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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!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Restaurant Review: Portofino Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, Gastonia, NC

A Good Italian Restaurant Is Hard to Find

Portofino is a quaint Italian village located in Liguria up in the northwest corner of the peninsula. And it's probably easier to get to than its restaurant namesake in Gastonia, North Carolina. They say a good Italian restaurant is hard to find; boy, were they right! GPS got me into the neighborhood, but it took a phone call to a native guide at the eatery to navigate my way through the maze of stores and strip malls to find the exact location. Ultimately, though, it was really worth the effort.

Walking through the front door lands you squarely in front of the pizza counter. This is not a bad thing, as it lends a nice authentic Italian-American pizzeria air to the experience. A friendly guy, who turned out to be one of the owners, greeted us, saying, “You must be the one who called me. Glad you found us. Sit anywhere you like.” He indicated the dining room off to the right.

It's a nice dining room. The furnishings, while not elegant, are functional and comfortable. There's a beautiful mural adorning one wall. Maybe it's a tad dark and a little dated, but who cares? I'm here for the food, you know?

The service could not have been better. Mike, our waiter, was everything a waiter should be. He was pleasant, friendly, helpful, informative, and very efficient. It was late after a Saturday dinner service and there weren't too many other diners in the place, so we were quite pleased by the speed with which our food was brought to the table.

The food itself was wonderful. Mike informed us that one of the owners – one other than the pizzaiolo who greeted us – prepared the meal himself. I was told he was direct from Naples – or Napoli, as Mike quickly corrected himself to say – and even though we were eating pretty standard Italian-American fare, that Neapolitan influence came through in the dishes.

The menu features two levels of antipasti. One level contains the more authentic offerings such as mozzarella alla Caprese and real, actual bruschetta, not just the typical Americanized garlic bread. That item appears on the more typical part of the menu, along with garlic cheese bread and fried mozzarella sticks. We opted for the Caprese, and were not disappointed. Real mozzarella di buffala served with slices of tomatoes and torn basil leaves drizzled over with a remarkably flavorful olive oil. A definite Neapolitan touch.

I like the layout of the pasta menu. The types of pasta available – cappellini, linguini, fettuccini, penne, and spaghetti – are printed horizontally across the top. An impressive variety of sauces and preparations are then listed vertically below. Needless to say, all are made in house.

The entrees were sized proportionately to the average American appetite, meaning we all knew there would be boxes of leftovers in our future. My choice was spaghetti al pomodoro. Here was more evidence of Napoli. This was not the pile of spaghetti covered in tomato sauce that I rather expected. Instead, the pasta was presented in a light sauce of rich diced tomatoes with chunks of garlic interspersed among a generous seasoning of fresh basil. The sauce was a condiment accentuating the pasta, as it should be in authentic Italian cuisine. It was superbo! Of course, I couldn't have eaten it all without doing serious injury to myself, but it was just as delicious warmed over for lunch the next day.

My wife and one of our friends arranged a trade; she ordered meat ravioli from the “Vecchie Specialita” section of the menu and he chose the del Boscaiola sauce over penne from the “Pasta” list. They then portioned out sample bites for one another. Our other companion also went to the “Vecchie Specialita” side for her manicotti.

Everybody was ecstatic over their choices, but the penne alla Boscaiola was a particularly big hit. I snagged a bite from the portion for which my wife traded her ravioli and it was amazing. Different, too. A typical al boscaiola – which roughly translates to “woodsman's style” – is a Tuscan staple consisting of prosciutto and/or pancetta with mushrooms and Parmesan cheese in a cream sauce. Here there were no mushrooms – none that I could discern, anyway. Peas were substituted with very tasty results.

There's more than pasta, of course. The menu has lots of delectable-looking chicken, veal, and seafood dishes and an ample selection of sandwiches. And I think I mentioned pizza, right? Gotta go back and try some. If it's half as good as the rest of the menu, I'll consider moving to Gastonia.

Let me give a quick mention to the complimentary bread. I ate way too much of it which is probably why I had no room left for the sumptuous dessert offerings. The bread comes warm in a basket with the ubiquitous little containers of butter. But please notice there is a cruet of olive oil on the table and take advantage of it. I did. I was told the oil is an Italian import. I hope so. After voraciously dipping the warm, crusty bread in it and bragging on it the way I did, I'd hate to discover that it came from the grocery store down the street. But I don't think that was the case. I import my olive oil and this stuff was every bit as good as what I have shipped in. I could drink it straight.

Speaking of drinking, a nice selection of beer and wine was offered as well as the usual assortment of soft drinks and coffees.

As noted, none of us had room for dessert, a real shame because the cannoli, tiramisu, cheesecake, and spumoni all looked pretty good. Next time, for sure.

The atmosphere at Portofino's is casual and family-friendly. The prices are quite reasonable. The pasta dishes were $6.95 and we doled out four bucks more for the ravioli and the manicotti. At $8.95, the mozzarella alla Caprese was a little above the average Italian-American restaurant appetizer price, but the quality was well worth the extra dollar or two. Parking is no problem; we are talking strip mall here.

Located at 3736 East Franklin Blvd in Gastonia, NC (28056), Portofino Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria is open daily from 10:30 to 10. Call them – I had to – at (704) 824-2143. Or you can check out their website at http://portofinoitalianrestaurant.com.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Holiday Destination: McAdenville, NC - Christmas Town USA

"Oh, the traffic outside is frightful; but the lights are so delightful"

They call it “Christmas Town, USA.” At least the local boosters do. The rest of the world calls it McAdenville. And, by the way, despite what the voice of Google Search says, it's “Mc-AD-enville,” not “Mc-ADE-enville.”

Located a mere stone's throw west of the sprawling metropolis of Charlotte, McAdenville, North Carolina is barely a wide spot in the highway. With a population of just over 600, McAdenville has something of an identity crisis; both nearby Charlotte and adjacent Gastonia claim the hamlet as a suburb. But for a few weeks every year, everybody agrees that it's really an extension of the North Pole.

The sign at the town's entrance off I-85 at exit 23 proclaims that “Christmas Town” was founded in 1881. Well, sort of. Named for Rufus Yancey McAden, president of the local textile mill, McAdenville was incorporated in that year. “Christmas Town” came along a good bit later, influenced, coincidentally, by a successor of Rufus McAden, one W.J. Pharr, president of Pharr Yarns.

Back in 1956, the local Men's Club came up with the idea of making things merry and bright by hanging lights on a few trees around town. The town fathers said, “Sure. Why not?” Pharr and his wife also got behind the project and nine trees were decorated in red, white, and green lights.

Fast forward a half-century or so. Things have expanded a little. Today, more than 375 trees, ranging in height from six feet to more than ninety feet, boast strings of bright holiday lights numbering anywhere from 500 to 5,000 lights per tree. Preparations begin in August. And even though W.J. Pharr is no longer around, his successors at Pharr Yarns continue to support the project he helped develop, picking up the electric bill for the town's light display.

But it's so much more than just a municipal holiday display. The community at large has gotten involved and the result is truly magical.

“Christmas Town USA” is pretty much the two-mile stretch of NC 7 that runs through McAdenville between I-85 and US 29-74. The route passes through beautiful neighborhoods and the town's quaint “downtown” center. Nearly every home is decorated in some fashion. A few sport only very simple wreaths illuminated by spotlights. Most, however, are adorned in a truly grand manner. Lots of twinkling lights, lots of inflatables. More than two hundred wreaths hang from the town's lampposts. Life-size representations of Santa and his reindeer, carolers, and other iconic images are everywhere. And there are a lot of larger-than-life displays, too. For example, the massive Old Man Winter located on the shores of a small lake near the town center, “blowing” lighted “snowflakes” into the air. The lake itself is ringed with decorated trees while a fountain in the middle jets water seventy-five feet into the air as colored lights play through the spray. The sounds of chimes and music emanate from several sources along the way.

Besides the ongoing light display, there are a couple of special events that highlight the season; the lighting ceremony that occurs at the beginning of the season and the yule log ceremony that happens about midway through.

