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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!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Review: Galleria Umberto Rosticceria, Boston, Massachusetts

“Umberto's Is A North End Institution”

So, I'm on Hanover Street in Boston's North End and I'm getting a little hungry. From where I'm standing I can see signs for about a thousand Italian restaurants and one Chinese place. Where to go, where to go? When in doubt, ask a local, so I popped into a little bottega and did just that.

There were two very friendly and helpful people behind the counter. As the rest of my party looked over the wines on display, I asked for a lunch recommendation. I knew about nearby Bricco and some of the other higher-end places, so my parameters were simple; good, authentic, and cheap. I inquired about a place whose sign I had seen pointing to a location on another block. “Well, I hate to say anything bad........but I wouldn't eat there.” Okay. Good enough for me. “The place right across the street is good,” one of the clerks said, “but I'm not sure if they're still open for lunch.” There was some window peering as everybody tried to see if anybody was in the place. “You could try Umberto's,” the other clerk interjected. “They're open for lunch, but they only serve until they run out of food.” That sounded intriguing. The first employee immediately jumped on the bandwagon. “Oh, yes! Umberto's! I ate there the other day. In fact, I eat there several times a week. They're really good and they're really cheap. Umberto's is a North End institution.” 

The clerks enthusiastically described the atmosphere and the food. It was a simple counter-service establishment where you ordered, waited, and took your food to a table – if you could find one. They served pizza and calzone and arancini and you could eat like a pig for less than five dollars. “They're always busy,” I was told. “People start lining up sometimes before they even open their doors.” Okay, I was sold. “Where is it,” I asked? “Just a few doors down. You passed it on your way here.” I didn't remember passing any “Umberto's.” Thanking the pair, I stepped back into the street and looked in the direction indicated. I still didn't see “Umberto's.” We took a few steps, four pair of eyes scanning the forest of Hanover Street signage, but failing to spot anything that said “Umberto's.” Then we realized we were standing right in front of the place. Hanging over a doorway recessed into the brick facade was a simple painted sign of the type common in the 1950s and '60s. Over a big “Coca-Cola” logo, it read, "Galleria Umberto Rosticceria." Apparently, we had arrived.

I was a bit confused. I've always thought that a “rosticceria” was a place that specializes in roasting meats. You can find chickens, ducks, rabbits, and other birds and small game slowing roasting on hand-turned or mechanical spits in such places, but not pizze and calzoni. And to an extent, this is true. But a Neapolitan friend of mine assured me that for such establishments to serve lighter fare, like pizza and calzone, is not at all uncommon in many parts of Italy. At any rate, we ventured inside. The place was absolutely slammed. My wife and daughter-in-law hurried to stake out one of the two available tables while my son and I braved the line.

As promised, the menu was quite simple; I can print the whole thing right here: Pizza, Panini, Pizzette, Panzarotti, Arancini, Calzone Spinach, Calzone Spinach & Cheese, Calzone Spinach, Sausage & Cheese, Calzone Ricotta, Ham & Salami, beer, wine, soda and bottled water. That's it. And it was, indeed, cheap. The day I was there, slices were selling for $1.65. You get slices, by the way. No ordering a whole pie here. And it's Sicilian pizza. Given my Neapolitan pizza prejudice, that was a little unexpected. But, man, was it good! 

A quick note on the difference: Neapolitan pizza – originating in Naples – is round and thin-crusted. It's what most Americans think of when they think of “regular” pizza. Originating in Sicily, Sicilian pizza is thicker-crusted and rectangular. Sicilian pizza is often called “sfincione” or “sfinciuni” in the Sicilian dialect. There are tons of subtle differences in preparation and taste, but crust and shape are the most obvious ones.

The pizza at Umberto comes out on whole sheet pans. They bring it out of the kitchen and slap it on the counter. The counter guy cuts it up and transfers slices to paper plates. There's nothing fancy or elegant about it. And don't be looking for pepperoni and sausage and onions and peppers. There's no “meat lovers” here, no “supreme.” In the Umberto kitchen, they layer a thick, yeasty crust with a sweet tomato sauce, pile on the cheese and bake it until the bottom crisps and the top bubbles and turns golden brown. The pan hits the counter, the slice hits the plate, and your taste buds hit the heavens.

