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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!

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Passing of Marcella Hazan, Godmother of Italian Cooking


I Don't Think The Void Will Ever Be Filled

I never had the honor of meeting Marcella Hazan. I know a few people who experienced her first
hand and from all I've been told, she was a force to be reckoned with. Like any Italian cook worth his salt, I own a dog-eared copy of her "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking."

Food personality Alton Brown turned me on to Marcella's seminal work, a book he received as a wedding gift: "I spent a college semester in a small town in Italy—and that is where I truly tasted food for the first time. Upon returning to the States, I tried to hunt down recipes for the dishes I had come to love, but the few that I found produced results that fell far short of the meals I remembered. Then a friend gave my wife and me Marcella Hazan's 'Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking' as a wedding present. I decided to try out one of the risottos, a recipe calling for porcinis, no less. It was a success: At last I had found a way to recapture the flavors of Italy that I had known. But I had also found an appealing cooking companion. Hazan's tone and manner put her right there with me in the kitchen. She didn't beat me to death with hard-to-find ingredients, she wasn't snobby or fussy—she was just a nice Italian mama showing me the ropes. (Even the desserts are terrific; check out the stunningly simple and delicious chilled black grape pudding.) In the years that followed, I read and cooked my way through probably a hundred Italian cookbooks, but in the end I always came back to this one."

The book is near the top of his recommended reading list, as well it should be.

Marcella Hazan died yesterday at the age of 89. Sometimes when important political figures pass away, flags are lowered. When prominent entertainers die, lights are dimmed. I don't know how to recognize the void Marcella will leave in the culinary world, but I don't think the void will ever be filled.

There is a fascinating backstory to this woman who has been called by some "the Julia Child of Italian cooking." I've seen the words "legend," "icon," "famous," and "influential" liberally dispersed throughout numerous tributes today. And the sentiment that she changed the way Americans cook Italian food, or that she caused Americans to fall in love with Italian cuisine has been expressed by nearly every writer I've read. So I'm not going to attempt to add anything and I'm not going to reconstruct her life and career here. If you knew who she was, I don't have to tell you and if you didn't know who she was, I suggest you first do a search for her then go out and buy any of her cookbooks, especially "Essentials," the one that is a veritable bible when it comes to the principles of Italian cooking.

After the marvelous and eye-opening contributions Marcella Hazan made to my culinary education, all I'll say now is, "addio, grande signora, e grazie."

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A (Not So) Brief History of Italian Cuisine


Italian cuisine is arguably the most popular cuisine in America today, and its popularity keeps on growing.

Without resorting to a lot of dry statistics to back up this statement, let’s just take a peek at the Yellow Pages. While you might find a great number of restaurants featuring French, Chinese, Greek, Mexican, Japanese, German, Thai, Korean, Indian, Russian and other ethnic food, you can’t sling a wet spaghetti noodle without hitting significantly more listings for Italian eateries. Any town with a population of more than.... two is going to at least have a pizza joint of some sort.

So why is Italian food so popular? Well, Italian cuisine is based on two general precepts: freshness and simplicity. The simple techniques make it easy to prepare, thus delighting both restaurant chefs and home cooks alike, and the use of only the finest and freshest ingredients make it good to eat, thus delighting everybody.

Much of the Italian cuisine served up in America’s kitchens, both home and professional, is actually an amalgam of Italian and American food. But more on that topic later.

Let’s hit the dictionary. The word “cuisine” is, of course, a French word that literally means “kitchen.” According to Webster, its application in modern language is “a manner of preparing food: a style of cooking; also: the food prepared.” The word “Italian” goes back to the 14th century and relates to “a native or inhabitant of Italy.”

Of course, one has to realize that there was no political entity called “Italy” in the 14th century. The name “Italia” dates back to Roman times and originally applied only to the Roman province itself. In the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, “Italia” came into common use as a descriptive term for a broader area. The peninsula that now appears on maps as “Italy” was populated by a collection of diverse and often aggressively disagreeable regions and city-states until the middle of the 19th century when il Risorgimento, or “the Resurgence,” resulted in the unification of Italy as we know it today.

As is to be expected, each of these independent regions – all twenty of them – had their own local culinary customs and cuisines, based upon what was produced or readily available in the area. In the truest sense, there is no “Italian cuisine” on a national level. Regional dishes still rule today in much the same way as they have for the last two millennia or so.

The Etruscans are the first people documented to have occupied the Italian peninsula back in the 8th or 9th century BC (or “BCE,” depending on your level of political correctness). In 2005, the central Italian town of Marzabotto (near Bologna), a town rich in Etruscan history, conducted “A Tavola Con Gli Etruschi Di Marzabotto” (“Dining With The Etruscans Of Marzabotto”) which explored various social aspects of the ancient civilization, focusing on its food resources and dining habits. Based on studies of surviving art and artifacts, the Etruscans, according to an Italian News release, “cultivated barley, spelt, wheat, pulses and figs and produced their own oil and wine. Meat and dairy products came from domesticated sheep and pigs, which were supplemented by wild game and venison. Wealthy Etruscans are thought to have dined lavishly, with roasted or boiled meat served with sauces of cereals, vegetables and spices. The meat, a luxury reserved for the higher classes, was probably accompanied by flat bread, eggs and vegetables, while fruit and sweet pastries would close the meal.” The foods enjoyed by the Etruscans are said to be the basis for modern-day Tuscan cuisine.