A word or two of caution: we made the dreadful mistake of going to see the lights on a Saturday evening. If you follow our foolish example, don't be surprised that it will take you somewhere between two and three hours to take in the sights. Seeing the breathtaking displays along the designated route will take thirty minutes to an hour. The rest of your time will be spent sitting in miles-long traffic beside I-85. Cars begin pulling off onto the shoulder of the Interstate about a mile-and-a-half before the actual exit ramp. A second line stretches back about a half to three-quarters-of-a-mile along what would usually be the inside exit lane. About halfway up the exit ramp, the two lines attempt to converge into a single lane. You'll see lots of blue lights before you get to the red, white, and green as state and local police do their best to regulate the flow of traffic. But I might humbly suggest that they station one officer at the choke point on the Interstate before somebody gets killed there. We witnessed several near misses caused by clueless idiots who, having bypassed all the standing traffic, tried to force their way into the head of the line. Lots of shouting, lots of cursing, lots of horn blowing, not a lot of peace on Earth and goodwill to men.

The traffic backup was so immense that we observed many people getting out of their cars and hiking up the ramp to the gas station, returning with bags of provisions. There were numerous other people – men, mostly – who took little trips into the woods beside the highway. The movie “Rio” was showing on the rear-facing screen of the vehicle in front of us; we watched most of the movie as we crawled along. If you are not prepared for this scenario, your mood may be ruined before you get to the destination, and that would be a shame. There were four of us in the car and ultimately we all agreed that the experience was worth the inconvenience. But we all also agreed that we would never do it again on a Saturday night.

All in all, though, it was a memorable adventure, one highlighted not only by bright lights but by bright spirits. Even as we moved slowly through all the festive luminosity, we were greeted by shouts of “Merry Christmas” from passing cars and pedestrians. The joy and excitement of both children and adults was palpable. On that December evening, we could truly sing, “In the air there's a feeling of Christmas.”

Detailed information on “Christmas Town USA” can be found at http://www.mcadenville-christmastown.com.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Yelpers, Urbanspooners, and Trip Advisors Beware!

A couple of news stories connected with one of my favorite soapbox platforms recently caught my eye.

As anybody who reads my scribblings knows, I am not a big fan of social media, particularly when it comes to the so-called “review” sites. These sites are little more than outlets created for people to vent their two cents' worth. Unfortunately, such opinions are frequently worth considerably less than the advertised price. Not that I have anything against expressing one's opinion. As I often and unambiguously state, everyone is entitled to my opinion. And if you have an opinion to offer that is intelligent, well-constructed, based in fact, and anchored in experience and/or expertise, have at it.

All too often, though, the pronouncements rendered on social “review” sites aren't reviews at all. They are petty gripes and complaints expressed as mere billingsgate by individuals secure in their closets of anonymity and cloaked in what they perceive to be their First Amendment right to “free speech.”

Without miring down in constitutional law and Supreme Court decisions involving Holmes-ian (Oliver Wendell, not Sherlock) quotations regarding the shouting of “fire” in crowded theaters, some of these alleged “reviewers” are discovering that sometimes “free speech” comes at a cost.

Take, for example, the recent brouhaha involving Chef Marc Orfaly of Boston's upscale eatery, Pigalle. In case you aren't up on the details, the chef very publicly lambasted a “review” of his establishment posted on Facebook by a woman named “Sandy.” Using the same medium, Orfaly lashed out at “Sandy,” calling her a bitch and telling her to vai cazzo herself. (He said it in English, but everything sounds so much nicer in Italian, you know.)

Sandy” was, shall we say, somewhat disappointed by her meal. And she expressed her disappointment by saying endearing things online. Things like, “"Really horrible pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving!! Wow. I don't have a clue as to why you would think that throwing pumpkin chunks into a cold pre baked pie shell and then covering it with a cream sauce that literally tasted like vomit { I am very serious!} and topping it off with whipped cream that was runny would in any way be something that can be called pumpkin pie?"

To which Orfaly responded, “you must enjoy vomit you bitch if you know how much it tastes like.” And it got worse. There was a lot more. She jumped back into the fray. He responded in kind.

Children, children! Please!

Orfaly has since apologized, as well he should. He was way out of line in the things that he said. But was he out of line for saying them? I don't think so.

The chef considered that he was defending his trade. “I feel like restaurateurs have to stick up for themselves in one way or another.” He says even though he knows he could have handled the situation better, he has still gotten support from fellow chefs.

I say again, he was one hundred percent wrong in launching a profanity-laced tirade against another human being. That is never defensible, no matter what you think you are defending. But he was one hundred percent right in his reasoning.

The restaurant business is incredibly tough. Oh, the diner who walks in the door, sits down at a table, has a meal, pays the check, and walks back out thinks that running a restaurant is just like cooking at home only on a bigger scale. And that's unimaginably incorrect. One out of every three new restaurants fails within its first year. Even successful chefs – the ones you see on TV – have failures. And it doesn't help to have idiots with inflated senses of self-importance sitting down at keyboards talking trash about things of which they know little.

But I know what I like!” Okay! Fine! But what you like and what I like may be two different things. If the only spaghetti you've ever had came out of a can with Chef Boyardee's picture on it and that's what you “like,” then you're probably going to hate the kind of stuff they serve at an authentic Italian restaurant. So does that give you the right to go online and tell the whole world that a place has “terrible” food simply because you didn't like it? Do you have the right to ruin a person's business and take away the livelihoods of that person's employees because you think you're God's arbiter of culinary excellence? And do you really think your sophisticated palate and your rapier wit are exemplified by enlightened comments such as “literally tasted like vomit?” Please.

Before you consign Chef Orfaly to the kitchens of hell, imagine, if you would, that you hosted a big dinner party. Everybody ate, drank, and made merry. And then some jerk went home and wrote for all the world to see that your food tasted like vomit. How would you feel? How would you respond?

These are not trained and experienced gourmands. These are the people next door; the ones who grew up eating canned, packaged, and frozen processed food products from a microwave. And don't be surprised to see more responses from guys like Orfaly who are defending their reputations and fighting for their businesses. In this vaunted “Information Age,” why should the discourse be one-sided?

A little advice, though, for would-be Orfalys: before you send your inner Anthony Bourdain out into the blogosphere, remember what your mama probably told you, “If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.” Ignorant people are what they are, and rudely pointing out their shortcomings only reflects badly on you. Maybe this aphorism, attributed to a variety of sources, but nonetheless true, applies, “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”

In another instance of an online “review” gone wrong, the response took the form not of a Facebook diatribe, but of a three-quarters of a million-dollar lawsuit.

A homeowner in Fairfax, Virginia was a little peeved with the service she received from a local contractor. True to the current social model of posting one's every move, emotion, thought, and experience online for all the world to share, she went to yelping on Yelp. Here she accused the contractor of shoddy workmanship and made veiled allegations of theft. She gave the guy one star and advised her readers not to put themselves through “this nightmare of a contractor.”

Imagine her surprise when her “nightmare” entered her waking world bearing a $750,000 defamation suit. According to a Washington Post report, lawyers are labeling such reactions as “a growing trend” in the “freewheeling and acerbic world of Web speech” where such speech is “colliding with the ever-growing importance of online reputations for businesses, doctors, restaurants, even teachers.”

The author of the “review” said she didn't want to see what happened to her happen to anyone else. Well, applause and shouts of “brava!” for her selfless altruism. Or was it, to use a phrase employed by the writer of the Post article, her attempt at “the go-to form of retail vengeance in the Internet age?”

Back in the good old days, if someplace pissed you off, you told your family and friends about it, right? And they probably told a few of their acquaintances and pretty soon you had a couple dozen folks all vowing to never patronize a certain business. At least until cooler heads prevailed and a little time passed and the whole incident blew over.

But in the brave new world of the Information Age, Mr. and Mrs. Average Citizen, through the anarchic instrument of the Internet, now possess the means to utterly destroy the lives of the people by whom they are offended. No more spoken complaints in the ears of a close few. Now, with a collection of keystrokes, an indelible record can be created and shared with the the population of an entire neighborhood, city, county, state, country or planet! You can get yours, alright! You can teach that sucker to piss YOU off! Never mind his wife and kids and the families of his employees. You got him and you got him good!