I make arancini all the time. When I make them, they are golf ball-size and I stuff them with a little smoked mozzarella and maybe some ham. The arancini at Galleria Umberto are the size of tennis balls and they are filled with cheese, ground beef, tomato sauce, and peas. One arancino is a meal. My wife was unable to finish hers because she also had a slice of pizza. But it was cooked to perfection. It's easy to get a heavy, greasy arancino. There wasn't a hint of greasiness here and the crispy, light texture on the outside combined with the soft, creamy interior to create a delightful ball of flavor. The peas added a pop of sweetness to the cheesy, meaty goodness. Un piatto perfetto! 

My daughter-in-law waffled a bit between pizza and calzone. She was concerned because many places make a calzone the size of a dinner plate. The ones at Umberto were a good size; big and hearty without being OMG oversized. She bravely confronted her spinach and cheese calzone and won the battle, commenting on the nice balance of spinach to cheese. Often there can be an overload of cheese that totally overpowers the spinach. That was not the case here. Another delightful dish.

My son and I each devoured two slices of pizza. Normally, this is not much of an accomplishment for either of us; at Galleria Umberto, it was. The square slices were thick, saucy, cheesy and very rich and filling.

In retrospect, I wish I had opted for a single slice of pizza and gone for some panzarotti. I saw some on other plates and they looked like cheese-stuffed potato croquettes on steroids. Definitely going there next time.

There are no dessert offerings at Galleria Umberto, but, hey, it's the North End. Mike's Pastry is across the street, and there are dozens of other places doling out gelati and cannoli only steps away.

Standing in line for about fifteen minutes, I had a chance to observe the ballet that is service at Galleria Umberto Rosticceria. The people behind the counter are amazing. Italian and English switch back and forth as workers glide in and out of the service dance with practiced ease. It's obvious some of them have been doing this for a very long time. It's equally obvious that they all enjoy what they are doing. Smiles are everywhere. Regulars get hugs and pats on the back. Even first time patrons are made to feel like regulars. It's very much like a little bit of Italy in Boston's Little Italy.

Don't judge the book by its cover. Compared to the shiny new chain pizzerias that are customarily found in most American cities today, Galleria Umberto appears a bit dingy and dated. Old wall murals, dim lighting, no-frills tables and chairs. It's a place that a lot of fussy, prissy people would turn and walk out of. And they'd be missing out on an extraordinary culinary experience. This unprepossessing little place has won a bunch of awards. They were named “Best Pizza Place in the Boston Area” in 2006 and food writer Adam Richman included them on his 2009 list of Top 25 Pizzas in the US. They also regularly make Zagat's list of Best Pizza in Boston. Zagat also rates Galleria Umberto among the Best Child-Friendly Restaurants in Boston.

Galleria Umberto Rosticceria is located at 289 Hanover Street. They open at 11 a.m. and close when they run out of prepared pizza dough. Seriously. The dough seemed to be holding out pretty well when we were there just after 1 p.m., but when we walked by a little later in the afternoon, the place was already closed. The locals start lining up around 10:30. Probably a good idea to plan on an early lunch. Obviously, reservations are neither required or accepted and dress is casual. As for parking, well......it's the North End, folks. Good luck. One important word of caution: bring cash! Galleria Umberto is a cash-only establishment and there is no ATM on premises. They don't have a Web presence, but you can call Galleria Umberto Rosticceria at (617) 227-5709.

Friday, April 11, 2014

So You Want Great Pizza at Home? DIY! It's Easy

I've written a lot about pizza over the years. I've reviewed Italian restaurants and pizzerias and I've commented on chain pizza places. But I don't think I've ever discussed my favorite pizza – the one I make at home.

Pizza is one of America's most popular foods. According to sources who know such things, pizza is a $30 to $40 billion business. Statisticbrain.com says there are 70,000 pizzerias in the United States and that the average American eats 46 slices a year. They estimate that 93% of Americans eat at least one slice of pizza a month.

