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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, December 21, 2015

For a Great Italian Christmas Dinner, It's Lasagne alla Bolognese

Forget the Ham and Turkey. Go Italian!

If you're like me, you probably cook and consume a lot of turkey and ham over the course of the holiday season. Most years I prepare several of each, depending on how many friends, relatives, and others tap us to cook. So by Christmas Day, I'm often ready to forget the ham and turkey and go Italian.

Now, I'm not talking about Christmas Eve and the “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” or “La Vigilia” as it's called in Italian. For that occasion, Italian-Americans load up on fish and seafood – at least seven courses of it, although some families do ten or twelve or more. Our family is not that much into fish. My sister once celebrated Christmas Eve with an Italian-American branch of the family and didn't know what to do with all that seafood. Besides, the whole “Seven Fishes” thing is an Italian-American tradition with loose Southern Italian roots. We are Italian-Canadian and our family roots are in the north, so...... Anyway, I'm talking about the menu for Natale, or Christmas Day.

Just as there is really no such thing as “Italian cuisine,” there really isn't a “traditional” Italian Christmas Day menu. That's because different regions have different traditions and you can either go straight regional in your choices or you can hop around all over Italy, picking and choosing your favorites. That said, one of my favorites at Christmas is lasagne.

I usually start my Italian Christmas dinner with an antipasto of some kind: crostini, bruschetta, some variety of salumi, etc. A nice red, white, and green Caprese salad looks appropriately festive on the Christmas table. If I'm really going all out, I'll serve the lasagne as a primo course and follow it with a secondo of some sort of meat dish, then top it off with a dolce, or dessert. But most of the time, the lasagne serves as the main course. And since I know almost nothing of moderation, I usually prepare more than one kind of lasagne. For non-meat-eaters I'll make either a four cheese lasagne or a vegetable lasagne that I picked up while assisting with cooking demos for one of those big national food magazines. But the star of the show is a traditional Northern Italian Lasagne alla Bolognese.

A few things before we begin: first, the most traditional form of this dish is actually Lasagne Verdi alla Bolognese. However, a lot of people aren't so much into adding boiled spinach to pasta dough to make it green, so I usually leave the “verdi” part out. Second, you don't have to go all purist and make the pasta for the lasagne from scratch. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. If you choose not to, there's nothing wrong with packaged dry pasta. But at least do yourself the favor of using a quality dried pasta like De Cecco or Barilla. And third, we are still talking about a Bolognese sauce here, not just the common American “meat sauce.” There's a big difference that you'll see as we develop the recipe. (BTW, I am all purist when it comes to pronunciation: “Bolognese” does not rhyme with “mayonnaise.” It's “boh-loh-NYAY-seh.” Even “boh-loh-NAY-suh” is close enough. But anything resembling “BOHL-uh-naze” is just wrong.)

Lasagne – any lasagne – is not all that complicated. It's mostly about the assembly. In this case, the dish is a little ingredient heavy. In addition to preparing the pasta, you're going to have to make two sauces; a besciamella, or béchamel if you want to be all French about it, and the Bolognese. But bear with me; it will be worth the extra effort.

I'm going to start with the assumption that you're not going to make fresh pasta. That's okay. Here's what you'll need:

1 (1 lb) box of lasagne noodles

For the besciamella:

3 ½ tbsp flour
3 ½ tbsp butter
2 cups milk
salt and pepper, to taste
freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

For the Bolognese:

1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
2 or 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 oz coarsely ground beef
4 oz coarsely ground pork
3 oz pancetta, finely chopped
½ cup dry red wine
2 ½ oz tomato paste
8 oz tomato sauce (optional)
1 cup milk
salt and pepper to taste
1 to 1 1/2 cups reserved pasta cooking water

For the final assembly:

olive oil, for greasing the pan
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tbsp butter

And here's what you do:

Start by cooking the pasta according to package directions. You can hold the cooked pasta on the side while you prepare everything else. And this is the only time it is okay to add a little olive oil to the cooked pasta to keep it from sticking together. Or you can prepare the sauces first and the pasta last. Whatever is easier for you.

For the Bolognese: In a large skillet or saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat and add all the finely minced vegetables. Cook until very soft, about 15 or 20 minutes. Don't allow them to brown; you can add in a tablespoon of the reserved pasta cooking water from time to time to prevent that.

Add the chopped pancetta and cook until soft. When the pancetta is very soft, add the ground pork and the ground beef to the pan. Cook over medium heat to render the fat and evaporate the water but avoid over browning the meat. You don't want it crumbling.

Pour in the wine and cook to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Then add the milk. Add in the tomato paste to give just a little color to the sauce. Real Bolognese is never, ever a "red sauce." That said, you can add a little tomato sauce to the mixture if you want it a little more "saucy." Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

Transfer the sauce from the skillet to a deep, heavy bottomed pot. Pour in about a half a cup of pasta water and allow the sauce to simmer for about 2 hours, stirring regularly. You can skim the fat from the sauce as it cooks or, if you are making it ahead, wait until it cools and remove the fat after it solidifies.

For the besciamella: Begin by warming the milk over low heat. It should be hot but not boiling.

In a separate 2-qt. saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the flour and cook, whisking constantly for 2 to 3 minutes. Do not let the mixture brown. Slowly whisk in the hot milk and bring it just to a simmer, whisking frequently. Reduce the heat to low and cook, whisking often, until the sauce has thickened to a creamy, gravy-like consistency, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the salt, pepper, and nutmeg, if using.

If you're not using the besciamella right away, transfer it to a bowl and press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the sauce to keep a skin from forming. Plan to use the sauce within 30 minutes because it thickens if it's left to sit for too long. If that should happen, add a little warm milk and whisk well to thin it.

Okay. Now you're ready for the assembly process. Everybody's got their own ideas about assembling lasagne; there's no real “right” way, I suppose. Just the way that's “right” for you. Here's the way we do it: Use a little olive oil to lightly grease the bottom of an ovenproof baking dish, usually a 9 x 13-inch that's at least 2.5 inches deep. I use a commercial-grade stainless steel half-hotel pan, but you can use glass, metal, or even those cheapy aluminum disposables. Just watch out for the disposables; it's really easy to poke or cut holes in the bottom.

I like to lay down a thin layer of the Bolognese sauce first to keep the pasta soft and to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Some people lay the pasta down first. Up to you. But you have to be consistent. If you do it my way, start with that thin layer of ragù, then lay down a layer of pasta. Put another layer of ragù on top of that and spread it around with the back of a spoon. Dab a little besciamella on top of the ragù, then add another layer of pasta. Repeat this layering process until you get the desired number of layers, at least 4 or 5. You should end with a layer of pasta. On top of this top layer of pasta, you want to swirl together some of the ragù and the besciamella. Top that with a generous amount of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and dot with butter.

Bake covered with foil in a preheated oven at 325° for about 20 minutes. Remove the cover and continue to bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until the top begins to bubble and brown.

For best results, allow the dish to rest for 10 or 15 minutes before attempting to cut.

A couple more quick notes: 1) I generally grind my own meat, but some supermarket meat departments will grind a custom blend of beef and pork for you. Some even carry it prepackaged that way. 2) Please, please, please stay away from the grated crap in a can that masquerades as “Parmesan” cheese. If you can't find or afford real Parmigiano-Reggiano, at least buy a block of domestic Parmesan cheese (BelGioioso and Sargento both make decent ones) and grate it yourself. 3) Lasagne is almost always better the next day. The flavors meld and blend beautifully over time. Make it the night before and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. Or make it a few days in advance and freeze it.

There you have it. An Italian Christmas dinner. It's just the thing if you feel like you're about to sprout feathers or a curly tail. 

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Leave Giada De Laurentiss and Bobby Flay Alone!

They're Just a Couple of COOKS!

The tabloid media is at it again. This morning's newsfeed contained no fewer than five headlines screaming claims about the alleged relationship between Giada De Laurentiss and Bobby Flay. From the moment Giada broke up housekeeping with her fashion-designer husband and Bobby called it quits with his actress wife, the gossip mongers have been trying to tie the two of them together. The pair are longtime friends and longtime coworkers and the fact that they were seen together soon after their respective divorces obviously indicates that they are off mattress pounding somewhere, right?

The parasites that make money from prying into other people's lives got their noses tweaked when, despite their predictions, Giada and Bobby failed to materialize as a bona fide couple. Instead, she turned up with a new boyfriend. Well, the sleazeballs tried to generate heat out of that by claiming that she knew him while she was still married. Yeah? So what? He's a TV producer and she's on TV. Network execs were trying to get him to produce a project that would feature her. So, yeah, I would expect that they knew each other. And now the latest from the garbage dump is that Giada's new boyfriend is just a red herring. That she's just using him as a decoy because she and Bobby are still secretly planning to get married. Uffa!