Pathetic. And frankly, I extol the business people who send their lawyers in to be their paladins in the face of wildly unexpurgated drivel. More power to 'em. Nothing like a good tort to deflate the overblown opinion some people have of themselves and of their importance.

But on a smaller, more personal scale, here's what I do; fight fire with fire and rebut. When I see a horrible and obviously biased “review” of a business I know to be good, I get online and write a detailed rebuttal. So should you. Do it right and stick to the facts. Nobody's going to sue you for saying something nice and only in this way will intelligent readers be able to make informed decisions. When a place gets a hundred positive comments and one negative, most people can read between the lines.

For better or worse, Facebook and Yelp and Urbanspoon and the rest are here to stay. As a consumer, just consider the source when you refer to these places for “reviews” and recommendations. And if you're an aspiring “reviewer,” choose your words carefully lest you be required to eat them.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Carla Hall's Pumpkin Chocolate Cake is FANTASTIC!

A "MUST" for the Fall and Winter Holidays

Carla Hall's Pumpkin Chocolate Cake
(ABC's The Chew)
You have GOT TO try this cake, boys and girls! Carla Hall posted the recipe to ABC's The Chew as a Halloween treat. Forget Halloween! We made it for Thanksgiving and it's SO good, we're giving it a reprise at Christmas.

I did one little tweak to Carla's original recipe; she may have great luck melting chocolate over direct heat, but most people do not. Therefore, we did the double-boiler method for the ganache. And when you make the filling, be sure the pumpkin puree is very dry. Too much moisture in the filling will make it a little loose and cause the cakes to slide around. You can dowel them if necessary, but making sure the filling is tight will obviate that necessity.


PUMPKIN CHOCOLATE CAKE

For the pumpkin cake:

2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
4 lg eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
3 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp salt
2 cups pumpkin puree

For the filling:

4 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp pumpkin spice
2 cups mascarpone
1 cup pumpkin puree (strained until very dry)
2 tsp salt

For the ganache:

3 tbsp corn syrup
6 oz heavy cream
12 oz dark chocolate (small bits)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
ginger snaps (crushed for garnish)

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.

Combine sugar, oil, and eggs in a large mixing bowl and mix well. Whisk dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Stir dry ingredients into wet until just combined. Fold in the pumpkin puree.

Divide batter between two cake pans.

Bake for 30 to 45 minutes. Rotate pans half way through cooking. Test with a toothpick. When cakes are done, allow to cool in pans 5 minutes before turning out onto cooling racks.

While the cakes are cooling, make the mascarpone filling. Beat mascarpone and pumpkin puree until blended, then add pumpkin spice, salt, and powdered sugar. Mix at high speed until blended, about 1 minute. Once fully combined, add vanilla and beat another 30 seconds.

Once cakes have completely cooled, cut through each horizontally with a serrated knife, making a total of four thin layers. Spread the filling evenly between the layers.

Once assembled, transfer the cake to a cake stand lined with parchment around the edges (to keep stand clean.)

In a double boiler over medium heat, combine corn syrup and cream and bring to a simmer. Add the chocolate. Stir until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and add vanilla extract.

Pour over cake and garnish with crushed ginger snaps.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sweet Potatoes vs Yams

I Yam What I Yam!

You know, you would think “Iron Chefs” would really be on top of things when it comes to food, especially proper culinary terminology. Alas, such is not always the case. Take, for instance, “Iron Chef” Michael Symon. I swear, if I hear him refer to the browning of meat as “caramelizing” one more time, I'm going to throw something at the TV. Meat browns through the Maillard reaction. It does not “caramelize.” It's like he's afraid “browning” doesn't sound “cheffy” enough, so he uses the “fancy word” instead. And he's wrong. If you put a glaze of some sort on a piece of meat, something that contains sugars, and then throw that glazed meat in a pan, the sugars in the glaze will “caramelize.” Otherwise, the meat itself simply “browns.”

And I recently heard “Iron Chef” Marc Forgione, when referring to a standard Thanksgiving dish, utter the phrase, “candied yams, also known as sweet potatoes.” I can only guess he must have been absent the day they discussed yams and sweet potatoes at culinary school. Ooops, that's right......he didn't go to culinary school. But with a Michelin star to his credit, you'd think he'd know the difference, right? And there is a big difference. Here's the skinny.

The Covington Sweet Potato
(North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission)
The so-called “sweet potato,” or Ipomoea batatas” for you Latin-loving scientific types, is a member of the Morning Glory family. It's a dicotyledon, meaning its seeds have two embryonic leaves. Although widely grown in the United States, with North Carolina and Louisiana leading the sweet potato producing pack, the plant originated in the tropical regions of the Americas, around Peru and Ecuador, before migrating north, where it was being grown by natives on the Eastern coastal plain of North America when Columbus came to town.

African Yam
Yams, on the other hand, were imported to the New World from West Africa. Scientifically, they are of the Dioscorea species and occupy a plant family all their own. A yam is a monocotyledon, having only one embryonic leaf, making it more closely related to a grass than to a broad-leaf plant. And they still don't hail from these parts; their tropical growth requirements mean that the rare yams you encounter in your neighborhood specialty market probably came from somewhere in the Caribbean.

One has only to look at the two side by side to see the difference. Sweet potatoes are smooth skinned and are kind of short and round with tapered ends. They look very much like really big potatoes. Yams are downright ugly by comparison, being long and cylindrical with rough, scaly skins and funky little protuberances or “toes” all over them. And yams can grow up to eight feet in length and weigh in at a hundred pounds. Sweet potatoes weigh about a pound and top out around a foot in length. You'll know the difference in your mouth, as well. Sweet potatoes are.....well......sweet, and very moist, too. Yams are dry and starchy.

There's also a significant nutritional difference. Sweet potatoes are rich in numerous vitamins, minerals, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and of course, the beta carotene that gives them their distinct coloring. Yams are a good source of starch and not much else.

The O'Henry Sweet Potato
(North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission)

So why all the confusion between the two? It's pretty obvious they're nothing alike, right? Some people trace the muddle back to the days when African slaves worked the fields and called the root vegetable they encountered by the name they applied to the tuber with which they were most familiar; “nyami,” a word quickly Anglicized to “yam.” But it took the government to really screw things up. See, the “original” sweet potato, the one traditionally grown on the East coast, is white or whitish-yellow in color. You sometimes see them in stores labeled as “white sweet potatoes.” The orange variety now commonly associated with the name didn't actually come to prominence until some Louisiana growers popularized them in the mid-20th century. A bad cotton crop in the 1930s turned a lot of Louisiana farmers into sweet potato producers. They wanted their product to be clearly distinguished from the plain old East coast variety, so they started calling them “yams” and petitioned the USDA to sanction that label, which it promptly did. Although, if you look at the fine print on the can, you'll find that “yams” labeled as such still have to contain the words “sweet potato” somewhere in the description. But, thanks in part to successful marketing, the orange variety soon overtook the culinary world and the terms “yam” and “sweet potato” became interchangeable in cookbooks and recipes. Nowadays, the traditional “white” sweet potato is looked upon as the odd duck in the flock – unless you're in sweet potato loving North Carolina, where it's just one among the pantheon of varieties designated as the official state vegetable of The Old North State. (The varieties include Beauregard, Covington, Carolina Rose, Carolina Ruby, Cordner, Hernandez, Jewel, O'Henry and NC Porto Rico 198. The O'Henry is the only white one in the bunch.)

White sweet potatoes are generally sweeter than the orange variety, although they are also perceived to have a milder flavor. Some people consider the whites to be drier and “mealier” than the orange. This is especially true among marketing people from Louisiana. The white potato has a softer skin than the orange, which also has a firmer, denser texture. You can tell them apart at a glance; “white” sweet potatoes have lighter skins, “orange” sweet potatoes are darker. Both are very nutritious, but the orange variety obviously has more beta carotene.