Further traces of the development of an Italian cuisine go back to the 4th century BC and the writings of Archestratus, a Greek poet who lived in the Sicilian towns of Gela and Syracuse. This early-day James Beard devoted much of his scrivening to the topic of where to find the best food in the Mediterranean world. In his Hedypatheia ("Life of Luxury"), Archestratus promotes the use of only the freshest, top quality seasonal ingredients. He further advocates that the flavor of dishes, particularly fish dishes, should not be overpowered by heavy use of spices, herbs, and other seasonings. These ideals remain as the cornerstone of Italian cooking today.

By the time the Romans came along with their popular cookbook De re coquinaria ("On the Subject of Cooking"), things had changed. The use of exotic – and expensive – spices in cooking was a reflection of wealth and prominence. More than four hundred recipes promoted the heavy usage of spices and herbs to disguise the natural flavors of foods. This was a trend that was prevalent all over Europe until well into the Middle Ages.

Not only was this over usage of spices a sign of wealth, it was a practical matter, as well. What with medieval food transportation and preservation techniques being what they were, the more spices you heaped on a dish, the less likely you were to taste the rottenness of the food itself.

Many of the advances in what we now call Italian cuisine came about as a result of both trade and conquest. The Italian peninsula was overrun by darn near everybody at one time or another. Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Lombards, Franks, Goths, Vikings, Normans – everybody got in on the party and they all brought elements of their own food cultures with them. Venetian explorer Marco Polo and his legendary Chinese trade adventures notwithstanding, pasta – that iconic staple of Italian cuisine – may actually have been introduced by Arab invaders who called Sicily home in the 9th century.

But trade did play an important role in the development of Italian cuisine. Ports like Venice and Genoa were major stops on the developing spice routes from the Far East and, consequently, exotic new spices like nutmeg, cardamom, and saffron began to appear in Italian kitchens.

By the early years of the Renaissance, the culinary pendulum began to swing back. In the 15th century, a visionary cook, Martino de Rossi or Maestro Martino, ran the kitchen for Ludovico Trevisan, the Cardinal Patriarch of Aquileia. Around 1465, he produced his Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking.) A modern translation of the book is available through the University of California Press. UCP publication notes state: Maestro Martino of Como has been called the first celebrity chef, and his extraordinary treatise on Renaissance cookery, The Art of Cooking, is the first known culinary guide to specify ingredients, cooking times and techniques, utensils, and amount. This vibrant document is also essential to understanding the forms of conviviality developed in Central Italy during the Renaissance, as well as their sociopolitical implications….The Art of Cooking, unlike the culinary manuals of the time, is a true gastronomic lexicon, surprisingly like a modern cookbook in identifying the quantity and kinds of ingredients in each dish, the proper procedure for cooking them, and the time required, as well as including many of the secrets of a culinary expert.”

Maestro Martino re-introduced the concept of fresh, locally produced ingredients and simple preparation techniques. (Okay, his recipe for “flying pie,” which incorporates the inclusion of live birds that fly away when the dish is opened may be a little out there, but I’m sure he vigorously advocated using only local birds.) Martino also eschewed the use of excessive amounts of heavy spices, preferring, instead, to enhance natural flavors with fresh herbs.

A few years later, soldier, scholar and papal scribe Bartolomeo Platina included Maestro Martino’s work in his De honesta voluptate et valetudine ("On Honest Pleasure and Good Health.") Platina refined Martino’s writings, focusing them on a regional level and enumerating for perhaps the first time the various specialties produced in the several regions that now comprise Italy.

About a hundred years later, another Bartolomeo took Italian cuisine a step closer to the modern era. Bartolomeo Scappi was the personal chef to Pope Pius V. His five-volume treatise on cooking contained over a thousand recipes which defined the state of Italian cooking at the time. Scappi was a major advocate of simplicity. He fostered a culinary movement that abandoned game animals and exotic meats in favor of more readily available sources, such as cows, pigs, sheep, various domestic birds, and fish. He diverged from traditional cooking methods like boiling and roasting and employed, instead, broiling, grilling, and poaching. His cookbook included not only recipes, but descriptions of kitchen tools and table utensils as well as notes on catering banquets and parties. His work also was among the first to include strange new ingredients from the New World. (No tomatoes just yet.)

Another hundred years and another Bartolomeo, this time Bartolomeo Stefani, produced a cookbook that contained a section on ordinary food and also outlined proper serving techniques and table manners. (Did you know, for instance, that Italians were primarily responsible for the spread of forks?)

Now comes the part that every Italian cook loves – poking holes in French pomposity. Although they hate to admit it, much of the basis of French haute cuisine is rooted in Italian cooking.

The Medicis were an extremely powerful and influential family in the early years of the Renaissance. Rulers of the Republic of Florence, successful merchants, and bankers to most of Europe, the Medici family produced a number of popes and other dominant political figures. They also fostered the arts and sponsored many famous Renaissance artists. Their patronage extended not only to painters and sculptors – you may have heard of that Buonarotti fellow, Michaelango -- but to culinary artists, as well.

