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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Stop the Bread and Milk Madness!

Buying Bread and Milk is All in Your Head!

I'm writing this with six of an expected eight inches of snow piling up on the ground outside my office window. Forty years past and a few hundred miles north from where I sit now, this would have been considered an average snowfall on an average winter day. It might have slowed us down a bit as we brushed and scraped it off our cars and from our paths, but life would have gone on largely unaffected. Located as I am now along the 36th parallel, it is cause for widespread panic. Not as widespread, perhaps, as it was a few years ago when I lived even deeper in the Deep South. There an inch or two of snow caused a reaction that bordered on insanity. Schools closed days in advance and virtual martial law-like scenarios were implemented. Once a “state of emergency” was declared, you were subject to arrest and fine if you were found frivolously driving around town on one or two inches of snow. Yes, I'm serious. My mind still reels when I recall the time “snow” – i.e. one to three inches – was predicted on a Monday evening, scheduled to arrive on Thursday morning. They started closing the schools on TUESDAY! The city spent Wednesday in full panic mode and when Thursday arrived, it rained. And there wasn't a loaf of bread or a half-pint of milk to be found anywhere within a hundred-mile radius.

Which brings me to my point: Why? What in the name of rational thinking are people going to do with all that bread and milk?

When I was a broadcaster, I used to joke that whenever the local Kroger or Piggly Wiggly had a surplus of bread or milk, they would call the radio and TV stations and ask us to say “snow” on the air. Didn't matter if it was the middle of July. That simple four-letter word would have the power to strip the shelves of any and all stock and overstock. In the South, it's a Pavlovian response. You hear the word “snow” and you are compelled to run to the nearest grocery or convenience store and buy all the bread and milk to be had.

Hey, even native Southerners laugh at it. But nine out of ten of them still do it, even though they can't explain for the life of them why they do. It is literally a conditioned response, handed down through the generations. It doesn't have to make sense. It's just what you do.

After years of head-scratching, I decided to do a little research on the phenomenon. Here's what a psycho-doodler I read posited as a theory. According to this learned individual, buying bread and milk represents a form of control. The theory goes that when a storm threatens, if you buy something substantial and sensible, like canned food or dried beans or something, you are expecting the worst and surrendering your control of the situation. If, on the other hand, you buy something totally impractical, like bread and milk, you are secretly telling yourself that everything will be alright and that you will remain in control of your circumstances for the short term. There. All figured out. See? Wasn't that easy? The binge buying of bread and milk is all in your head. The crisis isn't real and with a little therapy you could be cured.

Now, I do have to question this scholar's credibility a bit because, A.) she lives in Los Angeles where nary a flake of snow has ever fallen and B.) rather than objectify Southerners in specific, she chose to include Mid-westerners in her proposition. As one who spent the first twenty years of his life in the Upper Midwest, I can assure you that at no time did I ever see my mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends or neighbors rush off to pillage a supermarket at the drop of a snowflake. Had they done so, they might as well have just taken up residence in the stock room, because when and where I was a kid it started snowing at Halloween and didn't stop until Easter.

Not that I'm saying a little preparation is a bad thing. But, for Pete's sake, use some common sense. In the first place, you're in the South, okay? IF.....and that's a big “if”.......any measurable snow actually materializes after they spend a week scaring the beejeebers out of you, how long will it actually last? A day? Two? And then what do you do with all that bread and milk? Get together with your equally overstocked neighbors and have the world's biggest bread pudding party?

Which leads me to ask “why do you have to buy all the bread and milk in sight?” I mean, come on. Jesus fed the multitudes with five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Is there a reason a family of four needs sixteen gallons of milk and thirty-two loaves of bread to last for the next day or two? As I write this in February, there are people in New England who will likely not see the ground until July. Surely folks in Atlanta, Birmingham, and Charleston can survive on what's in the pantry for a couple of days without having to denude the store shelves of superfluous goods.

Yes, I said superfluous goods. Bread and milk are rotten choices for emergency provisions. Milk requires refrigeration which requires electricity. Unless, of course, you plan to stick it all out in the snow. And nutritionally speaking, you're not getting much bang for your buck out of loaves of gummy, store-bought white bread. What's on your emergency menu, bread sandwiches? Why don't you raid the peanut butter aisle while you're at it. At least that way you'd have something nutritious and non-perishable on which to survive for those grueling thirty-six hours. And instead of gallons and gallons of liquid moo juice, why not fill up the old pickup truck bed with cases of powdered milk? Yeah, I know it tastes lousy but it's non-perishable and it will still be good when the next two-inch blizzard strikes a couple of years from now.

