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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!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pastagate? Canadian Restaurant Told to Translate Italian Menu to French

C'est WHAT?

Just when I thought I had heard it all, along comes this outrageous story from Quebec.

In case you were blissfully unaware, there is a law in the predominantly French-speaking Canadian province that designates French as the official language of Quebec. It's called La charte de la langue française, or “The Charter of the French Language.” Or simply Bill 101. The history of this law is long and convoluted and you can look it up if you're really desperate for knowledge. What it boils down to is “when in French-Canada, speak as the French-Canadians do.”

Besides defining French as the language of law and government and education, one of the provisions of Bill 101 deals with commerce and business. Specifically, the restaurant business. By law, restaurant menus and wine lists in Quebec must be in the official language. The statute allows for other languages to be used, but the prominence of French must be at least equivalent to any other language.

You with me so far? It's kind of like here in the United States. There's no actual regulation that says every frippin' thing written in English must also be translated into Spanish, but that seems to be the way it is.

Anyway, back to Canada where some whiny French crusader got it in his head that Montreal's Buonanotte was in violation of the edict and reported said violation to the Office québécois de la française, the province's legally constituted Language Police. Did I mention – or do I have to – that Buonanotte is an Italian restaurant? “Immaterial,” say the linguistic gendarmes! According to their uber-strict interpretation of the law, there was found to be entirely too much Italian on the Italian restaurant's menu. Words like “pasta,” “antipasti,” “carne,” and “pesce” were deemed to be in contravention to the statute protecting the linguistic purity of the province. They must be replaced with French words, say the patois police.

Really? You can't put “pasta” on an Italian menu? Instead of ordering a nice plate of pasta arribbiata, I have to order pâtes en colère? I say not only “no,” but “hell no!”

And Buonanotte hasn't been the only target of this ridiculously rabid enforcement of a fundamentally stupid law. Another Italian eatery was forced to remove the offensive word “ristorante” from its signage. I'm surprised these fools didn't demand that Buonanotte owner Massimo Lecas change the name of his establishment to Bonsoir. Maybe they just haven't thought of that one yet.

Everybody knows the Italians taught the French how to cook. (Don't they?) I'd be tempted to posit that maybe this is just a fit of petty Gallic pique directed at Italian cuisine, except that a British eatery – Brit Chips – got pasted for featuring its signature “fish and chips” on the menu. It had to be listed as poisson frit, et frites. No, the people behind this are just pazzo. Excuse me. I mean fou.

Actually, saner heads have prevailed. After the initial scourging the authorities received in the press over what is widely being referred to as “Pastagate,” they admitted to “an excess of zeal.” Ya think?! And Language Minister Diane De Courcy, Quebec's head language cop, has promised to “review” her agency's enforcement of the silly law. Well......she didn't call it a silly law. And she maintains that her people were just responding to citizen complaints.

In any case, Massimo Lecas got an official letter – officially written in French, naturellement – telling him that the official inquiry into his menu is officially closed. And the zealous zouaves of the mother tongue have now approved the use of “pasta” and other Italian words on the menu, provided they are the “exotic” names of dishes in their native languages.

I think I'll go chow down on some spaghetti; I'm feeling “exotic” tonight.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hidden Ammo Results In Really Explosive Cooking

You know, I used to get really upset with my mother over her quirky habit of using her gas oven to dry kitchen utensils. She used to think that the pilot light produced enough heat to thoroughly dry her wooden spoons and metal ladles and things like that. Maybe. The only thing I know for sure is that I cooked an awful lot of kitchen utensils over the years when I preheated the oven without first looking inside. I mean, really! Who looks inside the oven before turning it on, right?

Well, doing so might have saved a St. Petersburg, Florida woman a trip to the hospital.

Seems that 18-year-old Aalaya Walker got a little peckish while visiting the home of her friend, Javarski “JJ” Sandy, age 25. So, naturally, she decided to make herself some waffles. I can't count the number of times I've been visiting friends and decided to just whip up some waffles. Well, actually, I can. Zero.