In 1533, Katherine de' Medici, daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, married the future French King Heinrich (or Henry) II. In what many consider the most important event in the history of gastronomy, she brought her Florentine court chefs with her, and they began practicing their art in the French court. Thus, “Classic French Cuisine” was born – in an Italian kitchen!

This proved to be something of a two-edged sword as the immediate result was a lull in the further development of Italian cuisine as a frantic fervor for the new French cooking swept the Continent. That and two hundred years or so of those pesky Italian Wars, but that’s another story.

It wasn’t until after the unification of Italy that another culinary leap forward occurred. Pellegrino Artusi’s La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangier bene (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”), first published in 1891, became noted as a major culinary work due, in part, to the fact that it was directed to the middle-class home cook rather than to the upper class professional chef, as was the custom at the time. (An English version of this work is available through Amazon.com.) This trend led to a revived focus on natural flavors and quality ingredients in everyday Italian cooking. Nineteenth century improvements in transportation and preservation techniques made regional ingredients, specialties, and tastes accessible across all of Italy and throughout the world.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the North American continent.

Despite political unification and a democratic constitution, everything was not coming up roses in Italy, especially in the southern provinces, where poor economic conditions, coupled with farmed-out soil and epidemics of cholera and malaria, reduced the population to desperate poverty. As a result, a massive exodus began.

America was the land of opportunity. Between 1876 and 1924, more than four and a half million Italians arrived in the United States. Establishing “Little Italys” in major American cities, these immigrants brought their customs – and their food – to their new homes. And this is where the latest division in Italian cuisine occurred.

Italian immigrants soon discovered that many of the ingredients they had back home were not to be found in America. At the same time, there were many more new ingredients available. So, in true versatile, adaptable Italian fashion, immigrant cooks began experimenting and developing new dishes based on what was at hand.

As these immigrants moved around in their new country, their cooking diversified depending upon their location. Much as it had been in the Old Country, the cuisine differed from New York to Philadelphia to Chicago to St. Louis.

At the same time this diversification was going on, Americans were beginning to “discover” the Italian neighborhoods and the wonderful foods that could be found there. The combination of these factors resulted in the creation of a new type of cuisine – Italian-American.

The popularity of this new hybrid cuisine was fortified by an organization that is actually thought to be one of the oldest trade associations in America, the National Macaroni Manufacturers Association, forerunner of the modern National Pasta Association. Founded in 1904, the group's mission was and is to “increase the consumption of pasta.” This influential organization published many so-called “Italian” recipes in the early years of the 20th century, including one for “Italian Spaghetti and Meatballs.” The fact that no such dish ever existed in Italy didn't seem to matter.

Italian-American cuisine became even more firmly established with the 1953 publication of a book entitled “Italian Cooking for the American Kitchen” by Garabaldi Marto Lapolla (Wilfred Funk; 1953; New York). Lapolla was born in Potenza in 1888 and emigrated with his family to New York in 1890. Far from becoming a world-class chef, Lapolla was a teacher in the New York City public school system. He wrote textbooks, novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. His father had owned a bakery and cafe back in the Old Country, so this, apparently, qualified Lapolla to write cookbooks. To be fair, I suppose, his biographer does note his “passion for the culinary arts”. Anyway, recipes from this popular work were widely published in newspapers and magazines to a post-WWII audience hungering for the new cuisine. Unfortunately, as TV chef and culinary celebrity Alton Brown commented in his “American Classics 4” episode of “Good Eats,” “...despite vast popularity, [the book] was about as Italian as Florence.......Henderson!”

So now, broadly speaking, we have three forms of Italian cuisine; Northern Italian, Southern Italian, and Italian-American.

Traditional Northern Italian cuisine is rich in dairy products, with a decidedly Germanic influence. Rice, corn and potatoes are common in the north as are meat-rich dishes comprised of both wild and domestic animals. From the north come the rich Milanese risottos, the polentas, and gnocchi. And, of course, prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano both originate in the northern regions.

In Southern Italian cuisine, pasta is king. Often eaten twice a day, it is seldom prepared the same way twice. The poorer soil and rocky terrain of the south does not lend itself well to raising cattle, but lamb, goats and pigs are everywhere. Olive trees thrive in the south, so olive oil is the fat of choice over the butter and lard employed in the north. Warm coastal waters teem with fish and seafood. Fruits and vegetables are also common in Southern Italian dishes. Perhaps the most important vegetable-that-is-really-a-fruit is the pomo d’oro – the “apple of gold. I refer, of course, to the superstar of Southern Italian cuisine, the tomato.

Non-indigenous to the Continent, tomatoes were among the exotic foods brought back to Europe by Cristoforo Columbo, the Genoese explorer shamelessly co-opted by the Spanish under the name Christopher Columbus. But unlike corn, sweet potatoes, bell peppers and other New World comestibles introduced to European palates by the voyages of Columbus, tomatoes were considered ornamentals. Indeed, they were long thought to be poisonous. (Although the French called them pommes d'amour, or “love apples”, and believed them to be aphrodisiacs. But then we are talking about the French.) It wasn’t until the 18th century that tomatoes began to appear in Italian recipes and on Italian tables.