Well, I don't know either of them well enough to be involved in their personal lives.....and neither do you. I've met both of them and spent time talking about food and cooking with each of them, but the subject of their sleeping arrangements somehow never came up. And you know what? I. Don't. Care! And neither should you. And the reason none of us should care is quite simple: it's none of our damn business!

Thanks to “reality” television and its Internet offspring, our society has carried the cult of celebrity way too far. It used to be that “celebrities” were the people who personified our fantasies, dreams, and ambitions on the stage and the silver screen. They were the “glitterati.” We wanted to see them so we could be them. When Clark Gable took off his shirt onscreen and revealed that he wasn't wearing an undershirt, undershirt sales plummeted. When Lana Turner wore a sweater, sweater sales soared. Musicians like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and The Beatles inspired intense scrutiny and generated screaming hordes of manic followers desperate for the merest scraps of association with their idols.

Fast forward to today and the people who currently personify our fantasies, dreams, and ambitions. Frankly, I could not possibly care less about the goings on between Mama June and Sugar Bear. I don't care if he wears an undershirt and she wears a sweater. I wouldn't care if she wore the undershirt and he wore the sweater. And their offspring, Honey Boo-Boo, is a brat. I don't care if the Robertson family has its ducks in a row and the “Real Housewives” of any particular place can just stay home. I. Don't. CARE! Kim Kardashian can run naked and Miley Cyrus can run amok and I still don't care. If I want to observe drama on a daily basis, I have in-laws! If I want pathos and bathos – or maybe Porthos and Athos, for that matter – I have family and friends. I don't need reality on TV: I'm up to my ass in it in real life.

And that's why I don't care what Bobby and Giada may or may not be doing. Because, in the final analysis, they're not celebrities. They're just a couple of cooks, for Pete's sake! Twenty or so years ago, Bobby was a high school dropout who was working his way up the New York City food ladder and Giada was the not-at-all famous granddaughter of a famous movie producer who was slogging it out in the restaurant trenches in LA. Would you have cared two whits about whether they were cheating on their spouses and screwing around with each other back then? So why should you care now? I don't. I care a lot more about what they put on the plates than I do about what they do under the sheets. Because what they do in the kitchen matters and what they do in the bedroom doesn't. Hey, I hear my plumber's wife has been getting it on with the husband of the woman who cuts my hair. Do you suppose I should call the National Enquirer?

I know, I know. “Public figures” are fair game. But who made them “public figures,” anyway? The public, that's who. Or, at least, the element of said public that has no life of its own and has to live vicariously through others. The defining line between real “celebrities” like Gable and Elvis and manufactured “celebrities” like Bobby and Giada is that the former actively sought out celebrity. They wanted to be “stars.” Giada and Bobby didn't. They never aspired to be “public figures.” When Bobby was working for Jonathan Waxman and when Giada was working for Wolfgang Puck, all they ever wanted to be was good cooks. Giada had an obvious leg up in the entertainment business, but she didn't want it. She just wanted to cook. When they were offered the chance to cook on TV, it wasn't a “star vehicle” they saw; it was just the next step up the ladder to success in the kitchen. Get on TV and get some exposure for your restaurant or get a boost for your career. We made them public figures: they just wanted to be cooks. In our obsession to idolize and glamorize and deify anybody who puts their face in front of a camera these days, we decided that we had the right to build them up and to tear them down. But we don't. They're still people. People just like us. “Enquiring minds want to know”? Maybe we should just mind our own business.

So leave Giada and Bobby alone. Let them cook. If they both got kicked off TV today, never to return to the public eye again, that's still what they would do. So watch their TV shows and try their recipes, or visit their restaurants and eat their food. Don't make them celebrities and they won't be celebrities. Then the only reason you'll have for being involved in their personal lives is if they up and start screwing on your table between the salad course and the entree. Otherwise, butt out.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

All About Parmesan Cheese

A Parmesan Primer

One of the most familiar of Italian ingredients is Parmesan cheese. People add it to everything to achieve authentic Italian flavor. And in all too many cases, that means reaching for the green package deceptively labeled “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese.”

Give me just a minute here while I weep.

Okay, let me break this to you gently, friends: the dry, desiccated, flavorless, sawdust-like substance in those containers bears about as much resemblance to real Parmesan cheese as a hippopotamus does to a ballerina. And I use that analogy precisely because Walt Disney put hippos in tutus for “Fantasia” to exemplify the absurd. Authentic Parmesan cheese is a time-honored artisinal product. The mass-produced processed crap in a can is a hippo in a tutu. You can dress it up and make it dance, but it's still a clumsy imitation.

About eight hundred years ago, Benedictine and Cistercian monks living in the Enza Valley in north central Italy drained some swampland between the towns of Parma and Reggio. They set some cattle to grazing there and soon discovered that cheese made from the rich milk of those cows was absolutely delicious. So delicious, in fact, that the monks became quite prosperous selling it to wealthy customers all over northern Italy. By the early 14th century, Parmesan cheese had made it over the mountains to Tuscany, where ships departing from Pisa and Livorno carried it to other Mediterranean ports. Giovanni Boccaccio spoke of it in his most famous work, “The Decameron”: “In a town called Bengodi… there was a mountain made up completely of shaved Parmesan cheese.” In this imaginary place, cooks rolled macaroni down the mountain of cheese in order to cover it with the snowy goodness. The cheese became popular in the port city of Genoa, where its rich taste and high nutrient value made it a staple for sea voyages. In the first recorded reference to Parmesan, written in 1254, a noble woman from Genoa traded her house for the guarantee of an annual supply of fifty-three pounds of cheese produced in Parma.

The monks called the cheese by its Latin name, “caseus Parmensis”, which roughly translates to “cheese of Parma.” It was called “Pramsàn” in the local dialect,“Parmesano” in Italian, and the French dubbed it “Parmesan.” Today, it is known as Parmigiano-Reggiano, and it is often referred to as the “King of Cheeses.”

There are only three things that go into Parmigiano-Reggiano: unpasteurized milk, natural rennet, and salt. That's it. No additives, preservatives, or any other chemical or artificial substance.

The making of Parmigiano-Reggiano is a process which begins with the evening collection of milk from cows that are fed a diet of grasses and hay from the approved production area. (More on that in a minute.) The milk rests overnight in metal trays, allowing the cream to rise to the surface. In the morning, the cream is skimmed and whole milk from the morning milking is added to the skimmed. Then the milk is gently heated in large vats and some whey from the previous day's production is stirred in. This starts the acidification of the milk. Next, natural calf's rennet is added as a coagulant, and curds begin to form in about twenty minutes. Using a spino, a tool that resembles a large balloon whisk, the curds are broken into pieces the approximate size of a grain of rice. The heat gets turned up a little and the mixture is cooked until it reaches 131°F, after which the heat is turned on and off over about an hour's time. During this process, the curds sink to the bottom of the vat and form a spongy mass. The mass is lifted with a long wooden paddle and divided into two roughly equal parts. Each part is individually wrapped in muslin and hung from poles to allow drainage of excess liquid. The liquid, whey, is collected and either used in the next day's processing or is fed to the local pigs that become prosciutto di Parma. Once the cheeses have dried a bit, they are transferred to round, straight-sided wooden forms. Here a scannable – and completely edible – casein plaque is placed on the top of each cheese. This plaque is for traceability, containing all the pertinent information about the cheese. As liquid continues to drain, the cheese is frequently turned and lightly weighted, but never pressed. Now a plastic insert is placed between the mold and the still-malleable cheese. This insert is a series of pin dots that spell out the words “Parmigiano-Reggiano.” It also contains the producer's code and the date of production. This information is imprinted all around the outside of every wheel of authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano and serves as the consumer's guarantee of authenticity. If you don't see the dots, it's not the real thing. Next the cheeses are placed in a brining tank, where they remain soaking in a sea-salt solution for about twenty-four days. Then they go to curing rooms, where they remain for at least one year, during which time they are wiped, brushed, and turned every ten days.

By law, production is restricted to the Provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Bologna (but only the area west of the river Reno), Modena, and in the Lombardian city of Mantova, but only in the area to the south of river Po. The cheese is afforded Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO, status. (This translates to DOP – Denominazione di Origine Protetta – in Italian.)

