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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!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

All About Ham

Hamming It Up!

My wife and I were attending some fancy function or other. The guy acting as master of ceremonies onstage was a fellow broadcasting “celebrity.” Having been around the local area practically since the days of Marconi, he was what you call “beloved.” And, boy, was he ever laying it on. Not at all out of character for this fellow, but a bit inappropriate for the occasion. The event was not intended to be a “star” vehicle for his inflated ego. He had a script he was supposed to follow, but his incessant jokes and ad libs were beginning to cause some timing issues. Yet still he persisted in trying to be the center of focus, as he had been doing since dirt was invented. I leaned over to my wife and said, “Even I am not that big a ham.” To which she sweetly replied, “Oh, yes you are, honey. He's just had longer to cure.” Hmmmmm.

So maybe it's a touch cannibalistic of me to say that, next to bacon, ham is my favorite meat. Bacon was the first meat I learned to love as a child and ham was next. I like country ham and I like city ham. I like it maple glazed, honey baked, or hardwood smoked. Wet cured or dry, cut from the butt end or the shank, produced in Parma, Italy or in good ol' Smithfield, Virginia, I'll take it any way I can get it. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I've never met a ham I didn't like. Well.....almost. We'll get to that part later.

First, let's figure out what a “ham” is......other than the reference above. By the way, it may interest you to know that the word “ham” as applied to one who outrageously overacts is thought to derive from the old minstrel show days when performers used ham fat to remove their heavy black makeup. Beyond that, a ham is the preserved hind leg of a pig. The word itself is derived from an Old English term for the hollow or bend of the knee, which, in turn, came from a Germanic word for “crooked.”

People have been preserving pork legs for human consumption since at least Roman times. There is evidence that the Chinese were doing it long before that. And unless you are Jewish or Muslim, chances are your ethnic culture has its own unique way of preserving, or “curing,” ham. There are Wiltshire and York cured hams in England, Schwarzwälder Schinken or “Black Forest” hams in Germany, the prized jamón serrano from Spain, and, of course, the incomparable prosciutti produced in the Parma and San Daniele regions of Italy. Here in the United States, almost every state gets in a plug for its proprietary hams, whether it be Georgia or Kentucky, Vermont, Tennessee, or North Carolina. Then there's the largely undisputed king of hams from Virginia, specifically around the town of Smithfield, where evidence of eponymous ham production dates back to Colonial days.

Regardless of where it's produced, though, there are just a few basic procedures involved in curing ham: salting, smoking, drying, aging, and spicing. Many of these procedures overlap and most producers use varying combinations to achieve their unique cures. There's also unprocessed, uncured ham, referred to as “fresh” ham, but it's kind of hard to find in supermarkets. Although fresh ham is undeniably delicious, most people gravitate toward the traditional cured varieties.

Salting meat has been going on for millennia. It's the method the aforementioned ancient Chinese supposedly perfected. Today's salting process is fairly simple; you clean the raw meat, chill it to about forty degrees Fahrenheit, and then cover it in salt. Salt is a natural antibacterial agent that kills harmful microbes by osmosis. There's a long scientific explanation of the process with which I could bore you, but basically, the salt draws life-giving moisture out of the bacteria, causing them to dry up and die. These days, however, further molecular chemistry often plays a part in the salting process. Sometimes salted hams are “sugar-cured” with – guess what – sugar, which mellows out the sharpness of the salt. Most cured hams contain sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite is the natural enemy of Clostridium botulinum, the nasty bug that causes what is commonly called “botulism.” But nitrites also contribute to the flavor of the meat and, by their interaction with myoglobin, cause it to turn that nice pink color we usually associate with ham. Nitrites have been part of the curing process for many, many, many years, but there's been a lot of talk lately about their potential carcinogenic properties. Under most normal conditions, ingested nitrites transform into nitric acid, which is generally okay. Sometimes, however, they can form nitrosamines, which are not okay. There is conflicting science on the topic. As is usually the case, you would have to consume massive quantities of the stuff in order to be adversely affected, but the FDA comes down on the side of caution and limits the amount of residual nitrites present in cured meats. I could go on and on about the enzymatic actions and proteolysis and the effects on protein and amino acids and all that scientific stuff involved in salt curing but I would get as lost writing it as you would reading it, so suffice it to say that dry curing with salt works and has done so for a long, long time. Salt curing alone, however, does not cook a ham. Most of them are also smoked.