Naples is considered by many to be the culinary center of the Italian south, and it was in Naples that the tomato really caught on. Especially the luscious plum tomato grown in the volcanic soil of Mt. Vesuvius in the neighboring town of San Marzano. And it is from Naples that many Italians emigrated, taking with them the most famous creation made with their favorite condiment. We're talking, of course, about pizza.

The history of pizza being a fascinating and detailed topic of its own, suffice it to say that pizza is the first thing that comes to the American mind when you mention Italian food. Pizza is, of course, an authentic Southern Italian food that can now be found all over Italy and all over the world. It is also, along with the aforementioned spaghetti and meatballs, the staple of Italian-American cuisine.

As noted, Italian-American cuisine blends native Italian dishes with American ingredients and cooking techniques, a fusion that sometimes overshadows its roots. You will not, for example, ever find “deep-dish-Chicago-style” pizza in a real Italian restaurant. Nor will any real Italian pizzeria feature the “kitchen sink on a crust” pies so common in American eateries. Those are strictly Italian-American variations.

Similarly, while you may enjoy stromboli in Italian restaurants in Philadelphia, don’t look for them in a restaurant in Rome. (Unless it’s a ristorante turista.)

Yes, Italians have spaghetti and they have meatballs, but the combination commonly found in cans of Chef Boyardee is a purely Italian-American concoction.

Don’t look for garlic bread in Italy, at least not in the form sold in frozen loaves for American consumption and piled into baskets at Italian-American restaurants. A bruschetta made with fresh garlic and olive oil, yes. Garlic bread made with garlic powder and butter, no.

Italian-American cuisine uses lots of meat, especially beef. Not so in Italy, a country not usually known for its great herds of cattle being driven across the vast open plains by guys who look like Clint Eastwood.

Addressing one of my favorite culinary rants, Alfredo di Lelio spins in his grave every time another “Italian” restaurant chain perverts his simple, authentic butter and cheese dish into still another “Alfredo sauce” creation of questionable parentage. And, speaking of sauces, if you have the occasion to visit real Italian restaurants, you’ll quickly learn that “sauce” and “red” are not intransigently, incontrovertibly, and indelibly married to one another as they are in typical Italian-American establishments.

Fortunately, thanks to that ever-swinging culinary pendulum, Americans can now discover authentic Italian cuisine without having to travel to Italy, if they know where to look and what to look for. Visiting restaurants operated by Chef Mario Batali will get you a lot closer to Italy than opening cans inspired by Chef Ettore Boiardi. You’ll do better opening cookbooks authored by Lidia Bastianich than you will opening packages sold by Mama Celeste. And just because something sounds Italian – like the chain restaurant that touts its piatto di pollo – doesn’t make it Italian. (Piatto di pollo, by the way, means “plate of chicken”.)

Think about the old adage “just because a cat has kittens in the oven don’t make ‘em biscuits” the next time you see “autentico” attached to a restaurant or food product whose name ends in a vowel. Always remember, la prova è nel budino (“the proof is in the pudding.”}(Actually, that proverb started out as “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, but that’s another article entirely.)

Remember, too, che mangia bene mangia Italiano (“who eats well eats Italian”).

Buon appetito!

Sources:

Culinaria Italy, Claudia Piras and Eugenio Medagliani, 2000.
The Concise Gastronomy of Italy; Anna Del Conte, 2004
http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/9423.php
http://italianalmanac.org/05jul/etruschi.htm
http://www.ilovepasta.org/backgrounder.html
www.2.hsp.org/collections/balch%20manuscript_guide/html/lapolla.html
Food Network; Good Eats; S13E4P2, American Classics 4: Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

An Explanation of “Sell By,” “Use By,” and Other “Expiration” Dates


A recent study disclosed that a lot of people are throwing away a lot of food because they don't understand the freshness and/or safety labels.

My mother was one of those people. Let a product get within a day of its “sell by,” “use by,” “freshness guaranteed by” or whatever other date might have applied and that product was on its way to the trash. No questions asked.

But questions need to be asked because there is no standardization or regulation of these terms. People see “sell by” or “use by” on a label and they automatically assume that some benevolent government agency put it there for their health and well-being. Not always so. “Big Brother” might be everywhere else, but so far he and his cohorts at the FDA and the USDA are largely staying out of the pantry and the refrigerator. The only places the Feds jump into the labeling fray are in the areas of baby food and infant formula. Occasionally states may regulate dairy product labels. Other than that, it's all up to the manufacturer to decide.

Direct from the USDA website: “There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.”

“Open dating” refers to an actual calendar date, as opposed to an alphanumeric code, regarding the freshness of a given product. It is not considered an indication of that product's safety, only of it's quality. I once came across some potato chips in a friend's pantry that were nearly three months “out of date.” My friends were still eating them. I tried a couple and they were godawful. Stale as a Borscht Belt comic's jokes. But if you were sufficiently palate-impaired, you could safely consume them.

“Closed dating,” by the way, is a reference to the aforementioned codes usually found on canned and boxed goods. They don't have anything to do with safety, either. They are just packing numbers used by the manufacturer.

So if Uncle Sam isn't behind the labeling, what do all those terms mean and what should we do about them?

“Sell by” tells the store when to pull the product. After the “sell by” date, the manufacturer will no longer guarantee that the taste, texture, or overall quality of the product will be as good as it was before that date. Is it still safe? Yep. Is it still “good?” That's up to your taste buds to decide. And the stores aren't really required to pull product that has exceeded the “sell by” date, although doing so is good business practice.