All that said, neither white nor orange sweet potatoes are truly “yams.” So if you think you've been serving candied yams at Thanksgiving all these years, you really haven't. Thanks to brilliant marketing out of Baton Rouge, they've actually been candied sweet potatoes. And an “Iron Chef” should really know the difference. I'm only a lowly “Aluminum Foil Cook” and I know. And now so do you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Kitchen Safety

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time of big, hectic-but-happy gatherings. Of course, as “Black Friday” morphs into “Gray Thursday,” the merchandising and advertising people are trying their best to have families enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at the mall food court while they do their shopping for the upcoming “Main Event.” But, until that happens, Thanksgiving is still about family, friends, and food. And when there's a lot of cooking going on, there's an increased danger of disaster. And I don't just mean a dry turkey.

Statistically, Thanksgiving Day provides as much employment for firefighters as the following day does for retail clerks. To pick a city at random, Birmingham, Alabama averages thirty-eight cooking fires over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend every year.

So the national fire safety folks have once again issued their annual reminder. It begins, “For cooking that the involves roasting, baking, simmering or boiling of food, someone should always be home. Don’t leave your home while food is cooking.”

You know, I'm one of those paranoid idiots who won't leave the house while the washer or dryer are running. I unplug my toaster when I'm not using it and I'm even a little itchy about crock pots. If I thought it were practical, I would probably just throw the main breaker when I walk out the door. I can't imagine anybody actually leaving the house while the stove is on. But it happens.

The next tip says, “Whenever you are broiling, grilling or frying food, someone should stay in the kitchen. Turn the stove off if you have to leave this type of cooking unattended.”

See my comment in the previous paragraph. An unattended broiler, grill, or fryer can go from incinerating your food to incinerating your house in about two seconds flat. And yet I've read horror stories about people wandering off and taking a nap only to wake to the sounds of fire engines. Or to not wake at all. Back in Birmingham, statistics there show that ovens and fryers account for twenty percent of cooking fires and that eighty-three percent of frying fires begin within the first fifteen minutes of cooking.

Tip number three advises, “If a pot on the stove catches on fire, put a lid on it and turn the burner off, this should smother the fire. Leave the pan covered until it cools off.”

Salt, baking soda, or a good old Type ABC fire extinguisher like the one that sits one foot to the left of my stove are also good for small cooking fires, but the lid method is the quickest way to deprive a fire of the oxygen it needs. And don't try to peek under the lid two seconds after you put it on. You would be astonished by how quickly a fire can flare back up, costing you at least your eyebrows, if not your whole kitchen. Stoves and ranges get credit for sixty-seven percent of Birmingham's cooking fires.

The list continues, “If food in the oven or microwave catches on fire, keep the door closed and turn the appliance off if it is safe to do so. If you choose to fight the fire, make sure that others are evacuating and calling 9-1-1 for assistance.”

This one is probably an abundance of caution, at least as far as evacuating and calling for help goes. Most ovens and microwaves will contain a fire that starts within. That whole lack of oxygen thing again. This presupposes, of course, that you're not stupid enough to open the door and let the fire out into the nice, oxygen-filled kitchen. That's when you need to evacuate and call 9-1-1. A little grease fire you can usually knock down yourself. When it's burning the curtains and climbing the walls, you need help.

Next tip, “Keep electrical cords for small appliances such as coffee makers, mixers, hot plates and electric knives from dangling off of the counter so they do not get pulled or tripped over, knocking the appliance to the floor.”

Okay. Your mixer, your coffee maker, and your electric knife are not going to set the house on fire if you knock them on the floor. The hot plate is iffy. A deep-fryer might, which is why mine has a magnetic breakaway cord that will detach from the body of the unit when subjected to the least little bit of pressure. Still, this one is more of a general safety tip than a fire prevention issue.

We are cautioned, “Keep pot handles turned inward to avoid hitting them and knocking the pot to the floor.”

Again, a fairly low fire risk, but a pretty decent burn risk. Did I ever tell you about the time Aunt Rose violated this tip? When we were five or six years old, my cousin was about an inch taller than me. That inch made a big difference as we tore full-speed through the kitchen one day. The top of my head cleared the pot handle sticking out; his didn't. Fortunately, nobody got hurt. Nobody got supper, either. It was an awful mess. And even though the cast-iron handle made a small impression on my cousin's head, the incident made a big impression on me. In the half-century plus that has elapsed, I have never left a pot handle sticking out.

The list goes on to say, “Keep items that can burn such as towels, pot holders and wooden utensils away from the stovetop.”

Other than grease fires, this is the biggest cause of most kitchen conflagrations. It's so easy to carelessly toss a dish towel just a l-e-e-e-tle to close the stovetop and walk away to do something else. When you turn back around, your kitchen's on fire.

It is further suggested, “To avoid having your clothes catch on fire, don’t wear loose or flowing clothing if you’ll be cooking. Remember if your clothes do catch on fire you should stop, drop and roll, as this will smother the fire.”

Nothing brightens the holidays like rolling on the floor in flames and then being transported to the hospital with second and third-degree burns. But, gee, that new blouse with the big, puffy long sleeves is just so festive and pretty! In Birmingham, one out of every five fires resulting from clothing igniting results in death. There's a reason cooks dress like they do. Part of the reason is we really hate catching on fire. Oh, losing some arm hair now and then is one thing, but going up like a Roman candle is something else entirely. When it comes to such matters, function beats fashion every time. Now, I'm not suggesting you cook your Stovetop Stuffing geared up in a close-fitting fireproof suit, but it might be a good idea to wear something practical to cook the meal and then change into something festive and pretty to serve and enjoy it.

A few other safety tips to consider: Clean food and grease off cooktops and out of ovens before you get started. No sense in adding an additional source of fuel in case of an accident.

Use a timer – a good, LOUD one – to remind you that things are cooking and when they should be attended to.

Establish a three-foot “kid-free zone” around your stove. Ask Aunt Rose about that one. Kids helping in the kitchen is one thing; kids playing in the kitchen is something else entirely. Same thing applies to pets. They really shouldn't be in the kitchen to begin with, but especially not when you're bustling around with hot pots and pans and full dishes and platters. Tripping over the dog while transporting the turkey to the table ruins Thanksgiving for everybody – except, perhaps, for the dog. And the cat would likely object strenuously to being doused in hot gravy.

Finally, in addition to the aforementioned fire extinguisher, have working smoke detectors throughout your house. And don't yank the batteries when the alarm goes off as you're in the middle of preparing something. The detector is only doing its job. Turn on a fan or move the unit farther from the preparation area. Don't disable it. You might not live to regret it.

Best wishes for a happy – and safe – Thanksgiving holiday.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Trader Joe's Experience

I have had my initiation, folks. I'm a Trader Joe's virgin no longer. And what an initiation it was!

I've heard about Trader Joe's for years, but there's never been one close to anywhere I happened to be. The store started out in the Los Angeles area back in 1958 when a guy named Joe Coulombe opened a local chain of “Pronto Market” convenience stores. Fearing that up and coming competitors like 7-Eleven were going to eat his lunch, he decided to head in a new direction, a direction purported to be inspired by a Caribbean vacation. So in 1967, he opened his first Trader Joe's in Pasadena, California, complete with tropical island décor and employees clad in Hawaiian shirts. The idea is that, like an island trader, Trader Joe's searches markets the world over to bring unique merchandise to your hometown. And that's pretty much the way it is.

Entering Trader Joe's leads to a shopping experience unlike any other. Now, I have to say that my first time at Trader Joe's was at a brand new store that just opened in a completely new market. I was there the second weekend the place was up and running and they were still completely swamped. You practically had to take a number to get into the store and the overwhelmed local staff was being assisted by employees imported from other locations as far as a hundred miles away. One fellow shopper, squeezing past me in the milling herd, smiled and said, “Looks like the novelty hasn't worn off yet.” And have I ever mentioned that I hate crowds? The only exception is when the crowds are lining up with money in their hands to see something in which I'm involved.

Surprisingly, in this instance I didn't care. The atmosphere was more like a big, convivial party than a jostling throng. Trader Joe's is famous for its friendly employees and that was certainly the case here. These poor schmucks were being bombarded from all sides. They were constantly trying to restock even as hordes trampled them to strip the shelves they were struggling to maintain. They were continually being summoned by clanging bells – Trader Joe's has a code; one bell means open another register, two bells means somebody has a question at check-out, three bells summons a manager – and still they kept sincere smiles on their faces as they adroitly answered myriad questions. In an age where rudeness is almost de rigueur among store clerks, there was not an unpleasant or surly one in the bunch. I don't know where Trader Joe's finds these people, but I wish they would share their source with McDonald's and a few other places that come to mind.

