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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, September 24, 2014

Is Italian Food Fattening?

Subscribing To The “Abbondanza” Myth Can Pack On The Pounds

I have an acquaintance who is a real “meat and potatoes” kind of guy. Lately he's been skipping the potatoes. He's hitting middle age, his hairline is receding and his waistline is expanding. And he believes he can ameliorate all of this – or at least the waistline part – by eschewing any and all forms of fat and carbohydrate. This puts us on a collision course because he believes Italian food is inherently fattening. His bias is common: all he envisions when he thinks of Italian food is overloaded pizza and heaping plates of pasta. And what is his idea of an “authentic” Italian restaurant? Olive Garden, of course. Uffa!

There is a gulf as vast as the Atlantic between real Italian food as it is traditionally prepared and consumed in Italy and the stuff that is served in the big American chain “Italian” restaurants. Believe me when I say the whole“abbondanza” concept is an American marketing gimmick that stereotypes Italians and Italian food. Do Italians like to eat? About as much as they like to breathe. But do they routinely sit down with piles of steaming pasta on plates the size of hubcaps. Never. Do they throw everything but the kitchen sink on top of a pizza that's as big as a trash can lid? Unheard of. And yet, that's the way most Americans think of Italian food.

A friend of mine runs a local Italian restaurant. He is originally from a village near Naples and I ride him all the time about his menu and his portions. When he serves me, I tell him, “Bring me a plate of pasta like your mama would do.” That means I want a portion about the size of a closed fist. To everybody else, he brings out pasta on platters. Why? Because “that's what the customers expect.” And there are a number of things he wishes he could take off his menu. They're not Italian. But because the locals think they are, he has to serve these dishes in these monstrous proportions or else people go looking for an Olive Garden.

Back to the question at the top of the page: is Italian food fattening? If you're eating at a typical American chain restaurant, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” To that end, my carbo-phobic friend is right.

Olive Garden, the place that invites you to “experience today's Italy,” serves a fried lasagna over Alfredo sauce that weighs in at 1,030 calories and will provide you with two-and-a-half days worth of saturated fat. (We won't discuss the fact that nobody in Italy fries lasagna and nobody there knows what “Alfredo sauce” is.) Want a “Tour of Italy?” Better be prepared to pack 1,450 calories for your journey. Bring along a couple of extra bags for the 165% of your daily saturated fat allowance and the 160% of your days' sodium.

How about Maggiano's? Recently voted America's most popular Italian chain restaurant, they'll only saddle you with with a baked rigatoni that will cost you 1,390 calories or a gnocchi with vodka cream sauce that's good for 1,220.

Or there's the “Mama's Trio” at Romano's Macaroni Grill. At 1,290 calories, it's certainly enough for a trio and the whopping 190% and 136% worth of your days' saturated fat and sodium intake are more than enough for three.

Carrabba's wants you to be healthy, so they serve whole wheat pasta – and 1,349 calories with their Fettuccine Weesie, which also contains 57 grams of saturated fat and an unconscionable 2,938 milligrams of sodium.

Now to be absolutely fair to these establishments, they all offer lower calorie menus. Carrabba's has a number of dishes that clock in at fewer than 600 calories and Olive Garden has begun serving small plates that are far more reasonable than their regular fare. But therein lies the issue: when it comes to real Italian food, it should all be small plates.

Food is an intrinsic element of Italian culture. Italians eat often and they eat well. But they do not eat like pigs. There are no places that offer “all you can eat” in Italy. Restaurants do not serve “endless” this or “bottomless” that. People who participate in such behavior are rightly frowned upon as gluttons. Or Americans. Only in America do we gauge success by excess. Only in the United States is value determined by size. Early Italian immigrants were astounded by the plenitude of foodstuffs available to them in their new country. Such abundance was not only unobtainable back in the Old World, it was unthinkable. Especially meat. Having meat on a daily basis was an extravagance afforded only to the very rich. Wanting to establish the fact that they had “arrived” and were prosperous, many newly-minted Italian-Americans began to capitalize on this bounty, and so the concept of Italian-American food was born in the old Italian-American neighborhoods. Non-Italians who ventured into their city's version of “Little Italy” immediately assumed this was the way all Italians ate and “abbondanza” became synonymous with Italian food.