Here's where we get into a little trouble. Shakespeare asks, “What's in a name?” Well, in Europe and under European law, the word “Parmesan” can only be used in relation to Parmigiano-Reggiano. (Kraft has to call its crap in a can “Parmasello” in Europe.) In other places, most notably in America, these restrictions don't apply. Here in the land of cheap imitations, you could pass a piece of shoe leather over a wedge of cheese, grind it up, and call it “Parmesan” and nobody would be the wiser. For all I know, that may be precisely what they do.

In America, as long as your cheese A) is made of cow's milk, B) is cured for 10 months or more, C) contains no more than 32% water, and D) has no less than 32% milkfat in its solids, you can call it “Parmesan.” And if your pig has babies in a doghouse, you can call them puppies. You can add potassium sorbate – that's a preservative salt – and cellulose powder to your “cheese” and still call it “Parmesan.” Nobody cares. By the way, cellulose is an anti-caking agent made from plant fiber, the most common source of which is wood fiber. So, yes, you really are eating cheese-flavored sawdust.

I know, I know......there are shakers full of the stuff on the table of every Italian restaurant in America. But, hey, those places also sell spaghetti and meatballs – a decidedly non-Italian dish – to people who don't know any better, so why not? Why not pour fake Italian cheese over a fake Italian dish? It's the American way.

Okay, I'm being harsh. Truth be told, there are some pretty good domestic “Parmesan” cheeses being produced in America, especially in Wisconsin, a place that knows a thing or two about cheese. BelGioioso and Sargento both make a decent Parmesan – if you're not really picky. I hate to say it this way, but if I'm cooking for a large group of people who likely wouldn't know the difference anyway – the same people who order spaghetti and meatballs – I'll save a few ducats and use the cheap domestic stuff. My family, friends, and special clients, however, always get the real thing.

So how do you tell the difference? Simple. The real stuff sells for about twenty dollars a pound. The fake stuff goes for about twenty pounds to the dollar. Okay, it's not quite that extreme, but, really, folks, do you honestly expect that the stuff you buy in a plastic can for $3.98 is in any way an authentic Italian ingredient? Really?

Do yourself a flavor: find a cheesemonger somewhere – like at Whole Foods, maybe – who will let you sample and compare. Get some real Parmigiano, some domestic Parmesan, and some grated crap in a can. Taste all three and if you can't tell the difference, you need a tongue transplant.

I loved watching Giada de Laurentiis when she was filming in Italy. There in her kitchen was a whole frickin' wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano. That's about eighty pounds of cheese at roughly twenty dollars a pound. Do the math. And I love it when Mario Batali hollows out a wheel of Parmigiano and uses it as a bowl for some spectacular dish. C'mon! Get real! I buy Parmigiano-Reggiano in one-pound chunks and I try to find it on sale. I scored a deal the other day: ten dollars a pound. Woo-hoo! It's not a cheap ingredient. But it is the best one for real, authentic Italian flavor, so splurge a little.

I use a Microplane grater to create mountains of snowy white deliciousness for pasta dishes. (Kinda like the people in Bengodi.) I use a vegetable peeler to shave thin slices over salads and other dishes. And I stick the rinds in the freezer and pull 'em out when I'm making soup. Nothing matches the deep, rich, slightly salty flavor of real Parmigiano-Reggiano. Nothing.

And, by the way, the stuff they so generously grate over your plate at Olive Garden is not Parmigiano-Reggiano or even “Parmesan;” it's Romano.

So now you know. When it comes to real Italian flavor, you can spend a little more and use real Italian cheese, you can scrimp up a bit and use fake Italian cheese, or you can scrape the bottom of the barrel and eat cheese-flavored sawdust. The choice is yours.

FYI, you can buy the real thing at Whole Foods, The Fresh Market, Trader Joe's, Kroger, Publix, Harris-Teeter and other higher-end chain groceries with “specialty cheese” departments. You can even get it at Walmart, Sam's and Costco. It's not all that hard to find, so go find some today. Make your mouth happy.

Buon appetito!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Food Gifts For The Holidays (And Any Other Time)

Order Great Food From These Places Any Time Of Year

The holidays are here and it's time for (trumpet fanfare) my first annual holiday food gift guide. To be honest, I'll probably list the same places for my second, third, and any subsequent holiday food gift guides, just because they're that good. And don't be stuck on the “holiday” aspect. You can order great food from these places any time of year, whether for gifts or just as a treat for yourself.

Bear in mind, these are not places I picked at random through an online search: these are quality producers I have actually visited and frequented and whose products I use myself. Most are artisans who carefully handcraft their goods. A couple are commercial manufacturers, but they produce a quality product that I appreciate and am happy to recommend.

Let's begin with chocolate.

Nestled up in the peaks of the Blue Ridge mountains near Asheville is the little town of Black Mountain, North Carolina. It's a great little vacation spot and a mecca for antique shoppers. It's also where Black Mountain Chocolate got its start. Their logo says “Crafted From The Bean,” and that's what makes Black Mountain Chocolate's chocolate so good. Black Mountain Chocolate is an Ecole Chocolat Certified Chocolate Maker. They start with fresh cocoa beans, which they roast, crack, winnow, and grind right there in their factory. Then they further hand craft all that chocolate goodness into a variety of finished products that include incredible small batch chocolate bars, chocolate treats like cocoa nib granola and chocolate pecan butter, and a unique drinking chocolate that is unlike any you've had before.

You can order online or you can visit the factory and kitchen and buy direct at the source. But don't plan a trip to Black Mountain just yet because they moved the whole shebang to Winston-Salem, North Carolina awhile back. The new digs are in the heart of the artsy district of downtown Winston-Salem at 732 N. Trade Street. You can call them at 336-293-4698. You can also follow them on Facebook or log on to http://www.blackmountainchocolate.com. I promise, once you've had Black Mountain Chocolate, you'll never eat another Hershey bar.

A day without bacon is like a day without joy. And no place on earth is more joyful than Madisonville, Tennessee, home to Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams.

Allen Benton produces pork products par excellence. His eponymous country hams are, indeed, legendary, and he makes a prosciutto worthy of any Italian artisan. But it's Benton's bacon that makes the world beat a path to his door – literally. Allen's place is located on the outskirts of Madisonville, a hamlet just a little ways south of Knoxville and a stone's throw away from the Great Smoky Mountains. And I've never been in the place that I haven't found Allen chatting with somebody from California or Florida or Texas or New York. Or China. Or Australia. Seriously. There isn't a chef worth his Michelin star that doesn't drool over Benton's bacon and Allen's client list reads like a James Beard “Who's Who.” Besh, Brock, Chang, Colicchio, Keller – a veritable roll call of top chefs.

So, if the stuff's so great, why can't you run down to your local Kroger and buy a pound? Oh, it's not for a lack of effort on the part of national grocery chains. Several of them have approached Allen about distributing his product. But Allen makes bacon the way his grandparents made it back in Scott County, Virginia and if he were to sell out to Kroger, et.al., he'd have to change the way he makes his bacon, and he ain't about to do it. And, frankly, with dozens of world-renowned chefs buying the stuff in hundred-pound increments, he doesn't have to.

You can follow the path to Allen Benton's door at 2603 Highway 411 N. in Madisonville, Tennessee. Or you can call him at 423-442-5003. Or just go online at http://bentonscountryhams2.com and order the pinnacle of pork products for yourself.

Not too far up the road from Allen Benton's Madisonville smokehouse is the the town of Philadelphia, Tennessee. There's not a lot happening in Philadelphia, located just off I-75 on the way to or from Knoxville. It's kind of a quiet place. I mean, how much noise can 533 people make? But cows? Now that's a different story. The cows out on West Lee Highway at Sweetwater Valley Farm make a lot of noise – and some the best cheese you'll ever eat.

The billboards along I-75 read, “Cheese. Cows. Wows!” And I heartily agree with the “wows” part. Well....I agree about the cheese and the cows, too, but “wow” is all you can say once you've been there. Sweetwater Valley Farm produces award-winning cheeses, which, although produced in a modern, state-of-the-art facility, preserve the fine art and craft of making cheese in a traditional, old-fashioned farmstead manner. The folks at Sweetwater Valley Farm control the entire process from cow to consumer in order to create the highest quality cheddar cheese available on the market today. Colby, mild cheddar, sharp cheddar, smoked cheddar, and a variety of flavored cheddars like salsa cheddar, tomato-herb cheddar, and roasted garlic pepper cheddar are just the beginning.