Of course, the original “Trader Joe” Coulombe has long since departed the scene, selling out his interest in the company in 1979, but the stores themselves continue to trend in the direction he established. They sell a limited quantity of unique, extremely high quality products at exceptionally low prices. This floors me because the Albrecht family now owns Trader Joe's; the same Albrecht family responsible for Aldi. Talk about polar opposites! Aldi and Trader Joe's are the nadir and the pinnacle. Aldi scrapes the bottom of the barrel and Trader Joe's skims the cream of the crop. Go figure.

<Scraping SFX as the soapbox is dragged out from under the porch> When it comes to food, quality is everything. Far too many people regard food as a necessary evil, something they simply have to have in order to function and survive. It goes in one end and comes out the other and if it accidentally happens to taste good in between, okay. They buy the cheapest, subsistence-level crap they can lay their hands on to fill a basic biological need. Why buy “expensive” durum wheat pasta at two dollars a box when the glorified dried wallpaper paste sold at ten boxes for a dollar is “just as as good?” Why buy real sweet cream butter when you can get by with practically plastic margarine? I'm sorry. I can't do that to my body. I'll drive an old used car and I'll wear clothes from the Salvation Army thrift store, but I refuse to cheap up on food.

And that's the beauty of Trader Joe's. They have astonishing food at equally astonishing prices. I'll tell you up front, Trader Joe's is not the place you'll go to do your regular weekly shopping. They don't carry the 50,000 items most chain grocery stores stock. They limit their inventory to about 4,000 carefully sourced and selected items. But within that selection, you won't find better quality at better prices anywhere. Trader Joe's even gives my old standby, Whole Foods, serious competition.

CBS Money Watch did a couple of stories on what to buy and what not to buy at Trader Joe's. (Read them here: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505145_162-57191657/6-things-to-buy-at-trader-joes/?tag=mwuser and http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505144_162-57191651/4-things-not-to-buy-at-trader-joes/?tag=mwuser.) I've seen the same type of information in other sources, as well. Everybody pretty much agrees that Trader Joe's can be hit or miss on fresh produce. Except bananas. The bananas are phenomenal and cheap. Nineteen cents apiece the day I went there. I found some great prosciutto di Parma, the real thing complete with DOP seal, for an incredible price. And, as the CBS article averred, Trader Joe's has some fantastic deals on maple syrup, both A and B grades. I'm a big fan of Kerrygold Irish Butter, but not at the usual price. I snapped up some at Trader Joe's. They were also passing out samples of a delicious tomato bisque, and I, the guy who bakes all his own breads, actually sprung for a loaf of Tuscan bread that, although commercially baked, was really quite good. I made panini with it, using the prosciutto and some wonderful raw milk emmentaler cheese that I purchased.

In fact, the general consensus is that nobody can touch Trader Joe's in two areas; wine and cheese. I'll certainly endorse that. The cheese section was unbelievable. I've not seen the like outside of a regular dedicated cheesemonger's shop. The selection is huge and the prices are beyond reasonable. I bought the aforementioned emmentaler along with some havarti, some brie, and a nice Wisconsin mild cheddar all for far less than I would have paid at a “regular” grocery store or even at a big-box discount place. All were superb. They had some Grana Padano and some Parmigiano-Reggiano, too, also very reasonably priced. I didn't need any that day, but I know where I'm going when I do.

Now, the CBS report didn't much care for Trader Joe's trademark “Two-Buck Chuck” wine. I didn't buy any, so I can't comment. I was much too busy scarfing up bottles of Montepulciano and Barolo and other Italian wines at prices I've never seen anywhere else. At $6.99 a bottle, I got a great bargain on a beautiful Villa Alena Moscato d'Asti and my wife thoroughly enjoyed the private label Honey Moon Viognier California white she picked up for next to nothing. Trader Joe's wine selection and wine prices are indeed unsurpassed.

As is the case with Trader Joe's everywhere, this new store's décor is a mix of exotic and local. There's the ubiquitous tropical kitsch, but the murals on the walls depicting local landmarks and scenes make the place feel like a real down-home neighborhood grocery store. Add to that the unfailingly friendly staff and the whole vibe that you're embarking on some sort of a culinary treasure hunt and it's easy to see why Trader Joe's has developed such a passionate cult following. And, believe me, I'm now a card-carrying member of that cult. Except, unlike so many chain stores, there's no card to carry in order to get fantastic deals. A philosophy stated on Trader Joe's website says: “ 'Sale' is a four-letter word to us. We have low prices, every day. No coupons, no membership cards, no discounts. You won't find any glitzy promotions or couponing wars at our stores. If it makes you feel any better, think of it as all our items are on sale, day in and day out.”

Trader Joe's began foraying out from California back in the '90s and is expanding into more new markets these days, so if you don't already have one in your neighborhood, take heart, one may be on the way. If you do have a Trader Joe's in your area and you haven't taken advantage of it, shame on you! The store “near” me is about forty miles away, but I'm still going to be a regular. I'm a very picky shopper, and from now on I'll definitely pick Trader Joe's.





Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Shelf Life of Spices

I have about come to the decision that I am no longer going to cook in the homes of friends and relatives. I'm getting older and I'm afraid my heart will no longer take the shocks I so often find in their kitchens. The latest jolt? Spice storage.

Erma Bombeck said, “Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I'm taking with me when I go.”

A recent peek in a friend's spice cabinet revealed several familiar little rectangular tins of McCormick spices. What's so shocking about that, you ask? Mostly the fact that, with the exception of ground black pepper, McCormick hasn't put spices in little rectangular tins in more than fifteen years! Add to that the location of said antique spices......a convenient cabinet directly over the stove......well, I hope you can see why my cardiologist worries.

Spices never actually “go bad.” They don't rot, they don't spoil, they don't ferment. Like proverbial old soldiers, they just fade away. And when your spice has faded, it has the same flavoring potential in your cooking as a teaspoon of sawdust. Even the Bible says, “If the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on.” (Matt 5:13 – HCSB) You know, for a tax collector, that Matthew was a pretty savvy cook.

The dictionary definition of a spice is: “an aromatic or pungent vegetable substance used to flavor food.” And when your spices have spent more than fifteen years in your cabinet, I can guarantee you they are no longer aromatic nor are they pungent.

I know people who go to Sam's or Costco and buy enormous containers of spices because they are such a bargain. And that's quite true if you have a) a commercial kitchen or b) a very large family. But if you're an average home cook preparing meals for two or three or four people, what on earth are you really going to do with five pounds of Durkee Spanish Paprika? Technically, it will “keep” indefinitely, but by the time it progresses from a rich, vibrant red to a dull grayish brown, it's – how did Matthew say it – “no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on.” Seriously, $22.62 is not a bargain for the few ounces you'll probably use before the rest of it goes stale.

You truly are better off buying the smallest possible quantities of most spices. Buy a little more of things you use a lot. I cook Italian, so I go through a good bit of oregano and basil and such. But Creole seasoning and curry powder are going to last me a long, long time.

And I can't say this enough; the place where you store your spices is just as important as the length of time you store them. More so, actually, because improper storage can shorten shelf life dramatically. Heat, light, and moisture are the deadly enemies of spices. So, will it be convenience or quality? You decide. If you have one of those nifty countertop spice racks full of nice clear jars that spend at least eighteen hours a day exposed to natural and artificial light, be prepared to replace their contents a lot more often. Same thing applies if you just have to have your spices in the cabinet right over or right next to your stove. All that heat and steam will reduce your spices to flavorless dust in short order.

If they still have some of their characteristics, you can get by with doubling up the amount you use in a recipe to achieve the same effect. But then you run into the visual unpleasantness of having teaspoons full of spices in your dishes instead of pinches or dashes, or worse, tablespoons instead of teaspoons. At some point, you've just got to break down and buy new stuff.

