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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!

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.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Celebrate Being Italian -- Even If You're Not

It Works For The Irish!

As established by Presidential Proclamation, October is National Italian- American Heritage Month, a time set aside to recognize the many achievements and contributions of Americans of Italian descent as well as of Italians in America.

I sort of straddle the line. I'm not an “Italian in America” because my ancestors left Emilia-Romagna a long time ago. And I don't have a dog in the hunt when it comes to an “Italian- American Heritage” because said Emiliani ancestors originally landed in Canada. But I'm still an “American of Italian descent,” I still have an Italian birthright, and October is a great time to celebrate it.

I think anybody can be Italian in October if they want to be. Looking at the impact Italians have had on this side of the pond, everybody should be at least a little Italian this time of year. Hey! It works for the Irish every March 17.

Undoubtedly, the Italian with the greatest impact on America was the man commonly (if incorrectly) credited with discovering America, Christopher Columbus. Although he sailed under a Spanish flag, Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa in present-day Italy. In his native dialect his name was Christoffa Corombo. In Italian, the name translates to Christoforo Colombo, which, in turn, anglicizes to Christopher Columbus.

Of course, there's a lot of retrospective revisionist PC-ness going on these days, and in many circles Columbus has been stripped of his title and vilified as a bringer of disease, doom, and destruction. Modern scholarship tells us that the Vikings got to North America centuries before Columbus and that the Chinese, the Russians, the Arabs, and even the Polynesians deserve part of the credit for discovering America. Be that as it may, Columbus was still the guy who made the most of the whole thing. Regardless of whether or not he was the “discoverer,” he was the man in the right place at the right time with the right political connections and the right publicity machine. So he's the one who gets his own holiday in October and who has streets, cities, counties, provinces, and even a country (Colombia) named after him. Sorry, Leif Ericson.

Many Italian-Americans observe Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage. The Italian population of New York City organized the first such celebration on October 12, 1866. A few years later, in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation recognizing the 400th anniversary of the “discovery” of America. Colorado became the first state to officially observe Columbus Day in 1905. And in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt declared October 12 to be a federal holiday, designated as Columbus Day. (The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1968, moved the date to its current second Monday in October.) The day is often designated in many communities as Italian-American Day or Italian-American Heritage Day.

Another Italian, this one from Florence, had a big impact on America: he gave America its name. Amerigo Vespucci was a navigator, a cartographer, and an explorer in his own right. He was actually well acquainted with Columbus and was familiar with his voyages of discovery. At the behest of Manuel I, King of Portugal, Vespucci traveled as an observer on several voyages to the newly “discovered” continents conducted between 1499 and 1502. As a result of the publication of his observations, the American continents were named for him by a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, who first used the name “America” on the 1507 map “Universalis Cosmographia” in honor of the Florentine explorer.

The British got a toehold on the new continent thanks to the exploratory efforts of an Italian named Giovanni Caboto. Except when the Brits wrote the history books, they chose to call him “John Cabot.” Like Columbus, he was Genoese, and unlike Columbus, he actually explored the mainland of North America during his voyages in 1497 and 1498. And then there was that other Italian guy, Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European explorer to map the Atlantic coast and to sail into New York Bay. You might be familiar with his bridge, the one that spans New York Harbor today – even though they spell it incorrectly.

The first Italian to take up permanent residence in America, thus becoming the first “Italian-American,” was a Venetian fellow named Pietro Cesare Alberti. At the age of 27, Pietro decided to leave failing fortunes in Venice behind and to seek a new life in the New World. Sailing aboard the Dutch ship De Coninck David (King David), he arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam on June 2, 1635. Taking up initial residence in a house on Broad Street and later farming a hundred acres in Brooklyn, Pietro and his wife Judith were killed in an Indian raid in 1655. If you wander through New York City's Battery Park and find the bronze statue of Giovanni da Verrazzano there, look around for a small stone that commemorates Pietro Alberti's arrival and declares June 2 to be "Alberti Day".

So while Columbus and Vespucci, Caboto , Verrazzano, and Alberti may have been the first Italians in the neighborhood, they were far from the last. A few immigrants trickled in, mainly from the northern regions, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Then the floodgates opened and nearly 4 million Italians, mostly from the poverty-stricken southern regions of Sicily, Calabria, Campania, and Abruzzo, entered the United States between 1899 and 1924. A million more came after the close of World War II in 1945. As a result, “Little Italys” sprang up in cities all over the country. In New York City, “Little Italys” were located along Arthur Avenue in the Bronx as well as in lower Manhattan and on Manhattan's Upper East Side, known as “Italian Harlem. “Little Italys” can be found on Boston's North End and Chicago's Taylor Street on the Near West Side. The Hill section of St. Louis is one of the most popular “Little Italy” neighborhoods in the country. And it was at Il Giardino d'Italia, or “The Garden of Italy,” located at the corner of East 9th Street and Woodland Avenue in Cleveland's “Little Italy,” that an Italian immigrant named Ettore Boiardi – known as “Chef Boyardee” – introduced America to his brand of Italian food.