Most of that consumption goes on in the aforementioned chain restaurants; Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Domino's, Little Caesar's, etc. Places I generally avoid like the plague. Comparing the product that comes out of these places to real pizza is like comparing my riding lawn mower to a Ferrari; some of the components are the same, but that's where the resemblance ends.

There are also a gazillion little “mom & pop” pizzerias dotting the American foodscape; roughly 65% of that 70,000 figure I quoted. Such places account for the next biggest slice of the overall pie. They can be a real crap shoot, though, ranging in quality from an ecstatic “Oh My God!” to a horrified “Oh My God!” (You supply the appropriate inflection.)

Most of the rest of the pizza eaten by Americans comes courtesy of the grocer's freezer. I don't care what the ad people say, anybody with two working taste buds can tell the difference between delivery and DiGiorno. Not that DiGiorno is entirely bad. It's actually pretty good for something made with ingredients like sodium stearoyl lactylate, sodium aluminum phosphate and datem, which is short for diacetyl tartaric acid esters of monoglycerides. Personally, I don't use those things in my pizza, but to each his own. You know, I once forgot to take a frozen pizza off the cardboard before I put in the oven; the difference after it was cooked was not immediately apparent.

Then there's a teeny, tiny contingent of “homemade” pizzas that come in a box with Chef Boyardee's picture on it. I had one such “homemade” pizza, prepared by a well-meaning girlfriend about forty years ago. We broke up soon after.

All these things represent the prevailing form of worship in the American Cult of Culinary Convenience. Anything you can pick up on the way home and throw in the microwave is a gift from the gods. But making delicious pizza at home from scratch...is.....just.....not.....that.....difficult. And it is infinitely better than anything you'll bring home from anywhere but the finest authentic pizzeria.

Let's talk equipment. If you really want the best homemade pizza ever, go out and drop a few thousand on a brick oven for your backyard. If you don't have a few thousand (or a backyard), spend thirty or forty bucks on a good pizza stone. If you're really cheap.....er......thrifty, you can go down to the home improvement place and pick up a few unglazed tiles for about two bucks each. But really, just spring for the stone, okay?

Now you want something with which you can transport the pizza into and out of the oven. Those long paddle things are called “peels,” and you can find them just about anywhere that sells kitchen stuff. Some people like a traditional wooden peel and some prefer metal. I'm easy; I have both. They cost me about $15 each. If you don't want to spend that kind of money, just use a rimless cookie sheet.

My pizza recipe calls for the crust to be docked before baking. Docking is procedure commonly done with pie crusts to keep steam pockets from forming and puffing up the crust. You do it by poking little holes randomly over the surface. They sell a docker made just for this purpose, but I have something equally good and much less expensive; I call it a fork.

I suppose a pizza cutting device of some sort would also be handy. You can use a rotary type or a mezzaluna. I think you know what a rotary pizza cutter looks like. A mezzaluna is a long, curved blade with a wooden handle that runs along the top. You see them in pizza places all the time. I have both at home, but once, when stranded in the wilds of a friend's ill-equipped kitchen, I managed to tame the beast with a sharp knife.

A pizza is ridiculously simple to assemble. It's a three-part process; crust, sauce, and toppings. We'll start with the crust. You can buy pre-made, prepackaged crusts in the grocery store. Don't. You can buy pizza dough all neatly rolled up in a cardboard tube in your grocer's dairy case. Please don't. You can also by a ball of fresh pizza dough, usually in the bakery or deli area. Wimp. Buy this if you must, but it's just not that hard to make fresh dough at home. Hold that thought; I'll come back to it.

I'm going to tell you that fresh-made pizza sauce is your best option and that it's really simple to make. Then I'm going to tell you that store-bought sauce is okay. I use both, depending on what I have on hand.

Finally, toppings. Real, authentic pizza is not a dumping ground for anything that happens to be in the refrigerator. If you want to turn out a great pizza at home, keep it simple. One or two toppings. Maybe three. But putting four kinds of meat and six kinds of cheese and eight kinds of vegetables on a homemade pizza is a recipe for a soggy disaster.

