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The View from My Kitchen

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

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

June (2012) Fun Food Holidays

June is bustin' out all over......and you will be, too, if you celebrate all the month has to offer.

I have no earthly idea why the first month of summer is also dedicated to a food usually associated with fall and winter holidays, but there it is; June is National Turkey Lover's Month, so gobble some up.

June is also the month in which we celebrate steakhouses, seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, papaya, iced tea, and candy. And, of course, it is also National Dairy Month.

We start the month with a tribute to hazelnut cake on June 1 and then quickly follow that with a helping of rocky road ice cream on its nationally dedicated day of June 2.

Whether hazelnut or any other variety, you have break some eggs to make a cake, so get cracking on June 3, National Egg Day.

June 4 is a big food day, combining cheese, frozen yogurt, and cognac all on the same day, but probably not on the same plate.

Get a jump on the Christmas season and begin building your gingerbread house on June 5, National Gingerbread Day.

What is it with cake and ice cream this month? June 6 is National Applesauce Cake Day and June 7 is National Chocolate Ice Cream Day.

Grab a jelly-filled doughnut in honor of its special day on June 8 and follow it up with a celebratory slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie on June 9.

I planted same basil the other day. It's doing well, but I don't think it will be ready to harvest in time for Herbs and Spice Day on June 10. But that won't keep me from enjoying some iced tea or a black cow, companion beverages that share the day. And in case you didn't know, a “black cow” is made not with Angus beef, but with root beer and ice cream.

More cake! National German Chocolate Cake Day is June 11 and the 12th is a good day to grab some peanut butter cookies.

Okay, I'm serious about this one. June 13 is Kitchen Klutzes of America Day and you can even send your favorite kitchen klutz an online greeting card at either http://www.bluemountain.com/ecards/june/on-this-date/pn/6-13-kitchen-klutzes-of-america-day/card-3004600 or http://www.americangreetings.com/ecards/celebrate-the-date/6-13-kitchen-klutzes-of-america-day-ecard/pn/3004600. Really.

Haul out your American flag for Flag Day on June 14 and celebrate with a slice or two of strawberry shortcake because it's also National Strawberry Shortcake Day.

Enjoy some lobster on June 15, some fudge on June 16, and on June 17 you get the chance to make your mama happy. It's Eat All Your Veggies Day. And as a reward for eating your veggies, chow down on apple strudel, also recognized on that day.

International Picnic Day is June 18. Making sure your picnic basket contains a cherry tart will enable you to cover two bases at once.

How about a nice dry martini? One would certainly be in order on its designated day, June 19.

A couple of delicious summer treats mark the beginning of summer; the vanilla milkshake is feted as summer begins on June 20 and peaches and cream are the order of the day for June 21.

Onion rings and chocolate eclairs share the day on June 22. Probably not in the same sitting, though.

Enjoy some pecan sandies on June 23 and some pralines on the 24th.

Strawberry parfait rules the day on June 25, then the next few days belong to pudding; chocolate pudding on the 26th, Indian pudding on the 27th, and tapioca on the 28th. Well, the 28th is not technically a celebration of tapioca pudding, just tapioca.

Some almond buttercrunch is called for on June 29 and cap off June on the last day of the month by grabbing an ice cream soda in celebration of National Ice Cream Soda Day.

Happy summertime eating!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Victorinox Forschner Fibrox: Your Best Bet For A Good Kitchen Knife

"A Sharp Knife Is a Safe Knife"

Just about anybody you ask will tell you the most important piece of equipment in your kitchen is a good kitchen knife. And they'll likely tell you that you don't need a fifty-piece set. Three knives will
generally do; a chef's knife, a utility knife, and a paring knife. Most will also throw in a serrated knife for cutting breads and cakes and such. From there on you're pretty much on your own as to selecting the best knives for your needs.

At this point, I could go into great detail about metallurgy and composition and carbon content in the steel and angles and degrees of honing a knife's edge and lots of other arcania that most people don't care about, don't need to know, and quickly forget anyway. I'm generally pretty good at overwriting like that. But not this time. Basically, you want a sharp knife that's going to stay sharp and last a long time.