Anyway, apparently Mr. Sandy lacked a proper waffle making device, and since pancakes just wouldn't do, Ms. Walker fired up the oven. And that's when things started happening.

The oven had only been preheating for a few minutes when Ms. Walker heard an explosion. Next thing she knew, she was bleeding from numerous wounds to her knees, thighs, and chest. Fortunately, all superficial. She just hopped on a bus and rode to a nearby hospital.

For some reason, the authorities were curious as to how Ms. Walker came by her injuries – which looked for all the world like damage from bullet fragments. So they checked out Mr. Sandy's house and found out that he owns a .45-caliber Glock. Legally, of course. He's got a permit for concealed carry and everything. But it seems that while Mr. Sandy – like many gun owners – keeps his pistol stored in a drawer, he, for some reason known only by the voices in his head, keeps his high capacity magazine in the oven!

<Sigh>

No charges were filed. Ms. Walker's okay. The oven is ruined. And I really can't think of anything else to say. Except, I'm glad my mother never owned a gun.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Home Cooking From a Can? Not!

Sometimes my wife and I find supermarkets to be strange and wondrous places. For instance, our local market has a beautiful produce section and a nice meat department; both of which are usually quite deserted. But head on over to aisle 5 where they stock the Hamburger Helper, the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and the Rice-A-Roni and you practically have to elbow your way down the aisle. Same thing applies to the frozen food section.

Regardless of a new focus on fresh, scratch-made home cooking these days, nobody really seems to be doing it.

My wife shakes her head in bewilderment as she wanders down the “baking” aisle. “Look at all these cake and frosting mixes,” she muses. “Don't people know how easy it is to make cakes and frosting from scratch?” I feel the same way about packaged side dishes. I sat down and analyzed a box of chicken (flavored) Rice-a-Roni a few years back and duplicated it in my kitchen so exactly that nobody has ever been able to tell the difference. My macaroni and cheese beats anything from a box. And instead of using dehydrated potato flakes, how hard is it to boil a potato and mash it up with some milk and butter? And yet, even as we supposedly become more aware of the value of fresh food and home cooking, more and more of these “convenience” items are populating our store shelves every day.


The latest source of amazement for my wife and me? Canned and packaged “sauce starters.” Oh, the little foil packets of powdered cheese sauce and chili sauce and Bearnaise sauce mix made by McCormick or Knorr have been around forever. I mean, who hasn't made a delicious plate of pasta using McCormick's “Italian Style Spaghetti Sauce Mix flavored with Mushrooms”? Well, I haven't, but.....

I don't think anybody has ever really tried to market those things as an alternative to homemade. They are what they are. And, by the way, here's what they are, at least in the case of the aforementioned spaghetti sauce: Potato Starch, Sugar, Salt, Onion, Maltodextrin, Whey Solids, Paprika, Mushrooms, Spices (Including Basil, Oregano, and Black Pepper), garlic, Nonfat Dry milk Solids, Buttermilk Solids, American Cheese (Milk, Salt, Cheese Cultures and Enzymes), Silicon Dioxide (Added to Make Free Flowing), Reduced Lactose Whey Solids, Parsley, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Cream Solids, Lactic Acid, FD&C Yellows 5 and 6, and Red 40, Garlic Oil, and Onion Oil. All that and a generous 490 mg of sodium per serving.

While I do, indeed, use onion, basil, oregano, and garlic in my spaghetti sauce, I've never tried it with potato starch, maltodextrin, silicon dioxide, FD&C Yellows 5 and 6, and Red 40. Call me crazy.

But now “Big Soup” is getting into the mix. (Sorry, I couldn't help it.) Campbell's and Progresso both offer a line of “starters.” The Campbell's products come in packets labeled “Skillet Sauces,” and Progresso puts theirs in cans that say “Recipe Starters Cooking Sauce.” Just add meat and veggies and you have a delicious, home-cooked meal. Sort of.

