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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!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Getting Rid Of Garlic Breath

Science Has The Answer

Ah, garlic! The bulbous plant of the onion genus scientifically known as allium sativum. It is also known, like its close relatives onions, shallots, leeks, and chives, as stinky. Often called “the stinking rose,” the old joke goes that you should always eat garlic with someone you love – that way you can still stand one another afterward.

Stinkiness aside, garlic is good for you. Research says garlic may help lower blood pressure and may also help lower the risk of certain cancers. And there's the fact that garlic is simply delicious.

Back in less politically correct days, garlic was pejoratively called “Italian perfume.” That slur is based on the erroneous assertion that Italians are heavy users of garlic. They're not. In fact, a lot of Italians don't use it at all. In her seminal work, Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking, the late, great, Marcella Hazan states, “There are some Italians who shun garlic, and many dishes at home and in restaurants are prepared without it.” Indeed, garlic is mostly a Southern Italian ingredient. You'd be hard pressed to find even a trace of it in many Northern dishes. But the myth persists. And so does the issue of garlic breath.

Regardless of ethnicity, when somebody loads up on garlic, you can tell it a mile away. And even if you like the stuff, it can be an odor that is off-putting, to say the least. Despite my Northern Italian roots, I happen to like garlic. Give me a nice dish of spaghetti aglio e olio and I'm a happy camper. I use garlic in a lot of my sauces and preparations, but I also use it in very sparing and balanced proportions. Even so, because garlic can be an overpowering component, lingering garlic breath sometimes still occurs. So what can you do about it? Science, my friends, has the answer.

Body chemistry differs greatly and some people can process garlic quickly and relatively odorlessly. Other people, not so much. You've probably run into a few of those in elevators or on airplanes. It's not just a matter of your mouth; your stomach is involved, too. Since undigested bits of garlic in your stomach can continue to produce a “garlicky” smell for quite sometime, simply brushing your teeth or rinsing with mouthwash often won't do the trick. You've got to neutralize the volatiles in your stomach before they can make it to your bloodstream and into your lungs, to be unpleasantly exhaled as much as twenty-four hours later.

A small study conducted at Ohio State University and published in Food Chemistry and in the Journal of Food Science reveals that certain foods contain the chemical keys to neutralizing garlic breath. According to researchers, compounds and enzymes found in raw apples, raw lettuce, and mint leaves react with the chemicals that create garlic breath. Apples, lettuce and mint leaves are high in phenolic compounds, antioxidants that react directly with the volatile sulfur compounds that cause garlic breath. Those foods are also high in polyphenol oxidase, an enzyme that causes browning in fruits and vegetables. And they contain reductase, an enzyme that helps catalyze the breakdown of organic compounds. Indications are that the enzymes speed up the reaction between the phenolic compounds and the garlic vapors, thereby effectively neutralizing said aromatic vapors. Bye-bye garlic breath.

You've got to admire one of the co-authors in this venture. She really took one for the team. Rita Mirondo munched a whole clove of raw garlic for twenty-five seconds. That would have ended the study for me right there. Then she washed it down with a little cool water that served as the control treatment. She did this every day for several days, following the garlic with either Fuji apples (raw, juiced, or heated), iceberg lettuce (raw or heated), spearmint leaves (raw, juiced, or heated), and hot green tea.

Over the course of the subsequent hour, her colleagues employed a spectrometer to measured the levels of common garlic-breath compounds, such as diallyl disulfide and allyl methyl sulfide, and to test the effects of the various foods and drinks on her reeking breath. The effects of the raw apples and lettuce and the mint leaves were most dramatic. The microwaved test foods, the apple and mint juices, and the hot green tea did less for Rita's breath, but still had some effect. The theory is that the raw foods contain more active enzymes than the cooked ones.

So here's the trick: do as the Italians do and eat a lettuce-based salad after your garlicky main course. Or eat a dessert that contains raw diced or sliced apples. If you can work a little mint in there, so much the better. Or you can just munch on some after dinner mint leaves. Even a postprandial mint tea would help. Or snack on an apple.

The researchers involved admit this was a very small study and a lot of room remains for further exploration. For example, they're planning to evaluate different varieties of mint in the next round of testing. Eventually they are hoping to develop a pill for halitosis, which, if they are successful, should certainly qualify them for the Nobel prize. In the meantime, although an apple a day may keep the doctor away, it will certainly help keep everybody else closer after you've consumed a nice plateful of shrimp scampi or something.

Anybody up for a Waldorf salad?

Friday, December 16, 2016

It's Soup Season

The Ultimate Comfort Food

John Denver released “Season Suite” in 1972. In it he wrote, “It's cold and it's getting colder. It's gray and white and winter all around.” And even if it's not “gray and white” where you are, chances are it's cold and getting colder. In other words, it's soup season.

Soup is the ultimate comfort food. A good bowl of hot soup on a cold day warms the body and the soul.

Soup has been around for a long time. It has existed in some form or another since about 20,000 BC. The form with which we are most familiar today, however, has only been around since 1897. That's when Dr. John T. Dorrance, a chemist with the Campbell Soup Company, invented condensed soup, or “canned” soup, as most people call it. That's something of a misnomer anymore since not all canned soups are condensed. Canned “ready-to-eat” soups are accounting for a growing segment of the soup market. Dry soup mixes, reconstituted with hot water, are also a popular option.

Those are all fine, but when it comes right down to it, none of them hold a candle to a steaming hot bowl of hearty homemade soup. As with most prepackaged foods, there are many reasons to choose homemade soup over the canned and boxed varieties. For one thing, homemade soup is cheap. It costs little to make and goes a long way at the table. Soup is easy to make and doesn't require a lot of special knowledge or equipment. Soup is satisfying. It's great for weight loss because it fills you up without actually filling you up – or out. But the best thing about making homemade soup is the control you have over the quality of the ingredients.

When you make soup at home, you know what you're putting in it. You know how long the carrots have been languishing in the refrigerator, how crisp and fresh the celery is, whether or not the onions have sprouted. You can season the soup according to your own palate. You can also add or leave out ingredients as your taste dictates. For example, you can leave out the high fructose corn syrup and the monopotassium phosphate that's in condensed Campbell's Classic Tomato soup and you can use real celery instead of celery extract. You can also eliminate the 480 mg of sodium contained in each serving of Campbell's. The “ready-to-eat” Progresso Tomato Basil soup fares a little better. There's no HFCS in it, but it's still not prepared exactly the way I'd make it at home. I don't use corn syrup solids, soybean oil, or modified food starch in mine. And mine doesn't deliver a whopping 680 mg of sodium per serving. And don't get me started on the reconstituted dried stuff. Besides the 540 mg of sodium each serving delivers, I never use maltodextrin, autolyzed yeast extract, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, dextrin, corn syrup solids, and “natural” flavors in my tomato soup and you shouldn't use them in yours either.

“But it's so convenient,” you cry. “Just open the can.” Your freezer is convenient, too. Just open the door. Most homemade soups freeze really well, so make up a big pot of soup, enjoy it for dinner on a cold evening, and then portion it and freeze it for cold evenings to come.

All that said, let's move on to some delicious, hearty soups you can make at home.

Have you ever had the Chicken & Gnocchi soup at Olive Garden? It's not particularly Italian but it is actually pretty good. Good enough that I cloned the recipe and make it at home on a regular basis.

Here's what you'll need:

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1/4 cup finely diced celery
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups milk
½ cup heavy cream
1 (15-ounce) can low sodium chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground pepper (white, if possible)
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried parsley flakes
1/2 cup finely shredded carrots
1/2 cup diced cooked chicken breast
8 to 12 oz gnocchi, fresh or prepackaged

A note about the gnocchi: I seldom use prepackaged gnocchi simply because made-from-scratch gnocchi is better and so simple to make. The packaged stuff is okay in a pinch, but you really should try making your own. And as far as the chicken goes, if you don't happen to have a cooked chicken breast around, you can use canned chicken if you really must. Another better alternative is cut up supermarket rotisserie chicken. You can also make the soup without any chicken at all. It's still delicious.