Like Benton's bacon, you can't buy Sweetwater Valley Farm cheese in the grocery store. And probably for the same reasons. But you can stop by the farm at 17988 W. Lee Highway in Philadelphia, you can call them at 865-458-9192 or toll free at 877-862-4332, or you can check them out online at http://www.sweetwatervalley.com. Any way you slice it, Sweetwater Valley Farm's cheese will make you say “wow!”

While we're on the subject of cheese, let's scoot on over to North Carolina where Ashe County Cheese is among the most popular tourist attractions in the state. Originally started by Kraft in the 1930s as part of the company's efforts to consolidate several small cheese plants in the area, the facility has undergone many changes over the years. It is currently under the ownership of an award-winning Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, producing everything from old style cheddar daisy wheels to a wide variety of cheeses and butter, including its original Sienna cheese, its many flavored cheeses, and its newest variety, Juusto cheese – a mild Scandinavian cheese. Cheese curds are a Wisconsin staple and Ashe County Cheese has 'em. They also have a delicious Mountain Gouda and a couple of varieties of hard to find hoop cheese, a traditional cheese made only from milk.

Ashe County cheese products are available at several specialty shops and farmers markets in North Carolina. The best place to go, though, is right to the source. They have a huge showroom in West Jefferson, North Carolina and they make cheese several days a week, so don't be surprised to find a tour bus parked out front at 106 E. Main Street. Of course, if West Jefferson is not exactly on your way home, you can call them at 336-246-2501 or visit online at http://www.ashecountycheese.com.

And what's cheese without bread? La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina is an amazing place. It's a little bit of France transplanted to a growing community in The Triangle area that also includes Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. French-trained Maitre Boulanger (Master Baker) and James Beard Award semifinalist Lionel Vatinet produces bread that will change your perception of bread, especially if all you've ever had for reference is awful store-bought stuff. I've baked all my own breads for many years, and Lionel's stunningly beautiful and delicious loaves of pure ambrosia simply make me weep. Rustic Italian, Pain de Mie, Ciabatta, and Challah are just a few of the fantastic breads you'll discover. And that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of all the wonderful cakes, cookies, tarts, and other delectable baked goods made fresh every day.

Unfortunately, all these goodies are fresh, wholesome, and natural, made with only the finest ingredients, most locally sourced, and are completely preservative free. That means if you live in California, say, and want a loaf boxed up and sent to your door......it probably ain't gonna happen. Most of La Farm's awesome products are only available in store. They also sell to a variety of Raleigh-area Whole Foods stores and farmers markets. BUT.....don't despair: La Farm does offer a limited selection of breads in a sampler that is available for delivery. They also have a signature gift basket and a variety of mixes and other products available for shipment as gifts. (Of course, if you order them and don't give them to anybody, who's to know?)

When I'm in the area, I will literally go a hundred miles out of my way to stop in Cary and stock up at La Farm. It doesn't hurt that they also have a great little cafe on premises that serves fabulous fare made from the fruits of their labors. It's all located in the Preston Corners Shopping Center at 4248 NW Cary Parkway in Cary. Call them at 919-657-0657 or check them out at https://www.lafarmbakery.com.

“Sweet In Every Sense Since 1947,” Kilwins Chocolate Kitchen is known for its rich and creamy ice cream. And if you've never had it, there aren't enough “o”s in “good” to really describe it. But there's so much more to Kilwins – fortunate since ordering ice cream by mail is an “iffy” proposition. Headquartered in Michigan, there are Kilwins stores all over the place; there's probably one near you. I've got two of them within an hour's drive. But just in case, they also do a brisk mail order business, bringing some of the best chocolates, fudges, caramel corn, brittles, and toffees you've ever put in your mouth right to your door. There are shipping restrictions on some of their more perishable products, so maybe a Kilwins gift card might be a good idea. As I said, there are stores all over the place. A bunch of them are in “touristy”places like the aforementioned Black Mountain, North Carolina, Blowing Rock, North Carolina, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Branson, Missouri, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and on just about every street corner in Florida. But there are a lot of them in “regular” locations, too. Besides the ice cream, I'm a big fan of the caramel corn, but there's not a single thing in the inventory that I wouldn't gladly make that hour's drive to get. Really. Check 'em out at https://www.kilwins.com.


While we're on the topic of snacks, I would be terribly remiss if I failed to mention a couple of my all-time favorite snack sources. I never met a potato chip I didn't like, but I really love Utz Potato Chips. Utz chips are at home in Hanover, Pennsylvania but they are found in homes all along the Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Georgia. And beyond, thanks to a burgeoning mail order business.

I like Utz chips for the full potato flavor and light texture, but the thing I most appreciate is the comparative lack of sodium. At 95 mg, Utz chips have about half the sodium of almost every other chip on the market. (There's 170 mg in Lays.) In fact, after years of enjoying the natural potato taste of Utz, I find other chips way too salty.

Of course, Utz is more than just potato chips. They have a full line of snack products – pretzels, cheese balls, potato sticks, and much more. My wife is particularly partial to their popcorn. Last time we were in Hanover, we stopped at the Utz Factory Store and stocked up on our favorites. But you don't have to make a pilgrimage to Pennsylvania to enjoy Utz in your home. Just head to http://utzsnacks.com and order to your heart's content. But if you do happen to be in Hanover – say you've just visited nearby Hershey or Gettysburg – pop in to 861 Carlisle Street and prepare to be delighted.

One more, and it's mostly a nostalgia entry. As a kid growing up just north of Chicago, my love of potato chips was nurtured by Jays. As the slogan says, “Can't Stop Eating 'Em.” And that's been true for more than 80 years. In those pre-Internet ordering days, Jay's chips were only available in or near the Chicago area, so I lost touch with my first love when I moved out of Chicagoland around age 10. I'd stock up from time to time on visits back home, but, alas, they were a fleeting pleasure. Until the World Wide Web made all things possible. And that includes having Jays signature Jays Potato Chips, Jays Ridges Potato Chips, Jays Waves Potato Chips, Jays Kettle Cooked Potato Chips, and a full line of other snacks like shoestring potato sticks (my other favorite), pork rinds, corn chips and cheese puffs delivered right to my door. And again, my wife is addicted to their popcorn, marketed under the O-KE-DOKE label.

Sadly, the Jays products that I knew and loved as a child, the ones made by the Japp family at a manufacturing plant in the Windy City, are gone now, absorbed into a larger snack conglomerate and distributed as a subsidiary of Snyder's of Hanover. On the bright side, I stumbled upon some Jays chips recently and found that, even though that nostalgic “hometown” element is gone, the folks at Snyders – coincidentally also based in Hanover, Pennsylvania – have done a fine job of retaining the character of the product so it remains largely as it was when I experienced my first blush of crispy potato infatuation. Happily, even today I “Can't Stop Eating 'Em,” and I would encourage you to eat some, too. Find Jays products online at http://www.snyderslance.com/branddetails/brandjays.

Happy Holidays! And if you happen to be reading this in June, remember it's never too early to plan for the future.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bacon, Apple, and Sage Turkey: A Holiday Hit

It's All About The Barding

Holiday time is once again upon us and flocks of “perfect turkey” tips are waddling around everywhere. (Turkeys don't fly, you know; ask the folks at WKRP in Cincinnati.)

I hit upon this simple recipe for moist, tasty turkey many years ago. We've adapted it slightly and it is now our “go to” preparation for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any time we want to serve a really perfect turkey. We usually cook three or four turkeys every holiday season and we've never had a bad one yet. It's all about the barding.

I know what comes to most minds when the word “bard” is used, but the culinary application has nothing to do with Shakespeare. Not that The Bard didn't have a few things to say about culinary matters that could be appropriate for the holidays: “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his.” – Henry IV Part I: act 2, scene 1. Or perhaps, “Eight wild boars roasted whole at breakfast, and but twelve persons there; is this true?.” – Antony and Cleopatra: act 2, scene 1

Barding involves preparing a cut of meat for roasting by covering it with strips of fat. The fat of choice is almost always some form of bacon. You can bard almost anything. Even the cheapest cuts of meat will benefit from the application of bacon, and the more expensive cuts – bacon-wrapped filet mignon, for instance – will be that much more delectable. But barding works particularly well on poultry. It's basically a deliciously foolproof self-basting method. We'll get to the details in a minute.

First, gather your ingredients:

1 medium onion, cut into 8 wedges, divided
2 apples (any sweet variety), cut into wedges
1 tablespoon dried sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 (12-lb.) turkey
1 (12 oz) package bacon
1 (6 oz) can apple juice concentrate, thawed

A quick note about the bacon: this is not the time or the place for expensive cuts of lean, meaty, artisan bacon. Nope. You want the cheapest, fattiest store-brand bacon you can find.

