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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. More than a quarter million people all over the world have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers! I promise, I'm not going to spam anybody. I'd just like to know who's out there and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing.

Grazie mille!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Who Says Cooking Has To Be Chaotic?

Cooking Chaos? A Rebuttal

Help me, gentle reader, wrestle with a question to which I truly have no answer: why do so many people consider cooking to be such an onerous chore?

Cooking shows like “Top Chef” win Emmy awards. Crappy and derivative as it has become, Food Network and Cooking Channel programming still pulls in large numbers. A recent Nielsen survey found that one in every five households boasts a "budding gourmet chef." Cookbooks top best seller lists. Retail purveyors of fresh and/or organic ingredients are barely able to keep up with increasing demand and local farmers markets are seeing levels of support unheard of a decade ago. Obviously, somebody besides me likes to cook.

So why is it that the late Peg Bracken's time seems to have come again? A small publisher re-released her heretical “I Hate to Cook Book” a couple of years ago. I say heretical because the 184-recipe tome, first published in 1960, is to cooking what “Nuclear Physics for Dummies” is to building fusion reactors. Bracken, a Pennsylvania ad-copy-writer-turned-cookbook-author, managed to convince more than three million buyers that cooking was a matter of combining cans, boxes, mixes, and other processed foods into the palate-numbing concoctions that defined an unfortunate generation of American cooks; a standard proclaiming that busy, modern-day people have better things to do with their time than waste it in the kitchen preparing fresh, nutritious, and flavorful foods. If you can't make it, fake it. It has taken decades for the pendulum to reverse its swing.

And yet, the sentiment that cooking is a chore to be avoided at all costs still echoes and resonates in some circles. I came across an example of this school of thought in the form of an article written by someone who proclaims herself to be a writer on the topics of family life and frugal living. In my estimation, based upon what I read, she is qualified to be neither.

Her basic premise in this execrable scribbling is that eating out is preferable to cooking at home. She begins her assault on common sense by stating that “the whole dinner routine is an exercise in chaos.” She substantiates this opinion with a litany of whines about how time wasting it is to have to figure out what to eat, check the pantry for ingredients, drive to the store, walk the aisles, stand in line at checkout, drive home, put away the groceries, and then start to cook. Cooking takes an hour, she states, and then there's the time involved in eating (?) and cleaning up. This “expert” on family life considers all this activity to be a waste of time. “You could be doing anything else in the entire world with that time,” she opines, “maybe something more productive or beneficial to you, your family, and your world.”

I'm sorry, but what could be more productive or beneficial than preparing a delicious, healthy meal to share with your family and friends? In her questionable point of view, it's better to spend two minutes ordering take out, enjoying thirty minutes of “free time” while you wait, and then taking one minute to toss the containers. At least she doesn't begrudge her family the time it takes to eat the food, something of a reversal of her earlier position.

My wife and I shop together every week. We love searching the aisles for new things to try and hunting for bargains on the foods we enjoy. And we cook together nearly every night. After busy days spent in pursuit of a dollar, cooking – or “playing in the kitchen,” as my wife calls it – is an integral part of our shared time together doing something we both enjoy. Isn't that rather the definition of “family life?”

Our benighted “frugal living” correspondent goes on to praise the “value” in eating out, stating that she could never make a meal at home for the cost of a restaurant meal. She can get a steak dinner with a baked potato and vegetables for about fifteen dollars, she crows, and it's all cooked and seasoned and ready for her to pick up curbside to take home and enjoy. The same items purchased at a grocery store would cost her more, she says.

I'm a former restaurateur who now cooks primarily at home, so I know a bit about both sides and I have to ask, “My goodness, lady, where do you shop?” In my world, a potato and an ear of corn or a couple of carrots are going to cost less than two dollars, which, according to her reckoning, leaves me with about thirteen bucks to spend on a cut of meat, which I can do with change to spare. Of course, what she doesn't bother to mention is how that fifteen dollar figure relates to a family of, say, four. This “expert” wants me to believe that sixty bucks for a single meal for four people is “frugal living?” C'mon, get real. Let's expand this idea to its ridiculous conclusion. Sixty dollars a night times seven nights a week equals four hundred twenty dollars a week. For dinner alone. That doesn't include breakfast and lunch. Lets allow five bucks per person per fast food meal. Seven breakfasts and seven lunches times four people times five dollars comes to an additional 280 dollars a week. Seven hundred bucks a week to eat out? Sounds “frugal” to me.

Catch this one: this “supermom” says she can only cook maybe five things and none of them well. So she “improves” her family's life by exposing them to “a plethora of new foods” courtesy of various ethnic restaurants. She says she's not about to spend “tons of time and money” on ingredients only to mess up the dish or to find that her kids don't like it. So she heroically offers them a varied diet and the opportunity to “ expand their palettes” (I know; that's not the correct form of “palate,” but she's a professional writer, after all) by not cooking for them. That's just weird. How about this option: learn how to cook!