Bugs don't like smoke. Smoke keeps big bugs like gnats and mosquitoes away from your picnic and in the curing process it kills itty-bitty bugs like bacteria through a combination of physical and chemical actions that just make them turn up their little toes. Besides its antibacterial properties, wood smoke imparts wonderful flavors to meats. If you really want to know, the flavors are the result of lignin polymers in the wood producing a naturally occurring organic compound called guaiacol and its derivatives as a result of thermal breakdown. (I knew you'd want to know.) Hickory smoke is very common, although it is also very strong and can leave an almost astringent taste. Apple wood produces a milder smoke which imparts a nice sweet flavor to bacon and ham. Cherry wood smoke produces a fruity flavor similar to apple, but it is not as commonly used. Maple wood also produces a sweet, mild flavor. Alder, oak, pecan, and mesquite are frequently used to smoke other meats, but are not usually applied to ham.

Of course, you can't have smoke without heat. Well......there's so-called “liquid smoke,” but that's another discussion entirely. The heat produced by the smoking process subjects the ham to long, low-temperature cooking. Commercially smoked hams usually reach an internal temperature of about 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That's why most smoked, cured hams in grocery stores are labeled either “partially cooked,” “fully cooked,” or “ready to eat.” That means you can just pop a slice in your mouth and chow down. You can't do that with fresh hams, but you can with most cured hams. They don't really require any further cooking. And that's why it's so easy to dry out one of those holiday hams. Because they're already cooked, there's a fine line between warming the meat while retaining its moisture and drying it out and turning it to shoe leather. What you do with that holiday ham at Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas is pretty much just a matter of warming it to about 130 degrees. Unless it's a “fresh” ham, you could just slap it on the table cold and carve it up. You could. Just don't invite me to dinner.

Unsmoked hams are often air dried. After the meat is salted, it is sometimes pressed to extrude any remaining blood and impurities. Then it is washed and hung up to dry under strict temperature and humidity controlled conditions. And we're not talking about a couple of days. We're talking about somewhere between nine months and a year, during which time the meat thoroughly dehydrates and any moisture-starved bacteria hanging around thoroughly croaks. This is how they make prosciutto and Serrano hams. Such unsmoked hams are also considered to be raw and that's the way you eat 'em. You might warm prosciutto up a little bit, but you don't really “cook” it. And that's okay. It's perfectly safe. Any microscopic critters that might have been trying to establish a foothold a year ago have long since dried up and blown away. This drying method sort of dovetails with the aging method I mentioned as one of the basics.

Then there's spicing. Not a lot of American hams are spice cured, although seasonings like black and red pepper are commonly added. But many European hams are spiced, especially those produced in Italy. Ham products like culatello are cured with various blends of herbs and spices, sometimes including garlic, juniper, paprika, and even wine before being hung out to dry. The resulting flavors are phenomenal, even if the initial appearance is a little off-putting. See, hams hung up to dry age like this usually come away covered in a coating of mold that looks thoroughly unappetizing. But once you scrape and scrub it all off, the meat underneath is both safe to eat and really, really good.

One more form of curing that needs to be mentioned: wet curing. Most common grocery store hams are wet-cured and are generally referred to as city hams. Wet-cured hams are basically brined hams. They are soaked in a solution of salt, sugar and other flavorings for a period of anywhere from three days to two weeks. Sometimes they are smoked, sometimes not. A lot of people prefer wet-cured city hams to dry-cured country hams. They tend to be moister and have more of a porky flavor. Country hams are drier and taste more salty. One note about wet curing; some producers take short cuts and, rather than soaking their ham in brine, they mechanically inject a combination salt/sugar/smoke flavoring into the meat, resulting in a quick cure that only takes a few days. It's cheaper that way but not necessarily better. And wet curing also adds weight to the finished product, so you're paying extra for the water.

So far, we've been talking about whole hams. A whole ham can weigh in at about twenty pounds and it is just that – the whole ham from butt to shank. “Butt,” by the way, does not refer to the pig's nether region; it is the large blunt or “butt” end of the leg where it attaches to the body. Technically, I suppose, it is the pig's “butt,” but bear in mind that the pig's front shoulder joint is also called “pork butt.” The “shank” end is the narrower end that used to be attached to the pig's lower leg.