And here's what you do:

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter into the oil.

Add the onion, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally until the onion becomes translucent. Whisk in the flour and cook for about 1 minute. Stir in the milk and cream. Simmer until thickened. Stir in the chicken broth. Simmer until thickened again. Stir in about 1/4 teaspoon of salt, a couple of grinds of pepper, the thyme, parsley, carrots, chicken, and gnocchi. Simmer until the soup is heated through.
Before serving, season with additional salt, if necessary. Serve hot in warmed bowls.

Serves 4

Here's an easy vegetable soup you and your family will enjoy:

You'll need:

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, sliced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 medium onion, diced
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
2 (14-ounce) cans vegetable broth
1/2 cube chicken bouillon
1 medium potato, diced
1 (15 oz) can diced tomato
1/4 teaspoon dried basil, crushed
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup orzo, ditalini or other small pasta

And here's what you do:

Heat the olive oil in a 3-quart saucepan over medium high heat. Add onions and saute until translucent, 3 or 4 minutes. Add garlic, carrots and celery, cook until tender, another 4 or 5 minutes. Add vegetable broth and bouillon, then add tomatoes, potatoes and seasonings. Bring to a low boil.

Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add pasta and continue to simmer uncovered for another 10 to 15 minutes.

Serves 4 to 6

Finally, after I spent so much time talking about tomato soup, here's a great recipe for creamy tomato basil soup:

Here's what you'll need:

4 tbsp butter
1 small red onion, diced
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3 cups (1 12 oz can) canned diced tomatoes
2 cups heavy cream
3 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste

And here's what you do:

Over medium heat, melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. Add red onions and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add chicken broth, tomatoes and heavy cream, bring to a simmer and reduce by half, about 30 minutes.

Puree the soup in a blender, food processor, or with an immersion blender. Stir in 2 tbsp chopped basil, salt, and pepper. Be extremely careful blending hot liquids in a blender! Steam can create pressure that will literally blow the lid off if the stopper is left in place. Best to remove the stopper and cover the opening with a towel.

Garnish with remaining basil and tomatoes and serve.

Serves 4

Buon appetito!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

More On Fake Italian Food: Just Because It Sounds Italian.....

Just Because It Ends In A Vowel Doesn't Make It Italian

There's an old saying in the South: “Just because a cat has kittens in the oven don't make 'em biscuits.” You can also apply that maxim to Italian food. Something like “just because it ends in a vowel doesn't make it Italian.” Not as pithy, I know, but still true.

Nobody can argue that Italian is among the most popular cuisines on the planet. And justifiably so. Real, authentic Italian food is fresh, natural, simple, seasonal, and delicious. And because of its popularity, Italian is also one of the most counterfeited cuisines on the planet.

It's all about marketing, my friend. Everybody and his brother wants to jump on that Italian bandwagon to make a quick buck. And though there's no evidence P.T Barnum ever really said “there's a sucker born every minute,” the sentiment is nonetheless accurate. Or to (mis)quote H.L. Mencken, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

See, ad men long ago figured out that it's easy to make something sound Italian: all you have to do is add a vowel to the end of almost any word and ecco! – instant Italian! Go ahead, try it for yourself. It's a fun parlor game even if it is insulting and denigrating to an entire culture. It's also easy to completely make up “Italian” words. Just hang together three syllables, accent the second syllable, and make sure the last syllable ends in a vowel, preferably “a,” “i,” or “o.” Ta-dah! Something “Italian” to stick on the label of your cheap, inauthentic product. But who cares? As long as it sells pizza or spaghetti, right?

Well, it turns out somebody does care. While there's obviously a matter of cultural pride involved, there's also a huge economic impact. Some Italian politicians want to impose an all-out ban on the “Italian-sounding” names used to give cheap frozen pizzas and crappy packaged risottos an Italian image. Nicola Danti, MEP of the Socialist and Democrat party, calls it “an odious and unfair commercial practice,” and he's calling on the EU to take action against blatantly misleading labeling. Danti goes on to note that said practice “affects not only Italian agricultural producers and the entire European agro-food sector, but also the credibility and trust in all the products sold in the European Internal Market.” Traditional Italian food products like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, Aceto Balsamico di Modena, and a host of others are staples of Italian agriculture and represent a substantial portion of the nation's economy. According to the Italian food industry federation, Federalimentare, counterfeiters who make up Italian-sounding names for their cheap, substandard products are picking the pockets of real Italian food producers to the tune of nearly 18 billion euros annually in the US market alone. Figures cited by Danti estimate the impact in the global marketplace to be as high as 70 billion euros. In North America, the disparity between fake “Italian-sounding” products and genuine Italian food products is about 10:1.

Take, for instance, the Freschetta pizza line. Introduced by the Marshall, Minnesota-based Schwan Food Company in 1996, the word “Freschetta” (pronounced “fresh-ET-uh”) is an obvious Italian fake. There is no such word, term, or name in the Italian language. The word is a made up construct designed to mimic the authentic Italian word “bruschetta.” But the madmen ad men who designed the word did not speak Italian. Had they done so they would have known that “bruschetta” is pronounced “broo-SKEHT-tah” and not “broo-SHET-uh.” Hence, their product, in order to sound really Italian, should actually be pronounced “freh-SKEHT-tah.” But the name is as fake as the pizza.

Then there are companies that take real Italian words or names and apply them to fake Italian products. Like the “Violi” brand of olive oil. What could be more authentically Italian than “Violi,” right? I know because Violi is the surname of the Italian side of my family. “I love this oil,” reads one glowing review. “I got it at Walmart for seven dollars a bottle.” Uffa! The biggest, boldest words on the label are “Violi” and “Extra Virgin.” The fine print, however, tells you it's a “Mediterranean Blend” that is eighty-five percent sunflower oil and only fifteen percent olive oil. The most authentically Italian thing about it is the brand name.

You've got to admit “Prego” sounds Italian. And it is; “prego” is the Italian word for “you're welcome.” What that has to do with pasta sauce, I don't know, but I do know that “Prego” has no Italian roots whatsoever. Back in the 1970s, Campbell's Soup was looking for something to do with their tomatoes other than making soup out of them, and so the “Prego” line was born. Competitor Hunt's makes a pasta sauce, too. But they just call theirs “Hunt's Pasta Sauce.” What's Italian about that? No wonder “Prego” sells more.

Packaging plays a part, too. Dress up any poor quality dreck in green, white, and red, slap an Italian flag on it, call it something that ends in a vowel, and most people will just snap it right up. They don't know the difference and, more distressing, they don't care about the difference as long as they can save a nickel. If it sounds Italian, that's close enough.

Now, to be honest, there is no such thing as an “authentic” frozen pizza. Nor are there any “real Italian” prepackaged dinners on the market. Anybody who buys anything frozen or prepackaged with an Italian name on it thinking they're getting a real taste of Italy does not understand the Italian concept of fresh, natural, seasonal, and simple. All the vowel-ending words in the dictionary will not make frozen lasagna taste anything like lasagne made with fresh ingredients. And I'm sorry, but the Chef Boyardee Pepperoni Pizza Kit they sell at Walmart is.........let's just say Ettore Boiardi is probably spinning in his grave.

Buitoni – maker of various prepackaged pasta dishes – sounds really Italian. But the brand is careful to say that its products are Italian “inspired.” As the official PR story goes, “Guilia Buitoni opened her little pasta shop in Sansepolcro, Italy in 1827; it was quickly a local favourite. The tradition and popularity of Buitoni products continues. Dedicated to using the highest quality ingredients to make delicious pastas and sauces, the Buitoni brand is inspired by traditional Italian cuisine.” Got it? A little Italian lady might have started it, but now it's “inspired.” Buitoni is currently owned by the Swiss-based Nestlé company, which also, by the way, makes Alpo. Hey! “Alpo” ends in a vowel. Does that make it Italian?

