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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, October 25, 2017

Cooking With Wooden Utensils

Nothing's As Good As Wood

My home kitchen is chock full of the latest modern equipment. There are full-sized and mini food processors, a blender, an immersion blender, stand and hand mixers, a countertop oven with a built-in rotisserie feature, a microwave, a fryer, a Keurig coffeemaker, a vacuum sealer, a couple of crockpots, an induction burner, an array of gleaming stainless steel, cast iron, and non-stick cookware, a mandoline slicer, a yard-long magnetic strip festooned with a variety of knives, and drawers full of gadgets from apple slicers to zesters. And there amidst all the latest culinary trappings are my wooden spoons and spatulas.

“Wooden spoons?” you query. “In the age of plastic and silicone, you have wooden spoons?” Yep. And I wouldn't be without them. Oh, I have a few plastic, metal, and silicone utensils around, but their use is generally limited to specific tasks. For instance, flexible silicone spatulas are great for scraping out mixing bowls and we have some plastic turners that we use on our non-stick griddle. Plastic and metal spoons are handy as serving pieces. But my real kitchen workhorses are all made of wood.

“But isn't wood terribly old fashioned?” you ask. “Aren't modern materials much cleaner, safer, and sturdier?” The answers are, “yes,” “no,” “no,” and no.”

First, the “old fashioned” part. Yeah, wooden spoons have been around since the dawn of time and I don't think there's an Italian anywhere who doesn't have a memory of a nonna without a wooden spoon in her hand. I know a lot of those nonne – and some professional chefs as well – who swear that the wooden spoons actually contribute something to the flavor of some dishes. The theory is that a wooden spoon that's been used to stir, say, spaghetti sauce for many, many years actually picks up subtle flavors and imparts them to subsequent batches of sauce. Could be true; I don't know.

I do know I prefer wood over other materials for a variety of practical reasons, the first of which is comfort. A good wooden spoon just feels good in your hand. And if you don't think that's important, make a batch of risotto or polenta or something else that requires a lot of stirring. Hand fatigue is pretty common with clunky, poorly designed implements. Most wooden spoons have rounded handles, which makes stirring easier and more effective – and more comfortable. Wooden spoons also give you a good, strong handle to grip so you don't have to worry about it breaking if you're working with something a little stout. You can't always say that with plastic.

Wooden spoons make better tools for scraping the sides and bottom of your pan. The rounded bowl of a wooden spoon is much more conducive to effective scraping than the angled or oval edges of plastic or metal spoons. This is important for several reasons, beginning with the ability of wooden spoons to pass through more delicate foods and ingredients without smashing or bruising them the way harder edged spoons sometimes can. Then there's your cookware to consider. If you're cooking in cast iron or stainless steel, the construction and material of your utensils doesn't much matter. But if you're using non-stick cookware, metal and hard plastic spoons and spatulas are useless. They will seriously scratch and damage the surface of your pans. Wood won't do that.

Wooden spoons are non-reactive and non-conductive. If you're cooking something acidic, like tomato sauce or lemon curd, metal spoons can react with the acids in your ingredients and leave a slight metallic taste behind. Reactive metals can even affect the color of the food you are cooking. Wood, being non-reactive, won't do any of that. And because wood is a poor conductor of heat, you don't have to worry about burning your hand if your wooden spoon is in contact with a hot ingredient or a hot surface for an extended period of time.

Metal utensils can rust over time and the edges can become uneven and jagged from use. Plastic can melt at high temperatures and can also break down at the edges, leaving tiny bits of plastic in the food you're preparing. Some plastics can release toxic chemicals when heated, so if your plastic is not BPA-free, it may pose a significant health risk. None of those things are issues with wood.