Half hams, the kind most people buy when they go shopping for the holiday or dinner table, are usually sold as either butt or shank portions. They generally weigh less than ten pounds and can easily feed twelve to fourteen people. The butt or upper end is a little meatier and fattier, and is, therefore, sometimes a bit more expensive. Because it usually contains part of the hip or “aitch” bone, it can be a little trickier to carve. The shank or lower portion is easier to carve, but the meat tends to be a little tougher.

A lot of folks go nuts over having to carve a ham. They seem to think you have to have served an internship as a surgeon or something in order to do it properly, so they go out and buy pre-sliced or spiral sliced hams. The spiral slicing technique was patented in 1952 by its inventor, Harry J. Hoenselaar, who went on to found the HoneyBaked Ham Company in 1957. Nothing wrong with buying pre-sliced ham, but you often pay dearly for the convenience. Spiral-sliced hams are also really easy to dry out, so be careful when you heat them up.

Hams are sold bone-in or boneless. By and large, bone-in hams are more flavorful, but boneless are easier to carve and serve. The biggest difference is textural. Bone-in hams have better, more natural texture than boneless. This is because when the bone is removed, the ham has to be reshaped in a vacuum tumbler. Otherwise it falls apart when you try to carve it. This process often imparts an odd, spongy texture. It's not all that bad, but there is a noticeable difference.

You can buy ham slices or ham “steaks” all neatly wrapped in plastic in your grocer's meat case. These are generally cut from the shank end of the ham and contain a small circle of bone in the center. It's a good alternative if a big ol' hunk of ham is just too much. At least it is actually recognizable as a portion of ham from some part of a pig.

Not so much with so-called “deli” ham or “canned” ham. Come on. Be honest. Have you ever seen any kind of pig with any parts that are shaped like that? And when it comes to canned ham, packaged sliced ham, and even the ham products in the deli case, “parts” is the operative word. Well.....one of the operative words. The other one is “pressed.”

Canned ham and “sandwich” ham are produced by taking ham parts and scraps – sometimes even bone scraps – and pressing them into a solid mass. Even though the parts have been smoked and cured, by the time they come together in those nifty little loaf shapes, they have had enough water added that they are very subject to spoilage. That's why they're in the refrigerated section and that's why you need to keep them refrigerated at home. In addition to water, many of them also contain enough chemicals to preserve an Egyptian mummy. The stuff they slice “fresh” in the deli is not so preservative laden. That's why it is recommended that you use “deli” ham within a few days of purchase.

Now, I'm not going to try to convince you that I never use packaged or sliced ham. I do. There's some in the refrigerator right now. And you and I both know the ham they serve up in sandwiches at delis and fast-food places does not come fresh from the hind quarter of a pig they've got hanging up in the cooler. It's processed and there's not much you can do about it. Except to try to choose the best quality, most minimally processed processed ham you can find. I'd avoid the stuff in the one pound bags that sells for less than a dollar, if I were you. Spend the money. And read the labels. Here's what's in the packaged ham in my refrigerator: ham, water, salt, turbinado sugar, celery juice powder, and lactic acid starter culture. The celery juice is added as a source of nitrate. The lactic acid starter is a preservative that acts as a flavor enhancer. I also checked on a cheap national brand found in most stores. It contains: ham, water, salt, dextrose, sodium lactate, sodium phosphate, sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrite. Would you like a little extra salt with that?

And as far as canned hams go, they make great doorstops. Back in my younger, far less educated days, I used to buy these neat little canned ham patties. They were convenient and they sort of tasted like ham. Then one day, I got one that was so loaded with fat, gristle, and bone fragments that I wouldn't even feed the rest of it to my dog. If you'll pardon the pun, I was “cured” of buying that particular canned ham product. As far as regular canned ham goes, anything that comes packaged in its own aspic and is “shelf stable” for two or three years......well........enough said. In researching this article, I came across a review of a canned ham product in which the reviewer said, “Food snobs may be appalled at the very idea of canned ham, but I just enjoy the convenience, the consistent quality and the ease of preparation.” Okay, so I'm a food snob. But when I go to my grave, it won't be with innards that are already preserved, thank you.

Of course, no treatise on ham would be complete without a mention of the granddaddy of all preserved ham products, one which has had songs written about it and that is a cultural staple in Hawaii. I'm talking about Spam! There. I mentioned it.