“Use by” indicates pretty much the same thing, except it's directed at the end user – you – rather than the middle man at the grocery store. What will happen if you use a product the day after its “use by” date? Nothing. Obviously, the older something gets, the less palatable it becomes, but with a few exceptions that we'll get to in a minute, you can still eat it if you've got the stomach for it.

“Best if used by,” “best if used before,” “freshness guaranteed until” – these are all phrases that relate to the product's taste, texture, and quality. None of them have any bearing on safety. If you can get those month-old muffins past your lips and tongue and down your gullet, your stomach will take 'em.

A lot of manufacturers of commercial baked goods operate “outlet” stores wherein the breads, cookies, pies, snack cakes, etc. that have been pulled from regular retailers for being near or slightly past their freshness dates are offered for sale at significant discounts. The products are still “good,” but the quality is often a crap shoot.

Now, the term “expiration date” is another matter. This one is usually more serious. If you have a product that actually “expires” on a particular date, then you need to pay attention to that date, lest you expire a day or two later. Things that “expire” are things that will become contaminated with bacteria or will be otherwise unhealthy after a set time.

Not a lot of things “expire.” I just did a quick glance around my refrigerator. My eggs and milk are “best by,” the heavy cream and cream cheese say “sell by,” my orange juice just has a date and a code number on it, and the packaged sliced ham says “prepare or freeze by.” The handful of cans I examined in the pantry either have “best by” dates or codes on them.

Here's the thing: all these dates apply to fresh, unopened packages. Once you open them, it's a whole different ball game. Let's say you've got some sandwich meat that, according to the package, is “best by” October 15. And today is October 14. But you opened it the day you bought it back on September 1. The color is a little gray, it feels a bit slimy, and it really doesn't smell so good. But it's okay, right? Because it hasn't “gone out of date” yet, right? Wrong.

“Oh-oh! My milk expired yesterday. I'd better dump it.” No, it didn't “expire.” It passed the “best by” date and it may be on the way out, but you need to check it before you just dump it. Give it a sniff. Does it smell okay? Give it a taste. Still acceptable? Now, if it's got lumps in it and it smells like old sweat socks, dump it without a second thought. But twenty-four hours or so won't usually make a big difference if the product was fresh to begin with and you've stored and handled it properly.

Here's a label a lot of people miss: “Refrigerate after opening.” It's there on the ketchup and the mayonnaise and the grape jelly and a lot of the things you'd expect it to be on. But it's also on the chocolate syrup. It's on the Gatorade bottle, too. Betcha missed that one. Why? Sugar! The perfect growth medium for all kinds of unpleasant microscopic critters. “So, if I guzzle down some Gatorade that I opened last week and it's been sitting in my car ever since, am I gonna turn up my toes?” Probably not, but depending on what cultures are growing in there, you might wish you had. Just sayin'.

Basically, there are two types of food products in the grocery store: perishable and shelf-stable. It shouldn't take a genius to figure out what “perishable” means but you never know, so here goes. “Perishable – adjective meaning subject to decay, ruin, or destruction; i.e. perishable fruits and vegetables.” So if the label on something perishable says “use by” or “best by,” you'd probably better pay attention to it. Or at least keep a closer eye on it than you would on something “shelf-stable” like cookies or crackers or potato chips. A cookie that's a month past its “best by” date may fall short of your expectations, but a similar piece of roast beef – “subject to decay, ruin, or destruction” – may cause you to spend a lot of time on your knees, if you know what I mean.

So I hate to say it, but when it comes to labels, the onus is on you. The government has no standards – a statement that can be taken many ways – and manufacturer's standards are whatever they want them to be. Throwing away “good” food because of an arbitrary date is foolishly wasteful, but keeping “bad” food past that same date in order to save a few pennies is simply foolish. Just remember that, provided the product is properly handled on your part, nothing is going to kill you at 12:01 a.m. on the day after it “goes out of date.” But at the same time, that's a good point at which to start watching and checking and testing and using common sense.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go clean out my refrigerator.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Ten (Or So) Commandments of Italian Cooking


Ever hear of the “Academia Barilla?” Yeah, I didn't think so. They didn't make the list as a party school and they don't have a football team, so why should you care?

Seriously, there is such a place. It's part of the Barilla Center located near downtown Parma. According to their website at http://www.academiabarilla.com, their mission is to defend and safeguard Italian food products made by reputable artisans and certified denominations from poor-quality imitations; to promote and spread the understanding of these products and their role in traditional, regional Italian cuisine; and to develop and support Italian gastronomy by investing in the restaurant industry’s understanding and application of Italian culinary philosophy.

I can get behind all that. As part of that educational effort, the Academia Barilla has just issued what it calls “The 10 Italian Cooking Commandments.” There were no burning bushes, golden idols, or stone tablets involved here, but to lend an air of gravitas to the presentation, just imagine them being intoned by Charlton Heston. (And I'm employing Roman numerals for added effect.)