Equipment-wise, you'll need a roasting pan with a rack, and a thermometer. I highly – I'll emphasize that again – HIGHLY recommend a probe thermometer. Buy it for the big bird and you'll find yourself using it for lots of other things, too. The probe part of the thermometer gets stuck in the bird. A cable runs from the probe to a monitor that you place outside your oven. Set the monitor to 165° F and just walk away. When the thing beeps, the bird's done. No hassle and no guesswork. Yes, you can use an instant-read thermometer, but it's a pain, what with having to open and close the oven door – which affects the temperature and hence the cooking time – and makes little holes all over your bird unless you manage to hit exactly the same spot every time you check the temp. An old-fashioned meat thermometer works, too. But I'll swear by the probe variety any day. Please,whatever else you do, don't rely on those stupid little plastic “pop-up” thingys that they package with some turkeys. They are absolutely useless and are the cause of more dry, overcooked birds than almost anything else. Optionally, you may also want some butcher's twine, a bulb baster, and some turkey lifters.

Now, here's what you're going to do:

Make sure your turkey is thoroughly thawed and patted dry with paper towels. Don't forget to remove the plastic bag with the giblets. Unpleasant things happen if you forget.

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Scatter half of the onion around the bottom of the roasting pan and put the rack in place. Place the turkey on the rack. Some people advocate placing the bird “upside down” (breast side down) on the rack, as this allows the juices to flow into the breast meat as the bird cooks. And that's okay. For this recipe, though, the old “right side up” placement works best.

Make a compound butter by combining the sage, the thyme, and some salt and pepper in a small bowl. Mix the herbs and spices thoroughly with the softened butter, then gently lift the skin of the turkey and apply the butter mixture directly and liberally to the breast, taking care not to tear the skin as your work. You might want to remove extraneous rings and things. Save about a tablespoon of the butter for later. (You're doing this because it will add flavor, help retain moisture, and aid in achieving a nice, crispy skin.)

Rub the reserved butter around the inside of the cavity, then place the remaining onion in the cavity, along with the wedges of apple. (You're doing this for flavor and moisture. Apples and onions are very juicy and as they cook, they will release their moisture and flavor into the interior of the bird.)

If you're going to truss your turkey, here's how you do it: Place the turkey breast side up. Cross the legs and loop a piece of butcher's twine over, around and under the crossed legs several times, tying it off securely. Tuck the first joint of each wing under the body of the bird. Now you've got a nice compact package that will cook evenly and be easier to carve. This is where most people stop. And that's fine. Some people go a step farther and lace up the cavity. Meh. If you want to go to the trouble, you'll need to do it first. And you'll need trussing pins or needles. Then you start by passing the pins through the skin on both sides of the cavity. Beginning at the top pin, lace a piece of twine back and forth as you would shoelaces. Pull it snug and tie it securely at the bottom. Pull the neck skin over and fasten it underneath with trussing pins or toothpicks. Now you can truss the legs and tuck the wings under as previously directed. Me, I just truss and tuck. The lacing is usually reserved for stuffed birds (keeps the stuffing inside) and we're not going to get into a discussion here of the health hazards presented by actually stuffing a bird with stuffing.

Arrange slices of bacon over the breast and legs. (Again, moisture, flavor, and crispiness.) Some people do elaborate basket weave patterns and such. Some even tie the bacon blanket in place with twine. Again, meh. Just make sure the bird is covered. Then loosely tent the breast with foil.

If you're using the probe thermometer that I highly recommend, now's the time to place the probe. Proper placement is essential. Insert the thermometer about 2 1/2 inches into the thickest portion of the turkey breast or into the inner thigh near the breast. Make sure the thermometer does not touch a bone. This applies whether or not you're using a probe thermometer; same rules go for instant-reads or plain old meat thermometers. (Another quick tip: when inserting a regular thermometer into the turkey breast, insert it from the side. The thermometer is easier to read and more accurate than when you put it in from the top.)

Okay, into the oven! Bake for about an hour, then remove the foil and the bacon. I usually discard the bacon. Some people break it up and serve it like cracklings. Your choice. Some people also leave the bacon in place for the entire cooking time. Again, your choice. But if you choose to do that, you'll sacrifice your golden brown skin because the bacon will insulate it and keep it from browning.

Assuming you have removed the bacon, continue to bake the turkey for 30 to 40 minutes; then baste with the pan juices. Bake an additional 30 to 40 minutes and baste again. Now, pour the apple juice concentrate over the turkey and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes.

A word about basting: it's not entirely necessary, especially with the compound butter and the bacon providing lots of fat and moisture. Most people do it because Mom did it and Grandma did it and Great-Grandma did it, etc. Because poultry skin is fairly impermeable, you're not doing much for the moisture content of the meat. From that aspect, basting is like pouring water on a raincoat. Most of what you achieve through basting is extra flavor and extra crispness. The only place you really need to baste with this recipe is when you add the apple juice concentrate near the end of the process. And besides, all that opening and closing of the oven door makes it harder to maintain even heat in the oven, thus prolonging your cooking time.

Your turkey is done when the temperature reaches 165°F measured in the breast or 175°F measured in the thickest part of the thigh.

Using lifters or tongs, tilt the turkey to drain any juices from the cavity into the roasting pan. Remove the turkey to a carving board, cover it loosely with foil, and allow it to rest at least 20 minutes before carving. DON'T SKIP THIS STEP.......unless you like dry turkey. Trust us, the bird will remain nice and hot until you're ready to serve.

(Note: if you plan to make gravy from the pan drippings, be aware that the smoky flavors of the bacon and the sweetness of the apples and apple juice concentrate may affect the character of your gravy. You may like a smoky, sweet gravy. If not, prepare a more traditional gravy using butter, flour, and chicken broth.)

Buon appetito! And Happy Holidays!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

An Explanation Of Why Some People Massacre Italian

Lookin' At You, New York and New Jersey!

I have long ranted and raved about misspoken Italian, particularly the brand misspoken along the Eastern Seaboard.

In the My Fair Lady song “Why Can't The English?”, Henry Higgins comments on the state of the English language, lamenting:

One common language I'm afraid we'll never get.
Oh, why can't the English learn to
set a good example to people whose
English is painful to your ears?
The Scots and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely
disappears.
Well, in America, they haven't used it for years!

I got news for ya, Hank; they ain't been usin' Italian in America for years, either. And never mind the Scots and the Irish. You want close to tears? Listen to New Yorkers and/or New Jerseyans/ites mangle and massacre the most lyrical language on earth.

“Mootz-uh-RELL?” “Pruh-ZHOOT?” I once heard somebody talking about getting some “ruh-GOAT” and I didn't even know what they were saying. Never mind “gah-bah-GOOL.” I mean, what the hell language is that? It certainly isn't Italian, where those miserably tortured words are actually “mozzarella,” “prosciutto,” “ricotta,” and “capicolla.” And don't even get me started on “MARE-ee-oh” versus “MAH-ree-oh.” Where do these people – millions of them – get these horrible mispronunciations? And why do they persist in using them even when they know better? I've seen it on TV: somebody like Anne Burrell will properly pronounce “prosciutto” in a sentence, and then somebody like Rachael Ray will repeat basically the same sentence and call it “pruh-ZHOOT.” Mi fa impazzire!

Here's the answer: it's all Grandma and Grandpa's fault. Or maybe great-Grandma and great-Grandpa. And the point is, these progenitors of two or three (or more) generations ago weren't really ignorant; they were simply speaking another language; a language other than Italian.

The political entity we know as Italy did not exist until 1861. Before that time – and actually for a few years after – the Italian peninsula was populated by fighting, feuding, warring, struggling principalities and city-states that were, in effect, separate countries. And each country had its own language. Today we call the countries “regions” and the native languages “dialects.” There were linguistic similarities, to be sure, but it was not uncommon in those pre-Risorgimento days for people from one area to travel to a neighboring area and not be able to fully understand one another.

The unification process started around 1815 and continued until about 1870, with 1861 marking the establishment of a “unified” Kingdom of Italy. Some contend that actual unification was not complete until after WWI. But they still had to work out a few bugs. One of the biggest bugs was a lack of a common language. How do you govern a country where nobody uses the same words to describe the same things? Garibaldi could have been in Higgins' shoes, singing “one common language I'm afraid we'll never get.” Except ultimately they did. I'm not going to do pages of history here: suffice it to say that the choice was made to elevate the Tuscan dialect – the language of Dante and Petrarch – to “official” status, and the language we now know as “Italian” was born.