Far from serving the nutritional, educational, social, and cultural needs of her family, this “family life” writer is sentencing her kids to a life of inadequacy and dependence. I look back on my early life and remember a mother (and a grandmother) who could, would, and did cook anything I wanted. And they imparted their knowledge and skills to my sister and me. As a result, either of us can step into a kitchen anywhere, anytime, and prepare almost anything for anybody. What kind of legacy does the “family life” writer leave for her kids? The ability to read a take-out menu and dial a phone?

Kitchens don't need to be scenes of chaos and cooking doesn't have to be a chore. Whether in a big professional kitchen or a tiny home galley, organization is the nemesis of chaos. I don't have to scramble around looking for ingredients because I know what's in my pantry and fridge at any given time. I “stock up” on basics once a week and hit the store for fresh meats and produce a couple of times during the week. I don't necessarily write out a full menu for every meal – although I know people who do – but I always have some basic meal ideas planned out a few days in advance.

And my kitchen is organized. I don't have to hunt for every pot, pan, and utensil I own because I always know where they are located within my working space. I know people who store their breakfast cereal in the same cabinet as their mixing bowls and their canned goods in with their pots and pans. Yikes! I wouldn't last two minutes in that environment. That truly does represent chaos. A well-organized kitchen takes a lot of the “chore” factor out of cooking.

So does a well-stocked pantry. Inventory is everything in a restaurant kitchen and it should be the same at home. Knowing what you have on hand is essential to efficient planning and cooking and eliminates the chaotic element introduced by the last minute discovery that you're out of milk.

And then there's self-confidence. My mom always told me that Dad used to eat a lot of Jell-O the first year they were married. With a few years of practice under her belt, she was able to run a home kitchen like a pro. I admit that forty or so years ago, I was a “Peg Bracken” cook. There was little that came out of a box or a can that I couldn't “cook.” But as times changed, I learned better techniques. And once you have a sense of confidence in what you're doing, it stops being a chore and becomes something in which you take pride and find joy. You know what they say about the person who loves what they do never having to work again? It's true in the kitchen, too.

Going back to the idea of stocking up and planning, if you're really so time-crunched that making meals every night is an exercise in “chaos,” how about preparing meals in advance? For example, I had family over for ravioli not long ago. I made enough fresh pasta and fillings that I could portion out some ravioli and freeze it. Whenever I make fresh tomato sauce, I always put some up in the freezer. So, a few days later, I transferred some sauce from freezer to fridge in the morning. That night, I put some water on to boil, warmed up my sauce, and dropped some frozen ravioli in the water. While it was cooking, I toasted a little bread, drizzled it with olive oil and rubbed it with garlic while my wife threw together a little salad, set the table, and poured some wine. In about fifteen minutes, we were sitting down to a perfectly delicious meal. So why does it take the “family life expert” an hour to cook? I don't know.

On Sunday mornings, I grab a couple of potatoes from the bin and slice 'em or dice 'em, depending on my mood. I toss them in a pan with a few seasonings and move on to laying out a few slices of bacon on a griddle. While that's going on, I scramble a couple of eggs and drop some bread in the toaster. The eggs hit the pan as the potatoes and bacon come out and head for the plate. Butter the toast, plate the eggs and pour some orange juice. Twenty, twenty-five minutes tops. Better than a Pop-Tart, cheaper than IHOP, and, excuse me, did somebody say something about an hour?

Let me really put a kink in our correspondent's case: I do the dishes as I go. Takes about ten seconds each to wash out the pans as I empty them and by the time I put breakfast on the table, the kitchen is clean. All that's left to wash post-meal are the plates. Chaotic, eh?

This author of misguided missives claims she can only cook five things. Whose fault is that? Used to be I could only drive a vehicle with an automatic transmission. When I got a job that required me to “drive stick,” I learned how. There are formal and informal cooking classes taking place in culinary stores, restaurants, community colleges, recreation centers, and other such venues in towns and cities all over the country every day. And they cater to every skill level. It's not that you can only cook five things, lady. It's that you're too lazy to learn how to cook more.

Hey, “family life writer.” How about taking a class with your kids? Or are there more “productive” and “beneficial” things you could be doing? Maybe we just see the world differently, but I think that teaching a child to feed himself – by means other than dialing a telephone – is pretty damn productive and beneficial.

Okay. The soapbox is starting to catch fire under my feet, so I guess I'd better jump off.

Demosthenes said it: “A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.” And my point is, mealtimes are only as chaotic as you allow them to be and cooking is only a chore if you make it so.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Why Do Chefs Wear Those Funny Hats?

An Explanation of the Elements of a Chef's Uniform

Chefs. You've seen them on TV. You've seen them in advertisements. And you've probably seen a few in real life. But how did you know they were chefs? Why, because they looked like chefs, of course!