In fact, there are a lot of “Italian” products on the market that started out in Italian family kitchens. The aforementioned “Chef Boyardee,” for example. Or “Ronzoni,” a pasta line that goes back to young Emanuele Ronzoni, who emigrated from the small fishing village of San Fruttuoso, Italy, back in 1881. Assunta Cantisano left Italy from Naples in 1914, bound for America with a recipe for the sauce that eventually evolved into “Ragú.” There's nothing inherently “wrong” with these products. Some are actually quite good. It's just that modern commercial processing and production methods have long since sucked anything Italian out of them, leaving them with nothing but their Italian names.

The problem extends beyond frozen and packaged foods. I would hope anybody with an ounce of common sense could figure out that frozen pizza, no matter how many vowels the name contains, is not really Italian. It's another matter when it comes to basic ingredients like tomatoes, cheeses, meats, oils, and vinegars. These are the areas where counterfeiting really takes a toll.

Remember the scandal a little while back wherein an American manufacturer of “Parmesan” cheese was found guilty of adulterating the product with wood fiber filler? And yet, because the crap was packaged in Italian colors and sold as “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese,” the lemmings at the supermarket all bought the stuff and jumped over the cliff, just as the marketing people intended.

Even I can't keep track of all the olive oil fraud going on these days. When I was a kid, the only place you could buy olive oil was in shops in the Italian neighborhoods. Regular grocery stores were stocked with corn oil and vegetable oil and something nebulous called “salad oil.” But then olive oil became a “thing” and the bootlegging began. Remember the “business” The Godfather was in? Life imitates art and the Mafia really does have its fingers in the olive oil trade. Fake extra-virgin olive oil is a major problem globally. And don't judge an oil by its Italian name. You know, like “Violi”?

I was in a supermarket the other day and witnessed two ladies debating over balsamic vinegar. Now, you are not going to find a twenty-five year-aged, four-hundred dollar bottle of real balsamic vinegar on any supermarket shelf in America. The best you're going to get is the common commercial grade stuff. There were several price points available at this store, ranging from around twenty-five dollars down to a bottle that sold for about three bucks. They all had Italian-sounding names like Alessi and Colavita, but apparently Monari Federzoni “sounded the most Italian.” A freakin' sixteen-ounce bottle for a little over three dollars! I bit my tongue clear down to the root.

Real Parmigiano-Reggiano goes for about twenty dollars a pound. A pound of grated crap in a can goes for about seven bucks. Decent Italian extra-virgin olive oil is going to set you back at least twenty dollars for a seventeen-ounce bottle. You can buy a gallon of something with an Italian-sounding name for fifteen bucks at some stores. American grocery store shelves groan with American-grown “Italian-style” tomatoes with Italian sounding names, and generic prosciutto with names like “Del Duca” that never even saw a map of Italy. Can you blame Italian producers for being upset?

Here in the US, we have very few “protected” food products. Vidalia onions come immediately to mind. These onions, by law, have to be grown in certain parts of Georgia in order to bear the name. Italy has more than two hundred legally protected and regulated food products. And because many other countries, the United States included, do not recognize the laws protecting these products, the farmers, growers, and artisans who produce them are being ripped off by purveyors of inferior garbage trying to make a quick buck off their hard work and good names. Again, can you blame Italian producers for being upset?

DOP (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin) and IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta or Protected Geographical Indication) are the two designations that ensure the origin and exquisite quality of the authentic Italian products they include. And they are the only assurance of authenticity. Words like “Product of Italy” and “Made in Italy” are worthless. Take, for example, a bottle of olive oil that says “Product of Italy” on the label. The oil might come from Morocco, the bottle from Albania, the cork in the bottle from Portugal, and the label itself from Switzerland, but as long as they all met in an Italian factory, it is a “Product of Italy.” Of course, I guess that's better than some pasta company in Kansas City trying to pass off its product under an Italian-sounding name.

It comes down to this: if you want Italian quality, buy Italian products, not just an Italian-sounding name. If you don't care about Italian quality, buy whatever is cheapest. But don't expect the same results. Be a label reader and be aware of where the food you put in your body comes from. Whether you're looking for Italian quality or not that's always a good idea.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fazoli's: As Italian As Hot Dogs And Apple Pie

“Fast. Fresh. Italian.” Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad

To start with, I actually kind of like Fazoli's. I realize “actually kind of like” is not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it could be worse. The chain's current advertising hook is “Fast. Fresh. Italian.” To which I say, “Okay, two out of three ain't bad.” I say this because Fazoli's is about as Italian as hot dogs and apple pie. It's the American ideal of an Italian eatery, which is to say it's not very Italian at all.

Founded in 1988 in the cultural hotbed of Italian-ism that is Lexington, Kentucky, Fazoli's was a forerunner in the concept of fast Italian. Originally conceived as a pizza joint, it took Kuni Toyoda, a Japanese entrepreneur, to establish the format and menu as we now know it. Toyoda realized that the world didn't really need yet another pizza chain, but that there was a definite niche for fast-food-style pasta dishes. The early, pre-Toyoda pasta offerings were fairly dreadful: small portions of badly overcooked noodles. Toyoda was instrumental in (marginally) improving the quality of the pasta and increasing the portion size. Soon Fazoli's locations were springing up like dandelions. By the late 1990s, Fazoli's had become one of the most popular and fastest growing restaurant concepts in the country. It currently operates or franchises more than 320 restaurants in 27 states and is looking to expand overseas. The chain's appeal is driven by people searching for alternatives to the standard McDonald's/Burger King fast-food menu of burgers and fries. You've got to admit, nobody else is serving up fast-food spaghetti.

Fazoli's current menu consists of what it considers to be “classic Italian” dishes. Things like Chicken Parmigiano, Penne with Creamy Basil Chicken, Chicken Broccoli Penne, Ultimate (Chicken) Fettuccine, Three-Cheese Tortellini Alfredo, and Baked Spaghetti. And then there are the signature “Submarinos” sandwiches, featuring the likes of Turkey Mozzarella Fresco and Turkey Club Classico. Fazoli's also offers pizza, salads, desserts and, of course, unlimited garlic bread sticks. The problem here is that there's not a single authentic Italian item in the bunch. Everything is Italian-American at best and stuff made up to sound Italian at worst. For some reason, Americans just don't jibe with the idea that Italians don't put chicken in their pasta. In fact, Italians aren't much for mixing any kind of meat in with their pasta. You won't find anything “Alfredo” on an authentic Italian menu, and while turkey is a popular sandwich meat in Italy, piling it high on a toasted garlic sandwich roll with lettuce, bacon, mozzarella, and Parmesan peppercorn ranch dressing is anything but “classico.”

To add insult to injury, the few real Italian offerings on the menu are served up American-style. Dining at the Shallowford Road location in Chattanooga, Tennessee the other day, I ordered a simple spaghetti marinara. Now, they don't actually do spaghetti “marinara” in Italy: it's spaghetti al pomodoro, but I don't want to nitpick.....much. What I got was a heaping plate of bland spaghetti with a lot of red sauce dumped over the top. Sorry, that's not Italian. It may be what Americans have been conditioned to expect, but it's simply not Italian. Kuni Toyoda may have made inroads into introducing pasta cooked al dente, but he didn't quite get there and he definitely didn't do anything about the pasta's flavor – or lack thereof. Pasta has to be cooked in aggressively salted water in order to achieve any flavor of its own. Otherwise, it's bland and flavorless. And once it's been cooked, you can't dump enough salt on bland, flavorless pasta to make it taste anything other than salty. I know. I tried.

On the plus side, the tomato sauce with which they top the pasta isn't bad. The texture is good and the flavor is acceptable for the commercial sauce that it is. If only they would prepare the dish in the traditional Italian manner of finishing the cooked pasta in the sauce rather than just dumping the sauce over the top of the pasta. Cooking the pasta in the sauce for a final minute or two allows the flavors to marry and mingle. Ladling the sauce over the top of the cooked pasta does nothing for either element. But again, it's what American diners expect. I've had one or two customers in my restaurants object to “having it all mixed up.” To them I say, “What does this place look like, Fazoli's?”