And so my friends in the restaurant business are forced by economic necessity to perpetuate the stereotype. If they don't serve endless salads and breadsticks and bottomless bowls of soup and heaping platters of spaghetti and meatballs like the chain places do, they risk going under. After a hundred years of exposure, Americans are conditioned to these things and expect them when they walk into an “Italian” restaurant.

When people think about healthy eating, one diet comes to the forefront: the Mediterranean diet. Unlike the typical Western diet, the Mediterranean diet de-emphasizes meat and meat products. It is based principally on consumption of fish and seafood, legumes, unrefined cereal grains, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products like cheese and yogurt. The diet also promotes moderate wine consumption. And guess what, folks? That is the essence of the true Italian diet. It's not about piling enough pasta for six people on a plate, drowning it in a gallon of red sauce, and serving it up to one person. It doesn't center on seeing how much crap you can slap on an enormous pizza. Real Italian food is about quality ingredients prepared in a healthy manner and served in moderate portions.

Bottom line: Is Italian food fattening? No. Not the real stuff. Not traditional Italian food eaten the way countless generations of Italians have eaten it. If you're eating out at a so-called “Italian” restaurant in America, order the child's plate. And then only eat half of it. You'll be about right. Look for things you can't pronounce. They'll probably be more authentic than the stuff you're familiar with. Drink water instead of soda. If you're cooking at home, cut down the portion sizes. Ditch the butter and and amp up the olive oil. Leave the cow and go for the fish. Again, drink water. Whether you're eating out at a restaurant or dining in at home, remember it's not the quantity of the food on the plate that makes the difference, it's the quality. Forget about “abbondanza” and concentrate on “la qualità.” It will change your life and your outlook on Italian food.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Botto Italian Bistro UPDATE

Waaaaahhhhh! Yelp Won't Publish My Review!

Well, you can't say I didn't try. In a previous post regarding the California Italian restaurant currently trying to stick it to Yelp, I said that I might submit a one-star review of the place myself. I did. Several times. And Yelp keeps removing it.

Here for your edification is the "review" I attempted to submit:

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As one who actually does make a small part of his living writing restaurant reviews, I decided to review Botto Italian Bistro. Unfortunately, I live on the East Coast and have never been to Richmond, CA, nor have I ever set foot in Botto Italian Bistro. That being said, I decided to go ahead and write the review anyway. This is, after all, a Yelp review and any semblance of literary or journalistic education or experience is totally unnecessary and any sort of culinary knowledge is completely superfluous. All that is required is a keyboard and an index finger. Having both, I press forward with my review.

In keeping with the usual tenor and tone of social media reviews, I submit the following:

Doods, ths palce rely sux.......i wudnt evr of ate hear if i'd have knowd how relly, rely, bad it sux. take my wurd for it, duds, this plase rilly sux.

There. I have fulfilled my obligation to the dining public.

It is my understanding, though, that the management at this establishment has offered a 25% discount for such comprehensive and high caliber reviews as the offering I have submitted. Since I fully intended to eat at Botto Bistro, but was unable to do so due to distance (I actually drove as far west as Chicago, but there the lure of the authentic fare at Olive Garden got the better of me and I am now so sated with salad and breadsticks as to be unable to continue my journey), I would like to submit that I would have gladly eaten at least $100 worth of food at Botto had I actually gotten to eat there. Therefore, I would request that the management remit a certified check to me in the amount of $25.


Grazie, Davide e Michele per il vostro servizio per l'industria.

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I'm given to understand that Yelp is removing fake reviews for Botto Bistro as fast as it can, but it is being inundated with them right now. Took them almost an hour to spot and remove mine. Further attempts to edit or resubmit it have been unsuccessful, so I guess they're on to me.

But do yourself a favor and go there (here) http://www.yelp.com/biz/botto-italian-bistro-richmond-3
and read some of the hilarious "reviews" that have stuck. And maybe write one yourself. Just don't make it as obviously fake as mine. Apparently the folks at Yelp aren't total idiots. Halfwits, maybe, but not total idiots.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

California Italian Restaurant Takes On Yelp

Seeking One-Star Reviews for “The Worst Restaurant in the San Francisco Area”

Let's hear it for Botto Bistro! Co-owners Davide Cerretini and Michele Massimo are determined to have “the worst restaurant in the San Francisco area.” And I hope they succeed.