I know you just want to panic when the power goes out and takes the electric stove with it, but do you realize how easy it is to cook up a pot of Campbell's soup over a can of Sterno? Why not grab some of those instead of all that bread and milk? Or canned fruit. Or packaged nuts. Or granola bars, for cryin' out loud. Something you can actually live on for a day or two. I saw a picture online of some guys lining up with beer and chips. Great idea if you like warm beer. No power, remember? Again, I guess you could just slip some Buds in a snowbank, but really........

Old habits die hard, and that's really all it is. There's no logical reason whatsoever for terrorizing grocery store clerks and herniating bread and milk deliverymen other than the fact that your mama did it and your grandmama did it and your great-grandmama did it, and so on. It's time to break the cycle. Get therapy if you need to, but stop the bread and milk madness!

I gotta go now. My wife just got home with groceries........including a gallon of milk......and I've got a loaf of bread in the oven.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Eggs Are Back! So Eat a Frittata

Viva l'Uovo!

Once upon a time, we lived in a world where people simply ate. They ate what was available; they ate what was fresh; they ate what was local; they ate what nature provided. Nobody counted calories or milligrams of this, that, or the other. They ate things they liked just because they liked them. And, by and large, they were a happy people who lived long and healthy lives. And then food science was invented and it all went to hell in a hand basket.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. Food science came about because we started treating our food like a science project. We “enhanced” it, we “fortified” it, we “processed” and “preserved” it and filled it full of “additives.” And in so doing, we created a society of the most obese, disease-ridden people ever to populate the planet. In an effort to safeguard our waning health, food scientists came along to help guide us down the righteous paths of good nutrition. Unfortunately, as so often happens with trailblazers and pathmakers, they didn't know where they were going themselves. They were just winging it based on the information they had and hoping for the best. And this has led to a lot of dead ends on the ol' nutrition trail. Like Daniel Boone and Kit Carson of old, food scientists have had to do a lot of backtracking and reevaluating. “Damn! Where did that mountain come from?” “That river's not supposed to be here!” “Ooops! Bigger stretch of desert than I thought.” Such is the case with cholesterol.

I'm of an age where cholesterol has been a part of my consciousness for about as long as I can remember. Maybe less so when I was a little kid, but certainly a major factor in my adult diet. Cholesterol has been the big, bad, bugaboo for about fifty years now. HDL (high density lipoproteins) were the good guys that would save you from coronary disease while LDL (low density lipoproteins) and their companion triglycerides would send you down the slippery slope of fat-clogged arteries to a certain early demise. Dietary science from the '60s, '70s, and '80s said it, and we all believed it.

Well.....not all. I was one of those who always wondered how Grandma cooked everything in lard and Grandpa chowed down on a half-dozen eggs and bacon every day and they both made it well into their 80s. My great-grandmother lived to just a few months shy of 100 and she never counted a calorie or monitored a milligram in her life. What did they do right that everybody else seems to be doing wrong?

In the first place, they ate what was available; they ate what was fresh; they ate what was local; they ate what nature provided. They ate things they liked just because they liked them. And, by and large, they were happy people who lived long and healthy lives. Nobody tried to embalm them with preservatives before they were dead. The fact that they knew what arms and legs were intended for also helped. Can you imagine? They actually had to get up and walk across the room to change the channel on the TV!

Anyway, back to cholesterol. The fat world shook the other day when the nation's top health cops at the FDA decided that maybe cholesterol has gotten a bum rap. Old research has been reexamined and rethought and new findings find that eating foods like eggs, butter, steak, shrimp, and lobster may not significantly impact the level of cholesterol in the blood or increase the risk of heart disease. Hence, they are recommending the removal of cholesterol from the list of “nutrients of concern.”

After analyzing studies and data from the '70s and '80s, nutritionists now realize that all the health warnings about cholesterol shoved down our throats over the years actually caused people to shift to foods high in carbohydrates and sugar, which, conversely, created more inflammatory and cardiac disease processes – and obesity – than the original culprit. Turns out it wasn't naturally occurring fats that were causing all the problems, but our wonderful new chemically created trans fats and refined oils that were killing us off in droves.

In fact, your body needs cholesterol in order to function. That's why the liver produces it naturally and in greater quantities than dietary intake provides. And that's why the new studies are saying, “don't sweat the cholesterol. It's not that big a factor.”

Wha-a-a-a-a-t! Do you mean all those disgusting egg white omelets I've been eating for forty years were all for nothing? That I've been choking down “I Can't Believe It's Not Butter” for decades when I could have been basking in the real thing? In the interest of full disclosure, I wouldn't actually touch either of those things if you paid me to, but yeah, that's about the size of it.