  1. YOU SHALL NOT SIP CAPPUCCINO DURING A MEAL! According to Barilla, coffee is to be served at the end of a meal while cappuccino is a breakfast beverage. “You can ask for a cappuccino at the end of a meal,” it says, “but just know that most Italians don't.” Of course, you have to understand that the Italian idea of “coffee” is not the weak, cream and sugar beverage Americans sip after dinner. No, no! We're talking about espresso, that wonderfully bitter brew that is the reason so many Italians have curly hair. My Neapolitan friends break out the little demitasse cups of espresso after every meal I've eaten in their restaurant regardless of whether I ask for it or not. So, while you “can” ask for cappucino at the end of a meal, at a well-mannered Italian table, you don't have to ask for espresso.
  1. RISOTTO AND PASTA ARE NOT A SIDE DISH. True. But are risotto and pasta actually a dish? Or do they mean “are not side dishes?” Awkward translation aside, this is a good one to consider. In the unique construction of the Italian meal, the starch, meaning rice or pasta, is a course all its own. It's called the “primo” or “first” course. In America, you slap it on a plate next to a slab of meat and call it a “side.” Doing so in Italy is, as Barilla says, “almost a sacrilege.”
  1. YOU SHALL NOT ADD OIL TO PASTA WATER! Preach it, brother! Can I get an “amen?” The only thing I can figure is that a hundred years ago American cooks hadn't the slightest idea of how to properly prepare pasta. They probably tried cooking a pound of spaghetti in four cups of water instead of four quarts, and when it stuck together in a massive lump, somebody said, “Hey! Let's grease the hell out of it!” No, no, no. Save the oil for the salad. Just use more water to cook the pasta.
  1. KETCHUP ON PASTA: PLEASE DON'T. Okay. I won't. No problem. I never have, nor do I know of anybody else who ever does. But apparently the Academia folks think this is a biggie. They say it is “one of the combinations that most shocks Italians,” and brand it “a real gourmet crime.” So if I ever see anybody doing it, I guess I'm authorized to perform a citizen's arrest.
  1. SPAGHETTI BOLGNESE? NO WAY, IT'S TAGLIATELLE! The Academia proclaims that “you will not find any restaurant in Bologna” that serves spaghetti Bolognese. Only tagliatelle is used in an authentic preparation. Works for me. The only thing I don't like about tagliatelle is the way Americans pronounce it. (It's “tah-lee-ah-TELL-ay,” not “tag-lee-uh-tell-ee.” And, by the way, “bolognese” doesn't rhyme with “mayonnaise.” The “gn” in Italian is kind of like the “ny” in English. (Think “canyon.”) And, other than “h,” there's no such thing as a silent letter in Italian. You actually pronounce that final “e.” So it's “boh-lo-NYAY-seh,” or something close to that.
  1. CHICKEN PASTA: NOT IN ITALY. Barilla says there's no such thing. In fact, they say, when asked by well-meaning Americans for a chicken pasta recipe, “it's rather embarrassing to point out that in Italy there are no hot dishes featuring chicken and pasta.” I know this to be so because I once catered an event where the client asked for such a dish and when I asked my Italian cook friends for ideas, they just looked at me like I'd grown horns. Chicken Alfredo and such are all Italian-American creations. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just not authentic Italian.
  1. “CAESAR SALAD.” Come on. You didn't really think Caesar had anything to do with this one, did you? In spite of his imperial image being slapped on the salad dressing bottle? Sorry. An Italian immigrant chef named Caesar Cardini was working in Mexico and California when he came up with the idea. Asking for a Caesar salad in Italy will just get you confused looks.
  1. THE RED AND WHITE CHECKERED TABLECLOTH IS ONLY A STEREOTYPE! I remember writing about some schmuck from Georgia who said he found the “perfect” Italian restaurant in Rome, right down to the red checkered tablecloth. Hello! Can you say “tourist trap?
  1. FETTUCCINE ALFREDO” ARE POPULAR ONLY OVERSEAS. Strictly speaking, “are popular” is correct because “fettuccine” is plural. Anyway, refer back to commandments six and seven. Yes, a real Italian guy named Alfredo Di Lelio “created” a butter and cheese pasta dish in his restaurant in Rome. But it was a toss away dish. Something he fixed for his pregnant wife because it was all she could keep down. American movie star honeymooners “discovered” it and now it's the most popular “Italian” dish in the world. Except in Italy, where nobody knows what you're talking about when you ask for it. And if you can convince them to prepare it, they'll run screaming into the night when you tell them to use lots of cream in the sauce. There is no cream in an “authentic” pasta Alfredo. Just egregious amounts of rich, European butter and tangy, salty Parmigiano-Reggiano, which, when combined with a few spoonfuls of starchy cooking water, form a delicious, creamy “sauce” when mixed with hot pasta. The thick, milky crap sold in jars – none by Barilla, by the way – is strictly an American aberration.
  1. YOU SHALL RESPECT TRADITION AND WHAT ITALIAN MAMMA SAYS. The Academia says, “She knows from her mamma, who knew from her mamma who knew from her mamma and so on. It's been tried and tested. And what a mother teaches at her daughter while they are cooking? That love is the center of all. We must share Italian food with your loved ones. It is what life, love and family are all about.” And except for a little problem with the “mother to daughter” bias, I can't disagree with this statement at all.
I might, however, add an eleventh commandment, something along the lines of:

     XI.   YOU SHALL NOT PILE A GALLON OF SAUCE ON TOP OF A CUP OF PASTA. Sauce is a condimento. The pasta is the featured “star” of the dish; the sauce is merely a dressing. In the same way that you wouldn't pour a whole bottle of Italian dressing over the top of your salad, you shouldn't pour a whole jar of sauce on top of your pasta. Ideally, authentically, you would finish cooking your pasta in the sauce, mixing just the right amount of sauce into the noodles as you cook. Dumping sauce on top of noodles is another unfortunate American cooking technique that makes Italians cringe.