Something to which I object is gargantuan portions. I had the hardest time breaking my cooks of the habit of piling enough pasta to feed an entire Italian family onto a plate being served to just one person. Kuni Toyoda succeeded in getting Fazoli's to Americanize their portion sizes. Neither my wife nor I could get anywhere near finishing the portions on our plates. And since we were traveling and boxing up leftovers was not a viable option, the food just went shamefully to waste. But to be fair, Fazoli's only provided us with twice as much food as we could eat. I've been in “Italian” places where I've been served three or four times what I'm capable of consuming – and I'm capable of consuming quite a lot. So Fazoli's is not bad by comparison.

And that's why I say I “actually kind of like” Fazoli's. Despite the advertising claims, it's not “classic” Italian. But it is pretty decent “Italian-ish” or Italian-American. The prices are very reasonable, the portions, while oversized, are not staggering, and the food is largely inoffensive. Service is very fast and generally friendly, two elements upon which Fazoli's prides itself. Fazoli's offers table service, another plus above the common fast-food experience. Much of the food is served on real plates with real metal flatware instead of paper plates and plastic sporks. The atmosphere is pleasant and unpretentious and the restaurants are usually pretty clean. Okay, maybe a little Dean Martin on the radio might have added to the ambiance better than Megadeth or whatever it was they were playing when I was there, but, hey, I'm old. What do I know? All and all, non c'è male.

Among the fast-food gamut of hockey-puck hamburgers, greasy chicken, unpalatable fish, and whatever the hell they put in those tacos, even mediocre Italian looks pretty good. So, if you are out and about and just can't stomach the thought of another anemic, run-of-the-mill burger, don't look for golden arches, look instead for a big tomato in the sky. Try Fazoli's and you might “actually kind of like” it, too.

Locations nationwide.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Add An Italian Touch To Thanksgiving

Pigging Out On Turkey Is Not An Italian Tradition

Thanksgiving is not a thing in Italy. Italy has festivals of thanksgiving scattered around the calendar honoring various saints, but a day set aside strictly to pig out on turkey and watch football is not an Italian tradition. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a whole turkey in an Italian market. Thanksgiving might be observed in the homes of American expats, but American visitors in Italy looking for a traditional holiday meal on the fourth Thursday of November can only hope to luck upon a tourist restaurant serving a close approximation of a Thanksgiving dinner. No, Thanksgiving as we know it is an American-born and bred holiday. But that doesn't mean you can't throw in a few Italian touches.

Most Italians living in the United States have given themselves over to the lure of a big “turkey and all the trimmings” family meal. Most Italian-American families also celebrate the day with a traditional turkey dinner. But both frequently add some recipes with an Italian flair. My family does turkey and trimmings. In fact, by the time I've made the rounds of family and friends over the course of several days, I've usually wound up cooking and serving three or four turkeys and tons of trimmings. I've known some Italians who roast the turkey with Italian herbs and spices. Okay, but not for me. I go with more traditional American tastes for my bird. But I will occasionally “Italian-ize” a few sides. For example:

ITALIAN SAUSAGE STUFFING

Here's what you'll need:

1 loaf Italian bread, preferably day old, cut into 1-inch cubes *
2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
6 mild Italian sausage links, casings removed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 large white onion, diced
4 celery stalks, diced
Salt and pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, sage, and rosemary, finely chopped
Fresh parsley for garnish, optional
*(Otherwise, cut up fresher bread and oven dry it)

And here's what you do:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the cubed bread in a bowl and set it aside. Pour the chicken broth into a small saucepan and warm it over medium low heat.

In a large oven-safe skillet over medium heat, add the sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or spatula, and cook until browned, about 10 minutes. Remove the sausage with a slotted spoon and transfer it to a paper towel-lined plate. Pour off all but a couple of teaspoons of the rendered fat.
Add olive oil, butter, onion, and celery, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add garlic and sauté for an additional minute.

Turn off the heat and add the sausage back into the skillet. Then add the bread and herbs, stirring carefully to combine. Add the warm broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring to incorporate, until all the liquid is absorbed by the bread. Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer your oven-safe skillet to the preheated oven. (If your pan is not oven-safe, transfer the stuffing mixture to a large baking dish.) Bake until the stuffing is slightly browned and crispy on top but not entirely dry, 25 to 30 minutes. Top with fresh parsley, if using. Serve warm.

Yields 6 servings

Mashed potatoes are a Thanksgiving staple, right? Well.........not always. I introduced my in-laws to fondant potatoes one year and that preparation became the new “go to” potato dish for several holidays to follow. And roasted potatoes are always a hit, especially when you give them an Italian twist.

PARMESAN AND HERB ROASTED POTATOES

Here's what you need:

3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (or your favorite roasting potato), cut into wedges
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon pepper, or to taste
1/3 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, finely grated
2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Here's what you do:

Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil for easier cleanup. Place the potatoes in a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with Italian seasoning, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Toss the potatoes to coat evenly. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and drizzle with any remaining oil and seasonings from the bowl. Bake for about 10 minutes. (Baking briefly before adding the cheese ensures the potatoes will cook through before the cheese burns.)

Remove pan from the oven, evenly sprinkle with the Parmesan, and bake for another 25 to 30 minutes, or until lightly golden brown, fork-tender, and done.

Garnish with parsley before serving. Serve warm.

Serves 4 to 6

For another taste of fall with an Italian flavor, try:

BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP WITH PANCETTA

Here's what you need:

2 medium butternut squash
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
6 very thin slices of pancetta
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Sugar (optional)

Here's what you do:

Preheat the oven to 400°. Halve the squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Set the squash on a rimmed baking sheet, cut sides up. Put a piece of butter in each cavity and season generously with salt and pepper. Drape the squash halves with the pancetta slices. Roast the squash for 45 to 50 minutes, or until tender.

Transfer the pancetta to paper towels to drain. Crumble and set aside. Scoop the squash flesh out of the skins into a bowl.

In a large, heavy stockpot, heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil until shimmering. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook over medium high heat, stirring, until softened but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add 2 of the thyme sprigs and the bay leaf. Stir in the squash and the broth and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat and simmer the soup for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Discard the thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Working in batches, transfer the soup to a blender or food processor and puree until thick and creamy-smooth, about 1 minute per batch. (You can also do this with an immersion blender) Transfer the soup to a clean saucepan. Stir in the heavy cream and season with salt and pepper (and sugar, if desired).

Ladle into 6 bowls. Garnish the soup with the crisp pancetta, the leaves from the remaining 2 thyme sprigs, and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve warm.

Serves 6

Buon appetito e felice giorno del Ringraziamento!

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Real Way Real Italians Make Spaghetti

Italians Are The Masters Of Spaghetti

Can there be any doubt Italians are the masters of spaghetti? Even discounting the old “Marco Polo” myth foisted off on a gullible American public in the 1920s by a pasta industry magazine, Italians have been cooking and eating the stuff for centuries. There are hundreds of pasta forms and shapes and thousands of permutations on preparation. There are also a great number of perversions that will never be found anywhere except in Italian-American restaurants in the United States or in a trappola per turisti somewhere on the Italian peninsula. Such dishes include spaghetti and meatballs, spaghetti Bolognese, and fettuccine Alfredo. While these may be Italian-ish, Italian-style, or Italian inspired, they are not something real Italians would ever make.

Nobody can point to a plate of pasta and say, “This is how Italians make spaghetti,” because there are limitless variations according to region, province, town, and even street within a town and individual homes on those streets. That said, there are a few basic techniques that transcend boundaries; things everybody does regardless of region, etc. Perhaps the most basic spaghetti preparation, especially in the southern regions of Italy, is spaghetti al pomodoro; plain old spaghetti in tomato sauce.

I mentioned “perversions” in the opening paragraph. I don't care what your local “Italian” restaurant serves on it's “authentic” menu, real Italians don't do spaghetti and meatballs. Period. No further discussion required. Anywhere in Italy, you can order spaghetti al pomodoro and you can order meatballs. You just can't order them together. Spaghetti is a primo and meatballs are a secondo and never the twain shall meet.