It was not a universally popular or accepted idea at the time. Think of it: if you lived in Atlanta and the government came and told you you had to start saying “youse guys” instead of “y'all,” you would probably resist a bit. And even the people who grudgingly acquiesced to the new “Italian” still used their native way of speaking in their homes and among their families.

Now comes the relevant part – and yes, there is one: The unified Italy was a great concept on paper. The problem was that “unification” wasn't all as equal as it sounded. There developed a class struggle between the northern and southern parts of the new country. Kind of like what happened here in America except with different issues and different end results. The power wound up being consolidated in the Italian North and the South felt that they got the short end of the stick. But rather than take up arms, the disenfranchised people of the South headed for the boats. Tens of millions of them. En masse. Which would actually be “di massa” in Italian. Most of them sailed to America and most of the ones that landed here landed in New York. They spread out a little, eventually covering Long Island, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and the area around Philadelphia. They brought with them their native customs, their native foods, and, of course, their native languages; languages that were not always the new “Italian.” Sicilians, Campanians, Calabrians, and others brought their unique dialects with them from the Old World to the New and settled in enclaves and neighborhoods where those unique speech patterns were perpetuated and passed on to succeeding generations. Even though they technically came from the same “country,” none of them were “countrymen.”

To make a really long explanation much shorter, the people in America who say things like “mootz-uh-RELL and “gah-bah-GOOL” are actually speaking a dead language. It's not “Italian.” It's an Italian dialect, but one that really doesn't exist anymore. If a dyed-in-the-wool Italian-American from New Jersey were to go into a salumeria almost anywhere in Italy and ask for “gah-bah-GOOL,” the proprietor would look at him like he was speaking a foreign language. Because he would be; one that died out over a hundred years ago, but is kept alive based on nothing more than tradition. You say “gabagool” because that's the way your nonna or your bisnonna said it when she came here from the Old Country, wherever that might have been. That wasn't necessarily “Italian;” it was whatever dialect she spoke when she came here. And that pronunciation got handed down through successive generations and that's why you say it the way you do. You might find a 90-year-old shopkeeper in Palermo who knew what you were talking about, but good luck with that in Rome. Because it's not Italian.

There's a mind-numbingly scholarly piece over at www.atlasobscura.com that goes into all the details of vowel deletion and voiceless consonants and raised sounds and other linguistic arcana. You can read about it at http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-capicola-became-gabagool-the-italian-new-jersey-accent-explained. But there's one sentence there that sort of sums it up: “Italian-American Italian is not at all like Standard Italian; instead it’s a construction of the frozen shards left over from languages that don’t even really exist in Italy anymore with minimal intervention from modern Italian.”

The Italian side of my family hails from Emilia-Romagna and they got to North America before Italy was Italy. So I have no doubt there were some odd pronunciations somewhere in my family's past as well. But we wound up in Canada. French Canada. Just thinking about how “gabagool” would translate in French makes my head hurt. So when I learned Italian, it was “proper” Italian and not something filtered through a dialect.

Now I don't think for one tiny little second that anything I've written here or anything at Atlas Obscura is going to make the slightest difference to any of the Italian-American crowd who loudly and proudly say “pruh-ZHOOT” and “mootz-uh-RELL.” It's their piece of the Italian experience and they're gonna stick with it no matter what some Internet brainiac says. Especially an Italian-French Canadian. I mean, what do I know? Other than the fact that most of them probably don't know any “real” Italian at all and are limited to a few mangled words from their ancestral past. Another quote from Atlas Obscura seems appropriate: “There’s something both a little silly and a little wonderful about someone who doesn’t even speak the language putting on an antiquated accent for a dead sub-language to order some cheese.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

“Improved” Campbell's Chicken Soup? Here's A Better Recipe

Better Because It's Homemade

I can't remember a time when there weren't at least a few cans of Campbell's soup in the pantry. Like most of my generation, I grew up with the stuff. But times, they are a-changin'. And so are some of Campbell's soups. Chicken Noodle Soup is the first to undergo what the company says is “closing the gap between the kitchen and our plants.” Okay. We won't talk about how the “gap” got there in the first place. Or maybe we should.

The pressure is on Campbell's and other food manufacturers to catch up with more discerning consumers. Going, going, and soon to be gone are the days when shoppers strolled down the aisles of supermarkets loaded with literal tons of processed foods and somewhat automatically tossed boxes, bags, and cans of whatever additive and preservative laden junk the big food companies put out on the shelves into their carts and dutifully toted them home, heated them up, and served them to their families. People trusted food manufacturers. Of course, they also trusted lawyers, police officers, and used car salesmen. There was an innocence and naivete among the food buying public, one that assumed that the products they were buying at the altar of convenience were also healthy and wholesome. Many of the labels used those very adjectives. Surely they wouldn't mislead us for the sake of profit! You mean some of those ingredients I can't even pronounce aren't really good for me? Perish the thought! Today's shoppers are beginning to expect actual food in their food stores, not chemistry sets in a can. Hence the panicked rush on the part of some manufacturers to close “the gap.”

Campbell's says they're reducing the number of ingredients in their chicken noodle soup from thirty to twenty. Some of the excised ingredients are potassium chloride, monosodium glutamate, maltodextrin, and lactic acid. They're also removing onions and celery from the new soup, which is is a bit puzzling. Along with carrots, onions and celery form the basis from which nearly all soups are made. How do you maintain the flavor profile? Unless, of course, you've discovered a new chemical way to replicate the taste of onions and celery. Which sort of defeats the purpose, right?

Now, bear in mind, they are not messing with the ingredients in the “classic” condensed version of the iconic red and white can. No, the revamped soup is one that's being marketed for kids under a “Star Wars” theme. Campbell's plan, according to a spokesperson, is to take what they learn from remaking the kid's version and apply it to their other chicken noodle recipes over time. For now, the “classic” soup still contains MSG, sodium phosphate, soy protein isolate and a lot of other “classic” ingredients. Including good ol' “dehydrated chicken.”  

Anyway, I have a solution to the whole situation: cooking. You may have heard of it?

Now, I'm not gonna lie. I mentioned up front that Campbell's soups have been in the pantry for as long as I can remember. That includes this morning. There are six cans in there right now; three each of chicken noodle and tomato. They're my “emergency stash.” Also in the pantry are several cans of chicken broth and tomatoes. And there's chicken stock in the freezer. Those are the things from which real chicken soup and tomato soup are made. I'm a little short on modified food starch, flavoring, beta carotene, yeast extract, and MSG, so if you want those things, you'll have to go buy your own can of Campbell's. Otherwise, try my recipe for chicken soup. Who knows? Maybe it will help you close “the gap” in your kitchen.

A couple of ingredient notes before we get started: you really can make your own chicken stock. It's just not that hard, but it does take a little time and effort. So, with that said, packaged product is okay. The can of broth I'm holding contains chicken stock and 2% or less of salt, natural flavoring (an ingredient I'm always leery of), yeast extract, carrot juice concentrate, celery juice concentrate, and onion juice concentrate. I buy the stuff that's labeled “100% fat free, no MSG added, 33% less sodium.” It's not as flavorful or as good as the homemade stock I've got in my freezer, but it's an acceptable substitute.

As far as the chicken goes, just about any form of cooked chicken will do. Even the canned stuff, if you really must. But leftover chicken is really good, especially if you have some whole roasted rotisserie chicken from the deli left over. Adds a nice roasted flavor. Or you can get them to slice a couple of good thick slices of your favorite deli chicken and you can bring 'em home and shred 'em up.

Okay, here goes:

First, gather together the following ingredients:

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium carrot, small dice
1 rib celery, small dice
1 bay leaf
2 qt (64 oz) chicken stock or broth
8 oz dried egg noodles
1 cup shredded cooked chicken
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
Flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Now find a sufficiently large soup pot like a stock pot or Dutch oven. It's got to be big enough to hold a half-gallon of liquid with room to spare. Place the pot over medium heat and coat the bottom with a little oil. We're not deep frying anything here, just sauteing some vegetables. Start with the onion. Season lightly with a little salt – called “sweating” in fancy kitchen lingo – and let it cook for a few minutes until it starts to soften. Then add the garlic and let it cook with the onion for about a minute. Don't let it brown; browned garlic is bitter and nasty. Now add in your carrots and celery. You're building layers of flavor. Don't dump it all in together. Altogether, the vegetables should cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until soft.