Today, more than 15.7 million people in the United States identify themselves as Italian-Americans. They make up nearly six percent of the U.S. population and represent the country's fourth largest European ethnic group.

Much is heard these days about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Often forgotten in modern times, however, is the plight of Italian-Americans during the war years when nearly 600,000 Italian-American citizens were branded as “enemy aliens.” They were required to register with authorities and carry cards identifying them as such. They were prohibited from traveling more than five miles from their homes without permission. They were not permitted to own firearms, radios, cameras, or even flashlights – considered to be “signaling devices.” And on the West Coast, they were subjected to an 8 PM to 6 AM curfew. The FBI arrested around 1,500 Italian-Americans between December 1941 and June 1942. Most were quickly released, but about 250 spent up to two years in internment camps.

In odd contrast, an estimated 1.2 million Italian-Americans served in the U.S. military during WWII. The only enlisted Marine in U.S. history to win the nation's two highest military honors -- the Navy Cross and the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor – was Italian-American John Basilone, a U.S. Marine sergeant, who died at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

These wartime conditions left indelible marks in the Italian-American community. Signs and flyers were posted directing “enemy aliens” to “Speak American.” As a result, many Italian-Americans stopped speaking their mother language. Others Americanized their names or otherwise attempted to distance themselves from their heritage. Only recently have some of these antiquated cultural prejudices begun to fade, allowing people of Italian descent to take pride in their ancestry.

Overcoming generations of hardship and cultural prejudice, Italian-Americans have made substantial contributions to all aspects of American life, including food, entertainment, popular culture, law, politics, education, science, and sports. The following is a brief and by no means comprehensive list of Italians and Italian-Americans who have made significant contributions to American society:

In the world of finance, Amadeo Pietro Giannini founded the Bank of Italy in San Francisco in 1904. Giannini is credited with instituting the practice of branch banking in the United States. His Bank of Italy ultimately transformed into today's Bank of America, which he chaired until his retirement in 1945.

Although not an Italian-American immigrant, few can dispute the impact Guglielmo Marconi, “the Father of Radio,” had on America and on the world.

Italian-born scientist Enrico Fermi discovered radioactive elements that led to the nuclear age.

Italian-American inventors made many contributions to ordinary life. Did you have a “Radio Flyer” wagon when you were a kid? Antonio Pasin, son of a Venetian cabinetmaker, made it possible. Alessandro Dandini invented the three-way lightbulb. Bernard Cousino was the inventor of the eight-track tape player and of the automobile tape deck. Think of the Jacuzzi family, developers of the jet water pump, as you soak in your hot tub. Thank Vince Marotta for your morning coffee. He invented “Mr. Coffee.” And when overnight guests arrive, be grateful to Bernard Castro for inventing the sofa bed.

When it comes to social work, Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, spent her life in Italy and later in America working to build schools, orphanages, and hospitals. As the first American citizen to be canonized as a saint (Saint Francesa Saveria Cabrini), she is the patroness of immigrants.

Lido “Lee” Iacocca looms large as an American business icon. Another guy who did well in business was Anthony Rossi, founder of Tropicana and pioneer in the pasteurization of orange juice.

In politics, Fiorella H. La Guardia and Rudolph W. Giuliani stand out as Mayors of New York City, while Mario Cuomo served as Governor of New York. Alfred E. “Al” Smith also served four terms as New York's governor and was defeated by Herbert Hoover in the 1928 Presidential election. Smith might have been New York City born and raised, but he was still the first Italian-American Presidential candidate. His father, Alfred Emanuele Ferraro, changed the family name to “Smith,” the English equivalent to “ferraro” or “blacksmith”. Sons of Sicilian and Italian immigrants, respectively, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito were both appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Where would we be without Italian food and wine? Besides the aforementioned “Chef Boyardee,” Mario Batali, Michael Chiarello, Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, Lidia Bastianich, Guy Fieri, Tom Colicchio, and Rocco DiSpirito are just a few of the celebrity chefs who enrich our lives and our tables. And we can thank Ernest and Julio Gallo and Robert Mondavi for many of the wines that accompany our meals. And let's not forget Domenico Ghirardelli and his fine chocolates for dessert.

Still in a food mode, Jim Delligatti was the franchise operator responsible for the creation of McDonald's “Big Mac.” Amedeo Obici and Mario Peruzzi founded the “Planters Peanut” company. Vincent R. Ciccone started out as a janitor for the “Charms Candy Company", but he retired as President and CEO after patenting the “Blow Pop.” And it was Italo Marcioni who patented the ice cream cone.