After checking out the ingredients on these things, I have to admit they are nominally better than most of their counterparts. They're still a little heavy on the sodium, but they are generally free of excessive dyes and chemicals and artificial ingredients. As a matter of fact, the Progresso Fire Roasted Tomato sauce contains: Water, Tomato Paste, Fire Roasted Tomatoes, Fire Roasted Red Bell Peppers, Sugar, Cream, Basil. Contains less than 1% of: Wheat Flour Bleached, Soybean Oil, Salt, Modified Food Starch, Natural Flavor, Calcium Chloride, Ascorbic Acid, Oregano, Garlic Powder, Yeast Extract, Citric Acid. And, as mentioned, 340 mg of sodium per serving.

Ostensibly, Progresso is flogging this product as a canned alternative to the conventional fresh-made “mother sauces” you would find in a professional kitchen. "Sauces are the foundation for delicious meals, but families do not always have the time to create these sauces from scratch," says Progresso New Products Marketing Manager Allen Gerten. "To help families overcome this hurdle, we created Progresso Recipe Starters in our kitchens, so they can save time in theirs."

Respectfully, Mr. Gerten, have you ever made a “mother sauce” at home? Béchamel, for example? It's flour, butter, and milk. Melt the butter and stir in the flour, creating a roux. Add the milk and season with a little salt and you have a basic, scratch-made béchamel sauce in about five minutes. Where's the time factor and the difficulty in that? Okay, so it's easier to open a can and plop the contents in a pot, but, come on!

You want a nice five-minute tomato sauce? The only can you need is one with the tomatoes in it. That and some olive oil, onion, garlic, basil, and a pinch of salt. Cook the onion and garlic in the olive oil, add the tomatoes and the basil, season with salt and you're done. For this you need a prepared “starter” in a package or a can?

Alright, so it's better than the powdered orange cheese-like substance in a box or popping the lid on a can of Spaghetti-Os. I'll give you that. But making a decent home-cooked meal from scratch is – not – that – hard! And you don't need “recipe starters,” “skillet sauces,” or any of that pre-packaged junk.

Most weeknights, my wife walks in about 5:45. She puts down her purse, hangs up her coat, and let's the dog out. By six o'clock, we're in the kitchen. I'm prepping veg, she's prepping protein, and the starch of choice is in the pot or pan. Somewhere between 6:15 and 6:30, we're sitting down to a restaurant-quality meal that you will never find in a box, can, or frozen package.

Do I take shortcuts? Of course I take shortcuts! One day last week, I spent a few minutes chopping and freezing some carrots, celery, and red and green peppers. I breaded some nice chicken cutlets in Parmesan and seasoned breadcrumbs and threw them in the freezer. Whack up an onion, crush up some garlic, chop a little tomato, grab some olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pasta takes eight minutes on the stovetop while the chicken's sautéing with the veg. Put it all together and you've got dinner. Fresh, flavorful, home-cooked dinner in about twenty minutes without a box or a can in sight.

My wife wanted a salad last night. She picked up a bagged mix on her way home. Nothing wrong with that. We chopped up some tomatoes and cucumbers to add to the mix. She boiled and chopped a couple of eggs while I cooked and crumbled up some bacon. A quick vinaigrette of olive oil, white wine vinegar, and salt and we called it dinner. Twenty minutes, including the time it took to boil the eggs.

The whole concept of the stressed-out, time-pressed home cook who has to rely on these wonderful convenience products in order to turn out decent meals is nothing but Madison Avenue dreck. It takes eight to ten minutes to make macaroni and cheese from a box and it takes eight to ten minutes to make it from scratch. What's the difference? Besides taste and quality?