Next, add the chicken stock or broth and bring it to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and drop in the bay leaf and the noodles. Simmer until the noodles are tender, about 5 or 6 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and stir in the shredded chicken. Season with salt and pepper and continue to simmer for another few minutes, tasting for seasoning as you do. Sprinkle the soup with parsley and serve in warmed soup bowls.

Yields four servings of chicken soup that fills not only that “gap” Campbell's keeps talking about, but your tummy, as well. It'll be better than anything Campbell's can can and better for you because you made it yourself and you know what's in it.

Buon appetito!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Rachael Ray Says She's Not A Chef: A Lot Of People Aren't

But She Plays One On TV

Food celebrity Rachael Ray has reiterated her longstanding objection to being called a “chef.” In a recent Huff Post interview she states that she prefers to be called “a cook.” Why? “I have pause when people refer to me as a 'chef' because I'm simply not.” She says she didn't go to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and she thinks that calling her a “chef” would be “disrespectful of people who did.” But let's think about that one, Rach. There are certain distinctions to be made.

In the 21st century food and entertainment world, anybody who cooks on TV is called a “celebrity chef.” And sometimes the inaccuracy really grinds my gears. Wolfgang Puck is a chef. Mario Batali is a chef. Cat Cora is a chef. Emeril Legasse is a chef. Bobby Flay is a chef. Like her or hate her, Giada De Laurentiis is a chef. On the other hand, Sandra Lee is not a chef and former “Bag Lady” Paula Deen is definitely not a chef. (That's not a pejorative: when she started out in the food business making bag lunches for office workers in Savannah, Deen called herself “The Bag Lady.”) Her sons aren't chefs either. “Pioneer Woman” Ree Drummond is not a chef. Neither is the ubiquitous and vastly annoying Guy Fieri, although he at least has a degree in hotel management. Nigella Lawson may be a “Domestic Goddess,” but she's not a chef. And yet the undiscriminating public lumps them all together as “celebrity chefs.” Emphasis, I think, on the “celebrity” part.

Let's look at the word “chef.” Literally translated from French, it means “chief.” It refers to someone who is the head or the leader of a group of people. Old French-Canadian records indicate that all my male ancestors were chefs because that was how they were designated on the census forms. In that instance, the word related to their status as heads of their households. In the food world, the “chef” is the head of the restaurant staff. At it's most basic form, the position of “chef” is merely an indicator of the person who oversees the kitchen. The “chief cook.” And that certainly does not require an extensive and expensive culinary education. In simple terms, a “chef” needs to be able to cook to a degree that enables him or her to lead other cooks.

But, alas, we no longer live in simple times. The reality of life today lends itself to specialization. Everybody has to have a very specific job that includes a very specific title. And so it is with chefs. Most people define a “chef” as the person who creates the menu and oversees all back of the house functions like ordering and scheduling. They have to be up on food costs and they need to know their way around health codes and regulations. According to some purists, a chef has to meet the stringent criteria of the American Culinary Foundation. They have to be certified in nutrition and sanitation. There are exams and practical skills tests involved. They have to take management courses and have at minimum a two-year degree from an accredited culinary school. And, oh yeah, it helps if they can cook.

On the flip side, there are just a hell of a lot of chefs out there who never saw the outside of a culinary school, much less the inside. Their exams and practical skills started with washing dishes and working their way up. Let me be there when you tell Tom Colicchio, Jamie Oliver, or Thomas Keller that they aren't really “chefs” because they didn't go to culinary school. Certainly the world renowned Ferran Adrià is a classically trained chef, right? Surely he met all those stringent educational criteria before basically inventing molecular gastronomy, right? Nah. He dropped out of school and worked as a dishwasher in a hotel restaurant. Then he learned his trade from a bunch of other people who probably didn't meet the criteria for being “chefs” either.

Want to know who else doesn't qualify academically as a chef? How about the aforementioned Wolfgang Puck? His education came through apprenticeship. Does anybody debate the inclusion of Alice Waters among the pantheon of American chefs? She has a degree in French Cultural Studies, but no culinary school. Internationally recognized chef Jacques Pépin started out in his family's restaurant and later apprenticed in Paris. But no “Le Cordon Bleu” or other “formal training.” Similarly, French legend Paul Bocuse studied under Eugénie Brazier, the first chef to attain six Michelin stars. She also had no “formal training.” Daniel Boulud was a finalist in France's competition for Best Culinary Apprentice at age fifteen. No culinary school for him; he apprenticed his way to culinary stardom. Hunky Aussie chef Curtis Stone worked his way up ladder. Lidia Bastianich may head a restaurant empire now, but in her first eatery in Queens, she copied recipes from successful Italian restaurants and hired an Italian-American chef to execute them. No culinary school for her. And the late Cajun and Creole king, Paul Prudhomme, was entirely self-taught.

And, by the way, do you know what one of the highest culinary prizes in America is? I'm referring, of course, to the James Beard award. And did you also know that James Beard, the Dean of American Cuisine, never spent a day in culinary school? He was an unsuccessful actor who started up a catering business that ultimately led to cookbooks, speaking engagements, and to the establishment of his own cooking school. Not bad for someone who was never certified in nutrition and sanitation and all the other fal de rol that some people associate with chefdom. James Beard was nothing but a cook, and yet all the hoity toity chefs want his name associated with their restaurants. Strange, huh?

There are four generations of food professionals in my family. My grandfather and a couple of uncles were restaurateurs. I do what I do as a cook and a writer, and my son has worked his way up from fast food to management of a couple of pretty nice upscale places. My grandfather and my uncles cooked. My son and I cook. Despite the fact that we've all had a hand in creating menus, ordering supplies, supervising operations, and, oh yeah, preparing food, do any of us qualify as “chefs?” Meh.

The people for whom I cook often call me a chef. And for lack of a more comprehensive term, I sometimes bill myself as a “personal chef.” All that means is that I cook for people who pay me to do so. Perhaps “personal cook” would be more accurate, but such a term does not exist in the industry, so I go with what works. I do not, however, delude myself or others into thinking that I am a classically trained chef. Sure, I'm a better than average cook. If I weren't, people wouldn't be paying me to cook for them. Yeah, I know a lot about food and technique because I've taken a gazillion classes and read a gazillion books. And I've been cooking for a gazillion years. But am I a “chef?” Like Rachael, the word makes me squeamish, largely because I know my limitations.

Here's why I'm not a chef: Give me some basic, everyday ingredients and a decent kitchen and I'll whip up some unforgettably good food for you. A gas stove, some good pots and pans, a handful of tools and utensils, a few tomatoes, some onions, garlic, herbs and spices and I'll have you drooling over a delicious tomato sauce mixed with some of my handmade pasta. And you can sop up any leftover sauce with some of my fresh-baked bread. It'll be good, I promise. As long as I'm working with ingredients and techniques that fall within my comfort zone.

Now...drop off somebody like Mario Batali in the middle of the woods with nothing but a knife and a box of matches, and in ten minutes he'll make you a feast. THAT'S a chef! Oh, and did I mention that Mario dropped out of culinary school? He never got that minimal two-year degree that qualifies him as a real “chef.”

I mean, I watch “Chopped” and “Iron Chef” and “Top Chef” and similar shows and I sit there, mouth agape and eyes glazed over, as people throw together real, honest-to-goodness, edible dishes made from weird things, some of which I didn't even know existed. C'mon! Cactus flower buds, rose water, quince paste? Goat brains? Sea cucumbers? My wife and I are are like, “what the hell is that?” And then Ted Allen explains it and we're still like, “what the hell would you do with it?” And then the competitors do something wonderful with it in twenty minutes. Things that I couldn't conceive of in twenty hours. No, I'm not a chef. I'm a really good cook, but those people, the ones who can make something out of anything or nothing, are chefs. And some of them never went to culinary school either.

So what it really comes down to in the final analysis is the ability to walk the walk and talk the talk. Like James Beard, I came to the kitchen by way of the theater. There's another place where ability often trumps education. There are a lot of bad actors out there with good educations. A diploma does not make someone with no talent into an actor. You either are one or you're not. Same thing applies to being a chef. Give me somebody with raw talent and gut instinct any day. The old joke goes, “you know what you call a med student who finished last in his class? Doctor.” Just because you got a piece of expensive paper that says you went to school for two years doesn't mean you're any good in the kitchen. I've probably logged a thousand hours in online and hands-on cooking classes. In more than fifty years of standing at a stove, I've thoroughly tested my practical skills. I've even studied the ServSafe exam for food professionals. So I'm a chef, right? Nah. Not once you take me out of my comfort zone. I know a lot about food because I've studied it inside and out. I can make a phenomenal American breakfast and I can handle myself well in an Italian kitchen because those are the things I know and understand. The things with which I have great experience and familiarity. Take me out in the woods with a knife and a box of matches and I'll cut myself and burn down the forest just before I starve to death. So, no, I'm not a chef. And a whole lot of people who call themselves “chefs” aren't either. They're nothing more than over-hyped and/or over-educated cooks. Or celebrities.