Don't walk, run from the sets you find displayed on discount retailer's shelves. Anything that comes in sets of ten or twelve or eighteen or more pieces complete with a nifty knife block for less than twenty dollars is a cheap disaster waiting to happen. The blades will warp and break, the handles will degrade and/or come off and the edges will dull quickly and stay that way. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing more dangerous in a kitchen than a dull knife.

I always carry my knives with me when I'm invited to places where I know there's a better than even chance I'll be cooking something. I got caught unprepared at a friend's house once and, after observing my cursing attempt to cut a potato with a knife I nearly had to stand on, my friend went straight to Walmart and came home proudly displaying a brand new set of knives. It was a twenty-three piece Mainstays (Walmart's store brand) set in a “natural” block. He had shelled out twenty bucks for it. I asked him for another twenty dollar bill, which I took and promptly set on fire. Not really, but I might as well have done so, and so might he. Half the “23-piece” set was knives. The remainder were spatulas and measuring cups and such. So, allowing that the “natural” block and the cheap plastic accessories might have been worth four dollars, he paid about sixteen bucks for twelve knives. That's a buck-thirty-three per knife. I ask you, what kind of quality do you really think you're getting?

And don't be fooled by the “celebrity chef” products you see in a lot of stores. Paula Deen's got her name and face on everything. So do Rachael Ray and Bobby Flay and Mario Batali and Marcus Samuelsson and Emeril and Wolfgang and a host of others. Most of these knives are manufactured by companies like Farberware, the same folks who make the twenty-dollar sets you see at Walmart, except they stamp a celebrity's name on them and retail them for four or five times as much.

At the other end of the spectrum are the prestigious “name” brands. Wusthof, Henckels, Global. These are fine knives, the highest quality German and Japanese steel and the best craftsmanship on the market. And you'll lay out as much for one knife as you will for a hundred or more of the store-brand knives from Walmart. Is it worth it? Probably. If properly taken care of, it will likely be the last knife you'll ever buy. They're that good. But I can't afford a set of them. I can't even afford the three or four recommended ones. Most people can't without a bank loan. A set of the three basic knives from Wusthof is going to set you back......oh, somewhere around three hundred dollars. Or about fifteen of the “23-piece” sets from Wally World.

No, what you need is a work horse. Take a peek in the kitchen of your favorite local restaurant. You definitely won't see any “Mainstays” or “Farberware” or “Paula Deen” knives on that magnetic strip over the prep area. And you probably won't see many Wusthofs or Globals there, either. But you might see my favorite knife; the Victorinox Forschner Fibrox.

Crafted in Switzerland by the people who have been making Swiss Army knives for more than a century, this knife is a food service industry standard and staple. Razor sharp, lightweight, perfectly balanced with a comfortable non-slip Fibrox grip, this is a piece of professional grade kitchen equipment anybody can afford for home use. The 8-inch chef's knife – my favorite – generally retails in stores for about thirty dollars, and you can get some great deals online at Amazon and other sources. My wife finds the 8-inch knife to be a little big for her hand, so I bought her the 6-inch model and now she won't use anything else. If you're a reader of Cook's Illustrated or Cook's Country magazines or a fan of their America's Test Kitchen TV programs, the Victorinox is the knife they use and recommend as their “Best Value.” If it can stand up to the hard use of the test kitchens and of your neighborhood restaurant kitchens, it'll do a great job in yours.

Besides the 6 and 8-inch models, there are 10 and 12-inch chef's knives. And the aforementioned utility, paring, and serrated bread knives are also available, all at very affordable prices.

A final word of advice: don't buy any knife until you've held it in your hand. The best knife for your kitchen is the one that's best for you. I fell in love with my Victorinox after I went to several kitchen stores and held all the Globals and Henckels and Wusthofs and all the others they had to offer. Some of the ones I expected to like I found to be unsuited to my needs. The handle was uncomfortable, the balance was off, the weight was too heavy or too light. But that surprising little Victorinox turned out to be the Goldilocks of kitchen knives; everything about it was just right.