The two Tuscan chefs are taking on Yelp, the giant social media site that gives small-minded, palate-
challenged, functionally illiterate, vengeful, hateful trolls the opportunity to vent their puerile spleen on hardworking restaurateurs with the noble intent of destroying their livelihoods.

Can you tell I don't think much of Yelp?

The site loftily pretends to be a pure democracy in which everyone has an equal voice. But there is one big drawback to democracy; one which our Founding Fathers foresaw when they established the United States as a democratic republic rather than as a true democracy. The flies in Yelp's democratic ointment are the same ones envisioned by Thomas Jefferson: idiots.

In the same way that the republican form of government is one in which the power of the people is vested in specially delegated representatives, so also is the world of professional criticism. Professional critics are people with appropriate education, training, and talent to whom the responsibility is given to express an informed opinion based upon those factors. That opinion, then, provides a useful tool to guide the common person toward or away from a particular restaurant, play, movie or whatever entity or function is being reviewed.

Yelp and its ilk bypass these qualified representatives by placing the power directly in the hands of any boob with a keyboard and an index finger, resulting not in true democracy, but rather in the worst form of anarchy. And it is an anarchy that, by its unbridled pernicious nature, can destroy the lives and livelihoods of restaurant owners, managers, cooks, servers, and others associated with the business.

“But everybody's entitled to an opinion,” rage the outraged. Yes. And you know what they say about opinions and certain anatomical features.

I fought back against a social media “review” once. It involved a charming little locally owned Italian restaurant operated by a lovely Italian family. And some moron with an obvious ax to grind savaged the place on social media. Her so-called “review” read: This is the absolutely worst Italian food I have ever had in my life. It was nothing but over priced boxed mixes with some chewy, obviously frozen bagged seafood on top. It literally disgusted me. If you value your hard earned money and your stomach I would keep on driving right past this place.

Now, besides recognizing bad sentence structure when I see it, I also know a thing or two about Italian food. And I knew this woman was full of ….....misinformed ideas. So, after contacting the owners and setting up a tour of the kitchen, I wrote a rebuttal to her ignorant commentary. Everything on the menu was fresh and homemade. I watched it being prepared and even participated in preparing some of it. I had to explain to the perplexed owner what a “boxed mix” was. And, in a point of information for Miss Bitchy-Poo, most restaurants located hundreds of miles from the coast do rely on frozen seafood. It's the quality of the product and the way it's treated after it's thawed that makes the difference. And this little place did wonderful things with their great frozen seafood. The alleged “review” was nothing but a poorly crafted hatchet job designed to hurt the owners and their business. After taking it apart point by point, I summed up with: Spend your time and your money. This is absolutely some of the best Italian food I have ever had in my life. It is nothing but high-quality, fresh ingredients deliciously prepared in a wonderful Italian family tradition. It literally delights me. If you value your hard-earned money and your stomach, you'll drive directly to this place, and you'll do it often. So much for social media “reviews.”

Worse still than the inherent potential for abuse by the uneducated, ill-informed, or downright noxious is the frequently alleged practice on the part of Yelp itself of selling better “reviews” to advertisers. Indeed, the company's revenues edged into profitability for the first time in the second quarter of 2014 based largely on increased advertising by business owners. Many in the restaurant industry claim that their Yelp ratings go up concomitant with their paid advertising, a practice which, though recently deemed legal, Yelp vehemently denies.

Nonetheless, in order to test the system – and pretty much to game it – Botto Bistro is begging for bad reviews. One-star reviews. The hope is that they'll be deemed “bad” enough to completely disappear from Yelp's ratings radar. Then they can go back to doing what they do best; cooking Italian food. Cerretini says, “We have nothing to lose. Worst case, we go back to Italy and cook for mama.”

And people are getting into the game. One “reviewer” wrote, "My food arrived before I wanted it to come. It was too hot to eat. It brought back all kinds of terrible memories of eating in Italy." Another opined, “I have been here at least 20 times and it is still terrible."

Heck, I just might write a Yelp “review” of Botto Bistro myself. Never mind that I live on the other coast and have never been near the place. I have a keyboard and an index finger. Apparently that's all that's required to be a Yelper.