So when do you toss those old spices? Simple. When they don't do what spices are supposed to do anymore. I nearly came to blows once with a friend who insisted there was nothing “wrong” with her spices that had been gathering dust since Reagan was in office. Her oregano looked like it had been scooped from the floor of a sawmill – and it tasted like it, too. I produced a fresh bottle and asked her to compare colors. Mine was a nice dark green. Hers was light brown. Then came a sniff test. Mine smelled like oregano. Hers smelled like.....well, it didn't really smell like anything. And it had absolutely no flavor. I asked, “How long have you had this?” She replied, “I don't know. But there's nothing wrong with it.” Rule number one: if you can't remember how long you've had a spice, you've probably had it too long.

Remember, spices are, by their very nature, supposed to be brightly colored, richly aromatic, and bitingly flavorful. In short, spicy! And if they are not any of the above, what possible good are they?

How long will a spice “keep?” Unfortunately, there's no hard and fast rule. It varies from spice to spice. Some people advocate completely turning over your spice cabinet every six months. These are people with a) stock options in a spice company or b) more money than good sense. Six months is a little extreme. I can see evaluating your spice supply on a yearly basis, maybe right before the big holiday cooking rush. But not every six months.

The folks at McCormick & Company are one of the world's largest purveyors of spices, having been dealing with them since 1889. They have some storage and usage recommendations at their website, www.mccormick.com. They say that whole spices – cloves, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, etc. – are generally good for three or four years. With ground spices, give it two to three years. You'll get one or two years out of seasoning blends and one to three years from dried herbs. Count on four years for extracts, except for pure vanilla, which lasts indefinitely. All of this assumes, of course, proper storage and handling.

And, going back to rule number one, if you just can't remember how long you've had a particular McCormick spice, they have a “Fresh Tester” whereby you can enter the code found on the bottle and find out just how poor your memory really is. For some things, you don't need a code. Like the rectangular tins. Likewise, any bottles that say “Baltimore” on them are at least fifteen years old. And anything that carries the “Schilling” brand is at least seven years old. You may be able to sell these to collectors on E-Bay, but you probably should forgo using them in your cooking or baking.

Hey, they don't come any cheaper than me. I save outrageous things on the chance that I'll use them for something someday. And I know how much it hurts to pay good money – lots of good money – for spices and then face the prospect of tossing them while the bottles are still half full or more. But if you're really serious about the quality of your cooking, you've just got to bite the bullet and do it. Go on. Hit the kitchen. Look, sniff, taste, and toss. Then replace, using reasonable quantities. No more five pound containers, okay? It's not a bargain if you're just going to wind up throwing most of it away. And if you don't buy McCormick products with “use by” dates or handy little online age calculators, label your spices yourself. Write the purchase date on a little sticky label, or right on the bottle if you prefer. I know somebody who uses colored dots and color codes them. Whatever works for you.

Do it for yourself. Do it for your family. Do it for the sake of some old curmudgeon who might visit and stick his nose in your spice cabinet. Just do it! As Frank Herbert said in Dune: “He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Food Science: It's Not Just for Nerds Anymore

Word came down the other day that the CIA is getting into food science. No, no......not that CIA. Not the one headquartered in Langley, VA. I'm talking about the one in Hyde Park, NY. The Culinary Institute of America.

According to an Associated Press story, the school is beefing up instruction in techniques more suited to the chemistry lab than to the kitchen. With the new wave of “modernist cuisine,” “molecular gastronomy,” and the attendant gimmicks like xanthan gum and liquid nitrogen, tomorrow's chefs will have to be more experimental than yesterday's. This has resulted in a new major at the Institute; culinary science, a field that embraces both food science and culinary art.


Molecular Gastronomy aficianado Chef Richard Blais
(Getty Images)
As anybody who has ever tried to make their own mayonnaise knows, cooking and science have always gone hand in hand. You employ the principles of emulsion in order to make mayonnaise. The effect of heat on food is a matter of basic scientific theorem. And a lot of chemical reactions occur in baking. So cooking has always been a mixture of art and science. But there's a world of difference between established cooking techniques like finishing a sauce with butter and the new wave idea of dipping a strawberry in liquid nitrogen before hammering it into tiny pieces and grinding up the results to make strawberry dust. These new methods require whole new schools of thought. And the addition of centrifuges and blow torches and immersion circulators and anti-griddles to the traditional line up of flat tops, blenders, and food processors requires new courses of instruction as well.
The story continues: “The CIA is tweaking the master-apprentice relationship that has been a hallmark of professional kitchens since the days of suspending iron pots over wood fires. The traditional way for a trainee to respond to a request is, 'Yes, chef.' Now school administrators want to make it closer to, 'Why, chef?' They want students to come up with hypotheses, test them, and discover the best methods.”

Well, I believe as long as there are old-school guys heading kitchens, “Why, chef?” is not going to fly too high. Picture an apprentice saying, “Why, chef?” to the likes of Gordon Ramsay. But the idea of applying scientific methods in a kitchen setting is a good one. Personally, I don't think it's enough to know that a certain food item behaves a certain way when you cook it. I like to know why it behaves the way it does and what I can do to alter or enhance or moderate that behavior.

And I don't believe that science in the kitchen needs to be limited to the professional kitchen. Home cooks who know what their food is and why it does what it does and how they can make it do better things become better cooks. To that end, I have a few suggestions and recommendations. And, no, enrolling at the CIA or a similar institution is not necessarily one of them, although........

What I had in mind is much simpler, less costly, and more easily attainable. And it comes from three sources: Harold McGee, Robert L. Wolke, and Alton Brown.
Harold McGee is the dean of food science writers. His exhaustive 1984 opus, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, is practically a textbook and his scientific approach to food and cooking has influenced dozens of prominent chefs, food writers, and the food industry in general. The original work was greatly revised and updated for a second edition in 2004. World-famous chef Daniel Boulud scores McGee's book as “a must for every cook who possesses an inquiring mind."
Then there's Robert L. Wolke, author of two McGee-esque books on food science;What Einstein Told His Cook and the follow up What Einstein Kept Under His Hat. Both are wonderfully informative and entertaining reads. Whereas McGee organizes his work into categories based on specific ingredients such as milk and dairy, eggs, meat, fish, etc., and then expands at great length on each subject, Wolke takes a less pedantic approach, answering general questions like “What is Dutch process cocoa? How is it used differently from regular cocoa in recipes?” His responses are simple, direct, and generally quite entertaining. He's one of those instructors that makes learning interesting and fun.

But when it comes to interesting and fun, nobody holds a candle to Alton Brown. His Good Eats program that aired on Food Network from 1999 to 2012 is part Mr. Wizard and part Monty Python, with a touch of Jim Henson thrown in for good measure. I mean, here's a grown man who employs belching sock puppets to demonstrate the expulsion of carbon-dioxide by yeast. Episodes have punny titles like “Give Peas a Chance.” It's hilarious. But it's also extremely informative in a delightfully entertaining way that appeals to all ages. My 10-year-old nephew enjoys watching Good Eats as much as I do, and any food program that can capture and hold a kid's attention is a good one, indeed. When presented with a Peabody Award in 2006, it was said, "Rarely has science been taught on TV in such an entertaining – and appetizing – manner as it is in Alton Brown's goofy, tirelessly inventive series."

Alton Brown
(Food Network)

Although no longer in production, the show airs in reruns on both Food Network and sister broadcast outlet Cooking Channel. It's also available on DVD. And Brown has authored three best-selling Good Eats volumes based on the series, as well as several I'm Just Here for the Food books, which combine the instructional and literary styles of McGee and Wolke and spin them out in a quirky manner that only Alton Brown could accomplish.

Okay, so you don't have to be a food scientist in order to cook. Just like you don't have to be a mechanic to drive a car. But if you ever find yourself stuck by the side of the road on a dark and stormy night, it sure helps. Knowing how to scramble or fry or poach an egg makes you a cook. Knowing the various components of the egg and how their physical characteristics and chemical makeup affect the way the egg scrambles, fries, or poaches makes you a much better cook.