So, follow the “Ten Italian Cooking Commandments” – plus one – that your days may be long upon the land and that you may prosper and be in good health and all that other biblical stuff. And also so that you don't have pitchfork-wielding Italians storming your kitchen at suppertime.
Buon appetito!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Season Three of ABC's "The Chew"


It's been a few years since I wrote anything about ABC's daytime gabber/eater “The Chew.” (1 p.m. ET; noon CT) With the September 9, 2013 kick-off of a new season, Season Three, I thought I'd share a few new thoughts.

Yes, I have been watching. Nearly every day, actually. The show kind of grows on you. It's programmed on my DVR for two reasons: First, I can watch it at my convenience. Second, and more importantly, I can watch it without commercial interruption. This means that I really only have to invest about forty minutes instead of an hour. “The Chew” has to be among the more ad-packed shows on daytime TV, and if you can bypass twenty minutes-worth of crap touting the health and beauty products, cleaning products, and toilet paper pushed by the network, plus the allotted local spots for every car dealer and ambulance chaser in town and the interminable promos for network and local programming, the show itself ain't half bad.

The regular “Chew Crew” – Mario Batali, Michael Symon, Carla Hall, Daphne Oz, and Clinton Kelly – have really gelled into a nice ensemble. In the first couple of shows, it was obviously every man for himself. Nobody clicked. Everyone was doing their own thing and trying to find their own place. And they have succeeded nicely. You can tell they've established themselves as a “family” and they're having fun, which makes them eminently entertaining to watch.

The format itself has settled in as well. The opening segment is often the best part of the show as the hosts chat up everything from news of the day to sometimes hilariously personal anecdotes. This is where the “family” really shines through. Clinton and Michael's running gag about spanx, the digs at Carla for her frugality and her wanting everything cut into quarters, and the shots at Daphne for her psyllium husk fetish – as well as Michael's exasperated dislike of the “Baby vs Puppy” schtick – probably evade new viewers, but seasoned watchers get a real kick out of the banter and byplay. Again, it's like sharing an inside joke with the family.

Everybody needs a day off now and then, and the occasional guest hosts taking places around the table usually fit in pretty well. Some are just network plants sent in to promote whatever new projects are in the offing, but there are a lot of fill-ins with some respectable cooking credits, too. Curtis Stone comes to mind. Bobby Flay, Geoffrey Zakarian and other foodie favorites pop in from time to time and there are always celebrity guests like Jake Gyllenhaal, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jewel, and even Rupaul around to jump into the culinary pool. Agents have figured out that “The Chew” is legit and book their clients accordingly, the same as they would on Leno or Letterman.

But it's not all fluff and chatter. “The Chew” is a fairly good “dump and stir” show, too. There are a lot of tips and techniques imparted as well as some great recipes, all of which are available on the show's website and many of which are featured in cookbooks generated by the program.

There are still aspects of “The Chew” that annoy me. Even though he has carved a comfortable niche for himself, Clinton Kelly still bugs me. It's like he views “The Chew” as a daytime version of his “What Not to Wear” vehicle or something. HE'S the “star” and Batali, Symon, Hall, and Oz are there to be HIS supporting cast. When he doesn't like something the producers have foisted off on him, he lets it show in no uncertain terms. Admittedly, some of the bits and gags are downright silly, but his attitude screams “I'm only here for the paycheck and the exposure, people.” I can tolerate his over-the-top style and delivery in small doses. Unfortunately, he does nothing in small doses and I find the show easier to watch on the rare occasions when he's not there. He may find himself to be “freakin' fabulous,” but I consider him “irritatingly irksome.”

Obviously, Mario Batali is the main draw for me. That said, he's the one who takes the most time off. I realize he has a very busy and demanding life outside of “The Chew” studios, but besides his creative cookery, he brings a dry wit and humor to the mix that is sorely missed when he's not there. But questa è la vita. (That's Italian for "c'est la vie.")

Michael Symon is fun. Mario can project a sly, worldly sophistication even though he's clad in shorts and orange Crocs. Michael is just a jeans and flannel or t-shirts, blue collar Everyman. He's frequently cast in the role of stooge or foil, but he pulls it off with good-humored patience and grace. And his cooking skills are phenomenal. Okay, he “caramelizes” when he should “brown,” a fact I've belabored since Day 1, but beyond that irritant, I find him quite engaging and enjoyable.

Carla Hall has toned down the juking and jiving that used to drive me nuts – and damage her credibility as a serious cook. It's more choreographed now and has been scripted and incorporated into her persona, allowing her to spend more time sharing her culinary knowledge and less time acting out a silly stereotype.

