their own little pockets. For instance, the “I Got You, Babe” menu consists of an appetizer of bruschetta followed by an arugula w/ tomato and Parmesan salad. The entrée is Chicken Marsala with a vegetable side of asparagus with garlic. The dessert “suggestion” calls for strawberries with chocolate sauce. There's a gorgeous photo facing the little pocket containing the menu card. On the reverse side of the card are the actual recipes for the entire meal. As a bonus, the pocket also contains a shopping list for all the ingredients. I mean, a real list you can actually take out and carry to the grocery store.

To add to the fun, the pockets all feature quotes on love and romance. The quote accompanying the “I Got You, Babe” menu on page 33 says, “A happy man marries the girl he loves; a happier man loves the girl he marries.” – Anonymous.

According to his bio blurb on Amazon.com, “Dave Valletta has had a lifelong romance with food. Ever since his mother first showed him how to prepare sauces as a young boy, Dave developed a love for cooking. He continued to experiment with different flavors, putting his own sumptuous spin on classic meals. He is a frequent host for friends and family, who ultimately convinced him that he needed to share his unique recipes with others."

"Although Dave is passionate about cooking, the true love of his life, and the inspiration for this cookbook, is his wife Denise. For the past 26 years they have enjoyed a loving marriage filled with great fun, food, faith and four wonderful children. As a hopeless romantic, Dave uses every opportunity to romance his wife and believes that is the key to a happy successful marriage. He truly believes that preparing a romantic night for your spouse is one of the most rewarding experiences."

"Dave has spent the last three years compiling his delectable recipes and romance tips to create 'To Romance, With Love', the ultimate guide to igniting the flame in any marriage.”

Part cookbook, part advice column, and part philosophy of love and romance, “To Romance, With Love” is a wonderful addition to any lovers' kitchen – or, as the subtitle indicates, to the kitchen of anyone desirous of being a lover. Any couple, newlywed or old retread, will benefit from the advice and techniques contained within these pages.

The recipes, text, and photographs for “To Romance, With Love” are all by Dave Valletta, who states that the book is “not possible without Denise Valletta.” It is richly illustrated by Christine Kerrick and is privately published by To Romance With Love, LLC, ©2009. Available through www.toromancewithlove.com, the book is also listed on Amazon.com.

Buy a copy today and cook something for – or, better still, with – someone you love tonight.

Out With the Old Pyramid and In With the New Food Plate

I seldom have to second guess myself or struggle to take a position on something. That said, I've written and rewritten this post three times over the course of the last four days because I'm trying to figure out what's wrong with me. Am I the only food writer in the world who is not rapturous over the USDA's newest dietary icon?

Quick quiz: what's the first thing you associate with a pyramid? Egypt, right? Pharaohs, camels, sand, etc. Now, what do you associate with a plate? Ding, ding ding! You've got it! Food!

Somebody in Washington did some cogitating and the decades-old “food pyramid” employed by the USDA to outline and depict its dietary recommendations is going bye-bye, replaced by a “simpler” and “more symbolic” plate. Okay, so maybe the “plate” looks suspiciously like a pie chart, but at least it's a step in the right direction. Anything's better than the universally ridiculed and reviled “pyramid.” Or is it?

I'm trying to like the new plate, I truly am. But while my colleagues are all composing symphonies in praise of the fabulous innovation, I keep catching glimpses of the man behind the curtain.

Now, the government has been in the “dietary recommendation” business for a long time, issuing its first edict back in 1894, long before many of the current foundations of nutrition were even known. (No vitamins back in those days.) They came up with the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) around 1941. The “Basic Four Food Groups” soon followed. Conceived in the 1950s, the “Basic Four” consisted of 1) meats, poultry, fish, dried beans and peas, eggs, and nuts; 2) dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yogurt; 3) grains, such as wheat, rice, oats, and corn; 4) fruits and vegetables. A fifth “basic” group -- fats, sweets and alcoholic beverages – was added in the '70s. But now that the “Basic Four” (or Five) was established, the problem became one of proportions. How much of what group was one supposed to consume? A nifty graphic representation of some kind was called for and so came about the first “Food Pyramid.”