So if you've ever caught yourself wondering why a piece of meat browns the way it does (it's the Maillard reaction) or why water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes (decreased air pressure), you might be a closet food scientist. And that's okay, because nowadays food science is cool. After all, the folks at the CIA ought to know.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Marketing the "Gluten-Free" Diet Scam

You've Been Punked By Madison Avenue

Any of you who have ever spent any time on a farm will probably know what a manure spreader is. But I have another example of a manure spreader; anybody who works for an advertising agency. And the latest manure these folks are spreading across the American foodscape is the “gluten-free” scam.

Now, don't get me wrong. For the one percent or so of the population suffering from Celiac disease, avoiding gluten is a medical necessity. For everybody else who has jumped on the “gluten-free for health” or “gluten-free for weight loss” bandwagons, you've been punked by Madison Avenue.

In the first place, gluten is not some evil source
of pound-packing calories or some villainous substance that will lead you to an early grave. Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in cereal grains like wheat, barley, and rye. A composite of gliadin and glutenin bound together by a starch, its purpose is to provide structure to breads, pasta, and other foods made from these grains. Through kneading and stretching, gluten gives doughs their elasticity and strength. That's it. Period. End of sentence. There are no excessive calories or other dietary dastards lurking in gluten.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting the digestive tract, specifically the small intestine, where it interferes with the absorption of nutrients and causes damage to the intestine. A number of gastrointestinal symptoms accompany Celiac disease, which may also manifest as fatigue, anxiety, depression, and a host of other factors. One of the triggers for the disease is gliadin. Once it has passed through the stomach and made its way into the intestinal tract, the partially digested gliadin basically causes an “allergic reaction,” for lack of a better term, causing the disease to flare up, resulting in unpleasant, painful, and often dangerous gastrointestinal effects. For everybody else – roughly ninety-nine percent of us – gluten is just a common dietary protein.

However, due to the lack of nutrient absorption, one of the
problems Celiac sufferers have to deal with is weight loss. And
wouldn't you know it, some idiot made the connection between this weight loss and the absence of
gluten ingestion and decided to
make a fad diet out of it, a diet immediately embraced by celebrity idiots like Kim Kardashian. And since ad people always know a good thing when they smell it, they have been mercilessly flogging the “gluten-free” horse, sticking “GLUTEN FREE!” labels on anything and everything in the hopes that our nation of overweight, gullible, frightened, hypochondriac sheeple will all run to the fold and gobble up their product. And it's working. It's working so well that sheeple are actually buying “gluten-free” foods that never had gluten in them to begin with! I'm looking at a big “GLUTEN-FREE SNACK!” label on a bag of potato chips. Now, unless the manufacturer has added some form of gluten as a seasoning or an extender, there is no gluten in potato chips. Never was. Potatoes, like nearly all vegetables and fruits, are naturally “gluten-free.” Same for pickles. Yeah.....that's right.......some Madison Avenue manure spreader got the idea of labeling pickles as “gluten-free.” How about the “gluten-free” rice and/or corn cereals crowding the store shelves? Guess what? There's no gluten in rice or corn. I've also seen “gluten-free” candy, fruit snacks, soda and lots of other sugar-laden or artificially sweetened stuff, all labeled so that you can feel good about feeding your kids things that are inherently bad for them.

Americans will spend over seven billion dollars this year on products labeled “gluten-free.” And yet, because the FDA has not yet codified a guideline for such labels, many of them are misleading, being placed on products that actually do contain some gluten, while most of the rest are simply unnecessary affectations. And because these marketing-driven labels enable manufacturers to jack up the prices, the only place you're going to lose weight is in your wallet.

And yet, some people swear by it. They feel SO much better since they went gluten-free! They've lost unimaginable amounts of weight since going gluten-free. These Kardashian-wannabes are driving a growing number of restaurants into the “gluten-free” pool, causing food costs and prices to rise there, too. And I promise you, if there is even one legitimate Celiac sufferer in the small town in which I live, I will eat my gluten-free shoes.

According to Rhonda Kane, a registered dietitian and consumer safety officer at the FDA, “Eating gluten-free is not meant to be a diet craze. It’s a medical necessity for those who have Celiac disease. There are no nutritional advantages for a person not sensitive to gluten to be on a gluten-free diet.”

Dr. David L. Katz, of the Yale Prevention Research Center, echoes the opinion of many other medical and dietary professionals when he says, “For everyone else [not afflicted by Celiac disease], going gluten free is at best a fashion statement, and at worst an unnecessary dietary restriction that results in folly. It reflects a tendency to ingest the ever proliferating pop-culture perspectives on diet and health, without first separating the wheat from the chaff.”

Dr. Alessio Fasano, medical director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, reveals that many of the gluten-free products on the market can actually be unhealthy because manufacturers add extra sugar and fat to compensate for the texture and satisfying fluffiness that natural gluten provides. And most of these products lack the fortification of foods containing gluten. Commercial breads have been made with “fortified” wheat flour for decades. The iron and B and D vitamins this process imparts are often lacking in “gluten-free” foods.

Some practitioners have come up with a broad category, which they are labeling “gluten sensitivity,”
to cover people who don't have Celiac disease, but may still have “sensitivity” to gluten. The jury in the medical community is still pretty far out on this issue, and again, even if “gluten sensitivity” proves out, it only expands the field by a few percentage points. And even these practitioners agree that the vast majority of people who “go gluten-free” to lose weight or improve their health are just being scammed.

The dictionary defines “scam” as “a fraudulent business scheme; a swindle.” Other definitions include words like hustle, flimflam, bamboozle, and con game. Scams traditionally exploit common human foibles like vanity, gullibility, irresponsibility, desperation and naïveté. And when celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, who practices gluten-free “cleansing,” fall for the scam, it spreads like wildfire.

If someone you know – someone lacking a valid medical need – has begun singing the praises of being “gluten-free,” just shake your head and walk away. Keep in mind the old maxim, "Don't argue with idiots. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience."

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a loaf of bread in the oven and a pot of pasta on the stove. And since Kim and Oprah won't be dropping by for dinner, I'll probably have plenty to share. Tutti a tavola e mangiare!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why Is Italian Treated Like A Second-Class Language?

I'm a little miffed today. That's hardly an unusual state of affairs anymore. As I get older I find I spend a lot of time being miffed. Guess it's all part of being a curmudgeon.

I'm miffed today because of a recent incident of “Giada Bashing,” the practice of saying unfounded ugly things about Giada de Laurentiis. I've watched Giada for years, I've cooked her recipes, I've met her and spoken with her and I find her to be completely charming and utterly genuine. But the particular bash I'm referring to is one that really pushes my buttons because it is one that is not directed solely at Giada, but at Italians in general. Specifically at the Italian language.

The comment was one I've heard many times; “She talks normal until she says something about some Italian ingredient. Then she has to say it with some fancy Italian accent.”

Okay......I'm counting to dieci.....that's ten in Italian. What part of this don't you understand? English is not her native language. She's freakin' ITALIAN! She is not putting on fancy airs, she is speaking her native language correctly!

But I run into this kind of linguistic racism all the time. Never mind the way things are pronounced in their mother tongue. The only “normal” way to speak is the American way. I'm constantly harping on “marinara” and “bruschetta,” for instance. The right pronunciation, the proper pronunciation, the correct pronunciation of these words is “mah-ree-NAH-rah” and “broo-SKAY-tah” – or, at least, “broo-SKET-ah.” It is not, never has been, and never will be “mare-uh-NARE-uh” and “broo-SHET-uh.” But when I say this, I am frequently looked at like an idiot child and told in no uncertain terms, “Well, I ain't from Italy. I'm from [pick a state] and that's just the way we say it there.” Implying, of course, that that automatically makes the blatant mispronunciation right.

And yet we Americans arrogantly laugh at people who come here from other places and mispronounce common English words. People who have thick accents or who place the emphasis on the wrong syllable or who can't wrap their tongues around certain letter combinations are all stupid, right? They “talk funny.” But not us. We can pronounce words in their language any old way we want, because, after all, we talk “normal.”

And the thing that grinds my gears the hardest is the fact that this proclivity seems to be directed at the Italian language more than any other. For reasons I just can't fathom, Italian seems to be a second-class language. Americans liberally flatten vowels, truncate words, and generally butcher a beautiful, lyrical tongue with verisimilitude and without recrimination. They don't do it with Spanish and they most certainly don't do it with French, but Italian seems to be fair game.