Now, on the topic of cleanliness, I know a lot of people who think that wood is somehow “dirtier” than plastic or metal. That it's harder to clean and sanitize. And that's not true. Like wood cutting boards, wooden utensils have natural anti-bacterial properties. Scratches and pits that develop in plastic or metal will harbor bacteria. Not so with wood. Bacteria that get into cracks and scratches in wood become trapped within and are held there until they die and become inert. They cannot be released into whatever it is you're cooking. The same can't be said of other materials, especially plastic, which will even resist the efforts of chlorine bleach to get at germs buried deep in scratches and pits.

Wooden spoons are durable, beautiful, and better for the environment. Wood is a natural, renewable resource and a good wooden spoon can last for decades. I have spoons that served in my mother's kitchen and they're in as good a condition now as they were back then. And, I'm sorry, but you can have all the sleek, gleaming surfaces and flashy colors; give me the soft, natural beauty of wood any day. We have a big annual artisan craft show in our town every Fall and my wife and I always visit a particular booth that features hand-crafted wooden utensils. We have purchased spoons, spatulas, bowls, spreaders, honey dippers and a variety of other beautiful wooden items for home use and to give as gifts. My left-handed spouse even found a spatula designed and crafted for lefties.

As with any kitchen appliance or utensil, you get what you pay for. Always look for hardwood utensils; cherry, maple, and walnut are good choices. Oak, beech, and birch are also popular. Olive wood is widely used and bamboo, although technically not “wood,” is also good. Cheaper soft woods, like pine, tend to soak up a lot of oils and juices from whatever you're cooking and they can also leach an off, “piney,” flavor into your dish.

As I mentioned, I still use many of my mom's wooden spoons. They have to be thirty or forty years old. But they're in good shape partly because they're wood and partly because they're well cared for. My wooden spoons have never seen the inside of a dishwasher. Wooden utensils should always be washed by hand and dried promptly. The high temperatures of a dishwasher, especially in the drying cycle, can cause wooden utensils (and knife handles, by the way) to dry out and crack. This is similar to the reason you should never leave a wooden spoon submerged in a liquid, be it a soup, a sauce, or hot dishwater. Wood being porous, exposure to water and liquids, especially hot liquids, can cause the wood to break down and deteriorate. That's why culinary school instructors will smack you with a wooden spoon if they find one sticking out of your soup or sauce.

And with that in mind, wooden utensils, knife handles, and cutting boards should all be treated on a regular basis to keep them from drying out or deteriorating. Every couple of months, rub your wood kitchen stuff with a little food-grade mineral oil. Let the oil sit and soak in for a couple of hours or overnight, then wipe off the excess and you're good to go. Doing this on a regular basis will ensure your wooden utensils will remain beautiful and will last as long as mine have.

Old-fashioned? Who cares! For my money, nothing's as good as wood.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Preventing Cooking-Related Fires

Cooking Requires All Your Attention

As I write this, it's cooking season. People cook more around the fall and winter holidays than at any other time of the year, with Thanksgiving being the biggest cooking day and also, according to the National Fire Protection Association, the peak day for cooking-related fires. Overall, the association cites unattended cooking as the leading cause of kitchen fires.

The NFPA says that cooking-related fires are the cause of 46% of home fires that resulted in 19% of the home fire deaths and 44% of the injuries. Two-thirds of cooking fires started with the ignition of food or other cooking materials. Ranges or cooktops accounted for the majority (62%) of home cooking fire incidents. Unattended equipment was a factor in one-third of reported home cooking fires and half of the associated deaths. And frying dominates the cooking fire problem.

And here are some statistics from Liberty Mutual Insurance that help explain the NFPA figures: Forty-Two percent of the people the company surveyed said they had left the kitchen to talk or text on the phone, and 35 percent went to use the computer to check email while food was cooking. Nearly half said they have left the room to watch television or listen to music.