Just as police officers, firefighters, doctors, and other professionals sport iconic uniforms that immediately identify them, so, too, do members of the food service industry. And in the same manner that garments and accoutrements worn by these other professionals serve specific purposes, so, too, do the components of the chef's uniform.

Easily the most identifiable component is the chef's headgear. Although referred to by most people as “that funny hat that chefs wear,” it is actually called a toque (pronounced “toke”). More precisely, it is a toque blanche, which is French for “white hat.” Marie-Antoine Carême is probably stirring in one of his sauces because I occasionally wear a black one. In fact, he's probably whirling all the more vigorously because so many modern, high visibility chefs don't wear anything on their heads at all. When, for instance, have you ever tuned into the Food Network and seen Bobby, Guy, or Emeril wearing a toque? Hmmm? Not only is Carême aggrieved, various health officials are probably none too pleased either. But, hold that thought for a minute.

Since I chose to reference “those funny hats” in the title, perhaps a bit more about them is in order. There are as many stories about the ancestry of the toque as there are people to tell them, but here are a few of the more common ones.

One tale includes 6th century chefs among the ranks of freethinking artists and artisans being persecuted – and often executed – for their radical beliefs. In order to escape the ax, these revolutionary cooks took refuge in the monasteries of the Orthodox Church and disguised themselves, adopting the same tall headgear as that worn by the priests. But in order not to appear too blasphemous, they wore gray or white hats instead of the ordained black. Now, the logic of hiding oneself away while at the same time doing something to obviously distinguish oneself escapes me, but that's the way the story goes.

Another probably apocryphal tale relates to some poor schmuck who cooked for Henry VIII. It seems that the hapless chef began losing his hair and he had the misfortune to lose some of it in a dish served to the king. The enraged monarch supposedly had the Royal Chef's male pattern baldness cured at the neck by the Royal Executioner. Henry hence decreed that the next head of the royal kitchen should have a hat on it, and so the tradition began. If you know much about the hygiene of the time, about Henry's personal grooming habits, and about the quality of food that came out of his kitchens, you would seriously doubt that something like a hair in his soup would cause him much consternation. But that's the way the story goes.

A more lofty legend goes back to ancient Assyria, where chefs were highly regarded members of the royal court and were entitled to wear their own version of a crown, albeit one made of fabric rather than precious metal. In this charming fantasy, the pleats in the chef's “crown” were said to emulate the jewel-encrusted metal ribs of the regal chapeau.

It is most likely that the modern toque developed from the woven “stocking caps” worn by cooks throughout the centuries. By the 18th and 19th centuries, members of the French culinary disciplines were becoming more aware of cleanliness and basic hygiene and so decreed that head coverings should be worn in the kitchens. Since white was generally considered to symbolize purity and cleanliness, it was chosen as the appropriate color for the culinary artist. When Marie-Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier, those paragons of all that is French cuisine, began codifying the kitchen, the toque emerged in its present form. It was a symbol of kitchen rank and status: the taller the toque, the higher the stature of the chef wearing it. Today's pleated toques are usually about eight inches in height. Higher-flown chefs can choose a ten or twelve inch variety. Carême is said to have worn an 18-inch toque. This may also have been a reflection of social fashion outside the kitchen, where the height of a man's top hat was commensurate with his social standing.

The same standard applies to the pleats in a toque; the greater the number of pleats, the higher the ranking of the chef. According to tradition, a real chef's toque must have a hundred pleats, symbolizing that a real chef can cook an egg a hundred different ways. I haven't ever actually stopped to count the pleats on any I've acquired or worn, but I have seen paper toques proudly advertised with forty-eight pleats.

The sartorial stratification continues in the style of the toque. There are tall round toques, flat floppy toques, pointy toques, and toques that look like mushrooms. Theoretically, each style represents a different type of chef. Practically speaking, however, many modern chefs eschew the traditional toque and opt for a more functional head covering.

Now, your mama always told you that you lose more heat through the top of your head than anywhere else on your body, right? Right. So from a functional point of view, the tall, stiff, traditional toque acts like a kind of chimney, funneling that heat up and away from the wearer's head – a good thing in a hot kitchen. Even so, many kitchen pros now wear flat caps, sometimes made of disposable materials. Or they wear bandanas, berets, or ball caps. Some just slap on a hairnet of some sort. Although doing so does not necessarily make them look like chefs, it does satisfy the aforementioned health officials, most of whom share the same negative reaction to hair in food as that mythically ascribed to Henry VIII. Perhaps not as extreme. Usually.

Still holding that thought from a few paragraphs ago? Good. That's why it sometimes bugs me to see TV chefs running around bareheaded. It's not “reality television.” In real life, you can bet your bottom dollar they have something on their heads when they step into their kitchens or the local health inspectors will have those bare heads on platters. (A rather unappetizing thought, when you think about it.) The same rules apply in a five-star establishment as apply in your local deli. Believe me. I once fired a cook who wouldn't keep his head covered. His services were not worth the points off my health inspection report.