Daphne Oz has come a long way from the vacuous bottle-blonde shoehorned into the cast for her photogenic looks and her famous surname. She apparently went to culinary school at some point and is now an actual presence in the kitchen segments rather than just a pretty prop. She'll probably never live down her “psyllium husk moment” from the inaugural episode – I don't think Mario will let her – but her POV has broadened and developed even has her personality has come forward and established itself. She's still kind of everybody's little sister, but she's got enough sass and bite to hold her own among her peers. And we learned on the first episode of Season 3 that she is pregnant with her first baby. Awwwwww! If her co-hosts truly did not know and were just acting for the camera when she dropped the “baby bomb” on national TV, they should all get Emmys for their performances. It was a fun moment.

All in all, “The Chew” launches into Season Three as a fit and trim ship, entertaining and informative and well worth the forty minutes of my day. (Thank goodness for DVRs.) Grab a bite of “The Chew.” It's become quite a tasty morsel.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Bad News for “Au Jus Sauce” Lovers

Say "No" to "Au"

I've got bad news for you folks who love those French Dip sandwiches with au jus sauce. There's no such thing.

I wrote a piece awhile back about TV chefs who inappropriately overuse the word “caramelize” when they actually mean “brown." I don't care how many famous cooks say it, you can't “caramelize” meat. Read the article here: http://ronjamesitaliankitchen.blogspot.com/2013/02/brown-dont-caramelize.html

An anonymous commenter on that post wrote the following: “THANK YOU!! I yell at the TV every time some “celebrity chef” says they are caramelizing meat, chicken, even seafood. Rachael said once that scallops are “just so full of sugar, they get that great caramelization on them.” But can we discuss “au jus?' Every time I hear a TV chef say, “now we'll make the au jus,” or “dip it in the au jus.” Aaaargh! It's JUS. Au jus means “with juice” (from the meat.) You cannot make a “with juice.” But you can serve something with juice “au jus.”

Thank YOU, Anonymous Commenter. I'm glad to know I'm not a lone voice crying in the culinary wilderness.

Anonymous is quite correct: you can serve a dish “au jus” – as in beef au jus – but you absolutely cannot serve a dish WITH au jus. If you order beef with au jus, you are not asking for beef with juice, you are asking for beef with with juice. And that's just silly. As silly as dipping your sandwich in a little cup of “with juice sauce.” It's like instead of ordering shrimp en brochette – literally, shrimp on a skewer – you were to go to a nice French restaurant and order up shrimp with en brochette. They'd probably bring you a shrimp and a stick. After they stopped laughing at your ignorance.

Let's face it, the only real difference between a “celebrity chef” and the person who cooks at your favorite local eatery is the “celebrity” part. (If you doubt this, check out Food Network's "Next Food Network Star.) They both do the same thing: they cook. Just because a good cook gets a lucky break and lands on the tube doesn't automatically make him/her infallible. There are a lot of celebs out there who barely made it through high school – if they made it through at all. They may be superior cooks, but don't look to them to be gifted linguists and educators.

And that's really the sad part because so many people do look to them for instruction and education. After all, if they're on TV, they must know what they're doing, right? That's why it drives me positively batso when they say things like “caramelize” instead of “brown” or “au jus” instead of just “jus.” Some home cook watching TV says, “Oooo. Rachael Ray says the scallops are caramelized, so I guess it must be so.” Then she turns to her husband and says, “Hey, honey, what do you think of the way I caramelized the scallops tonight?” And the error repeats and gets bigger and bigger.

Listen carefully when you're watching “Chopped” or “Top Chef” or some of the other shows that showcase cooks and chefs who don't have agents and handlers and publicists. “I basted the meat in jus,” or “I browned the beef and I'm serving it with a side of jus.” These are the people who paid attention in culinary school.

Alas, I'm afraid Anonymous and I are destined to be frustrated. “Au jus” has become ubiquitous through common (mis)usage. You'll find a hundred recipes for it online and you'll see packaged “au jus” mixes in the grocery store. But it's still not right. Just because a bunch of people – even “celebrities” on TV – say that one plus one equals three, that doesn't mean that one plus one actually does equal three, now does it? Repeating something wrong doesn't make it right and it only makes the person doing it sound – how can I say this politely? – stupid to people who know better.

“Jus” is a noun that means juice. It's pronounced “zhoo.” Kind of like “shoe” with a “z.” Or even “jew” is acceptable if you can't make your lips and your tongue and your sinuses do weird things like the French do. “Au” is a masculine singular contraction. It literally means “to” or “to the,” but it is most frequently used to connect other words. Kind of like “di” in Italian. “Di” can mean “of,” “to,” “by,” “for,” “from,” “in,” or – you guessed it – “with” depending on the circumstances. So, in French, “au” is frequently used as “with.” And it's pronounced “oh.” When you say “jus,” you're saying “juice.” When you say “au jus,” you're saying “with juice.” Thinking of it in English will make a lot more sense because you know better that to say, “I'd like me some of that there with juice sauce.” Don't you?

Or maybe you're one of those people who call an ATM (Automatic Teller Machine) an “ATM machine” for which you need a PIN (Personal Identification Number), which you refer to as a “PIN number.”

To quote my new best friend, Anonymous, “AAAARRRGGGHHH!!!)

Okay. I will now cease flagellating the expired equine. I think I'll just go brown some meat and make a nice, well-seasoned juice to go with it.