One last word about buying ham: water. All but the highest grade of ham has water added. Those high grade hams can be easily identified by the label, which just says “ham.” Next, you're likely to see “ham in natural juices.” Okay. Water is a “natural juice,” you know, and that's what you're getting. Sometimes as much as ten percent added weight. The next grade down is labeled “ham, water added.” At least they're up front about it. What they may not be up front about is the amount of water they've added. Read the fine print. Finally, there's “ham and water product.” Run away. These products can actually contain more than fifty percent water, meaning they are made up of more water than meat. Nah.

I haven't gone into cooking methods and techniques because there are a ton of them and this article is already bordering on too long. Maybe I'll do another on cooking ham someday. But for now, I hope you're at least a little better informed about that delectable portion of porcine perfection, ham. You know, that word really should be spelled with more “m”s. “Ham-m-m-m-m.” Yeah, that's better.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What's a Ricer? (And Why Do I Need One?)

Indispensable For Perfect Mashed Potatoes

Holiday time is mashed potato time. And when it comes to mashed potatoes, every day is a holiday. But so often, homemade mashed potatoes are nothing to celebrate. Lumpy, gluey, heavy mashed
potatoes turn up all too often on family tables and it's usually because of either faulty technique or improper equipment. Or both. I'm not going to delve too deeply into recipes or technique here. That's a discussion for another time and place. But I will address the topic of proper equipment.

“Okay,” you ask, “so what do I need for equipment? I have a potato masher. What else is there?” Actually, if you want perfect, light, fluffy mashed potatoes, a traditional potato masher like the kind your mother, grandmother, and probably your great-grandmother employed to mangle spuds into submission is the last thing you need. And before you ask, that electric hand mixer that makes lovely glue but lousy mashed potatoes is the second-to-last thing you need. No, if you want to make 'em right, you really need a ricer.

What's a ricer? It's the thing over there on the right. “That looks like a big garlic press,” you say. You're right. It does. And the operating principal is similar. You take the food to be “riced” and put it in the hopper or bin portion. There's a plate attached to the upper handle mechanism and when you
squeeze the handles together, the food is forced through the perforated grate in the bottom of the hopper. The resulting particles are about the size and shape of a grain of rice, hence the name.

“And why, Professore Perfetto, do I need one of these things to make 'perfect' mashed potatoes?” Well, in order for your potatoes to come out light and fluffy in the end, they have to start out that way in the beginning. When you “rice” your potatoes, they come out light and fluffy because the ricer a) helps force out excess moisture, b) produces a consistent texture, and c) aerates the potato particles.

See, potatoes are made up of cells that contain natural starch grains (leucoplasts). These are refined starches with low gelatinization temperatures and high swelling abilities. When you crush the cells, the starch is released. The resulting substance is very sticky. So sticky, in fact, that it is often used in the manufacturing of wallpaper paste. And the variety of potato most popular for mashing is the Russet, a spud already noted for its very high starch content. Now, you take a potato that's high in starch and mash it to a starchy pulp and what do you get? Wallpaper paste. With butter or gravy.

When you run a boiled potato through a ricer, you're breaking the potato down into smaller pieces, but you're not mashing the cells within those pieces into glue. If you add your butter and milk to the riced potatoes and stir them gently together, you'll get lighter, fluffier mashed potatoes. If, on the other hand, you take chunks of boiled potato and mush them up with a blunt instrument or subject them to beaters whirling at 1,200 RPM, you're destroying the cells that contain the starches and allowing those starches to be released in their stickiest, most gluey form. Oh, you still get mashed potatoes out of the deal, but with a texture more suited to spackling drywall than to serving as a side dish. It's a matter of personal preference, I suppose. Some people like their potatoes whipped to within an inch of their lives. They use words like “smooth” and “creamy.” I use words like “overworked” and “gooey.”

Ricers come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are sold at a variety of price points. They all work on the same principle, but some have holes in the bottom, some have holes in the bottom and up the sides, and some have interchangeable disks that allow you to choose the size of the holes. Some have ridiculously small hoppers that will have you ricing the dinner potatoes at breakfast so you can get a good start on them and some have hoppers that would rice a five-pound bag of potatoes in one squeeze – if you had the hand strength to operate it. I've seen them priced as low as six or seven dollars and I've seen them sell for as much as forty or fifty. Some are really basic and will do one job – ricing potatoes – well. Others have features that allow them to be very versatile and take on everything from applesauce to egg salad.

A food mill will perform the same functions as a ricer. Food mills usually have interchangeable disks and larger capacities so you can process more food more quickly. I have one and I use it if I'm feeding a small army. But if I'm just making mashed potatoes for two or four or six people, my ricer is handier and has fewer moving parts. And it's easier to clean.