The TV guys don't always get away with it, either. A recent episode of one of those cooking competition shows featured a hatless chef with long, stringy dark hair, which he kept brushing back out of his face as he prepared dishes for the panel of judges. Sure enough, one of those judges got a hair and the offending chef got a lecture on national television. Good thing old Henry wasn't a judge.

(A side note to home cooks: If somebody buys you a novelty toque of some sort, don't laugh and stick it in a drawer. Wear it when your kitchen gets really hot. If family or friends joke about your toque, tell them, "Hey, it's this or I sweat in your soup." Seriously, cover your head if you tend to shed or sweat. There may not be a health inspector lurking at the door to your home kitchen but, honestly, is hair in the sauce any better at home than it is in a restaurant?)

Moving south, the traditional chef's uniform includes a neckerchief. Go look at a can of Chef Boyardee. I'll wait. There. See that white thing knotted around his neck? That's how you know he's a real chef. That and the hat. (Ettore Boiardi, the real guy in the picture, was a real chef, by the way.) Chef Tony wears a red neckerchief when he sells kitchen stuff on TV. Funny, you never see Bobby, Guy, or Emeril wearing one of those either. How are we supposed to know they're real chefs?

Emeril actually comes close. He usually slings a towel over his shoulder while he cooks, mimicking the original purpose of the neck scarf. Chefs used to use the scarf primarily to mop the sweat off their faces, foreheads, and necks. Then they might give your plate or silverware a wipe with it before knotting it back around their necks again for later use. Along came those killjoy health inspectors and now the neckerchief serves the same purpose as a necktie – which is to say, none at all. But, as Chef Tony will attest, it does make you look like a chef. And the silly things are required wearing at most culinary schools.

Next in the ensemble we have either the chef's coat or the apron. Let's start with the chef's coat, because, after all, you can put an apron over a chef's coat, but you'd look downright silly doing it the other way around.

Chef's coats – or jackets – are generally double-breasted garments made of a sturdy, non-flammable material. Cotton is most popular, but lighter, cheaper, poly blends are also available. The coats come in long, short, and three-quarter sleeve lengths, depending upon individual preference. Long-sleeved coats usually have a wide cuff that can be worn turned up for comfort and safety. Some have breast and/or sleeve pockets for stowing pens or pencils and small implements like instant-read thermometers. The double rows of buttons are often made of knotted fabric, considered by many to be the most durable option. Plastic or even wooden buttons are common.

Besides looking very cheffy, the jackets are extremely functional. The double-breasted styling offers a double layer of protection from spills and burns. It also affords the wearer the option of re-buttoning to present a clean front in the event of stains or spills.

Naturally, they have a French name – veste blanche – and are traditionally white in color for the aforementioned reasons of looking neat and clean. But if you remember when nurses dressed all in white and you take a look at the rainbows displayed in hospitals and medical offices today, it will come as no surprise to you that vivid colors are also taking over kitchens according to personal tastes.

Onto the subject of aprons. Aprons pre-date chef coats by centuries. Illustrations from medieval times depict kitchen laborers in aprons. Indeed, cooks and kitchen workers in the vast majority of common eateries today wear aprons over some kind of comfortable shirt, as do most home cooks. At least those who value their wardrobes. I never saw my grandmother without one. I think she may have slept with an apron over her nightgown.

Be that as it may, the apron is an integral part of the chef's uniform. Its purpose is obvious, I hope. Its major benefit is in the ability to quickly strip it off in case of emergency and to easily replace it should it become damaged or soiled.

Some chefs like 'em long, some chefs like 'em short, and some chefs are in-betweeners. It depends entirely on individual comfort and the desired extent of protection afforded. Most chefs who forgo jackets choose full bib aprons that loop around the neck and cover to just above the knee. However, I do know chefs and cooks who occasionally wear bib aprons over chef coats. I happen to be one of them. Generally, fully jacketed chefs wear aprons that cover from waist to mid-thigh, to the knee, or all the way to the ankle, again depending on preference and on the job at hand. The principle of “the messier the work, the longer the apron” often applies.

Once more, white is traditional, but the rainbow effect is prevalent here, too. Pockets or no pockets are a matter of choice. Unlike the homemaker's apron that ties in a bow at the back, most professional aprons are designed with ties long enough to wrap around the back and tie in the front, thus allowing for a place to hang a handy side towel. More importantly, if your apron catches fire or something, you don't want to be futzing around behind your back trying to untie the thing.

Pants are another area where personal taste rules. Mario Batali wears shorts, but that's because he's Mario Batali. Most kitchens would frown on that practice for safety reasons, even if you did have the legs to get away with it.