Botto Bistro is fighting fire with fire. The restaurant's own Yelp profile proclaims, “Bad Tuscan food, bad customer service and horrible attitude." And this reverse psychology strategy by Cerrentini and Massimo is brilliant. There is a peanut vendor in Columbia, SC that has long used the motto “Guaranteed Worst In Town.” The story goes that a farmer, one Julian D. Cromer, started selling fresh roasted peanuts out of his produce stand at the local Farmers Market. Although he roasted them fresh every morning, a competitor would yell out to his customers, "Don't buy those! Mine are the best! Cromer's are no good." Like the clever Italian chefs in San Francisco, Cromer agreed and posted his own slogan, "Guaranteed Worst in Town." Curious customers soon flocked to his stand to try "the worst" roasted peanuts in town, and they're still flocking to Cromer's nearly eighty years later. In fact, Cromer's has a four-and-a-half star rating on Yelp.

Cerrentini says he's getting a lot of support for his one-star campaign and I truly hope it's phenomenally successful. He's even offering discounts to patrons who participate in the “Hate Us On Yelp” gimmick. The results are creative and hilarious. Go read them for yourself. The challenge is in sorting out the fake “reviews” from the “real” ones. There's no difference. Comments like, “I have been a loyal customer here for decades, but... Last month I moved to Albuquerque. I just called in an order earlier last week and the f**king food just arrived 10 minutes ago! Seriously? Why the hell does it take days to ship an order from Richmond to ABQ.” They are absolutely priceless! The fakes are just as stupid, insipid, and banal as the real Yelp “reviews.”

“Real People, Real Reviews.” Don't buy it. There's nothing “real” about Yelp. And it's about time somebody pointed out the flaws in the emperor's wardrobe. I'm just glad it's a couple of Italian guys doing it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Whaaaaaat? No Salt In Olive Garden's Pasta? That's Not Italian!

Restaurant Chain Sacrifices Flavor to Save Money on POTS!

I knew it, I knew it, I KNEW it! Time and again, when circumstances have led me to eat at Olive Garden, I have complained to the waitstaff about the unseasoned blandness of the pasta. I've said it again and again, “It's like they're not putting enough salt in the water. Turns out I was right!

In a report released by Starboard Value, an investor in Olive Garden's parent company, Darden, it is stated that in order to get an extended warranty on its pots, Olive Garden no longer salts the pasta cooking water! Did you get that? In order to get an extended warranty on POTS, the brilliant minds behind the “modern taste of Italy” have opted to ruin the quality of their food. The report opines, "This appalling decision shows just how little regard management has for delivering a quality experience to guests."
Every single Italian cook I know – as well as all the married ones – will emphatically tell you that the first step, the very first and most essential step in cooking pasta is salting the water in which the pasta cooks. You cannot – underline cannotimpart flavor to pasta any other way. Salting the water allows pasta to be seasoned internally as it swells, releases starch, and absorbs water. Once the pasta has cooked, no amount of salting at the table will give it flavor. It'll just taste salty.

Most Italian cookbooks use words like “generous” when it comes to salting the water. Mario Batali advocates “aggressive” salting. Many cooks say the cooking water should taste “like the sea.” The rule of thumb is about one tablespoon of salt per quart of water. That would be four tablespoons, or about a quarter cup, per gallon. Some cooks go with a tablespoon per two quarts, or about two tablespoons per gallon. Personally, I split the difference and use three tablespoons per gallon. People who use a teaspoon or a pinch or no salt at all because it's “healthier” are just deluding themselves.

There are 28,319 mg of sodium in a quarter-cup of salt. When you dump it into four quarts of water and add dried pasta, the pasta only absorbs about three percent of the sodium. The rest goes down the drain. Assuming you're eating pasta like a normal person, i.e. a two-ounce serving, that's a little less than 300 mg of sodium out of your recommended 2,300 mg daily limit. Even less if you only use three tablespoons of salt, like I do. Eliminate the salt and you eliminate the flavor. Like Olive Garden does.

The rationale here is that salting water can cause pitting in stainless steel surfaces. There's a mile-long scientific explanation, but it boils down to – pardon the pun – the interaction between the chloride in sodium chloride (salt), oxygen in water, and chromium in stainless steel. And once the pot is pitted, it's pitted. Of course, you can avoid the problem by letting the water come to a full, rolling boil before adding the salt. But that would make too much sense. Better to 86 the salt – and the flavor – and preserve the pot. The crowned heads at Darden long ago figured out that nobody who eats at Olive Garden would know good Italian food if it bit them in the ass anyway, so they figure they've got nothing to lose by further desecrating their flavors in order to save a few shekels on cookware.