Kudos to Rachael Ray for recognizing her limitations. That's the real difference between a cook and a chef.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Give Up Bacon? WHO Says!

A Far Cry From The Mass-Hysteria Media's Headline Grabbing, “WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!”

Just in time for Halloween comes the latest fright: the WHO has spoken and bacon is a killer. Now, we're not talking about the rock group that gave us “Tommy” back in the sixties. No, the World Health Organization is making this proclamation (although Messrs. Townsend, Daltrey, Entwhistle, and Moon could probably have done it with greater entertainment value). Of course, various learned groups and individuals have been warning us about the dangers of processed meats for years, but the scientists who populate the halls of this prestigious Swiss-based institution have gone so far as to include bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausage, etc. in the same class – Class 1 – as tobacco, UV radiation, and diesel fumes. That's serious stuff. And red meat – you know, those big juicy steaks and chops you so love and enjoy – are in the next class down. In the black and white eyes of the WHO, steak might kill you and bacon definitely will.

The thing is, this is not the first time the WHO has issued this edict. They've been bashing bacon, hammering hot dogs, and reviling red meat for years. This latest hyperbolic scare tactic is just an amped-up version of what they've already said.

To be precise, this time the pocket protector crowd says that consuming just 50 g (1.76 oz) of processed meats per day – or 100 g of red meat – will increase the likelihood of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. For those of you who are metrically impaired, 50 g equates to about two strips of bacon. And because it's a slow news week, the media is all over it.

One of the things the headline writers aren't adequately emphasizing, however, is the relativity of the situation. The fact is that the average person has only a 5% chance at developing these cancers to begin with. So if said average person were to consume the “deadly” two strips of bacon every day for the rest of his life, he would be increasing an actual 5% chance by a relative 18%, thus raising his overall actual shot at developing cancer to 6%. Granted, such an increase is still an increase, but it's hardly a reason to declare a total moratorium on pork products.

Which leads to the other thing the alarmists are overlooking: moderation. Boys and girls, I l-o-o-o-ove my bacon. But my love is limited to two or three slices of it on a Sunday morning. If I go really wild, I might crumble a piece over a baked potato a couple of times a month and I might add an additional strip or two to a grilled cheese sandwich once in a blue moon. As for other processed meats, I also enjoy a ham sandwich now and then – one or two a week, I suppose – so I'm probably doubling my risk to a little over half of what the WHO considers dangerous. In short, I'm not too concerned.

What I am concerned about is where did these guys go to school? And were they all absent for the discussion on "correlation does not imply causation"? Unless all other variables are controlled for, impossible except for in the strictest experimental conditions. For example: It can be stated that sleeping with your shoes on is strongly correlated with waking up with a headache. Therefore, sleeping with your shoes on causes headaches. The problem here is that this plays into the “correlation implies causation” fallacy by prematurely concluding that sleeping with your shoes on causes headaches. Was any consideration given to a third factor, i.e. you went to bed dead skunk drunk? No? So the conclusion is false. Kind of like, “man eats bacon. Man develops cancer. Therefore, bacon causes cancer.”

The big bad in all this is nitrites. I'm not usually good at quick explanations, but here goes: A long, long time ago, man discovered salt as a preservative for meat. The most commonly used salt for the purpose is a naturally occurring one called sodium nitrate (chemically NaNO3). About a hundred years ago, it was discovered that when sodium nitrate interacts with bacteria in meat it forms a new compound. This is sodium nitrite (NaNO2). Sodium nitrite is the substance that protects us by inhibiting the growth of some really bad baddies like listeria and botulinum. It also keeps the fat in meat from going rancid. All good so far, right? It didn't take long for food processors to eliminate the middleman and start using sodium nitrite directly in preserving food, especially through the use of curing salt or “pink salt” which is 6.25% sodium nitrite and 93.75% common table salt. Well, then around 1970 or so, some other researchers discovered that when you heat up sodium nitrite in food to temperatures above 266°, it joins up with organic compounds called “amines” and converts yet again into something called nitrosamines. And it's these nitrosamines that are thought to be carcinogenic.

Still with me? Here's where it gets really funky. All these nitrates and nitrites and stuff don't just hitch a ride into your body on strips of bacon and beef jerky. Nitrites are naturally occurring substances in the human body. Your saliva, for instance, is loaded with the stuff. Scientists say that for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight you carry, your body naturally produces about a milligram of nitrite. And nitrosamine formation is inhibited by the presence of ascorbic acid – good ol' Vitamin C. Thus, the USDA limits the amount of nitrites added to cured meats and they require all products containing nitrites to also include vitamin C.

The real kicker is that we don't even get most of our daily dosage of nitrate/nitrite/nitrosamine from processed meat. Nope. Only about 6%. Around 80% of our nitrate consumption comes from vegetables. Good old healthy celery, leafy greens, leeks, parsley, beets and a host of other dietary delights are packed with it because the soil they grow in is packed with it. You know why? Because we dump tons of the stuff on fields as fertilizer. And when you eat those nitrate-laden veggies, guess what happens? Ding, ding, ding! The bacteria in your mouth converts the nitrates to nitrites! Just like it does with those aporkalyptic processed meats. Further, a recent British study found that nitrates can actually improve cardiovascular function by thinning blood and widening blood vessels, lessening the risk for clots and stroke. The bottom line here is that your body doesn't differentiate between the nitrates you ingest from meat and those you ingest from vegetables, water, and other sources. And chemical substances in our bodies – like Vitamin C – prevent the combination of nitrites and amines. No combination means no nitrosamines, the scary carcinogen about which the WHO is all exercised. But there's no “breaking news” in that, so we get the hyped up version instead.

Does that mean you can eat a pound of bacon for breakfast, a package of hot dogs for lunch, a slab of steak for supper and an entire sausage for a snack and expect to be healthy? Come on. Use a little common sense. For decades, eggs were considered little ovoid cholesterol bullets aimed directly at your heart. Better science now says that's not the case. But that doesn't mean I'm going to pillage the neighborhood chickens and eat a dozen eggs a day. I'll stick with my two scrambled on Sunday and be content in the knowledge that they're not really going to kill me after all. Not that I ever thought they would, but now I've got the nutrition nerds on my side.

Dr. Andrew Chan, associate professor of medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health, says, “The epidemiological data supporting an association between processed and red meats and colon cancer is very strong. There is definitely some reason for caution about the consumption of red and processed meats.” And then he opens the other side of his mouth and says, “It’s pretty clear that the link between consumption of meat with cancer appears to be dose-related. The more you eat, the higher your risk.” He goes on to state that it is “reasonable” to continue to include red meat in a balanced diet, provided it is done in moderation. Even the people responsible for this latest outburst, the researchers at the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), have fessed up to the fact that moderation is the key. The head honcho on the study, Dr. Christopher Wild, acknowledged the nutritional value of meat and stopped well short of saying people should avoid it altogether. Instead, the WHO soft-pedaled the advice that government agencies should “balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and provide the best possible dietary recommendations.” That's a far cry from the mass-hysteria media's headline grabbing, “WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!”

Besides, as I was writing this, I noticed that, in the face of a worldwide backlash, the WHO has already back-pedaled on the whole affair, releasing this statement: “The latest IARC review does not ask people to stop eating processed meats, but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer." Watching people back-pedal in lockstep is really quite amusing.

Am I going to give up bacon, the sublime porcine substance I have often referred to as “ambrosia”? Not likely. In the same way that I never bought into the media-hyped cholesterol myth that has now been so thoroughly discredited, I'm not going to believe that Porky Pig lurks in the darkness of my colon waiting to do me in. He hasn't done so in sixty years of consuming slightly less than a pound of bacon a month, even with the help of the double death-dealing whammy of fewer than a dozen eggs. And did I mention I use real butter?! So I will continue to exercise common sense and moderation, and, with careful driving, I may actually make it to 90 or 100 like my mother and my great-grandmother. (My poor grandmother only made it to 85.)

As for the WHO, maybe they should actually consider teaming up with The Who. It would make their next dire prediction really rock.