Don't fall for these gimmicks. Don't be fooled. Fresh is better in every way. And it's cheaper. You can make a quart of sauce using fresh ingredients for what you'll pay for a can of “starter.” Put away the can opener and make something great tonight. You can do it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Gretel Ann Fischer: Definitely NOT "The Next Great Baker"

Meet the Tonya Harding of the Bakery

Buddy Valastro's “The Next Great Baker,” on TLC is a spinoff of his popular “Cake Boss” program airing on the same network. One of a blue million culinary competition shows now flooding the airwaves, “The Next Great Baker” offers competitors a shot at a big cash prize, a glitzy magazine spread, and a “coveted” spot working under the tutelage of the “Cake Boss” himself at his family bakery in Hoboken. As these shows go, it's not too bad. I like it. It certainly beats “Sweet Genius” over on the Food Network.

However, this season – the program's third – seems to have brought a little more drama into the ol' bakery. One contestant withdrew early on due to the discovery of a brain tumor after he had been cast. Another dropped out because of anxiety issues. And a third seems to have a serious moral flaw.

Gretel Ann Fischer is a baker from Winooski, Vermont. And she was up to her neck in drama from episode one, getting into a cat fight with another contestant almost from the get go. Cat fights are okay. They create ratings. Crying is good, too, and Gretel Ann cries at the drop of an apron. That's okay. Pathos sells almost as well as sex. What is not okay is the fact that she cheats.

Oh, Ms. Fischer denies that charge loudly and, no doubt, tearfully. In fact, she turns the waterworks on with great alacrity. Every time she found herself at the bottom of the pile, she began sobbing about her hard upbringing and the fact that she was always told she couldn't do something and this was her chance to prove herself and she needed this for her self esteem and for her family and for her bakery and for her employees, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Behind the crocodile tears, however, lurked a real crocodile.

See, Ms. Fischer seems to have difficulty discerning the difference between seeking a competitive edge and being outright dishonest. For instance, at a point where she was guaranteed immunity from elimination, she chose not to work harder to showcase her talent, but rather to be deliberately sloppy in an effort to undermine her entire team in the hopes that a teammate she considered a threat would thereby be sent packing. And she was unabashedly proud of this tactic. The ploy didn't work, by the way, but Ms. Fischer adopted a c'est la vie attitude about her failed machination and smilingly soldiered on to her next opportunity to trip up, undercut, or sabotage somebody. She openly referred to this reprehensible attitude as being “a competitor.” “I'm the only one here who seems to realize that this is a competition” was her mantra, and “I'm only doing what I have to do” her oft spoken caveat.

The most egregious example of this flour and egg streetfighter's compromised morality came at the show's finale. Having successfully cried and blubbered her way to a three-way showdown for the big prize, she exhibited her turpitude by hiding the cake pans another contestant needed. This, she declared with a Grinch-like smile, was not cheating; it was being “creative.” And that nauseating demeanor continued as she went behind the back of an unwitting rival and turned up the oven temperature from 350° to 400°, thus causing a great portion of the other person's product to burn and be rendered unusable in the final contest. This opprobrious action came under the heading of being a “competitor” and “doing what I had to do.” And to top off this stomach-turning display, the person against whom this sabotage was committed considered herself a “friend” who later stood holding hands with the unconscionable harridan and even voted in her favor at the contest's conclusion, an action I'm sure she regretted once the truth was aired.

Thank Karma and the blessed gods of television that this odious creature did not win. But she did create an enormous backlash of negativity for Buddy Valastro and the show's producers, ultimately prompting Valastro himself to issue a statement to the effect that he would have disqualified her on the spot had he been aware of her dishonesty at the time.

I was playing the game,” whined Ms. Fischer. Isn't that something akin to what Tonya Harding said about having her boyfriend whack Nancy Kerrigan in the knee? Listen carefully, Ms. Fischer; you cheated!