Traditional chef pants are of the long-legged variety. Some are equipped with snap closures rather than buttons or zippers so they can be easily torn away in case of fire or hot liquid spills. They are usually straight-legged with no cuffs to catch and hold hot spills. Chef pants are generally rather roomy in cut to allow maximum freedom of movement. (No mooning the staff when bending over the oven, please!) Since they are most often covered by an apron, the pants are comfortably lighter in weight than the jackets, but still are constructed of materials designed for protection.

Black and white houndstooth checks are the traditional pattern. Theoretically, this arrangement camouflages stains. (It's also appropriate if you're a fan of University of Alabama football.) Narrow black and white stripes are popular as well. Solid black pants are often reserved for executive chefs while solid whites are the choice of bakers. I've seen designs that include chili peppers, smiley faces, and other expressions of the chef's sartorial preference. To each his own, I guess.

At the ground floor are the shoes. There are only two constants here: comfort and safety. Full heel-to-toe support is essential to the chef on his feet for long hours every day. But safety is a major consideration, as the feet are the final destination for spilled hot liquids, dropped heavy pans, and the occasional extremely sharp knife headed to the floor after a brief but painful stop at the big toe. No open-toed shoes or sandals in the kitchen, please. They are accidents waiting to happen. Clogs have gotten very popular in recent years. They are comfortable and easy to slip out of in case of emergency. But if clogs are the footwear of choice, they should be completely enclosed. Ventilation holes on the tops will keep the feet cool and comfortable, but will do little to prevent the progress of hot oil.

Escoffier took great personal and professional pride in the crisp, clean image presented by his kitchen staff. He even encouraged them to wear suits and ties on the streets and to project that professional image and attitude wherever they went. Their profession, he felt, was something to be proud of.

I was working at a small community outdoor market a few summers ago, selling fresh baked goods. I was wearing as much of my “chef whites” as was practical for the situation, wanting to present a clean, professional appearance. I was approached by an unshaven and unkempt-looking young man with a cigarette dangling from his lips. He was wearing a stained sort-of-white tee-shirt and a pair of loose-fitting striped pants. As he looked over my wares, he introduced himself as the “head chef” at one of the nicer restaurants in town. Funny, thing; I never went there again.

And I think I heard Escoffier sobbing.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Five Rules Of Basic Knife Care

It's Not The Sharp Knives You Should Be Afraid Of, It's The Dull Ones

I'll be the first to admit that I have way more knives in my home kitchen than I actually need. In my restaurants, I had multiples of just three knives: a chef's knife, a utility knife, and a paring knife. The only “specialty” knife I kept around was a serrated bread knife because you could use it for more than just slicing bread. For instance, it's also great for tomatoes.

At home, I've got every knife under the sun. I have chef knives in 12-, 10-, and 8-inch varieties. I have three or four (or six) different styles of utility knife and at least four paring knives. There are two serrated bread knives on my racks and I also have carving knives, cheese knives, boning knives and numerous other assorted pieces of cutlery, including a butcher knife and a Chinese cleaver I picked up somewhere. I have four mezzaluna knives; two large ones for cutting pizza and two small double- and single-bladed ones for chopping herbs and such. Oh yeah.....there's also a mandoline slicer tucked away in a drawer. A visitor looking over the naked steel hanging on two 18-inch magnetic knife strips mounted on my kitchen wall once remarked that she was “afraid of all those sharp knives.”

Thing is, it's not the sharp knives you should be afraid of, it's the dull ones.

Offering to help a friend cut up some vegetables, I was directed to the “knife drawer” and immediately knew I was in trouble. I opened the drawer and found a jumble of knives all thrown in together. I figured that finding a sharp one was going to be next to impossible and I was right. The chef's knife I wound up with was only slightly sharper than a common table knife. I had to practically stand on it to get it to cut through a raw potato. The work it took to chop up a carrot was ridiculous. And dangerous. When you have to exert that much effort and apply that much force and pressure to get a knife to perform, one slip can be a trip to the emergency room. My knives pass through the toughest of vegetables with the same ease as they do through soft butter and the reason is twofold: first, I buy quality knives and second, I take meticulous care of them.

Now, when I say “quality,” I don't necessarily mean expensive. I love to go into the fancy kitchen stores and drool over the Wusthofs and the Shuns and the Henckels and the Globals. It's not uncommon to drop hundreds of dollars on these cutlery Cadillacs. A 3-inch Henckels paring knife can run you thirty bucks. Nice if you can do it, but I can't do it. Maybe high-dollar chefs in high-dollar restaurants wield such impressive and expensive tools, but in most professional kitchens, you're far more likely to see knives by Victorinox or Dexter-Russell. You buy them at restaurant supply stores, where a Victorinox 8-inch chef's knife might cost you $30 or $40 and a Dexter 3.5-inch paring knife will go for about eight bucks.