Wow. That's it: just “wow.” I can't bend my brain in the direction it would take to be able to light a fire in a room and then walk into another room to do something else. But obviously people do it every day. And, like the real life crash dummies who text and drive, they wind up paying for it and, in many cases, also charging somebody else for their stupidity. I read not long ago about an imbecile who got liquored up and tried to cook. After he passed out drunk, his kitchen caught fire and killed him. And it also cost seven other families in the eight unit apartment building their homes.

Cooking is like driving a car or flying an airplane: it requires all your attention. You are literally playing with fire. Personally, I'm not comfortable lighting the oven and walking out of the room, much less turning on a stove top burner and walking away. I'm even leery of slow cookers: intellectually, I understand they are designed to be left unattended, but viscerally, I find it hard to do. You can call me paranoid, but it beats calling the fire department.

So, Number One fire safety rule is stay in the kitchen while you're cooking. That doesn't strictly apply to all forms of cooking, I suppose: obviously, if you're baking a cake or roasting a turkey or simmering a pot of stock, it's okay to leave the room for a few minutes now and then. You're not going to stand there constantly for three hours watching your bird cook. But staying in the room and remaining focused on task is vitally important if you're frying something.

As noted in the NFPA statistics, frying dominates the cooking fire problem. I honestly think people ought to have a license to fry. Or at least they should be required to take a safety class. I mean, you have to take Driver's Ed before you can drive a car and you have to take hunting safety classes before they'll let you go out and take potshots at Bambi. Shouldn't people be obliged to have some basic knowledge pounded into their heads before they're given matches and flammable substances? You can't just rely on common sense because so many folks are so uncommonly senseless. How many houses or garages were burned down in your community last Thanksgiving by idiots with turkey fryers?

Here's some basic knowledge for safe frying:

Don't overfill your pot, pan, or fryer with oil. Most deep fryers made for home use have a “max fill” line etched into the metal. Don't ignore it. If you're not using a dedicated deep fryer, use a heavy, deep pot, like a Dutch oven, or, for shallow frying, a heavy, deep skillet – cast iron is best – and make sure you leave plenty of room for whatever food you're cooking. Cold oil should never come anywhere near the top of the pot or pan because hot oil is going to bubble up when you add food to it. It's a law. It's going to happen. And if you have too much oil in the pan, it's going to bubble over. And when it bubbles over, 99.9% of the time, it's going to catch fire. Grease or oil fires are incredibly dangerous because the fire's fuel source is a liquid that can splash and spread and keep burning as it adheres to surfaces, clothing and skin.

I have a fire extinguisher right next to my stove. It's the best option if a fire breaks out. If you can get a lid on whatever's burning, that usually does the job. Salt will knock down most cooking fires. So will baking soda. Flour, however, will not. Counterintuitive as it seems, water is seldom a good solution to extinguishing a cooking fire. If you have an electric stove, it's not a real swift idea to throw water on it and if you're dealing with a grease or oil fire, water will just rapidly and randomly spread the flames around. And the first thing to do with any cooking-related fire is turn off the heat source. You can't put out a fire that's being constantly fed from a gas jet or an electric coil.

The worst thing you can do if a fire breaks out in your kitchen is panic. I was in the kitchen once when some butter leaked out of a pan in the oven and caught the interior of the oven on fire. Smoke was billowing out of the oven and flames shot out when the door was opened. Well, in the first place, don't open the door! Turn off the oven and the oven itself will contain the fire. That's what ovens do. But instinct says “open the door and see what's going on in there.” And while other people in the room were jumping around and yelling the obvious – FIRE!! – I grabbed a box of salt and threw a couple of handfuls on the flames. No more fire. I would have gone for the extinguisher next if I had needed to, but by keeping my wits about me, I was able to put out the fire. And I saved the dish.

Back to frying safety, watch your oil temperature. You want it to be a maximum of somewhere between 375°F and 400°F. Use a thermometer and don't rely on “wait until it smokes.” When oil starts smoking, it's ready to combust. Using oils with a high smoke point, like canola, peanut, safflower, or sunflower oils, can help, but even they will burn if overheated.