As I said, Victorinox Forschner Fibrox knives are widely available at restaurant supply stores as well as at retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond and local culinary shops. If you don't have any of those nearby, just enter the name in your search engine and take your pick from among the dozens of results. But I really do recommend laying hands on one first. It's a great knife for the test kitchen chefs and for your neighborhood restaurant cooks and for my wife and me, but your mileage may vary.

Regardless of whether you choose my favorite knife or go all out on some of the high-end knives, please don't succumb to the temptation of cheap, bargain-basement, “value” knives. They can hurt you.....literally. And after replacing them every couple of years, you'll wind up spending as much as you would on a decent knife in the first place. The second favorite knives in my kitchen are more than fifty years old. They are from a set of Ecko Eterna knives my mother got before I was born. They've been well cared for. They've never rattled around loose in a drawer and they've never seen the inside of a dishwasher. Their double-riveted hardwood handles are still in good shape and they retain an edge that will go up cut-for-cut against any of the newer, more pricey slicers and dicers on the market. Old-fashioned quality counts, cheap is cheap, and you get what you pay for.

An old Portuguese proverb says, “A bad knife cuts one's finger instead of the stick.” Substitute “steak” for “stick” and bear that in mind when shopping for kitchen knives.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Forget "Abbondanza." Eat Like A Real Italian

The other night, I heard a chef on Food Network's “Chopped” make a reference to the Italian concept of abbondanza. Steaming piles of pasta swimming in lakes of rich sauces. Mounds of meatballs. Acres of pizza boasting tons of toppings. This is true Italian dining. This is real Italian culture. This is abbondanza!

This is also total fantasy. Oh, the word abbondanza is Italian, all right, and it means “abundance.” But in reality it's just a word, not a philosophy. Italians simply don't eat like that.

The image of a rotund Italian mama smiling beneficently as she serves up a washtub of spaghetti and meatballs to her hungry family is pure Madison Avenue, based not on true Italian culinary traditions, but on those established on New World shores by Italian immigrants.

If you don't know that spaghetti and meatballs is not an Italian dish, you should. It's an Italian-American dish. Don't believe me? Hop a plane to Italy and try to order some in an Italian eatery – a real one, not one geared to serve American tourists. They'll serve you spaghetti and they'll serve you meatballs, but they won't serve them together.

And in the same way that spaghetti and meatballs, chicken Parmesan, and fettuccine Alfredo are all creations of Italian-American origin, so, too, is the concept of abbondanza.

Historically, much Italian cuisine is cucina povera – “cooking of the poor.” This is especially true of southern Italian regions, the regions from which the vast majority of Italian immigrants departed, bound for the shores of America.

Once they arrived, two things happened to transform cucina povera into abbondanza. First, these newly-minted Americans had to adapt their traditional Old World recipes to their New World circumstances. They simply couldn't find many of the ingredients they were accustomed to using. So, using what was at hand, they created new Italian dishes in the new Italian-American style.

Then they began to prosper. Meat – a luxury in some households “back home” – was now abundant. Many poor immigrants brought precious supplies of pasta with them when they sailed from Italy. But it wasn't long before large and efficient American factories were ramping up to serve this burgeoning market. Artisan cheeses, so prized as to sometimes be used as currency in the old country, were readily available in American markets, as were a bewildering variety of fruits and vegetables.

And so to prove to their American friends and neighbors – and to themselves – that they were no longer poor, Italian-Americans began to really pile it on at the table, displaying their new-found prosperity with wonderful new recipes that used all the wonderful new ingredients available in such great abundance. Abbondanza!

So, here comes Joe American. He walks into a restaurant on New York's Arthur Avenue, or Boston's North End, or Philadelphia's south side and is served from heaping platters and bowls overflowing with delicious, rich food, and he thinks, “Wow, so this is how these Italians eat!” Pretty soon, it becomes a standard. And then it becomes a stereotype. And then generations of fat Joe Americans start waddling around and blaming “all that pasta and that rich Italian food” for their growing obesity epidemic.