Take, for instance, the taco. Everybody says “TAHK-oh,” right? I know somebody who pronounces it “TACK-oh” and he sounds funnier than hell to most people. Have you ever heard anybody order a “BURRIT-oh?” Or a “kwes-uh-DILL-uh?” Of course not. Everybody knows how to pronounce “burrito” and “quesadilla.”

Or take French. When it comes time to confit something, I don't know of a single chef who says “KAHN-fit” instead of “cone-FEE.” The demi glace is always a “dem-ee GLAHS” and never a “dem-eye GLAYCE.” And even if you can't speak through your nose and swallow final consonants like the French do, most Americans at least give “kwra-SAHNT” (croissant) a legitimate try.

Even Asian cultures get their due. Most folks ordering a bahn mi sandwich these days know better than to ask for a “BAN-my.”

And yet, you're somehow “abnormal” if you ask people to properly pronounce marinara and bruschetta. I just don't get it.

There are elements in our society that consider it a laughable affectation for one to correctly pronounce “foreign” words. You're just being “uppity.” I disagree. It's a matter of etiquette, intelligence, and respect. We expect – nay, we demand – that people from other countries learn to “talk normal” when they come here lest we laugh them off the streets. And yet, that same expectation, that same demand, is seldom made of us. Americans, it seems, are allowed to be culturally ignorant with impunity. “Well, I ain't from any of them other countries, so I ain't gotta talk like they do.” How sad!

I'm not saying you have to take a crash course in Italian, but you can go a great distance by remembering a few simple rules. For instance, in any Italian word where there's an “A” – any Italian word – the “A” will be pronounced as “ah.” All Romance or Neo-Latin languages – of which Italian is one – share the same sound for the letter “A.” There are no “long” or “short” sounds – no “ā” as in “sale” or “ă” as in “cat.” Everything is an “ah” sound. Conversely, the Italian “E” is frequently pronounced like a long “A.” Which leads to another point: in proper, non-dialectical Italian, you always pronounce the final vowel. There are no silent “e”s. Thus, words like mascarpone and provolone are not correctly rendered as “MASS-car-pone” and “PRO-vuh-lone,” but as “mahs-cahr-POHN-ay” and “proh-voh-LOHN-ay.” And if that sounds too affected, I'll just start using the Italian “u” sound when I talk about your “pickoop trook” and I'll sound as silly to you as you sound to an Italian.

Maybe it's because Italians are too laid back to gripe. Or maybe just too polite. Mispronounce something in French and the French will come after you with pitchforks. With Italians, non è niente! Come on, Italians! Demand some respect for your language!

Okay. I'm dragging the soapbox back under the porch now and I'm going to go in and take my medicine. I'm going to turn on the TV and find a station where everybody “talks normal.” And as long as you don't come and tell me we're having spaghetti mare-uh-nare-uh with broo-shetta for supper, I'll be fine.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Go Olive Garden?" I Don't Think So

Olive Garden Takes Another Step Away From Being an Italian Restaurant


Anybody who reads my writing regularly – my, wasn't that alliterative? – knows how I feel about Italian restaurant chains, particularly Olive Garden. I eat there once in awhile – usually when I'm on the road and the choice is between there or Burger King. As I've frequently said, if you can't find a good Italian restaurant, there's always Olive Garden. But Darden Restaurant's latest marketing move might make me reassess that statement.

Before I go forward, let me back up. I ate at an Olive Garden recently; I had been given a gift card by well-meaning people who knew I “like Italian food.” <Sigh> So, I'm in town for a game and there's an Olive Garden and I've got this card........

Most dishes on Olive Garden's menu aren't too offensive; they aren't too Italian, but they aren't too offensive. It was late at night and I didn't want to go real heavy, so I ordered a simple spaghetti marinara. I specifically asked, as I always do in such places, for a real Italian portion. By that I mean something that's not served up in a feed trough carried to the table by two servers. Generally, a “child's” portion is what I wind up with. I can eat at least half of that.

As usual, the spaghetti was overcooked and bland. The sauce was okay for something that came out of a bag. The waiter came by and asked, “How is everything?” So, I told him. I asked him point-blank if the pasta came pre-packaged, refrigerated, and was just thrown into hot water and he said, “Yes, I think so.” Then he asked why I asked. I explained that the pasta was a little past al dente and that it had no flavor, as if there had been absolutely no salt added to the water. He commented, “People like you can always tell.” People like me. In other words, people who don't consider Chef Boyardee to be the ultimate in Italian cuisine. Then this Olive Garden waiter, standing in the middle of his own Olive Garden restaurant, asked me if I had ever been to a certain downtown Italian ristorante, the name of which I'm redacting to protect the guy's job. I was quite familiar with the place and I started explaining to him why the pasta there was so much better. I talked about artisanal suppliers and the superior texture of the pasta resulting from its being extruded through brass dies, and stuff like that. He thanked me for the information! All in all, other than encountering a refreshingly candid waiter, it was a typical Olive Garden experience. (I related this story to my son, a former waiter at another Italian chain place. “Geez, dad. At least we cooked our own pasta before we threw it in the refrigerator and reheated it.” See why I avoid chain places?)


(Image courtesy Business Insider)
Anyway, back to the topic at hand: Darden's new bone-headed marketing ploy. According to an Associated Press story, “Olive Garden is tossing out its famous 'When You’re Here, You’re Family' slogan to cater to a more modern lifestyle.” Oh, joy. Now it's going to be “Go Olive Garden.” I can't say for sure, but this sounds like it was written by the same dreadful hack who convinced the pork people to ditch “The Other White Meat” in favor of “Be Inspired.” Or maybe the guy who sold McDonald's on “I'm Lovin' It,” my personal winner for Most Despised Slogan.

The AP story continues: “Instead of evoking Old World charm, the new ads will feature brightly lit snapshots of modern life — little girls at ice skating practice, a woman striking a yoga pose, a group of friends taking a picture of themselves with a smart phone.” Doesn't that just scream “Italian?” Doesn't that just make you want to chow down on a platter of pasta? Doesn't that just make you sick?

According to one Jay Spenchian, Darden's executive vice president of marketing, the image of the traditional long family meal no longer reflects today’s hectic lives. And Olive Garden no longer reflects an Italian restaurant. It's become Applebee's with pasta.

In fact, in a blatant rip-off of Applebee's “2 for $20” gimmick, Olive Garden plans to serve up a “Dinner Today, Dinner Tomorrow” offering whereby you can grab a meal for now and they'll pack one up for you to take home. Kind of like leftovers, only on a grander scale.

They're trying to steer gullible rubes......er......I mean, potential customers into seeing Olive Garden not as a place where you have to come in and sit down with the whole family for a big meal, but more as a place where you can just dash in and grab a quick something for yourself. Ugh!

Can you think of anything more antithetical to the traditional Italian way of life? Italian meals are supposed to be leisurely family affairs where everybody sits down at the table and enjoys good food, good wine, and good conversation. “When You're Here, You're Family” is what it's all about! Any greasy spoon diner, dive, or truck stop can shovel out plates full of food for the hurried traveler on the go. This is what Darden wants? To be a high-priced truck stop with an Italian-sounding name? Go for it, buddies.

On the bright side, Olive Garden plans to emphasize what it calls “Lighter Italian Fare;” dishes that have 575 calories or less. Oh, you mean something closer to real Italian food? Something that doesn't come heaped up on a platter with “endless” side items? That's a step in the right direction.

But the idea of abandoning all semblance of even faux-Italian culture in favor of the “modern” way of life is revolting. If I want Italian fast-food, I'll go to Fazoli's.

Come to think of it, Fazoli's recent “upgrade” includes an attempt to look more Italian. They've done away with the schlocky décor and covered their walls with pictures of families enjoying Italian food. They, too, have a line of “light” entrees – except theirs have 400 calories or less. The food quality is about the same as Olive Garden's and it's cheaper.

Va bene! The decision is made. If I'm no longer “Like Family” at Olive Garden, I simply won't “Go.” From now on, if you can't find a good Italian restaurant, there's always Fazoli's.