But don't take my word for it. Consult Facebook and Twitter and the rest of the social media where you will find hundreds of allusions to deceitfulness, lack of character, lack of integrity, unprofessionalism, underhandedness – and those are the nicer things being said. There are a few supporters here and there; people who insist she was portrayed in a “bad light” by the show's producers who apparently decided to cast her as the “villain” right from the beginning. Ms. Fischer herself has taken to flogging this line to anybody who will listen, with complaints about “unfair editing” and promises of forthcoming statements after her contractual “gag order” is lifted. Her husband enables her delusions by making statements like this to the local media: “I do think they took a lot of things out of context in order to help them further their ratings. She played the game as competitively as possible, but as honestly as possible.” Really, dude? And if your kid was running a race and a trailing runner stuck out a foot and tripped him at the finish line, would you consider that “competitive” and “honest?”

In a weird statement following her loss, Ms. Fischer spun her defeat into victory by saying that had she won the job with Buddy, she would not have been able to promote her own business or to promote the State of Vermont. “So to me it's a gift.” My mother was from Vermont and I don't think she'd have wanted this person representing her state.

It comes down to this; all claims of “bad light,” “unfair editing,” and producer agendas aside, Ms. Fischer was seen doing unethical things under the guise of being “competitive” and then shoving it right in America's face. Is she going to try to tell us that the producers told her to turn up that oven? Did they instruct her to hide equipment? Did they demand she smugly, smilingly sabotage her own team? I doubt it. The camera just discovered unsavory qualities that were already evident and highlighted them.

Many people in the online universe have vowed not to watch the show anymore because, even though she didn't win, Ms. Fischer's continued advancement through nefarious means set a bad example for kids. A little unsolicited casting advice, Mr. Valastro; most of us know enough dishonest, dysfunctional people in our own daily lives. We really don't need to see any more of them in our entertainment.

Good luck in the pursuit of your future career, Tonya.......I mean, Gretel Ann. I'm just glad I won't have to watch it on TV.

There's more to this story. See the update at http://ronjamesitaliankitchen.blogspot.com/2013/03/update-gretel-ann-fischer-calls-it-quits.html

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Brown," Don't "Caramelize"

Here we go again.

I like Michael Symon. I really do. He's a talented chef, he's fun to watch, and he seems like a genuinely nice guy. But if he “caramelizes” one more piece of meat, I swear I'm going to stop watching “The Chew,” Iron Chef America,” and anything else he's on because it just raises my blood pressure.

Seriously, Michael. You went to the Culinary Institute, an establishment that I know for a fact teaches the difference between “caramelizing” and “browning.” Were you absent that day, or what?
To be sure, Michael is not the only TV chef to perpetuate this misnomer. Rachael Ray is bad about it, too. But I can be more forgiving since her culinary education came through the candy counter at Macy's. Formally trained chefs are another matter, though, and Michael is certainly among the most consistent and flagrant abusers. I mean, really; does he have a problem with the word “brown?” I wouldn't be surprised one of these days to hear him address his “Iron Chef” coworker as “Alton Caramelize.” Or maybe to call his beloved football team the Cleveland “Caramelizers.”

Certain people in certain professions adopt arcane vocabularies relevant to those professions. They basically stop speaking English because it somehow feels too common. Instead, they rely on words and phrases that they believe give them more gravitas or credibility or something. Cops are really bad for this. “The suspected perpetrator was apprehended while in the commission of a felonious act.” Translation: “The bad guy got caught.” But that doesn't sound officious enough, does it? Hence the excessive verbiage.

Now, I wouldn't be so peeved if Michael Symon, et. al. were merely overusing the term “caramelization.” But not only are they overusing it, it's the wrong term. Wrong, Michael, wrong! As in “not right.” As in “incorrect.” As in “inaccurate, erroneous, mistaken, sbagliato, erroneo.” (Thought maybe a little Italian would help.)

You do not, you cannot “caramelize” meat. It is scientifically impossible. Meat browns through a chemical process called the “Maillard reaction.” I guess “caramelize” just sounds more “cheffy.” After all, “caramelization” has five syllables – or six, depending on your pronunciation – while poor lowly “browning” has only two. So obviously “caramelization” is the better word because it's bigger, right? Never mind that it's wrong.