Don't drop wet food into hot oil. It's a boil over waiting to happen. Dry your food as much as possible before dropping it in to fry. And be extra careful with frozen food, too. Ice crystals are just frozen water.

If you're frying something on a stove top in a pan or a skillet, keep the handle turned in. A quick bump to an outward facing handle is all it takes to overturn a pan and potentially start a fire.

And, of course, don't leave a fryer or frying pan unattended.

While frying and hot oil are the most egregious offenders when it comes to cooking-related fires, there are other factors to consider and avoid.

Keep your kitchen neat, clean, and organized, particularly around the stove. Having junk piled around your stove, especially flammable junk like paper, plastic, and cloth, is a good way to make the acquaintance of your local fire department. Fires start all the time when dish towels, potholders, and oven mitts are left too close to burners. A woman in the town where I live burned down her kitchen when she turned on the “wrong” eye of her electric range and caught a bag of potato chips she had lying on the stove on fire. I hate an electric cooktop for just that reason: it's way too easy to turn on the “wrong” burner. We used to keep those decorative burner covers around until we toasted about the tenth set of the damn things and said, “no more.” It's also smart to keep heat-producing appliances like toasters and toaster ovens, coffee makers, etc. away from walls and curtains.

And keep your stove top clean. Gross as it sounds, I've seen stoves covered with caked-on grease. I couldn't keep a kitchen like that, but them I'm a clean freak. However, it shouldn't take a freak to figure out that if you've got potentially flammable crap coating your cooking surface, sooner or later it's gonna go up in flames.

My mother used to be horrible about “drying” things in her oven. She'd throw stuff like wooden spoons in there “to dry.” I'd come along and flip on the oven and....... I can't tell you how many wooden spoons I cooked over the years. Tupperware does not do well in a 350°F oven, either. Bottom line: don't store stuff in the oven.

I mentioned the drunk guy. Drinking and cooking don't go together any better than drinking and driving. Same if you're taking/doing sleep-inducing drugs, or if you're just really, really tired. Statistics show that 42 percent of victims of cooking fires died in their sleep.

Keep your smoke alarms in good working order. Check and replace the batteries regularly. And don't get aggravated and yank the batteries when the poor thing does its job and goes off while you're smoking up the kitchen. Nearly a third of the people surveyed by Liberty Mutual reported having intentionally disabled their smoke alarms while cooking. Reposition the unit, if necessary or look for one made specifically for kitchen use. It's still gonna start shrieking if you incinerate a steak or something, but at least it won't go off while your trying to make toast. I did both and added an exhaust fan for good measure. Now I have to really try to make my smoke detector scream.

Avoid overloading your electrical outlets, especially in older kitchens. Back in Grandma's day, about the only electrical appliance in the kitchen was a toaster. They didn't wire older houses to handle microwaves and toaster ovens and food processors and blenders and.....you get the idea. And heat-producing appliances like toasters, fryers, coffee pots, waffle irons, electric frying pans and the like all come with specially rated cords. Don't use a common extension cord with a heat-producing appliance. Replace any frayed or cracked electrical cords immediately and never use an appliance or extension cord with a cracked, loose, or damaged plug.

Going back to those NFPA statistics for a minute, the association says clothing was the first thing ignited in less than one percent of fires, but that clothing ignitions led to eighteen percent of home cooking fire deaths. So catching your clothes on fire is not very common, but when it happens, it's usually very bad. There's a reason cooks and chefs dress the way they do and while I'm not saying you have to don a chef's jacket to cook a burger in your home kitchen, you shouldn't wear loose, froofy clothing with long, puffy sleeves and such. You might look really pretty and fashionable floating around the stove in your flowing organza party dress but if you drag one of those silky sleeves through a lit burner, you're gonna make a lovely candle. My wife and I frequently cook in other people's homes during the holidays and we always wear something practical to cook in and bring something nicer to change into for the meal and socialization that follows. Sometimes it's a pain but it's never as painful as becoming a human torch.