Another example would be spaghetti with meat sauce. Okay, there are abundant meat sauces in Italy. They are called ragù and they are wonderfully flavorful, long-cooking sauces usually comprised of meats other than the American standard ground beef. Real Italian cooks wouldn't know what to do with a jar of tomato sauce and a pound of hamburger. And even if they did, they likely wouldn't serve it with spaghetti, preferring to use a flat noodle like pappardelle or tagliatelle or to incorporate the sauce with penne or another tube pasta. The kind of spaghetti with meat sauce served in the US just isn't a thing.

No, most of the time, if you order spaghetti in Italy, it's going to be spaghetti al pomodoro. And it won't be served in the manner you've come to expect in “Italian” restaurants.

My most recent restaurant venture was not an Italian place. I spent a few months helping out a friend who had a struggling little diner. The diner occasionally ran “spaghetti specials” on weekends, and I kept it on the menu when I took over. But I insisted on a twist: there would be no more piling up heaps of naked, under-seasoned, overcooked spaghetti on a plate and dousing it with quarts of runny red sauce. It would be cooked my way – usually by me personally. And it was advertised as “Italian-style spaghetti.”

It was quite a departure for my cooks. I threw out the first batch of pasta one of them prepared in my absence. It was absolutely bland and flavorless. I asked the guy how he had cooked it and he told me he had put the spaghetti in some boiling water with a little oil. After cringing about the oil, I said, “No salt?” “Well, yeah......a little bit.” “How much is 'a little bit'?” “I dunno. A good pinch, I guess.” “Throw it out. We're starting over.” And I proceeded to dump salt into the boiling water before his widening eyes until it got where it needed to be. I handed him a tasting spoon. “Taste the water,” I instructed. “Tastes like salt water,” he said. “Bingo! And that's how I want it to taste every time. And no oil, okay?”

I explained to him how pasta needs lots of room and lots of water to keep from sticking. No oil necessary. All that yields is greasy pasta to which sauce does not adhere. And I informed him as to how pasta releases starch and takes on flavor during the cooking process. That's why generous amounts of salt are essential in the cooking. It's the only chance pasta gets to develop flavor. You can't add salt to badly cooked pasta and get good flavor. All you'll ever get are salty noodles. I had saved a few strands of what he had cooked. I had him taste and compare it to mine. He was amazed at the difference and said, “I'm gonna start making it that way at home.” That's my mission: converting one cook at a time.

The cooks were also accustomed to holding the cooked pasta on a steam table all day. I put a quick stop to that practice, too. After a fairly short time under those conditions, pasta becomes so bloated and mushy that only an American would eat it. Sorry. It's true. The American palate is so adjusted to the texture of Spaghetti-Os that most Americans don't find anything wrong with overcooked spaghetti. I kept a pot of water boiling on a back burner all day. During the lunch and dinner rushes, I bowed to the necessity of par cooking some spaghetti, holding it in a reach in, and dropping it back in the water on order. Otherwise, we made it fresh from package to plate. Whichever way we did it, the spaghetti was always cooked to just short of al dente and then finished in the sauce, another radical departure for non-Italian cooks.

Again, during peak times, I kept sauce simmering on the stove. Off-peak, we pulled it out of the reach in and heated it up. The best way, the only way, the real way real Italians make real spaghetti is by finishing it in the sauce. Only by cooking for a couple of minutes in the sauce itself will the pasta really achieve any depth of flavor. Otherwise, the pasta and the sauce are like an old married couple sitting in the same room but not really communicating, you know? They're both just kind of.....there. A perfect plate of Italian spaghetti can only come about when perfectly cooked pasta is simmered in perfectly made sauce and then served lightly dressed in a perfectly warmed bowl. Just as the greens are the “star” of your salad while the dressing is merely a condiment, so the pasta should be the “star” on the plate, complimented, not overcome, by the sauce. If you're left with puddles of dressing in the bottom of your salad bowl, you've overdressed your salad. If you're left with puddles of sauce in the bottom of your pasta bowl, you've oversauced your pasta. And no way would I ever, ever just slap a glop of sauce on top of a pile of noodles and call it a spaghetti plate. My Italian ancestors would all take turns coming back to haunt me.

Out of dozens of “specials” I served to the diner crowd – people expecting diner fare rather than real Italian cooking – I only got one complaint from a grouchy asshat who was in a bad mood anyway. “Looks like yesterday's leftovers,” was his enlightened comment. Otherwise, the response was tremendous. We developed “regulars” for the spaghetti. One lady, who came in on Friday and came back for seconds on Saturday – asked if she could buy some of the sauce to take home. Another customer said we beat every Italian restaurant in a fifty mile radius. It's amazing how good plain, simple spaghetti can be when properly prepared.

And here's how to properly prepare it at home:

SPAGHETTI AL POMODORO
(Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce)

Ingredients:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1 (28 oz) can San Marzano tomatoes, whole; (pomodori pelati)
kosher salt
fresh basil leaves, torn
sea salt, for cooking pasta
12 oz spaghetti
2 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed
1 /4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano

Method:

Begin by crushing the whole tomatoes, preferably by hand. If you want a chunkier sauce, this is where you stop. If a smoother sauce is desired, puree the crushed tomatoes in a blender or by using an immersion blender.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the minced onion and a pinch of kosher salt and cook, stirring, until soft, 4 or 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook 1 or 2 minutes more. Don't allow the garlic to brown, or it will become bitter. Add the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for an additional minute.

Increase the heat to medium and add in the crushed or pureed tomatoes. Season lightly with kosher salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and add in the torn basil leaves. Set aside.

Meanwhile, bring 4 or 5 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 or 3 tablespoons of sea salt. Cook the spaghetti to just short of al dente. Drain, reserving about 1/2 cup of cooking water.

Discard the basil and return the sauce to the heat. Stir in a little pasta water to loosen the sauce and bring it to a low boil. Add the cooked pasta to the pan with the sauce and continue cooking for about 2 minutes, stirring to thoroughly coat the pasta with sauce.

Remove from the heat and add the butter and the cheese. Toss gently until the cheese melts.

Transfer to warmed bowls and serve.

Serves 4

Now that's Italian! Buon appetito!


Friday, October 28, 2016

Grocery Store Etiquette: How To Behave In A Supermarket

“Do”s And “Don't”s For The Common Sense-Challenged

Let's face it, grocery shopping is one of life's necessities. I'm in my sixth decade of doing it and, by and large, I still enjoy it. By and large. There are exceptions, most of which are caused by fellow shoppers exhibiting an extreme lack of common sense and/or common courtesy. Neither of which, in the face of the “me” generation, are really all that common anymore. With that in mind, allow me to offer a few “do”s and “don't”s for the common sense-challenged.

Let's start out in the parking lot. What is wrong with people who can't be bothered to walk the extra three feet required to properly return a shopping cart? Is it a genetic defect that causes them to leave it sitting in the middle of a parking space? Or just an inflated sense of importance that won't allow them to use a cart corral or, heaven forbid, to walk back to the store entrance. “Well, they pay people to pick them up” is not an excuse. Those same employees are expected to stock shelves, bag groceries, sweep floors, clean bathrooms, and perform a dozen other tasks for little more than minimum wage. Every minute they spend chasing your cart around the parking lot is a minute they don't have to do something else. And don't get me started on what happens when an errant gust of wind drives the cart you left in that empty parking space into the fender of my car.

And while we're in the parking lot, how about saving handicapped spots for the handicapped? It toasts my toes to see somebody at the far end of the parking lot struggling with a cane, a brace, a wheelchair or something because some useless brat felt particularly entitled that day. And don't talk to me about “invisible” handicaps – unless those so afflicted also have “invisible” handicapped placards, stickers, or license tags on their vehicles. Laziness and an over-inflated sense of self worth are not handicaps.

Okay, we've made it into the store. So here goes:

Do have a plan. When you walk through the door, don't just stop a foot into the entrance way and stand there with a confused look on your face like you suddenly forgot why you're there. If you have to check your list or get your bearings or jog your memory, move on and stop blocking the door for the rest of us who know where we're going and what we're doing.