The trick is to stay far, far away from the “bargains” you find at the big box stores. A friend went to Walmart and came home proudly displaying a brand new twenty-three piece set of Mainstays (Walmart's store brand) in a “natural” block. He had shelled out twenty bucks for the whole set. Seriously? Half the “23-piece” set was knives. The remainder were spatulas and measuring cups and such. So, allowing that the “natural” block and the cheap plastic accessories might have been worth four dollars, he paid about sixteen bucks for twelve knives. That's a buck-thirty-three per knife. I ask you, what kind of quality do you really think you're getting?

The point is to buy a good knife and to take good care of it. Knife care can be broken down into five simple rules:

Rule #1: Proper storage

Banish the idea of a “knife drawer” from your thought process. One of the quickest ways to damage and dull a knife is to store it unprotected in a drawer full of other knives or utensils. Every time you open and close that drawer, you're banging the edge of your knife blade against the blade of another knife or the handle of a spoon or even the side of the drawer itself. How long do you think the sharp edge is going to last? A knife is a precision tool. It's not like a hammer or a screwdriver or a pair of pliers: you can't just throw it in a box and let it rattle around.

The best way to store your knives is on a magnetic strip. Inexpensive and simple to mount, strips offer the maximum protection for your knives by keeping them separated while still providing easy access. Just be careful in the way you place and remove your knife from the strip. Don't angle it or drag it; place it firmly and cleanly and remove it the same way and you'll never have a problem.

Knife blocks are okay, but they pose their own set of issues. For one thing, it's hard to slide a knife into a slot and pull it out cleanly without occasionally dragging the edge. And there's the issue of sanitation: you probably don't want to know what's lurking deep in the recesses of those nice, dark slots. Oh, you can turn the block upside down, shake out all the obvious crud, get a can of compressed air and squirt it down in the slots, dip a baby bottle brush in hot soapy water and work it around in there, then rinse it all out and hope it dries sometime this year or you've just opened up a whole new bacteria breeding farm.

If you absolutely must store your knives in a drawer, invest in blade guards. These plastic sheaths come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and styles. Some slide on and some snap on, but whatever style you choose, they are essential to keeping your sharp knives safe, protected, and sharp. I have blade guards for all my knives when I carry them in a knife roll. You can find them in restaurant supply stores or buy them online.

Rule #2: Hand Wash and Dry

The dishwasher is no place for a knife. I don't care if it's technically “dishwasher safe,” there's no safety for a knife in a dishwasher. The same conditions exist in a dishwasher as are present in a “knife drawer,” only worse because in a dishwasher the agitation is hydro-powered. Knives jostle and jam and rattle against each other and everything else around them, damaging blades and chipping away at delicately honed edges. The intense heat of a dishwasher is no good for them, either, especially not for wood or plastic handles.

Always wash and dry your knives by hand. I know it's “easier” to just throw them in the dishwasher, but, c'mon! Wash them with hot soapy water and dry them immediately. And don't toss them in the sink with a bunch of other stuff. A knife edge is delicate and doesn't need to be bounced around roughly among the dishes, pots, and pans. And besides, you don't want to risk your pinkies in a sink full of soapy water with a sharp knife hiding in there somewhere, right?

Rule #3: Use The Right Cutting Surface

Wow, that colorful glass cutting board that Aunt Mavis gave you for Christmas last year sure is pretty, isn't it? And you know what? That rascal will dull your knives in a skinny minute. So will anything made out of marble, granite, or hard plastic. Believe it or not, good ol' wood is still the best material for a cutting board. “Eeewwww!” you shriek. “Wood is so nasty and germy!” Actually, no, it's not.

Numerous studies have shown that wood cutting boards are more sanitary than their plastic counterparts. Wood is naturally anti-microbial. When you wipe down a wood board with hot, soapy water, the wood fibers absorb, trap, and hold residual food-borne bacteria deep inside where they cannot multiply and they eventually die.

Shiny, modern plastic surfaces, on the other hand, can only be disinfected when they’re shiny and new. As soon as you make a few cuts in them, you can't effectively clean them anymore because they trap the nasties in those hard-to-reach crevices and don't possess any of wood's natural antimicrobial qualities to kill them. Researchers at the University of California Davis found they could still recover bacteria from grooves in plastic even after hand washing it. Sticking it in the dishwasher was no good; the bacteria didn't croak, they just went swimming and landed on other surfaces. Even treating plastic boards with chlorine beach yielded unacceptable levels of residual bacteria hiding out in cuts and grooves.

Some restaurants rely on hard rubber cutting boards. Hard rubber boards, like Sani-Tuff®, are big in the food industry because they are as durable as wooden boards, they won’t trap bacteria like plastic boards, they are easy on knives, and, like wood, they can be resurfaced by sanding. But they're ugly, oversized and heavy for home use, and they're expensive.

Bamboo is all the rage these days. It's a good natural material, but it's harder than wood so it's also harder on your knives. Just stick with a good quality hardwood board and it will stick with you for many, many years.