Officially called the “Improved American Food Guide Pyramid,” it was introduced in 1992, although the concept had been kicked around and tweaked since the late '70s. The pyramid depicted a wide base of bread, cereal, rice and pasta (6 to 11 servings) followed by a divided layer of fruits (2 to 4 servings) and vegetables (3 to 5 servings). Next came the bifurcated level for meats (2 to 3 servings) and dairy (2 to 3 servings). Capping the pyramid was the “fats, oils, and sweets” group, with the recommendation “use sparingly.”

The pyramid was criticized immediately by the meat and dairy industries, both of which accused the government of attempting to marginalize their products. Nutritionists of every calling took potshots at everything from the pyramid's indiscriminate lumping of fats together regardless of nutritional value to the similar wholesale inclusion of all proteins as being equal. The lactose-intolerant objected to the high priority assigned to dairy products, the vegetarians howled about the preponderance of meat and dairy, and everybody complained about the overall lack of clarity. For instance, the 2 to 3 servings from the meat group was intended as a maximum recommendation, while the 2 to 4 fruit servings was supposed to be a minimum, information not really made clear by the pyramid.

The whole structure was turned on its ear – literally – in 2005 and relabeled “MyPyramid: Steps To a Healthier You.” Unfortunately, the graphic was even wackier than the original. Gone were the horizontally stacked building blocks, replaced by brightly colored vertical stripes theoretically depicting the proper proportions of each food group. But while it made for an eye-appealing picture to put on cereal boxes and such, it was deemed clumsy and vague in its purpose. And the idea that throwing a guy walking up a flight of stairs set into the side of the thing was supposed to indicate the addition of exercise to diet was whimsical at best.

But now it's out with the Pyramid and in with the Plate. “My Plate,” to be exact, and you can check it out for yourself at www.choosemyplate.gov.

The new icon is divided into four sections representing protein, grain, fruits, and vegetables. For some reason, dairy products get their own plate. Go figure. There's also a fork to the left of the plate, indicating at least that somebody at the USDA knows how to set a proper table.

Like the last version of the pyramid, there are lots of bright colors. But although First Lady Michelle Obama calls the new symbol “a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that we're eating,” it doesn't seem that the plate is any better at outlining a healthy diet than was the pyramid.

At first glance it's pretty obvious that the green section representing vegetables is the largest. The brown(ish) slice depicting grains is slightly smaller but still larger than the red and sort of purple sections that show fruits and proteins, respectively. And there's dairy, a little blue plate over on the right. If you look at it the way the government wants you to see it, you'll realize that the fruit and vegetable sections, although unequal in size in and of themselves, comprise the entire left half of the plate, indicating – in the USDA's vision – that fruits and vegetables should make up half of your daily diet. Grains and proteins – the right side of the plate – should be the other half, with more grains that proteins because the larger grain section is on top of the smaller protein section. And then there's dairy, a little unexplained blue plate over on the right. No more fats, sweets, and alcohol apparently. Not even a napkin ring for them. The little guy climbing the stairs is gone, too, so it seems exercise is no longer a part of the picture.

There are no suggested servings – nothing to tell you how much of this or how little of that to consume. No percentages, no portion sizes, nothing advising you of what substances to limit or avoid – no real information at all. Just another pretty, colorful picture.

You likely don't want to know how many of your tax dollars went into this redesign boondoggle, but rest assured, the “experts” say that the plate will help people make better food choices because many people found the pyramid to be too complicated. Let's see...a wide base for grains with a smaller layer divided between fruits and vegetables, then a smaller layer divided between meats and dairy, and finally a tiny little top layer for fats and sweets. My goodness, yes. It's easy to see how that could confuse somebody. It's much simpler to say that half of your diet should come from two food groups and half from the other two, because, mathematically speaking, two halves make a whole, right? Except for that little portion of dairy out there in right field that doesn't seem to belong anywhere and we just won't talk about fats and sweets, even though diabetes and obesity are rampant.

My Plate” is certainly less cluttered than its triangular predecessor. I mean, it's a circle divided into four slightly unequal parts. (Plus a separate little circle off to the right.) How much simpler could an icon be? But for all its alleged clarity and simplicity, does it really tell you anything?

In fairness, if you actually take the time to go to the previously cited site, all the information you could ever desire is both copious and clear. The website is an absolute font of diet and nutrition knowledge, jam-packed with all kinds of facts and figures and tips and ideas. But until the Feds figure out how to put it all on a cereal box, My Plate is no different than MyPyramid. It's a pretty picture that is not really worth the thousand words it took to describe it. (Actually, 1368 words, but who's counting?)