Do have a purpose, for goodness sake. Pay attention to what's going on around you and don't walk around like a lost zombie. Most stores post helpful signs above the aisles to tell you where everything is. Take advantage of that and move on.

Don't travel in packs. I get it that shopping can be a family experience, and that's fine. What's not fine is having said family spread out across the entire aisle, effectively blocking any chance the lone shopper has of getting through. And how about making your children behave in the store? Enough already of kids running up and down the aisles, pulling stuff off shelves, handling all the merchandise with their grubby little fingers, and generally being a nuisance to other shoppers. I saw a kid the other day randomly opening jars and bottles and examining the contents just because he could. And he could because his oblivious parents were ignoring him as they socialized with other equally oblivious parents. Speaking of which......

Don't hold conferences and reunions in the middle of the aisle. As my old friend James Gregory says, “It might be a law, I don't know.” There's just some force of nature that seems to cause people to forget where they are when they see a friend, a family member, a coworker, a fellow churchgoer, or whoever in a grocery store. All thought of shopping stops while an impromptu reunion takes place. And those of us silly enough to want to “play through” are forced to squeeze by the laughing, chatting, backslapping, handshaking, gossiping group or even to just abort the mission and try another aisle.

In the same vein, don't block the aisles by parking your cart on one side of the aisle while you look for something on the other side of the aisle, usually done with your hand still resting on the handle of the cart, thereby creating an effective blockade for anybody trying to get past you. And please don't stop your cart adjacent to that lone display that further narrows an already too narrow passageway and makes it impossible for people to get by. Push your cart past the display and pull over out of the way.

Don’t leave items you don’t want in random places. “But they pay people to straighten up” doesn't apply any more here than it does in the parking lot. If you decide you don't want something, either take it back and put it back on the shelf where you got it or bring it on to the checkout with you and then tell the cashier you don't want it. This is especially true for perishable goods. Leaving a box of cereal in the middle of the cat food is one thing. Leaving a gallon of milk, a package of ground beef, or a bag of frozen peas out among the dry goods is just stupidly wasteful. The store can't resell that stuff, you know. It has to be written off as waste, which will ultimately wind up costing somebody money.

As you wander aimlessly up and down the aisles, alternately plodding along as you work your way through the merchandise then accelerating around the corner to the next aisle, don't weave from one side of the aisle to the other. Pick a lane, already! I think I was behind you on the highway a few minutes ago. You drove like an idiot there, too.

One more thing: would it really bust your ass to bend over and pick up that box of Hamburger Helper you or some other careless clod knocked on the floor? I know, I know – “They pay somebody to do that.”

Okay, let's check out.

Don’t abuse the Express Lane. The sign says “10 Items or Less” for a reason. Maybe you can fudge with two or three items over, but don't take your cart with a whole damn week's worth of groceries through the “express” lane. You're just not that important.

Don’t use your cellphone at the checkout. It's rude and dismissive, like the cashier isn't deserving of your attention. If my phone rings while I'm checking out, I answer and ask the caller to hold on a minute. I finish my transaction and then resume the call in a place where I'm not holding up the line or being rude to the actual human being standing there in front of me. You'd be outraged if the cashier were to whip out his or her phone and start yakking away while ringing you up. The courtesy street runs both ways.

If it happens to be that you know the checkout person, don't stand there and gab to the point of holding up the rest of the line. If you want to catch up on the latest gossip, exchange phone numbers and talk later. My ice cream is melting. And a word to cashiers: don't carry on a distracting conversation with the bagger or a fellow employee while you're checking me out, especially if it slows you down. If it's a necessary, business-related conversation, fine. But if it's just chit-chat, wait until your break. In the first place, it's rude and in the second place, my time, and that of other customers, is valuable. We don't want to spend it standing in your line listening to you talk about your boyfriend, your work schedule, your plans for later, or whatever.

Do try to be a good neighbor once in awhile. If you're standing there with a cart full of groceries and the person behind you has a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, what's the harm in letting them go first? I know you can't do it for everybody all the time or you'd never get out of the store. But how about a random act of kindness now and then?

When you get to the checkout stand, quickly and efficiently begin to unload your groceries onto the conveyor at the furthest forward spot. Don't crowd the person in front of you or invade their space, but get on with it, okay? You don't have to wait until they are finished checking out before you start. Place a divider at the end of you order to allow the person behind you to do the same thing. And, by the way, items can be placed on the belt next to each other, or even on top of each other. You don't have to line them all up single file. The cashier can handle it.

Here's how I check out: The person in front of me has their stuff all on the conveyor and it's being processed. Space opens up for me to begin unloading my cart, so I go around to the front of my cart, put a divider on the belt if one's not already there, and start unloading my groceries. I stay in front of my cart, allowing the person in front of me plenty of space to finish their transaction. When that person is done, I move forward, pulling my cart behind me and moving it out of the checkout aisle to where the bagger can load my groceries into it, at the same time giving the person behind me ample room to unload their stuff while my stuff is being scanned and bagged. I then go back to the payment area, organize any coupons I might have, get out my loyalty card, my payment card, and whatever else I need while the checker is scanning my items. When the checker is done, I hand over my coupons and my loyalty card and swipe or chip my payment card. I hit the buttons, sign if necessary, and when that's done, I move to the end of the checkout line, giving way to the next person. When the checker hands me my receipt, I accept it, say thank you to the cashier and to the bagger, grab my cart and get out of the store. Simple, courteous, and efficient.

The ones who drive me crazy at checkout are the dawdlers. You know them. You may even be one of them. They are the ones who are apparently surprised by the fact that they have to pay for their groceries after everything is rung up. They must be caught off guard because they have spent the entire time in line chatting with their neighbors, fussing with their kids, playing with their phones, reading the headlines on the tabloids, or just simply staring into space. Now the groceries are rung up and the cashier has presented the total. And now they begin the process of fumbling through their purses or their wallets in search of their coupons, cards, cash, etc. Or worse, their checkbooks.

I don't remember the last time I wrote a check at a grocery store. Fifteen or twenty years, maybe? I gave up on seventeenth-century banking practices about the time we moved into the twenty-first century. But there are still those who remain tethered to the past, and that's okay. Just be a little organized about it. You know you are paying by check, right? So why not have your checkbook out in advance, hmmm? You could maybe even be filling out the check while the cashier is ringing you up. Then when you get your total, it's just a matter of writing in the amount. But, no. Most people wait until the groceries are all totaled up and bagged. Then they fish around in their purses or pockets for their checkbooks. And then they have to find a pen. And then they have to write the check. And then..... “What's today's date?” “How much was that again?” Aaaaarrrrgggghhhh! Meanwhile, my milk is that much closer to reaching its expiration date.

There's a simple theme throughout all these suggestions and observations: be aware of yourself, of your surroundings, and of the effect your actions have on other people. In spite of what you may have come to believe, it ain't all about you. For better or worse, we still live in a society, defined by the dictionary as “the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community.” By being aware of yourself, of your surroundings, and of the effect your actions have on other people, you can at least promote the “more” ordered rather than the “less” ordered community in the grocery store. We'll have to talk about the highway later.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

More Reasons To Get Off The Gluten-Free Bandwagon

No Medically Or Scientifically Sound Reason To Avoid Gluten

I've never been a dietary faddist. When the cholesterol bandwagon rolled through town, I kept right on eating eggs. When everybody started touting the health benefits of margarine over butter, I continued to slather on the real dairy product. When carbohydrates were being crucified, I baked bread and made pasta. When it seemed that every package in the supermarket sported a “fat-free” or “low-fat” or “reduced fat” label, I ignored them all in favor of real “full fat” food. And in every instance, I've been proven right. Modern food science has been issuing apologies for past mistakes at a furious rate lately, exonerating eggs and butter and carbs and fat and lots of other previously demonized and denigrated substances. Is it too much to hope that maybe it's finally gluten's turn?