Now, if you're one of those folks who makes “mashed potatoes” by pouring water into a bowl of dehydrated potato flakes, you obviously don't need a ricer. But if you want to quickly and efficiently turn out consistently good mashed potatoes from scratch each and every time, you really should invest in a ricer.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Induction Cooking On The NuWave PIC (Precision Induction Cooktop)

Despite the Hype, It's a Good Investment

Regardless of what my long-suffering wife would have you believe, I am not an obsessive gadget guru. Yes, my kitchen is jammed and crammed to the point that she insists I throw something out before I buy something else. That being said, however, and in my own defense, I do not own a collection of useless junk and trinkets. For instance, I don't have a lot of unitaskers in my kitchen; no
specialty gadgets designed to do one thing. And I don't spend unreasonable amounts of money on the latest fads and trends. I don't have an antigriddle or an immersion circulator – yet. Everything I have serves a functional purpose. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

A few years ago, a friend who was an investor in a local restaurant asked me what I knew about induction burners. Seems his chef was all agog about them and was pushing to have them installed in the kitchen. I admitted to knowing two things about induction burners: the science behind the concept and the fact that the things were outrageously expensive.

So, what is induction cooking? It's really fairly simple. Your traditional cooktops, whether gas or electric, heat food via a process known as thermal conduction. This occurs when heat energy moves between two solids that are touching. Set a pan on a stove. The gas burner or electric element generates heat. The generated heat is conducted through the bottom of the pan and into the food contained within. But it's not just the bottom of the pan that's affected. Eventually, conduction spreads the energy into the sides of the pan and into the handle and into the surrounding air. The food gets different amounts of heat from different parts of the pan and everything involved heats up. There's a lot of heat waste in traditional thermal cooking methods.

In fact, cooking on an electric stove is possible only because of wasted heat. The reason electric burners work at all is because they are inefficient conductors of electricity. Electric “eyes” on stovetops are resistors, designed to interrupt the smooth conduction of electricity. The resultant waste from this process is heat. So, basically, when you cook with electricity, you're cooking with wasted energy. And I assume I don't have to explain the science behind cooking over a gas flame, right?

Induction cooking is a different animal, employing electromagnetic induction as opposed to thermal conduction to heat food. The pan itself becomes the heat source. It all starts with coils of copper wire located just below the cooktop's element. The coils are fed a supply of alternating electric current. Electromagnetic induction occurs when a circuit with an alternating current flowing through it generates current in another circuit simply by being placed nearby. Conduction happens when the electricity is flowing because something is directly touching it. Induction occurs when the current is flowing, but there is nothing in physical contact with it. In really scientific terms, conduction is the result of the transfer of electrons between the conductor and the charged body, whereas in the case of induction, no such transfer takes place. Only the realignment of electrons in the induced body. Got that? Not really, huh? Okay, let's boil it down (sorry, I couldn't resist): induction cooking uses an electromagnet to produce heat by exciting iron molecules in a pan, thus cooking its contents. The energy is supplied directly to the pan, whereas with “conventional” methods, the energy is converted to heat first, then transferred to the pan. The induction process produces more precisely controlled heat with virtually no waste. It is much more efficient than traditional conduction cooking.

As I mentioned, a walk through a showroom of commercial induction cooktops will leave you and your wallet weak-kneed and gasping. But, as is usually the case with expensive emerging technology, somebody came up with an affordable alternative. In this instance, it's the NuWave PIC. (PIC stands for Precision Induction Cooktop.)

I got mine as a gift. I had seen the infomercials and thought, “Uh-huh. Right.” If you swallow the advertising hype, you'll believe that the thing will replace every heat source in your house, eliminate your electric bill, and cook your dinner completely on its own in sixty seconds or less, all while whistling “Dixie.” You'll go from being an incompetent boob who burns water to being a master chef the first time you turn it on.

That's the hype. So, let's look at the reality: for what it is and what it's intended to do, the NuWave PIC is freakin' awesome! I'm crazy about mine and am planning on getting another one – or two. I do some professional cooking and I can see multiple uses for this great tool. And it's pretty handy to have around the home kitchen, too.

