Pages

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.