Actually, science doesn't really have a lot for which to apologize in the current gluten fad. Few if any reputable scientific studies have ever pointed fingers at gluten as a culprit in any dietary or digestive disorder other than the legitimate case of celiac disease. No, we owe those honors to fad-mongering celebrity types. I honestly don't know what's wrong with our culture that we willingly accept the opinionated pronouncements of airheaded, vacuous, blinkered and benighted music, movie, and/or television “stars” over the studied and documented facts presented by doctors, scientists, and other experts. Line up a hundred people with lots of letters after their names on one side of a room and put somebody like Oprah on the other side, and guess who the great majority of sheeple will choose to believe. It's unbelievable. But there it is.

Aiding and abetting these ridiculous celebrity shenanigans are the enablers in the media who keep ginning up the publicity because it's great feature fodder for slow news days. And then factor in the opportunistic advertising agencies who all know a good marketable gimmick when they see one. I'll tell you right now, ingesting gluten does not make me sick. What makes me sick is seeing the words “gluten free” screaming at me from every package in every aisle of every supermarket in America. I get especially ill when I see it tacked on to products that, by their very nature, are physically, chemically, scientifically incapable of actually ever containing gluten in the first place. I saw something the other day that almost made me pass out: I picked up a bottle of “gluten-free” water! Things are labeled that way just to be part of the fad.

You know what a “fad” is? Here's what the dictionary says: “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object's qualities; a craze.” Yep. That about sums it up.

It is said that when Clark Gable took off his shirt onscreen and revealed that he was not wearing an undershirt, undershirt sales plummeted. Why? Blame it on the cult of celebrity. Everybody wants to be like somebody famous. So somebody famous says, “I stopped eating gluten and I lost a hundred pounds overnight. I feel so much better, my sex life is fantastic, and darn if I'm not taller, too!” Blammo! Celebrity cultists in their millions start vilifying a perfectly good, perfectly innocent naturally occurring protein. There's no science behind it. Just uninformed idiots with a platform and a gullible audience. The perverse logic, such as it is, seems to be, “well, they're on TV so they must be smarter than I am.” And if you're an easily led person prone to the influence of the siren song of celebrity, if Dr. Oz tells you that you can keep your hair by rubbing horse manure on your head, you're gonna go out and find a stable.

H.L. Mencken is (mis)quoted as saying, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” And I swear they must have that engraved on a plaque somewhere in every ad agency in the United States. If tomorrow some celebrity goofball were to stand up in front of a camera and aver that pig snouts were the answer to all your health and wellness issues, I promise you it would be about two weeks before every product in every store would feature a picture of a pig and the words “made with real pig snouts” on the package. If you believe for one skinny second that ConAgra and Kraft and Pepsico and the like are concerned about your health and well being when they slap “gluten-free” on everything from apples to zwieback, you are seriously deluded. Big Food and its marketing machinery can play a food fad like a flute and they just sit back and watch the bucks inflate their coffers as the idiots dance to their tune.

I'm not going to go into a lengthy discussion of gluten here. Simply put, gluten is a general name for certain proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley, proteins that help foods maintain their shape and structure by acting as a sort of natural glue. There is nothing intrinsically or inherently “unhealthy,” “bad”, or “evil” about gluten. And unless you have a specific disorder called celiac disease, a condition wherein the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine, there is no medically or scientifically sound reason to avoid the substance.

“Well, I don't have celiac, but I'm gluten intolerant.” No, you're probably not. Because research indicates there ain't no such thing. A study conducted by the Department of Gastroenterology, Eastern Health Clinical School, Monash University, Box Hill, Victoria, Australia concluded: “In a placebo-controlled, cross-over rechallenge study, we found no evidence of specific or dose-dependent effects of gluten in patients with NCGS [non-celiac gluten sensitivity] placed diets low in FODMAPs [fermentable, oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols].” In non-scientific terms, it's all in your head.

One of the authors of the study, Professor Peter Gibson, says the real reason many people who have eliminated gluten from their diets claim to feel better or sexier or healthier or whatever is simply because they've changed their diets. People hear about “going gluten-free” from some talking head or another and they go out and start buying fresh vegetables. They stop eating processed crap and they just start cooking and eating a lot better in general. So while it may seem on the surface that cutting out the gluten is what helped them lose the weight, or cleared up their complexion, or made them taller, or whatever the ridiculous claim might be, in reality, as Gibson says, “Blaming the gluten is easy, but you could point to about a hundred things they're doing better.”

Imagine a man standing in a pouring rain getting soaking wet. Another man comes along and hands him an umbrella and a packet of magic powder. The second man tells the first that he will stay dry if he raises the umbrella and stands under it while throwing the magic powder into the air. The first man does as he is instructed, and upon finding himself staying dry as promised, he proceeds to go out and tell everyone he knows about the wondrous magic powder. Far-fetched? No more so than the miraculous claims of the “gluten-free” crowd. When it comes to dietary health and wellness, there are no magic powders. That's a hard-sell in this day and age, because nobody likes to think that all the alleged benefits they reap from listening to some celebrity spokesperson about the glories of going gluten-free might just be psychological.

Here's some more food for thought: the “gluten-free” craze may actually be damaging to your health. It's a basic premise of food science that everything is a trade off. When you make something “low fat” or “sugar free,” you take something out of a food that you have to replace with something else. Often that something is an artificially, chemically produced additive that is far worse for you than the original natural substance ever was. Or it could be something like salt. Take a gander at the label of your favorite “fat-free” snack. Yeah, they took out the fat, alright, but they doubled down on the sodium to make up the flavor difference. Same thing happens with “gluten-free” products. They've got to replace the gluten with something else for texture or taste. According to research conducted by places like Columbia University Medical Center, many gluten-free products contain higher amounts of fat and sugar and lack fiber, protein, and a lot of nutrients such as folate, iron, and B vitamins. That leaves us with a whole line of products on grocery store shelves that have less fiber, protein, and vitamins and more sugar and sodium in their gluten-free formulations than they have in their supposedly less healthy ones.

This is especially problematic for kids. Okay, moms. Maybe it's alright for you to risk your health based on the wisdom of some “personality” who couldn't even qualify for the low “star” standards of “Dancing With The Stars”. But does that mean you have the right to inflict your gullibility on your growing and developing children? Why don't you try getting your health advice from the Journal of the American Medical Association rather than from People Magazine? Or maybe you could check out the Journal of Pediatrics, where it was recently published that “increased fat and calorie intake have been identified in individuals after a GFD [gluten-free diet]. Obesity, overweight, and new-onset insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome have been identified after initiation of a GFD.”

Here's the science, not the gossip: for people who don't have a medical condition like celiac disease, there are no proven health benefits to a “gluten-free” diet. Period. Furthermore, without proper nutritional guidance, cutting out foods with gluten can lead to nutritional deficiencies and increased fat and calorie intake, especially among children.

I'm not going to reach everybody with this message. I'm a realist and I understand that many of the rabid gluten-free dieters out there will say something along the lines of, “Stuff it, bozo. I know what I feel so you can just take your opinion and sit on it.” To them I say, “more power to you.” To everybody else I would plead stop the craziness and stop listening to the crazies. Get off the bandwagon and into the kitchen. Get rid of the packaged chemistry sets that masquerade as processed foods and start cooking with fresh, natural ingredients. Practice balance and moderation in your diet and before you know it you'll lose weight, feel better, be sexier, have clearer skin, keep your hair, make more money, and maybe even be taller. Who knows? It won't be a matter of being gluten-free or fat-free or carb-free or anything else that requires being brain-free. It's just common sense, a commodity unfortunately uncommon among the senseless followers of celebrity fads.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Best Way To Cook Bacon

Start With A Quality Product

Can there be any doubt about the allure of bacon? Or the oft repeated fact that bacon makes everything better?

Bacon happens to be the first food I learned to cook. Back when I was about seven years old, I used to beg for bacon at breakfast, lunch, and supper. Finally, my long-suffering mother broke down and taught me how to cook it myself so that she wouldn't have to deal with my constant demands for what the USDA defines as “the cured belly of a swine carcass.” Such an inelegant description of ambrosia!