Rule #4: Employ Proper Technique

What you cut and how you cut it are very important when it comes to the condition and longevity of your knives. For example, I don't care how many times you've seen some showy chef do it on TV, don't try to open a can with the point of your knife. How does the nickname “Four Fingers” sound to you? Assuming you don't just snap your blade, at the very least you'll dull the living hell out of it. It's possible to open a can with the heel of a decent chef's knife, but.......just.......don't, okay? Can openers are a lot cheaper and easier.

Use the right knife for the job. Don't try to slice potatoes with a paring knife and don't use a chef's knife to peel an apple.

Learn how to properly hold your knife. Don't grip it like a hammer or an offensive weapon. The most efficient grip is called the “pinch grip” or “blade grip.” Your thumb and forefinger should rest in front of the bolster directly on either side of the blade. It's a little tricky at first, but once you master it, it offers much better control and balance and is the preferred knife grip for more experienced cooks. Another grip is the “handle grip,” wherein you grasp the knife by the handle with all your fingers tucked behind the bolster. This is most comfortable and intuitive for beginners, but it really lacks control and precision.

For most slicing and dicing purposes, you should work with what is called “the rolling technique.” You don't hack up and down with the blade. Instead, keep the tip of the blade in constant contact with the cutting board and move your knife in a smooth “rolling” or “rocking” motion, starting at the tip and rolling to the heel; smoothly cutting down and through whatever you're cutting. There are other basic techniques, but I'm not going to do “Cutting 101” here: look them up online or take a class somewhere. Bottom line: how and what you cut matters in terms of torque, pressure, and contact. Bad habits and bad technique can ruin a knife.

Rule #5: Maintain A Sharp Edge

If you have to ask why this is important, reread the fourth paragraph about cutting vegetables and remember the nickname “Four Fingers.”

There are a lot of options available for keeping your knives sharp and safe. The best one is to have them professionally sharpened on a regular basis. But you're not going to do that, are you? So at least look for a good quality DIY sharpener.

Seasoned pros use a special sharpening stone to maintain a razor edge. And clumsy amateurs use that same stone to completely ruin a knife. You've got to know all about the metallurgical compound of your knife and angles and pressure and other arcane stuff. Just go buy a decent sharpener. Either a manual “pull-through” variety or an electric one. Chef's Choice makes good ones of each type.

Don't fall for gimmicks. I looked up reviews for one of those “As Seen On TV” things: “Trash.” “This piece of crap is a joke.” “It sucks.” “Pure junk.” “Absolute garbage.” “Rip off.” A good rule of thumb is to not trust anything where they'll “double your offer if you order now.” Just sayin'.

Finally, don't try to use an often misnamed “sharpening steel” to sharpen your dull knives. Those are actually honing steels, intended to maintain sharpness longer by realigning the knife's edge. If you've got a sharp knife, a steel, when used regularly – like every time you use your knife – will help keep it sharp. But you can stroke a dull knife with one of those things all day and you'll still have a dull knife.

Be good to your knives and they'll be good to you. As I said before, a knife is a precision tool; probably the most important one in any cook's kitchen. When properly maintained, an expensive high-quality knife will likely last a lifetime. A less expensive but still good quality knife will serve you well for many years. A cheap knife will end up being an expensive knife after you replace it ten times or after it sends you to a hospital. Remembering that you get what you pay for, spend the money and then take proper care of your knives. The dividends will pay off in a long and useful life for your investment.  

Friday, September 8, 2017

Yet ANOTHER “Perfect” Way To Cook Bacon – In WATER?

Not Worth All The Internet Hype

Every now and then, some well-meaning somebody attempts, with varying degrees of success, to reinvent the wheel. Take bacon, for example. (And I'll take bacon whenever I can get it!) Seems like you can't turn around anymore without somebody telling you they've come up with yet another “perfect” way to cook bacon.

I'm sorry, but as I've written before and will write again, there is only one “perfect” way to cook bacon: slap it down on a flattop or in a frying pan, turn the heat up to medium, and let it fry. Baking it in the oven is fine if you're making massive quantities and microwaving it is okay if you're wanting to cook it up for bacon bits or some kind of garnish. But if you simply want to lay a few strips of perfectly cooked, crispy, divine, heavenly bacon out on a plate next to its natural companions, eggs, hash browns, and toast, there's really only one way to go.

Unfortunately, the otherwise reliable innovators at America's Test Kitchen have attempted to introduce a “better” way to cook everybody’s favorite porcine ambrosia: in water. Yeah, you read right; the test geeks want you to boil your bacon.

Seems the point of this pointless exercise is twofold: to appease those odd people who object to the smell of frying bacon permeating the entire house and to satisfy the clean freaks who don't like bacon spattering up their stovetop. To achieve these desired (?) results, the test cooks first immersed the bacon in water.