I'm happy as a frog in a pond full of lily pads about butter. As a native son of America's Dairyland, I wouldn't put margarine, that disgusting chemical concoction foisted off by the French on an unsuspecting world, on my table to save my life. Ironic, because margarine has recently been shown to be a substance that will kill you more quickly than bad ol' butter ever would. See? Food science at work. “Butter is bad and margarine is good. Oh......wait.......margarine is bad and butter is good. Or is it butter can be good if it's got olive oil in it and.....and....margarine is bad.....unless it's made with healthy fat like.......oh, never mind!” And let me tell you a little secret; skim milk has never passed my lips, either. I live by the rule “If my grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, I won't eat it.” And in her day, skim milk was something they fed to cattle and pigs. (You younger folks may have to amend that rule and extend it back to your great-grandmother.)

But I'm happiest of all about the revived reputation of eggs. I've always liked eggs. Not six at a time like Grandpa, but I can do justice to one or two at a sitting. And even at the height of the hysteria when egg-phobic ninny-whiners were out there trying to suck the life out of every egg dish by insisting that the yolks were gonna kill us all deader than hammers and that we should all be eating “whites only,” I refused to succumb. There's a cardinal rule in the kitchen; “there's flavor in fat.” And when it comes to eggs, fat's where it's at. All the “killer” cholesterol is in the yolk, but so is all the flavor. Try as I might, I could never stomach the idea of eating a pile of bland egg whites. Not that I tried very hard, mind you. No, indeed. I chose to brave a premature death by eating two or three whole eggs a week, usually with a deadly glass of whole milk and perhaps a couple of lethal slices of buttered toast. Buttered, not slathered with faux-healthy “spread.” And I'm on the cusp of my seventh decade with blood cholesterol that falls within normal limits.

Eggs have long been called “nature's perfect food.” And there's a reason for that that transcends all the junk science we've been forced to endure. Granted, egg whites have some extra proteins in them. Beyond that, they are nutritionally worthless. All the good stuff is in the heretofore forbidden yolk. The beautiful golden center of an egg contains loads of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. All the carotenoids, lutein, and choline in an egg are in the yolk, as well as most of the calcium, iron, phosphorus, zinc, thiamin, folate,and vitamins B6 and B12. So go ahead and listen to the idiots who tell you to throw out the yolk. Better yet, throw out the whole egg and just eat the carton. It's fat-free and you'll get lots of fiber that way.

So now that eggs are officially okay again, let's celebrate with a recipe for the grandaddy of all Italian egg dishes, the frittata. This is one of my favorites.

FRITTATA AL FORNO CON MOZZARELLA
(Baked Frittata with Mozzarella)

Ingredients:

6 eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
salt and pepper, to taste
1 sprig fresh Italian parsley
6 fresh basil leaves
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
8 oz mozzarella, thinly sliced
1 plum tomato, cut into thin rounds

Method:

Preheat oven to 350°.

Combine the eggs and the milk and beat until frothy; add the salt and pepper.

Chop together the parsley and the basil and add to the egg mixture.

Heat the oil in a medium ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Pour in the beaten egg mixture and cook until the bottom sets, 4 or 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add a layer of cheese, then dot with slices of tomato.

Place the skillet in the oven and bake until the eggs are set and the cheese has melted, 15 to 20 minutes.

Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Be Grateful for Your Food

Pasta Waits for No One

Let's talk for a moment about gratitude. There doesn't seem to be a lot of it going around anymore, especially when it comes to food.

To me, one of the most egregious examples of ingratitude is the all too common practice of “wait a minute.” Italians have an old saying: “Pasta waits for no one.” In an Italian household, when the call to the table is given, you drop what you are doing and respond. There is no “wait a minute,” or “I'll be right there.” Such would be considered a dismissal of the cook's efforts. Cooking is love. Food is a gift. To say something to the effect of “what you've done for me isn't as important as what I'm doing right now, so I'll be there when I'm good and ready” repudiates the love and rejects the gift. The only thing that might be more rude than saying that to me is what I'll likely say to you in return. You come to my table ready to eat when I call you, or you can go eat cold leftovers in the garage.

As I said, the art of preparing good food – Italian or otherwise – is an act of love. The cook – the good cook, anyway – does more than just throw a few ingredients into a pot. There is an outpouring of creative energy, of time spent planning and preparing. There is a thoughtfulness and care that goes on each and every plate. A well-prepared meal set on a well-prepared table is the ultimate act of love expressed by the cook toward the family and friends – or even complete strangers – for whom the meal is prepared and the table set. It is an expression of an artist's soul. And you're gonna tell me, “just a minute?” You're gonna tell me that my time and effort and love are worth less than your watching some damn TV show or something? Not in my world.