Italians have been foremost in the arts since the Renaissance. In America, Constantino Brumidi has been called “The Michelangelo of the U.S. Capitol.”

The world of opera was graced by tenors Enrico Caruso and Alfred Arnold Cocozza, better known as Mario Lanza. Combining opera and food, we have coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini – also the namesake of “Turkey Tetrazzini”.

Award-winning composer Henry Mancini and world renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini dominated their fields.

In popular American music we find: James Francis (Jimmy) Durante, Francis Albert (Frank) Sinatra, Dino Paul Crocetti (Dean Martin), Vito Rocco Farinola (Vic Damone), Anthony Dominick Benedetto (Tony Bennett), Gennaro Luigi Vitaliano (Jerry Vale), Alfred Cini (Al Martino), Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero (Connie Francis), Walden Robert Cassotto (Bobby Darin), Francis Thomas Avallone (Frankie Avalon), James William Ercolani (James Darren), Francis Stephen Castelluccio (Frankie Valli), Salvatore Phillip (Sonny) Bono, Dion Francis DiMucci (Dion), Fabiano Anthony Forte (Fabian), Madonna Louise Ciccone (Madonna), and Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (Lady Gaga).

On the big and small screens: Rodolfo Guglielmi (Rudolph Valentino), Dominic Felix Amici (Don Ameche), Louis Francis (Lou) Costello, Ermes Effron Borgnino (Ernest Borgnine), Alfonso Roberto D'Abruzzo (Robert Alda, also father of Alan Alda), Armand Joseph Catalano (Guy Williams), Harry Guardino, Vincenzo Scognamiglio (Vincent Gardenia), Anthony George Papaleo (Anthony/Tony Franciosa), Vincent Edward Zoino III  (Vince Edwards), Joseph Campanella, Catherine Gloria Balotta (Kaye Ballard), Paul Sorvino (also father of Mira Sorvino), Salvatore Mineo, Jr. (Sal Mineo), Dominick (Dom) DeLuise, Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone, Joe Pesci, Alfredo (Al) Pacino, Susan Lucci, Danny DeVito, John Travolta, Ray Romano, Tony Danza, Stanley Tucci, Marisa Tomei, James Gandolfini, Nicolas Kim Coppola (Nicholas Cage), Scott Baio, and Alyssa Milano, just to name a few.

Italians are big on family, perhaps explaining these artistic duos: Robert De Niro – the father – has paintings on display in the Metropolitan Museum, while Robert De Niro – the son – displays a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Carmine Coppola was a renowned flautist and composer. His son, Francis Ford Coppola, gained fame as an award-winning film director.

Vincent Minnelli was a well-known film director. Daughter Liza Minnelli may be even better known as a singer/actress/entertainer.

Garry and Penny Marshall were brother and sister actors and directors. The family name “Masciarelli” was Americanized before they were born.

Elsewhere in “showbiz,” Frank Capra was an Academy Award-winning director. Animator/cartoonist Joseph Barbera formed half of the team of Hanna-Barbera and gave us “Yogi Bear” and so many other beloved characters.

Speaking of cartoons, Walter Lanza (Walter Lantz) was the creator of “Woody Woodpecker,” and Adriana Caselotti provided the voice of Disney's original “Snow White.”

Speaking of Disney, Annette Funicello and Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli were original Mickey Mouse “Mouseketeers.” Both went on to film careers, she as an actress and he as producer of the “James Bond” series. (And, yes, his ancestors developed the vegetable that bears their name.)

The world of sports would be a very different place without these baseball legends: Joseph Paul “Joe” DiMaggio, Ernie Lombardi, Tommy Lasorda, Lorenzo Pietro “Yogi” Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Roy Campanella, Joe Garagiola, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre. Mention, too, of A. Bartlett Giamatti, the youngest President of Yale University and later Commissioner of Baseball.

On the gridiron: Vince Lombardi and Joe Paterno called the plays, while Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Brian Piccolo executed them.

In the squared circle, Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano, and Jake LaMotta were all boxing champions. And while wrestler and TV personality Hulk Hogan was tops in his profession, his mama called him Terry Gene Bollea.

Finally, if you were ever a 98-pound weakling always getting sand kicked in your face by bullies at the beach, you probably dreamed of being just like body builder Angelo Siciliano. Except you called him “Charles Atlas.”

It's October, so be Italian – even if you aren't – and take pride in the effect Italian-Americans have had on American culture. From their arrival as poor immigrants, often feared, derided and relegated to urban ghettos to their rise to the pinnacle of food, entertainment, law, politics, education, science, and sports, Italians haven’t just contributed to that culture, they have in many ways defined it.