Why would you do such a counter-intuitive thing? According to the test kitchen experts, writing in Cook's Illustrated magazine, “The addition of water keeps the initial cooking temperature low and gentle, so the meat retains its moisture and stays tender. By the time the water reaches its boiling point (212 degrees), the bacon fat is almost completely rendered, so you’re also much less likely to burn the meat while waiting for the fat to cook off.”

And here's how they say you should proceed to accomplish this feat:

“Place the bacon (in strips or cut into pieces) and just enough water to cover it in a skillet over high heat. When the water reaches a boil, lower the heat to medium. Once all of the water has simmered away, turn down the heat to medium-low and continue cooking until the bacon is crisp and well browned. This way, the meat plumps up as it cooks instead of shriveling, leaving the bacon pleasantly crisp, not tough or brittle.”

Since this radical information hit the streets, the Internet has gone absolutely wild with reprints of the technique. I must have seen at least ten websites and blogs touting the glories of cooking bacon in water. But does it work?

I read articles in news.com.au and in Epicurious in which testers were less than impressed. Aussie testers found that bacon cooked by this method wasn't all it was cracked up to be. For instance, as the water began to boil, the lovely, unctuous bacon fat began to dissolve into an “unappetising [sic] white foam” that floated on the surface of the water. The foam eventually disappeared once the water had evaporated, but it left a sticky sludge behind that coated the now somewhat plumper bacon. According to the Australian testers, the water method ultimately produced a drier, darker finished product that was, indeed, crisper, “but in a way that made it less enjoyable to eat.” In their opinion, “It had developed the consistency reminiscent of beef jerky.”

Epicurious testers agreed that the water-cooked bacon was crispy, but found it to be thinner and less salty in the end and recommended that you only employ the “improved” method when you want to use bacon as a garnish on another dish.

After seeing these results, I was ready to dismiss the entire silly “water cooking” notion out of hand. But I knew that in the interest of honest evaluation, I had to try it. So I did.

First off, I usually cook my bacon on a flattop. I learned to cook it that way about fifty-five years ago and through decades of home and restaurant cooking, nothing has convinced me to change my ways. But since that obviously wouldn't work for this test, I got down my reliable old cast iron skillet.

I wanted to be fair, so I didn't use highfalutin specialty bacon like my favorite from Benton's. I just used commercially produced bacon from the grocery store. I laid out two strips in a cold pan and covered it with about four tablespoons of water; just enough to cover the bacon without making it swim. I turned the heat up to medium high (I seldom cook anything at "high" heat) and waited. Sure enough, the water started boiling and the fat started floating in that “unappetising” way noted by the Australian testers. After the water boiled away, there was, indeed, a sticky residue; mostly in the bottom of the pan and not so much on the surface of the bacon. From there on I reduced the heat to medium and cooked the bacon as I normally would until it was “crisp and well browned.” I then cooked a couple of strips the “regular” way and plated both samples for my wife and me to taste and test. Here's what I discovered.

There was considerably less spattering with the water-cooked bacon. But you know what? Spatter has never been a deal-breaker for me. It's bacon! Spatter is part of the process. I learned long ago not to cook bacon naked. I learned to wear an apron and I learned how to wipe down the stovetop. In short, not an issue.

As far as not “smelling up the house,” the water method was a fail. The bacon smell, thank God, was very little diminished by the submersion technique. And, I mean, it's bacon! Along with fresh-baked bread and fresh-brewed coffee, it's one of the most exquisite, delectable, alluring aromas on the planet. What kind of misfit doesn't like the smell of bacon?

When it came to texture, neither my wife nor I could detect an appreciable difference between the two samples. Maybe – maybe – the water-cooked sample was a tiny bit moister, but not enough that I would have noticed if I hadn't been looking for it. And although the test kitchen folks claim “the meat plumps up as it cooks instead of shriveling,” I'm here to tell you my bacon shriveled and shrunk up just as much as it would have without the added water.

And there was a noticeable difference in flavor. The water washed away the salty bite that most people enjoy in bacon and left behind a rather dull, listless taste. Perhaps that's part of what the Aussies meant by “a way that made it less enjoyable to eat.” It wasn't bad. It wasn't like I was going to throw down the test strip and cry, “Omigod! That's terrible!” But it wasn't all that appealing, either.

And the water-cooking method takes longer. Even at a mere two ounces of water, the cooking time increases because you have to allow time for the water to boil off before you finish cooking the bacon in the regular way.

So, all-in-all, was it a worthwhile experiment? Was the new, “improved” water-cooking method worth all the Internet hype? Meh. Not really.

Bottom line, I suppose if you're such a clean freak that a few grease spatters send you into a tizzy, then by all means drown your pork! Make them rashers bubble instead of sizzle! You won't save any time, your house will still smell, and your bacon will be crispy in a way that makes it “less enjoyable to eat” and it'll be bland to boot. But you won't have to waste a paper towel wiping down your stovetop, so I guess that's something. For me, it's back to the flattop or the frying pan. It may not be trendy but it's close enough to perfect for me.