Before I go on singing all the praises, allow me to address the pachyderm in the procession: remember I said that induction cooking is based on magnetism? Well......you're probably gonna need some new cookware. In order for an induction cooktop to do its thing, the pots and pans have to be made of a ferromagnetic material. In other words, kiss all your copper and aluminum cookware goodbye. And some stainless steel may not work either. If a magnet won't stick to it, it won't work on an induction surface. That said, most good quality cookware these days will have a magnetic component in the base. Anything made of cast iron is a gimme. But you need to check anything else for compatibility. It'll either say something about being induction compatible on the labeling or there will be a symbol that looks kind of like a row of lower-case cursive “l”s stamped into the metal on the bottom. Or you can just swipe a magnet from your refrigerator and bring it along to the store for testing purposes.

The NuWave PIC sometimes comes with a piece or two of induction compatible cookware, depending on where you buy it and what promotional deal is being offered. Mine came with a 9” fry pan. Fortunately, my overstocked kitchen is replete with appropriate cooking vessels and I didn't have to go out and buy a lot of new stuff. My wife was happy about that.

One of the cool things about this device is its coolness. If you've ever lugged out one of those portable gas burners or an old-fashioned electric hot plate, you know that “hot” is the operative word. When you heat them up, everything heats up and you have to be especially careful about having flammable objects nearby. Not so with the NuWave PIC. The only thing that gets hot is the pan. You can touch any part of the burner surface or assembly without worrying about getting burned. The only exception is the part of the surface that has actually been in contact with the cookware. That area will remain hot for a few minutes after you've removed the pan. Kind of like the eye on an electric burner. Unlike the old electric or gas burners, though, there's no danger of fire with an induction burner. You couldn't set something on fire with it if you tried. I've seen demonstrations where a dollar bill is placed on the cooking surface and then the pan is set on top of the bill. The pan heats up, the food cooks and the bill is unscathed. Another demo that is convincing is the one where they put water in a special pan that covers half the cooking element and put ice cubes on the other half. The water boils in the pan, but the ice right next to it doesn't melt. How's that for cool? And safe.

The NuWave is lightweight and portable. I can move it anywhere in the kitchen where there is an electrical outlet nearby. And it doesn't have to be chained to the kitchen. The NuWave saved my fanny when I was cooking at a relative's house and the breaker controlling the kitchen blew. It didn't just trip; it blew out and had to be replaced. So, while somebody was scrambling down to the hardware store for a new breaker, I set up my NuWave in another room and kept right on cooking.

Temperature is always guesswork with conventional burners. How high is “high” and how low is “low?” And what exactly is “medium?” The NuWave gives you precision temperature control. You want 350 degrees? Set it and you get 350 degrees. And it's programmable. You can set it to cook at a certain temperature for a certain period of time and then automatically raise or lower the temperature as desired. The temps range from 100 to 575 degrees. And it's great for simple timed cooking, too. Say you need your rice to simmer for fifteen minutes. Just set the appropriate temperature and put fifteen minutes on the timer. That's it. Perfect rice.

One of the more easily exaggerated claims involves cooking speed. If you believe the hype, your water will boil in seconds and your food will cook the minute it hits the pan. Not quite. But induction cooking is substantially faster. A couple of tablespoons of butter will go from solid to bubbling in a matter of seconds and, while water won't boil instantly before your wondering eyes, the NuWave will shave a couple of minutes off the process, depending on the size and weight of your cookware and the amount of water involved. Professional cooks who are accustomed to the heat produced by those big honkin' gas burners may not be as impressed by the difference, but the average home cook will be amazed. Just for fun, I dumped two cups of cold water in a pan and set the temperature on the unit to “high.” The water reached 100° in less than thirty seconds

As for cleanup, no sweat – literally. Except for the area directly covered by the pan, the rest of the surface stays cool as can be. You can rest your hand right next to the sizzling pan or boiling pot. This means that if something spatters or boils over, you can just grab a cloth and clean it up while you're still cooking. If you don't and the cooktop's a little messy when you finish, a wipe with warm soapy water or a spritz from a bottle of spray cleaner and you're done. Polish the tempered glass surface with a soft towel and it looks like new.

One more downside; you can't saute on the older model NuWave PIC. Well, you can sort of, but not in the way a professional cook does it. If you “saute” by moving the food around in the pan with a spoon or spatula, you're okay. But if you lift that pan a half an inch for a half a second to give the contents a shake or a flip.......the heat shuts down and an error message displays. But, on the good news side of the equation, the manufacturer figured that out and built the newer units with a ten-second delay feature. This feature is available on the Gold and Titanium models. Mine's an “old” model, so I guess I'll be upgrading soon.