Joe American's idea of what Giuseppe Italiano eats is horribly misguided. And that misguided idea is responsible for the notion that all Italian food is fattening and bad for you. Don't look at the Madison Avenue Italian mamas. Don't focus on the images portrayed in movies and on TV shows. Abbondanza? Fuhgeddaboudit!

As of this writing, 35.7% of Americans are obese. You may want to sit down for this; the obesity rate in Italy is 8.5%. How is this possible!? All that pasta! All that cheese! All that abbondanza! And that's the problem.

Americans overdo too much of a good thing. When I go to a typical American Italian restaurant, I invariably order pasta from the child's menu. And it's usually still too much. There is not a non-tourist ristorante on the Italian peninsula that would dream of serving as much pasta to one person as their Italian-American counterparts. Most American restaurants, especially the chain places, serve you two or three times as much as what a real Italian establishment would serve or what you would find on a real Italian table at home.

Yes, Italians eat pasta seven days a week. In fact, they are the world's largest consumers of the stuff. But they eat a realistic, healthy portion; about a one-cup serving equal to about 200 calories. Americans typically eat pasta twice a week, but they consume as much in those two days as the average Italian eats in six! Olive Garden's “Tour of Italy” on its “Classic Pastas” menu packs a whopping 1450 calories. Even their simple Capellini Pomodoro contains 840 calories. Spaghetti and Meatballs at Romano's Macaroni Grill spins up 1430 calories. Carrabba's fares a little better; their Spaghetti Pomodoro weighs in at just 540 calories. Eating pasta doesn't make you fat; eating too much pasta makes you fat.

True Italian pasta dishes are not always enrobed in heavy sauces. An Italian favorite is aglio olio, in which a portion of pasta is lightly coated in olive oil and garlic with maybe a few red pepper flakes thrown in for a little spice. Such a dish is practically unheard of in America. “Where's the meat?” says Joe American. “Where's the cheese? Where's the red sauce? Who wants to eat spaghetti with nothing but olive oil on it?” Italians do.

Italians appreciate their food. They respect their food. Food is more than just something you shove in your mouth to satisfy a need. There is a structured order to eating in Italian culture. They eat small meals slowly, never wolfing down great quantities of food in some imagined competitive eating contest. “All you can eat” and “endless pasta bars” and “bottomless soup bowls”.....these are all American concepts. And although many Italian trattorie offer generous quantities of food served in an open, family style, most Italians don't feel compelled to make pigs of themselves. They eat until they are full and then they stop eating. You'll never see an Italian lining up for seconds or thirds at an “endless buffet.”

Far removed from abbondanza, Italians are among the original proponents of the so-called “Mediterranean diet.” Lots of vegetables, lots of fruit, olive oil on practically everything. Fish and seafood are staple proteins, as are chicken and moderate quanties of lean pork. Beef has grown in popularity and acceptance since WWII, but it's still not the “gotta-have-it-every-day” neccesity that it is in America. Starches and carbohydrates are consumed regularly, but in moderate quantities.

Italians eat a light meal in the morning – usually nothing more than a small pastry and coffee. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Supper is generally late and light. Children might indulge in an afternoon snack and adults might occasionally grab a mid-day gelato, but between-meal snacking on candy bars and potato chips and such is not done. Nor are Italians very dessert driven. Most of the time, a meal is finished with a little fruit or cheese. Sweet desserts are reserved for special occasions. And nobody sits in front of the TV with a bowl of something sweet or salty.

Which brings up another point; nobody sits. Italians walk or bicycle everywhere. Oh, they have cars. Traffic on the Piazza Venezia and around the Colosseum is a testament to that fact. But they don't use them to such an extent that they forget what their feet are for. The idea that you would get in your car and drive to the corner market for a gallon of milk is laughable in Italy. Kind of like it was here once upon a time not so long ago.

Abbondanza is the Italian-American myth that makes Americans look like Macy's balloons while native Italians resemble the ropes that hold them down. The Italian/Meditteranean diet is not a “diet” at all. It's a simple and practical way of eating that, when combined with regular activity, results in a healthy weight conducive to a prolonged and healthy life.