A quick word about cheese. Some people like to blend different cheeses, and that's great. I do it all the time. Parmesan, Romano, Asiago.....your choice, as long as you don't overdo it. But Pizza 101 begins with mozzarella, and for making pizza, the pre-shredded stuff is actually pretty good. Only for pizza. I use fresh mozzarella for everything else, but mozzarella fresca can be a little watery and that can really mess up your pizza. If you want the best flavor, use the best cheese – the fresh stuff – but make sure it's really dry before you top your pie with it. Otherwise, the shredded stuff is acceptable. My Italian friends in the pizza business buy mozzarella in five-pound blocks and shred it in house. I buy mine pre-shredded in five pound bags at my restaurant supply store or at Sam's Club. Divide it into one-pound packages, throw it in the freezer, and use as needed.

One thing that ties all of the above together is quality. You're not going to get a top quality pizza with bottom shelf grocery store ingredients. Spend a little extra on the good stuff. It will pay off when you pull it out of the oven.

Okay, nitty-gritty time. Here's how to make all the above into a fantastic homemade pizza. I've tried a dozen different pizza dough recipes. I've used all kinds of flour, including the prized Italian “00” and I've tried many permutations of added ingredients, but this one has been my “go to” recipe for years. It's fast, simple, and the ingredients are easy to find. Here's what you'll need:

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup bread flour
2 tsp yeast
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup warm water (110° to 115°)
drizzle of olive oil

I use King Arthur flour for everything. It's a little more expensive, but you get what you pay for. And my yeast of choice is Fleischmann's Instant Dry. If you plan on making pizza as a regular thing, don't waste your money on the little packets. Restaurant supply stores and places like Sam's sell one-pound packages of yeast for about the same as you'd pay for a couple of strips of the packets. Refrigerated in an air-tight container, it'll keep for about a year.

Now, here's what you do. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, the yeast, and the salt. Stir in the water and drizzle in the olive oil until it's all blended evenly and the dough comes away from the side of the bowl. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it until it becomes smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball, place it in a lightly greased bowl (I use olive oil) and turn it so all sides get a little coating of oil. Then cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel or with greased plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 20 to 30 minutes.

You can also do this in a stand mixer or a food processor. If I'm only making a couple of pizzas, I do it by hand. If I'm making a bunch of pizzas, I use the food processor. Same procedure; mix all the ingredients as before, dry ingredients in first, then start the machine and add the wet. Use the dough blade and the dough cycle on your machine. When the dough starts to ball up around the blade shaft, it's ready. Take it out and proceed as directed.

If you're going to make your pizza right away, you should put the stone on the bottom rack of your oven and start the oven preheating to 500° while you assemble the pizza. That stone needs to heat for at least 30 minutes in order for it to do any good.

Now you figure out how many pizzas you're going to make and divide the dough accordingly. This recipe yields enough dough for 1 large (16-inch), 2 medium (10-inch), or 4 small (6-inch) pizzas. And these will be thin crust pizzas, by the way. If you want a thicker crust, adjust the way you divide the dough.

I use the traditional press method for shaping my pizzas. Working on a lightly floured surface, press down on the dough ball with your fingertips and shape it into a small, flat disk. Working outward from the center, push the dough while spreading it with your fingers to make the disk larger. Turn the disk by quarter turns as you spread it until a circle starts to form. Pick up the circle of dough and rotate it by the edges, allowing gravity to pull it into the desired size. Don't worry if it's not a perfect circle. And if it tears a little, just patch it up. It'll be fine. You want it to be about the same thickness from the center out to the edges, where you'll build your cornicione. That's the Italian term for the thick outer rim of crust. Impress your friends with that one. You don't have to have a defined edge, but it's prettier and easier to eat that way. Just pinch the dough around the edges into a slightly raised ridge.

Don't worry about looking like a pizzaiolo. All that tossing and throwing the crust in the air is great for show, but my method is the one used by most real pizza makers. And don't you get anywhere near this dough with a rolling pin. You'll turn it into a dense, chewy cracker.