And finally, keep the kids and the pets out of the kitchen while you're cooking. I'm a big proponent of teaching kids to cook, and that's one thing. But having them running and playing in the kitchen is quite another. Trust me: been there, done that. I was about seven and was chasing my cousin through the kitchen. My aunt was in violation of the previously mentioned “handles in” rule, and when my cousin and I went barreling through, I clipped a frying pan handle with the top of my head and sent the contents of the pan flying everywhere. Fortunately, nobody got burned and nothing caught fire. But don't chance it. Same goes for pets. Besides being unsanitary, pets around cooking are unpredictable. Fido or Fluffy jumps up on you or in your path while you're working at the stove and it's probably not going to end well.

If a fire starts in your kitchen, you can try to put it out but don't be an idiot. If you've got something burning in a pan, throw a cover on it or throw baking soda or salt at it. If the fire is a little bigger, hit it with a fire extinguisher, remembering the PASS procedure: Pull the pin, Aim low at the fire, Squeeze the trigger, Sweep the flames from side to side. If that doesn't work, call 911 and get out of there. Once a fire leaves a pan and starts climbing the curtains and the walls, there's not much you can do about it and you'd be astonished by how quickly ceilings and wood cabinets go up in flames. You can probably control a small fire yourself, but leave the big fires to the people with the big trucks and hoses.

Enjoy cooking season, my friends, and stay safe.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Buying Celebrity Cookbooks

Is It What You Know Or Just Who You Are?

We live in a world of instant celebrity. Whereas stage, screen, music, television, radio and sports have always given us celebrities, the process has traditionally been somewhat slow to develop. Most celebrities spent years in the trenches “paying their dues” in order to achieve their elevated status. Now, thanks to shows like “American Idol,” we can create celebrities in the blink of an eye. And thanks to “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef” and “MasterChef” and “Next Food Network Star,” and numerous other shows of that ilk, we can now add instant culinary celebrities to our pantheon. Would anybody have ever heard of Carla Hall if not for her popularity on “Top Chef?” Now she's a co-host on a daily network food/talk show, along with fellow celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Michael Symon, who, while exceptional cooks, would also be unknown to the vast majority were it not for TV. Used to be when the pencils came out, culinary stars wrote cookbooks and entertainment and sports celebs wrote tell-alls and biographies. Not anymore. Now they also write cookbooks, defined by Webster as “a book of cooking directions and recipes.”

In our culture of celebrity, celebrity itself is the biggest selling point. In most textbooks and instructional manuals – which, after all, is what a cookbook is – it’s not so much who you are as it is what you know. But not if you’re marketing a cookbook these days. Then it's the exact opposite. As I’m writing this, country singer Trisha Yearwood has a cookbook and a cooking show. International singing and dancing superstars Gloria and Emilio Estefan have a cookbook. Gwyneth Paltrow has a cookbook. Freddie Prinze, Jr has a cookbook and, not to be outdone, so does his wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar. Chrissy Teigen has a cookbook. Sheryl Crow has a cookbook. Kris Jenner, Patti LaBelle, and Eva Longoria have cookbooks. You can go “Cooking With Kenny Rogers” or partake of “Dolly's Dixie Fixin's.” There’s a cookbook by noted professional Italian chef Tony Danza … well, at least he’s a professional Italian. Speaking of which, you know that famous team of kitchen experts from the TV show “The Sopranos”? Yes, even they have a cookbook. Buy it, if you know what’s good for you. In addition to being Italian and an actor, Stanley Tucci likes to cook so naturally he has a cookbook. And then there are the people who have actually done a little cooking here and there and who, thanks to TV, have achieved “celebrity” status: Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Rocco DiSpirito, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, Giada De Laurentiis, Julia Child.