Other chain Italian places, like Maggiano's and Carrabba's, must get better deals on their pots, because they aren't afraid to add salt to their pasta cooking water. Which probably accounts for why both of them were rated higher than Olive Garden in recent national surveys. Of all the ludicrous excuses I've heard for pinching a few pennies, fundamentally changing the nature and quality of your primary product in order to get a better deal on pots has got to be the stupidest and most shortsighted one out there. Okay, Italians, say it with me: Uffa! Che schifo!

Come on, Olive Garden. Tell me again how you “aim to make every guest experience feel more like modern Italy.” If bland, flavorless, badly cooked pasta is an example of “modern Italy,” I'll take old Italy any day.

You know what might be fun? And I'm just a big enough jerk to do it? Next time you go to Olive Garden, bring your own pot and say, “Here. I don't want to ruin your pots, so cook my pasta in this. And use plenty of salt.” Wonder what they'd do. They'd probably cite health code restrictions, but it would be fun to try. And it might deliver a message to management about their “focus on flavor that is uniquely Italian.” It may be unique, alright, but it's definitely not Italian.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

No Use Crying Over Chopped Onions

Why We Do It and How to Stop It

I just read an article in which the author waxed rhapsodic over the virtues of onion goggles. In case you're not up to speed with the concept, these are actual goggles designed to fit tightly over your eyes when you chop an onion, the purpose being to keep you from tearing up. Apparently, they're all the rage and even come in cool designer colors.

My first reaction was, “Yikes! What a wimp!” Then I realized I was being unfair; just because I don't cry over chopped onions doesn't mean that it's not a problem for some people. I'm not sure it's such a problem that I'd shell out twenty bucks for funky looking eyewear, but, again, that's just me. So, why do some people get all weepy when chopping onions while some people don't? And what can those who do do about it, short of popping for a set of dedicated – and silly-looking – goggles?

Okay, we've all seen the cartoon chefs crying rivers of tears as they cut up onions, but does that actually happen in real life or is it just a corny comedic device? The answer is, it depends on your sensitivity to the chemical elements involved. Onions contain a complex combination of acids and enzymes within their cell structure. When you cut into an onion, you open up those cells and all hell breaks loose. Amino acid sulfoxides reform into sulfenic acids that combine with an enzyme called allinase to produce a volatile sulfur compound called Propanethiol S-oxide. The more you cut, the more cells you rupture and the more sulfur compound you release into the air. The gaseous compounds in the air interact with the moisture in your eyes to form a mild sulfuric acid that irritates your eyes and stimulates tear production to wash it away. Once the onions are cooked, the enzymes are deactivated, so no more tears. But in the meantime.....

On the good news front, Vidalia and other sweet varieties of onion have higher concentrations of sugar and water that serve to dilute the offending enzymes. Scientists have even developed a “no-tears” onion that is grown in low-sulfur soil. But if you're using plain old yellow onions and their sharp, tangy cousins, you're in for a crying jag if your eyes are particularly sensitive to the sulfuric gas. Mine aren't, but my wife's are, so guess who gets to chop onions in my kitchen?

You may ask, “Why are your eyes less sensitive than hers?” And I'll tell you: contact lenses. Contacts sit on the front surfaces of your eyes, in front of the cornea where most of the affected nerves are located. So in the first place, they form a sort of protective barrier. Also, because people who wear contacts are accustomed to having “foreign bodies” in their eyes, they naturally produce more tears to keep flushing away the stuff that builds up on the contacts. That's why lens wearers tend to blink more often. And that's why the mild sulfuric compound doesn't affect them as much; between the barrier effect and the tear production, the irritating gas never gets to the surface of the eye.

So, other than getting your contact-wearing spouse or friend to cut up your onions, what do you do? The very first defense against onion-induced tears is a very sharp knife. Slicing cleanly through the onion cells will produce fewer irritants than crushing them. I was helping a friend prepare a casserole the other day and the alleged knife she handed me to cut onions with mashed them more than it cut it them. I could tell by the smell that anybody else would have been standing in a puddle of tears. I don't carry my Victorinox chef's knife with me everywhere. Maybe I should.