Here's my cheat: I have about a dozen inexpensive pizza pans in my kitchen. Got 'em for a buck apiece at Walmart. I lay down a light coating of olive oil on the surface of a pan and put my prepared dough ball in the center. Then I press it out, using the pan to help develop the shape and thickness. I press and rotate the dough the same way, I just do it right in the pan. Then I crimp up the edges and I have a nice looking crust that's ready for the next step.

Now you have some choices to make: to par-bake or not, to dock or not, to flavor the crust or not. Par-baking a crust means to put it in the oven for just a few minutes to give the crust a little form and structure. I do it this way because I'm usually making more than one pizza at a time and it just makes the process go smoother. If you par-bake, you should probably dock. Unless you want big air bubbles in your crust. Some people do. Otherwise, just take a fork and poke holes in the crust. I do mine in nice straight lines so it looks like I used a fancy docker. Now you're ready for the oven. If you use my pizza pan trick, you're good to go. Just toss the pan with the prepared crust in the oven for a few minutes, 3 or 4 at the most, pull it out, let it cool for a minute, then flip the pan over and the formed crust should fall right out. If you're not par-baking and are building your pizza right on the peel, you should lightly dust the peel with some corn meal and work the dough around a little bit to make sure it will slide easily off the peel and into the oven.

Here's where you can add a little flavor to your crust if you want to. I sometimes rub mine with garlic. Not always, because not everybody likes a garlic crust. But if you do, just cut the end off a clove of garlic and rub it lightly over the surface of the crust. You can also add a light coating of olive oil. Totally optional. I do it, but you don't have to. If you're not par-baking, you can just sprinkle a little minced garlic or some granulated garlic over the dough, or you can make a garlic-infused olive oil. That's another reason I par-bake; easier to flavor the crust.

On to the sauce! I'm going to give you a super simple fresh pizza sauce recipe. It's really good and it's really easy, but, as I said, you can also use prepared pizza sauce. You won't hurt my feelings. Here's the recipe:

1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 (28 oz) can San Marzano tomatoes, pureed
4 or 5 fresh basil leaves, torn or a pinch of dried basil
Salt

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and add the onions. Sautè for 2 or 3 minutes, then add the garlic. Cook for another minute. Add the pureed tomatoes and simmer over low to medium heat for 10 minutes. Salt to season. If you use dried basil, add it when you add the tomatoes. If you use fresh basil, add it in the last minute or two of cooking.

I don't use anything but San Marzano tomatoes for my sauces. That's just me.......and about a million other Italian cooks. You can use any good quality canned tomato for this recipe, but try to find San Marzanos if you can.

Okay, time to sauce the pizza. Don't go crazy with the sauce. A good pizza is all about balance. A thin crust that's crisp on the outside and a little chewy inside combined with a light dressing of sauce and a moderate topping of cheese is pizza perfection. You can taste each individual component of the pizza. That's the way it should be. When you ladle sauce and shovel toppings onto a half-soggy crust......you get chain store pizza! Sorry. I got carried away. Just spoon a couple of tablespoons of your sauce into the center of the prepared crust and, using the bowl of the spoon, spread it out in circles until it reaches the edge. Add more if you think you need it. If you can't see the crust anymore, you've overdone it. You can add a little more flavor at this point. Sprinkle in a pinch of dried oregano as you work the sauce.

Finally, it's time to top. Again, less is more. You may think a pound of cheese and a pound of pepperoni is going to be great, but it's really not. Start out slow. As you get more practiced, you'll figure out ratios and balances a little better, but if you ruin your first attempt, you probably won't make another one. And that would mean I wrote all this for nothing. If you're using fresh mozzarella that you've thinly sliced from a ball, bravo! Just make sure it's good and dry before you layer it on. If you're using shredded mozzarella from a bag, start by putting a light layer over the entire surface, then go back and fill in the holes as needed. Here's where you might add in Parmesan or Asiago or something. Moderately. A little extra cheese is good; a lot of extra cheese can be soggy and greasy.