Since I intend here to instruct on the cooking of bacon rather than to expound on its character, I won't go into the different types of bacon (back bacon, jowl bacon, cottage bacon, middle bacon, streaky bacon), or the different curing processes (dry cured, wet cured, sugar cured, applewood smoked, hickory smoked, unsmoked). Let's just assume we're dealing with ordinary strips, slices, or rashers of good old grocery store bacon.

Well, let me stop myself there for a minute: the best way to cook bacon is to start with a quality product. Generally speaking, that means looking beyond the meat counter at the grocery store. That's not to say you can't find good bacon at the supermarket. In the U.S., Oscar Mayer is probably the top of the line national brand, but Hormel makes some good stuff and there are lots and lots of other fine quality national and regional brands to choose from. Local and store brands are an "iffy" proposition. Publix has an excellent private label bacon, but I have not found many other store brands that compare favorably to the more expensive name brands. And none of the local, regional, or national brands compare with the exceptional product being produced by artisans like Tennessee's Allen Benton. Benton's Bacon, procured only online or at the Benton's SmokyMountain Country Hams smokehouse in Madisonville, Tennessee, will change your life. There's a reason Michelin starred chefs from coast to coast swear by the stuff. Iowa's Vande Rose Farms also produces a superior bacon as do the folks at Neuske's in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, these products – when and where you can find them – are gonna cost you more than the common brands. You can't buy quality bacon for a dollar a pound.

Case in point: I have a relative who is absolutely, positively convinced that store brands and economy brands are every bit as good as name brands. I can't convince him that saving pennies on the cheapest stuff he can buy sometimes winds up costing more in the long run. So when I went shopping with him, I bought a pound of Hormel Black Label bacon and he bought his usual cut rate store brand. I cooked up batches of both and laid them out side by side on a plate. My bacon had minimal shrinkage. Each piece cooked up to a length of between five and six inches. It retained a nice even strip of lean meat throughout. It cooked evenly and had a wonderful, rich, smoky flavor. His bacon shrank down to uneven little pieces of curled up fat barely three inches in length with practically no lean meat on them. And it was absolutely flavorless. But, by golly, it was sixty-five cents cheaper than my Hormel! You get what you pay for.

Okay, back to the kitchen. You've chosen your bacon, now choose your cooking medium. I learned to cook bacon on a steel flat top grill plate, and I've used everything from electric griddles to toaster ovens to broilers to non-stick cookware. And, of course, there is always the microwave. But for my money, nothing works better than frying up your bacon on the stovetop. And for that, nothing beats cast iron. A well-seasoned cast iron skillet or griddle and bacon are just made for each other.

Begin by taking your bacon out of the refrigerator ten or fifteen minutes before you intend to use it. The slices will separate a little easier. If you must use fresh from the fridge cold bacon, a rubber spatula or the dull side of a butter knife slid along the length of the slices with a slight rocking motion should help separate them neatly.

Start with a cold pan. This will help reduce the amount of splattering. Splattering occurs in part because of the quick salt-brining wet-cure method used by most of today's meat processors. The liquid soaks into the meat, and when water hits hot oil – well, you know what happens. Starting cold and cooking low and slow will keep the snapping, crackling, and popping to a minimum.

Low and slow is always the way to go. Never exceed medium-low to medium heat. Bacon can go from barely cooked to barely edible in about two seconds if you're not careful. Watch it carefully and turn it frequently. Now, some people use tongs or a fork to turn bacon. I use a standard kitchen turner. Some people call it a pancake turner, others just call it a spatula. Whatever you call it, here's why I use it instead of a fork or tongs; not only can I turn the bacon over cleanly and easily, I can also press it down. Pressing the bacon while cooking it keeps the slices from curling up and produces nice flat, evenly cooked slices. They sell bacon presses to do the job, some of them cutely shaped like pigs, but I just press down with my turner to get the same effect.

From the “did you know” department; did you know that older bacon cooks – and burns – quicker than fresh bacon? So watch the stuff from the package you opened last week. And, obviously, thick sliced bacon cooks more slowly than thin.

Don't overcrowd your pan. Cooking in small batches might take longer, but it will yield better quality results. Some people cut the slices in half. Meh. Leave 'em long. They're gonna shrink anyway. If you're going to make several batches, drain off the excess grease in the pan after each batch. Or after every other batch at most. Otherwise, you're basically shallow-frying the bacon in its own grease and it won't come out as nice and crispy that way.

As with most cooking techniques, practice makes perfect. Only you know how soft or crisp you like your bacon. It's a real challenge when I make breakfast for a particular couple of friends. He likes his bacon really soft, barely cooked. She likes it crisped, but not overdone, which is the way I prefer it, too. My wife, however, likes hers cooked really crisp, almost to the point of burning. I usually manage to please everyone. It's all a matter of watching and timing.

Finally, remove the bacon from the pan and lay it out on a double layer of paper towels. Allow the towels to absorb the grease and blot it off the top of the slices, as well. If the cooked bacon is going to have to sit for awhile while you cook eggs, make toast, or whatever, you might try setting your oven on "warm" and sticking the bacon in there on a plate to keep it nice and warm for serving.

Another increasingly popular method involves the oven for actually cooking the bacon rather than just keeping it warm. I've done it this way and I am not a real fan of the method. It's commonly done in high-volume restaurant kitchens and it is cleaner and more convenient if you're cooking a lot of bacon. But there's something about the texture. I can always tell pan fried bacon from oven baked.

If you really must cook your bacon in the oven, set your rack in the middle portion of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°. Lay your bacon out on a rimmed baking pan lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Better yet, a slotted broiler pan, if you have one. If not, a wire rack placed in the baking pan works, too. Using the rack or the slotted pan allows the grease to drip away as the bacon cooks rather than having the bacon poach in its grease. The bacon will be crisper when cooked on the rack and softer directly on the pan. Your preference. Once the oven once reaches temperature, place the pan on the center rack and cook the bacon for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on it. If too much fat starts to accumulate, take the pan out and drain it off. When it's done, remove the bacon and drain it on paper towels.

The advantages to this method are many: you can cook a lot of bacon at once – a whole pound, if you want; the bacon will cook absolutely flat with no curling; you don't have to turn it or tend it; there's more space on the stovetop for other things; and cleanup is a breeze. All that said, it's still my second favorite method. Call me stubborn and old-fashioned.

My least favorite way to cook bacon is the microwave. Yeah, it cooks in a jiffy, but the results are.....unpalatable at best. The only time I cook bacon in the microwave is if I'm going to crumble it for “bacon bits” in a salad or on a baked potato. The microwave excels at making bacon dry and crunchy.

If you really, really must use the microwave, you can either employ one of those nifty, grooved microwave bacon cookers you see on TV or you can just use a microwave safe plate. Either way, lay the bacon out so its not touching. Otherwise it will fuse into a large, crispy mass and be very difficult to separate. Cover the bacon with a paper towel, unless you're really into cleaning the microwave. Just lay the towel over the bacon gently. Don't press it down or you'll have loads of fun trying to remove the little bits of paper towel that will invariably cook into your bacon. Rule of thumb; one minute cooking time per slice. But, as all the microwave instructions disclaim, microwave temperatures do vary according to the power of the oven, so watch it carefully. If it looks like it needs a little more cook time, do so in 30 second intervals. You'd be surprised how much difference there is between 30 and 45 seconds. I've had bacon go from soggy to rigor mortis in that little interval. Watch it. No need to drain, but get the cooked bacon off the paper towels as quickly as possible. The bacon is likely still cooking for a few seconds after you take it out of the microwave and it will cook itself right onto your paper towels if you don't remove it quickly. And be careful; that plate and those greasy paper towels are going to be hot.

There you have it: fry your bacon for best results, bake it if you're cooking a lot and want easy cleanup, and microwave it only when you're desperate.

James Beard said it: “There are few sights that appeal to me more than the streaks of lean and fat in a good side of bacon, or the lovely round of pinkish meat framed in delicate white fat that is Canadian bacon. Nothing is quite as intoxicating as the smell of bacon frying in the morning, save perhaps the smell of coffee brewing.” But that's another subject entirely.