I myself have compiled a great cookbook. I’ve been working on it for years and it’s chock full of recipes and tips. Some are my own creation and some are contributions from family and friends. The vast majority are personal favorites adapted from other people’s cookbooks. So what sets celebrity cookbooks apart from mine? I’m at a loss to explain it. Oh…..yeah, that whole “celebrity” part. I forgot.

What should you look for in a celebrity cookbook? A lot of celebrity cookbooks are actually “ghostwritten” or, at least, co-written by other people. (Not so in my case, I assure you.) But unless you are buying the book based solely on your affection for and appreciation of the person on the cover, you should be looking for the same things in a celebrity cookbook that you would expect to find in a book written by somebody you’ve never heard of. Like me. Things like:

Recipes. Recipes should be clear and concise. They should follow a standard format that includes measured quantities of all ingredients, as well as detailed preparation and cooking instructions. A little backstory on the recipe is a nice touch as are serving suggestions.

Pictures. Everybody likes pictures. It is widely believed that you eat first with your eyes. Pretty presentational pictures of how a completed dish is supposed to look are an essential element of a good cookbook. And, if there are some tricky techniques to be employed in the preparation of a particular dish, step-by-step instructional pictures are important, too.

Tips and techniques. In cooking, some things are very basic. This is a frying pan, this a chafing dish. Both useful items, but rarely interchangeable. What’s the difference between baking powder and baking soda? Ignorance of this can produce some really interesting results. The most difficult part of writing a cookbook is gauging your reader’s level of expertise. Some people have been preparing elaborate meals for their families for fifty years and are just looking for something fresh and new, while others have difficulty boiling water and are just looking for help. A good cookbook provides tips and techniques beneficial to both extremes. Sometimes these tips and techniques accompany individual recipes, sometimes they occupy a section of their own, and sometimes they appear as sidebars interspersed throughout the book. However they are presented, there should be lots of them and they should be as clear and concise as the recipes.

Layout and construction. Nobody wants to read a book that reads like the author is just throwing out random thoughts in no particular order. The same is true of a cookbook. The book should be laid out in a logical and progressive manner. At the very least, appetizers, main courses, side dishes, desserts and beverages should all have their own dedicated sections. These sections can then be subdivided into appropriate groups and types according to the dishes involved. A table of contents up front and a comprehensive index at the back are a must. Otherwise, you’ll just get frustrated looking for that rutabaga salad next to the rhubarb pie.

Style. Okay, you bought the book because there’s a picture of somebody you like on the cover. This person should mark the style of the book. There should be lots of elements by and/or about the celebrity author throughout the book. Again, there should be pictures. Pictures of the author cooking. Pictures of his or her family enjoying the author’s cooking. Pictures of the author in compromising situations…no, wait. Those belong in the tell-alls and biographies. But, there should be stories. Stories about how so-and-so’s grandmother’s cooking influenced their lives, and such. And, of course, there should be a dedication to all the loyal and devoted fans who have so enriched the author’s life, along with their agents and their accountants, and now it’s time to give back something personal and intimate, etc, etc. In short, if the person whose picture is on the cover is not reflected throughout the book, you might as well have purchased something crushingly generic by some wretched unknown. Like me.

Finally, consider cost. Do you really want to take out a loan to buy your favorite singer’s cookbook? Is it worth skipping a car payment to pick up the latest from your favorite TV chef? You could probably purchase the same good, comprehensive cookbook your grandma had in her kitchen for the same money or less. Then you could use the savings to buy a nice celebrity magazine and put it on the shelf next to the generic cookbook.

I'm not saying celebrity cookbooks aren't good: many of them are. A lot of famous people – especially the TV chefs – can cook. But just remember when you're emptying your wallet, you're actually buying celebrity more than recipes, tips, and techniques – things found in abundance in your grandma's Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.

To celebratize or not to celebratize! Along whichever path through the kitchen you choose, I wish you happy cooking!