Now we hit the oven. If you've built your pizza on a peel and remembered to use some corn meal under the crust, it should slide off the peel without a lot of fuss. If you've par-baked your crust, there's no sweat. It'll slide. Use your wrist to shake the peel until the pizza slides off onto the VERY HOT surface of the pizza stone. If you're used to heating up frozen pizza, you're in for a surprise. Don't walk off and go watch something on TV for fifteen or twenty minutes. You'll come back to charcoal. With the oven cranked up to 500°, the combination of radiant heat emanating from the stone and the conduction or convection circulating within the enclosed space will cook your fresh pizza in just a few minutes. You should probably start checking it after five minutes. It likely won't take more than eight, depending on the efficiency of your oven. Slide the peel back under it, pull it out, all bubbly golden brown and delicious, let it cool for a minute, then employ your cutting device and cominciare a mangiare.

Here's another quick trick: make up a big batch of dough and prep a bunch of par-baked crusts. Separate them with wax paper and wrap them in plastic. Stick the stack of separated and wrapped crusts in a large freezer bag and toss them in the freezer. You want pizza on the fly? Grab a crust out of the freezer, open a jar or packet of sauce, throw some cheese and whatever else at it and stick it in the oven. In less time than it would take for carryout or delivery.....or even to unwrap and heat a frozen pizza......you can have it fresh, delicious, and homemade right from your oven. It really is that easy.

Better ingredients, better pizza? Forget Papa John! Delivery or DiGiorno? How about neither? Do it yourself. You will never go back to somebody else's mediocre pizza again.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Low Fat/No Fat Fad: Not Always the Best Diet Option

For many years now, fat has been a four-letter word among the weight conscious. As a result, generations of consumers have tried to reduce their waistlines by rejecting fat and scarfing up copious quantities of skim milk, low fat yogurt, reduced fat snacks, and a host of other so-called “light” food products. My mother was one of those waistline warriors.

Bless my poor mother. She battled with her weight for years. She was a small woman, not even reaching five feet in height, and even though she topped out at 120 at her absolute bulkiest, she still felt the need to reduce. She joined Weight Watchers once. After a short time, they gave her her lifetime member pin and recommended she quit. She had hit 90 pounds and was still dropping. It was kind of like, “Congratulations! Now go eat a bowl of ice cream.” After she left Weight Watchers, she started watching her weight her own way, a way influenced by the advertised junk science fad of the day; she set out to absolutely, positively, irrevocably eliminate any and all traces of any sort of fat in her diet. Oh, she kept the weight off for the most part, bouncing up and down by five or so pounds, but it was a real struggle for someone who once enjoyed eating anything and everything. Fueled by the over zealous advertising with which she was bombarded, she convinced herself that fat was the enemy and spent the last fifteen or twenty years of her life eating things that probably had less flavor than the boxes in which they were packaged. And they were likely worse for her overall health.

Ask any chef: there's flavor in fat. Beyond that, there are certain things for which fat is necessary in the human diet. You have to have some fat in order for your body to work. Yeah, fat pads your hips and makes your belly hang out, but it also carries essential nutrients to the places they need to go. Brain tissue is rich in fat and a component in myelin, the fatty material that sheathes nerve cells, allows your nervous system to function properly. Despite what the pushers of low fat/no fat products would have you believe, you simply can't eliminate fat from your diet.

Mom fell victim to a lot of slick advertising. You can't walk through a grocery store these days without being assailed from all sides by the words “fat-free,” “low-fat,” “non-fat,” “reduced fat,” and “light.” Theoretically, there are standards that are supposed to govern the use of such terms. “Fat-free” and “non-fat” foods are supposed to have less that 0.5 grams of fat per serving. “Low-fat” has to have less than 3 grams, while “reduced fat” is supposed to be 25% lower in fat than the regular product, and “light” should have either 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat.