Another slick cutting trick involves minimizing your exposure to the freshly-cut cells. When you make that first cut, turn the two halves of the onion cut side down against the board. And try to do that with subsequent cuts, too. It'll really help. So will removing the chopped onions from the vicinity. Don't try to cut them all into a heaping, reeking pile right under your eyes and nose. As you work, scrape the chopped pieces into a bowl and move it off to the side. You may not look as much like Julia Child, but you'll look a lot less like those cartoon chefs.

A simple trick if you want to keep your eyes dry is to start with chilled onions. Cold inhibits the evaporation rate of the irritating gas. Don't keep your onions in the refrigerator or you'll be very disappointed with the results. But it's okay to stick the ones you're preparing to cut in there for 15 or 20 minutes.

If you've got a vent hood over your stove, turn it on “high” and cut your onions near it. The vapors will get sucked up before they get to you. Even working under a ceiling fan will help.

Now, there are some tips and tricks circulating out there that make me go “hmmmmm.” I've never tried any of them, but I'll repeat them here for the sake of keeping good urban legends going. Feel free to give any or all of them a shot.

The most common advice of this type is to cut your onion under or near running water. I can see why “under” would work, but I'm not so sure about “near.” I'm also not sure I want to dilute the onion flavor by holding it under running water. And I'm definitely not sure about trying to control the cut pieces as they scatter through the standing water or get blasted by the running stream. Another watery tip says to have a kettle or pot of boiling water near your cutting area. The steam supposedly helps dissipate the vapors.

Some people swear by breathing through the mouth while cutting onions. Theoretically, the gas sticks to your wet tongue and bypasses your olfactory nerves. I think this theory is all wet because it's the nerves in your eyes that get irritated, not the ones in your nose. Admittedly, the two are somewhat interconnected and sucking up onion fumes through your nose is not especially pleasant, but that's not where the tears come from. However, if you want to be a mouth-breather, you have my blessing.

You might also like the tip that involves lighting a candle near where you're cutting the onion. The theory is that the flame will burn off the fumes before they get to you. I don't buy it, but if you pick a nice scented candle, at least your kitchen won't smell like onions. And if you're Catholic, lighting a candle never hurts, anyway.

Another weird wives tale says to leave the root intact because the root is where all the bad stuff is. Wrong. The entire onion is made up of “bad stuff.” Yeah, there might be more of a concentration of it near the root, but it's still in other parts of the onion, too. There is a legitimate point to leaving the root intact: it makes the onion easier to cut and chop.

Chewing gum or sticking a piece of bread in your mouth while chopping away are a couple of methods I've seen recommended but for the life of me, can't figure out why.

Finally, there's those goofy goggles. Yes, they really work. No, I'm not going to pay twenty bucks for them. I don't care about the designer colors. A cheap pair of swimming or safety goggles will work just as well. But remember to take them off before you leave the kitchen. Otherwise, you'll amuse the adults and frighten the children and small animals.

Of course, if you really want to be on the safe side, you could cut up cold onions under running water with a fan going and a candle burning next to a steaming teakettle while wearing goggles and breathing through your open mouth into which you have inserted a piece of bread. Oh, and did I mention whistling? Some people say whistling helps. And you might do it while standing on one foot. That has nothing to do with onions, but it would increase ticket sales.

Now that's entertainment!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Is Low-Sodium Bacon Worth Its Salt?

Why Bother?

I don't know why, but I seem to be on a bacon roll lately. I promise I'll change the subject soon, but let me tell you about this first; I had my first encounter with low-sodium bacon the other day. And it went about the way I expected it would.

I cook breakfast almost everywhere I go. It's about the only non-Italian cooking I do. Breakfast, or prima colazione, is not a big thing in Italy. Coffee and pastry, usually consumed standing up. Not me. Give me a big, full, decadent breakfast. I've been cooking such meals for about fifty years. I've cooked breakfast for two and I've cooked breakfast for two hundred. I've prepared it in state of the art home and professional kitchens and I've fixed it over open campfires. And the star of the show is always bacon.

I'm particular about my bacon. When I have a choice, I use Benton's bacon. When I don't, I get good quality bacon from my local meat market. My third choice is locally sourced bacon from places like Whole Foods or Fresh Market. If I have to buy bacon from a supermarket, I get the premium brands. Believe me, the few pennies you save buying cheap, second rate bacon are not worth the trade off in flavor and quality. And it's terribly uneconomical in the long run. The cheap stuff, being mostly fat and water, cooks away to nothing. You might save a nickel at the cash register, but you'll lose a dollar in the pan.