In my world, as in the Italian world in general, the call to the dinner table is inviolate. It's like a call to prayer. It's an invitation to come together as a family and share the dance of life. When the pasta hits the table, the butts hit the chairs and the dance begins. To say something like, “I'll be there in a minute” is the ultimate insult. It is a rude, classless way of saying, “I don't care about the time you put in or the money you spent. I don't care about your effort or your feelings. I don't care about being a part of the whole. I've got more important things to do.” It's not done in an Italian family and it shouldn't be tolerated in any family.

It used to be tolerated in my wife's family......until I came along. Her brother was one of the worst offenders. Seems like he always had something else to do or one more thing to finish up when the food was served. “Okay. I'll be right there.” Then he'd saunter in when he was ready, meaning the meal was being held in the meantime and everything was getting cold. When I was cooking on his turf, i.e. his parents' house, there wasn't much I could do other than fume. But he made that mistake once when he visited my wife and me at our home. And I do mean “once.” I didn't go all pazzo on him, but I did explain quite emphatically all the things I outlined in the previous paragraphs – love, respect, family, etc. And guess what? It worked. He apologized and explained that nobody had ever laid it out that way for him before. He not only got the concept, he passed it along to his kids and now everybody shows up at the table, ready to partake of the food and the shared family experience.

According to the dictionary, to be grateful means to be “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; to be thankful.” This, of course, is the diametric opposite of being entitled, an attitude I find far more prevalent these days.

People who walk through life with an ineffable sense of entitlement generally feel that everything is due them simply because they exist. It is we who should be grateful to them merely for gracing us with their presence. I know people like this and I suspect you do as well. And it's loads of fun trying to cook for them. I have been feeding such a person at holidays and on other occasions for the better part of two decades and I have yet to receive as much as a simple “thank you” for my efforts. Oh, the guy is quick enough to sit down and chow down, often going back for seconds and thirds. But, far from warm or deep appreciation, I have yet to experience even superficial acknowledgment. It's like I'm expected to feed him just because he's there.

By the definition previously alluded to, cooking is an act of kindness that provides a benefit. Therefore, it is something for which the recipient should be “warmly or deeply appreciative.” It is a gift. And what did your mother teach you to say when you were given a gift? “Thank you.”

The traditional Catholic blessing before a meal includes the words, “Bless us, oh Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty.” Whether from the Lord's bounty or simply from your mom's kitchen, food is, indeed, a gift. Most Protestants go a step further in their invocations, expressing thankfulness not only for the food, but generally including an exhortation to “bless the hands that prepared it.” Both are indicative of a feeling of warm or deep appreciation for our food, although I must admit a slight bias for the one in which the cook gets a little credit.

Recently I read an article in which the writer espoused the theory that the reason many people don't like to cook anymore is because of a lack of appreciation for their efforts. They look upon cooking as a chore and a thankless task because.........well, because they don't get any thanks. Having some experience along those lines, I concur that it can be difficult to muster any enthusiasm to cook for someone who plants his face in whatever you've prepared without ever giving you the slightest indication of approbation. The writer further opined that whiners and complainers are even worse, the thought being that it might be better to have somebody stuff their face in silence than to have them nitpick every morsel that goes down their ungrateful gullet. Here, too, I agree, because the individual I referenced earlier, although incapable of compliment, is quick enough to complain.

I am fortunate to come from a family of good cooks. Generations of my family have been involved in the food service industry. Even those who never set foot in a professional kitchen were outstanding home cooks. To us, food has never been something to be slapped on a plate and thrown on a table to meet a basic biological need. From choosing the finest ingredients to employing the best cooking techniques to plating and serving in the most attractive manner, food has been important to us. Whether a big holiday feast or a simple weekend breakfast, food has been our gift to one another and to those whom we have served. And it is a gift that works both ways. Surely you've heard “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Family, friends, and other guests are always telling me, “you didn't have to do that” or “you didn't have to go to all that trouble.” And they're right; I didn't have to. I chose to because of the joy and fulfillment it brings me. And the only thing I ever ask in return is for the recipient of my gift to be “warmly and deeply appreciative.” Not necessarily effusively or demonstratively. I don't need people to go into paroxysms of praise over my pasta or to wax poetic about my pizza. A clean plate and a “thanks, that was good” is all any cook ever really needs.


So next time you ask, “Give us this day our daily bread”..........remember also to be grateful for it. And for the hands that prepared it.