In reality, most of these products taste somewhere between bland and nasty, because – say it with me – “there's flavor in fat.” And when you remove significant amounts of fat, you also remove significant amounts of flavor. Ahhh, but the chemists and scientists who work tirelessly to meet your demand for healthier fat-free products have a solution: sugar, salt, and artificial flavorings. If you dump enough of that stuff into something from which you have removed the fat, you can actually make it taste pretty good. Lethal, maybe, but good.

Mom had a tremendous sweet tooth and when she began her personal battle of the bulge, she tried to satisfy it with cardboard cookies. No more regular chocolate chip or crème sandwich cookies. Nope. Had to be “low-fat.” You know what? A national brand of reduced fat vanilla sandwich cookies does indeed have less fat than a nationally advertised “regular” vanilla sandwich cookie. In a four cookie serving of the “reduced” brand, there are only 3 grams of total fat compared to 5 grams in the regular cookies. But the regular cookies contain a mere 65 mg of sodium as opposed to a whopping 154 mg in the “healthy” alternative. Healthy?

I don't care much about sweets; candies, cookies, cakes, pies......I can take them or leave them, and I usually leave them. But I do love potato chips. They are my snack passion and my diet downfall. So I thought about a “healthy” alternative: low-fat baked chips. Oh, baby! The calories and the fat content don't even compare. There are 154 calories in an ounce of regular chips and only 120 in the baked variety. Wow! That means I can eat more of the “healthy” ones, right? Especially when you consider the total fat breakdown: 10g for regular chips and a measly 3g for the “healthy” ones. And they're both zero cholesterol and they both have the same amount of protein. Man, am I gonna be healthier and skinnier! Wait......what do you mean, “look at the sodium?” Eeewwww! Only 136 mg in the regular chips and 210 mg in the “healthy” ones. Ooops. Oh, no......and look at the sugar; 0 grams of sugar in regular chips and 3 grams in the baked kind. 14 grams of carbohydrates for regular chips and 21 grams for baked? That can't be right! They're supposed to be healthy! All the TV commercials say so! And there's no potassium in the baked chips. None. But there's 361 mg of the stuff in the “unhealthy” ones. What gives?

Actually, I really like Utz potato chips. Three big reasons; they taste good, they have way less sodium (95 mg) than most “regular” chips, and I can practice portion control. See, I'm one of those sad individuals that, if you give me a bag of potato chips and a thirty minute TV show, I'll eat the whole bag within the thirty minutes. The restaurant supply store where I shop sells me a case of sixty 1-ounce, single-serving bags for about the same price as four of the regular 10-ounce bags at the grocery store. So when I sit down with a whole bag, it's only a 1-ounce bag instead of a 10-ounce bag. Yeah, I'm getting a little more fat and a few more calories per serving, but far and away less salt and sugar. And some potassium to boot. And I'm only consuming one serving instead of ten.

My mom was born in Vermont and grew up in Wisconsin. Dairy country. But I guarantee she never saw a low-fat or fat-free dairy product at any point in the first half of her life. Especially that flavorless white-colored water, a.k.a. “skim milk,” with which she punished herself in the latter half. That's because prior to WWII, skim milk was the byproduct of butter processing and it wasn't sold in stores. It was either dumped in a ditch or distributed to farmers as an animal feed supplement. Dairy producers didn't start bottling this liquid pig slop for human consumption until deluded fat-conscious consumers in the post-war era began demanding it. Then it took off and dragged cheese and yogurt and ice cream with it. Fact is, fat from dairy helps the body absorb nutrients, like the fat-soluble vitamins A and D found in dairy products. The less fat contained in your milk, cheese, etc., the less nutritive value it has. By the time you get down to skim milk.......well, you might as well just add a few drops of milk to color a glass of water. The drum bangers who lead the low-fat band might not want to hear it, but some recent studies indicate that people lose more weight consuming full-fat milk and dairy products than the low-fat stuff. Sure, there's fewer calories and less fat in nonfat yogurt, but there's considerably more sugar. It's not a healthy trade off. And we won't even discuss the artificially sweetened abominations.