As I said, I got my NuWave PIC2 as a gift. But I saw one just like it – complete with frying pan – for $100 at Walmart. They're always running specials on the TV infomercials or you can log on to the NuWave website at http://www.nuwavepic.com for all the spiels and deals. Just so you know, as of this writing, the Gold and Titanium models are only available direct from the manufacturer and the price is a bit higher. But not prohibitively so. And the top of the line Titanium unit not only features the ten-second delay, but also allows temperature regulation in five-degree increments rather than the ten-degree adjustments allowed by the other models. If you're serious about it, I'd get one of those. Otherwise, the lesser.....and cheaper......models are fine for most purposes.

Now, there are more expensive brands and models of induction cooktop on the market.......much more expensive. If you're a pro looking to outfit a pro kitchen, you may find what you're looking for in a more professional model. But if you're a home cook looking to catch the new wave of cooking technology, catch a NuWave PIC. In spite of the hype, it's a good investment.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Fork – Another Great Italian Contribution to Civilization

The French Would Still Be Eating With Their Fingers

Over the years, Italians have been responsible for a lot of societal upgrades. Scads of inventions and innovations have their origins in Italy. But who needs radio? What's so great about a battery? And the telephone? (Yes, an Italian developed a working telephone five years before the Scottish guy patented his.) Italians were also behind everything from the architectural arch to the Zamboni. However, there is one Italian innovation that stands above all others in terms of its impact on society and civilization: I'm talking about the fork.

Okay. Italians didn't actually invent the fork. It had been around in some form or another in other parts of the world for centuries. But Italians are credited for its spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The French would still be eating with their fingers if the Italians hadn't shown them how to use forks.

The word “fork” itself comes from the Latin “furca,” meaning “pitchfork.” In modern Italian, it's forchetta. In order to qualify as a fork, an implement must have two or more prongs. Otherwise it's just a stick.

Bronze Age civilizations used forks as cooking tools. So did ancient Egyptians. Somebody probably found a forked stick laying around and figured out that it would hold a hunk of meat over a fire better than a straight stick would. The Greeks adapted the fork for use as a serving utensil. But nobody commonly ate with forks until the Byzantines came up with the idea in the 3rd or 4th century. The Byzantine Empire, aka the Eastern Roman Empire, was the most powerful economic, military, and cultural force in Europe during its heyday from about the middle of the 4th century until late in the 13th. Philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, law, art, and literature all thrived under the Empire's influence during this period. Cuisine also advanced in Byzantine circles. A lot of modern Greek food – baklava, for example – can follow its roots back to Byzantine times. So can the tools used for eating said food; tools such as forks.

By the 10th century, a variation of the modern table fork was in use in Persia and throughout the Middle East. It is thought that Western Europeans were introduced to the utensil by the Byzantine wife of Emperor Otto II when she used one at an Imperial banquet in 972. Some sources credit the Byzantine spouse of a Venetian Doge a little bit later. Regardless, within a hundred or so years, the fork had taken over the Italian peninsula.

See, Marco Polo myth notwithstanding, pasta was already a staple of the Italian diet in those days. So it's no wonder the fork was an instant sensation. Try eating spaghetti by wrapping it around one chopstick. That's pretty much what the Italians were doing. Once they got hold of forks, all bets were off. They even improved on the design by adding a third appendage to the existing two, possibly taking a cue from the ancient trident.

That's not to say that everybody in Italy all of a sudden started eating with forks. The spoon had been around since folks figured out how to scoop food with a curved shell. But the knife was the all-around indispensable eating implement. People had been nibbling tasty morsels off the point of the device with which they stabbed and killed their food (or their neighbor) since the beginning of time. They even mashed up food and scraped it onto the blade for transport to the mouth. Even after forks started making the rounds, they remained mostly within the purview of the upper class. Indeed, they became status symbols, with wealthy Italians hauling them around to fancy banquets in an ornate box called a cadena.

Not everybody was on board with the fork at first. The Catholic Church took offense (surprise, surprise), censuring the use of forks by decreeing that they were an affront to God's intentions for fingers. (Why the hat wasn't an affront to God's intentions for hair, I don't know.) When the fork wielding Venetian lady alluded to in an earlier paragraph died of a plague a few years after her scandalous banquet performance, St. Peter Damian proclaimed that her death was God's punishment for her use of a fork. “Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. . . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge. For He raised over her the sword of His divine justice, so that her whole body did putrefy and all her limbs began to wither.” Eventually, common sense prevailed and by the 16th century, not only the Italians, but the Spanish and the Portuguese were all chowing down with forks. The French and the English, however, were a little slow.