I saw a news story the other day in which it was revealed that ferries and tour boats are having to lower their capacity in order to accomodate today's heavier passengers. They've upped their weight averages from 140 pounds per person to 180. Have you gone to an old theater or ballpark lately? One that hasn't been renovated in the last twenty or thirty years? Seats are a little snug, aren't they? And the most recent prediction says that America will be 42% obese by 2030. Maybe those Italians are on to something.

Abbondanza? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May (2012) Fun Food Holidays

It's May, it's May!
The lusty month of May!
That darling month when everyone throws
self-control away!”

Or at least that's what Lerner and Lowe tell us.

I mean, how much self-control can you have during National Asparagus Month? Or while celebrating eggs, barbecue, hamburgers, salsa, gazpacho, salad, strawberries, and chocolate custard?

And did I mention, it's also National Mediterranean Diet Month?

And those are just the month-long observances. There are also weeks dedicated to raisins and to herbs (week one), hamburgers (week two), pickles (week three), and to both frozen yogurt and beer (week four).

Wow! Lusty month, indeed!

Kick it all off with National Chocolate Parfait Day on May 1st. Follow that with a nod to truffles – the candy variety – on the second, and raspberry tarts on the third.

May 4th is a little weird. It's a day to commemorate homebrew, orange juice, and candied orange peel. If you want to serve them all up in the same glass for a more fulsome frolic, well.......

May 5 is “Cinco de Mayo,” so enjoy a hoagie. Hey, I don't come up with 'em, I just report 'em.

The all-American favorite, crepes suzette, has a day on May 6 and National Roast Leg of Lamb Day finishes the first week of this fabulous foodie month on May 7.

May 8th has a lot going for it; empanadas, coconut-cream pie, and, believe it or not, a coke. Yep, it's Have a Coke Day. Maybe a diet Coke after all those empanadas and coconut-cream pies.

Butterscotch brownies hold forth on May 9, followed by National Shrimp Day on the 10th.

Here's an easy one to celebrate; May 11 is officially designated as Eat What You Want Day. Woo-hoo!

And if what you want is nutty fudge, well you can celebrate for two days. National Nutty Fudge Day happens on May 12.

The much-praised apple pie and the much-maligned fruit cocktail share the day on May 13.

The 14th belongs solely to buttermilk biscuits. As it should be; nothing should have to share or compare with buttermilk biscuits.

Knock back a bag of chocolate chips on May 15, National Chocolate Chip Day.

Are you ready for some Coquilles Saint Jacques? The classic French dish has a day on May 16. (It's baked scallops in a rich cream sauce, by the way.)

No explanation needed for cherry cobbler. Enjoy some on May 17.

Could you fall for a cheese souffle? National Cheese Souffle Day is May 18.

Warm up the fire and brimstone – and some chocolate while you're at it. National Devil's Food Cake Day ignites on May 19.

What's with the French food this month? Quiche Lorraine is saluted on May 20, but you are also admonished to pick strawberries on that day – preferably from the field rather than from the produce department.

Put 'em to good use the next day, May 21, National Strawberries and Cream Day.

Maybe save a few for the following day, May 22, National Vanilla Pudding Day. It could work.

Stretch into National Taffy Day on the 23rd.

The French are back on the 24th, National Escargot Day.

If you have leftovers, National Brown-Bag-It Day happens on May 25, coincidentally also officially designated as National Wine Day. Brown bag......wine......hmmmm.

Choose your dessert on May 26, both National Blueberry Cheesecake Day and National Cherry Dessert Day.

A childhood favorite, the grape popsicle, is feted on May 27.

"Where's the beef?" Find out on May 28. Brisket and hamburgers are both on the celebratory menu.

The French make yet another appearance on the calendar with National Coq au Vin Day on the 29th.

Sip on a mint julep on the month's penultimate day and round out May with some macaroons on May 31.

It's mad! It's gay!
A libelous display!
Those dreary vows that ev'ryone takes,
Ev'ryone breaks.
Ev'ryone makes divine mistakes
The lusty month of May!”