You can't fool Mother Nature – at least not for long. Your body needs what it needs and if you don't satisfy it one way, you'll wind up catering to it another way, usually a less healthy way. For instance, research shows that skim milk drinkers do absorb less fat, but they often make up the deficit by eating more carbohydrates to provide the necessary energy they require. Drinking skim milk does not mean you get to have six Oreos instead of three. And you know what the difference between a cup of whole milk and a cup of “reduced fat” (2%) milk is? 3.1 grams of fat and 24 calories. Based on an RDI of 65 grams of fat and 2,000 calories, are you really going to sweat over 3 grams and 24 calories? Unless you're guzzling the stuff by the gallon, it's just not that big an impact for what you're giving up. I'll even give you points for 2% milk, but when you start talking 1% or less, you might as well just drink water. It's cheaper and has about the same flavor and nutritive value.

Mom used to love peanut butter. When she started off on her fat fighting crusade, she figured she'd have to give it up. But then she discovered “reduced fat” peanut butter. Woo-hoo! Problem is, the fat found in peanut butter is monounsaturated, the “good” kind of fat that you actually want to have in your diet. And, of course, when they reduce the fat they reduce the flavor and they have to do something to make it taste more like peanut butter, so they up the salt and the sugar and there you are. You've eliminated a healthy fat and replaced it with unhealthy sodium and carbohydrates.

It's the same thing all across the board. You can't remove fat without removing flavor and the best way to add flavor is with salt, sugar, and artificial additives. Don't take my word for it; look at the labels. Pick up a couple of jars of mayonnaise. I have Hellmann's Real mayo in my right hand and Hellmann's Light in my left. There are 11 grams of fat in the Real mayo and only 4.5 in the Light, but the Light contains 115 mg of sodium while the Real has just 80 mg.

I used to know somebody who worked for one of the big food processors. He often said something along the lines of “if you could just see the salt and sugar and artificial crap they put in that fat-free stuff, you'd never let it in your house much less put it in your mouth.”

No matter how you slice it, unless it is a naturally fat-free substance, anything labeled “fat-free,” “low-fat,” “non-fat,” “reduced fat,” or “light” has been chemically processed and engineered to make it that way. And if you think that artificially removing a few grams of fat from your diet and replacing them with loads of salt, sugar, and chemicals is going to make you healthier, you're sadly mistaken. The only way to safely and effectively reduce the amount of fat in your diet is through moderation and a balanced consumption of natural non-processed foods.

One more thing that pushes my buttons: people who buy “light” olive oil as a means of losing weight. Okay, any decent fat fighting fanatic these days will tell you that the road to hell is slathered in butter and greased with cooking oil and that olive oil is the lipid least likely to lubricate your slide into an early grave. And this is somewhat true. But if olive oil is good, then “light” olive oil must be better, right? Absolutely not. Sorry, fat fighters, but when it comes to calorie counts, oil is oil. A tablespoon of any kind of oil is going to contain about 120 calories. It's the chemical makeup of the oil, not the difference of three calories per tablespoon, that makes olive oil “healthier” than, say, corn oil. It's the saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fat content of the oils that determine how “healthy” they are – and even the conventional wisdom there has come under fire in recent studies. In any case, “light” olive oil is not light in fat and will not help you lose the love handles any faster than “unlight” olive oil. “Light” olive oil is processed to remove most of its natural flavor, making it “light” tasting, but having nothing whatsoever to do with its fat content. If you're buying “light” olive oil for its lack of flavor, go for it. If you're buying it because you think it's “lighter” than other oils, you're wasting your money.

Fat is not intrinsically evil; overindulgence in fat – or any substance – is where the evil lies. Monitoring your intake and balancing your diet are the keys to good health, not developing an unhealthy dependence on chemically altered food-like substances. Don't be a sheep led to graze in a toxic pasture by misleading advertising and popular diet fads. Think for yourself. Read labels. Study ingredients. Learn about nutrition. Utilize the fatty matter between your ears to manage the fatty matter around your waist. You'll be far more satisfied eating smaller, balanced amounts of flavorful real food than you ever will be consuming bland, artificially flavored, processed crap, no matter how appealing slick marketers make that crap sound.

Get real. Eat real.