It took that great Renaissance trendsetter, Caterina de' Medici, to bring a touch of civilization to the uncultured wilderness of France. When she married the French king, Henry II, in 1533, she brought an entourage of Florentine cooks with her to the French court, probably so she could eat a decent meal from time to time. She also brought a set of dinner forks, supposedly crafted by noted Italian silversmith Benvenuto Cellini. Always at the forefront of fashion, the French rejected the fork, calling it an “Italian affectation” and considering it awkward and even dangerous. It took them more than a hundred years to figure out how to use it properly. Even the “Sun King,” Louis XIV, for all his grandiose vanity, was known to eat with his fingers or a knife. By the way, it was Louis who was more or less responsible for our current dinner knives. In 1669, he banned pointy knives at his table in an effort to reduce violence. But I digress.

When it came to forks, the English turned out to be bigger Luddites than the French. One Thomas Coryate brought the fork to England after completing the “Grand Tour” of Europe in 1608. Of the mysterious eating utensil he wrote, “I observed a custome in all those Italian Cities and Townes through which I passed that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither doe I think that any other nation of Christendome doth use it, but only Italy. The Italian, and also most strangers that are cormorant in Italy, does alwaies at their meales, use a little fork when they cut the meate . . . their forkes being for the most part made of iron or steel, and some of silver, but these are used only by gentlemen. The reason of this their curiosity is because the Italian cannot endure by any means to have his dish touched by fingers, seeing that all men's fingers are not alike cleane. Hereupon I myself thought to imitate the Italian fashion by this forke cutting of meate, not only while I was in Italy, but also in Germany, and often-times in England since I came home." His friends did not share his enthusiasm or his avant-garde approach to dining. They dubbed him “Furcifer” – “Fork Bearer” – and the rest of the English gentry ridiculed the device as being effeminate and unnecessary.

Eventually, the aristocracy got with the program and embraced the fork. England's Charles I – while he still had his head – declared in 1633 that, “It is decent to use a fork.” Of course, it took about a hundred years for the fashion to trickle down to the common man. And even though forks crossed the Atlantic, they were still a rarity in the North American colonies at the time of the American Revolution.

Inasmuch as the Italians were responsible for the introduction of the fork, it took the Germans to redesign it to its current popular form. Like Italians, Germans had a real bug about eating with the fingers. They considered the practice to be rude and disrespectful. But as originally conceived, the fork was flat. That made it really tough to eat things like peas and grains. And with only two or three prongs, food often fell through the spaces. So German craftsmen tinkered with a slightly curved fork as early as the mid-18th century and by the early 19th had added a fourth prong, nowadays officially called a “tine.” (Taken from an old Germanic word for “point.”)

Of course, that didn't mean that people were any more conversant with how to use the newfangled things. An early Maine diner complained, “Eating peas with a fork is as bad as trying to eat soup with a knitting needle.” A wealthy Fleet Street silversmith, faced with an impeccably set table in a customer's home, lamented in 1824, “I know how to sell these articles, but not how to use them.” This is a refrain that still echoes at today's more elegant affairs. Do you use the salad fork, the meat fork, the oyster fork, the dinner fork, the dessert fork, the pickle fork, the fish fork, the crab fork, the fondue fork, the cocktail fork, the cheese fork, the berry fork, the asparagus fork, the olive fork, the pastry fork.......or do you just chuck it all and use the spork?

A portmanteau of “spoon” and “fork,” today's ubiquitous plastic “spork” was patented in 1970. But the design goes back a long way. Earlier patents for metal utensils were filed as far back as 1874 and the English had something similar in the “sucket fork,” an implement with a two-or three-pronged fork on one end and a spoon bowl on the other, as far back as the 16th century.

So the next time you stick your fork into a mound of mashed potatoes, a pile of pasta, or a juicy piece of meat, pause and think, sia ringraziato agli italiani. (“Thanks be to the Italians.”) Without them you'd be sitting in a house with no battery-powered radio and no way to call anybody while you ate your meat and potatoes with your fingers and a knife. Not a pretty picture.