Anyway, I was visiting in New England and I was asked to cook Sunday morning breakfast. In my own kitchen, I use fresh eggs from a nearby farm, locally sourced potatoes that I hand select, fresh-baked bread or biscuits, whole milk and fresh butter from a local dairy. And, of course, my butcher's bacon. On the road, I sometimes have to deal with what's on hand, and in this case, that included supermarket eggs, generic bagged potatoes, 1% milk and low-sodium bacon. I knew I could work with the eggs and the spuds, but I balked at the idea of using water masquerading as milk. I sent out for the real thing. But I decided to give the low-sodium bacon a try.

The first thing I noticed was that the bacon was sliced so paper thin I could practically read the label through it. I'm accustomed to bacon that weighs in at sixteen to twenty slices per pound. With this stuff, I peeled off fourteen slices and still had nearly half of a twelve-ounce package left. Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty or more slices per pound. The slices from my butcher start out just shy of eleven inches long and cook down to a length of about eight inches. The low-sodium product I was using shrank from ten inches to about four. The flavor was pleasant enough, but there just wasn't much of it.

I know a lot of people fall victim to the words “low,” “reduced,” and “free.” They think these products are somehow healthier and better for them. They're really not, because anything labeled “low,” “reduced,” or “free” has been processed to make it that way. Processed beyond the already high level to which most regular food is processed. As a result, it's generally more expensive, and usually the overall dietary benefits just aren't that great.

For example, a thin, skinny little strip of low sodium bacon contains 100 milligrams of sodium. A similarly thin slice of regular bacon contains about 120 milligrams. The 16/20 bacon I prefer has about 180 milligrams of sodium per slice. Now, allowing that the current recommended daily sodium intake is no more than 2,300 milligrams for healthy adults and 1,500 milligrams or less for people with high blood pressure, how much difference are you really making using “low-sodium” bacon? About 60 milligrams for a three-slice serving. Or 240 milligrams if you're using a decent quality bacon. And, as with most “healthy” products, you're paying through the nose for all that extra “health.” By the time it cooked up, the low-sodium bacon yielded less than half the weight and volume of the same number of slices of regular bacon. And it cost more.

Logic, folks, logic. If you want to reduce your intake of sodium from bacon, don't waste your money on low-sodium bacon. Buy regular bacon.....and just eat less of it. It would take four slices of the low-sodium bacon I cooked the other day to provide as much meat as two slices of my good quality, medium-sliced regular bacon. That's 400 milligrams of sodium for the “low-sodium” versus 360 milligrams for the regular. Where's all the “health?”

The only way to derive any health benefit from low-sodium bacon – or “low” anything else, for that matter – is to consume unreasonably large quantities of it. If you want less sodium from bacon, eat less bacon. As much as I love, love, love my bacon, I only cook it as the major part of a meal once a week. And I might cook up a slice or two now and then to add to a sandwich or to crumble over a baked potato. My average weekly bacon consumption amounts to maybe five strips. That's 900 milligrams of sodium from bacon per week. And if my doctor ever feels that that's going to kill me, I'll knock off the sandwich and the potato and reduce my intake by almost half. And it'll be good, hearty, meaty, flavorful, satisfying, honest-to-Porky bacon, and not some weak, shrunken, shriveled, processed approximation thereof, reduced in size to a form measuring the length and breadth of my index finger.

I'm ready for the criticism I'm going to receive at the hands of nutritionists and dieticians who constantly flog “low,” “reduced,” or “free” as the answer to all dietary issues. These are the same folks who spent decades telling us that eggs were going to kill us before improved science forced them to backtrack and say, “Ooops! Never mind.” I'm not a dietician or a nutritionist. I didn't even play one on TV. But I do have a functioning brain that allows me to sort out the sensible from the stupid. And if you're concerned about sodium and salt, doesn't it make more sense to eat less food that is more salty than it does to eat more food that is less salty? If you want to blow your dough on “healthy” food that is overprocessed and overpriced, good on you. I'll stick with eating real food, thank you. I'll just eat less of it.

Low-sodium bacon? Nah! Not really worth its salt.