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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.