To illustrate, here's a quote from a book published by Michael's alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America; “The first step in many braises or stews is to brown the surface of the meat or poultry quickly in fat over high heat.” Later in the paragraph; “Brown the meat in batches without overcrowding.” Still more; “After the meat is browned, remove it from the pot and sauté a mixture of aromatics in the same fat.” “Brown” and “browned,” not “caramelize” and “caramelized.”

On page 299 of his excellent book, What Einstein Kept Under His Hat, food scientist and former Washington Post food columnist, Robert L Wolke, writes: “Much confusion exists between Maillard browning and sugar browning or caramelization. Both a sugar molecule's carbonyl group and a protein molecule's amino group must be present if Maillard browning, also known as sugar-amine browning, is to take place. Heat accelerates the Maillard browning reactions, but they can take place at temperatures as low as 122° F (50°C). The reactions can even proceed slowly at room temperature, such as when foods turn brown from age. In contradistinction, the browning of pure sugar or other carbohydrates at temperatures higher than about 250°F (120°C) – in the absence of an amino acid or other nitrogen-containing compound – takes place by a completely different set of complex chemical reactions, called caramelization. Many chefs seem to love the word caramelize, and use it indiscriminately to describe any food that turns brown upon being cooked. But meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other protein-containing foods do not caramelize. They simply brown. Not as fancy a word, perhaps, but accurate.”

And to further reinforce my point, I refer to the well-respected Harold McGee, whose exhaustive work On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is almost an industry Bible. On page 688, McGee states, “Caramelization is the cooking of plain sugar syrup until it turns brown and aromatic. It is similar to the browning or Maillard reactions that give color and aroma to roasted meats, baked goods, and other complex foods, but unlike the browning reactions it proceeds in the absence of amino acids and proteins. It requires higher temperatures than the browning reactions, and produces a different mixture of aromatic compounds and therefore a different flavor. Cooks have spoken of 'caramelized' or 'carmelized' meats for better than a century, but this is not really correct.”

What's the big deal, you ask? Just this. Michael Symon and his colleagues are respected experts in their field. And they are public figures, exposed to millions of viewers on a daily basis. They are teachers. People trust them to be knowledgeable. So when Michael says the word “caramelize” fifty times in a single segment as he browns a piece of meat, millions of trusting viewers accept it as the proper term. They then begin to use it themselves, resulting in millions of people walking around ignorantly using an incorrect cooking term because they assumed their teacher knew what he was talking about. And that's just sad.

And lest you should think that I am but a lone annoying voice crying in the culinary wilderness, here's a comment I received on my food blog following a previous post on the subject: “Yay, thank you! I went looking for someone on the web to explain this correctly. I'm SO SICK of Rachel [sic] Ray using 'carmelize' interchangeably with 'brown.' I'm also sick of people like Sandra Lee pronouncing mascarpone as 'marscapone.' These are highly paid 'professionals'???”

I feel your pain, friend. And I've written at length on the subject of properly pronouncing food words and terms. What many of these TV chefs apparently don't realize is the fact that although some viewers tune in to these programs solely to be entertained, a lot more watch in order to gain some degree of education. And what kind of education are they getting when their instructors are ignorant?

As an example, my sixth-grade teacher. It was a small Indiana town and this man's country accent was so thick he could barely be said to be speaking English, much less teaching it. And when it came time for a unit on mythology, the things this ignoramus did to Roman and Greek names would have been laughable were it not so pathetic. He “taught” an entire generation of Hoosier kids that “AY-thens” was the capital of Greece and that the goddess of wisdom was called “ay-THEE-nee-uh.” He had no business being an educator.

Please, Michael, Rachael, and the rest of you meat caramelizers. If you went to culinary school, you know better. And even if you didn't, experience should have taught you the difference by now. I guess it doesn't matter what you call it in the confines of your kitchens, but when you move out into the larger world of food television, a place wherein you take up the mantle of instructor, you really need to properly represent your craft. Keep the good food and the great recipes coming, but be aware of what you're teaching your audience.